Chapter 1: 'I had only myself for company'
ROGER: It's like flying, a little, except you end up with a really bad headache and the kind of dizziness that never really goes away. On a plane you choose your destination, and you put your fate in the hands of the pilot. When you time travel, though, everything is up to fate, and there's a very big chance that you're going to spin into huge amounts of danger.
So I guess that analogy doesn't work too well. So – what it's like?
First there's a wave of dizziness. Everything shifts in and out of focus, like you're slipping through the air, like your vision is glazing over, like you're an out-of-focus blurred photo. A whirl and a jump and suddenly everything's dissolved, and you're somewhere else entirely. Another place, another time. I'll be standing in the kitchen, newspaper in hand, willing the kettle to boil and suddenly everything will flicker and I'll suddenly be naked and shivering in a white-tiled changing room, waiting for my other self to finish his game and come back in. Rafa and I will be in bed, exchanging jokes and teasing each other, his warm toes pressed into my shin and his elbow in my stomach, and then I'll be twenty-five years into the past, eye to eye with a small Spanish boy offering me clothes and requesting help on how to perfect his serve.
When I was younger I tried to look for patterns in all this starting and stopping, all this coming and going in time, but found nothing. There are things that exacerbate it, like late nights and a lack of exercise and too much caffeine, and things that help a little, like sex and the weary ache of muscles that have been worked hard and good food. Sometimes I meet my past self, over-confident or concerned or triumphant or miserable, and I talk to him, and sometimes I go into Rafa's past and talk to him, help him where I can, listen to him where I can't. Sometimes I see our past, the years we were together and the years we were apart, the years we were happy and the years we were not. I see sleepy brown eyes and hear rapid-fire Spanish and watch a gleamingly muscled twenty-four year old at the top of his game racing around a court like he owns it, like he belongs there. I see him shuddering tears into his hands after defeats, pinning posters bearing my face onto his wall as a teenager, I see him at thirty at night-time curled up in bed, and I join him there and press soft kisses onto the back of his neck until he shudders and gasps and wakes. I see him thirty-five and scarred and tired, and I love him even then.
I've seen our future – although I've promised myself that I'll try to keep things as normal as I can for him. There are things I can't tell him, like the crash and the little girl and the changes, and easier simpler things like what's going to happen with our careers. I want him to be happy. I want him to be normal. I wish that I could take him with me, but I can't, and so I live for the moments that I return and he is there.
RAFA Is difficult, describing it. Is like a storm, living with Roger – sometimes he there, sometimes he vanish. I don't know where he goes. I think about him, I watch the space he left and I wait for him to come back. I dream him some nights, when the moon is full and the bed is empty. In the morning when the sun has risen, he still does not return and I worry about him. When he is gone I pray for him. I pray that he is in no danger. I pray that he is with someone kind. I pray that he will come back to me.
Roger is 22, and Rafa is 17.
RAFA: As I walk down the corridor towards the changing rooms, my shoes are squeaking on the floor. My bag is heavy on my shoulder and I have ten minutes by myself until Toni joins me. The fourth round of the Miami Masters and I'm playing against Roger Federer, the new number one and a man who plays tennis with the grace and strength of a ballet dancer. My stomach's jittering, butterflies, as the English say, and I'm breathing deeply to calm myself. I'm telling myself to think about the tennis, to think about my game, the match.
He doesn't know, after all, and I'm not supposed to tell him.
I just can't imagine seeing him. How he'll be different, how he's going to change into the man that I know from the future. I can't imagine him standing there in front of me, not knowing, and me not telling him. I'm not good with secrets. I don't like keeping them and I have a bad habit of giving them all away. In her whole life, my mother has never received a birthday present from me that was an actual surprise.
I push a hand through my hair. This match I should concentrate on my serve, footwork—
And I push the door of the changing room open.
He isn't there. It's impossible not to grin at my own stupidity, building this up as though it was a big deal, and I shake my head as I start to get changed. I only stepped out of the shower in my hotel room ten minutes ago and my hair's still wet, and I'm shaking cold drips of water onto my shoulders as I unpack my bag. I take out my trainers and place them neatly under the bench, I take out my socks and my spare socks and straighten them out before putting them on the bench next to my neatly folded shorts.
Then there's a creak of a door and footsteps behind me.
I turn around and there he is, walking into the room with a frown like he's thinking and the thoughts aren't about me. Younger than I've seen him, a lot younger, hair too long and pulled back, face less lined but just as sweet as the face I've seen so many times before.
Suddenly I realise I'm staring and the impression that I want to give him is certainly not that of a creep. I turn on a smile and he walks towards me, hand outstretched.
"Roger Federer," he says. He's more friendly than most of the players on the circuit, he'll talk in the changing room and smile at his opponents and be polite to the ballboys.
"Rafa Nadal," I tell him, and suddenly I wish my English was better. I try to think of words I once knew from school, from him, but I never paid attention in English class, eyes fixated on the dusty sunbeams streaming through the window instead, dreaming of sunbaked playgrounds and cracked leather footballs, and when I saw him he only spoke Spanish to me. And right now it's too early for him to have learned my language.
"Um – so, do you speak much English?" he asks, turning around to glance at me as he starts to pull out his things from his bag.
"I –" I begin, trying to find the words. "Ah – I no speak good – a small." I hold up my thumb and my index finger a few millimetres from each other to show what I mean.
"Okay." He nods, reassuringly, and smiles slightly as he sits down on another bench and pulls off his shoes. Then he looks thoughtful, and appears to come up with one of the only Spanish phrases he knows. "Buena suerte."
Good luck indeed. Nerves are still fluttering around my stomach. Not because I have to play Roger Federer, the great Federer, World Number One, but because Roger's here, Roger who I've loved and missed, but he's not my Roger. Not yet, anyway.
ROGER: I didn't know the kid was that good.
I'd heard about him, that he was good on clay, but Miami's hardcourt, and I wasn't expecting a seventeen year old to beat me. I know that sounds like arrogance and I don't mean it to, but I'd just been made Number One. I was young and at that time I felt infallible.
The first sign that something was up that day was the look he gave me when he first saw me. I'd seen a similar look before in the eyes of people I'd encountered in the future or the past. A lot of the time it hadn't fazed me too much. I'd just smiled and moved on. But with this boy it was different. I think I'll always remember what he looked like when I walked in – like a deer caught in the headlamps. I thought that maybe it was just because of the difference in our rankings, our different levels of fame, but there was something about him that just caught me there, in his dark brown gaze, his uneven-featured face, his wide anxious smile and that nervous energy that meant he never stopped shifting around.
It was just something about his face. He was handsome, sure, but that wasn't it. I knew he'd recognised me but I had no idea where from, what could have happened to make him look at me like that. Like I was vital, important, crucial to him. Like he knew me so well already. I couldn't ask in case I'd read the whole situation wrong and wound up sounding like a nut. Instead I just smiled and exchanged pleasantries. He had a deep voice, very broken English and a heavy accent. He was the new boy from Mallorca, who loved fishing and sand and his mother's cooking, and although I didn't dislike any of those things, we were very different from each other. I'd honed my game smooth, he was full of sudden flurries of movement. I thought about the expressions on my face, the impression I wanted to give off. His smile was bright and unguarded, like opening curtains at dawn and letting sunlight flood the room.
And he beat me.
I hadn't been anticipating that. It wasn't a particularly embarrassing or difficult loss but it was a blow nonetheless.
Still, I was glad even then that if I had to be beaten, it was by this boy with his sleeveless shirt and messy dark hair and crinkles between his eyebrows when he frowned. He was easy to care about, even way back then.
Roger is 6, and 23.
ROGER: It happened for the first time when I was six. I got into bed, felt the familiar press of my mother's lips to my forehead, her reassuring whisper – "Good night, sweetheart" – and my eyes drifted shut, I drifted away, comfortable, warm. When I woke again, I wasn't in bed. I was somewhere that was damp, spiky, fresh, and my eyes were still screwed shut as I shifted around, trying to work out what was happening.
To start with, I was scared, guts churning, breath coming in pants. Frozen still, hands twisted into the wet spiky stuff until I was almost tearing it out. I finally forced myself to open my eyes and saw that what I was lying on was green; grass, I realised suddenly, and sat up quickly, heart pounding. I felt sick with nerves as I looked frantically around. And then I heard the voice.
"Roger! Is that you?"
The words were quiet, in a voice that I had not heard before, and it was getting difficult to fight away the tears. I heard myself let out a whimper, hands scratching themselves even deeper into the thick grass. There were bright lights to my left, and a dark shadow advancing towards me. A tear trickled down my cheek and I screwed my eyes shut, hoping that this bad dream would end.
"Roger..." The figure was over me now as I somehow found the courage to peek upwards. How does he know my name? He was tall, dark, his long hair tied back, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sneakers. Then the man was bending down, looking into my face, and suddenly I wasn't scared any more. The man had kind eyes, dark brown, and he was smiling at me. "Hello. You're Roger, aren't you?" he asked. "How old are you?"
"Six," I stuttered back, altogether relieved by the sort of normal conversation I tended to have with older people. "What's your name?"
"I'm called Roger too. We're going to be friends," the man said, still gazing frankly at me, and I nodded, and believed him. Then I blinked and all of a sudden I was at home in bed, sheets tangled around me, and I really did begin to cry.
Roger is 6, and 17.
ROGER: When it happened again a few days later I wasn't as scared. I'd taken a torch with me to bed in case it happened again, and so I was a little gratified when I felt dizzy and a little sick and then I woke up somewhere else completely different, naked and abrupt and completely without my torch or pyjamas
Like the first time it had happened, I couldn't bring myself to open my eyes.
"Hello?" I said, cautiously.
"Open your eyes," a patient voice said. "It's me again. Roger. Your friend."
So I opened his eyes and there in front of me was Big Roger, except younger, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and sprawled on a single bed surrounded with magazines. "What are you doing?"
"Reading about Pete Sampras. You want some clothes?"
"Yes, please." I shifted, uncomfortably.
Big Roger reached over and pulled out a heap of clothes from beneath his bed before tossing them gently to me. "Take what you want."
I sorted through them, found some shorts and a t-shirt that were only a little too big for me. It was a relief to get clothes on, and then I moved forwards towards him, perching on the end of his bed when he indicated for me to do so.
"We need to talk," he said, sounding serious as he put his magazine down. "Do you know how you got here?"
I shrugged. Honestly, I hadn't thought about it much. "A dream," I ventured.
He shook his head. "Nope. This is real. You're special. You can do a special trick. You can time travel."
I squinted at him. "What?" As far as I knew, time travel didn't exist. It was in books and movies sometimes, but it wasn't actually possible, like the way I knew that Superman could fly but I couldn't. It didn't make sense.
"I know it sounds crazy. But it's true." He smiled slightly, leaning closer to me. "And it's kind of awesome sometimes."
"You do it too?"
He frowned for a moment. "I... yeah. Sometimes it's tricky, though. We need to talk about it. Sometimes difficult things might happen, like you might close your eyes and wind up somewhere that isn't with me. And you have to know what to do then."
"Because I'd be naked and I can't just walk around without any clothes."
He grinned. "Exactly. So you have to learn how to take clothes."
"Sometimes." He shrugged. "I know what you're thinking, your mother says stealing's wrong, and she's right, it is, most of the time. But it'd be worse if you didn't do it. You just need to make sure that no one notices you. It's easy to do."
I nodded, and with the motion there was a sudden whirling of the room around me, like seasickness, my head swirling. "Whoa." I reached out, grabbed onto the corner of his bedclothes. As everything faded I heard him say my name and then with a thump I was back in my own bed, blinking up at the ceiling. So that was what it was. I was special.
It was a strange night. I didn't realise then that the older Roger was me, eleven years in the future, tall and lanky and awkwardly graceful. Over the course of the next few months I travelled more. He told me all about his time travelling, the places he'd been, what he'd seen. He said that it was kind of tough sometimes but if you kept your wits about you, it was easier. He said that it happened less when he was relaxed or tired, that I should exercise as much as I could in order to stay put in the present. When he told me that he was me, I was crushed. It was then that I knew I was alone, that I was the only traveller out there, that I had only myself for company. I was special, but that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Roger is 36, and Rafa is 6.
ROGER: The first time that he meets me, I'm waiting down by the pond for him. At the bottom of their back garden the Nadal family have a little area that's almost closed away for the kids, unviewable from the house. It's messy, shaded by trees, bedraggled and covered in weeds, totally different from the rest of their sundrenched beautiful garden. It's cool weather, not quite a baking Mallorcan summer, and there's no bag of clothes there yet, beneath the plant with the thick glossy green leaves and bright magenta blossoms.
I hear him before I see him. Running footsteps veering from side to side and a 'neee-owwwww' noise like he's pretending to be an aeroplane. For a moment I imagine him, arms stretched out as he teeters from side to side, running at top speed, and I can't help but smile. The pattering footsteps get closer and closer until finally he's crashing through into this clearing at the back, a white sheet clutched in his hands, streaming out behind him like it's his superhero cape. When he sees me he falters, halts, takes a step back.
"Who are you?" he asks, glancing back towards the house like he's about to shout for his parents.
"My name's Roger. I, um... I lost my clothes. Could you hand me that sheet?" I ask, mentally thanking God for the flights and fantasies of six-year-olds.
He does so, and looks away as I wrap it around my waist, twice, and tie a knot in it to keep it up. Then I emerge from the bush I was crouched in, and hold my hand out to him, so that he can shake it. "Hi. I'm Roger. It's nice to meet you."
He nods, frowning up at me, before tentatively reaching out to take my proffered hand. "I'm Rafa."
Years into the future, when he's an adult and grown and mine, this bedraggled little boy will teach me Spanish, casual fast-spoken Spanish, and right now I couldn't be more thankful for it. "Hi, Rafa," I say. "I need to tell you some things about me. Some secrets."
He stares at me for a moment longer, before turning decisively away. "I'm getting Mama," he announces.
"No! No, don't." Any other time, any other time I'd be glad that Rafa had principles and that he was taught how to keep himself safe as a little kid. Right now I'm hating Señora Nadal for browbeating common sense into her only son. "My secret's not scary or anything. It's kind of cool. I'm a time traveller."
His eyes widen. "No. That only happens on TV and in movies."
"No. I promise you, it happens to me as well."
"I don't believe you."
"I promise you, it's true. Your name is Rafael Nadal. You're six. You were born on June 3rd, 1986. You have a little sister. You like playing sports, like tennis and football, and you like to go fishing with your dad and your uncle." It all comes out of me in a big rush and he squints up at me, the expression so familiar and sweet that I can't help but smile.
"How do you know that?" he asks, slowly.
"In my past, and in your future, I'm going to see you again," I tell him honestly. "We're going to be friends."
"We're already friends in the future?" he asks, perplexed as he plops down onto the floor, crossing his legs and looking up at me, brow furrowed. "So I can't change that."
"No, you can't. And I don't think you'd want to change it, either. In the future we're going to get to do a lot of cool stuff. Like play tennis and football. And you'll get to see me disappear, too."
"You're going to disappear?" And now he's surprised, eyebrows shooting up so high they're practically hitting his hairline.
"Yeah. I've got to go back to my own time." I shrug, and kneel down next to him. "But I'm going to come back, and we'll talk some more then." In fact, my vision's already beginning to blur and I'm getting dizzy. I place a hand on the ground to steady myself. "I need to ask you to do something for me, okay, Rafa? If your dad has some clothes he doesn't want, you could bring them down here and put them safely in a box for me, for the next time I come. Could you do that?"
He nods, eyes wide. "Okay!"
"I think I'm going to go now. I'll be back soon..." I concentrate for a moment, thinking of the list that older Rafa gave me, all of the dates and times that I'll be popping up in his past. "Come back next Wednesday, okay? After school. And don't tell anyone."
"No one," I clarify, and before I disappear there's time for just one more smile as I gaze into his puzzled brown eyes before home, home I go.
Roger is 35, and Rafa is 30.
RAFA: He vanished just after I got to sleep. I know that because I woke up at the sudden emptiness in the bed, and went back to sleep a few minutes later. Roger vanishing in the night, it happens a lot. Other people would get jealous, but I understand. I get it. I just wait here for him, and always, he comes back to me.
Tonight he lands back in bed with a thump and I roll over, instantly awake. He's sprawled there grinning at the ceiling, and when I look at him, stretch out a gentle hand and rub it over his stomach, he grabs it and laces his fingers through mine. "Rafa! I just met you."
"You travelled to meet me, no?" It's happened before a few times, he's finally started to see me when I was a child, the way that's vivid from my childhood and that I remember like it was yesterday.
"For the first time! Your first time." He's laughing now, letting go of my hand and rolling over to wrap his arms around me, to squeeze me tightly. "I think you were playing Superman. Or you were being an aeroplane." He kisses my cheek roughly once, then again on the mouth, and even though I'm still half asleep I'm smiling widely, his happiness infectious. "Rafa, you were such a funny kid!" He's laughing again and I'm tickling him and pouting like I'm offended by that.
"I was not. You were a weird guy who appeared in my garden! What am I supposed to do, welcome you?" He's squirming on top of me, trying to grab my hands and stop the tickling, but I'm too fast for him and he falls off me, wriggling before I finally acquiesce and cease the assault. The famously dignified Roger Federer, reduced to a heap of laughter in bed. No one could have imagined this, and it's probably not possible for me to love him any more than I do in this moment, to feel any more affection.
I reach out and press my lips to his, feeling his smile under my mouth, and after a moment the smile disintegrates and the kiss grows deeper and more intense, breathing heavier, his hands pushing at the waistband of my shorts. I'm suddenly very aware that he's naked, and as he moves closer to me I lose myself in him, and all our laughter is finished for the night.
Chapter 2: 'I can’t help but like him'
They get to know each other a little more, in all ages.
RAFA: Today I know that Roger is coming to see me. I know this because last week when I saw him he told me to go to the bottom of our back garden after school and then I would see him and we would talk again. It's only the morning right now but I can feel that today is going to be a good day. I got up and I washed my face and I brushed my teeth and then I came to the kitchen and I sat around the table with my mama and papa and my little sister. She spilt her juice down her front and my mama had to clean her up and then my papa had to leave to go to work and I was almost late for school. That was because my sister decided she didn't want to get in her pushchair just before we left and then I couldn't find my shoes. But I found my shoes. One was in my wardrobe and the other one was on the windowsill downstairs although none of us knew why.
I am going to walk to school now. First of all we have maths and then we have science and in the afternoon we have sports. I'm the best at running in my class. Mama says that if it's true then it isn't big-headed. And I am the best. Whenever we have races I win. I like to play football as well and I have tennis lessons. My uncle is a footballer. He plays for Barcelona. But I support Real Madrid, like my papa. Then I am going to come home and I am going to play football with my other uncle Toni and then I am going to eat my dinner. We are going to eat fish. Mama told me. For lunch I have sandwiches in my bag and a banana and a bar of chocolate and a piece of cold tortilla left over from last night's dinner. My mama makes the best tortilla in the whole world. And then when I'm finished with dinner I will go to the bottom of the garden and I will sit there and I will wait to see Roger again. I am looking forward to seeing him. He is my new friend.
ROGER: When I arrive there, I almost fall over a small rocky wall. Then I right myself, regain my balance, and grab at the plastic bag that's just within my reach. As I'd thought, it contains clothes: trousers that are too short for me, a t-shirt with holes at the neckline, and for some reason three pairs of thick woollen socks and a pair of very fancy black shoes with gold buckles. I start to pull the clothes on, deciding to go barefoot, and then when I'm done I drop down onto the wall gratefully. I finally look around for Rafa, and feel my heart leap up my throat with shock when a small dark shadow sidles out of the bushes.
"I closed my eyes when you were getting changed," he tells me diplomatically.
"Okay – that's good," I say helplessly, and try to get some kind of upper hand. "Hi, Rafa. How are you today?"
"I'm okay!" He wanders further into the clearing, apparently more at ease than the last time I saw him. "I left you some of my dad's clothes," he says. "He almost caught me when I took them!"
"I know. Thank you," I say, and have a brief yet hilarious image of small Rafa sneaking in and out of his parents' bedroom, stolen clothes bundled up in his arms. "They're great clothes."
"Good." He pushes at a leaf on the floor with his big toe. "You aren't from Mallorca, are you?"
I stifle a laugh, shaking my head. His world hasn't grown much past his own town yet, and I think for not the first time that the wider earth must be baffling for him when he first enters it. This place is so beautiful after all, so balmy and simple and sweet. "No. I'm from Switzerland."
"How do you know how to speak Spanish?" he demands.
"A friend taught me." I don't tell him, you taught me, but I'm thinking of our Spanish lessons twenty years into little Rafa's future, his mock-frustration and his exhalations of disbelief as I fail to master the 'll' sound and the laughter our lessons inevitably dissolve into. "He's a good teacher."
"You speak well," he observes, folding his arms and squinting at me in a manner that's almost painfully familiar.
"Thank you." I incline my head slightly. "Do you speak English?" I already know the answer to this, but it's worth a try.
"We learn English at school," he says unwillingly, as though I'm about to force him to demonstrate his abysmal grasp of the English language. "But it isn't interesting."
"Go on, try to speak some."
"Hello," he says hesitantly in English, the 'h' coming from somewhere deep in his throat, like when he almost swears in front of me in the future when he drops something or stubs his toe. "How old are you," he continues, slowly, but I'd swear on my life that if I asked him that he wouldn't be able to answer.
"How are you?" I enunciate clearly in English.
He frowns at me, shrugging helplessly, and I decide to drop the whole English subject. "Did you have a good day at school?"
He perks up slightly at that. "We played football. My team won."
This is no surprise but I grin anyway and applaud him for a moment. "Congratulations!"
"Thank you." He grins brightly, and blossoms like a flower under my praise. "How was your day?"
"So-so." I don't really want to go into it. In my time we're both pretty tired, to say the least. Things are a little tough at the moment. We're busy and he's still getting over what happened, and other things are proving to be harder than we'd anticipated. It's not all bad, of course – I still get to get into bed at night and curl up next to him and smell his skin and breathe in his warmth, but it's just- Like I said. It's a little tough. "I didn't sleep well last night, so I'm a little tired. But I'm okay."
"So..." He drops down opposite me onto the floor, and stares quizzically at me. "When did you come from?"
"Before I got here, it was October 2nd, 2017."
His jaw drops. "Wow. In 2017, I'll be..." He frowns as he tries to work it out and I put in automatically, "You're thirty-one." For his birthday we didn't do anything too big. We went out for dinner at our favourite restaurant and sat at our favourite table tucked into an alcove near the back. He had steak and I had fish and we shared a plate of mussels, and we stayed at the restaurant talking until it closed, and then we came home and made love. It was a good evening.
"Oh. Do we know each other? Are we friends in the future?" He's sharp, this boy. Understandable and not surprising, but it's definitely tricky for me.
"Sure," I say diplomatically.
He grins again, his smile bright under the messy thatch of thick dark hair falling over his forehead. "That's great!"
"Yeah. It is. You're a good friend," I tell him. It's very honest but it's nowhere near the truth, it's so not enough. For now, though, it'll do.
"Good." He squirms happily. "Do you want to come and meet my parents?"
I shake my head regretfully. "I'm sorry. That isn't going to happen until you're older. Because it would mess things up. It's one of the rules of time travelling. If I saw your parents now it might mess up the future because they'd think it was strange when they saw me in a few years' time."
He frowns. "But I've seen you."
I grin at him, like he's in on a secret, which I suppose in a way he is. "Yeah, but you're special."
His face is alight with glee, but there's a voice calling his name from the house. "Roger," he says with regret in his voice, "I have to go now."
"That's fine! Go." I gesture towards the house. "I don't want to get you in trouble."
"Okay!" He gets to his feet, dusting off his shorts. "Bye!" He waves to me and I wave back and he trots towards the bigger part of their garden. Before he vanishes from sight, though, he turns back towards me. "Are you going to come here again?"
"Yeah." I nod at him. "I will. I'll see you again, I promise."
Reassured, he nods, and throws me one last wave before racing off towards the house. I shift a little, and frown into the sky. It's getting dark, and I've got some waiting to do before I get home again.
Roger is 12, and 32.
ROGER: A lot of the time, he helps me practise. It's not like we get much of a chance to go on an actual court but sometimes, like now, we get lucky. I'm on holiday with my parents in the south of France, staying in a nice hotel near the beach. I practise every day in the courts outside our hotel. Most of the time it isn't anything serious, against other kids who I always beat, and against some adults and I mostly beat them too. It's good to practise every day at least though, and the whole place is deserted when I'm out there by myself one Sunday night. It's almost dark, the sky a dusky sort of purple, and I'm practising my serve, relentless, pounding, getting that balance right, and I think I must be tired or something because almost every serve is either hitting the net or floundering wildly outside the lines.
I sigh, frustration boiling up inside my chest, and take a breather, uncapping my bottle of water and swigging a few mouthfuls out of it as I contemplate the court opposite me. Suddenly there's a quiet voice behind me and I turn around quickly, almost spitting my water onto the floor.
"Hey! Relax." And there's a familiar figure walking towards me. "It's just me. You. Me. You know who I mean." Out of the shadows comes my older self, about thirty, I think, and wanders towards me. He's wearing kind of weird clothes and at my quizzically raised eyebrow he laughs and looks down at himself. "Yeah, I know, crazy, right? I got these off a laundry trolley. They're clean," he adds, not that that needed to be said, because I am him, after all, and there's no way I'd wear dirty tracksuit bottoms or a t-shirt of dubious origins.
"Oh. Hi. How's it going?" As he comes over towards me I look him over critically: he's brown and lean and he looks relaxed and happy. "Hey. You don't look too ancient."
"Well, thanks." A genuine smile.
"How old are you?"
"I know." He grins at me. "And your serve sucks."
"It does not!" Honestly? The truth? Yeah, it kind of does. Last week I played a match where I double faulted more times than I'd like to remember. In fact it cost me the match and the tournament. It took us three and a half hours to drive home and my dad didn't talk to me once the whole way because he was so cross I'd lost my temper so badly.
"It does," he counters, knowing I'll fold because he knows me better than I know myself. It's all very strange to think about, but I try to remember that this has already happened to him and he probably wouldn't be as cheerful if I sulked and refused to let him teach me anything. "You're trying too hard."
"You can't try too hard," I counter flatly. "You've told me. I need to work."
"Ah, you've caught me out," he says cheerfully. "You've just got to – can I?" He holds out his hand towards my racquet.
"Sure." I hand it over, eyebrows raised, daring him to do better.
He picks up a tennis ball from the ground and stands behind the baseline. He bounces the ball once, twice, and then smiles before bouncing it a few more times. For some reason he picks his pants out of his butt.
"What are you doing?" I say, infuriated.
"Nothing." He's still grinning like he's remembering something I don't know about, and bounces the ball another few times. It's very annoying. I'm going to have to watch that, as I get older. Clearly I turn into some smug annoying guy. Finally he arches back, the ball sweeps into the air, and he hits it with all his strength. It thuds into the net and he lets out an exasperated grunt. "Crap."
"See, you're not that good!" I crow, and then remember that that means that I in the future am not very good. "You'd better get good," I warn him.
"I am good," he murmurs distractedly, before picking up another ball. This serve is beautiful, perfect, its curve exact and wonderful. "See? I'm great." He grins over at me. "And I didn't try."
"You're boasting," I accuse.
He laughs. "So what if I am? Here. Your turn." He hands the racquet over to me and I'm half-scowling thoughtfully as I pull a ball out of my pocket.
I bounce it off the ground a couple of times thoughtfully and then I draw myself up and back. I envision it landing in exactly the right place and then I consciously tell myself that it's easy, that I can do it, not to freeze up and freak out. The ball leaves my fingers, arching into the air seemingly of its own accord. My racquet comes up, smacks it just the way I always wish it would, and it's perfect. My muscles feel good, I'm not tense, I'm loose, my shoulders relaxed and the balance just right, and I can't help myself from letting out a quiet "Yes!"
"Well done," comes a quiet voice from behind me, but when I turn a fraction of a second later there's nothing there but a pile of clothes.
Rafa is 8.
RAFA: I'm on the beach with my friends. My friend Diego brought a football with him and we're kicking it around, sand flying up around us as we run. It's harder to run on sand than grass but I'm still good at it and usually I still win. I don't know why. Mama says that I'm talented. I suppose maybe that's true. But things like football and tennis make sense to me. They're easy.
It's hot – around two in the afternoon, and the sun's beating down on us so much that I'm kind of worried that I'm going to get burnt. Usually I just go brown but in heat like this who knows? But before I left the house my mama made me stop and she squirted sun cream all over my shoulders and face. Still I can feel my nose getting hotter and hotter and I don't want to peel. So I dip forwards and pick up the ball, tucking it under my arm. "Food?" I call to my friends, nodding over at our pile of bags. They all agree quickly and in a moment we're sitting in a circle on the sand, toes buried as we all start to eat.
I have: a huge thick sandwich stuffed with chorizo, an orange, a banana, and a bag of potato chips. I also have money with me in case I want to buy ice cream. It's summer after all, and I often don't get any chances to go to the beach or to my friends' houses because I go to a lot of classes and I practise a lot. Next to me there is Tomás (his mama drove us, she's sunbathing about twenty metres away from us) and next to him there is Cielo. My mama told me that her mother is a hippie. Cielo is a nice girl, but she dresses kind of like a boy, and she runs around with us boys, and she has short hair. Sometimes she comes out with really strange things like 'When those two stars meet in the sky one night out of the year, they represent two lovers meeting on the top of the galaxy', and she knows all about star signs. Personally I don't believe in that kind of thing. Luck, yes, but destiny, no.
Things like luck and destiny always make me think of strange mystical things and Roger. He's supposed to visit me this afternoon once I get home from the beach. I hope I can make it home on time. I hope he's there when I arrive. I hope I don't have to wait for him, and I hope he doesn't have to wait for me.
Anyway, I'm eating my lunch. The huge sandwich first and it's hot and kind of... damp after being in the sun but it's still delicious because I'm so hungry. Then the banana and I'm about to start on the orange when Cielo stops me.
"Peel it in one," she tells me, and I frown over at her.
"What?" I ask, flatly.
"Try to get the peel off in one long strip!" she tells me enthusiastically.
She is crazy. I do as she asks, though – she's one of those girls with a highpitched voice who shouts a lot – and finally I waggle it at her teasingly. "Do you want it?"
"No, it's for you." I haven't been watching her, but she's been peeling her apple carefully with a sharp silver knife and now she's holding up a long crooked tongue of apple peel. "You throw it over your shoulder and when you look it's the initial of the person you're going to marry."
I snort and roll my eyes, letting the orange peel fall from my fingers into the sand. "No, that's stupid." I open up the bag of crisps. The inside of the packet is kind of moist. It's way too hot for food in general, and somehow when I bite into the first crisp there's already sand on it. They taste salty like the sea, like my cracked lips.
"Do it," she commands, and there isn't any point in arguing. I look at my friends and laugh and nod towards her, like, That crazy girl telling me to do crazy things, and obediently I throw the orange peel over my left shoulder.
She's already up and peering at her own apple peel. "It's an L!" she declares loudly, and gazes victoriously towards my friend Luis. He looks slightly afraid and turns his face away from her. "What did you get, Rafa?"
"I don't know." I'm gazing at the shape on the sand but not really seeing anything. It's stupid and a waste of time. This is why girls are no good to be friends with.
She sighs like she's thinking Boys are so stupid!, and clambers across the sand towards me. For a moment she stands next to me, hands on her hips, as she surveys the shape. "It's an R, like your name," she says after a moment, and squints up at the sun. "I don't know anyone – ROSA!" Rosa is a girl in our class at school. She's kind of pretty, I suppose. But I've never thought about marrying her and I'm quite sure that I won't end up doing that.
My mind is elsewhere, floating across the deep blue sea, my head somewhere among the clouds. Roger, I think for no reason at all. Roger. "Rafa's going to marry Rosa," Cielo shouts excitedly, but I'm not listening at all.
Roger is 15, and 16.
ROGER: See, I know some people might find it creepy. But I'm pretty sure that if you had the chance then you'd do it too. Being a teenager is a pretty tough time, after all, and you want it where you can get it. Not that I'm desperate for sex or anything, because I'm not. All I'm saying is that it's a great opportunity to – practise. And if there's anything that my future career (hopefully!) has taught me, it's that practise makes perfect.
So it's a Tuesday evening, and my other self is here. We're doing what we usually do, behind my locked bedroom door and on my rumpled single bed. He's only older by a few months but he still refuses to tell me what's been happening from now until where he is. Sometimes I'd like to know if I'm going to win my next match or not. Whether I should just give up and not try throughout the game to preserve my strength, or whether I don't need to try too hard because I've got the game in the bag anyway. But knowing the future like that sounds pretty dangerous, and like it might just lead to a life of eternal failure. I guess the point of living is to have new experiences – like the one that's presently going on. He's down there, you know, doing his thing, and then his hand's starting to move backwards, pressing against virgin skin and all a sudden I'm thrown out of my happy haze and into a pretty weird reality.
"Hey, okay, what's that?" I demand, shifting backwards away from him.
He wrinkles up his nose. "Oh. Sorry. I guess we don't do that yet. What date is it today, anyway?"
"June eighteenth." I feel rumpled and out of breath. He looks rumpled and out of breath, so I figure I must do as well.
"Oh." He seems to be trying to say something for a moment, but I'm intrigued.
"What do you mean, we don't do that yet? It seemed pretty..." I trail off, searching for the appropriate word.
"Gay?" he offers conversationally.
"Well, yeah." I wriggle, a little uncomfortable, and start to wish I'm wearing clothes.
He shrugs, noncommittally. "Hmm."
"Hmm?" I don't like the sound of that 'hmm'. Gay's a thought that's been recurring more and more lately; I don't think I am or anything, because I definitely like girls. It's just that in the locker room I've found myself looking sometimes, more than ever before. Maybe it's just interest in other guys, in a heterosexual kind of way. Maybe I'm just subconsciously comparing myself to them. I have no idea.
"Hmm." He fidgets slightly, and looks at the door again. "Is that thing locked?"
"Yeah, of course." I get up quickly and cross to the door, jiggling the key in the lock before looking back at him. "See?"
I don't wait for him to answer before I get back onto my bed, onto him. Onto me. Whatever. I wrap my hand around, you know, and I start moving my hand and his head's falling back as he lets out these little breaths. It's not hot, because it's me. Well, it's kind of hot. It's just more a feeling of satisfaction. The most complicated sort of masturbation ever invented.
But then he's straining away from me, head towards the wall, and I'm kind of annoyed before I hear the footsteps. My heartrate increases at the same time that I start to feel distinctly less turned on, and then the doorknob's rattling. It's okay, I tell myself in the split second before the unthinkable happens, it's locked, but then (and this happens almost in slow motion), it creaks open and there's my mum standing right there.
She just lets out this noise. Half a scream, half a gasp, and then she's halfway down the corridor, saying things like "It's okay! We'll talk about this later! Oh my God!", and I'm rolling off my other self, dashing over to the door and slamming it shut, locking it firmly this time.
"Shit!" I say frantically, and pick up my underwear from the floor, pulling it on. "Shit, why didn't you tell me?" I throw an accusing look over at Roger.
"I tried to," he protests. "But – I couldn't. Because this was the way it happened. Like remember when you saw that little boy?"
Oh. Yeah. The little boy. One time when I was playing a match, there was a little boy in the stands who got stung by a bee, and I guess he was allergic to it because he died in hospital later that day. I travel back to that day pretty regularly, to a spot in the stands, I see it happen over and over in my dreams. When I travel back there, I try to say something, I try to get his mother to bundle him back into the car and take him home out of harm's way. But nothing happens – it's like moving through treacle. No words come out of my mouth and I'm frozen to the spot. You can't change the past. It's just the way it goes.
"Yeah," I say, a little tired all of a sudden. "Yeah, I remember him."
"It was like that." He looks a bit sad, and I know he's thinking the same as me. I wonder if the dreams have stopped yet for him. I wonder, I wonder.
"Did she see it was you?" I ask, back to the topic on hand. I don't know what'd be better: my mother seeing me jerking another version of myself off, or me making out with a random boy. One way I'm creepy, the other way I'm gay. It's a pretty lose-lose situation. She knows about the time travel, of course, but not about certain benefits it affords me, and I don't really want to elaborate.
He shrugs. "You'll have to talk to her about it."
I slide backwards to lean against the wall, hands coming up to cover my face. I'm still blushing, face burning. I can't believe my mother saw me doing that. "Shit," I say again.
"Too right." We're silent for a moment more, and then he's gone.
Roger is 23 and 38, and Rafa is 18.
ROGER: "Tough luck," I tell the kid. Truth be told, I'm glad I beat him this time. Last year was a little embarrassing, being beaten in straight sets like that, but this year I've won, even though it was a tough match. Everything is right with the world; things are in their places, where they should be.
He shrugs. "Is okay." He's bending down over the bench, rooting through his bag for something or other. I notice briefly that his shoulders are wide and his arms are heavily muscled, but he still stands like a teenager. When he turns around to flash me a smile, I survey his face for the first proper time that day. "You play good," he tells me.
I guess I did. Any match won against this dark-eyed boy is hard-earned. He's making enough of a name for himself now that everyone knows that. "Thanks," I say, and smile back at him.
He nods and as he turns away his head is slightly too inclined away from me, like he doesn't want to look. He's a nice guy and all, but somehow a little strange. I still can't get that knowing look from last year out of my head. When I saw him from the first time today he just stared for a moment, frozen, before his face fell into an easier smile. He looked amazed, happy, torn. Considering that in my lifetime at least we'd barely talked before today's match, there's definitely something strange going on.
"Roger," he says suddenly, and I turn towards him, heart beating a little strangely all of a sudden.
"You want..." He seems to have lost all his grasp on the basic English that I'm pretty sure he must know. He clears his throat, frowning, and starts again. "Ah, do you want drink?"
I squint at him. "Do I want to... um... you want to go out later? For a drink? Is that it?"
He nods vigorously. "Sí, sí, is that."
I shake my head. There are a million things I need to do, and I'm flying out tomorrow morning. The thought of going out after it's all done is somehow a little too much, and trying to communicate with him, with his broken English and heavy accent and knowing eyes, seems like something huge and insurmountable that I'm not quite ready for. "I'm sorry, I..."
His face has fallen. Like I've just taken out a knife and stabbed him in the chest. That's how upset he looks. I immediately repent. "But," I continue, "I think we're staying in the same hotel. I'm in suite 702, on the seventh floor. Come over and we can check out the minibar."
He looks confused. "I come to your room?"
I suppress a sigh. "Yes. At ten?"
"Ten, sí." He's grinning like a schoolboy. It's ridiculous. His wet hair's dripping around his face and I just beat him in a huge final, but he's still smiling at me.
There's something about this guy. For the life of me I don't know what it is, but there's something. He's persistent – damn hard to get a shot past, that's for sure – and bright and sunny. He may be a formidable rival, but for some reason I like him. Although I know I shouldn't, I can't help but like him.
RAFA: I guess that went well. The match did not go so well – I lost but at least I was in the finals, and I played my best. That is the difficult thing about tennis. Sometimes you must accept that the reason you lost was simply that you were not as good. Not every day, but sometimes you just play worse, and that's that. Today was a hard match, for both of us. Roger is not used to playing games like that. He's Number One and although he's very grateful and modest, I think that sometimes when you're in a position like that it's difficult when someone makes it hard for you to win. I'm proud of what I did, of my behaviour. I'm not sure if he'd say the same.
He broke a racquet. I know that isn't a big deal. I know that a lot of the greats like MacEnroe did things like that. But it's Roger. I've always thought of him as gentle, smiling. Sometimes he's upset or moody, but so is everyone sometimes. But to me he's always been patient, kind, willing to forgive. He stared at me over that net today as if he wanted me to evaporate. Such frustration, all of a sudden, and bottled up again as if it hadn't happened. The exchange of a splintered racquet for another. After the match, soft words across the net. I can still feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder. I almost didn't care that I'd lost because I got to stand next to him.
Sometimes I wonder if I still love him. Sometimes it's difficult when I remember the way he was – the way he will be in the future – and compare it to the way he is now. I miss what he will grow to be.
This evening I went to his room. We watched some football, replays, we each drank a couple of beers from the minibar in his room, we talked a little and we laughed sometimes. The great Roger Federer is a nice man, a good man. If I didn't already know him, I would have learnt that.
I don't know what I expected to happen. But that cool smile, that detachment, that "Good night," cold, clinical. For some reason it's still hurting, even five minutes later. My room's on a different floor. I'm almost glad of the walk. It helps me to get my thoughts together. These hotels all look the same after a while; they blend in together. I have to check my room number on my key before I slip it into the door and push it open.
The first strange thing is that I can hear the TV. The end of the replays that I was watching up in Roger's room. There's a light shining out from the crack beneath my bedroom door. I run through my friends and family, trying to decide who might be in there, but most of them are out at dinner or already on a flight home.
"Hola?" I say loudly, questioningly.
"Hola, Rafa!" The voice light, breezy, and something in my chest constricts and uplifts. "Soy yo."
It's me. No name required; that's the familiarity between us. "Roger," I say, and open the bedroom door.
He's sprawled across my bed, relaxed, the TV on at the foot of the bed, a bottle of water in one of his hands and an open bag of peanuts next to him. "Hey, Raf." He smiles over at me, and this, this is my Roger. For a horrible second I want to cry. I haven't seen my Roger in almost two years, since he stopped visiting me, and I've missed him. His hair is shorter and his face is more lined and he can speak Spanish. Back from the future to pay me a visit and in this moment I couldn't love anyone more.
"Hey," I say, and I walk over to the bed, and hover there for a moment by his side. "I just saw you."
"Oh." He's frowning. "When are we?"
"The second time we played." It sounds as though it was a long time ago for him, although for me my defeat is only too recent. "Wow. Yeah." He looks starry-eyed, like he's remembering, lost in memories maybe. "And you came up to my room, and we talked."
"We talked badly." I shake my head. "I need to learn more English. Press conferences are too hard."
"Yeah, I bet." He wrinkles his nose sympathetically, and then he looks at me, really looks, eyes intent. He shifts over on the bed, and indicates the space next to him. "Come and sit with me."
I nod, and slide onto the bed next to him. It's warm from his body and he's right there next to me, wanting to be close to me, wanting to talk to me, liking me. A million miles away from the kind but distant man three storeys above me.
"It's been tough, hmm?" he asks quietly.
"Yeah. It's difficult," I admit. "Here you're different."
He sighs and shifts closer to me, putting an arm across my shoulders. It just seems to fit there. He's exactly the right shape to lie next to me. It all seems so simple, but it isn't. "I'm sorry," he says. "I haven't grown up yet. I'll change, I promise."
"No, you don't need to change. I'll change. I'll make you..." Love me, I want to add, but do not.
"No." He sounds tired. He's old, maybe older than I've seen him before. Lightyears away from the man upstairs. "Please. I'll make you happy. I'm sorry he's doing this to you. I didn't mean to."
"I know. You're being kind to me. More than most other players. Thank you for that." I'm leaning against him completely now, my shoulder under his arm, his cheek against my hair. I can't see his face, but I can feel his breath on my forehead when he exhales.
"There's no need to thank me, Rafa," he says, and then his voice gets lighter, drifting. "I liked you, though. I hope you know that. I thought you were talented and kind and cool. I also thought you were good-looking." His voice has taken on a teasing quality and I sit up abruptly, squirming around to face him.
I grin brightly at him, arching an eyebrow as my hair falls across my forehead. "Did you? Do you think I'm good-looking now?"
"I..." He sounds lost all of a sudden, and looks even more lost. His hand comes out, gentle and callused, and he strokes the hair away from my forehead, his touch feather-light. "How could I not," he says, sad and yearning.
"Do you," I begin, and am unable to say any more, surrounded in the scent of him, the warmth.
"Yes," he says, and there's fervency in his voice, like he wants desperately for me to believe him. "I do. Of course I do, Raf. And he will." He sighs and touches my cheek with a fingertip. Then he blinks abruptly and there's a flicker like the static of a lost picture and like always he's gone from me.
Chapter 3: 'Defeats are a learning experience'
Roger lets something slip to teenage Rafa, and meanwhile older Rafa has his first huge victory.
ROGER: So, Rafa wasn't the only one who almost became a footballer. We've discussed our reasons behind choosing tennis: my main decision rested on the fact that if I'm totally honest, there are times when I'm not a team player. I remember that I confessed that to Rafa like it was a really big deal, but he just laughed at me – he'd known that for years. He said I was too independent for team sports, which I think was him using his usual polite code for 'too stubborn'. He does like teams, though. He loves people, the feeling of comradeship and togetherness. So it always kind of confused me that he chose a solitary sport. He said that the idea of playing football for a career just didn't seem right.
Right now, on a stretch of deserted beach in February, I can't see anything that could ever prevent Rafa from becoming a professional footballer, other than that fact that in the future I know he doesn't. His footwork's great, his tactics are great, and most of all he's determined. For a while I'm in goal and he scores eight times without me saving any. He's crowing still-louder victory songs every time and finally I give up and flop down into the sand.
"I'm too old for this," I tell him.
"You're not old!" Coming from anyone else it'd be a pitying reassurance, but I'm pretty sure that twelve-year-old Rafa completely lacks that level of tact. So he doesn't think I'm old: good to know.
"Huh," I say, pulling a jokingly grudging face at him, and he laughs as he throws himself down into the sand next to me. "I'm old and decrepit, and don't tell me otherwise."
"Stupid," he says affectionately. He's squinting out to the sea; it's choppy today, dark blue and crested with white froth. I can tell that he kind of wants to swim, but not even he is quite that crazy.
"Don't disrespect your elders," I say absently. "Aren't you cold?"
He shakes his head, although he's only wearing a thin t-shirt and baggy shorts that barely come past his knees. "I'm okay," he says brightly.
"Good." I exhale a breath. "Now we've worn out football, what do you want to do today?"
He shrugs. "I don't know. Tell me about you. I don't know much."
"Yeah, that's for a reason." I raise an eyebrow at him. The future's a tricky thing: I don't know how much to tell him. I want his life to be normal. I don't want him to have to worry about the same things that I do. When we're older, where I'm from, it's inevitable – he's caught up in my life as tightly as anyone could be, but that was his choice. Twelve-year-old Rafa is another matter entirely.
"You've got to tell me something. You know all about me." Which is true. Rafa's surprisingly open with me. He tells me all about his parents and his training and his friends, little details like how they're working on his forehand and how he thinks this girl has a crush on him and how his little sister had a stomach upset last week and threw up in his mother's underwear drawer. It's all stuff that I appreciate knowing – with the exception of the throwing up, naturally – and honestly, it's kind of sweet.
"Umm... well, what do you want to know?" There is a chance that this is a very, very bad idea, that this livewire preteen will coax out details that will really mess things up – but things turn out okay, so why the hell not?
He looks blank for a moment. "Well, what do I know about you?"
"You know that I'm a professional tennis player – well, I was before I retired-"
"Why did you retire?" he asks, pouncing on that.
That, at least, is a question I can answer. "Age," I tell him honestly. "Wear and tear. And my priorities changed. I decided to concentrate on..." Family? Is that the best way to phrase it? "Other things," I finish lamely.
"What other things?" He's just as persistent and dogged as he is when he's twenty-nine and demanding to know why I thought that it would be a perfectly good idea to allow our cat to sleep inside and inevitably scratch on our bedroom door at half past four in the morning.
"Well, my dad got ill." I'm pretty sure he can tell by my tone that I don't want to say much more about that. "And being away a lot was pretty tough on my personal life."
A Cheshire cat grin begins to spread across his face, and I'm already regretting that second sentence. "Your personal life! You mean you weren't getting any girls when you were a tennis player."
"Of course I got girls," I say, slightly offended. "I had a steady girlfriend for almost nine years."
"So you got one girl." He's smirking. "Why didn't you marry her?"
Because I didn't love her any more. Because she fell out of love with me. Because we stopped having sex around the seven-and-a-half-years mark. Because I was an asshole when I started losing matches. Because I fell in love with a man. "People grow apart," I say vaguely. "Priorities change."
"Oh." He frowns slightly. "That must have been hard."
"Yeah, it was," I say, sincerely. "But we're friends now." Kind of friends, sort of friends. There's a lot of bitterness there that I regret more than I can say.
"So, do you have a girlfriend now?" That damn eyebrow's arching at me as he grins teasingly, but there's something behind the smile, something... I can't tell what. Maybe if he was older, or if I knew his young face better.
"Well, I'm seeing someone," I say, cursing vagueness.
"Oh." His smile flickers slightly, like a flame in a gust of wind. "Do you... love her?" His eyes are fixed on my face as his expression slowly freezes, like he's trying to smile, but it's ghastly somehow.
"I'm very much in love." My voice cracks slightly as I smile at him, trying to be reassuring.
"That's great." He swallows and looks down at the sand, picking up a handful of it and letting it sift through his fingers. "I'm happy for you. And her. I just... I wish you'd told me before," he ends on a mutter.
"Well, you know now," I say briskly, and for some reason I can't look at him. "Yeah. I'm very happy."
"Good." He takes a deep breath and we both gaze out at the ocean for a moment. There's something about the beach that's beautiful regardless of where you're from or how used you are to being close to the sea. Something primal and original that you don't really get anywhere else. Peace and calm. Next to me there's an odd choking noise and it's only when I turn to Rafa and look deliberately into his face that I realise he's crying.
"What's wrong?" I ask him, heart thudding in alarm.
He turns away, wiping his eyes in the crook of his arm and letting out a disgusting snotty sounding sniff. "I don't know. I don't know," he says, sounding so heartbroken that something in my chest is hurting in sympathy. "I don't know. I just thought that in the future you and I... I don't know what I thought." He leans against me and I put my arm around his shoulders and he cries himself out. Eventually the sky starts to purple into dusk and that's when I stand him up, pick up his football, and begin to walk him home.
Roger is 34, and Rafa is 13.
RAFA: Whenever I see Roger, he tells me the next date and time that we're going to meet. This is how it works: I write down the times and days we meet, and apparently at some point in the future I give them to him, so he can in turn tell them back to me. Today, though, there's nothing scheduled, and I'm curled in the little walled-off section at the end of our garden with some books, completing my maths homework. My dad told me that I need to keep my marks up if I want to play tennis, and obviously I do, so I try my hardest - or most of the time I do, anyway. My marks aren't the best, but they're okay. I'm on the last problem when there's suddenly a flurry of movement and there's Roger gasping in front of me.
"Hi!" I say, pleasantly surprised, but then I take in his expression and it's clear that something is very, very wrong. There's something on the heels of his hands – scratches, grazes of some kind – and his eyes are wide, his breathing shallow.
"Rafa," he says, something terrible in his voice. He takes a step towards me and even now, even when Roger's completely freaking out, he remembers something like decency, and turns away to open the bag I keep down here containing clothes, and pulls a pair of jeans on.
"Oh, Rafa," he says, turning back to me, his eyes bright in a horrible sort of way, and then he comes towards me. I'm on my feet, holding back, afraid by the terrible blank bleak expression on his face. "Oh my god, oh, Rafa," he says, and then there are arms around me and the weight of a face pressed into my hair and I can feel him shaking against me. I can hear him shuddering out tears and I have no idea what to do, so I just hug him back and hope, hope, hope. He says my name a couple of times, and a few words in another language that I can't make out, and then as quickly and shockingly as he came, he's gone again.
Roger is 16.
ROGER: I. Am a winner. I am on top of the world, and I am a champion. Wimbledon Juniors. I am a champion and okay – here's a secret, okay – I am slightly drunk. It would appear that London is kind of lax on its alcohol laws, because they let me have champagne when I won, enough so that my head was already spinning before I went out, and then I joined up with some of the other tennis players – no hard feelings that I beat them, nothing like that – and we went out. To a club. London has a good nightlife, it would appear, and for the first time I am determined to be a part of it!
I am at the bar. I am ordering drinks. I am going to have a double Jack Daniels with coke, and did you know that this stuff tastes like crap? Especially when you take just one shot of it. I tried that before and it was disgusting and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, not even my worst enemy. Not that I have any enemies. I don't know, do I? I don't think so. It made my eyes water and it made me gag, it was nasty. Anyway, I am drunk. And it is great. We're all dancing, all the Wimbledon juniors, moving away from each other and spreading out over the room and finding new people to dance with. I'm with a girl with sleek shiny blonde hair down her back and a glittery green top, my hands on her hips as we move together, her mouth on my neck. After a moment we drift away from each other and I realise that all the JD and coke has gone downwards and I really need to pee.
I look around dazedly for the bathrooms and the 'TOILETS' sign dances blurrily for a moment as I stumble over to it and into the men's room. I pee, one hand hard on the wall, holding myself up, and then I go over to the basins to wash my hands because I am a responsible citizen who does not spread urine germs wherever he goes. There's a guy who wanders in then, a couple of years older than me, all messy brown hair and pale skin and light eyes and angles and planes where girls have curves and softness. He catches my eye over my shoulder in the mirror, and he comes over to wash his hands beside me. He smiles sideways and once we're both done washing our hands he offers his to me. "James."
"Roger." I take his hand and shake it. For some reason I can't stop looking at his lips. He has full lips, pretty lips like a girl's, and eyes that look very green in the weird light of this bathroom.
"Where are you from?" he asks me, his face swimming in and out of focus. "You have an accent."
"Switzerland," I tell him, and then lie for no reason, "I'm on holiday with my friends. I like your accent too!"
He laughs and ducks his face away before looking back at me, like he's shy but coy or – something, I can't make it out. "Thanks, babe, but I'm only from Clapham."
Babe. Now, that's an odd one, and I'm frowning slightly. Also, I do not know what or where Clapham is. I smile anyway, and he's smiling back and biting his bottom lip slightly. I can't take my eyes off it, that little bit of tooth on full pink lip and for some reason I can't stop wondering what that mouth would taste like, how it would feel to lick that soft hollow at the base of his throat. He flicks his hair out of his eyes, something resembling seriousness on his face now. "Roger," he says, softly. "Do you want to," and doesn't go on, but he gives me this small sweet smile.
I'm not even completely sure about what he's referring to but I nod anyway and smile helplessly back at him, and then all of a sudden he's taking my hand and pulling me into a cubicle. I'm pressed up against the wall, toilet roll holder digging into my spine and I don't even care. There's a little voice inside my head saying "Roger, you are sensible, you play tennis, you don't get drunk and you certainly don't kiss boys in toilet cubicles," because all of a sudden that's what I'm doing, his lips hot on mine, scorching and searching and for some crazy reason I'm rock hard in my jeans. But so's he because I can feel it pressing on my leg. When I grind forwards into him it's one of the hottest things ever because he lets out this groan into my mouth and I bite it away and he pulls away for a moment and as he's kissing my neck and undoing my shirt he murmurs, "You are the most fucking hot guy ever."
"So are you," I say politely, and then as his teeth graze my chest I let out a groan that's probably a little too loud. I've never done this before; half my life is spent playing tennis and the rest of it studying, so forgive me if I don't get to all that many parties. I've made out with girls before, there've even been a few unmemorable handjob incidents, but nothing like this, nothing close to this, unless I count various experiences with myself, which... I don't.
He straightens up after a moment and looks me in the eye as he reaches into his pocket and puts the contents into my hand. "I want you to fuck me," he says, very seriously.
Well, this is new.
"Okay," I say doubtfully, and look at what's in my hand. A small bottle and a condom. I'm starting to sweat even more than I was while I was dancing. The Wimbledon courts seem like a million miles away now: I might be a champion at tennis but present me with another guy's ass and clearly I have no idea what I'm doing. What's weird, though, is that I wouldn't mind knowing what to do. He's a nice guy and I'm kind of surprised but not at the same time at the physical reaction I'm having and my curiosity about the whole situation.
"I've never," I begin, and he rolls his eyes in a kind sort of way and says, "Yeah, I could tell." I can feel myself blushing then and he laughs, reaches towards me and presses his palms against my cheeks. "You could fry an egg off them," he says lightly, and I echo his laugh, a little more comfortable. He's nice. I think he's nice, anyway. I could be wrong. I hope I'm not.
He kisses me on the lips, softly, hands still on my cheeks. Then he lets go and he turns around and he drops his trousers.
All that is going through my head is Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, and I freeze for a moment.
Then James looks over his shoulder at me and says, "It's okay, you know."
I nod, and step up behind him. We're about the same height. I reach around him, arms around his waist, and begin to unbutton his shirt, pulling it back from his shoulders, kissing a line across his shoulderblade. A quick experimental nip at the base of his neck and he lets out a little noise. My hands running down his sides, pulling his hips back against mine, his ass rubbing against my erection and he laughs at that, turning his head to kiss my jaw and grinding against me.
Everything kind of dissolves into blurriness after that. Heat and sweat and undoing my trousers and complicated things involving lubricant and I've never even used a condom before, how crazy's that? His low gasp and his back arching as I push into him and it's so hot and tight that there's a moment where I'm a little afraid that I'm going to come too soon and it'll be horrible and embarrassing. But I hold on, hands tight around his hips, and breathe deep. Then we start to move and things really do blur into a sticky haze of sweat in my eyes and this heat around me and the noises he's making and occasional voices outside the cubicle and eventually a sort of exploding and stars and panting and then he's turning around and kissing me hard. I'm out of breath but I kind of gasp into his mouth around his tongue.
Then we're breaking apart and I'm thinking oh my God again. I don't even know what to do with the used condom until he takes it, ties it, and drops it into the toilet. I can't meet his eyes, so I busy myself doing up my belt.
"Saw you on TV today by the way," he says as he does up his trousers. "Congratulations on winning."
There's something cold clenching in my chest. "You know who I am?" I ask, blank, feeling as though I'm rising out of myself with dismay. I can see the headlines now: Wimbledon Champion in Gay Shocker and it's just horrifying in every conceivable way.
"Er, yeah." He swipes a hand through his hair and then half-smiles at me, reaching out to tidy my hair. I swat him away and he looks slightly hurt for a second. "Hey," he protests.
"I'm sorry," I say, and am perfectly aware that I'm beginning to gabble. "Please," I say, "okay, please, don't tell anyone it was me. I can't, this can't," and I'm clearly starting to look upset because he's frowning sympathetically.
"Don't worry, I wouldn't. Bad manners to out people if they don't want you to." He nods and then smiles reassuringly, touching me underneath my chin and making a clucking noise. "Chin up, mate. You were pretty sexy on TV."
He winks once before leaving the toilet cubicle, and I'm still breathless, standing there alone, my shirt stuck to my back with sweat and his come on the toe of my left shoe. So: that's what sex with another person is like. Not bad. In fact, I'm pretty sure I want to try it again at some point soon, although – and I glance around here, at the graffiti on the wall and the broken toilet roll holder, which I guess was me somewhere along the way – preferably in nicer circumstances. Home, now; I'm sobering up, and my head's beginning to hurt.
Roger is 35, and Rafa is 13 and 31.
RAFA: I am aching in a good way when I go to meet Roger. I've been practising all afternoon and my muscles are weary all over my body. It means that I've been trying hard, that it's been a job well done, but still. Still. It hurts and I'm tired and at the moment, tennis kind of sucks.
He's already down there when I traipse to the bottom of my back garden, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I started buying him clothes a couple of years ago, when I started winning money in competitions. He started to look kind of weird and wrong in my dad's old cast-offs, and so now he has new (well, kind of new, it's been in a plastic bag at the bottom of my garden for months) stuff. He looks good. I chose colours that I thought would suit him: white shorts and a dark blue shirt. I also found a shirt that's a little too small for him in an old junk shop that reads 'KISS ME, I'M SWISS', but he doesn't choose to wear that one as often, even though I think he looks good in it.
Anyway, he's reading a book I left down there earlier. I'm supposed to be reading it for school and then answering questions on it, but it's kind of long and not really the sort of thing that I'm interested in. It's set a long time ago and the characters are boring and they don't actually do anything, they just sit around and talk all day. I kind of want to go into the book and tell them that maybe they'd be happy and have less things to bitch about if they stopped bitching at some point and got off their butts to actually do something. Anyway, he's frowning a little as he reads – he's not as good at reading Spanish as he is at speaking – and when I come in, he looks up at me.
"This is really boring," he says. He sounds very unimpressed.
"Tell me about it." I sit down opposite him, on the small rocky wall, and stretch my legs out in front of me with a slight wince. "I need to read it by last Monday."
"Why didn't you finish it yet?" His eyes are on me and he's doing that thing he does sometimes. He tests me on my maths homework and my English homework and if he starts talking about how I need to be a more dedicated student again I'm going to kill either myself or him. Probably him.
"Because it's boring and I have more important things to do," I say shortly and, hoping to distract him, "How are you?"
He shrugs. "Okay." He's lying. He looks tired. "Back to you, Rafa. I thought you told me that your dad wouldn't let you carry on with your tennis lessons if it interfered with your school work."
I can feel myself pouting, and I'm trying not to, but it isn't quite working. "Yeah, he said that, but it isn't interfering."
"Huh." He exhales. "Sure." He sounds dubious, like he's sure I'm lying but he can't be bothered to bug me about it.
"It isn't," I protest. "And anyway, schoolwork isn't my future. Tennis is. You know that."
"Yeah, that's true." He grins quickly at me, bright and happy suddenly. "You're going to be a great tennis player, Rafa, but you're also going to be clever, okay?"
"I'm not clever," I say honestly, because I'm not. Academia is boring and I don't like it.
"Of course you're clever." He frowns across at me. "The Rafa I know in the future is clever, and you've got some work to do before you get there."
I stick out my tongue at him and he holds his serious expression for a moment before cracking and grinning. I am triumphant. "I will. What's your Rafa like?"
He raises an eyebrow, a little surprised, and shifts slightly. "He's... great," he says, after a moment.
I roll my eyes. "Yeah. Obviously."
"He's brave," Roger continues thoughtfully. "He's kind. He doesn't complain about anything, ever. He's funny." He takes a deep breath, still with that weird wistful dreamy look on his face. "He's a good friend. He's a good person, a good man. He's generous." He casts a glance at me. "How's that? Enough?"
"No," I say determinedly. "I want to know what happens to me. Am I married?"
He hesitates for a second and something I can't describe passes over his face. "Yes," he says, then.
"What's she like? Is she pretty?" There's something about the idea of marriage that doesn't appeal to me. I'm almost surprised to hear that it's going to happen. Still, while Roger's in a verbal mood, there's no point in giving up on the questions.
"You think so," he tells me, a hint of a smile around his mouth.
"I suppose I must do." I wouldn't marry someone I didn't think was pretty, after all. Maria from school wanted to go on a date with me, but she didn't really look right. I know that that isn't a good way to go about going out with girls, but it's working for now. "Do you like her?"
"You guys are good together," Roger says, strangely diplomatic and indirect.
"Okay," I say, frowning a little. "Am I going to have kids?"
Roger's face darkens. "Rafa, can we drop this? I've told you before that I don't want to talk about the future. You have to let it happen."
"But I want to know," I complain, "what's the point in you being here if you don't tell me anything about how it's going to turn out?"
He rolls his eyes, looking exasperated. "God. Fine. You're going to be happy, play a lot of tennis, and you've got a partner who loves you, and you love him-"
Te lo quieres, he said, and I'm staring over at him. "What?"
"Te la quieres," he says, you love her, he says, eyes wide, using the feminine form instead. "Sorry, Rafa, my Spanish is-"
"Perfect," I say. "Your Spanish is perfect."
"Rafa, no, I didn't mean that."
"My wife is a man?" I demand, and I'm pretty sure that when in the future I look back on this conversation I'll laugh at the absurdity of that phrase but for now it doesn't seem funny in the least.
Roger shakes his head, shifting backwards and refusing to meet my eyes. "Don't be silly."
My stomach is churning. This doesn't make any sense but it does, it does, and I hate it. "I'm not being silly," I argue, and get to my feet. "I'm going inside."
He stands too, taller than me by a long way, and he reaches out and grabs my arm, long fingers around my wrist, and I'm suddenly struck by something as I look down at his hand on my skin. "Get off," I tell him indistinctly, and he doesn't seem to notice anything weird about me, "I'm not gay."
"I know you're not." There's something like sympathy in his eyes as he releases my arm.
"Okay. Good. Because I'm not."
I feel like I want to cry. I don't – but I do – and Roger's still standing there looking at me and if he lies to me again and says it was his bad Spanish I'm going to scream. And Roger, all in love and probably married in the future and this is the most stupid thing that has ever happened to me. "I'm going inside," I declare.
"Fine. Go," Roger says, looking uneasy and sad and a lot of things I don't want to think about, and so I do, I go, and for once I'm the one leaving him behind.
ROGER: It's a good half-hour before I get home, and for once I'm relieved about the ripples in my vision that signify that I'm about to travel. I'm still feeling weird and cold and sad about what just happened with Rafa and I'm kicking myself for that slip of the tongue. I'm trying to rationalise it: so what if I told him he's going to end up with a guy, surely he's aware of something like that already. But then I think back to when I was thirteen and the horror with which I would have greeted something like that. No kid wants to be gay, after all. Different.
So when I get back home I'm tired, despondent. I appear in our living room, and I'm jolted for a moment, a sharp pain jetting through my temple. Shit, as if something else needed to happen: I can feel one of my headaches coming on, one of the big epic ones that sometimes comes on after travelling, and I roll my eyes – another jet of pain – before stumbling into the bathroom, opening the cabinet, and taking two painkillers dry. Then it's time for bed – it's dark outside and I'm so tired that even my bones are aching.
Rafa clearly stayed awake waiting for me until it was too late; he's sprawled out over our bed, left leg stretched out awkwardly, the long scar along his thigh highlighted silver by the lamplight streaming in from the street. There's a half-read book next to him, pages fanned out, and I take it and place it gently on the table next to his side of the bed. Then I close the curtains and the light's gone. I climb into bed next to him and he shifts restlessly, before his eyes open.
"Hi," he whispers blearily, English our general language these days. "What time is it?"
I sneak a glance over at the clock. "Two-fifteen."
"Thanks. Are you okay?" He's waking up properly now, shifting closer to me.
"Fine." I carefully don't think about the look in his eyes eighteen years ago.
"Okay." He reaches out and strokes a hand through my hair affectionately. "Sleep now, huh?"
"You bet. It's late." I let my eyes drift shut, and my mind's beginning to clear out blissfully until he shifts next to me and I'm hit by a reminder of twitchy teenage Rafa disgusted at the idea of his future with a guy.
"So," I say conversationally, "I saw you when you were thirteen today."
His voice is soft, sleepy, but pleased to talk to me, like he always is. Well, unless he actually is asleep and I wake him up, or I talk to him while he's counting down the precise amount of seconds he likes his bagels to be toasted for (he always loses – misplaces, he claims – the timer), or there's a Madrid game on the TV and I'm telling him about something boring like the fact I'm considering buying new silverware. Still, generally he humours me, and I appreciate it very much. "I was silly then, no? What did we do?"
"Well... I asked you about your homework, and then you asked me about your future. And I let something slip," I admit unwillingly, like he doesn't know this story, like he hasn't lived it.
"What did – ahh." He's silent for a moment, sitting up as if to make himself more alert, pushing a lock of thick dark hair back from his face. "Oh. Yes. I remember."
"Yeah." I'm silent for a moment, before rolling over towards him. "I'm sorry."
"No, I'm sorry," he says emphatically. "I was wrong. I didn't know..."
"Yeah, but I shouldn't have said anything."
"Well." He shrugs, philosophically. "Is life. Many things are just life, no? And you go on. And I'm happy."
"Good. Because I'm happy. I really am," I tell him, wanting him to know, to really know, although I'm pretty sure that he already does.
He nods, and I can practically hear him formulating a sentence. His bad English in his interviews wasn't all a lack of linguistic skills; rather, it was also the development of tact, of phrasing things carefully and kindly, and he still retains that. "Okay. Rogelio," and here he smiles slightly, "I want you to know, I'm glad my wife's a man."
"It would have been easier if you didn't end up with me," I say, because apparently I'm a glutton for punishment who wants to force Rafa into saying something that isn't true and that will inevitably spell upset for both of us.
"No, is easy with you," he says, a little exasperated. "Anyway, good isn't the same as easy. And this is very good."
"True." I sigh. "I'm sorry. This is stupid."
"Very stupid." He reaches out and pokes my cheek with his index finger. "Stopping being stupid now? We go to sleep, no?"
"Yeah," I agree, gratefully, and he nods, and we curl up, and it's warm and I can hear his breathing and I still feel a little bad for tiny teenage Rafa and his crossness, but it's okay. It turned out okay.
"You're a good wife," Rafa murmurs, half-asleep, into his pillow.
"Thanks," I say, eyes closed, smiling. "I'm not your wife, though."
"You have sex with me. You cook, you clean. Wife."
I reach out and swat at his messy hair. "You're crazy. Go to sleep."
He makes one of his strange snorting laughs, muffled by sheets and sleepiness, and then we're both silent.
Roger is 23 and Rafa is 18.
RAFA: It's the first time I've played the French Open and I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only person not completely expecting me to win. But I did and it's amazing and I feel slightly dizzy, like I'm drunk. Well, if I'm honest, I have had a few glasses of champagne. Not enough to be drunk, just enough to be happy and and – so people are telling me – a little louder than usual. Anyway, so it's about half past one in the morning and we're all getting tired, and so I head off to my room by myself to sleep off the alcohol and pack my things for my flight the next morning.
I guess that it is somewhat typical that I meet Roger in the hallway, wearing jeans and a shirt and a jacket, smart and fashionable like he always is, and I have become accustomed to seeing him around the courts, in the changing rooms, but seeing him suddenly like this is different, I have not taught myself to think it's normal and so for a moment when I see him I'm frozen for a moment before I melt and bounce towards him. "Roger! Hi! How are you?"
"Rafa," he says, an incredulous smile spreading over his handsome face, "are you drunk?"
"No! No," I tell him, waving my hands and shaking my head. "No, not drunk. But... have drunk," I admit, and smile at him, raising an eyebrow.
He's smirking, in a kind, nice sort of way. "Yeah. Well, congratulations on the win."
"You watched it?"
"Yeah, I watched it." On a lesser man there would be maybe something like bitterness, but there's none of that with Roger. See, this is why we, I, why it will be. "It was a great game. It was good to see you come back from one set down – that's pretty impressive."
"Thank you." I duck my head slightly, and there's a blush burning over my cheekbones. "You play great in the semis."
"Not as well as you," he says, which is both honest and very welcome. I was a little afraid he'd hate me for that win, but sometimes I forget that I am not the only player for who defeats are a learning experience, rather than something shameful and infuriating.
"I can have your number?" I ask him, buoyed up by my first Grand Slam and champagne bubbles and the raw heady joy of seeing him unexpectedly, seeing him smile at me.
He looks a little confused. "You want to call me?" he says doubtfully.
I roll my eyes. "With this English? No. A phone call be very bad, no?"
He laughs, and then shrugs as if to say, what harm can it do? "True. What the hell?"
I take my phone out of my pocket and type in the numbers as he recites them to me. There's a brief exchange of smiles and good nights, and then we're walking away from each other. I don't know why exactly I suddenly felt the urge to have a way to contact him. Maybe something to do with the fact that all the times I saw him when I was a child weren't enough in the times that I wanted to talk to him and he wasn't there, and I had no way of contacting him when he was countries away and young and oblivious. It feels good to know that I have his number in my phone. Even though his heart is miles away with his girlfriend and his tennis, there is a little line extending from me to him, although I know it probably isn't important to anyone except me.
ROGER: Half an hour later, I get a text message saying simply, 'Good night! From Rafa :)'.
I can't help but smile. Usually I delete my text messages just after I get them, but for some reason I kind of want to keep hold of this one. For some reason, I kind of want to keep hold of him.
Roger is 34 and Rafa is 16.
ROGER: We're on the beach together, me and Rafa, Rafa and me. He's more like the Rafa I know now; tall but leaner, more thoughtful, choosing his words more carefully. His hair's shorter than my Rafa's, still cut in a boyish style that I'd bet his mama chooses. In any case, it's good to be with him, to watch him as he gets older. It's easier now to connect him with that seventeen-year-old kid that I knew and played a long time ago, instead of the small scrappy ten-year-old I've got used to visiting in the past.
We've got wooden bats and a small plastic ball, and we're hitting it back and forth, the movements effortless and languorous. The sun's baking down on us and I can feel myself sweating. I'm pretty sure that somewhere in the world Rafa's career is taking off and journalists are starting to pay attention and I'm barely sparing him a passing glance, but right now he's on a break and home on his beloved Mallorcan beach, and so for today he's mine.
The beach is empty – almost deserted. Rafa told me that there are rocks a little way out into the sea, and that there's often a fiercely strong tide, and so parents don't bring their kids here that often. Anyway, it's right in the middle of the day. He's tanned nut-brown, his shoulders and back and arms shining dark in the sun and his hair shiny with sweat. A pretty perfect specimen of teenager, if I'm absolutely honest, and it's getting a little hard to not look at him in that way. He's sixteen after all, so there's no question of illegality anywhere, and I'm pretty sure that he has feelings for me, it's just–
Well, it's kind of weird.
I keep looking at this kid and thinking of my Rafa, this morning grinning and roguish and naked in the midst of rumpled white sheets. Last night joining me in the shower and sliding his hips against mine and pressing his lips to my neck, the day before that laughing at me from crystal-clear water and inviting me to come skinny-dipping with him in our pool. It's getting progressively more and more difficult to separate off the Rafas.
And sometimes the way he looks at me – it just floors me. Like now actually, I can feel his eyes on me as I bend to pick up the ball from the sand, and it makes me think of the years we could have had when I was oblivious and he was silent. He's so beautiful, young Rafa, all smooth brown skin and easy grace and effortless muscles, like a statue or something, but then there's that expressive mouth and those bright eyes, and I am aware that I sound like a madman who's obsessed with his looks, but the fact remains that he is quite simply stunning and I'm kind of surprised that no one else really seems to have noticed.
Speaking of that, I feel that an interrogation is in order. "Got a girlfriend yet?" I call to him.
For a moment he glowers at me. "How old are you?" he demands.
"Oh." He glowers some more before relaxing. "No, no girlfriend. We'll talk more about this in your future, my past." It seems like the topic's closed. "Serve," he commands.
I'm kind of curious as to what exactly we're going to discuss at some point, or what we have discussed, but I shrug and acquiesce to his request, tapping the ball lightly across to him. Characteristically, he seems to be completely unable to leave the competition side out of things, and smashes the ball with a dull thud and a slight bounce into the sand by my feet.
"Seriously, Rafa? Seriously?" I ask, and he smiles across at me, lopsided and laughing, squinting into the sun as he swings his bat from side to side. "You want me to serve again, or what?" I continue, somewhat mollified by the smile.
"No. It's okay." He's dropping the bat into the sand, wandering away towards the shoreline where the sea's lapping up onto the beach. There's a little ridge of sand you have to clamber over before reaching the water, and his arms are outstretched as he navigates it. Then he turns back towards me, and shouts impatiently, "Vamos!"
So I do. I follow him over the sand, the sun burning hot on my bare shoulders and back, and I join him at the water's edge. The water's cool like a blessing on my feet, a benediction, and when he kicks some at me I'm spluttering and laughing and so's he. Then he reaches out, something serious in his eyes, and catches onto my arm. There's this moment, still and silent in the blazing heat on the beach that Rafa loves, and then his mouth is on mine.
He tastes like sunscreen and salt and he kisses like a teenager, a little inexperienced, all hard pressure and no technique. I wonder how many people he's kissed before, whether they were male or female, whether they were good or bad, whether he really liked them or not. I wonder if he liked them as much as he likes me. I wonder if he's kissed anyone in the ocean before, or if his kisses have been solely reserved for dry land. I wonder if for him it's a momentary infatuation, if it will fade with the going down of the sun or whether it will remain with him until he sees me again.
"Rafa," I say as we break apart, and he shrugs slightly with that smile, half apologetic and half delighted, eyebrow raised to his hairline. He says quietly, "Roger, I love hearing my name in your voice," and I know exactly what he means. I nod helplessly, wordlessly. In front of us the water is stretching out and out and out, further than I can see.
Chapter 4: 'I'm good at coping with pressure'
Roger is 23, and Rafa is 19.
RAFA: It’s my first Wimbledon. I’m nervous, happy, excited, all those things all tied up in a big confused bundle. London is a nice city. It’s good to not have to play in the sort of conditions where it’s so hot you kind of want to keel over and collapse. I don’t get as much attention as a lot of other players, like when the paparazzi follow people like Roger, and so it’s nice. So far this year has been pretty good. I have Brazil, Mexico, Barcelona, Rome, the French Open. I know I don’t play my best on grass. I’m not expecting to win Wimbledon. I just hope for the best.
Of course, Roger is here. I don’t see him all the time; he has a lot of fans, he spends a lot of time signing things and practising and so on, but when we do see each other he catches my eye, and we smile and wave. My English is a little better. Not much better but a little, and I want to try it out on him. The problem is that when I see him I get nervous, I lose some of my English. It happens at press conferences too, when I have to give interviews and when I really care about sounding clever it all kind of floods out of my mind and I say the wrong thing. I really want to practise with him but I don’t know how to say it. Even though we’ve been texting a little back and forth lately, it’s different to actually see someone in front of you, the reality of them and of their presence, and know what to say.
Yesterday I talked to the guy who organises everything, Selmi, and I said that I wanted to practise with Roger, but I didn’t want to mention it to him. I don’t know if Roger wants to practise with me. I don’t know if he has time, I don’t know if maybe there’s something a little too weird between us that prevents practising together. He said he might be able to organise it, though – he said that that’s the kind of things that fans would like to take pictures of.
Anyway, that isn’t important. Right now, I’m sitting in the players’ lounge. My laptop is on my knees and I’m reading the El Mundo website. The Spanish news is different from the English news. If there’s an attack or something, Spanish newspapers print everything, Spanish news shows the bloodiest pictures, children with their stomachs ripped open and limbs missing. I don’t know, maybe the English news wants to protect its people. I don’t know what I agree with. It isn’t my business. There’s an article about me at the back of the newspaper, in the sports section. It talks about my chances for Wimbledon and about my rivalry with Roger and about my victories on clay this year. I’m glad that people want me to win but still it seems like quite a lot of pressure. Still, I’m good at coping with pressure.
There’s a cough from behind me, from the open door, and I look up from an article about football, distracted. There’s Roger there, standing next to Selmi, and he’s looking directly at me. There’s something laughing about the way his mouth is set, his eyes dancing as he looks over at me. “Do you know why this guy doesn’t want to practise with me?” he asks loudly, gesturing at me.
I’m halfway to my feet, mouth open in the beginnings of a protest, cheeks burning in a treacherous blush, but Roger’s shaking his head at me, grinning. “You know,” he says, “you could have just asked.” His lips twist for a moment, wryly. “I would have said yes.”
Roger is 19.
ROGER: I have just turned nineteen. This means that I’m no longer a kid, I no longer have the excuse of youth to do stupid things and mess around. It’s lucky that I never really did stupid things anyway, other than a few notable exceptions that I’d prefer not to think about too hard. This year I’m out in beautiful Sydney and it’s my job to try to win medals for my country. It’s a nice place, and I really like staying in the Olympic village. It’s busy and bustling and there are people everywhere. And – I hate to say this, but it’s true – a lot of really hot people. I mean, it makes sense – we’re all young and at the top physically, but it’s a little disconcerting to look around you and see only perfect people. I mean, if I’m completely honest, the women aren’t really my type – I’ve always liked girls with a little more femininity, with soft curves and hips and waists instead of these Olympic athletes covered in hard muscles. The guys, though—
Guys are an area that I’m kind of cutting down on. I haven’t been with many men. Just a few. And every time it was always pretty amazing and explosive. But I don’t think it’s a very good idea. I haven’t told my parents anything about it, and I don’t want to, or intend to. Not because I’m ashamed of it, because I’m not. It’s just that I don’t think I’m going to end up with a guy, or that it’s ever going to be an important part of my life, so there isn’t any point in actually coming out to anyone.
Anyway, okay, the guys at the Olympics. It’s amazing, how well crafted all these people are, all sleek glossy skin and hard muscles. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid looking. But something great happened on the plane over here: somehow I ended up sitting next to this girl, another tennis player, pretty with this shiny brown hair and a killer smile. We’ve been seeing each other a little over the last few days, dinner here and lunch there and a little hand-holding too. Most people are sleeping around a lot here in the Olympic village and it’s nice to have a sort-of relationship like this one – sweet, simple, kind of teenage, if I’m honest.
She’s called Mirka. She’s a nice girl. The sort of girl that my mother would approve of. With her, it’s easy to talk, to have a conversation. I feel safe around her. Even amid all this craziness, even though she’s a couple of years older than me, even though I feel like the Olympics are driving me a little insane. I didn’t even get a medal, but I’m pretty sure that on the plane home I’ll be smiling anyway.
Roger is 36, and Rafa is 13 and 31.
RAFA: Sometimes when Roger is here, we don’t actually do anything. We don’t always play football or go to the beach and sometimes he doesn’t even give me tips about my tennis. Sometimes, like now, he sits across from me and helps me with my homework and we just sit and talk.
Today I’m writing an essay, for school. I’m not great at writing essays. Sentences don’t come out the way I planned and a lot of the time I run out of things to say. But Roger has been here a lot lately, and he’s helped me with how to phrase things and what to write. For one of the first times ever I feel confident about this piece of work. Right now he’s reading it through, my final copy of it, and I’m watching his face intently, trying to understand the expressions that are flickering over it. It’s all mostly smiles and rightly so as he’s helped me a lot with this one and so it really should be perfect.
Finally he looks up at me, and smiles. There’s a funny little squirm in my stomach as he does it. Roger has this curly hair and it’s kind of falling in his eyes. He’s just the kind of person who’s good to look at, that’s all. Despite what he accidentally told me a few weeks ago about my future and... the guy, he’s still acting the same. I think we’ve mostly got over that. Anyway, he’s nodding as he hands the essay back to me. “Rafa, this is very good. I think you’re going to get a really great grade on it.”
“Thanks!” I’m going red with pride as I begin to push the essay back into its cardboard folder. When I do so, though, I notice another piece of paper in there: the last paragraph. “Oh, oops. I forgot to give you the last page.”
“The last page?” He’s frowning a little as he takes it, and seems distracted as he skim-reads it. Then he looks back up at me. “Well... that’s good. I thought you already concluded the essay on the page before this, though. This one seems a little unnecessary.”
“Really?” I take the paper from him, and reread the paragraph. “Oh.” I tap my pen against the side of the page. “I don’t know.”
“Well.” He shrugs. “Just my opinion. I... actually...” And I start to get the feeling that now’s confession time. Sometimes there’s just that kind of vibe in the air. “I’ve seen this essay in the future. You showed it to me, because I helped you with it – and I guess because we had this conversation.” He’s smiling slightly now. “And this paragraph definitely didn’t exist.”
“Right.” I can feel myself frowning. So that’s what the future dictates. It’s all kind of weird. Whose decision is it really? I don’t do things for the future because I’ve heard that I don’t do them, I make decisions based on what I hear about the results of them. It all throws up some pretty difficult questions that are too philosophical for me to begin to think about, although I’m sure that Roger would have a field day with them. “So I won’t include this last page.”
“Yeah.” Roger nods decisively, but I’m still thinking. “Actually, you know what,” I say slowly, “I want to know what’ll happen if I change something.”
“You can’t change anything,” Roger says automatically. “It’s already happened.”
“Not for me,” I object.
“But that’s not the way things are going to go,” he protests. “You can’t change things. Believe me, I’ve tried.” He looks ill for a moment, like he’s reliving something he doesn’t want to think about, and then shakes that away. I try not to think about what he could be remembering. “Rafa, you can’t change anything. And anyway, it might start up a whole string of messing things up. I have no idea what would happen.”
“Well.” I smirk at him. “Let’s see.”
ROGER: When I get back home later that day, Rafa’s outside. He’s lying on the ground with his feet in the pool, sunglasses on, shirt off, brown skin shining in the sun, and I have the distinct impression that he might just be asleep out there.
“Boo,” I say when I’ve approached him, and he sits up quickly.
“I wasn’t asleep,” he lies, accent thicker when he wakes up just like it always is.
“Sure you weren’t,” I tell him laughingly, and sit down next to him. “How’re you?” I run a hand down his shoulder.
He shrugs. “Not so bad. You were only gone for a couple of hours.”
“Really? I was there for more than that.” I shake my head. Sometimes I think about the time gained and lost when I’ve been time travelling – even though I’ve been gone for the present for minutes or hours, maybe, I’ve been wandering around a foreign city for days, or vice versa, although that way around is more rare.
“What happened? Where were you?” he asks, curious as ever.
“With you.” I grin and kiss him quickly, and he’s smiling when I pull away. “We did your homework.”
“Oh yeah?” He swishes his feet around in the water, and kicks it at me absently. I splash him back and he squirms slightly. “What kind of homework?”
“An essay. You were determined to change the future by leaving an extra paragraph on the end – remember that writing you showed me a couple of years ago?” I nudge him gently.
“Ah, my first and only A plus,” he agrees. “You help me a lot with that.”
“Mmm. What did you do about that last paragraph, by the way? Did you leave it?” I reach out and pull his sunglasses down his nose a little, so that I can see his eyes. He’s pretty darkly tanned, it being midsummer and all, and the scar’s standing out bright on his cheek, pink and livid. The doctors said that eventually one day it’d turn silver and less obvious, and I think it’s starting to happen, although he doesn’t believe me when I tell him so.
Obligingly, he takes off the glasses, as he half-smiles self-deprecatingly at me. “No, I didn’t.” He shrugs, sighing as he leans back on his hands. “I didn’t want to mess anything up. Silly, no?”
“Not silly, just... sensible,” I say, searching for a way to phrase it. “Destiny.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t believe in destiny,” he says flatly. “Is just the way it happened.”
I mock-pout at him, and entwine a hand in his hair. “Come on, we’re not made for each other? Soul mates?”
He looks at me seriously for a moment. Then he snorts and unceremoniously pushes me into the water. As I break the surface I’m laughing and disorientated, water up my nose and in my mouth, and I circle him, hands braced on the rim of the pool either side of his legs. “I’m going to get you for that,” I tell him. The sun’s behind his head, light streaming through his messy hair, halo-like, and he’s looking down at me with affection so warm and plain and obvious that for a moment I’m overcome.
Then he’s lowering himself into the water. It’s just deep enough that the tips of our toes touch the ground and my arms are still encircling him and pushing him close to the side. The sun’s dancing on the surface of the water, crystallised light glancing off his face, his smile white against his dark skin. Sometimes, like now, I’m just so certain of everything, of him and of us. “You have me trapped,” he says solemnly.
“Oh yeah?” I can feel myself smiling and it’s pretty infectious because he is too now. Our faces are very close together, the heat of his body pressing up against mine in the cool water, the wisp of his breath on my cheek. “You gonna try to fight back?”
“Ah...” He wrinkles his nose, pretending to be thoughtful. “No. I like it here,” he decides after a moment, and puts his arms around my shoulders, fingers at the base of my neck, gently pulling at the ends of my hair.
“Good. I like you there too.” I lean in a millimetre, eyes still open, and there’s this moment of quiet, no noise except the water lapping, before we kiss. It’s not clear who kissed who but it never really is these days, and it doesn’t matter either, not like when we began and everything was either a power struggle or fraught with weirdness. His mouth’s warm on mine, the kiss slow and deliberate, and he tastes like oranges, I think vaguely as his tongue maps my mouth and his hands slide down to rest on my waist. As usual he’s always moving, fingers stroking small delicate circles on my body, dragging briefly in the hair on my stomach, and I want to soak him up, take him in, make him part of me. The relief of having him like this is more than I can express.
My arms have drifted from around him until one’s tangled up in his hair and the other’s making its way down the back of his swimming shorts, cupping his ass, thumb stroking smooth skin and he shivers against me, his breath catching a little. I draw back, study his face for a moment, marvel at the sheer fact of its existence right here in the sun in front of me, and there are two soft sweet kisses before our mouths slip open again and we start to get lost. Faces breaking away from each other, my mouth picking kisses out along his shoulder, the hollow above his collarbone, every place that’s screaming out kiss me, and he’s whispering obscene things he wants me to do to him in my ear. He’s got a dirtier mouth than you’d expect, my Rafa who pretends to be such a nice boy, and in his accent all the hard words like fuck and cock somehow sound even dirtier.
“Come on,” he murmurs, teeth snagging on my earlobe, “dry land,” and pulls himself up and out of the pool, heavy muscles flexing and his arms shining in the sunlight, with a grunt and a grimace as he swings his legs out of the water. I follow him and crawl on top of him, unable to retreat inside or even onto a sunlounger, and so we fuck outside on the paving stones next to our pool, sweating in the eleven o’clock summer sun, by the end reduced to incoherent pants and noises that’d embarrass us if we weren’t too far gone to completely not notice. Afterwards, once we’re done and wiped out and sated and happy, I reach out and swipe my tongue at a bead of sweat on his forehead.
“Gross,” he complains, hazily, and I shrug. “You’re beautiful, baby,” I tell him honestly, the endearment tripping off my tongue much more easily than it once did. The stones are rough below me and we both have scraped knees from the surface, but I can’t bring myself to care.
He smiles and stretches out, breath still coming a little heavily. “I was afraid we’d lose our friendship in the future,” he tells me, “if I changed anything.” He raises his hands, checking his palms and dusting them off. The heels of his hands are a little grazed and I take them, brush my lips over them, blow gravel dust off his skin.
“Sorry about that,” I tell him, and he grins, and tells me that I am worth any amount of scratches.
Roger is 24, and Rafa is 19.
RAFA: When I wake up on that day, I feel like I don’t need to slide my legs out of my bed to stand up. I feel like if I wanted to I could just close my eyes and drift up to the ceiling, like if I wanted to I could fly instead of walking. But I’m no god, a mortal down to the bones, and so when I get up my feet will be firmly on the floor.
Today is a big day. Today I ascend to my highest ranking yet in the charts, and I know that isn’t that much of a big deal, I know that if I continue to be courteous and a good person who plays his best tennis and works hard that is much more important, but I can’t help but feel a thrill every time I think about it. Number 2! Second in the world, second only to Roger, and it’s as high as I’ve ever hoped to go. The heights of Roger’s tennis are unattainable after all; he plays flawlessly, beautifully, his form something to be watched and admired. I find it difficult to analyse him, to take him apart and break him down, because all I want to do is stand there and think, ‘You are amazing’.
However. Roger – for once – is not the point. The point is that I am the second best player in the world, and also that yesterday I won a Mercedes. I mean, I don’t know how to drive it, but I still have one and I guess that’s the point. I’ll take it home and give it to my mother or father, or Toni maybe, he deserves something. I don’t know what I’ll do with it. But it is shiny and silver and a Mercedes and I feel very lucky to have it.
I stretch out luxuriously in bed. My flight doesn’t leave until this afternoon and so the morning’s free. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Usually I’d be up earlier than this, already down at the practice courts, but today I have the day off, and it feels great. The beds at this hotel have just the right amount of squashiness and even though I’m a little achy, one of my knees nagging persistently and worryingly, at the moment I’m happy. Still, the sun is shining through the gape in the curtains, the sky will be blue and there’s a world out there that I must take hold of.
It’s slowly and lazily that I get out of bed, one foot on the floor and then the other, stretching my neck from side to side and enjoying the slow pace that having lots of time gives you. Usually I like to be out of bed quickly, showering and getting ready for the day as fast as I can, but sometimes I think everyone needs some time to move leisurely in. The hotel clock tells me that it’s quarter to eleven, which is a good time and means that I won’t miss breakfast. Shower first, then shave, and then I’ll somehow jumble all of the clutter around my room into my suitcase. Somehow there’s stuff everywhere. I didn’t know I had this many possessions. It looks like my bags exploded all over the room.
My cell phone has been charging all night, and I unplug it before I go into the bathroom, press a couple of buttons to turn it off from silent mode and to check my messages. Two messages: the first from Toni, reminding me the time that my flight leaves, and the second – my heart leaps – from Roger. He doesn’t text me very often. Three times since he’s had my number, actually, and all in response to messages I’ve sent him. But this one, this time, this is new.
‘Congratulaciones, número dos’, it reads, and it’s signed with ‘Roger :)’. My stomach flipflops, and although today I hadn’t intended to think about him, he is all of a sudden very much in my mind.
Roger is 24.
ROGER: I don’t travel so much when I’m busy. I know that sounds a little weird. I know that probably the stress should aggravate the travelling, but honestly it doesn’t happen too often. I’ve never had to miss a match because of time travelling. I’ve vanished at vital points of lovemaking, I’ve missed numerous family occasions, and once I vanished off the top of a mountain when I was skiing and accidentally made everyone think I was dead, but I have never missed a tennis match.
Right now, though, I’m missing practice, or at least I assume I am. I’m in New York, or I’m pretty sure that I am, anyway, although it’s a part of New York that I’ve never been to before, that I don’t recognise, and I’m glad of that because honestly, it’s pretty scary. When I got here I landed on a street corner, reeling and nauseous, and threw up into a dustbin, before wiping my mouth and looking around for a clothes shop. Breaking into places isn’t too difficult if you know how, which of course I do. I taught my young self to do it once upon a time. So I twist at this lock until I’m into a clothes store, and then I take a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and a pair of sneakers and then I’m set and ready to go.
I leave the shop, pulling the door shut behind me, and cast a glance around. Then – and my heart sinks – there’s a yell.
“Hey, asshole, what do you think you’re doing?”
And I run. I’m a good runner, luckily. I had to learn to run fast when I was little – and of course running is a pretty essential part of my job. I’ve always been praised for my footwork on the courts and I discover as I’m racing full-tilt down a New York back alley that my footwork’s pretty good when I’m running away as well. I slide around a corner onto a better-lit street and I’m still running, flying like the wind, barely even out of breath.
But there are footsteps pounding behind me, and even as they’re getting further and further behind, I’m tiring, chest tightening even though my feet are still skimming the surface of the road like I’m about to take off into the sky. Plus the sneakers I’m wearing feel like the wrong size and the jeans are too tight around my legs so it’s hard to take proper steps. Another corner coming up and I turn and then the unthinkable happens and I skid.
I falter to a stop, crumpling, stopping myself from smacking right into the concrete with my hands and shit, that hurt. But worse than that is the fact that I landed weirdly on my ankle and it doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that’s going to go away any time soon. I feel the urge to call for a physio, something, anyone, to check it out and reassure me that nothing too bad has happened. Panic is rising up my throat, not because of my pursuer, who appears to have given up anyway, but because of this damn injury. It’s throbbing, big waves of pain through my ankle, and I wrap my hands around it. Not broken at least – God, I hope not, I hope not – but there’s something wrong and I’m afraid for myself.
It’s difficult, having to rely on your body. Human beings are so damn fragile, and skin and bone and muscle is only what it is, fallible and breakable and mortal. Psychology’s crucial, of course, but that’s easy, you can set your mind and make yourself believe, but you can’t heal an ankle with faith. I swear to myself once, twice, then again, and sit still, and wait to go home again.
Roger is 35, and Rafa is 15.
ROGER: Something’s different.
That’s the first thing I realise when I see Rafa. When he gets down to the end of his garden I’m there already, dressed in a blue t-shirt and jeans with bare feet. It’s a bright early spring day and the sky’s cornflower blue, the sun cold and clear, and if I’m totally honest I’m a little cold. When I hear Rafa’s footsteps they’re kind of slow and meandering, like he’s deep in thought as he stumbles his way down, and when I see him for the first time my suspicions are confirmed.
He’s frowning, thick eyebrows drawn together. “Hey, Roger,” he says absently, and sits down next to me. “How’re you?”
“I’m good,” I tell him. “What’s up with you? You look...”
“Oh. Yeah.” He exhales and relaxes a little. He’s sitting with his knees apart, elbows resting on his thighs, forehead resting on his hands. The only thing he can see must be the cracked grey paving slabs and I touch his back gently.
“Hey. Look up,” I say lightly. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he says, after a moment. He’s still frowning when he does as I asked, and straightens up. “I mean – I should be happy.”
“Okay,” I say, more than a little puzzled. “What’s up? Want to talk about it?”
He shakes his head and lets out a little laugh. “Not with you. I mean, no offence. I just don’t think we should.”
“What’s wrong with me? You talk to me about everything else,” I point out. But he’s fifteen and there’s no point in trying to coax fifteen-year-old boys into giving up information that they consider to be private, so I might as well give up. Anyway, if he doesn’t want me to know, chances are I don’t want me to know either. If my curiosity gets to be too much for me, I figure, there’s a Rafa waiting for me at home to question.
“Mmm.” He half-shrugs one shoulder. “I don’t know.” His tone’s more decisive than his words: topic closed, and so I move on.
“All right. Still working on your backhand?”
“Yeah.” His face clears a little and he demonstrates a grip for me, holding onto thin air. “I think it’s getting sharper.”
“That’s good, well done.”
He nods. There’s another little silence and I study him, his blunt profile, his set jaw, his heavily-cut hair shorter than I’m used to. I prefer it longer, I decide, so he has those curls. In the future we both have slight things about each other’s hair. We both get kind of upset when the other cuts his hair. I know it’s a little weird, but – well, I guess we are.
“I think I have a girlfriend,” he blurts out then, and I feel a little sick.
“That’s great,” I tell him, trying to keep my voice light, and really, this is stupid. I’m not jealous. I can’t be jealous. I mean, I get him in the end, after all, and I definitely don’t want this Rafa in that way. He’s young, a kid, not even grown yet. Certainly not ready. So it’s good he has a girlfriend.
“Yeah.” He nods, apparently a little encouraged by my reaction. “She’s nice. I sit next to her in History at school.”
Well, isn’t that cute. A playground romance. I decide to cut off that bitterness by talking some more, and come up with the incisively intelligent, “So tell me about her.”
“Um, okay. She’s... kind of medium height,” Rafa says tentatively. He isn’t medium height, of course. He’s huge and hulking, a timid giant whose temperament hasn’t grown to fit his muscled body yet. He’s taller than most of his peers, and certainly more adult-looking than the schoolkids I see whizzing around on their mopeds on the streets around our house. “She has long dark hair, and it’s kind of curly. To about here.” He indicates a point a little below his shoulder. “She’s very pretty,” he adds, kind of doubtfully.
“Is she nice?” I ask, and want to say, Do you love her, but get the feeling that that’d be answered with a nervous laugh and a swift dash in any direction but mine.
“Yeah.” His face softens, and I hate this poor innocent pretty girl. I just do. I hate her. “She’s really nice.” But she makes his face look like that, sweet and uncertain, happy and thoughtless, and I’d be a monster if I begrudged him that.
“What’s her name?” I ask, this time devoid of bitterness, just feeling a slight sort of tugging. Yearning, maybe, to be fifteen and Mallorcan and at Rafa’s school, to play football with him in the schoolyard and see him chew his pen in class. I wonder if he’s one of those boys who’d chew the ends of their pens until they burst in their mouths, and who’d have to go and spit out blue into the washbasins in the bathrooms. I bet he is. Sometimes there are inkstains on the thighs of his jeans, like he gets distracted and bored and knocks his pen off his desk. Probably when he’s done something like tangle up some unneeded paper into a makeshift ball, tapping it into the air off his forehead during class. Pretending like he’s finished his classwork, when actually he’s just tired of books. I wish I knew this Rafa. I wish I had this Rafa.
“Xisca.” He’s beaming. He’s so happy now he’s told me about her. I’m happy for him, I am, I am, except I know who Xisca is and what she means to him and I kind of want to punch a hole through a wall.
“Well, I bet I’d like her,” I say loyally, and hope that nothing’s shining through in my eyes that he might interpret as anything other than pleasure for him.
“Yeah, you would! She’s very clever.” Rafa nods proudly like he’s the one who bestowed her intelligence upon her, and I’m back to feeling sick. “We’re going out later tonight. I’m meeting her outside her house and we’re going to go out and have dinner.” Ever the gentleman. I bet he’s planning on paying for her. I’ll bet there’s not going to be any awkward groping either.
“She’s a lucky girl,” I say, and mean it.
RAFA: I’m pretty sure I’m imagining it. His smile’s brighter, his eyes duller. He seems genuinely interested in her. I’m telling him about her, about how we first started talking, about how she has plans and ambitions, and he’s nodding like he’s happy for me. But he’s not happy. He doesn’t think I’m perceptive, but I’m better at that sort of thing than he gives me credit for, and I can tell that Roger is not happy with the idea that I have a girlfriend. Although the idea of dating someone is not something I’m even completely comfortable with yet – it’s suffocating and scary and it brings up a whole pile of things I don’t want to think about – for some reason his reaction’s making everything a little better.
Roger is 36, and Rafa is 15.
ROGER: There’s an elephant in the room. If my calculations are correct, which I think they are, Rafa has been dating his girlfriend for almost two months. He doesn’t mention her much. Neither do I. I don’t know why it should matter to either of us, why we both feel so acutely uncomfortable when he talks about the fact that he’s seeing someone. I mean, he thinks I’m married to some woman in the future, for God’s sake. But whenever he mentions Xisca he shoots glances sideways at me like he’s worried about what I’m thinking.
Like right now. The question was, “So, Rafa, do you have plans for the weekend?” and he mumbled something unintelligible that I had to ask him to repeat three times. Finally he admitted that he’s going to spend Saturday night with his girlfriend, in the same sort of voice that he’d admit that he’s planning on spending Saturday night mugging old ladies and stealing cars.
“That’s great!” I say brightly. “What are you guys going to do?”
He shrugs. “Listen to music. Watch a movie. I don’t know.”
That is teen speak for ‘make out’. I know this; I’ve been there. “Fun,” I say, unwillingly.
“Yeah.” He exhales. Then he says, determinedly not making eye contact with me, “We had sex. Two days ago.”
The news hits me like a freight train. Usually when he says something about her I at least find the self-respect to say ‘Hey, that’s great’, but this – no. No, it’s too difficult, to imagine sticky uncomfortable first-time sex, Rafa moving over a girl’s body, his mouth on her breasts, her neck, and I realise vaguely that I’ve been silent for an awfully long time. “Oh,” I say, cleverly.
“Yeah.” He looks acutely uncomfortable. I feel acutely uncomfortable, and begin to wish that time would do its thing and immediately throw me elsewhere.
“Was it... okay?” I ask grudgingly. I feel I should act in a mentor-like sort of way – make sure he didn’t get her pregnant or anything, although I’m pretty sure that any secret Nadal lovechildren would have made headlines eons ago. And anyway, I know Xisca. I’ve met her a few times. She’s nice, if a little – well, there isn’t any point in dwelling on it. At any rate, as the older person here, I suppose I should try to help him out somehow. At least he trusts me enough to tell me this stuff, even though I really do not want to know.
“Sure,” he says half-heartedly. “It was kind of...” He wrinkles his nose.
“Soul-destroyingly awkward?” I ask, and he laughs.
“Yeah.” He looks a little embarrassed.
“You didn’t know what to do or where to put your hands, and she looked kind of... not that into it,” I guess, and he’s nodding more and more earnestly. Well, this is better. His first time wasn’t all whispering sweet nothings and perfect orgasms. “That’s okay, Rafa. Believe me, I’ve been there.” My first time with a guy was really a remarkably lucky experience, if my first time with a girl was anything to go by. Her name was Vanessa, she played the cello, we’d been dating for six weeks, and she cried afterwards. Hopefully that wasn’t a direct result of my abysmal performance and more some kind of emotional thing that girls go through, but it was still probably one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life. I remember being horrified, thinking that maybe I’d broken her or something.
“Really? It was just kind of...” He makes an odd hand gesture. “Messy.”
“Great.” I contemplate it for a moment before coming to the conclusion that thinking about it is not really something I want to do.
“And very polite,” he adds, thoughtfully. “We apologised a lot. I kind of expected it to be more...” He makes another hand gesture, which I interpret to mean ‘hot’.
“Yeah. Sex can be kind of anticlimactic,” I tell him vaguely. “First time sex, anyway.” In the future, sex with Rafa is always pretty much amazing. When we first got together it was all scorching kisses caught when no one was looking, fucking in hotel bathrooms, accidentally leaving condom wrappers on the floor of the Wimbledon changing rooms, always looking over our shoulders to make sure no one had seen, that we wouldn’t be caught. It was blistering and explosive and beautiful, and even though the frantic desperation for each other has died down, the old need is still there. Of course, sex helps to keep me in the present, wrapped up in Rafa, in us, but quite aside from that it’s just a way to be as close to him as possible. He’s often catlike, going out of his way to rub his shoulder against mine, stretching with pleasure when I stroke a hand through his unruly curls. We both love to be with each other, to have that physical contact. Sex with Rafa is never an anticlimax.
“I guess so.” He sighs, looking down at his shoes.
I’m about to give him the advice that I’d give anyone else: to get right back down to it, to perfect his skills, to gain some confidence, but there’s something that’s just intrinsically wrong about that idea. I don’t want to tell him to have sex. I don’t want him to have sex at all. Even though he won’t be anything of mine for years, I still don’t want to share him. “Maybe you should just give sex a rest for now,” I hear myself say. “You’re pretty young anyway.”
He shakes his head slowly. “I don’t know,” he says doubtfully. “I kind of want to...”
“Rafa, listen to me.” I’m getting a little irritated. “Maybe you’re just not ready for this.”
A familiar pout’s starting to make its way onto his face. “Stop getting cross,” he says, sulkily.
“I’m not getting cross,” I say crossly. “I just don’t see why you aren’t listening to me.”
He’s glaring at me now openly, shifting away from me and folding his arms. “Why are you angry? You shouldn’t be angry with me just because I had sex.”
He’s right. But I am, I’m angry with him and I’m angry with his girlfriend for knowing his body and hearing his breaths and tasting his lips. He’s right, and I’m an asshole, and this is all so completely messed up.
RAFA: Roger is insane. He’s insane. The sort of insane that means that if I wrote a letter to someone and recommended he be committed, he probably would be, because he is just that insane. He’s glowering across at me like I hit him, and this combined with that studious blankness every time I mention Xisca, it’s just – weird, and I don’t like it. It’s like there’s a line drawn between us since I started going out with her. He tries to be nice but it’s like he doesn’t want to be. And now this. I thought that Roger was nice about stuff like this, I thought he understood. And now he’s irrationally angry and telling me I’m not ready to have sex, and honestly? I think he might be right.
The sex itself was kind of strange. I hadn’t planned that it would happen or anything. It just kind of did. One moment we were sitting on the end of her bed listening to a CD and the next moment we were up against her pillows and her skirt was hiked up around her waist and my jeans were around my knees. I don’t know. I’m not an especially romantic person, but I kind of thought... I don’t know what I thought, but I thought it would be nicer than that. I mean, it felt good, but I was kind of afraid that I was hurting her and I really didn’t want to do that. And I mean, I accidentally pulled her hair, and it was kind of weird that she kept condoms in her room anyway, and it was all just a mess. And afterwards it was so awkward. We both sort of laughed and kissed and we’d done it, we both knew what sex was like, the curiosity was gone, and we both knew that sex was honestly not that great. And I know it’s supposed to be better for guys the first time anyway, so if it wasn’t that great for me, it was probably like watching paint dry, except a little painfully, for her.
Maybe I’m just not getting it. I got home after and my mother told me that I looked flushed, which I was because I ran the whole way home, and my sister wouldn’t stop making faces at me, and I went to my room and lay on my bed and for some reason I thought about Roger and felt a little sick.
And now he’s sitting in front of me, angry for reasons I don’t understand, and embarrassed about being angry. I can tell he’s trying his hardest to act normally, and usually when Roger wants to act normal he can manage it, so I suppose this must be a really big deal for him. But his irritation has made me irritated too, and I feel like prickles are itching beneath my skin.
“I know I shouldn’t be angry,” he says, quietly. “I know.” It’s like all the air has gone out of him. He sits for a moment, dark curls falling over his forehead, staring fixedly at the ground. I follow his gaze but there’s nothing there except a cracked plant pot, containing nothing but dirt. “Rafa, I’m trying so hard to not be angry about this,” he tells me after a moment, looking into my eyes. “But it’s hard.”
“You don’t...” I sigh, and I look at him, and then it all clicks. Why it all felt weird. Why I thought about Roger. Why he’s angry. It all clicks and it makes sense and it’s so clear I’m amazed I didn’t see it before. “You and me,” I say, and I reach out and push a hand through his soft hair and cradle the back of his head, so gently. I tilt my head towards his and raise an eyebrow questioningly, and he just sits there, and his gaze flickers to my mouth and his lips part, just a little. His hands come out to grip the front of my t-shirt in handfuls, like he’s about to push me against a wall and punch me.
“God, Rafa,” he says in a strangled voice, and then he jerks away all of a sudden, turning away, eyes closing. The spell’s broken, the atmosphere shattered and I fall back, stung.
“You know what,” I say, too loudly, “you know what, Roger? You don’t have any right to tell me not to sleep with my girlfriend. You have no right!”
“I know, but I-” he shouts back, face red like he’s about to start to cry, and I get the feeling he’s about to say something else but he can’t because he’s dizzy and then he’s gone. He has no right to tell me what I can and can’t do because she’ll kiss me and he won’t, and she wants to make me happy, but all I can feel right now as I sit alone in the cooling air is that he’s slowly shattering me into pieces. She’s my girlfriend with pride but he’s married, he has a wife. She’ll tell me she loves me, but he vanishes before he can tell me anything at all.
Roger is 24.
I am in love. I love this woman lying next to me, with her bright personality and intelligent mind. She sees the truth in me, she’s given up half her life to manage me, to follow me around the world, pushing her own dreams away in the process. Mirka is perfect. There is no woman I would rather be with right now. She’s kind, beautiful, clever, and I would trust her with my life. Right now we’re in bed. I’m not training until later today and we decided we’d have a lazy morning: we made love, we ate room service, and now she’s sleeping for half an hour more until we have to get ready to leave this dark warm safe haven of a hotel room.
I’m watching football muted on TV, some UK teams, and it isn’t particularly interesting. My eyelids are starting to droop when my cell phone buzzes from the bedside table next to me. I reach over to grab the phone, and can’t help but smile when I see that I’ve got a message from Rafa.
Good Morning Rogelio, win today :) it reads, and for a moment I’m completely and irrationally happy.
And I think, I love Mirka, I’d trust her with my life. But this boy with his uncertain smiles and dark eyes, I don’t know if I’d trust her with him. I don’t know that I’d put his safekeeping into anyone’s hands except my own.
Chapter 5: 'He smells like wine and cigarettes'
Roger is 24, and Rafa is 19.
ROGER: I’m getting better. Slowly, painfully, my ankle is improving. This morning I went out without crutches for the first time since it happened, since I skidded on that pavement ten days ago somewhere in the past or future. It was only a couple of minutes’ walk around the corner to buy a newspaper, but it was an achievement nonetheless. We lied about the cause of the injury – said that I hurt it while I was practising. It’s better than telling the truth, anyway. Secrecy is never welcome, and neither is lying, but sometimes both are necessary.
This year I have to miss Basel. It’s a shame. I’ve always loved to play on home ground. I feel like winning here means more than winning elsewhere. It’s warmer, somehow. So I’m aware that all the other tennis players are streaming into my home city to play in the tournament, and I wish that I could join them, but life’s not on my side here. My ankle’s still swollen and it’s pretty tender to walk on, even now. When I have an injury it’s just annoying. I mean, sure, my career suffers and all, but aside from that I really miss being able to move around, being active, being able to get up out of a chair in one room and walk into another without Mirka’s steady eye on me like I’m about to crumple onto the floor.
One consolation – a minor consolation – is that Rafa isn’t going to play Basel. I don’t know why I’m glad about that. I guess it’s a little selfish, in a way. I was very happy for him when he won Madrid yesterday – I was watching the final, and he played great – but it’s kind of nice that both of us are going to be sitting this Basel out. I heard he’s still coming into town though, and because I am crafty and clever and possibly a little creepy, I found out where he was staying. I haven’t seen him in a while, after all, and we get on well. He’s a friend. I think he’s a friend, at least.
So I’m in a taxi, on my way to his hotel. He’s in room 449 and I’m kind of worried in case I’ll have to walk too much and damage my ankle even more, but hopefully it’ll all be okay. Shanghai is the goal, the Masters’ Cup, and I’m determined to be fit in time for it. And besides that, visiting Rafa is a perfectly good reason to make it ache a little.
As I enter the hotel I wonder vaguely how comfortable Rafa feels here. He always looks a little out of place when he has to dress up in fancy suits and tame his messy hair. On court he’s a snarlingly powerful brute but when he’s wearing a tux he just looks like a confused little boy. He’s got a nice face, Rafa, and he looks more like a man and less like a boy every time I see him. I don’t know why I feel so driven to come and see him. I guess I just find him refreshing – he’s really unguarded, fresh, sweet. If he congratulates me – and he always takes the time to do that – I know that it’s genuine, from the heart, and I appreciate that more than I can say.
I’m in the elevator going up to the fourth floor. I wonder who’ll be with him when I get there. Sometimes there’s that huge gaggling crowd of Spaniards that’s almost impenetrable, but sometimes we’ve had nice talks alone. I walk along the corridor to his room. 435, 437, and my ankle’s aching a little but not in an unexpected kind of way. 445, 447, and finally, 449. I stand there for a moment, looking at the cream-painted door, the gold numbers on it just above the peephole, and for some reason I want to stretch out my arm and place my palm on the wood, to feel his warmth somehow through it.
But I don’t, and I knock twice, quietly. A beat, and then another, voices from inside, and then the door opens. It’s him, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, barefooted and messy-haired, and he looks stunned.
“Hola, Rafa!” I say cheerfully.
“Eh, hola, how are you?” he asks, his surprised eyes fixed on mine, and there’s this bright smile spreading across his face.
I kind of want to hug him. It’s not my normal response to seeing people, but I want to hug him nonetheless. Not a long protracted thing, because that’d be weird, but I’d like to put my arms around him for just a moment and then release him. But I don’t, and instead we just stand there for a couple of seconds grinning at each other like idiots.
Then he moves aside, and says, “Come in, come in. Is nice to see you!”
It’s the first time I’ve been in Rafa’s hotel room. Admittedly he’s only been there since this morning but it’s already covered in stuff, clothes and equipment, his laptop switched on lying on the bed and about a million extension cords coming out of it. I’ve seen his on-court behaviour, his meticulously lined-up water bottles and his perfectly organised equipment bag, and this is not how I pictured his living quarters at all.
“Jeez,” I say. “This place.”
“Oh.” He glances around cursorily, like he hasn’t noticed. “Is a little messy, sorry.” He leads the way through his bedroom to the living room, glancing at me over his shoulder. “There is an interviewer here,” he tells me. “But she is nice-” He gives the woman a brilliant smile, and I think I can tell why she’s so nice to him. “-and I think we can talk.” His English gets better every time I see him, but there’s something kind of touching about his heavy accent, his searching for words.
“Okay, great.” I exhale and glance around and suddenly there’s a flurry of movement from beside me as he grabs a chair and pushes it towards me.
“Here, sit down. Sorry – I forget about your leg.” He’s wincing a little sympathetically as he waits expectantly for me to sit, and so I do, pretty gratefully.
“Thanks, Rafa. How are your knees? I heard you have tendonitis.” Tendonitis is a bitch. There isn’t a real cure, just a few things that make it a little better.
“They’re okay. I have tape.” He shrugs, but I’m pretty sure he’s making the condition sound better than it is. Anything that causes Rafael Nadal to skip tournaments has to be a pretty big deal. “And your leg, how is it?”
I shrug a little. “It’s not so bad. It’s getting better.” He nods, face alight, his gaze on me like I’m the only other person in the room. He makes me happy, I realise suddenly, I feel alive now I’m with him, and now I understand at least something behind wanting to see him so badly.
RAFA: There’s a big part of me that can’t believe this is happening. Roger here with me, turning up to see me out of the blue, as they say. (I am learning idioms at the moment. Right now it is not raining cats and dogs.) It’s the kind of thing that makes me think maybe, maybe but I always have to push that immediately out of my mind. I have to wait, but then again I’ve been waiting for years now and it isn’t getting any easier.
Anyway, that isn’t the point. The point is that Roger is sitting opposite from me, wearing a beautifully-tailored jacket with a shirt coloured dusty blue beneath it, and jeans that look like he got them specially made, although I’m pretty sure he didn’t. On his feet he has sneakers but I’m pretty sure that if his ankle was better he’d be wearing something a little more classy and a lot more expensive. I tell myself vehemently that if I am ever stuck for what to wear, I need to look at the choices and think, which would Roger pick? Anyway, he looks good, tired and a little paler than usual, but good. Then again, I always think he looks good, so what does my opinion matter?
“Is still swollen?” I ask him, gesturing at his ankle, and I’m finding it hard to remember the English word for that specific part of the leg.
He wrinkles his nose. “A little. Wanna see?”
I nod, because why not, and gingerly and carefully he slips off his shoe and then his sock. He has nice feet, I think vaguely, and inhale sharply at the sight of his ankle. It’s not disgusting or grotesque or anything, but no ankle should be that size. “Wow,” I say, not completely sure of the words I should be using.
“Yeah. I know.” He rolls his eyes and stretches out his leg, rotating his ankle very gently with a little scowl of pain. “You mind if I leave the shoe off for a little while? It feels better.”
“That’s fine. You want a drink or something?” I gesture towards the mini-bar, towards the tea and coffee in the corner, and he shakes his head.
“No. Thanks, Rafa. I’m okay. I heard you have a pretty busy schedule while you’re here.”
“Yeah. I have to go to dinner at eight.” I shrug slightly. “With the people from the tournament.”
“Oh, okay. So you have, what, fifteen minutes to talk?” He’s smiling at me, childlike, hopeful.
“Twenty,” I tell him. I will always have more than enough time for him.
ROGER: Later that night, at around twelve, I’m leaving his hotel. I was planning on leaving straight after Rafa went to dinner, but somehow I managed to get caught up with friends and I ended up eating in the hotel’s restaurant. It was pretty good food – not amazing, but good wholesome stuff, and I feel full and happy as I walk towards the doors. I can see a figure through the dark glass walking towards me, and the silhouette of his face and the shadow of his step are perfectly familiar.
I raise a hand in greeting. I hadn’t expected to see Rafa again, but I’m not going to object to talking to him. We had a nice but short conversation earlier, about football, and how I hoped to be ready in time for Shanghai, and how his knees and foot will get better given time, and then he had to leave. I mean, there was one kind of... interesting moment. The journalist had left by this point and Rafa stood up, started to get ready to go out for dinner. He suggested that I wait, and we walk downstairs together, something I gladly agreed to. And then he started pulling off his clothes, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
And you know, it doesn’t mean anything. Not everything has to have some deep importance. He obviously didn’t mean to have that kind of effect on me – or any effect at all, of course. He was just a guy pleasantly excusing himself and changing his trousers and shirt in front of another guy. And it doesn’t matter that I couldn’t stop looking at him. I mean, I’ve seen him naked before, many times in the changing rooms. But there’s nothing quite as intimate as seeing him toe off his shoes, hunt through his wardrobe for a shirt, ask my opinion on what colour he should wear, find matching socks from a messy pile of fabric that had once upon a time been a neatly-packed suitcase. I saw him swipe a comb through his hair, inspect his face in front of a mirror, loop a belt through the waistband of his trousers, all without any distractions. I don’t know what it is. Just physical attraction, I guess, he’s a good looking guy. But something just made me want to keep looking at him, to soak up everything of him that I could.
And now here he is standing in front of me just in front of the swivel doors, an incredulous smile on his face. “Hola!” he says, holding out a hand to me.
I take his hand. It’s warm and big and dry and I can feel the calluses on his palm. Then I realise I’ve been holding it for a second too long, and let go. “Hola, Rafa,” I say, grinning. “How was dinner?” He smells like wine and cigarettes. I know he doesn’t smoke, but I guess a lot of the time in restaurants people tend to smoke over you.
“It was okay,” he says, nodding. “Nice people.”
“Great, I’m glad.”
“Why you still here?” He cocks his head to one side, puppylike.
“I had dinner at the restaurant here,” I tell him.
“Ah. Nice restaurant, I have lunch there today,” he nods. We’re silent for a moment. Then he says, apologetically, “I must go and sleep, I have early flight in the morning.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course.” I exhale. I don’t want to leave. “Well, I hope your knees and foot get better.”
“And your ankle,” he says politely. “See you in Shanghai, no?”
“Definitely.” I grin at him.
We’re silent for another moment. Then he leans towards me, and takes my hand again. He draws me close to him, kisses me on one cheek and then the other. His stubble rasps against my cheek and I can smell his shampoo – something citrusy, lemony. All of a sudden I’m dizzy. I want to turn my head and press my face into his hair, breathe in more of his scent, press my way forward until my lips reach his neck. There is the remotest chance that I am developing a thing for him.
“Good night, Roger,” he says quietly then, and then he’s walking towards the elevator and I really should just leave.
Roger is 24, and Rafa is 19.
RAFA: I am at home. Usually I would be happy to be at home and I suppose that in many ways I am. I have problems with my foot and I also have bad knees. Clearly I am an old man and my body is falling apart. This is not good news. I am resting and there are some good things that have happened: I passed my driving test for a start, and my family and I had a very nice Christmas. Mallorca is my home and I miss it when I’m gone, I miss the beaches and the people and the attitude and the language. But resting in Mallorca is not a good substitute for a tournament.
I should be in Australia right now. I should be playing in the Australian Open, but my foot hurts too much to practise very often and playing in a tournament is just not something I can do. I haven’t even watched many of the matches. It makes me angry and sad, I get jealous and I don’t like myself when I’m feeling like that, so I do things I like to do instead. It’s been very nice seeing my friends lately, anyway. I miss that when I’m not at home.
The final, though, I’m watching that. Every time Roger plays, I want him to win – unless, of course, he’s playing against me. Even though I think he’s great, of course I’d never purposely lose a game just to see him win. Anyway, that’s obvious, and beside the point. I’m sitting downstairs in my living room. All my family are asleep, but I’m ready for the match, wide awake. I’m even surrounded by snacks, just in case it drags on longer than I’m expecting it to. Baghdatis is on amazingly good form this tournament but I still think that Roger will win. I guess maybe I have too much faith in him, but he’s the world Number One for a reason, and he’s beautiful when he plays.
Today he’s especially beautiful, all brown skin with a bright green bandana, and when he walked on I thought vaguely, That’s my Roger, possessive and proprietary, like whatever win he might happen to achieve would make me almost as happy as one of my own. And now I’m watching him and he’s doing well, he’s winning. After the first set I was upset, a little shocked, I thought that maybe Baghdatis’ winning streak would extend to Roger too, and I didn’t want to have to see that sort of expression on Roger’s face, not when I felt so sick and jealous at the thought of not being there.
But then he started to win. And that’s where he is now; nearing the end of the fourth set, tireless, ruthless. It’s like he heard my doubts, heard me think that maybe he can’t do this, and decided to show me just how good his tennis is. I’m letting out little squeaks instead of the yells I want to shout out in case I wake my family, and my hands are clenched in the squashy soft fabric of our sofa, and Roger hits the ball and Baghdatis nets it and I’m falling back into my seat with the same relief that Roger collapses onto the ground with.
I’m breathing deep shuddery breaths as Roger stands and there are speeches and Roger’s just standing there and he’s smiling softly, his mouth a tender delicate trembling line. Finally it’s his speech and I put the volume of the TV up so I can hear him and understand him properly. He starts to speak and he hesitates a little. He clearly didn’t have this speech planned and he’s looking around like he’s seeing the crowd for the first time. He looks deeply honoured and something inside of me is hurting. Not for myself but for him, and it isn’t a bad pain, it’s a good one, like my heart is swelling with pride, bursting with joy. He dips his head and runs a hand over his face. He’s a long way away from the confident Roger that I know, shaking with some kind of emotion that I completely understand, and there is not any affection in my body not meant for him right now.
Roger talks a little, congratulates Baghdatis. His voice breaks a little and I realise that he’s trying not to cry.
And then his face crumples and he waves to the crowd like he hasn’t got the words to thank them, like the emotion is just too much for him. He jokes and smiles then, and I’m smiling along with him, riding the wave of his feelings. He thanks the teams, he thanks the fans, he thanks the sponsors. He thanks Rod Laver and then his face creases again and he’s sobbing.
I realise, then, that my own cheeks are wet, that my chest is heaving, that I can barely see for tears. I know what he’s feeling now. It’s perfect, glorious. I’m so glad it’s him.
Roger is 36, and Rafa is 16.
ROGER: When teenage Rafa comes tramping down to the bottom of his garden, I’m not disappointed exactly. I mean, I’m glad to see him. It’s just that a hyperactive seven-year-old is much easier to deal with than a sixteen-year-old who’s starting to figure things out and who mentions his beautiful girlfriend much more than I’m comfortable with. I stand to greet him and as he approaches me I realise he’s grown another inch.
“How does your mother keep you in trousers that are long enough?” I ask him as a greeting, and he’s grinning immediately.
“With difficulty,” he replies, and pulls at the side of his shorts. “Like this. With trousers that are always too short for me.”
“Designed that way. Clever.” I sit down on the little stool he leaves down there for me. “How’s it going, Rafa?”
“Not bad.” He shrugs. There’s something else there. He isn’t making eye contact. I wonder if I should probe further, or just leave it at that. Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe there’s an atrocious girlfriend-with-a-missed-period incident that I’d prefer never to have to think about and, horrifyingly, give advice in reference to.
Still, I muster up the courage to ask, “Really? You seem a little down.”
“Eh.” He shrugs again, because apparently he is feeling annoyingly teenage today. “I’m okay.”
“Good.” I pause for a moment, scrutinising him. “How’s the tennis?”
“Great.” He brightens for a moment, and then wilts like a flower without water.
“I’m glad.” I frown at him. “Rafa, you can talk to me.”
He looks at me incredulously. “Can I?” he asks, as though I just said something like ‘If you want to, you can eat your own hand’.
“Yes.” I sigh. “Things have been a little weird lately, but you know that I’m here for you.” It’s true. I hate that he’s got a girlfriend but I’m working really hard on getting that irrational jealousy under control, because he doesn’t deserve that, and I know from the future that she doesn’t either. I keep telling myself that whoever makes Rafa happy before I can is just fine by me.
“Okay. I broke up with her.” He looks at me accusingly as though it’s my fault and really, probably it actually is.
“Oh. I’m sorry, Rafa. Are you okay about it?” I ask. Miraculously I have managed to cultivate an expression of sympathy that is completely devoid of triumphant shouts of joy.
He shrugs for the eight millionth time. “Yes. I think so. I broke up with her, after all. I kind of have to be okay.” He shakes his head, looking very tired all of a sudden. “She cried. It was horrible. I hate making people cry.”
I very much doubt that he’s done it before, other than maybe because of tennis, but I nod anyway, and studiously do not think of the tears that I’ve cost him over the years that I’ve known him, of his eyes filling up as he gazed at me horror-stricken from across an otherwise empty locker room, of the muffled chokes down a bad telephone line. I agree. It is a horrible feeling, the worst. I look into his eyes and think, I am so sorry for the pain I will cause you. “Yeah. I’m really sorry. She’ll get over it,” I offer, and wish it was the truth.
He nods, and exhales heavily. “I’m going to miss her,” he says.
“I know, Rafa. It’s tough on you. I know.” I reach out to him and I put a hand on his back and rub gentle circles. After a moment he drops his head, miserable but accepting, and so I continue in silence.
RAFA: It’s stupid but the pressure of his hand is making things a little better. I can feel the warmth of his palm through my shirt and it’s nice to know that he’s there for me even though he didn’t like the idea of Xisca to begin with. He’s probably glad that we broke up, for reasons that I am just so, so tired of trying to figure out, but he’s still being kind and letting me talk.
The thing is, I liked having a girlfriend. It was nice holding hands and kissing and while the sex part was kind of... anticlimactic, it’s been getting better. I wonder for a moment if I’m going to find a new girlfriend, and then wonder, more seriously, if I want a new girlfriend. The reasons I broke up with Xisca were nothing to do with her, after all. If I could choose the qualities of a girlfriend, she’d possess all of them. It’s just—
I lift my head and look at Roger. Yeah. It’s just. This is why. I manage a smile and I shake my head. “Thanks. It’ll be okay.” I sigh. He’s still looking at me with those dark sympathetic eyes. “Anyway. What’s up where you’re from?” I ask, trying to distract myself.
He looks thoughtful for a moment and I’m pretty sure that he’s picking through details of his life in his head, thinking about what he can tell me and what he can’t. “Well,” he says, after a pause, “I’m thirty-six.”
“Okay.” I roll my eyes at him. “Very interesting. Not.”
He swats at me affectionately. “Shut up. Um... last week, my partner and I bought new furniture for our dining room.”
“Oh my God, Roger. I can’t believe you’re so boring. I hope that when I’m thirty-six there’s more to my life than furniture.”
He grins at me, not taking any offence at all. “Oh, there’ll be more to your life than that.”
“Do you know what happens to me when I’m thirty-six?” I ask, curiously. He once told me that he doesn’t go into the future nearly as often as the past, and he’s glad about it.
“Um,” he says cagily, “a little.”
“A little,” I repeat. “You’re no help today.”
“Well, I want you to find out for yourself,” he protests. The sun’s coming out and it’s glinting off his hair, making it shine a million different colours. For a moment I am very much distracted from what he’s saying, but decidedly happy about my choice of bright red shirt for him. Red suits him. It’s the colour of both of our countries, after all.
“Boring,” I say darkly, and he laughs.
“You’re doing well when you’re thirty-six, Rafa,” he tells me. “Is that enough for now?”
“I suppose so.” I remain unconvinced. In my future, after all, I’m married to a man. It’s something that’s getting clearer and clearer with sideways glances in the locker room and the faint distraction on the beach. It’s crystal clear when I look at Roger next to me. He may be kind of old but he’s still very good-looking. And yes, it’s kind of (well, very) bad to think about, but for now I don’t have to do anything about it. I’ll just concentrate on my tennis and hope that the future takes care of itself. “Your partner, you said,” I say grumpily. “How’s she?”
“Fine,” he says, like he doesn’t want to talk about it. “Doing well.”
“Good.” I want to know, although information like that is only bound to hurt me, make me think too hard and obsess over things that are probably safest if I put them in a small box in my mind and very firmly close the lid. “I’m glad,” I say, in a voice that doesn’t sound too glad at all. “Tell me about her.”
“Tall,” he says unwillingly. “Dark.”
“Very hot.” He permits himself a smile. “Kind. Funny. Generous. Sweet.” There’s a soft look on his face. I suppose Roger must have fallen really hard for this girl. I wish I could have fallen that hard for Xisca. I wish, I wish. But wishes don’t get you very far in life. It’s perseverance that gets you places.
ROGER: There’s a sad, lost look on Rafa’s face, like he’s pining for something that he never even had. He looks like he’d rather be worlds away. He sometimes does this: asks questions about my ‘wife’, all the time looking yearning and wistful. It’d be sweet, if it wasn’t so damn awful to witness. Yet another example of me upsetting him and I hate it.
“Sporty,” I say, adding to the list of adjectives. “Good tennis player.” Understatement of the century. He looks upset still, and I want to gather him up into my arms and hold him and glue him back together. I throw caution to the wind, thinking, My Rafa, I owe you this, and fix my eyes onto his. “Male,” I say.
His eyes widen. For the first time in a long time, I see hope written all over his face. Like poetry, a beam of sunlight shafts itself through the tree branches overhead onto his face. He’s beautiful and glowing all of a sudden in the crisp brightness and he looks like he could take on armies. “Male,” he says, as if he heard it wrong.
“Male,” I confirm.
“Oh.” He looks wondering and delighted.
“See, it happens to the best of us,” I say, nudging him, and then he’s laughing over at me, face full of relief and joy. Suddenly his arms are around me in the sweetest, most clumsy hug that I have ever experienced, all gangly teenager and new grown stubble scratching on my cheek and warm laughter in my ear.
“I think I’ve worked it out now,” he whispers, and holds me a little tighter for a brief moment before letting me go. He is impish and sunny-featured now, all his worries blown away. “The future, I mean.”
RAFA: “So,” Roger says, once I have released him, after a beat of silence. “Why did you break up with her, anyway?”
I fix him with a scowl despite the fact that my heart is spilling up and over with glee, twisting to face him properly. “You honestly don’t know that?” I demand. Because I love you, I think unexpectedly, and am momentarily shocked by that. It’s true. I know now, or I think I do, at least.
“Mmm.” The lightness has gone from his expression, replaced by a soberness that I’ve rarely seen him display. There’s a soft warmth in his eyes. It kind of suits him. “Yeah, Rafa. I know.”
Roger is 24, and Rafa is 19.
RAFA: Dubai! And I’m back. I’m raring to go, foot back to normal almost, and I’m fit and healthy and I can’t wait to get out there and try to win tournaments. I lost once already this season and so I’m determined but a little afraid about this place. Losses just help you move on, shape you both as a person and a player. I think that it shows the most about someone if they are graceful in defeat, and so that’s how I try to be.
I haven’t seen Roger in months. It’s been far too long and I’ve missed him. There have been a few phone calls, comparing injuries and talking a little about other things, and a lot of text messages. I’ve started to text him randomly about things I see that he might find funny or be interested in. He seems to like it. Well, I think he does, anyway. He replies to all of the messages and Roger’s polite, sure, but honest enough that he’d tell me if I was doing something he didn’t like. I texted him to congratulate him about his victory in the Australian Open. I didn’t tell him that I cried, though. I think even for us, him knowing that would be a little strange.
Anyway, I’m in the locker room, and I’m changing in preparation to go out onto the practice courts. My foot’s a little sore but it always is, and I’m used to it by now. It’s just one of those nagging things that will never really go away, a little like the tendonitis. It’s the sort of thing you learn to live through, to cope with, to win in spite of. An extra challenge, I’m telling myself. I like that.
I’m lacing up my shoes when he comes in. He’s covered with a thin sheen of sweat and he looks good: relaxed, confident. His hair’s kind of crazy and messy and he’s still frowning a little, lost in thought, as he moves the racquet in his right hand fractionally, like he’s still practising even when he’s not on the court.
I don’t want to disturb him from whatever thoughts he might be happening to have, so instead I just sit there, one shoe undone, and watch him until he wakes himself up.
It doesn’t take long. He clatters his racquet down onto the bench, sits down, and then he’s across from me, facing me. Surprised, he inhales sharply, and he looks kind of brittle for a moment, more open than usual. “Rafa, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,” he says quietly.
“Is okay.” I’m smiling over at him. “How are you?”
“Good. How are you? I’m glad you’re back.” He’s starting to get more self-possessed now, regaining his usual composure.
“Me also. Much better now – my foot is almost normal.” I extend my leg towards him as if to prove it.
“Great. I’m really glad to hear that.” He looks genuinely happy. “I was worried that you’d be out for longer,” he says, and then confesses: “I was worried that we wouldn’t get to play much this year.”
“Same with me,” I admit, and we share a secret sort of smile.
Then he clears his throat and looks away, and I might be imagining the slight blush but I don’t think I am. It seems like the conversation’s over so I bend down and I tie up my shoelace. When I straighten up I realise that he’s been watching me, eyes intent and very serious, and this time I’m the one who’s blushing.
Roger is 24, and 15.
ROGER: I’m in my hotel room playing video games when I disappear. Mirka’s next door in the bathroom finishing her makeup for dinner that evening and I manage to get out her name as everything blurs and jumps and dissolves. I feel bad, leaving her all the time. I must be the worst boyfriend ever like that. She never asks me where I’ve gone or what I’ve been doing; she understands, yes, or tries to, but I don’t think she’s comfortable with the time I spend away from her. It’s a line between us that I try not to think about too hard. I just wish it was something that I could change. There are things I’ve changed for her, like I don’t lose my temper as often and I clean up after myself more, but that’s one thing that can never change. I went to doctors when I was younger but there was never an answer and I don’t think there will ever be.
Anyway, when my feet hit the ground I’m dizzy and my head’s starting to ache, pain blossoming out from my temples. That’s normal though, headaches are par for the course and I’m used to them. So I look around to try to work out where I am. It’s familiar: rows of closed doors; a hotel maybe? I narrow my eyes, search my memory, and then I feel a little sick. It’s school. I’ve jumped back in time to the tennis courts, to the classrooms in the still of night, but I’ve never seen the dormitories since I stepped out of them for the last time. I lived in room 17, which is coincidentally right in front of me and I can only hope that my younger self is in there because if he isn’t I don’t know how to explain the appearance of a naked man in the corridor of the living quarters of twenty-five fifteen-year-old boys. But then again – of course I am, because this has all happened before. I remember the night I was visited by my older self with fondness, I see it as a turning point.
The door creaks open after a moment and I see myself peeking out from the narrow opening. His eyes widen at the sight of me. “It’s late!” he hisses accusingly, like it’s my fault.
I roll my eyes. “Let me in.”
Obediently he does, and when I go in he busies himself shuffling around and finding clothes for me. As he does so I glance around: the posters on the wall barely brightening the place up, the small amount of possessions in this bare grey room, the neat rows of toiletries next to the sink. Clearly I was not the most adept interior decorator when I was a teenager. Finally he flings me a pair of shorts and a t-shirt which I seem to recall being baggy on me as a teen. I pull on the clothes and instantly feel both more comfortable and less likely to be arrested.
“How’s it going?” I ask him.
He frowns at me. “You’re me. You remember this place.”
“Yeah. I remember not being too happy to start off with.” The people weren’t unfriendly, exactly. But my French wasn’t too good. And although we all had tennis in common, being at a special tennis boarding school after all, I didn’t make all that many good friends to start off with. I remember missing my family, my home, my own room. “How’s your French?” I ask him, sympathetically.
He sighs. “Improving. It has to improve.”
“Well, I’m fluent now,” I tell him, like that’s any help.
“Salt in the wound,” he says vaguely, and slumps down onto his bed. Then he looks up at me. “This place gets better, doesn’t it?”
I nod. “Honestly, it does. What’s bothering you at the moment?” I don’t remember what specifically was the problem. I’m not even sure if there was a specific problem. Just a lot of little things all piling up on top of each other.
“Everything,” he says morosely. I never realised what a teenager I was. I thought I was so big and clever and mature and actually I whined and felt sorry for myself.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” I sit down next to him. “Stop being so negative. You’re at a tennis school. Do you have any idea how many people would kill to be here instead of you?”
“Yeah, people keep saying that to me,” he says, like it’s something else worsening his terrible, terrible situation. “I mean, I’m not unhappy, exactly. I just expected...”
“You expected more,” I say, and the amount that I relate to that is actually a little worrying. Don’t we all always want more? More money, more power, more adoration. We have love and we want more love, a better version of love. My God, I know how that feels so much that I can’t even bring myself to think about it. Contentment is not something that comes easily.
“Yeah.” He half-smiles, a little sadly. “Everyone’s down the hallway right now. They’re hanging out or something, but they didn’t ask me.”
“Probably because your door was shut,” I point out. “Look. Go down there right now, go and talk to them.”
“I don’t want to.” His response is instant and certain and he’s shaking his head at me. “They’ll just use all the French slang that I don’t know yet and I’m pretty sure they’re just doing it so I can’t talk to them.”
“That is seriously paranoid,” I tell him. “Go on. Go and be sociable. It’s the only way they’ll know who you are.”
“They know who I am.” He looks wry and annoyed at once. “Because I keep beating them at tennis.”
Oh. Yeah. I remember that. It’s not a good way to endear yourself to teenage boys, beating them at their favoured sport all the time.
“Well,” I say bracingly, “think of the future.”
“It turns out well?” He turns such desperate, beseeching eyes on me that I feel instantly more serious. Although it’s easy to dismiss teenage angst as ridiculous, easy to say to them, ‘Stop complaining, there are children dying in Africa’ or whatever it is that adults say, that doesn’t take away the reality of their pain. It doesn’t make them feel any better. It just adds guilt to whatever mixture of emotions they’ve already got bottled up.
“Yeah. So well. You’ll win Grand Slams. It turns out that well.” I smile at him warmly, hoping that that warmth will make him feel better, will improve things just a little. I’m sure it will. I’m sure it did.
“Okay.” He relaxes, and I get the feeling he’s about to have the best night’s sleep he’s had since he started this school. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” I smile. After a moment it’s as though my purpose has been fulfilled and the room wobbles, shifts, and I’m back in the hotel. Mirka’s standing in front of me, back to me, facing the mirror, putting on her earrings. She’s dressed up, pretty, fragrant.
“Roger, we’ll be late,” she says tersely. “Put on your suit.”
“Sure.” I take a step and almost fall, head spinning. I squeeze my eyes shut, wait it out, and then make my way towards the wardrobe. “That was the weirdest thing ever,” I remark as I flip through my shirts. “I was in my old school...” I glance towards her and there’s a sort of tenseness to her shoulders that wasn’t there before. “It doesn’t matter.” I don’t need to tell her this. It isn’t particularly interesting. I take a deep breath and select a shirt. We have to go out soon after all, and like always there isn’t enough time.
Roger is 24, and Rafa is 19.
RAFA: I’m asleep when there’s a knock on my door. I jerk awake, staring around, not completely sure what just awoke me. Then there’s another knock and I’m up and out of bed, stumbling towards the door. Maybe I overslept, maybe I’m going to miss the plane – a quick wave of joy runs over me as I remember the previous day, I won the French Open! But that isn’t the point, because I can see no reason that someone would be banging on my door in the middle of the night other than bad reasons.
I pull the door open without looking through the peephole and as a result I am completely stunned when I see Roger standing there in front of me.
For a moment I can’t talk. I just stand there and stare at him, at the sheer fact of his presence, his being there. “Roger,” I say, after that moment. My voice is croaky, unused, worn out by interviews the previous day. “Why are you here? Is... qué hora...” I turn around, squint into my dark room for the neon red figures of my clock. “Is four AM!” I say then, amazed.
He smiles, familiar crinkles at the corners of his eyes. “Yeah. I’m sorry to disturb you, Rafa.” He starts to look a little worried. “Listen, I should go. Let you sleep. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.” He starts to back away, raising a hand sheepishly in farewell. “See you.”
But that just seems like a criminally insane idea, Roger disappearing down the hallway and away from me. I reach out, take a step forward, and put my hand on his arm. He’s wearing a t-shirt and his muscles are hard underneath my hand, his skin warm, the hair on his arm soft. It is so different from a soft hairless girl’s arm. “Stay,” I tell him, and the look on his face makes my knees weak.
“Okay,” he says simply. “I...” He looks down, and it’s only then that I see the plastic bag over his arm. He begins to rummage through it. “I bought today’s newspapers,” he explains. “We’re in them. I, um – I also bought some food. You’re not hungry, are you?”
“I am hungry always,” I tell him, matter-of fact.
He smiles. “Okay. Good.” I back into my room, holding the door open for him, taking a second to flip the light on. I wince slightly at the mess in there, and wonder for a moment if it smells. I hope it doesn’t, but there are dirty clothes on the floor and sometimes rooms get a little stale if someone is in there for a long time and the window is shut.
“Sorry. Mess,” I tell him, as I cross to the other side of the room and pull open the curtains and then a window. The noise of the traffic outside is rumbling but not too annoying, but there are bright lights coming in. This city really does stay awake all night. Like New York, but with more French people – obviously. I make a mental note never to make such observations aloud, and particularly not in Roger’s presence.
He shrugs a little. “You always apologise for being untidy, but I never mind.” He seems to be very at home – more at home than I would be in his room, anyway. He straightens out the sheets so that there’s somewhere for him to sit, and then he perches on the end of my bed. I don’t know how Roger does it, manages to look so comfortable and graceful everywhere he goes, like he belongs there. It’s amazing.
I realise suddenly that I’m not wearing anything except underwear, and so I pick up some tracksuit bottoms from the floor and pull them on. Then I find a blue t-shirt and sniff it quickly before pulling it over my head. “There. Better.” I sit down next to him. “What food do you have?”
He laughs sideways at me. “I knew that’d be the first thing you concentrated on.”
“I happy to welcome you to my room, Roger, but food is big reason why you here,” I tell him, very seriously, before smiling brightly and reaching for the bag. He lets me take it, looking amused, and I rummage through it. Copies of today’s newspapers, our faces sprawled over the back page, and I discard those behind us. And then comes the good stuff. A baguette, still warm, a bunch of bananas, a jar of something brown. “What is that?” I ask him, scrutinising it.
“Nutella. It’s good,” he tells me. “It’s chocolate you can spread on bread that tastes a little like nuts. Taste it, if you want.”
“Huh.” It looks promising. I open the jar and stick my finger in it, before bringing my hand back to my mouth and licking the finger. “Jesús,” I say at the taste, and I have never been especially religious before but both Roger and the most amazing foodstuff known to man in one night, that is kind of too amazing to be true.
“You like it?” He’s grinning.
“More than like it. I keep this, yes?” I paw at the jar.
“Sure, if you want.”
“Thank you.” I am going to eat this stuff every day for the rest of my life. I am determined to do so. I love it more than anything else, including my parents, Roger, and tennis.
“No problem.” He still looks highly amused. “So Rafa, I wanted to say congratulations for the match yesterday...”
I shrug at him. “You say congratulations then, at the net. Is over now, no?”
“Well, I guess so.”
“Next Slam is Wimbledon. Your place.” I raise an eyebrow at him. “Are you excited?”
He’s relaxing, shifting backwards on my bed, crossing his legs like a schoolboy. “Well, yeah. It's my favourite one.”
“I think you win this year again,” I tell him.
“Thanks, Rafa. You never know, though.” Roger shrugs sweetly, like there’s any chance that anyone might overtake him. No, he’s superhuman, beautiful, at the moment. He may have lost the French Open to me yesterday but he’s still number one in the world and he’s still number one to me. Roger may seem a little like a god when he’s on court with his grace and his refinement, but right now, sitting opposite me on a hotel bed in France, hair messy and eyes red from lack of sleep, clothes rumpled, dunking a crust of French bread into a tub of Nutella and devouring it like he hasn’t eaten in a week, he seems completely mortal, and all the better for it.
ROGER: I don’t know what drove me to Rafa’s room tonight. I couldn’t sleep; got up from Mirka’s side, dressed silently, wandered through Parisian streets to find shops that were open this late and early in the morning and night. I don’t feel bad about having been beaten yesterday, but I feel restless. No sleep, no way; that’s not going to be possible tonight. It was a kind of insanity that led me to Rafa. An impulse that should be curbed and denied. But the sight of him makes me feel better, the simplicity of being in the same room as him.
He’s talking now, in his stilted broken English; not about much particularly, just about the match we played, but I’m not paying much attention. He’s stunning, you know, this man made of brass and copper, the edges of his body outlined by light from the warmly glowing lamp as if inked by a gold pen.
“Roger?” he says, raising an eyebrow, his smile brilliant and bright. “Are you listening? You look as if you’re...” He waves a hand. Faraway. Elsewhere. Both of them work.
I am falling for him. Fallen from grace. Something like that. “I’m listening,” I say, softly. “Of course I am.”
Chapter 6: 'Oh God, I missed my chance'
Roger is 24, and Rafa is 20.
RAFA: Lately for some reason I have been feeling lonely. I have people around me who I love and who love me, like my uncle and some of the other Spanish players and sometimes friends from home and the rest of my team, but still, loneliness has kind of set in. Many of the other people on the tour have better English than I do, so it’s a little easier for them. Plus sometimes I feel like maybe they aren’t the sort of people that I should be friendly with – the people in school that I would have avoided. A little like that. There’s Roger but I don’t want to bug him by trying to get too close to him. And there are a few other nice guys, but even despite that I miss home a lot. My parents, my sister, my friends. I never thought I’d miss my sister cluttering everything up and making fun of me, but I do. There’s email and there’s the phone but it isn’t the same.
Anyway, I am in London. I hurt my shoulder so I had to drop out of Queen’s (so many injuries lately, sometimes I wonder if my body is already giving out on me) but now it’s time for Wimbledon and I’m excited. I know that I probably won’t win but my ambition is to get to the final.
For now, I have a few days of rest and practice. Everything has been hectic lately and I’m so tired, in my body and in my head. But for now I’m safe in my hotel room. Everything’s quiet, it’s late at night, and I’m on my laptop, browsing the internet, reading a website about football history. Not because it’s especially interesting, but I don’t feel like playing video games or watching TV. I’m just not in the mood. In the corner of my screen a little icon pops up that I have a new email, but when I go to answer it, it’s just people asking me if I want to enlarge my penis, which I don’t, I am quite happy with my penis the way it is, so I close the window. And then another box pops up and it’s an instant message.
Xisca, I realise, and my stomach leaps in a pretty weird way. She’s writing in Mallorquín and it hits me suddenly how much I miss that language. She says hello and asks me how I am, and it’s been way too long. I haven’t seen her since Christmas, when I was constantly in a bad mood because of my foot anyway, and I miss her. She’s a nice girl. We aren’t, you know, involved, any more, that ended a long time ago, but I still like to talk to her sometimes.
So I talk back to her. I say hello and ask her how she is and how university is going. She says she’s fine and it’s all fun and she just broke up for the summer holidays last week. I ask her about her course and about our friends, and the conversation goes from there. It just flows. And it’s great. Eventually she says she has to go because it’s late and she should sleep but I don’t want to stop talking to her. I can’t stop remembering her. And so I type, impulsively, ‘Come and see me.’
There’s a pause and then she writes, ‘Rafa, stop being silly.’ So I type, ‘I’m not being silly. I’ll book you flights,’ and I add several smiley faces to show her just how serious I am.
There’s another pause and she types, ‘Let me just ask my parents.’ I type more smiley faces. A few minutes and then she’s back, and she’s writing, ‘They say it’s fine. I would love to’, and she’s typing smiley faces of her own. We work out the flight details – she insists on paying for her own and that doesn’t surprise me because this is Xisca, after all, fiercely independent – and we arrange that she arrives in two days’ time, first thing in the morning. Then she says she really does have to go to bed or she’ll have no time to go shopping or pack. So she signs off the computer, with a sweet ‘Good night :)’, and then I realise it’s late and I should sleep too.
Everything seems lighter, all of a sudden. Easier to cope with. I can’t believe she wants to swap Mallorca’s sun for England’s grey skies, but that’s how good a friend she is. I can tell that tonight my dreams will be much less unhappy than they have been for the last couple of weeks.
ROGER: I like London. Wimbledon is my favourite tournament and grass is my favourite surface. I like everything about Wimbledon: the traditions, the white clothes, the English crowds. So I’m in a good mood as I sit in the cafe, swooshing my spoon absently around in the dregs of my now-cold coffee, half-considering ordering another cappuccino and maybe one of the croissants they have in a basket on the counter. The newspaper is spread open in front of the table in front of me and I’m skimming the articles that are of interest to me. It’s a nice way to spend the morning before I go and practise this afternoon – relaxing.
I’m kind of people-watching as well, keeping an eye on the street outside. I’m hoping that no one sees me; while a lot of Londoners tend to be pretty cool about seeing people with some level of celebrity, you have your crazies in every city, and I’m in the sort of mood to be by myself today. But then I get absorbed in an article about the European Union and so it’s a little surprising when I look up and see Rafa standing across the street from me.
He doesn’t seem to have noticed me. I wonder for a moment if I should go and talk to him. He’s standing there wearing shorts and sneakers and a t-shirt under a light jacket and he’s bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet like he’s got too much energy balled up inside him and he has to force it to leak away somehow. I do like talking to him, after all, and I haven’t seen him in way too long. His hair’s messy and he keeps pulling his phone out of a pocket, like he’s checking the time. I realise that he’s standing under a hotel sign and right, yeah, I remember now that he told me where he’d be staying. I wonder what he’s doing there. I wonder why he’s waiting, who he’s waiting for.
Then a car pulls up in front of him and in unison with him I crane my neck, trying to see into the car, to see who it is. His face transforms then, when he looks through the window, but I still can’t see who it is. The car door opens and someone gets out, someone small with wavy dark hair and she flings her arms around Rafa’s neck and his arms are around her waist and they’re holding each other with so much tenderness and warmth. He’s smiling into her shiny black curls and she pulls away, one hand on either side of his face, looking into his eyes. Gently she kisses one of his cheeks and then the other, and I have to look away.
So, I guess that little Rafa’s in love. I feel cold all over and all I can think, inexplicably, is I missed my chance. Oh God, I missed my chance.
RAFA: I have defeated Roger four times this year and I’m pretty sure that a lesser man would not talk to me as much as he does. Still, Wimbledon is his tournament – we both know that, just like Roland Garros is mine – and every time he sees me he smiles and waves, or salutes me with his racquet, or we stand and talk for a few minutes. Today I have just won my second round match, Xisca watching me from the stands; I am sweaty, smiling, exulted, and as I enter the changing rooms he’s coming out.
“Hey, Rafa,” he says, seriousness instantly melting into a smile. “Congratulations!”
“Thanks!” I run a hand through my hair and narrowly avoid splattering him with sweat. “How are you?”
“Off to practise,” he explains, and I nod, and am about to turn away when he reaches out and grabs hold of my wrist. I gaze at him, surprised and confused. His grip is firm but it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking. Roger’s good at that, both on and off court. “Rafa,” he says, and then smiles. “What are you doing tonight?”
I think for a moment, and shrug. “Nothing,” I tell him. Xisca and I haven’t decided what yet. Probably just watch a movie or something. I often try to watch movies in English with Spanish subtitles – easy to learn English that way. “Why?” I smile at him.
“I was wondering if you wanted to have dinner with me,” he says shortly. His hand is still on my arm and now he’s looking away from me, over my shoulder, jerkily, like he’s afraid that someone’s going to see us – or that I’m going to say no. His mouth is a thin line and he looks slightly annoyed, and I don’t know what about. This is not the best dinner invitation I’ve ever received, but it is definitely one of the most welcome.
“Sure,” I tell him, and he looks back at me then. It’s like his whole face melts. In a good way, though. His discomfort just disappears like it was never there to begin with and he nods at me, pretending as though he’d always known I’d agree. What’s important about this? Why does he care? Things with Roger are changing but I don’t know what direction they’re going in.
“Okay, good.” He releases my arm, and I miss the warmth. “I’ll text you later, okay?”
“Sure,” I say again, a little surprised by this whole strange situation. Roger nods, still looking like there’s something on his mind, but he turns away with a quick smile, and then he’s jogging out of the changing rooms and out towards the practice courts. And me, I need a shower, I need to get dressed and go home, but I can’t get the image of that last smile out of my head.
ROGER: I just – want to know. There’s nothing so wrong about that. I don’t think so, anyway. It’s confusing and all very weird and if I’m totally honest I don’t want to think too much about it, but the fact remains that I don’t think it’s that creepy that I want to know about Rafa’s girlfriend. Rafa and I have known each other for years, after all, and while we’re not exactly close, he knows about Mirka. They haven’t spoken much, he seems to clam up every time he gets near her, but he knows that she exists. And I don’t see why he hasn’t told me about this pretty curly-haired girl before.
Anyway, right now I’m sitting opposite him in a restaurant. It’s a fairly nice place, part of a chain so it’s not exactly interesting or surprising, but the food is decent. Rafa has a huge plate of pasta with seafood and I have the carbonara, and it’s all pretty nice.
“Bet that’s not as good as at home,” I say, after a moment, wanting to break the silence.
“No seafood is as good as in Mallorca,” he tells me. “In London, it is not expected. There is no sea.” He shrugs, like what he said just made absolute sense, and I guess in a way it did. Sometimes I wish I could communicate with him in his own language. I wonder how different that’d be. I’ve heard him speaking Spanish, to his team and in interviews, sometimes even with fans, and it’s so different, the way his mouth moves over the Spanish sounds, the different way his lips move.
“Fair point,” I say. I eat another mouthful of spaghetti. It tastes a little like plastic coated in glue. “So – I heard you brought your girlfriend along here.” I can’t avoid the topic any longer. I’ve seen her since that morning; I walked past her and I smiled very slightly, like I’d never seen her before. She was wearing nice clothes, looked like a nice girl. Not one of the trashy models that some other guys drag around with them. A good Spanish girl; just the sort of girl that I’d have imagined Rafa would date.
His eyes are on me as he chews, meditatively, and then swallows. “My girlfriend,” he repeats, a little puzzled. “Xisca?”
“You guys were in the Spanish tabloids,” I tell him tightly. I know this because Mirka helpfully pointed it out to me. Ten minutes later I picked a fight about toothpaste which turned into a fight about the state of our relationship both working and romantic, and my morning went downhill from there.
“Oh.” He drinks a sip of water. He still looks thoughtful. “They say she is my girlfriend?”
“Yes,” I tell him, vaguely irritated.
His face breaks into a smile. It’s like the sun breaking over the ocean, white light dappled across the waves. That sort of beautiful. “Oh. She is not my girlfriend.” He shakes his head vigorously. “Since four years, she is my girlfriend.”
“She’s been your girlfriend for four years?” I ask, barely able to comprehend what I’m hearing.
“No!” He hisses with frustration and I know just how annoying it is not to be able to find the right words. “When I was fifteen, sixteen, she was my girlfriend. Now, we are only friends.”
I eye him for a moment, warm relief cascading over my body. I can feel tension seeping out of my shoulders and that doesn’t even make sense. “Oh. Well, that’s nice that she’s come to see you,” I tell him, and he nods and shrugs a little. “Do you think,” I add tentatively, kind of mentally kicking myself already, “that you’ll get back together with her?”
That eyebrow of his does its usual crazy thing and shoots upwards. His face is like a caricature of some sort of expression. It’s brilliant. “No!” he says, apparently surprised. “Why?”
“Just wondering. Why not?” I ask, and I can tell that he’s half wondering why I’m interrogating him. Whatever. There’s no stopping me now – clearly my curiosity is insatiable.
“Because friends is better. And there’s someone I like.” Just as my heart begins to sink, he bumps his knee against mine under the table and he gives me this smile, wide and wicked. Suddenly I’m dizzy, head filled with helium, as I stare wide-eyed across at him. He blinks innocently but I’m pretty sure there’s something behind those dark eyes. At least, I think there is, and maybe he just banged my leg with his under the table by mistake, and... oh God.
“You want to order some wine?” I ask him, already flagging down a waiter, and Rafa’s laughing at me, I can tell.
Roger is 25, and Rafa is 20.
RAFA: The idea of playing doubles with Roger was not mine, exactly. Toni was the one who put the idea in my head. He mentioned doubles and then he mentioned Roger almost in the same breath, and admittedly a new conversation had started between ‘doubles’ and ‘Roger’, but the idea was put into my head and I couldn’t shake it out. I imagined us playing together, on the same team instead of playing against each other. I imagined us working together, looking at each other with fierce smiles in the same triumphant moments, I imagined us falling into each other’s arms at the end when, inevitably, we won. No one else would be a match for our combined force. The two of us, after all, we’re the best, both together and apart.
And so I text him with the idea. I add a smiley face on the end (I usually do; he told me once that I smile more in text messages than I do in real life, which I think is a big exaggeration as I would not like to think of myself as a surly person). And I wait for him to reply.
When he texts back with a very polite no, it feels as though someone has punched me in the chest. He’s very nice about the whole thing, but he’s very nice and very polite about everything so it doesn’t mean all that much. It just – hurts. And I don’t know why. I suppose that for a stupid moment I had allowed myself to hope.
ROGER: Keeping my distance from him. That’s the only way to go about it, isn’t it? The only way to stay sane. I’m kind to him, we talk, I allow myself to feel – something, but then I tell myself to maintain distance, to keep myself closed away somewhere that he can’t find. Sometimes I dream of him and wake with sweat wet on my forehead and my breath coming fast. I look at Mirka next to me and full of peace like nothing’s wrong, like I’m not dreaming of a supple beautiful body that is not hers, and guilt bubbles up inside me.
The thought of playing doubles with him? Too much, too much. Practising with him, winning, the delight at the end, feeling him throw his arms around me, his dripping hair in my face, his low laugh in my ear – even imagining it is more than I should be doing. When I wake from my dreams of him, though, it all seems so simple. I just want him. Want him.
Roger is 25, and Rafa is 20.
RAFA: I am in Madrid, in a bar by myself.
I’m aware that that probably paints a pretty pathetic picture. I am Number 2 in the world and yet I’m eating dinner by myself. I was going to go out with my friends and with my team after losing today in the quarterfinals, but then I decided that I needed some time alone. Usually I like being surrounded by people, especially after I’ve lost a match. It makes me feel better, it puts me back in a good mood. Sometimes we play some video games, sometimes we just talk about unimportant things.
Today, things are different. After I lost I felt kind of quiet. When people talked to me it was too loud. Every bone, every muscle: I ached all over. My foot was hurting and I was a little afraid that it might not stop. And my mind hurt. It was getting difficult to talk to people, to feel things properly. I felt like I was walking through glue. When I smiled or scowled it was always a moment too late. And so I thought that the best thing was to be by myself.
For some reason the city is on my side tonight. It listened to my need to be alone, to be by myself with my thoughts. I took a taxi from the hotel to the city centre and then I wandered down a dark sidestreet and I found a bar serving some of the best tapas I’ve ever tasted. I have patatas bravas, with just the right amount of spice, mejillones that are fresh and perfect, and albóndigas, and I’m reminded of just how much I miss Spanish food when I’m away. I wish they had more Spanish restaurants in other countries. Then again, I wish they also had my mother’s cooking in other countries. I think that really that would be preferable.
I have a headache. I don’t know why. I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with the beer, because I’ve only had half a glass. Maybe I’m just tired.
I look around the bar. Everyone there is Spanish, no tourists, which everyone knows at home is the mark of a good restaurant, and it seems to be true in Madrid as well. The floor is brownish tiling, the walls are white, and the tables and chairs are wooden and polished. The counter is made of black glossy marble and you choose your tapas from the little neon-lighted bowls inside the clear cupboards on the bar. The floor is scattered with old used serviettes and cigarette butts and it smells strongly like eighty people all smoking at the same time. Still, it’s different. It’s home. It’s Spanish.
But I still feel strange and weird and empty. I thought that solitude was what I needed: time to think, to relax, to try to understand why I feel so... different. Discontent. I have everything I want. I am getting everything I want. My career is patchy at the moment but I’m sure that after I’ve rested everything will be easier. But I feel hollow. I know that this will pass. I know that tomorrow morning I will wake up and everything will be brighter and clearer. Right now, I have found solitude, but I’m beginning to realise that maybe there’s something that I need and want that my life at the moment simply cannot provide me with.
I take out my phone and stare at the screen for a moment. Two missed calls, but I ignore them. And then I text Roger. Nothing fancy, just ‘hi how are you’ and he replies seconds later with ‘fine, you? sorry about today’, and I text back with ‘its ok, win and lose, that is life’, and he sends back ‘thats a good way to look at it, where r u’ and I text and say ‘eating tapas’, and he texts back saying ‘where do u want company’ and yes, yes, yes, I do.
Roger is 25 and 37, and Rafa is 20.
ROGER: There is a very good chance that this plan is an incredibly bad idea. What worries me the most is my complete lack of resistance to him. Sometimes I want to throw caution to the wind and... start something. Anything. But then I think of Mirka, faithful and good, and I imagine the newspaper headlines if something got out, and then above all I imagine the look on his face when, as will inevitably happen, nothing comes of it and it doesn’t work out. He’s young, light-hearted. The sort of person who believes in love. And yes, I believe in it, but I’m no romantic, and I don’t think for a moment that anything we could possibly have in the future could translate into the sort of thing I’m pretty sure he wants for himself.
I think that everyone has had bad boyfriends and girlfriends. The sort who cheat and who you can’t trust and who break your heart in the end. And I could never be that for him. I don’t to be. I won’t let myself be. Self control, that’s the phrase of the hour.
Besides, that’s making the massive assumption that he feels that sort of way about me. I’m the sort of person who’s good at analysing people’s feelings but for some reason he’s always been a closed book. It’s one reason that sometimes on court he rattles me. I don’t think anyone else can really do that.
Right now I am sitting on a plane and I’m on my way to Mallorca. Battle of Surfaces, here I come. I’ve never been to Mallorca before. I know it’s a popular holiday destination and I know that some parts of it are pretty legendary for partying, and also that it’s good for golf. I also know that Rafa lives in Manacor and that he holds his island more dearly in his heart than almost anything else.
Rafa. Seeing him in his home environment. I wonder if he’ll be different, if things will change. Despite everything that’s happened between us, wins, losses, nothing has changed things too much. The dynamic has developed into something that’s more confusing than I have words to express, but I’m hoping that this trip and this match will make things clearer, one way or the other.
The pilot says something in Spanish and I look up, distracted; the seatbelt sign is back on and we’re over dry land. It looks beautiful below, or maybe that’s my imagination, my expectations, something like that. I half-expected the entire place to be made up of Rafa’s red clay but it looks bright and green, crisscrossed with roads and with lots of blue shining squares of swimming pools. I wonder if I can see Manacor from way up here.
The plane jolts abruptly and next to me Mirka’s eyes jerk open. She meets my eyes and grimaces slightly as if to say, Damn turbulence, and I wrinkle my nose back at her in agreement. See, I can read her face and she can read mine. There’s no way it can’t work.
RAFA: There is no press today. Nothing to do with promotion, nothing to do with photocalls or interviews or anything like that. Instead there will just be dinner, Roger and me and our teams. I guess that Mirka will be there and I’ve asked Xisca to come with me. We aren’t together, exactly. We don’t do the things that couples do – we don’t kiss, we don’t have sex – but we spend a lot of time together. She comes to a lot of my matches, and if there’s a party at home we often arrive together and leave together and spend a lot of time together in the middle. It’s easy, actually. I know that people make assumptions about us that aren’t true. Sometimes I think that even she does that. But we’re both happy, and it’s working out, for now.
It’s fine, it’ll all be fine. The tennis match itself seems kind of secondary to everything else right now, though. I’ve been thinking more about having Roger here, about showing him around my town and my home and my beach. He hasn’t been here since I was much younger, after all, and I bet there’s some part of him that’s been missing this place.
ROGER: When I get to the restaurant he’s already there. He’s with Xisca, his head bent towards hers, her shiny dark hair falling over her face. He says something funny and she tilts her head back, laughing heartily, the line of her neck slender and delicately drawn. I don’t know what to think about her, so carefully I set the thought of her aside, and think of something else. Mirka’s hand is in mine. For a brief horrifying moment everything is blurry and I wonder if I’m about to travel but I don’t and it’s all okay as we approach the already-crowded table. We hover awkwardly for a moment as Rafa springs up and his team all get to their feet. There are hearty handshakes and greetings in broken English and I reach forward briefly to kiss Xisca on the cheek. She smells nice, and that is severely annoying.
Still, I smile anyway and she smiles back at me, this pretty wide-eyed Mallorcan girl who Rafa once loved. Somehow in the shuffle I get seated opposite from Rafa on the long table and he makes an absurd face at me, clearly designed to make me laugh. It works; I snort in an undignified sort of way and Mirka glances sideways at me like I’m crazy. When I look back at Rafa he’s looking away but his lips are trembling like I caught him trying not to laugh.
Everyone has pretty much met everyone else before, and communication is actually okay, because with our combinations of languages we’ve pretty much got words in common. The conversations around the table are a weird hotchpotch of English and French and Spanish and Swiss-German but it seems to be working for everyone. Mirka’s back is to me and she seems to be pretty engrossed in discussing a beautiful development of houses we drove past on the way here with Rafa’s physiotherapist, so I look across at Rafa and Xisca. They’re chatting, Rafa’s thumb trailing around the top of his glass, making a faint squeaking noise. Stealthily, I decide to infiltrate their conversation.
“So,” I begin, but am cut off by the waiter, requesting our drinks orders; Mirka and I order a bottle of red rioja to share, but Rafa appears to be drinking beer. Xisca has a glass of white wine in front of her and I don’t know why this stuff is important to me but somehow it is. “So,” I begin again, and they turn towards me, her face open and enquiring, his interested and smiling. Oh God. “This place is really nice,” I tell them.
“Wait until you have the shrimp,” Rafa tells me, and then purses his lips at me. “You eat what I tell you to eat, yes?”
“If you think it’s good,” I tell him. There’s a very real chance that I would smile helplessly and eat absolutely anything he placed in front of me if he recommended it. This is getting pathetic. “It’s a really beautiful island,” I continue. “I’m really glad we decided to do this.”
“Me too,” he tells me, smiling. “Will be very helpful for promote tennis in Spain, no?” He turns to Xisca, gabbles quickly in Spanish or maybe Mallorquín to (I assume) tell her what we’re talking about, and she says something in response. “She say, ah, she’s happy you like Mallorca, and maybe we will inspire the next campeón de Mallorca.” He rolls his eyes mock-bashfully.
I nod and smile over at her. “I hope so,” I say. “The world could always do with another Rafa, ha ha.” Awkward laugh. It’s not true. If there was another Rafa, I would probably explode. “So Rafa,” I say, trying to distract myself from the concept of two Rafas and from there the path to insanity, “you need to show me around. Tell me what’s good around here.”
He nods enthusiastically. “Yeah. Well, I think I take you to the beach, no? And we go to our house in Porto Cristo, we go on the boat, we see Mallorca from the sea. Good?”
The concept of spending hours on a boat with just Rafa for company is making me slightly dizzy. “Great!” I say weakly.
“We bring friends,” he says determinedly, and I come back down to earth. “I bring Xisca.” Xisca nods beside him, and I study the back of Mirka’s head for a moment.
“I don’t know if she’d want to,” I say warily. She isn’t too keen on boats – she doesn’t like the way they move, it makes her a little nauseous. I also have the vague idea that Rafa wants to fish, because he is Rafa and that’s what he likes to do, and she has this thing about flopping dying fish that have just been caught. She thinks they’re creepy. It’s a view I can totally understand, actually, but she has a habit of squealing and dashing behind something if she witnesses it happening in front of her, just like I tend to do that whenever I see a snake.
Rafa shrugs. “Is okay. Mallorca is a nice place, she can go to the shops in Palma. I give her my mother’s number, no? They can eat together.”
It’s actually a pretty nice idea. I shrug, because why the hell not, and then I tap Mirka’s knee gently, hand resting gently on her thigh, and ask her what she thinks. Apparently she also thinks that it’s a good plan because she sparkles over at Rafa and sounds enthusiastic as she agrees. So, tomorrow: me, Rafa, and his friends out on the ocean waves. Sounds pretty perfect to me.
RAFA: It has been fun, tonight, but I don’t like watching people eat when I’m already done. Neither Roger nor I ordered dessert. Everything on the menu seemed good but a little heavy, and anyway, I already ate three-quarters of a packet of chocolate cookies earlier this day. I’m kind of chocolated out for a while. Mirka keeps offering Roger bites of her crema catalana but he keeps declining. And then I realise I’ve been gazing at him for a while now; he looks across, meets my eyes with a wry little smile. Then he tilts his head very slightly towards the door, and raises an eyebrow minutely.
He’s asking me if I want to leave. Right? Right. Of course I want to leave, particularly with him. I reach over and touch Toni on the sleeve and I tell him that I want some air and I’m going to walk home, and then as I stand I widen my eyes meaningfully at Roger. As I’m about to go Xisca grabs my hand. “Where are you going?” she asks, and I tell her I have a slight headache and to stay and finish her food.
I’m pretty sure that dinner’s going to be on expenses or something so I don’t make any attempt to pay for anything. As I leave the table Roger says innocently, “Rafa, where are you going?”
“Home. My head hurts a little,” I lie shamelessly, for the benefit of everyone else.
“I could do with some air,” he says, and he’s a better liar than I am. “I’ll walk with you.”
And so he walks after me, so close through the crowded restaurant that I can almost feel the heat of his body through our layers of clothing, although there’s a chance I’m just imagining it. I’m hot all over. I think I’m starting to sweat. Maybe I am actually genuinely ill, or maybe it’s just his effect on me. He makes me sick. Wonderful.
I almost laugh at that, with an edge of hysteria, as I push the door open and hold it for Roger after me. “What’re you smiling about?” he asks, a hint of amusement around his mouth.
“Oh. Nothing,” I say. “Just... estoy loco.”
There’s a faint glimmer of understanding in his eyes but he just nods quizzically and bites his bottom lip. We wander along for a few moments. It’s a nice night, cool and clear, and the stars are out. We’re walking maybe a fraction too close to each other, our shoulders brushing. It feels like there’s something different there tonight. My stomach is thrumming with nerves, although I can’t figure out why exactly.
“So where do you live?” Roger asks, suddenly. Like he can feel it too.
“Near to here,” I say. Our voices sound strange. “At the right,” I elaborate.
“Oh.” Tap, tap, tap of our feet on the pavement. We’re leaving the main road now, moving away from the presence of other people and into the sideroads, the residential areas. They’re quieter. “You live with your parents, right?” Roger asks then, like he has to fill the thick, heavy silence. I’m pretty sure he already knew that.
“Yes,” I tell him. “And my sister.”
“Are they there now?”
“No. They are in Porto Cristo, for prepare things for tomorrow when we are there,” I tell him. Not that it matters or anything. I’m sure that when we get to my house nothing would happen that wouldn’t happen if my parents were there. Or I think not, anyway.
“Okay,” he says, and then there’s another pause. “It’s nice here.”
“Yeah,” I agree, and smile sideways at him. He catches my eye, a little hesitant. “Is okay to be quiet sometimes, Roger,” I tell him.
“I know that,” he says honestly, an edge of something in his voice. “I don’t usually do this.”
“Is strange tonight, no?” I say, and he nods gratefully. The last time he was at my house, he was in his thirties and I was sixteen, already a professional tennis player, young and powerful, and he was older and tireder and bringing with him an atmosphere of safety, of trust. Safe is the last thing I feel right now. I kind of like it.
It’s dark. There are streetlamps but not quite enough of them. There are lights shining from windows of the houses on the street, but it’s still dark. Roger says, “I’m going to leave, once you’re inside, and your head’s better,” as though he’s forgotten that it was all a lie.
Still, I nod. It’s probably better that way, I reason, although I don’t know why. “Yeah,” I tell him. “You go. You know the way back, no?”
He nods. “Yeah, I do.” He exhales, a little jerkily.
We’re about to reach my house. I don’t want him to go, all of a sudden. I’m tempted to tell him that I live further down the street, or fake another illness or something. Just to keep him here. But that wouldn’t work and it would be strange, and so my steps falter and slow and then finally stop outside our apartment building. I live on the second floor, my grandfather below and my uncle Toni above.
“You live here?” he asks.
I nod. “Yeah. The second floor.”
“Thanks.” I smile. He smiles. It’s all very polite and awkward. I want to reach out and take hold of him.
“Listen,” he says, with difficulty. “I...” He exhales, apparently unable to continue.
“Would you like to see the apartment?” I ask impulsively.
His face clears. “Sure!”
So I take out my key and unlock the front door and I open it and usher Roger in first. Then we traipse up the stairs to the second floor. I unlock our front door there, and close it carefully after us. I take my time locking the door, locking us in. Roger’s standing behind me and this time I’m not imagining it, I can feel his heat through my shirt and I can feel his presence as acutely as if he was actually touching me. My knees are weak. I slide the bolt across so that no one outside could possibly get in, not unless they broke down the door. I barricade Roger inside. I want to keep him there.
When I turn, he’s standing very close to me. The look in his eyes is desperate and confused and I know that mine must reflect that. My heart is suddenly beating very fast.
Then, simple as the sun, we fall into each other’s arms.
ROGER: To begin with it’s just a hug, but more than that somehow. He’s clinging to me like he needs me, like his knees will buckle without me to hold him up, and I feel the same way, like I’m drowning and his presence is buoying me to the surface. I wonder for a crazy moment when he stopped being the boy who played good tennis and became my rival, the man who challenges me and forces me to go one better, to try my hardest, to do my best. I wonder when I started needing him.
His mouth’s brushing my neck, breath warm on my skin, and finally our faces turn blindly towards each other’s and our lips meet. This is it; this is infidelity and a step further than we could ever take back and I don’t want to take this back, I want to keep it with me forever and do it all over again. It’s not a perfect kiss, it’s all tentative lips and seeking tongues and nervousness and delicacy, but it’s the best for now. And then his fingers clench around my bicep and everything changes a little; I grab the side of his face and he kisses me back with gusto, abandon. He tastes like beer and his chin’s rough with stubble beneath my palm. His hands are on my chest and I only realise after a moment that he’s undoing my shirt.
And Jesus Christ, as it turns out he has even more amazing hands than I could have guessed. He gives up on the buttons as I let out a little groan into his mouth and he pulls my shirt out from where I’d neatly tucked it into my trousers, runs his hands up my sides, my stomach, the calluses on his hands tugging gently over the hair there. He hooks a hand into the waistband of my trousers and, still kissing me, draws me down the hallway. I don’t want to let go of him for a moment and he laughs into my mouth as he tries to open a door and fails miserably. I lean him against it instead, hands creeping down to curve over his ass and he lets out a breath at that, pushing into my hands. He’s a good kisser and it kind of surprises me that I’ve never wondered about this before, never thought about how his lips might fit mine and how he might taste.
I reach around him and find the doorknob, twist it, and we fall into the room. I take a moment to glance around, arm still wrapped tight around his waist. “Nice,” I tell him. It’s still a teenage bedroom, Real Madrid poster on the wall, and oh my God, there’s a poster of me on the ceiling.
“That’s gonna make this creepy,” I say, pointing at it, and wonder for a moment if I’ve gone too far.
But he laughs, warm against my neck, and I feel him bite me gently, feel the sharpness of his white teeth, before he replies. “Fuck me with you on top and I see two of you instead of one,” he says, words too blurred by the proximity of his mouth to my skin to be completely clear. “Clever, no?”
I feel weak and my voice is almost not there as I reply, “Very clever.” I bury a hand in his soft hair and I can feel his tongue on my neck, his teeth, his lips gently soothing flushed skin. I bite his earlobe very softly and he shudders slightly.
And then there’s a sudden flurry of movement and he’s pushing me towards the bed – a double bed, not a single bed, thank God – and I’m surprised when the backs of my thighs hit it, and I sit down suddenly. Then Rafa’s between my legs, still standing, and my nose is about the height of his belt. So I look up, meet his eyes, smile. And then, eyes still on his, I undo his belt and carefully unzip his pants and undo the button, and then I push them down, hands lingering on his ass. He steps out of the pants obediently, and then I grasp his hips and pull him forwards. His skin is smooth but more importantly his cock’s right there in front of my face and I lean forwards and touch my lips to it. He lets out this little noise. The white cotton of his underwear is very slightly damp and his cock’s bulging, hard. I open my mouth, wrap my lips around his dick, sucking hard through his shorts and he lets out another sound.
“You’re going to be just as noisy when I fuck you as when you play tennis, aren’t you?” I ask him after moving away a little, half-smiling up at him.
“Probably,” he admits. His eyes look almost black.
“Good,” I tell him. I pull his shorts down and then I rise to my feet, wrapping a hand around his cock as I do so. He makes a helpless moaning sort of noise and then he kisses me hard. He manages to finish the task of unbuttoning my shirt but doesn’t quite manage to push it off my shoulders; I strip it off and drop it on the floor and then I’m pulling his shirt off him. A button falls onto the floor, and I murmur an apology but by his silence it’s clear he didn’t even notice. Then his hand’s pushing against my crotch and I break away. “Rafa, you have done this before, right?”
He glowers at me. “I’m not a virgin,” he says, like it’s a dirty word.
“Well, obviously not,” I say, a little annoyed. “But – with a man.”
“You think I don’t know how to work your body?” he asks, innocent, and then somehow he manages to snap open my trousers with one flick of his wrist.
“Oh my God,” I say, momentously distracted, and he laughs at me.
“Come on,” he says, and then he sprawls out on his bed, all long limbs and gleaming muscles. His ankles and feet and a strip below his knees are very white. It’s oddly touching. I shed my trousers and shorts and I look down at him for a moment. I want to climb on top of him, feel his warmth, climb inside of his skin. Insolently, he spreads his thighs a little, and oh God, I am completely lost.
RAFA: It was a little like wrestling to start with. He wanted to go on top, I pushed on top of him, we kind of rolled around like we were stupid teenagers, and then there was this moment where he was looking down at me, his hair falling in his dark eyes, his lips wet and his erection pushing into my leg, and for a moment I felt almost overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe he was there, that it had finally happened. I pressed my lips against his and then I told him exactly what I wanted him to do to me. And he did it.
The first fuck was over quickly and afterwards we both lay there panting and sticky. There was sweat in my eyes and it stung a little. His arm was around my chest, his body curved around mine, and I could feel his breathing against the back of my neck. Then he got up without saying anything, picked up his trousers, and walked out. After a couple of minutes he came back again, told me he was staying the night, like there wasn’t any question I’d let him. I nodded, pulled back the sheets and we gratefully crawled between them.
In the early hours of the morning, when light has just started to stream through the gap in the curtains, he wakes me up by kissing the side of my jaw and I stretch, happy, and turn my face to catch his mouth with mine. He murmurs, “I just had a very nice dream about you,” and then his hand goes down to stroke my cock, drifting over the place just next to my hip that always makes me shiver. I’m hard in no time and he fucks me again. The first time I was on my knees, every hard stroke of his making my bedframe quiver, but this time it’s slow, languorous; I’m on my back, hands twisted in my pillow, his hands stroking softly over me, like he wants to make me his territory, wants to know my body. My knees are up over his shoulders and he can’t hit as deep as before, he can’t make me ache like he did then, but there’s his face above mine, two of his face, one made of glossy paper and the other of flesh and bone and skin.
I draw his real face down to mine and I kiss him, and I decide that I want to hold him in my heart as well as my arms, in case he vanishes, or goes somewhere that I can’t get him back again.
ROGER: I wake at around seven and I uncurl myself from Rafa and I go into the kitchen to get myself some water. It’s a shock when I see myself there, sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a pair of Rafa’s trousers and reading an old newspaper.
“Oh! Hi,” he says, turning around so his face is towards me, like it’s perfectly normal to see a younger version of himself in Rafa’s kitchen.
“What,” I say, paralysed, “what are you doing here?” I’m a little nervous; if Rafa wakes up now and comes in I don’t know what I’m going to say. Sometimes with the amount of knowledge in his eyes I think that maybe he already knows, though, so maybe it would be okay. Still, considering what happened last night, it would be a very awkward situation.
He shrugs. “What do you think I’m doing here? I was about to get up this morning, someone was even making me breakfast, and then I ended up here.” He rolls his eyes, clearly a little exasperated.
“Someone?” I say, fixating on the most important part of the sentence.
“Wait and see, nosy,” he tells me.
“Okay.” I scowl at him. “So what happens next? Here?”
“See, I wouldn’t normally tell you anything, but I seem to remember that I did. It’ll work out for the best, I promise.” He smiles at me, reassuringly.
“That isn’t telling me anything,” I object. “That’s offering me an annoying little platitude.”
“It’s true, though!”
“It better be.” I pout a little and fold my arms. “It isn’t... weird, is it? Once he wakes up?”
“No.” He shakes his head. “It’s gonna be fine.”
“Okay.” I let out a breath. “And it doesn’t affect our friendship, last night?” Although saying that, I kind of want it to affect our friendship, I want it to warp and change things. I want to do this again.
He laughs incredulously. “Are you kidding? Of course it affects your friendship. In a good way, you know?” He shakes his head, looking at me a little pityingly. “It isn’t the only time this happens.”
“Oh.” I feel a little deflated, but butterflies are dancing in my stomach. Heady delight rushes over me. “I think... okay. That’s okay. What about Mirka?”
He shakes his head. “Tell me what you think about her.”
“Well, I love her,” I say, not a shadow of hesitation in my answer or my mind.
“You’ll figure it out then,” he tells me, and then he grins, looking suddenly younger, mischievous. I don’t recall feeling much like that in my present. I guess that maybe something happens to change me, and I can’t wait. “What are you doing talking to me? Remember who’s still asleep in there.” He gestures towards the hallway and I smile at him, suddenly very, very happy.
“Okay. I’ll go back to bed,” I say, and I retreat from the kitchen. When I get back to Rafa’s bedroom he’s still asleep, sprawled out boneless and completely dead asleep. His skin’s dark against the white sheets, his body long and lithe and supple. I can’t believe – I just can’t believe any of this. As I crawl back in beside him, his long dark eyelashes flicker; he makes a little sleepy noise and he rolls towards me, arm falling over my waist. “Hey, Raf,” I murmur, and I’m halfway towards falling asleep again. “Morning, Rafa.”
RAFA: I wake up and I need to pee, so I go and pee, getting up carefully so I don’t wake Roger, and then I go into the kitchen to get a glass of water. And there, his back to me, is Roger. I go up to him, silently, put my hands on his shoulders, and he lets out a noise of surprise. Then he turns, and his face is older than the Roger still in my bed, but he’s smiling at me as he stands to greet me.
“I’m here,” he says incredulously, and hearing him speak Spanish is so strange and so nice at once. “I saw me!”
“Yeah, you’re here.” I can’t stop smiling. There are so many problems, so many weird things going to happen, I’m sure, but I can’t think about that yet. Because right now Roger is sprawled out beautiful and relaxed in my bed and I want to get back to him. “You remember today?”
“Of course I remember it.”
“Good.” I stand there beaming like a fool for a moment at this version of Roger with more years and more experience, more wisdom and more knowledge, and then I reach out impetuously and fling my arms around him.
“Go back to him,” he whispers into my ear, and so I do, I leave my future and I go back to my present.
Roger’s sitting up in bed, his hair messy and dishevelled, and he grins when he sees me. “Morning, sunshine,” he says, and seems to be about to say more, but I cut him off, I climb on top of him and I kiss him and we don’t talk much more after that.
Chapter 7: 'carved from sand and salt and seawater'
Roger is 25, and Rafa is 20, and 24.
ROGER: When I get back to the hotel that morning, Mirka’s humming as she wanders around our room. She looks fresh and pretty, like she got a good night’s sleep. I, on the other hand, did not; Rafa and I slept late, woke early, fucked again, showered separately. In Rafa’s shower I used his shampoo and his shower gel. I uncapped the different shower gels there in his bathroom and sniffed each one to find the scent I recognised from his hair, his skin. I borrowed one of his shirts and it’s a little too big for me. He’s broader than I am. I’m also wearing some of his underwear, something I told myself that I’m not going to linger on because it’s kind of distracting, to say the least.
When I come in, Mirka brightens; she comes over to me and turns her face up for a kiss. I oblige, sidestepping her mouth and pressing my lips briefly to her cheek. “So did you guys have a good night?” she asks, and I’m speechless for a moment.
Then I pull myself together. I nod and think wildly of my cover story, and then I say vaguely, “Yeah, it was okay. One of the tapes was pretty bad quality, but it was fine.” According to my hasty phonecall last night, Rafa and I decided to watch some old tapes Rafa had of classic tennis matches. Something so boring and tennis related that I was pretty sure she wouldn’t question it. That’s bad, right? Lying to your girlfriend. Particularly a girlfriend who’s as good to me as she is. But if I think about it too hard then I might start regretting things, and God knows I don’t want that.
Anyway, Rafa should be here soon. A few interviews and then I’m getting in his car with him and we’re going to drive to Puerto Cristo. Mirka’s off to Palma and meanwhile I’ll be confronted with Rafa’s Mallorquin friends, people he’s known from childhood. I imagine rambunctious laughing dark-haired Spanish boys swearing and pushing each other into the sea and I’m pretty sure that my imaginings are probably totally accurate.
Honestly, I’m a little nervous. Usually when Rafa and I do events like this, or even when we see each other socially, I’m the one who knows what we’re doing and where we’re going. I’m the one who speaks the language and knows how to behave in most situations. But now I’m kind of lost, and I get the feeling that I’m going to be looking to him to lead the way.
RAFA: I don’t think that Roger trusts my driving. His right hand is braced on the dashboard, his left digging into the side of his seat. He keeps saying things like “Slow down before this corner!” and “Mind out for that car!”, like I don’t know what I’m doing, like he’s teaching me to drive or something and I’m the worst student ever. He swears softly as I round a bend and I glance at him and tut lightly.
“Relax,” I tell him, “You don’t think I’m a good driver, no?”
He exhales. “I wouldn’t say that exactly.”
I turn and raise an eyebrow at him and he balks. “Eyes on the road, my God, please, Rafa!” Then he looks at me wryly and says, “Okay, maybe not the best driver ever.”
I laugh. To be fair, he’s right. I’ve never been the best driver ever. But the roads in Mallorca are often very clear, so there isn’t much to worry about. I don’t think I’d do very well if I had to drive in Madrid or somewhere else it’s very crowded, but along these clear winding Mallorquin roads I’m just fine. My island is particularly beautiful today, but maybe I just think that because I’m showing it to Roger. The sky’s a deep intense blue, the sun almost too bright, and the air’s clear and beautiful. It’s my home and I love it, and I’m glad it’s a day like today so that Roger will love it too.
It feels very easy being with him, which is strange considering what happened last night. I mean, I knew it would happen eventually so it wasn’t exactly much of a surprise; but here, now? When we’re supposed to be playing a match soon, when his girlfriend’s here. It’s crazy. It could mess so much up. But instead we’re sitting in my car and he’s complaining about my driving and squinting out of the window and it’s all so – easy. Uncomplicated.
“Okay,” I tell him, to steer myself away from any inconveniently sentimental thoughts, “you need to learn Spanish. ¿Si? Para hablar con mis amigos hoy.” To speak to my friends today, I tell him, and hope wildly that they’ll get on.
He frowns at me. “Why do I need to learn Spanish?”
“Quiero aprender tu lengua,” I tell him, and I do, I’m trying to learn English, a language that he speaks, so I think the favour should be returned. He looks blank, and I change tactic. “For today. Learn some phrases,” I explain instead. “My friends don’t speak much English.” I don’t want Roger to feel left out.
“Even less than you?” He whistles. “Wow. I didn’t know that was possible.” There’s clear affection in his voice.
I snort with laughter and reach across to smack him lightly in the chest without taking my eyes off the road. “Cállate,” I tell him, shut up. Actually, they probably speak about the same as me, if not a little more in Miguel’s case, but they’re likely to forget that Roger doesn’t understand Spanish.
“See, that is why you should learn Spanish. I don’t make you learn Mallorquin – I am kind, no?” I grin.
“Oh yeah, very kind.” He smirks. I can feel myself blushing, although there is no reason why, and I shake my head, and turn around the corner marked Puerto Cristo – 6. Six kilómetros to Puerto Cristo, and I’m a little nervous about introducing him to my friends. Xisca’s waiting there as well, my family having left earlier this morning; it’s a little strange but I hope it’s going to work out. I wonder if Xisca will be able to tell what happened last night. I wonder if she’ll be happy for me or tell me that I’m being stupid. Not even I can decide whether or not this is stupid. It’s cheating either way, and I’ve never liked or respected people who do things like that.
“Hey, Rafa.” Roger’s voice is uncharacteristically quiet.
“Yeah?” I glance over at him quickly, but I can’t look at him long enough to be able to interpret his expression properly.
“Your friends are... nice, right?”
“Si, si, they’re nice. Claro.” I shrug. I wouldn’t be friends with people who weren’t nice. I’m not that sort of person and I’m sure that Roger knows it. “They are my friends since five, six years old. They are good friends, not there because of money or tennis.”
“Yeah, I thought that.” He lets out a breath. I can hear the tap-tap-tap of his fingers on the end of the armrest.
“Are you nervous?” I venture.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him turn towards me. “I... a little,” he admits.
“They’ll like you,” I tell him, with absolute certainty. I can’t imagine anyone not liking him. I’m more concerned about what they’ll say to me about how much I like him. Just not in front of Xisca, please God not in front of her. I haven’t told them anything, my friends, but they know me pretty well by now and they’ve been known to just magically figure things out.
“Okay.” He relaxes, at least until I careen around a corner just a little too fast. “Rafa!” He lets out a torrent of English that I don’t even bother to try to understand because I can see my house and just like usual I’m already feeling pretty happy at the mere sight of it.
ROGER: As it turns out, this simple Mallorquin boy? Not so simple after all. His family’s pretty wealthy – they’d have to be, to own an amazing boat like this. It’s long and elegant-lined and bright sparkling white, and there are five of us on there without a problem. The crowd of terrifyingly beautiful boys hasn’t materialised, thankfully, and it’s just me, Rafa, Xisca, and Rafa’s friends Miguel and Cielo. Miguel studies at the university in Palma and his English is pretty good; Cielo does something to do with saving the planet or something and she’s tall and wiry, with skinny ankles poking out of these weird voluminous turquoise trousers. Her English isn’t too bad, either, but I’m still attempting to practise my very few words of Spanish on them.
“Rafa teach you good,” Cielo enthuses, after I demonstrate my knowledge of the phrase ‘¿Como estás?’
“Yeah, well, Rafa also taught me swearwords so he’s not that great,” I say, rolling my eyes, and she looks confused but next to her Miguel snorts with laughter. I don’t know why I was nervous about meeting these people. Cielo’s making a real effort to get to know me and while Miguel’s a little more reticent, he still seems like a nice guy. On the other side of the boat, Rafa and Xisca are sitting around a fishing rod. His eyes are focussed on the ocean and her eyes are focussed on him, which is – not unexpected.
I gaze over for a second too long, suddenly caught up in a vague memory of that morning, the heat of his mouth, the smooth skin at the small of his back, and then I realise that Miguel’s looking at me strangely.
“I’m fine,” I say in response to his unasked question and he nods, eyes a little wary.
“I go to talk to Rafa,” he says, and smiles slightly as he gets up and scrambles over to Rafa and Xisca.
Cielo gabbles at me for a little while in a very odd mix of what I can only assume is Castilian, Mallorquin, English and possibly a little French as she tries to make herself understood as she explains about the ins and outs of her job. I have the horrible feeling she’s trying to recruit me for some cause or another and I can feel my smile starting to become a little fixed. But behind her Rafa’s standing up, beaming at me and coming towards us.
“Hola,” he says happily, hands on Cielo’s shoulders, and whispers something fast and Catalan into her ear. She grins at me, nods slightly, and joins Xisca and Miguel.
“We go inside?” Rafa asks me, and nods towards the cabin.
“Sure.” I follow him in and take the seat next to him. Rafa looks lighter, younger, on this island. His hair seems to have more bounce, his eyes more sparkle. It’s a beautiful day, though, and the sun tends to have that effect on people when it’s not too hot and humid and you don’t have to play tennis feeling like every drop of moisture in your body’s being squeezed out through your skin. There’s a breeze but it’s not too cold, and while it’s not warm enough to take off our shirts and lie in the sun on the deck, I’m actually kind of glad about that because I’m not sure I’d be able to take my eyes off him.
“You look good in the sun,” he offers then, a little hesitantly.
I’m not sure where the line has been drawn. This time yesterday everything seemed so much clearer. Now we know each other much more intimately and everything is intricate and brittle.
“Thanks,” I say, and smile, unable not to. “So do you.”
“Thanks.” He grins like a schoolboy. We both shuffle in our seats for a moment. I kind of want to kiss him.
I don’t. Instead I say, “How’s the fishing going?”
“Good, good,” he says, and then grimaces slightly. “Well, we have no fish. But it is fun.”
“Yeah,” I say. I don’t know what else to talk about. He moves his hand and rests it on my thigh, quickly, like he needs to do it fast in case I shake him off. I can feel the warmth of his palm through my jeans and I look down at it on my leg and there it is, the sheer fact of his hand on my leg, fingertips stretching down into my inner thigh, just where it’s kind of indecent to touch someone if you aren’t fucking them. When I look at him, his eyes are dancing with mischief.
I take his hand in both of mine and I turn it over, and I run my fingers along the calluses on the side of his palm and the pads below his fingers, the softer skin between them. The life line, the love line, although I can never remember which is which. Both lines are straight on my hand, which is kind of ironic. It also makes me call bullshit on that whole palmreading business. I lift his hand to my lips and I kiss the soft skin on the centre of his palm and I drag the tip of my tongue along the callus. His skin tastes like salt and sun.
When I look at him again, the mischief is gone. He’s almost trembling, pupils dilated as he gazes, his lips slightly apart, at me. And yeah, okay, that’s better, that’s how I want it to be.
RAFA: Roger’s smiling at me slightly. He lets go of my hand and leans towards me. Then he leans back again and touches his temple and says, “Whoa.” He blinks a couple of times and I’m reaching for him and then he’s gone.
ROGER: When I open my eyes, staggering a little, I’m in a hotel room, an unidentifiable hotel room, the walls a completely boring shade of cream, the bed linen totally indistinguishable from any other hotel in the world. I look around a little frantically for signs of familiar things, possessions, and suck in a relieved breath when I catch sight of my watch on the bedside table. Excellent, so it’s my room and not somewhere I have to make a very hasty escape from, and without looking at much else I go to the open suitcase, ruffle through its messy contents and find a pair of jeans. It’s so much easier to just – not be naked, in a situation like this. I wonder for a moment what Rafa’s thinking in Mallorca, what I’m going to say to explain this but – well, I think he might know anyway. So I can only hope that he’s covering for me as well as he can.
Once I’m a little more clothed, I can focus more on what’s around me; the bathroom door’s shut and there’s steam billowing out from beneath it, so I guess someone’s having a very long hot shower in there. Me, I would assume. I perch on the end of the bed. The wardrobe door is half-open and I can see clothes hanging in it. I crane my head to the side; a dinner jacket, and then – another dinner jacket. I frown slightly. Whatever.
I hear the shower turn off. Footsteps shuffling around. I shout, “Hey!”, in case I freak myself out. No reply. Then the door handle turns and Rafa comes wandering out. He’s rotating his right wrist and grimacing slightly, but abruptly stops when he sees me.
“Hey, Roger,” he says lightly, and his gaze falls to my empty hands. “You get the aftersun?”
“Uh,” I say, and cough. “The aftersun?”
He takes a step closer to me. He has a towel wrapped around his waist and there’s water trickling down his chest, pooling on the light ridges of his stomach muscles. The other hand’s rubbing a smaller towel idly at his dripping hair. His near-naked state is very distracting. “Yeah,” he says blankly, the beginnings of a frown appearing on his face. “For...” Then his expression clears. “Oh. You’re not... When are you from?”
“Battle of the Surfaces,” I say emptily. “We were on the boat...”
His face suddenly creases into a smile. “Oh! Yeah, I remember.” He lets out a snort of laughter, shaking his head. “That was funny.”
I can’t help but smile slightly, dryly. “I’m glad you think so.”
“We both thought so.” He smiles intimately, privately, and my insides melt a little.
“You’re... here with me,” I say then, kind of realising actively for the first time what all this means, and he nods a little. “Sharing a room,” I clarify.
He waves an arm vaguely at the place. It’s scattered with possessions in a way that my hotel rooms with Mirka have never been, and there are only men’s clothes here, some in a style that I’d never consider wearing.
“Where are we?” I ask. “Are we playing in a tournament or...”
“Holiday,” he tells me, which is all the more frightening. “Beautiful place, but I let that be a surprise for you, no? Except today I get burnt.” He turns around and I admire his back for a moment, all easy muscles and smooth taut skin, dark golden brown except for the patch between his shoulder blades which has an unmistakeably pink tint.
“But you never get burnt,” I point out.
“That what I say today before I got burnt.” He shrugs, smiling self-deprecatingly. I snort out a laugh and so does he, and then we’re both quiet and gazing at each other. “We are happy, now, you and me,” he says after a moment, and I’m gazing into his eyes as everything around us disintegrates and suddenly I’m wet and cold and completely unable to breathe.
RAFA: I sneak a glance outside at Xisca and Miguel and Cielo. They’re all occupied with pointing at something in the sea, which is good because I’m trying frantically to think of a cover story for the fact that Roger’s clothes are heaped over the seat next to me but he’s not there. There is just – nothing. No reason that he could have vanished off a boat in the middle of the ocean. Shit. My stomach’s jumping and my head’s reeling and I’m trying desperately to think of something to do.
But I don’t have to think for too long because there’s a heavy splash from the other side of the boat. I skid out of the cabin and look over the side and sure enough, there’s Roger, spitting out mouthfuls of salt water into the sea. He looks dizzy and disoriented and he’s squinting up at me like he can barely see me, and –
I have to do something. Anything.
Xisca and Miguel and Cielo are approaching me, the expressions on their faces nothing short of complete bewilderment.
“Rafa,” says Miguel, “is he – is he in the water?”
My blood is screaming past my ears. “Great idea, Roger!” I shout. “How fun!” I start to strip off my clothes, toe off my sneakers, dropping my shirt in a heap on top of my jeans. “Nothing better than the sea,” I say, and step out of my underwear. Then I cannonball into the ocean.
It’s cold. Oh God, so cold. We don’t usually dive in this far out because it’s so cold, and it’s only the beginning of May, and it’s a shock and I’d been so warm before. It was so good being warm. I can no longer remember what that felt like.
“This is nice,” I say through chattering teeth, wondering if I’m going to turn into a block of ice and float down to the seabed like Jack in Titanic.
Roger’s staring at me, gaping, and then he’s laughing, doggy paddling towards me. “Rafa, you’re crazy,” he says.
“I know,” I say, kicking frantically to keep myself warm, swooshing my arms around in the icy water. “But I cover for you.”
“Thank you.” He’s smiling, face still a mask of disbelief. I look up and I see Miguel, Cielo and Xisca’s faces gazing at us over the side of the boat,
“Roger, enough of the sea?” I enquire and he has to duck his face under to disguise his laugh.
“Yeah, I think so,” he bubbles at me. We kick our way to the side of the boat and Miguel’s stretching down to help drag us out of the water. I avert my eyes as he scrambles out of the water and onto the boat because, well, it’s very cold water and I wouldn’t want him to see me in that state, and I can see that he’s carefully not looking at me either.
After a little while we’re both sitting in the cabin wrapped in thick white towels we found under one of the seats. My teeth are chattering.
“Hijo de puta,” I mutter at Roger.
He levels a gaze at me. “Did you forget you taught me how to swear in Spanish when we were in Seoul? Son of a bitch, yourself.”
I had forgotten that. I shake my head slightly. “Stupid. I’ll get flu,” I intone darkly, with a smile so he knows that I don’t mean it.
“So you knew,” he says, after a few beats of silence.
“About the time travel? Yes,” I admit.
“You’ve met me? A future me?” He turns beseeching eyes on me.
I nod. I don’t want to say much more. I want him to live it, I don’t want him to know it beforehand. “Yeah. Future you is a nice guy.”
“Unlike present me, who is a son of a bitch?” He twinkles over at me.
I reach out and tousle his dripping hair, and he makes a noise of outrage, and goes about rearranging it. It is a lost cause, wild wet curls sticking out everywhere, but I decide that I’m going to humour him. “Yes, asshole,” I say, and I laugh across at him. Behind him the sun is setting, and Roger is carved from sand and salt and seawater.
Roger is 36, and Rafa is 16.
ROGER: Like always, when I get there I’m dizzy. I also feel a little nauseous and I stand still for a moment with my eyes squeezed shut, fighting my gag reflex. Then I open my eyes, take a deep breath, and tell myself that I’m fine. It’s then that I realise that I can hear music playing, loudly, from Rafa’s garden. I wait for a moment until I’m sure that I’m not going to fall over if I make any sudden movements, and then I reach down for the plastic bag full of clothes that Rafa keeps hidden under a bush. I pull on a familiar but slightly ill-fitting pair of jeans and a red t-shirt, and then I’m done. On the edge of the little stone wall there’s a plate with food on it that’s covered in clear plastic, with a little scrap of paper on it bearing the initials ‘R.F’.
Rafa is so amazing, I think vaguely, as I reach for the plate. It’s strange, this mixture of nausea and hunger, but eating usually cures it, and I’m hoping that it’ll work tonight. Because it is clearly night-time; the stars are very bright above me in a dark blue silken sky, like diamonds picked out along the skirt of this dress that I seem to recall Mirka once owned. Strange, the things you remember a decade later.
Anyway, this music that’s playing. It’s got a heavy bass thumping and it sounds like party music to me. Music that I don’t know – the voices are in Spanish and I’m guessing that it was a 90s party hit that Rafa’s generation quickly got tired of. And thank God too, because it doesn’t sound all that good to me.
I’m halfway through the plate of food. It’s pretty good, but I put it down for a moment, curious about what might be going on over the wall, through the thick tall greenery. I stand on the wall, and I crane my neck and there’s a gap in the foliage that I can see through then. The back garden’s full of people talking, laughing, drinking, dancing. I recognise some of the faces – it’s good to know that Rafa’s going to stay close to some of his old friends – but others are completely new to me. I would go out there, try to find Rafa myself, if only to stop myself from being in the undeniably uncomfortable situation of observing a party but not being able to join in with it. But doing that could definitely throw up some pretty big problems. I mean, people I know from the future could see me in Rafa’s past and then how would I answer questions about that? Plus I’m pretty sure that I’m getting very big in the world of tennis now in Rafa’s time and I don’t especially want to be recognised.
And so I sit back down again. There’s nothing much to do besides get this plate of food finished, and so I do.
RAFA: There is not much of a reason for this party other than the fact that my family is away. I’m not home that often these days and it’s even rarer that I’m home by myself. And so I invited all my friends over. They brought their own friends and it’s getting kind of packed out here, but that’s okay. Everyone here is cool and no one seems to be causing any trouble. There are bottles of beer packed in barrels full of ice, and there’s a table with bottles of cheap spirits and Coke and lemonade, and a CD player with huge speakers. I think that I have actually done a pretty good job of organising this thing, although there’s a chance that when my parents get home they might disagree.
Still, there isn’t any point in thinking about that tonight. I don’t have training for three days so I don’t need to worry about that. Tonight is just – fun.
Even more so because Roger’s going to be here. Last week, we were standing on the beach near my house and it was beautiful and warm, and I kissed him for the first time. I don’t know what I feel about that. It’s another thing that I don’t think about too hard, in case it gets big and messy and confusing. I’m just glad I get to see him again. That’s all. There aren’t that many more times left on the list he gave me, after all, and I think that maybe this whole thing is coming to the end, until we meet again in the future, and that’s going to be different. Very different.
I glance at my watch, and my stomach jolts pleasantly. Roger should be here soon, if he’s not already, and I make my excuses and wind my way to the bottom of the garden. And then when I turn the corner there he is, and he’s smiling at me.
ROGER: When Rafa comes through I’m a little struck for a moment; how young he is, how tall despite that, how broad. I think of my Rafa this morning, wading his way through the biggest pile of ironing known to man, and despite that telling me yet again that it would be creepy and weird to pay other people wash our clothes. He was thirty-two, still sun-burnished, still messy-haired. Looking at the kid in front of me I can see that some things never change.
“Hey!” he says happily, striding over to me. He pauses for a second just before he gets to me. His eyes go to my lips and I wonder for a moment when exactly this is in his life.
“Hey, Rafa,” I say comfortably, and tilt my head towards the other side of the garden. “You have your friends over?”
“It’s a celebration of the summer,” he explains glibly. I raise an eyebrow at him and he snorts with laughter, a little shamefacedly. “Also, I wanted to have a party,” he admits.
“Yeah, that sounds more realistic,” I say. “How many people do you have here?”
He shrugs a little. “I don’t know. Fifty, sixty? Something like that.”
“You better have locked off the house in case anyone steals anything,” I tell him absently, and before he can interrupt and object that no one he knows would ever steal – oh, naivety, and my Rafa still retains his faith in the kindness of the human race as a whole – from him, I say, “Or someone might break something.”
He pauses thoughtfully then, nods in concession. “Yeah. I’ll lock all the rooms except for the bathroom.”
“Good plan.” I smile at him. We’re quiet for a moment. It’s a beautiful night, all warm breezes and moonlight. If this was another time and another place, if this was home, I’d put my arms around him. I’d ask him to dance to that crazy Spanish music with me. We should have a party. Later this year, maybe. I’ll talk to him about it.
“So,” I say, tentatively. “When was the last time I was here for you?”
He pushes his hair behind his ears. It’s getting longer; he’s turning into a man, if he’s not there already. “Last week,” he tells me. “We were on the beach.”
“Oh.” Oh. “Yeah. I remember that.” It was two years ago for me. Everything has changed since then. For the best, for the worst. Mostly for good. “And you...”
“Yeah.” He lets out a little laugh, looking as though he feels a little awkward, which is understandable.
“It was a good day, Raf.” I reach out, touch his arm quickly.
A dull rosy red is streaking his cheekbones. He doesn’t say anything. I’m not sure if he can. He just nods a little, and bites his lip. “I should – see if my friends are okay,” he manages to get out, and bolts.
I wonder for a moment if all along he’s been less comfortable about this than he has appeared, but then again that can’t be true, because Rafa isn’t that good at hiding his feelings. Still, clearly there’s nothing like a hesitant teenager to make me doubt my boringly stable future relationship.
RAFA: There are so many people out here. My friends, their friends. Pretty girls. I’m sure that there are lots of girls here who I could kiss if I wanted to, who I could go out with. But that’s not what I want. It’s all so difficult. Xisca’s here. Someone told me that she was crying at school last month, just after we broke up. I feel so bad about that but I didn’t know what else to do. When you know that something isn’t right, there just isn’t anything you can do other than end it. Honesty. That’s the best thing, right? Sometimes it’s the only thing. I’m not the sort of person who’s good at pretending.
I’m starting to think that I know how my future’s going to work out. At least, I think I know, and even if that’s not the case, I think I know the direction I want to work towards. I want to find Roger in the future. If he doesn’t – if we don’t, then that’s fine. When I see him, he’ll only be five years older than me. We can be friends. I want that. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get that.
Still, I think I left what I want my future to be in a crumbling little alcove in my back garden and I don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do. I don’t think it’s very promising. So I grab an extra beer and I head down to see Roger again.
When I go through, I’m holding the beer bottle out to him in a conciliatory sort of way. “Hey. Here.”
“Thanks.” He looks a little surprised, but takes it. “How’re you doing, Rafa? Having fun?”
“Yeah. Great.” And it is great. I’ve just been a little preoccupied. He has that effect on me. I sit down next to him, and I take a breath. “So do you want to come and meet my friends?”
He shakes his head, maybe a little regretfully. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“You’ve met my friends in the future, though?”
“A long time into your future,” he tells me, and half-smiles. “A long time into my past now. I’m getting old.”
“You’re not old,” I tell him, automatically. In comparison to the Roger I’ve seen on the internet and on TV, I’ll admit that he looks older, but he isn’t aging badly or anything. He just looks tired sometimes, and a little sad, maybe.
Right now though, he looks great as he smiles across at me and one of his messy curls flops down over his forehead. “I think you need glasses,” he tells me, smiling a little.
“Do I need glasses in the future?” I ask, suddenly curious.
He shrugs. “Maybe one day. Not yet.”
I gaze at him and then, impulsively, I give him what I hope is a stunning smile, and cock my head to one side. “Do you think that glasses would suit me?” I purr.
He raises an eyebrow and takes the beer from my hand. He gazes into the bottom of it, swishes it speculatively. “How many of these have you had?”
“A couple.” (Five. And a couple of paper cups of mixed drinks.) I snatch it back. Apparently I am not as good at flirtation as I’d hoped.
“It’s showing.” He’s smirking at me and I pretend to growl at him, curling my lip and faking annoyance. Then he’s laughing and reaching out towards me, cupping his hands around my jaw and bringing his face in close to mine. “Come on, Rafa. Don’t be cross. Give me a smile.” His thumb brushes along my bottom lip. His hands are still on my face. For some reason, it doesn’t seem funny anymore.
I shake my head a little and he releases me immediately. “Sorry,” he mutters.
“Don’t be. I know you probably don’t want to...” I exhale.
“It’s not that—”
“Then what is it?” I’m suddenly desperate to know, a note of pleading in my voice that I’d do anything to shake away.
“You’re so young,” he says almost helplessly.
“So? I’m sixteen. That’s legal.”
He laughs a little, awkward, shifting backwards. “Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s moral.”
“You haven’t said anything about what it actually is,” I point out.
“Do I have to?” He raises an eyebrow. I think he’s trying for scepticism but it’s not coming off that way. He just seems nervous and a little awed, maybe. Something like that, anyway.
“You probably should.” I feel like words should be out in the open. Unspoken things are more complicated, more woolly. They’re easier to misinterpret, or to ignore completely. I’m so sick of ignoring things, like how his mouth felt against mine.
His profile is edged by moonlight. Heavy brows, blunt nose, full lips. He shakes his head, very slightly.
So that’s how it’s going to be. I don’t know what to say, and so I sit there for a little while in silence, and then I take another sip of my beer.
ROGER: It’s so hard, not messing things up. It’s just that I think of my Rafa, with his limp and his scars and the heavily drawn lines on his forehead and around his eyes, and I wonder what he’d think of me with this younger version of him, who’s lighter, less weighed down. When I go home and tell him where I’ve been, will happy memories be evoked for him, or will he just miss the times that used to be? I have no idea. It’s strange, uncovering pieces of his past that he hasn’t told me about. I almost wish that he had, so that maybe I’d know what to do now.
Right now, younger Rafa seems a little foggy; I think that sometimes kids don’t have any idea about how much of an effect alcohol has on them. He’s never been the most self-aware of people, sometimes invading personal space just a little (not that I’ve ever minded that) and never quite aware that people from other countries are sometimes not quite as tactile as he’s been brought up to be. So it makes sense that he doesn’t realise that he’s talking oddly and moving a little weirdly. Honestly, it’s kind of sweet to watch. Neither of us drink much in our time. Not to this rosy-cheeked beer-breathed extreme anyway, and honestly, from what little I’ve seen of him, I kind of like drunk Rafa.
He stands, with almost – but not quite – all of his usual grace. “Okay. I’m going to see my friends again, but I’ll be back,” he promises.
“Sure. I might be gone by then,” I point out.
“Don’t be,” he tells me, and I can’t help but shake my head, feeling myself smirk a little.
“I’ll do my best,” I assure him, and just before he leaves the little garden he turns and gives me this amazing smile. And it’s suddenly very hard to remember why I’m not doing this, again.
So while he’s gone I listen to the music. I tap the heel of my hand on my knee in time with the beat. With my bare foot, I brush the dead leaves and petals off each paving slab, one by one. The dirt’ll stay behind here when I vanish off back home anyway, so it doesn’t matter. I’m almost three-quarters of the way through the beer he brought me when he returns.
He seems like he’s had a little more than three-quarters of a bottle. His footsteps are a little more precarious as he makes his way towards me. “Hey!” His voice is marginally too loud.
I bite back a smile. “Hi again, Raf.”
RAFA: The alcohol is – kind of starting to hit me. Luckily I’m pretty big so I soak it up instead of going completely crazy or anything, but still I’m quite dizzy and sometimes things have a habit of spinning around me. I danced with my friends though, I’m having fun, and so everything is okay!
And now I am with Roger and he’s smiling at me with a kind of sweet benevolence. Roger is so great. This is so nice. “How’re you doing?” he asks me, hand on my back to steady me as I sit down next to him.
“Great!” I tell him. “How are you?”
He nods a little. “I’m great too.” He takes another sip of the beer I brought him before. Why do I get the feeling he’s trying not to laugh?
I study him for a moment. I know his face so well. Sometimes I’m sure, sometimes I’m not; sometimes I get easy and good mixed up, what would be easy to do (find Xisca, tell her I want her back, kiss her, easy, easy) and what would be good (to sit here beside him, to look at him and not know, not understand, to hope and to want). I want to understand one day. I want it all to be clear.
“Roger,” I say, “one day, this will be clear, right? One day we’ll know what’s happening.”
He’s gazing at me. I don’t know what his face means but I know there’s kindness there. “Rafa,” he says, “it’ll be clear. It is clear.”
“Mmm.” I nod. Roger’s face is a little swimmy. It’s not that clear.
He reaches out a hand, strokes a lock of hair out of my face. “You okay?”
I nod. I think I am, anyway. I’m still confused, but I don’t think that’s going to end any time soon. In a few weeks Roger will be out of my life, my kind wise friend will be gone and I won’t see him for months and even then he won’t be himself. I don’t know what to do, but I do know. He’s right in front of me and when I’m in bed at night I dream about him and I ache for him. I’ve thought about the taste of his lips almost constantly for the last few days, and now here he is and those lips are just – right there.
It’s so obvious.
I reach out and I take his face in my hands. He’s a little stubbly and it’s scratchy on the palms of my hands. I smile at him encouragingly and he’s just sitting there dumbly, looking at me, and I hope, I hope this is the right thing to do. I press my lips against his and he just sits there and he doesn’t kiss me back, he’s just sitting there cold and there and not there at the same time. His hands are on my chest, pushing me away but tangling in my shirt at the same time like he can’t but he wants to.
“Rafa,” he says, softly. “We...” He shakes himself clear of my hands. “You’re drunk. And you’re too young.”
“But I,” I say, and can’t go on, afraid of what I might say, what I might let out. It doesn’t make sense. I’m old enough to know what I want, and right now I think I’m old enough to know what he wants, too.
And so I lean forward and I kiss him again, and this time he doesn’t pull away.
ROGER: His mouth tastes like beer and his lips are soft and he doesn’t kiss like my Rafa yet. Years spent practising on girls, I suppose, and we haven’t fallen into our rhythm yet in this time. But I’m kissing him back because I’m crazy, because he’s intoxicating with his dark eyes and his messy hair and his clear want for me. Rafa grew up early, I reason as his tongue slips into my mouth, demanding and gentle at once, and anyway, soon enough we’ll—
But nothing like that’s going to happen tonight. It just can’t. In his eyes we’ve only kissed once before, on that beach; I guess this is only our second kiss, and in a weird sort of way I want to make it memorable for him. And so I draw him close to me and I kiss him intimately and tenderly, just like I wish my second kiss with a guy had been, and he’s melting against me. Just like I would do fifteen years into the future, I lose myself in that heat and in him.
Then we’re breaking apart and he’s saying, “I don’t want to,” and stopping there like he doesn’t quite know the words. He kisses my lips quickly, like he doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to do that, he doesn’t want to not kiss me, but there are lines and limits and he’s almost at his.
“Yeah, I understand,” I tell him, and I do. Honestly, I do. “Rafa, you should get back to your party.”
His eyes look a little hazy and his lips look dark, bruised. “Yeah,” he says dazedly, like he’s forgotten that he’s having a party at all. He makes a move to stand up but then he changes his mind. He puts his arms around me, holds me tight, and I can feel his lips pressing against my neck. I tighten my arms around him and draw him close to me, and it’s then that I see the face.
A face that I recognise, that I know well, coming in from the garden. Looking for Rafa, I guess, and his shock’s visible even in this dark halflight. He doesn’t say anything, though, and I don’t let go of Rafa. I keep him sheltered from anyone knowing about him and about us. I understand things though, in the future, knowing glances and uncomfortable silences, and all of a sudden Rafa’s friend Miguel makes much more sense.
Miguel vanishes back into the party and it’s only then that I let Rafa go. “Have fun,” I tell him, and then remember that I’m older and the more responsible one. “And don’t drink any more.”
He laughs a little, rubs his nose. “I wasn’t going to.”
“Good.” I ruffle his hair affectionately.
He rests a hand lightly on my arm as he stands and then he’s gone, vanished into the dark. I guess that in a way I could feel left out, I could feel weird about the fact that he’s gone back to his life and back to crowds of people that I will never know. For now, though, I know I should just be content with the part of his future that I will occupy.
Roger is 25, and Rafa is 20.
RAFA: The last couple of weeks have been insanity.
When Roger left Mallorca I was – I don’t know. Happy he’d been there, sad that he left, still with excitement thrumming through me. You know when you have a new relationship start and it’s checking your phone all the time and wishing he’d text and taking any chance to sneak away and call him, and feeling your stomach tremble every time you hear his voice? It was like that. I know that it isn’t anything real yet. I know he’s cheating on his girlfriend and that’s really terrible and I know that I shouldn’t be any part of that. It’s just that I can’t help it.
Miguel talked to me about it. He said he could tell that something was up, and that I needed to be careful. Xisca just said that she thought that Roger was nice, and that made me feel pretty guilty because she’s so sweet, so nice, and she doesn’t seem to get it. Cielo just muttered something about fate, but I’ve told her a million times that fate doesn’t come into anything. There is just what has been, and what will be, and even though I know part of what will happen, I would like to think that my decisions are made not because I know that the future has already been created, but because they’re what I really want.
I know that this whole thing is a stupid idea. But I also know how the future goes. And there are some things that you just have to let be.
ROGER: I keep having dreams about him. It’s crazy. He’s another guy, he’s my biggest rival, I have a girlfriend; sometimes I think about what could happen if the newspapers got hold of this. It’d be insane. I’d never be Roger Federer, World Number One, again. My ranking would no longer be important, my game, my wins, my losses. Just the person I’m sleeping with, cheating on my girlfriend with. That’s the nature of this world that we’re living in, after all.
It’s only been a couple of weeks since the first time, all sweet and sunny on his island that he loves. Since then we’ve been texting, calling occasionally. No obscene sex texts or anything like that. Just, you know, hi, how are you, how’s training, and then I’ll see you in Germany. Playing on clay. His territory. Because it’s clay court season at the moment and I’ve always felt a little unnatural there. Clay’s another one of his homes.
Of course, I’ve seen him since, but only in passing in Rome. We barely spoke, constantly surrounded by people, but I remember feeling electricity shoot up my spine when I saw him for the first time. There was so much in his eyes when he looked at me then that I was a little surprised that no one immediately pounced on us, demanding to know what exactly was going on. In Rome, though, I didn’t even get to the quarters – a little embarrassing, but it happens. And now here we are in Hamburg, in the finals. I’m looking forward to seeing him, and I’m feeling good.
RAFA: The first time I play him after Mallorca, and I lose.
Honestly? It hurts. It does hurt. I don’t think it hurts any more or less than it would do if it was anyone else. It just hurts in a different way. But he was better, I have no excuses. The best person won and I’m happy for him, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make myself better. It’s setting my nerve even more for Roland Garros. As much as I care about Roger, I’m not going to give up any tournaments for him, and I know he’d say the same about me. Tennis stays separate from our personal lives. He changes on court – he’s not his funny warm normal self, he’s cold and intimidatingly perfect. Nothing shows on his face. And I’ve been told that I change when I’m playing, too. I guess it’s just a case of Nadal and Federer on court, and Rafa and Roger in private, in the bedroom I’ve had since I was little, worlds away from courts and photographers.
But I take a moment and I breathe away the disappointment at having lost, and then I’m happy for him. I’ll talk to Toni and I’ll change my game around a little, and I can make something good out of this loss.
He catches up with me on the way to the changing rooms. It’s the first time I’ve been alone with him since this kiss we had on his last night in Mallorca, when I went up to his room to tell him goodbye and Mirka wasn’t there, and so he kissed me, long and lingering. Like we didn’t have to rush, like he wasn’t worried that she’d just walk through the door. Like we weren’t doing anything wrong. When I looked at him afterwards, for a moment he had a little of that tennis blankness that he cultivates when he’s playing, but then it vanished and he hugged me and told me he’d see me soon. And that kind of cemented it, it made me sure that it’d all happen again. And now here he is.
“Hey, Rafa. You okay?”
I turn to look at him. My hair’s wet with sweat and it’s getting in my eyes. “Yeah. I’m okay. Congratulations, I told you before, you play really good.”
“Thanks.” He’s glowing, beaming. “Sorry.”
“Is fine,” I tell him, and reach out and place my hand tentatively on his back. “It is the sport. You play great.”
And then he’s turning that beam onto me. “Thanks. It was a good match.” As I drop my hand from his back, he lets his fingers brush against mine briefly. I feel like crackles of electricity are going to start visibly running up my arm, but thankfully they don’t.
We make our way into the changing rooms. Strip off, the normal routine. I almost forget that now I’m allowed to look – or at least, I think I am. So I glance over my shoulder towards him, and I meet his eyes. He’s grinning wickedly.
“Finally I have you alone,” he says, and raises an eyebrow as he advances towards me. He’s not completely serious, playfulness written all over his movements, and I can’t help but smile at him, a little of the match-loss raincloud lifting off me.
“Yeah, you do,” I agree, and go a step further. “You have plans?”
He laughs. “Oh, the plans I could tell you about. Many plans, Rafa.”
“Many,” I repeat, curiously.
“Many.” He screws up his mouth, a little ruefully, and then looks a little worried, suddenly. “Unless – you do actually want—”
“I want,” I say quickly. Of course I want. Like he needs to ask that.
“Good.” He relaxes a little. I’m not sure what the next step is. Someone could come in any second. He’s only wearing his shorts and one sock, and I’m down to my underwear, and it could look a little weird. Still, he comes towards me and he puts a hand on my arm and he says, seriously, “I want to see you, Rafa. Just us. I don’t know how it’s going to work, but...”
“We make it work.” I move my arm so I can entwine my fingers with his instead. “Okay?”
“Yeah. But Mirka, I mean, I can’t...” He shrugs, a little helplessly.
I shake my head at him. “I’m not asking for nothing.” I’m not. I mean, it would be better if he didn’t have a girlfriend, but I get it. I understand. It’s difficult for him.
“Okay. Thank you.” He leans into me, and kisses me, hand curving around the back of my neck. It’s a nice sort of kiss – not the sort that leads to sex in the changing rooms, which would probably be a terrible idea. It’s the sort of kiss that means, we’ll have more of these, this is just the start. Then we’re breaking away from each other but he’s putting his arms around my waist, keeping me there next to him, my body pressed up against his. “I’ll see you in Paris, okay, Rafa?”
I nod. “And we will,” I say questioningly, and don’t know how to finish the sentence.
“Yeah. We’ll... see each other,” he says. We kiss once again, quickly, and then we detangle ourselves from each other. It’s colder, when he’s not wrapped around me.
“I take something of yours,” I tell him. “It will be my Hamburg trophy. Even though you have the real thing.” I pretend to sigh disgustedly.
He laughs, looking at me like he’s completely charmed. “Okay. What do you want?”
I shrug. “I have your shirt. Like in football.” It seems to make sense. We both love football. And I like the thought of keeping something of his that has been next to his skin.
“My shirt?” He shakes his head a little, smilingly. “Okay. I’ll even sign it, if you want.”
“Sure.” I shrug.
“Rafa, I was kidding.”
“Sign! Is a good idea.” I nod, and begin to fish through my bag for my permanent marker. But he’s faster than me, and he’s already next to me, holding out his sweaty red shirt with his big dark signature on the left, where his heart would be if he was still wearing it. “Perfect,” I tell him.
He smiles, and leans in to kiss me briefly on the cheek. “I’m going to shower,” he tells me, and I’m still looking at the damp shirt as he sheds the rest of his clothes and heads towards the showers. Would it be disgusting if I didn’t wash this thing, I wonder. Probably. It’s just that I don’t want to wash any traces of him away, like his scent on the shirt. As if none of it will have happened if I wash away the evidence. Then again, I decide as I look towards the showers, if I opened his stall and went in there with him he’d welcome me, and maybe that’s evidence enough.
In fact – life only goes around once, right? There are certain things in my future that are unavoidable, that Roger has told me about and that I don’t want to try to change. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t use my initiative, sometimes.
When I open the door to Roger’s shower stall, he opens his eyes, a trickle of frothy shampoo running down the side of his face, and he smiles at me like there’s no place else, no other time, where he’d want to be.
Chapter 8: 'Estoy bien'
Roger is 25, and Rafa is 21.
RAFA: I feel like James Bond. I am standing in a hotel lobby with my phone clutched to my ear and I’m trying to speak as softly as possible so that nobody hears me. I’m even wearing sunglasses, although I think that maybe that’s just making people look at me even more.
“What?” Roger says down the crackling phoneline for the fourth time, and I’m starting to wish I’d texted him instead. “Rafa, it’s a really bad line. Go outside or something.”
“I can’t,” I hiss into the phone. Someone looks strangely at me from across the lobby and I smile at him. Then his face clears and he starts to make his way towards me, and I think I’m going to have to take a photo with him. Obligingly, I smile and pose, and then I go back to the phone. Roger has been saying “Rafa? Rafa?” with varying degrees of irritation.
“Hey,” I say, and he sighs at me. The phone crackles wildly at my ear. “Roger, you can hear me?”
“Yeah, Rafa, I can hear you.” There’s affection in his voice. I like that.
“I’m at your hotel,” I tell him.
There’s a pause. “What?” He sounds... happy? Incredulous, I think. Like he can’t quite believe it.
“In the, ah, entrance. Your room is what number?” I ask, and wonder for a moment about Mirka. But I don’t ask about her – we don’t talk about her unless it’s completely necessary – and I know that he’d make some kind of feeble excuse if she was around. I feel bad sneaking around, but I’m pretty sure that it’s just a matter of time until she and Roger break up. Weeks, probably. Days, even. Something like that, anyway.
“Eight-oh-two.” He sounds wondering and delighted.
“Okay, I be there in two minutes,” I tell him. So he’s alone. And I’m alone. This is excellent news and my stomach is jingling with nerves. We’ve been together only three times, Roger and I. Mallorca, Hamburg, here in Paris two days ago, and now today will be the fourth. It’s still new and amazing and a little frightening.
I make my way towards the elevator. It’s a nice hotel but it seems quite similar to mine. I can never tell the difference between these places. It was nice when I started getting upgrades to suites instead of rooms, but other than that I don’t mind. It’s good when the hotel has nice room service and I like it if I can see something out of my window other than a stretch of buildings and grey sky, but other than that, hotels are not too important to me. I know that Roger’s very careful about choosing where he stays, though. I should ask him how he chooses his hotels. There are a lot of things I need to ask him, though, and hotels are not that highly rated on a scale of importance.
When I get to Roger’s room I knock twice. I can see my face, distorted, in the strange glass of the peephole. I smile into it, wondering if he’s looking through it yet, if he can see me. I stick out my tongue and then he opens the door. I pull my tongue hastily back into my mouth.
“What are you doing?” he asks, smiling. He’s reaching out, already taking my hand and drawing me closer to him.
“I make faces at you, for laughing,” I explain, and he’s laughing now (aim accomplished!) as he slams the door shut behind me. Then he puts his arms around my waist and he looks at me and pushes my hair off my forehead.
“Hey, Rafa,” he says, in a nice, tender sort of way.
“Hey, Roger.” I kind of stand there in his arms, my hands on his chest. It’s a position uncomfortably reminiscent of the way that I’ve held girls in the past, and I think that maybe Roger’s been spending too much time with his girlfriend. Still, it’s okay; he wants to be close to me and I guess that’s all I can ask for, really—
Except this. He suddenly crushes his lips onto mine, kissing away my smile, his mouth heavy and searching and I kiss him back just as hard. His hands make their way down to my ass and they stay there for a moment, massaging it as I groan into his mouth, and then he pulls my hips hard against his as he breaks the kiss. “We only have thirty-two minutes,” he grits out as he buries his face in my neck and starts kissing it, “so this needs to be...”
“Fast,” I say, very distracted by everything about him. “Okay, that’s fine.” I sort of dodge away from him, put a finger under his chin to bring up his face, press my lips to his again. I like kissing him, I like the taste of him and the feel of him, the urgency and the need and the want, and I’m pushing my hands up his shirt, running them over his back. His skin’s smooth and his muscles are hard and taut. I run my fingers over the line of his spine, the dusky dip at the small of his back. He almost shivers at that, and presses himself closer to me. He’s all angles, collarbone and hips and chest, and I can feel his hard cock pressing against my leg.
I push against him deliberately and he lets out a little sound into my mouth. His hands fall to my waist and they’re working on undoing my belt. He gets it open in no time, flicks open the button at the waistband of my jeans and I let out a little groan. He pulls away for a second, says with a smile, “Jesus Christ, Rafa, you and your noises,” and then I kiss that smile and his words melt away into me. I think I know what else he wants to say, though, so it’s okay.
He kisses me hard, pushes against me and cups my face with gentle callused hands. We stumble towards the bed and I sit down hard on the end of it. He turns away, beginning to undo his belt and I lean down to loosen my shoelaces and toe off my sneakers. As Roger unbuttons his shirt I can’t help but gaze over at him, and he catches my eye and grins, a private fierce expression that makes me tremble a little.
“I mean to say,” I say, out of breath, “congratulations for today and for your win.” Roger’s shedding his shirt, dropping it on the floor, thin white material draped over the carpet. His shoulders are golden and it is a little amazing to know what his skin tastes like.
“Thanks,” he says, clearly not completely listening. He is no longer wearing trousers and neither am I. No time to explore each other’s bodies, no time to do anything much. But he’s warm and lithe as he climbs on top of me, one knee either side of my thighs, pressing his cock against mine. I can feel his heat and as he rocks leisurely against me I have the sudden sensation that we have all the time in the world.
ROGER: He’s twenty-one tomorrow. I don’t think he’s realised that I know. He hasn’t mentioned it to me, and I haven’t told him that I found out. He isn’t a showy guy, though. I guess that maybe he just feels awkward telling me, like he’s making it a big deal or something. But twenty-one! That’s a pretty big deal, especially considering everything that he’s accomplished. I kind of want to do something really great for him, but I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not.
The last few weeks have been great, to say the least. It’s so new and fresh and intoxicating. When I’m not with him I can’t get my mind off him. When he plays matches I watch them on TV, I watch them to see the movement of his brown limbs and the way he wipes his arm down with his towel, the way he kicks up the red clay around him, the steadiness of his feet on the surface as he skids. I watch as the sun gleams on his wet skin and droplets of moisture fall from his hair when he turns his head. I think about the feel of his skin, the softness, and about the taste of his mouth. I think that I’m so achingly lucky, to be able to stretch out a hand and touch him with permission.
So, yeah. I think it is a good idea to do something for his birthday. I can’t get enough of him. And I think it’s time to show him that. Yesterday we made out like teenagers in the locker room, my back pressed hard up against the wall, his hand tangled in my hair and his thigh between my legs. We heard footsteps and sprang apart, flushed and breathing deeply and exchanging secret exultant smiles. It’s surprising and terrifying that he wants this as much as I do. I don’t know what I’m feeling. All I know is that I’m feeling a lot and for me that’s a pretty big deal.
I have a cake. I didn’t make it or anything, but I bought a cake, with dark chocolate icing and delicate flakes of white chocolate on the top of it. It’s in a white cardboard box in the bag I’m carrying carefully by my side, watchful in case it tilts to one side and the delicate piped swirls on the top of it get ruined. I’m trying to look purposeful, but it’s tough when you’re wandering someone else’s hotel corridors at precisely two minutes to twelve.
I reach his door at just over one minute to twelve, and I look at my watch and count down the remaining seconds. When the second hand reaches the twelve, I knock on the door. Rustlings from within and then the door swings open. And there’s Rafa standing in front of me, all messy hair and a sleepy frown. The childlike surprise that blossoms on his face when he sees me is completely at odds with his broad shoulders and heavily muscled body. Then he smiles, bright and happy. He opens his mouth to say something, but I shake my head and he closes his mouth, head tilting quizzically to one side.
“Happy birthday,” I say, and I open the bag and show him the cake.
He lets out one of his snorting laughs. “Is my—” He twists, looks at the clock next to his bed. “It is twelve! I am twenty-one!”
“Legal to drink in America,” I tell him.
He nods, pretending to be serious. “During the US Open I will get, how you say, wasted,” he tells me solemnly.
“Good plan.” I gaze at him for a moment, just enjoying the sight of him there in front of me, a dimpled smile threatening to break through his faux gravity.
“You come in,” he says, and steps back to let me pass. I always really like Rafa’s hotel rooms – they seem so lived in, so him. He covers them with photos of his friends and his family, tacks them up on the walls. As ever his laptop is switched on sitting on the desk, forgotten IM windows blinking on the desktop, his iPod and camera attached to it, wires sprawling everywhere. There are dirty clothes scattered over the floor and odd socks thrown in the general direction of a laundry bag, a browning banana skin on his nightstand and numerous DVD boxes splayed open next to the TV, battered photographs of old friends tacked over the mirror. TV-E is playing quietly on the wide screen, the sound of soft Spanish voices clearly reassuring for him as he sleeps. It even smells like him – in a good way, of course. I know he’s trying to make a home for himself here in this hotel room far from the island he holds dear, but it’s probably never occurred to him that he creates a home for everyone else who comes in too, a place that’s personal and full of Rafa and reassuring in that way. I want to relax into it, collapse into him, hold myself there.
“Nice,” I remark, and he rolls his eyes, clearly assuming that I’m being sarcastic. “No, really,” I continue. “Nice. I like it.” I push the door shut behind me as he starts to shove the clothes on the floor together into a big pile with his foot.
“Thanks.” He shrugs a little, smiling. “So why you come here?”
“Because everyone deserves to get laid on their twenty-first birthday,” I tell him, and he laughs, cheeks flushing a dusty red.
“How did you leave,” he begins, and then cuts himself off, looking a little concerned.
I think I know what he’s talking about and I can’t help but frown a little – at the situation, of course, not at him. “Easy. I just told her I wanted to wish you a happy birthday.” She gave me a slightly weird look, but accepted it. She knows that I like Rafa. She just doesn’t know how much. I’ve been thinking a little about breaking up with her; I’ve seen the future, after all, and it’s very different to how I’ve always planned it. But then I look at her, her sweet familiar face, and I know that I haven’t stopped loving her. Maybe one day I will, but right now the thought of not seeing her every day is more than I can bear. I mean, things aren’t as good as they once were, but that happens with every relationship, given time.
He nods, a very slight inclination of his head, and he looks troubled for a moment but seems to shake it away quickly. “Yes. Okay,” he says, sounding uncertain.
I go up to him and take him by the shoulders and kiss him on one cheek and then the next. He relaxes, fractionally. “You,” I tell him strictly, “are going to go into the bathroom, and then you’re going to come back in three minutes exactly.”
His mouth twists in a reluctant smile, and he turns towards the bathroom. The door shuts behind him and I spring into action.
RAFA: I can hear him walking around. It’s all a little disconcerting, this whole thing, when I know that his girlfriend is asleep in their hotel room and meanwhile he’s here and helping me celebrate my twenty-first birthday. I sit down on the edge of the bath and roll my head from side to side. My neck cracks satisfyingly and I feel a little more awake. I often go to bed very early during tournaments – it’s a way to play my best game, and besides that, I hate the feeling of waking up after too little sleep. So I was just dropping off to sleep when Roger arrived. I’m not wearing much, a pair of boxers and a t-shirt pulled on hastily at the knock on my door, and the ceramic of the bathtub is cold against my legs. I cross my arms over my chest to keep warm.
It’s very strange, Roger just showing up like this. Sure, we’ve been kind of having these moments lately, meeting each other when we can, having quick sex, catching each other for five minutes and leaving with kiss-bruised lips. Somehow when we cross the line from being with each other to fucking – because that’s what it is, no lovemaking about it – things change a little; eyes glaze, hands become less careful and more demanding. And it’s good sex – not that I have unlimited amounts of experience to compare it to – but it’s more like our tennis than our conversations. Competitive, I guess.
I frown at the closed door in front of me. I can still hear him moving around in there. Impetuously I stand and I go back into my room. Roger’s leaning over my nightstand, carefully lighting a candle. The room looks – different. Not hugely but a little. He’s managed to dispose of my mess of clothes on the floor (where to?) and flickering candlelight is bouncing off the white walls. There’s the birthday cake he showed me on the table next to my computer, gleaming and fat and chocolate, a half-opened pack of cake candles next to it. Roger is shirtless, bare skin shining, but I don’t get much time to admire him because he turns around quickly, face indignant.
“Rafa! You were supposed to wait longer.”
I shrug a little. “You have candles,” I say; they’re lined up around my bed and on the desk and on the nightstand, the flames giving off a golden buttery glow that’s much warmer than the electric lights.
He nods, catching my eye. For a moment there’s a flicker of worry in his expression. “Yeah. I’m not done yet.”
It’s the sort of thing he’d do for his girlfriend. For a woman. I don’t know how fitting it is that he’s doing it for me. It has the best of intentions behind it, though.
“Thank you,” I tell him, really meaning it.
Relief written all over him, his shoulders falling a little. I hadn’t realised they were caught up in tension. “That’s okay. Happy birthday.” He makes a move to come towards me but I sidestep him, moving towards the cake and so he just stands there, watching me, as I inspect it.
“This looks nice,” I tell him. With my fingertip, I scoop up some icing, and taste it; it’s sweet and light and perfect, and it must be showing on my face because when I look back at Roger his lips are slightly parted and I’m pretty sure his pupils are dilated.
“Rafa,” he says, helpless.
I can’t help but smirk over at him. Then I push my finger right into the centre of the cake; when I pull it out, it’s coated in chocolate. I tilt my head a little at him in a ‘come over here’ sort of way, and he acquiesces immediately. I look down at him, the curved line of his shoulder, and deliberately I smear the chocolate over his collarbone. He makes a little noise but I ignore that; instead I lower my head and I run my tongue over the marks I’ve left on him. It tastes good – clearly he has excellent taste in birthday cakes – but much more beautiful is the taste of his skin beneath it.
ROGER: Wimbledon, and we’ve seen each other in London a couple of times already. I love this place. I love this tournament. I feel oddly possessive about it; it’s mine, my pride and joy. I love playing on grass courts, I love the civilised way the crowds behave, I love the dress code and the old-fashioned nature of the whole thing. The ceremony, the cleanliness, the tradition. Rafa, of course, looks a little uncomfortable; he’s so much more at home on his earthy clay courts, clothed in his bright colours, his calves flecked with scuffs of dusky red clay.
He looks good in white, though. And his game is improving. I’ve been watching his matches, when I can, when I have time. I’m hoping to be able to play him at the end. I’m pretty sure that that’s the game that the crowds will want, and honestly, playing Rafa is always what I want. Quite aside from all of the personal stuff, no one else is quite as fulfilling to play, no one else stretches me so much, makes me work so hard or cherish victory so fully. And then, of course, I get to see him after the matches – but that’s not the point. The point is that I love to play Rafa and as such I cheer for him and hope desperately that he’ll win every match he plays – until, of course, he comes to play me.
RAFA: Sometimes I get kind of worried that he doesn’t like to play against me. Sometimes he doesn’t seem very enthused in interviews, and he has made some weird little comments about me that are disconcerting and not completely pleasant. I know that he doesn’t mean it in a bad way but to me it just seems so clear to be kind about my opponents in interviews, no matter who they are or how badly they played. I don’t know. I mean, I like him a lot as an opponent, more importantly a friend and a person, but I miss his older self, who seemed softer and kinder somehow. It doesn’t matter, I guess. We just think in different ways, me and him.
Still, Wimbledon has been nice. Roger likes it here in London. He always stays at the same place. I’m here with Feli. We have rented a place that’s quite near to the courts – that long car journey simply to play on the practice courts is more trouble and time than it’s worth. The traffic in London is terrible. It’s like that in most big cities. The air is always so much worse than it is at home. I like it in London, though – more so than other capital cities. The English are polite most of the time, and although there are a lot of different accents in this country, it’s easier to understand than the fragmented English that people speak in Asia, for example. And there are a lot of cool things here! The bright red phone boxes, and the beautiful walk along the South Bank next to the Thames, and Buckingham Palace, and double decker buses. It’s great.
The real joy of tournaments, though, is Roger. It’s stupid. I know that the main thing at this moment in my career and my life should be winning and of course that’s important, obviously it is. But sometimes the more human aspect of life overtakes everything else. I train and my mind’s in my game and I play and I concentrate, I win; it’s not messing anything up. It’s just making everything a little happier.
Right now I’m sitting in my room. I’m aching in a good tired sort of way, completely loose and relaxed after a massage. I don’t think that Roger’s coming over tonight. After all, tomorrow is a really big day. The final, our final, against each other. Seeing his transformed face across the net, cool and calm and cold, completely devoid of the laughter and want that I usually see written all over him. I don’t know how much I’m looking forward to it. Not much. All I can do is play my best tennis, and hope for the best, that Roger’s beloved Wimbledon will be lucky for me this year.
I’m about to switch off the light next to my bed when my phone starts to ring. I don’t bother checking who it is before I answer it, and so Roger’s voice comes as a pleasant surprise, sending jolts of happiness through my belly.
“Hey there, sunshine,” he begins, and as ever his presence, even over a telephone line, swallows up all of my doubts.
ROGER: It’s a little cruel, throwing us in the changing rooms together like this. I’m still thrumming with happiness and he’s—
Actually, I don’t know what he’s doing. What can you do after losing the final of Wimbledon? After all, I wouldn’t know.
The changing rooms are silent as I enter. Sweat’s cooling on the back of my neck, my shirt sticking to my body and every muscle stretched, worked. I’m exhausted, both mentally and physically, but there’s also that buzz of elation that I can’t get over yet, shouldn’t have to get over. But then there’s Rafa; arguably one of the biggest matches of his life thus far, a chance to prove to everyone that he’s so much more than a clay court specialist. He really fought me today. That animalistic grunting, all that energy. It’s kind of amazing to play someone like him. Frustrating, though – he’s so dogged, chasing down all those balls, and sometimes I find him a little annoying – he takes so long when he serves and there’s all that weird twitching, and sometimes I want to take him by the shoulders and say “Rafa, for the love of God, buy some pants that fit you”. Honestly, I think a lot of people want to say that. You don’t pick at your ass that much in public. You just don’t.
Still, this might sound conceited, but I’m Number One for a reason. For a long time there wasn’t anyone who really challenged me. There was Andy, sure, but I worked out his game – fast serve and a whole lot of bluster – and he’s not too tough to beat. But I go into a match with Rafa and I have no idea what’s going to happen. Only that he’ll put up a really good fight. No one else is quite as satisfying to beat – or as difficult to lose to. With him I can’t tell myself that it was a bit of bad luck. With Rafa, it’s always because he played better than me and that’s difficult to think about. But today I was the victor. That bitter loss, the jealousy and the forced graciousness and the genuine admiration – that’s all Rafa’s burden today, and I have no doubt that he’ll handle it like the gentleman that he is.
It seems like he got out of here pretty quickly. Understandable, I guess. I bet he just wants to fly home as fast as possible, regroup and heal underneath the balming influence of his family and his island. And Xisca – an irrational wave of jealousy but I know that’s just crazy – of course she’ll be there, putting him back together as though he couldn’t do it himself.
And then I hear a noise. I walk down the rows of glossy lockers and benches and I turn a corner and there he is.
Head in his hands, wet hair falling over his face. Shoulders rising and falling, brown skin stretched over hard muscles, droplets of water standing out on the warmth of his flesh, a white towel in sharp contrast draped over his hips.
“Rafa,” I say, and he looks towards me. I half expect to see recrimination, anger, jealousy, but instead there’s just sadness, frustration directed towards himself rather than towards me.
“Roger,” he says, and sniffs revoltingly.
“Where’s everyone?” I sit down next to him, put a hand on his wet clean back. “Toni?”
“I tell them to go.” He swipes a hand across his face. His eyes are spiderwebbed with red, his cheeks an angry pink. He is not one of those people who can cry with grace. “I think it is not good for a man to cry in front of people, no?”
“You’re crying in front of me,” I point out before realising that I sound insensitive.
“Is you.” He’s frowning. Maybe I don’t qualify as ‘people’. “I cried in front of you before.”
“Have you?” I store that away, keep that information for future perusal. “I’m sorry, Rafa. You played well.”
“Thanks.” A brief flicker of a smile. “You too. Unbelievable match.”
“Yeah.” I put my hand on the small of his back, leave it there for a moment. I’m not sure what to do. I’m pretty sure that he’s better than me at situations like this, that he’d just stretch out his arms and know what to do, what physically to do, whether to sit closer or keep his distance. If it was me I’d want time spent locked inside my head, obsessively going over everything that went right or wrong. But this isn’t about me, about my triumph; it’s about Rafa and the tearstains on his face and his trembling lips, set tightly as if he’s trying to compose himself. I think about what Rafa needs right now.
And so I draw him close to me, I guide his head to my shoulder, I hear him snuffle as he relaxes into me, his breath on my neck, his clean sweet scent against my damp sweatiness, the callused palm of my hand running over his smooth skin. His arms push around me and I stroke his wet hair, humming softly into his ear. He cries properly then, shoulders heaving, tears soaking through my shirt. His fingers are digging into my back almost painfully but I don’t release him. I don’t give up, not yet.
After a little length of time has passed – I don’t know how long – he stills and pulls away and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. He takes a couple of breaths and smiles at me, still a little watery. “Okay. Better now.”
“Good.” I lean into him, kiss the corner of his mouth and then his jaw. “I’m sorry.”
His breath has hitched slightly. “Don’t be,” he tells me. “You play unbelievable, you win. It’s your job. Our job.” He’s looking into my face, his eyes wide and dark and honest, and I think for a sudden acute moment that he will always be a better man than I am.
RAFA: “I am not dead,” I repeat patiently, for the fourth time. “Estoy bien. Roger. Roger—”
It’s no use. He’s still rambling on at me, about how I should be more careful, about how I could have injured myself, about how I could have been out for months. I somehow don’t believe that my tennis is his top priority right now, though. Earlier today I bumped my car – it wasn’t a big deal or anything, I didn’t even call Roger to tell him, but he saw it on the internet. He says he has Google Alerts set up for me. Which is nice, I guess. Anyway, I’m fine. My head hurts a little and sometimes I get kind of dizzy if I move too quickly, but I’m okay, the doctor said I was fine. Except then Roger called me and now it’s half an hour later and he’s still completely freaked out about my road safety – or, I guess, the fact that I don’t know anything about road safety. Which I do. I am a very careful driver. Still, I don’t think that means that I’m a good driver and Roger is all too aware of that.
“Roger!” I say again, louder this time, and he’s apparently shocked into silence. “Okay. I’m sorry, okay?” I try.
“Well.” He exhales. “You should be.” He sounds slightly appeased.
“You know nothing bad will happen to me,” I continue gently. “You see the future, no? You know we play together many more times.”
“Yeah. That’s true.” He doesn’t sound particularly comforted. “It doesn’t work that way, though, Rafa. I try not to let the travelling affect me too much. I wouldn’t jump in front of a car because I know I’m not going to die yet, you know?”
“Sure.” I don’t know, really, but if that’s the way he wants it, okay. “I know. I be more careful.”
“Good.” There’s more emotion in his voice than I know what to do with. “Good. Rafa, when I saw that headline...”
“Dios mio,” I begin to grumble.
“Rafa! Listen. I...” He trails off. Takes a breath. “It scared me. I was worried about you. Not your tennis. You.”
I frown a little, and glance out of the window. It’s dazzlingly bright, the sun shining off the water like it’s a sheet of glass. This is not the apartment where I slept with Roger for the first time. This is the house that we stumbled into after a long day on a yacht, the ends of our hair whitecapped with salt, laughter on our mouths and that new fiercely joyful look in Roger’s eyes every time he looked at me. He is everywhere, his imprint still lingers. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t forget him.
“I’m glad you were worried,” I admit.
“Well, when you care about someone, you worry, you know?”
He cares. I knew he cared and yet to hear him say it is something very special. “Yeah, I know,” I tell him. I don’t like phone conversations. They’re too difficult, it’s hard to find the words. It’s nicer when he’s in front of me, right there, all warm skin and knowing smiles. Words have always been difficult for us, since I met his younger self. I can only hope he knows what I want to say, what I would say if my English was better.
“Years ago, my coach died in a car accident,” Roger admits. His voice is raw, but then he’s been raging at me for ages now. “I’m sorry, I know I sound like I’m coming down on you pretty hard. I just don’t like to hear about...” Pause. Another sigh. “Things that could hurt you. I don’t like to imagine it.”
“Roger.” I’m speaking more softly now, all the irritation completely gone. “I drive safe from now, okay? I promise. When I see you again I still be, ah, together, how you say—”
“You’ll be in one piece,” he says, sounding sulky and happy.
“Yes, one piece,” I tell him.
“Thank God for th—” There’s a brief scuffling on Roger’s end of the line. “Hang on, Rafa.” The muffled sound of a palm covering the phone, voices on Roger’s end, although I can’t tell what they’re saying or who they are. Then the crackling stops and I hear Roger again. “Raf, I need to go. Remember what I said, okay?”
“Yeah. You’re not mad?” I ask him quickly, just to make sure, because he sounded kind of angry before.
“I – no. I was just worried,” he admits, voice softer and warmer. There’s a voice in the background and Roger continues, a little annoyance in his voice, “Mirka wants me to tell you hi.”
“Hi to her as well.” I don’t know what to think about that. Safest if I just push it away, if I concentrate on something else. Anything else. “I go now. See you soon, no?”
“Yeah, Raf. See you soon.” And he hangs up, and my head is hurting again.
Roger is 29, and Rafa is 21.
ROGER: At the moment, things are – complicated. Kind of lonely, to be honest. Difficult. A little miserable. Not bad, exactly. Getting better, for sure. But the last few months have not exactly been the most stellar in my life. I miss him – of course, I miss him, but I’m getting over that and I’m sure that whatever he’s doing right now he’s happy. So I’m going to be happy for him, like I’m sure he’s happy for me. I’m working on that. I mean, most of the time I just wish he was here with me. But I understand his reasoning and I know that given time things will get better. It’s just that right now it’s pretty horrific. I guess this is heartbreak for the first time, you know? I thought that with Mirka things couldn’t really get any worse, but this is just not getting any better in the weeks, the months, since the last time I was with him.
Right now I’m alone in my hotel room. I’m not used to solitude. There was Mirka and then there was Rafa, and then Mirka again, and now I’m here by myself, with no company except for the TV and my own thoughts. It’s fine. I mean, really, it is. Given time this will pass, the pain will fade away.
I squint at the TV. It’s a stupid show about dating strangers and that’s not something I’m interested in at all. I change channels; a music channel, a rock video with wildly changing lights and for a moment I’m dizzy. I squeeze my eyes shut – not now, not now – but it’s too late and I’m up, up and away.
RAFA: It’s late at night. I’m in an anonymous hotel room and I cannot tell you how bored I am. There isn’t anything on TV, I’ve read the newspaper websites, and none of my friends are online for me to chat to. I hate time zones. I really do.
So I’m in bed, still awake way too late. Thinking vague thoughts about tennis, about the insistent aching in my knees that I know I will have to battle through – no problem, just one of those things – and about, of course, Roger. It all comes down to him. When I’m trying to sleep I cocoon myself with thoughts of him, of our future. What will happen when we’re ready and we get past all this two-timing stuff and everything is open and easy. I surround myself with images, daydreams of what will be, what is to come. Maybe I’m a dreamer – okay, I can deal with that. I know what’s going to happen, I’m allowed to dream.
Suddenly there’s a loud bang and an even louder curse from the corner of the room. I’m pushing back the covers instantly, reaching for the lamp next to my bed and clicking it on. “Roger?” I ask.
“Rafa.” He sways slightly, even graceful when he’s dizzy; a long arm reaches out, fingers clenching around the back of a chair. “God. I’m seeing stars.” He exhales a long breath and manoeuvres around before collapsing in the chair. He squeezes his eyes shut for a second, breathes in loudly through his nose and exhales again. “Okay.” He looks up, musters a smile. “I’m okay. Sorry about that.”
I’ve been watching, sitting on the edge of my bed, poised in case he needs me. Or a wastepaper bin to throw up in. Either one. He looks okay – pretty normal. More lines etched around his eyes than the Roger I saw last week, his hair a little shorter. I wonder how old he is. I wonder what’s happening in his future. I wonder if two minutes ago we were lying together, his skin pressed to mine; I wonder if two, three, four years in the future I’m waking, looking around blearily, wishing he was there. “Okay. You want water, or painkillers? I have many.” I gesture over at my bag.
He shakes his head. “No. Thanks. I’m good. I wouldn’t mind some clothes, though.”
“Sure.” I reach over to the chair by my bed. It’s heaped with clothes, some dirty, some clean, most somewhere in the middle. I extricate a t-shirt that’s a little wrinkled but still folded from my suitcase and a pair of shorts than can only have been worn once, at most. “Here.” I throw them at him, and turn, diplomatically, while he dresses.
“That’s better.” He looks a little relieved when I turn back to him. Something I’ve found about Roger is that he hates being at a disadvantage. He doesn’t mind nudity or anything, but he feels vulnerable if he’s the only naked person around – despite the fact that he’s been using shared changing rooms all his life. Whatever. I don’t know. Roger will probably always be a mystery to me. “So,” he says then, “when are we?”
“Summer,” I tell him promptly. “2007.”
“Oh.” He stretches, looking thoughtful, and then this strange smile washes across his face – a little sad, a little wistful. “That was a nice time.”
“I haven’t seen you in a week. Not that nice,” I tell him playfully.
He smirks at me. “I saw you yesterday.”
“We have good time, no? We play a match?” I ask him.
That strange look is back. Sad, a little. He half-shrugs. “Let’s keep the future a secret, okay, Rafa?”
“You always say that to me,” I tell him, thinking of when I was small and he told me off for wanting to know too much, when he shook his head and turned away and I looked at him wonderingly, like he was a god sent from somewhere beautiful, a prophet doused in mystery.
ROGER: “Well, I’m sorry,” I tell him. “It’s just the way things have to be.” I’m trying desperately to keep my voice light, to keep my tone airy, but there’s something in my chest hurting very much. This is the Rafa I’ve missed so badly, all messy sleep-tossed hair and artless smiles and trust plain over his face, looking at me like I’m the most important person in his life. These days, he has a nasty habit of looking through me; or if not that, looking like he’s desperate to not recognise me, to not feel anything, to keep it professional and to paste another person’s features onto mine.
He pouts at me. That eyebrow goes up. He looks like he’s on the verge of laughter. I want to savour every moment, to lock these memories away in my heart and never let them go. “You are a bad person, Roger,” he says.
“Yes,” I say honestly. “Sorry.”
“I forgive you.” Barely even noticing what he’s saying, pushing his hair back off his forehead. I wish he would forgive me. Sometimes I get the impression that he forgave me long ago, but he’s still trying to maintain that distance for some reason. “So how are you? You look tired. You still play, no?” He peers into my face with a little concern.
“Yeah, I still play.” Not as well. Spiralling downwards. “It’s okay.” I glance over at the clock; it’s almost two. “Raf, shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“I can’t sleep. Time zones hate me,” he tells me pathetically.
“Rafa, go to sleep,” I tell him. “You’ll collapse tomorrow. And that’ll be embarrassing.”
“I won’t collapse,” he argues. “I sleep late, practice late, no?” He pauses for a second, eyes on me. I feel my face heat up. It’s just – he isn’t wearing much. And it’s been so long since I saw him like this, affectionate, rumpled, looking at me like that, like he’s making a plan, like he’s about to do something to surprise me.
“Good idea. I--” I am momentously distracted by Rafa taking off his t-shirt. He takes it off slowly, lifting the hem, crossing his arms over his chest to pull it up, inch by inch of perfect golden skin revealed as the world moves in slow motion. He pulls it fully off then, shakes his head like he’s got a lion’s mane. Then he looks at me and smiles, slow and sexy. The muscles on his chest are outlined by lamplight, his gaze dark and limitless as his eyes meet mine. I have such acute memories of him, of this, of us. I am hit by a sudden unexpected wave of grief. God, I messed this one up.
“How long you stay here with me?” he asks.
Forever, I want to say, but do not. “I don’t know,” I admit. “I feel pretty stable.”
“You come here,” he tells me, and doesn’t wait before getting up and crossing over to me. He’s smiling as he kisses me, lips brushing mine quickly at first, mouth catching mine like he’s catching butterflies. And then the taste of him, the scent, and it’s agony when he breaks away.
“I’m glad you’re here tonight,” he tells me, very honestly, and turns from me, towards the bed. He hops up, then glances over at me as if to say, What are you waiting for? And so I go towards him, shedding my shirt as I walk the few steps towards the bed, towards him. His presence is an ache, his reaching arms painful, but it’s a hurt I gladly relish as I join him, press my body to his. I drink in his sunlight through my skin and into my veins until I can feel Rafa pumping around my body, his heat and his energy and his sweet easy smiles as I kiss him briefly on his jaw before moving back to push into him, the heavy weight of his legs on my shoulders. The pale hollow of his throat as he leans back, gasping, hands reaching up to press desperate fingermarks onto my shoulders. Yes, please mark me, I want to tell him, let me take some of you with me, but I can’t find the words and so I say nothing.
RAFA: I wake suddenly at five, when the weight next to me in bed vanishes. I reach out a hand, press it to the rapidly cooling pillow next to me. Roger has left, and I am alone. I feel as though those sudden bereavements will always be part of my life.
The Roger of last night was a strange one. A little sad, a little older than his years. I can’t help but feel worried, hoping that everything is going well for him in his present, wherever he came from. But I’ve seen Rogers from far later in his life, with distinguished sprinklings of grey hair, and I know that even if things are bad for him some day, they will get better, and I will be there with him while it happens.
Roger is 25, and Rafa is 21.
ROGER: You know how sometimes in life you have these moments that are kind of – perfect?
You know. When you’re just there and you realise all of a sudden, in this moment I’m completely happy. They don’t come along all that often. When nothing’s wrong and it seems like nothing can ever go wrong. Everything’s perfect and beautiful and golden.
Like right now. We’re on an airplane, Rafa and I, me and Rafa. My airplane, the personal jet. Rafa didn’t have a ride to Cincinnati so I offered him one. There are lots of other people as well, of course. Mirka, naturally; my team, his team. Xisca too, asleep and curled up catlike and pretty across the aisle. It’s a pretty awkward time to fly, way early in the morning. We took off in the dark, Rafa leaning over me to peer out of the window at the delicate spiderweb of lights below us as we left the city. His warmth, the weight of his shoulder against my chest. A completely unselfconscious moment; he leaned back a little, caught my eye and grinned. Muttered an apology for squashing me. I was sleepy, a little dazed. Didn’t mind him there at all. Wanted to reach out and draw him closer to me, in fact. His scent, his presence. He was there for a moment longer and then he pulled away. His fingertips brushed my arm for a moment. When he’s around me I’m all the more acutely aware of myself, the way I’m positioned, his proximity to me. I offered to swap seats with him so he could look out of the window. With a big gleeful smile he nodded and agreed.
Now he’s asleep, completely wasting the window seat, but it’s not as though I mind. I know it’s creepy but I like to watch him when he’s asleep; his face, surprisingly soft when you’re up close, none of those hard angles that the camera highlights, loose, relaxed. He’s usually energised to the point of being hyperactive; when he’s still he’s consciously so, as though his natural state is like a photograph blurred by motion. I don’t get to see him sleep very often, don’t get to see the deep unconsciousness that he falls into, the slackness of his mouth, the twitchiness of his limbs rested and gone. It’s kind of nice.
He’s not the only one asleep. I love that deep restfulness when you’re the only one awake, when the only things you can hear are the sighs and snores of everyone around you. You kind of have a weird urge to run around and write obscene things on people’s faces with permanent markers. It’s like you’ve stopped time for just a second and you’re the master of it. Time: yeah, mastery of time, that’s something I’d like to have. Planes worry me a little; what if I disappear and then pop back somewhere thousands of feet above the ocean? It hasn’t happened yet but I guess it could do one day. If it was up to me I’d choose not to fly, not to drive even – but it’s necessary, in this life that I chose to lead.
I glance over at the window. The sun’s not going to rise soon, not for hours yet. I want to be with Rafa when it does. I want to be with him for lots of things. This, I think with a bubble of excitement in my stomach, is only the beginning of something beautiful.
Next to me, Rafa shifts. He makes a faint noise, shakes his head and then looks at me, bleary and unfocussed. “We are almost there?” His voice sounds unused and he blinks a couple of times, trying to shed the cloud of sleep from his mind.
“Not quite,” I tell him. “Soon, though.”
“Good.” He smiles at me and reaches out clumsily to pat me on the back of my hand. I turn my hand just in time and catch his, twining our fingers together. Something pure and brilliant runs across his face and he squeezes my hand before closing his eyes again.
Later, when we wake unexpectedly as the plane is landing, everything is bright. Daytime is here, and we missed the sunrise. Rafa’s hand is still in mine and I drop it immediately, glancing around to make sure that nobody saw anything. He makes an ‘oops’ face at me but I shake my head, shrugging it off. It’s fine. It’ll all be fine.
The plane grinds to a halt on the runway and as soon as it finally stops Mirka bobs up in front of us, reaching up to drag her jacket out of an overhead compartment. She looks down at me briefly, something odd in her eyes. Then it seems to fall away as she says, “Hey, sleepyheads,” and smiles.
“Morning.” I stretch upwards, my shoulders cracking satisfyingly, and Rafa pretends to dodge to avoid my arms. Mirka laughs, but it rings strangely and she turns away. Rafa shoots me a troubled glance, and I think, vaguely, that this perfect state of being could never have lasted forever.
Chapter 9: 'you lie to her all the time'
Roger is 26, and Rafa is 21.
ROGER: I’m trying to ignore Mirka’s eyes on the back of my head. I’m sitting at the desk next to the window, laptop in front of me, and she’s hanging up clothes in our wardrobe, shooting occasional glances over at me. Since the flight, things have been... odd, in a way that is disconcerting and not entirely pleasant. She’s been a little off with me. I don’t think it’s one of those fights you read about – where the woman just somehow expects the guy to know what she’s angry about and sulks until he figures it out – because she isn’t like that. But her smiles are a little tighter than usual and I can’t seem to find the words to speak normally to her.
“We could go to that place that does that great marinated chicken tonight,” I suggest into the silence, without turning around.
“That sounds nice,” she says.
A pause. Next to me my phone buzzes. Rafa; it just says ‘Hey xx’. He often texts me things like that. It’s nice but, I sometimes feel, a little pointless. Still, they make me smile. I type ‘Hey yourself xx’, and press send.
“What’re you laughing at?” Mirka asks, and I think I’m imagining the slight edge to her voice.
“Am I laughing? I didn’t realise,” I say. “Sorry. I just got a funny text.”
“Who from?” Nope, I’m definitely not imagining the edge.
“Rafa,” I say, trying to keep my words as light as possible, to keep any incriminating evidence as far from me as I can.
“You two are good friends.” It’s a statement and I can still feel her staring at me. I’m silent for a moment, wondering how to respond. Yes, we’re good friends. More than that; so much more. I know what happens with us in the future, but I don’t know when the final steps will be taken, when I’ll be permanently with him. If I’ll be permanently with him. It’s so difficult. He brings light into my life right now. His smile makes my stomach thrum with happiness. “Aren’t you?” she continues, and annoyance bubbles inside my throat.
“You know we’re good friends,” I say, turning around to look at her for a moment, to make eye contact.
She frowns and turns her back to me, hangs up one of her skirts. She exhales and I turn back to my laptop.
“Do you go to him,” she says then, her voice ragged, “when you travel?”
Almost every time, I want to tell her, but do not. I’m travelling much less these days. I think it’s that Rafa keeps me grounded, that he exhausts me enough mentally and physically to keep me in the present. But the few times that I have travelled, it’s only been a few days into the past or future, generally into Rafa’s hotel room, and on one memorable occasion into the Montreal locker room at night, silent and shining and the tiles cold on my bare feet as I sat on a bench, with nothing to do but wait.
“I go to you when I travel,” I tell her instead, and shoot her a reassuring smile. “You know I do. You’ve seen me.” I used to travel to her when I was younger. Once when I was twenty-two I came into the future, by I don’t know how many years. Her face was streaked with tears. She threw something at me – I don’t remember what exactly. Whatever she was holding at the time. Maybe something as clichéd as a shoe. She screamed at me to get out and when I got home I felt even sicker than I usually did after travelling, curled up next to her in bed and kissed her neck until she woke and stretched sleepily, pressed her mouth to mine. It helped me forget, but that image will never really leave me.
I don’t want to make her unhappy. I can’t. I already am. God help me.
She nods, face strangely guarded. “True,” she says tersely. Then she raises a hand, pushes her hair back off her forehead. She smiles at me, her mouth only a little different from usual. “I’m hungry. Dinner now?”
“Sure,” I say as I rise, and I move towards her and put my arms around her waist. For a moment she just stands against me like a plank of wood but then she relaxes into me, her head comes to rest on the part of my chest where it fits just right, and I barely think of Rafa. I barely think of him at all.
Rafa is 16.
RAFA: It has been a good, good week. Last week I had a huge party when my parents were away and when they got back they didn’t even get cross. Maybe it was more that they couldn’t exactly tell; I managed to clean up really well. Miguel helped me. Cielo said she would, but she kind of wandered around occasionally picking up a crushed plastic cup and then putting it down somewhere else. She’s that kind of person.
The best thing about the party was – of course – that Roger was there. And we kissed again! I was a little drunk so I don’t remember it as clearly as the first time we kissed, but it was still pretty great. I’m starting to think more and more about the amount of time I have with this Roger. It’s going down quickly, the amounts of visits I have written down are rapidly decreasing. Soon they’ll be down to nothing and I’ll be flung into the real world, I’ll have to meet the real Roger, the Roger on TV with his stupid long hair and his girlfriend who he told me about, and it’s just – it’s just going to be so long before we get to...
I don’t know. Before we get to be together, I guess. I’m not even sure that that’s how we end up. But I’m starting to think of it that way.
I’m in an airport with my uncle Toni. We’re getting a flight to Madrid and we’re early (mostly because my mother panicked that we’d miss the flight and made us leave early. She always does that). I’m flicking through a newspaper until our flight is called – the back pages naturally, all about sports. Then an article about the Champions League – vamos Real Madrid! – and then I turn the page and see Roger.
For a second I can’t help but just stare at his familiar face. He looks so young, I marvel. With his hair tied back. It looks stupid.
“What are you staring at?” Toni asks, and looks over my shoulder. “Ah. Roger Federer,” he says, with a certain degree of respect in his voice.
“He’s amazing,” I say stoutly.
Toni nods in agreement, and I look back at the newspaper, scrutinise the picture more thoroughly. And then I see something that makes me feel sick. Half out of the frame is a woman, and she’s holding Roger’s hand.
Mirka Vavrinec, the caption says. Roger Federer’s girlfriend. I knew she existed, I just... to see her is very strange.
I study her picture. She looks tall. Not thin. Not like a model. Not like some crazy perfect woman. Roger has a lot of money. He’s incredibly good-looking and talented, you’d think he could get someone who looks like a model. But this woman isn’t even as pretty as my ex-girlfriend.
He must really love her, I realise with an acute pang of hurt as I look at the picture.
“What’s wrong?” Toni asks, and grabs the newspaper before I have a chance to say anything. “Did Real lose?” he asks, and starts flicking through the pages.
“No,” I tell him, feeling hollow. “Everything’s fine.” It will be one day, anyway. It’s just that it might take me a while to get there.
Roger is 26, and Rafa is 21.
ROGER: So, first round and Rafa’s out of Cincy.
He doesn’t look upset, exactly. Just a little preoccupied. I know he’s been having problems with his right knee – since Wimbledon especially. It’s my job to know this stuff. But before today I didn’t know about his problems with his forehand. I’m not exactly worried, but there’s definitely some concern. The problem with Rafa is that with his style of play he’s always going to get injured easily, putting all that pressure on his knees. And I feel like he’s never going to get a chance to get them healed up properly. I guess it’s our job as tennis players to get over these injuries, to live with pain and not complain about it. And more than almost anyone else, Rafa’s good at that. So for him to retire today, I’m sure something big must be wrong.
“It just did not go right, you know?” he says vaguely, and makes a swooshing motion with his left arm. “I don’t know. It feel wrong.”
“I’m sorry,” I say commiseratingly. I’m in his hotel room, sitting in an armchair with my legs stretched out, feet on his bed. He’s sprawled out over his covers, right knee still taped up, brown nose wrinkled as he waves his right arm around again. “Does it hurt?” I ask.
“No. I just feel like there is no power in it.” He sighs discontentedly, and looks over at me, as if in an attempt to focus his attention on me rather than his injury. “Congratulations for today, though, Roger.” One of his bright sweet smiles.
“Thanks.” I can’t help but smile back. Whenever he looks at me like that all reason seems to escape out of the window, and all I want to do is crawl on top of him.
“You are happy for win, no? You feel confident here?”
“Reasonably, I suppose.” Thoughtfully, I poke his calf with my toe. “You’re okay though?”
He shrugs, frowning slightly. “I be okay.”
“I will be okay,” I correct him automatically.
“I will be okay,” he repeats laughingly with the same emphasis, before rolling his eyes. “Ah, English,” he says dismissively. He’s not as bad at English as he seems to be in press conferences, but he’s nowhere near fluency. He’s not stupid, Rafa – quite honestly, I wouldn’t bother with him if he was. He has a lot of common sense, he’s surprisingly shrewd at figuring out what other people are thinking, and he thinks very deeply about things. But academia? Not really his thing. He isn’t especially interested in learning languages – I don’t think he ever really bothered with English at school, and I mean, the tenses and so on, they’re all pretty complex and very different from Spanish. So I guess it makes sense that he makes mistakes sometimes.
“You want an English lesson?” I ask, poking him again.
“Ah, get away, that itches,” he says reprovingly, reaching out to smack my foot gently. “Okay. Maybe. What you teach me?” He grins suddenly, wickedly. “Words for English biology, please.”
“Anatomy, in fact,” I say, echoing his grin, and quirk an eyebrow at his crotch.
Unsurprisingly, he throws a pillow at my head.
RAFA: Once Roger has recovered from huffing violently and arranging his hair back into place, he looks back at me with that soft look in his eyes and says, “English lesson. Yes or no?”
“Yes please.” I retrieve my pillow from his hands and put it behind my back. I’m not injured too badly, but it’s nice to have an excuse to make Roger get me glasses of water and look at me with concerned eyes. Honestly it is a little concerning – so many injuries already, most guys my age don’t have any problems with their bodies to contend with, but my knee hurts pretty much all the time. I don’t notice it too much, but I know it isn’t normal. I need to talk to Toni about it – he thinks I should amend my style of play so it doesn’t affect my body so much. We’ll see.
“What do you want to learn? Come on.” Roger raises an eyebrow at me, setting his face so he looks deliberately serious.
“Uhh,” I say, completely unable to think of anything I need to learn desperately enough to choose above jumping on Roger and kissing him. “I don’t know.” I pull a word out of thin air. “Adverbs.”
“Adverbs?” Roger looks disgusted.
“Yes,” I tell him lightly, smiling in the irritating way that used to make the Roger I knew when I was small roll his eyes as if he wanted to strangle me. “Teach me,” I say politely.
“I’d rather teach you anatomy,” he mutters, and when I raise an eyebrow jokingly he laughs, turns away a little. “Rafa. I didn’t... that wasn’t a sexual thing that time.”
“Shame,” I tell him.
“Okay! Okay, fine.” He narrows his eyes at me for a moment and then he stands quickly, crawling onto the bed with me.
“Hey there.” I reach out for him with my good arm, not thinking about it, my body just going that way. “Come here.”
“No, no, we’re doing lessons, remember?” Avoiding my hand, he grins teasingly. It’s sexy. Then he settles down next to me. “Anatomy and adverbs. Because you’re crazy.”
“And you’re not--?” I begin to complain.
“No, I’m not. Shut it, Rafa.” He takes a breath, surveys me, the weight of his gaze heavy. All of a sudden, I feel serious, and I still. “That’s better,” he says quietly, and bites his bottom lip. I can feel myself lingering on it for slightly too long, and I know he can tell. He knows me too well already. It’s a little frightening.
“Okay,” he continues. “Let’s see. Regular adverbs to start off with. Remember – it’s just a describing word to modify an action.” He reaches out, touches my cheek with the tip of his finger. “I touch your face, lightly,” he says.
“Easy,” I tell him. “I knew those.”
“Hmm.” He sucks in his cheeks, the planes of his face going even more angular and sharp, his lips fuller. “Close your eyes.”
I narrow them at him. He nods encouragingly, so I do. It’s one of those things that’s surprisingly difficult to do, that makes me feel self-conscious. Not that I don’t trust Roger – I do, I trust him with all my heart – but it’s still difficult to be that vulnerable in front of anyone, even someone you love. Which I do, I love him, I think – I always have. Or I once loved his old self, and I’m growing to love the man before me now.
“Good.” His voice sounds a little deeper than usual. I can see the bright lights of the hotel room behind my eyelids and I can smell Roger’s cologne. I can feel the bedsprings creak as he shifts minutely towards me. “I’m gently touching your arm,” he says, as I feel his hand very softly on my hurt arm, softly seeking confirmation that it’s okay. I nod, slightly, and feel him move again, feel the heat of his eyes on me. “All right.” He exhales, and some of the tensions seeps away. Then he suddenly pinches my side.
My eyes fly open. “Hey!” I scold him, rubbing the sore skin.
He looks almost penitent, but not quite. There’s something like laughter in his eyes. “I pinched your, er...” He looks lost. “Hip?”
“Not my hip,” I tell him. “No bone.”
Now he looks mystified. “Jesus. Er, I pinched your... fat. Hard. That one’s irregular.”
“Is not fat!” I exclaim, outraged. “Is... I don’t know, is muscle. Or organs. Very important part of me and you just grab.”
He’s laughing at me, I can tell. “Okay. Okay, fine.” He pulls my shirt up with a grand flourish and presses his lips to where he pinched me. “I kissed your skin,” he explains as he pulls away, “repentantly.”
“Much better,” I tell him, feeling as though his lips have burned a scar onto my side that I’ll carry with me forever.
ROGER: His eyes sink shut again and he relaxes backwards into his pillows. He looks very young like that, I realise suddenly; not, you know, illegal or anything, but unlined by worry. The only lines that Rafa possesses were put there by either laughter or squinting into the sun– and really, there are worse things.
I reach out, drag my thumb across his lower lip. His mouth parts and he draws in a sharp breath, squirming slightly. “I touched your mouth,” I say, my voice sounding different from normal, and for some reason add, “desperately.”
His eyebrows twitch, as if he’s about to ask a question, but he doesn’t.
I move so I’m kneeling over him, knees either side of his thighs, not placing any real weight on him. I push my hands up his shirt so my palms are curved over his hips, thumbs stroking in soft circles. “I touched your hips,” I say. “Got any ideas for an adverb?”
“Soft,” he says, looking as though he’s lost, drifting away somewhere else. His eyes are still closed, lashes dark and thick.
Experimentally, I dig in my fingernails. He makes a noise then, a sort of grunt. “-ly. Softly,” he elaborates. “Jesus. That’s good.”
“Good.” I shift my hands a little, scratching him lightly. He makes a soft keening sound, and when I look down I see that he’s hard, straining against the front of his shorts. When I press a hand over him, feel the heat there, he makes a helpless little noise and opens his eyes, leisurely this time, long eyelashes fluttering, and stares right into mine. Despite that gasp he looks totally self-possessed. His lips curve in a slow smile.
“It is the end of the lesson, no? I have distracted my teacher.”
“Yeah, I guess you have.” I’m barely aware of what I’m saying as I lean down and press my mouth to his. He kisses me back eagerly, a hand snaking up to tangle in the hair at the nape of my neck, teeth sharp for a moment on my bottom lip, and when I pull back for a split second he smiles at me, teeth white as a wolf’s.
RAFA: Sometimes, when we’re doing this, Roger disappears. He doesn’t travel – that would be odd – but it’s just sort of – even when we’re talking, just normally talking, even when he’s flirting with me or trying to make me laugh, I can still see some of Roger Federer, the dignified champion that everyone loves. But when we’re doing this, when it’s skin on skin and ragged breaths and biting and licking and gasping, it seems as though someone else takes him over, like he’s lost somewhere, like he gets so wrapped up in me that he can’t quite find himself. It’s fine with me. I like it. I like that I make him get lost.
It’s only now that he’s coming back to me, curled behind me, his forehead pressed to the back of my neck. I can feel his breath hot between my shoulder blades and his hand drifting up and down my side, tracing unintelligible patterns lightly with the edge of his fingernail.
“You draw on me, no?” I ask him.
He huffs out a laugh. “Yeah.”
“What are you drawing?”
“I don’t know.” He presses a kiss to the top of my spine. “My name, I think.”
I roll over onto my back and smile up into his face. He grins back and leans down to kiss the edge of my jaw lightly. I think for a moment that life honestly cannot get better than lying between crisp white sheets with Roger Federer draped over me.
Of course, it’s then that he grabs his head, rolls abruptly away from me, and disappears.
ROGER: When I lurch back into Rafa’s room, it’s bright outside. It’s much tidier than it was last time I was here and it takes me a second to get my bearings, to take relieved note of Rafa’s racquet bag slung over the back of a chair, the Real Madrid sticker on his closed laptop, the battered copy of some rubbish Dan Brown book he’s been reading for the last god knows how long on his bedside table. There’s a buzzing coming from the bathroom. It flicks off, and I hear footsteps.
Rafa’s head appears from the bathroom door; his puzzled expression clears when he sees me. He’s holding an electric razor in one hand – the source of the buzzing – and his hair’s soaking wet, dripping onto the shoulders of his blue shirt. “Hey! You’re back,” he smiles.
“Yeah.” I glance around and see a neat stack of my clothes on the edge of the bed. Gratefully, I reach for my underwear. “How long’ve I been gone?” I ask.
“Um – I don’t know. Ten hours? It’s nine AM.” Rafa shrugs and turns the razor back on, running it over his chin with complete disregard for the fact he’s dropping bits of facial hair all over the thick beautiful carpet.
“Damn.” It’s been a long night. I spent it in empty changing rooms – I’m pretty sure in Monte Carlo. It was cold and miserable and it’s good to be back. I begin to pull on my jeans, glancing around Rafa’s room. There’s a half-full suitcase splayed open on the floor. “Going somewhere?” I ask.
“New York,” he tells me. “I get some rest and practise before US Open.”
“Oh.” I stare at him for a moment. Strange, to think I won’t be seeing him for a while. “Well – I’ll call you?”
“Yeah.” He frowns before turning away. “Whatever.”
He wheels back around. “Last night Mirka come here – at, I don’t know, twelve? She ask me where you are.”
“We should have done the past tense instead of adverbs,” I joke, to take my mind off the fact that all my blood appears to have turned to ice.
There is a chance that Rafa has never glared so vehemently in his life before. “Roger, if this is not important to you...” He breaks off, looking incredibly frustrated. “Is important to me, okay? She say me, where is Roger, and...” He draws a breath. “She went after not too long, but I think, how she know you were here? When she saw me, did she know we are... because I am...” He gestures to himself. I think of how he looks after sex, pink-cheeked and rumpled and with this amazing glazed-over look in his eyes. Yeah. It’s pretty obvious. “And she see your clothes here. I’m sure.”
“Oh.” I exhale. Shit. “Well, what did you tell her?”
“I tell her I don’t know where you are. What should I tell her?”
“I don’t know.” Distractedly I run a hand through my hair. Of course, he could have just told her that I’d suddenly travelled and left my clothes behind. But then she’d know that he knows about the travelling, and she knows that I don’t tell people about that recklessly. Barely anyone knows. My family, Mirka, my team. Selected other people. Andy Roddick knows. He said it’s, and I quote, ‘awesome’. He was wrong. But he has never told anyone about it, and he never brings it up in conversation either unless I do first – which is rare. He has a good soul under all that bluster. He’s also very, very good at covering for people. Anyway, I don’t know if I want Mirka to know that Rafa knows about the travelling. Because then she’d know that he means a lot to me, and that’s a slippery slope.
“She look around,” he’s saying, his face nothing but misery. “She looked into the bathroom, like she thought you were there. Like you hid. I tell her--”
“She looked around your room?” I interrupt, barely able to comprehend what I’m hearing.
“Not like the police, okay?” Rafa’s gesturing helplessly. His English always fails him when he’s getting upset. “Just little looks, no? Like...” He does an impression of someone glancing around sneakily. “But... a little sad too,” he admits.
“Right.” I pull on my shirt and sit down on the edge of Rafa’s bed to do up the buttons. My head’s still spinning. This is all just – too much.
Rafa sits down next to me, his thigh against mine. Despite everything, I appreciate his closeness, the warmth of him. “I don’t like lying,” he says, in a pinched sort of voice.
“Me neither.” I put my hand on his knee. He doesn’t push it away but he doesn’t move any closer either.
He rolls his eyes. “Roger, you lie all the time to her. I, I am not used to it.”
“That doesn’t mean I like it, Rafa,” I snap. “Just that...” You’re worth it, I want to add, but do not. Is he worth it, really? I think of what I know of the future, of that shadowy me I saw that morning in Rafa’s kitchen, who told me I’d figure it out. I think of the Rafa I met years into the future in a hotel room somewhere, who told me we were happy together. I believe it. It’s easy to believe that I could be happy with this man next to me with his beautiful expressive face and smooth brown skin that tastes like summer.
Not yet, though. That’s the thing. I can’t do that yet. Leaving Mirka would be like leaving part of myself behind. Rafa isn’t part of me yet. Maybe one day he could be. In his eyes, I think he is already. But I still need time.
“Just that what?” Rafa asks, quiet beside me. He feels very still.
“I don’t know,” I admit.
He turns to me, meets my eyes. There’s more courage and resolve on his face than I know what to do with. The strength this boy has, I find myself thinking. It’s amazing and terrifying.
“You must know,” he says. “You must find out.” He reaches out and takes my hand. “I want to be with you, Roger. Just you and me. Okay?”
I look down at our entwined hands, and it’s difficult to disentangle myself. “I would,” I say honestly. “I just... can’t. Maybe one day.”
No more stillness; there’s a rush of energy as he pulls away from me. “So this is for nothing?” he asks, something hard in his voice. “You know the future, Roger. How much you know about future?” He’s staring at me with intent eyes that are almost black.
“Enough,” I admit, wishing I wasn’t so weak, wishing I could be stronger. I wish I knew more about the future. But my future selves that I’ve met won’t tell me anything. They’re unhelpful assholes – which makes sense, considering they’re me.
“Well, you break up with her, you come with me,” he says, and there’s this pleading tone in his voice that I can’t bear to listen to.
I stand up, stride away from him towards the mirror. I rearrange my hair. I can see his reflection behind me, still sitting on the bed, annoyance and bewilderment all over his face. There’s a sick feeling in my stomach and I’m thinking vaguely, please don’t let this be the end even as I turn around to him. “I can’t,” I admit, raw and painful.
It’s as if a shutter’s come down on his face. He looks away from me, squints towards the window as if he doesn’t want to look at me, as if the sunlight streaming in over the balcony is all that he can bear to see. “Leave, please,” he says in a voice that sounds very far away.
“Rafa,” I say placatingly, my heart jumping with sudden fear. “Can’t we just talk? I didn’t say never.” I didn’t say ‘never’ because I know that at some point at least it will happen. Even if I don’t have the courage for it yet. It’s just... photographers and journalists and all these people knowing my business. Not even my parents know that I... well. I would tell him ‘never’, I admit to myself, if I didn’t know for certain that it was not the case. I can’t picture myself being with a man permanently. Not even this gorgeous sweet man, sitting in front of me with all the hurt in the world scribbled across the hollow hunch of his shoulders.
He turns those cold eyes on me. “Roger,” he says, his voice almost musical in its distance from me, “I ask you once more. Please leave my room.”
“Right. Okay.” I straighten my shirt, trying to bite back a wave of nauseating panic. Sweat has broken out on the palms of my hands. It’s like I’m addicted to him. “I’ll text you.”
He lets out a short, brittle laugh. “I turn my phone off if you text me.”
I stare at him for a moment. “Okay.”
“Okay.” He looks pointedly at the door. “I see you in New York.”
“I... yeah. See you in New York.”
And of course I leave, because he wants me to, and I owe him that at least.
RAFA: I see him in New York for the first time just outside the changing rooms. We’re surrounded by people. We’re always surrounded by people, unless we make a deliberate effort not to be. Mirka is to his left, an American man I don’t recognise chattering away to him on his right. Roger looks handsome, nodding his head in that thoughtful intelligent way that he has. I get a sudden sick sad feeling in my chest. He did as I asked him: he didn’t text me. Or call me. Or try to contact me at all. I guess I should be happy about it, but instead I’ve been too busy missing him.
Today I’ve been practising. My knee hurts. It’s something that I’m used to, almost – I hurt it during the Wimbledon final, and it’s been aching since then. I’m trying not to let people know, but it’s still annoying me. More annoying, though, is the prospect of having to walk past Roger and Mirka. I don’t know if she knows. She’s stupid if she doesn’t know – stupid or naive, anyway. Or just desperately hopeful. Either way, walking past someone whose boyfriend has cheated on her with me is not something I want to do. She doesn’t deserve this. She’s a good woman.
Roger looks up and catches my eye. He flinches slightly, something that I’m pretty sure only I notice. Slowly, he raises a hand in greeting. There’s a sort of nervousness about his smile that is rare for him.
“Hi, Rafa,” he says.
“Hi.” I clear my throat. “Hi, Mirka.”
“Rafa,” she says politely. I think I’m probably imagining the caution in her voice.
“Congratulations for Cincy,” I offer to him.
“Thanks.” He swipes a hand through his hair. A curl has become dislodged from its normal foundation. I want to reach up, push my hand through his hair, feel the soft silkiness of it, tease him about how crazy and fastidious he is. “How’s your arm doing?”
“Much better, gracias.” I flex it, to demonstrate.
“Good.” He grins, a little. All I can see is him. I’ve almost forgotten to be angry. “We’ll have to have coffee some time,” he offers then.
“I don’t like coffee,” I say, remembering my resolution to stay away from Roger Federer until he leaves his girlfriend, until he does the good honest thing.
His smile is more genuine, less fleeting. There’s affection there. I can feel it. “Ice cream, then. Whatever. Call me.”
I nod. There’s nothing else I can do. I can feel Mirka looking at me, and for a brief moment I tell myself that I hate everything in the world. “Okay. Bye.” And I push past them and leave.
ROGER: I like New York. I do. But this year I can’t seem to bring myself to be happy. I just won Cincy, I should feel amazing. But I don’t, and I know precisely why not. Rafa. Of course, the problem is Rafa.
I haven’t contacted him. I don’t want to drive him further away. I’ve seen him a few times, just around, but I haven’t actually called him or texted him. I don’t want him to get even angrier. He’s deservedly angry, too – and Mirka’s acting strangely. Cold. I don’t think she means to. When I talk to her, she smiles at me and listens and acts like her usual wonderful self, but when nothing’s actually happening she seems to drift off, drift away somewhere, get lost in her thoughts, and most of the time I have the feeling that her thoughts are not especially cheerful.
I’m in a restaurant with her and the rest of my team when I start to feel lightheaded. After a meaningful eyebrow-raise to Mirka I make my way to the bathrooms, lean over the sink for a moment and take a few steadying breaths. But it’s no use; in no time at all I’m up and away, leaving nothing but a pile of clothes behind me.
Roger is 48, and 26.
ROGER: I’m sitting outside savouring a glass of dry white wine when he appears. He dry-retches a couple of times onto the patio and then looks up and directly at me.
I’m already standing, glass of wine carefully tucked underneath my chair as I quickly cross to the drying rack and grab a pair of swimming trunks that are almost dry. “Here!” I throw them at him and he catches them, pulling them on gratefully.
“Thanks. Shit.” He runs a hand through his hair and half-collapses in another chair.
“Are you doing okay?” I ask gently. I remember this day, my visit twenty-two years into the future. It isn’t a long visit – he’ll be back in time to carefully pull his beautiful suit back on in the bathroom at that fancy restaurant without causing any suspicion, but it’s a big deal, because it’s the furthest forward in time he’s ever come.
“Yeah. Not bad. How old are you?” He looks over at me curiously, no doubt taking in the grey at my temples and the slight amount of weight I’ve put on.
“Forty-eight,” I tell him ruefully.
He looks cheerful. “So I’m going to age well.”
“It was a good job you always used all that sun screen,” I tell him, and he laughs. “How’s everything?”
He lets out a sigh, a shadow crossing his face. “Not great. Mirka’s acting strangely and Rafa... that’s all a big mess.”
“You miss him?”
“Of course I miss him,” he says instantly, with such honesty that it takes me back twenty-two years to those first few months with and without Rafa. “I feel empty without him,” he admits. “I don’t know how I got so attached so quickly.”
“He was a great guy,” I agree.
He whips around to stare at me. “Was?” He looks like he’s about to throw up.
“Is! I just meant he was a great guy back then. Easy to love. Still is.” I feel myself smile. Rafa’s inside, dutifully stacking our things from dinner in the dishwasher and soaking the saucepans in soapy water. I cooked, so I get a break round about now, and I decided to come outside to bask in the setting sun.
He catches my eye for a second, smiles, and looks down. I assume the word ‘love’ hasn’t been used yet. It’s a tough one. I don’t remember the exact timings of it all – it was very scrambled and complicated back then. Unnecessarily so. “He’s pretty special,” he agrees, quietly. “One of the good ones.”
I nod. “You need to sort that out,” I tell him.
“It’s easier said than done,” he points out.
“I know.” All too well, do I know. “You’ll do it, though. I lived it.” They have a lot more to go through before they wind up here where I am, in our beautiful house that overlooks the ocean, with bright white walls and high ceilings in sunlit rooms that echo with music and laughter. I never expected a life like this one – I never expected to spill things over beige sofas and not care, I never expected functional tile floors instead of beautiful polished wood. But I’m so glad it turned out this way.
“And...” He takes a breath. “You think you made the right decision?”
I nod. I have never felt so certain in my life, although it took me so long to get here. “I’m exactly where I want to be,” I tell him with complete truthfulness.
It’s as though all the tension has seeped out of his body. “I’m not there yet,” he points out. “I don’t know what I want. I know where I’m going to end up, but... I can’t let go of what I have.”
“It’s difficult. It’ll get easier. I promise.” I’m smiling at him and he smiles back before suddenly saying “Whoa” and clutching onto the armrest of his chair. Then he’s gone, nothing but an empty pair of shorts where he sat. I gaze at the empty chair for a moment before reaching down and picking up my glass. Then I stand. I remember the isolation and loneliness of the past all too well, and all of a sudden I’m desperate to be with the man who agreed to stay with me despite everything I put him through.
When I come into the kitchen he’s turning off the faucet, and when he hears my footsteps he turns to me with a flourish. “All done!” he says cheerfully. “Did you enjoy the view?”
I did. The sunset and the ocean and the halflight was beautiful, but I’m enjoying the view in front of me far more. “Sure,” I tell him, and pull him towards me to kiss him quickly. “I like being with you more, though.”
He looks surprised and gratified. “Just because I washed up?” he teases me.
“Yeah. If you didn’t do that I’d probably leave.” I wrap my arms around his waist and pull him closer. Next door the TV’s blaring. “Lazy night of watching stupid cop shows then?” I ask, as gunshots ring out.
“That okay with you? I think tonight is about the Mafia,” he says with a huge smile, as if it’s the coolest thing in the world.
“Yeah. Sure.” I kiss him again and he melts towards me, hand coming up to rest on my neck, thumb stroking soft circles. “You’re distracting,” I murmur into him as he pulls away, and he laughs at me before making his way into the room next door. And I follow him, because of course, that’s what I do; I’d follow him wherever he goes.
Roger is 26, and Rafa is 21.
RAFA: I’m answering an email from Xisca when there’s a knock on my door. I assume it must be Toni so I don’t bother to look through the peephole before I answer it. So naturally, I’m surprised to see Roger there.
“Oh,” I say, at a loss for any more words.
He’s holding a bunch of flowers. Roses. Roses? Is he serious? “Hey, Rafa,” he says earnestly. “These are for you.” And he holds them out to me.
“Thank you,” I say doubtfully, and take them. I’m not sure where to put them, so I just throw them onto the coffee table. Roger winces slightly. “Why are you here?” I ask him. “I tell you to go. Not to talk to me.”
“We’re colleagues, kind of,” he says hopefully. “So we have to talk some time. Can I come in?”
I stand back and allow him to make his way in, even though I feel very doubtful of this situation. “Sit down.” I gesture to a chair.
“Thanks.” He does so, looking uncomfortable. It’s sad and annoying how much I still want him, despite his girlfriend, despite everything. I just look at him there and I want to go up to him and smell his scent and touch his skin. I don’t know. It isn’t rational. “Rafa,” he says then, “I miss you.”
“Good,” I say, determined to fill myself with steely resolve and stop kissing him until he breaks up with his girlfriend.
“And I need to apologise.” He looks genuinely repentant. “I haven’t done the right thing with you. I’m sorry. I thought that because I knew the future, doing all this with you would be the right thing to do in the present. But it wasn’t. And I’m sorry. Because I hurt you, I think.”
He thinks? He knows. I shrug a little. “Is okay. I am twenty-one. I can take it.” I smile, more kindly than I’d intended.
“You didn’t deserve that,” he says stoutly, and takes a deep breath. “I wish I could be with you now. Because I...” His voice breaks and he looks away from me. I feel a little sick with how much I miss him. “I want to be with you, and I know that we could be really happy. I know that we will be really happy,” he tells me. “But I just... my career, Rafa, you know? I need to concentrate on that. I just can’t do that whole journalist jungle thing right now, I mean, God, I can’t come out to the press, that’s just crazy. And I can’t ask you to... I know it’s wrong to cheat on Mirka. I’m not that sort of person. I’m not.” He shakes his head, looking lost. “But I can’t be without her right now. And God knows how I’m going to be without you.”
I look at Roger, and I think about how well I know him. I know that Roger Federer is a good man. I know that he cares about me and I know that I care about him more than I can begin to think about. I make a move towards him, hold a hand out. “You will break up with her one day,” I say. It’s both a question and a statement.
“You know I will. I have to,” he tells me, with the sort of fervour that means he’d probably sign it in blood if he had to.
“Okay.” I shouldn’t be agreeing to this. I know I shouldn’t, but I have to, because it’ll happen one day. He’s promising me it will happen one day, and God knows, I believe him. “Okay, we can... yes. Okay.”
ROGER: I let Rafa pull me to my feet, almost weak with relief to be touching him, to be allowed to touch him. It’s only been a couple of weeks and I was lost without him. This is getting to be more than I can begin to comprehend.
He’s still keeping his distance from me, still a little reserve, still something held back behind his dark eyes as he regards me silently. And then it’s as if the sun breaks from behind a cloud as he seems to make a decision. He tilts his head to one side and smiles. It’s beautiful. “Why are you not kissing me?” he asks, voice low, and so I oblige. Of course I do. I lean towards him and press my lips to his and it’s as if I’ve found something crucial that I’ve been searching desperately for. He just fits against me. It’s unexplainable.
“Rafa, seriously, I care about you so much,” I mutter, feeling as if I’m ripping my soul open and staring into his eyes to really let him know.
“You should.” He bites his bottom lip and gives me that brilliant smile again. “I’m great. You’re lucky.”
“I am,” I tell him, and kiss his cheek and the corner of his mouth and the tip of his nose. “I am lucky. Oh God, I am.”
RAFA: The next day when I see Mirka, I smile at her. I have to. Despite the fact that I have three bruises in various places on my body sucked there by her boyfriend, I smile at her. For now, she plays a role in Roger’s life. For now, she makes him happy. In the future, I’ll be there, but I understand that my time isn’t here yet – and Roger was right, anyway. I can’t imagine telling the press something like that, and it’d be impossible to have a real relationship without being open and public about it. I can’t even imagine telling my family. People already say that as rivals we’re too close. I don’t think that’s true, but I don’t want to have stories about me in the newspapers all the time, and I know that right now Roger’s desperate for that not to happen.
So I’m just going to relax. I’m going to give Mirka her time now, and take from Roger what I can. And in the future... well, you can’t fight what you know must happen, and I don’t think that Roger intends to. Not anymore.
ROGER: In a way, the fact that I don’t play Rafa in the US Open final takes away some of the stress. I mean, the guy’s brilliant, but he seems pretty chilled out about getting knocked out in the quarters. After all, it was a friend who he was playing against and he seemed genuinely happy that Ferrer got so far. Besides that, his knee has been hurting a lot lately – he told me so a couple of days ago. I’m glad he’s getting the rest.
Aside from Rafa, I really enjoy beating Djokovic. He’s so needlessly cocky. I enjoy taking him down a peg or two, although I’d never admit it aloud. I guess that Rafa’s humility and sportsmanship have spoiled me.
After the match, when I’m shaking with adrenaline and glee in the changing rooms, my phone buzzes. It’s Rafa, of course it is. It says, ‘CONGRATULATIONS CHAMPION RECORD HOLDER! I WATCH EVERY SECOND AND KNOW YOU WILL WIN. LOVE XXXXXXX’. And I focus on that word, that one word, and I’m suffused with this wave of joy that’s so great that I want to spin around and run along the benches and shout with happiness, because I’ve got the record and I’ve got my twelfth slam and I’ve got Rafa somewhere across the world watching my match on TV and cheering my name, and in this moment everything, everything is perfect.
RAFA: There is sand everywhere in my hotel room. Everything is amazing. Every time I move even more sand falls out of my hair. There’s still a thin coating of white over my skin, left there by the ocean. For the first time in a long while, I feel like I’m home, even though I’m not actually. Holidays are the best.
I’m still smiling when my phone rings as I’m about to crawl into bed. I check to see who it is, and feel my smile go up several megawatts when I see that it’s Roger. We haven’t spoken in a couple of days, the off season always the time when we drift out of contact, and I’ve missed him.
“Hola!” I say as I answer the phone.
“Hola, Rafa! How’s it going? You’re on holiday, right?” His voice is warm and familiar, and this is only thing that could have made today better.
“Yeah. It’s very nice here! How are you?”
“I’m good. Amused.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
There’s mirth in his voice as he says, in a low fast voice, “porque tu lo vales.”
I feel myself explode in spluttery laughter. “You saw the advert?”
“Yeah! On the internet. You know, Rafa, I never knew you had that big a problem with dandruff.”
“I don’t!” I protest, still laughing. “Cállate.” It’s one of the few real Spanish words that Roger knows, mostly because I am forced to use it on him all the time.
“Well, the advert begs to differ...” he says, still with that light joking tone.
“You have been close to me. Ever seen white in my hair?” I ask him.
“No,” he admits. “I like your hair.”
“You like me.”
“Mmm,” he says noncommittally.
“Roger,” I warn him.
“Of course I like you, silly. I even like your dandruff advert.”
I can’t stop myself from grinning as I get into bed and switch the light next to it off. I can feel sand around my feet from yesterday. “Good.”
“Hey, rustly, what’s going on there?”
“I am going to bed,” I tell him. “Is late here.”
“It’s late here too. I’m sorry. I should let you sleep.”
“It’s okay. It’s good to talk to you,” I admit.
“Yeah. You too. I’ve missed you,” he confesses.
“You too,” I tell him, prickling all over my body with pleasure. “But I see you soon, no? Masters’ Cup! I beat you, okay?”
“Not okay,” he laughs. “We’ll see, Nadal. It’s hard court, after all. Odds are in my favour.”
He’s right, but I don’t care. “I do my best,” I tell him.
“You always do.” There’s a voice in the background and I feel a pang in my stomach. Mirka. “Hey, I’ve got to go, okay?”
“Yeah. Okay.” Disappointment that I try to swallow away. This will be over soon, the lying and pretending. “Talk to you soon.”
“Sure. See you in Shanghai, sunshine.”
Just like that he hangs up the phone, and I find myself in the slightly pathetic position of grinning like an idiot into the darkness of my hotel room.
RAFA: It’s a hot Christmas day. Warm enough to be on the beach mid-afternoon; the sky’s a bright, bright blue, cloudless and perfect, the sun dazzlingly white. There’s a sharp breeze that kicks up sometimes that makes you shiver, but it’s not unbearable. In fact, it’s pretty good weather, all in all. Xisca and I are on the beach, and I have issued her a challenge.
“Oh God,” Xisca says, eyeing the ocean suspiciously.
“Dare you,” I answer, smirking at her. “You have your swimsuit on, right?”
“Ye-e-es,” she says doubtfully, and pulls at the hem of her t-shirt. “It’s not that warm, Rafa. This is probably the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
“You have no idea,” I mutter, and think momentarily of Roger.
She quirks an eyebrow at me curiously. “Hmm?”
“Nothing.” I survey the sea. It isn’t too rough – I mean, I’m not stupid, I know when it’s dangerous, and today it isn’t. “So, let’s go in.”
“Five minutes,” she says as if she’s trying to make out the rules. “I only have to stay in for five minutes.”
“Or as long as you can stand,” I say. “Without getting hypothermia.”
“If I get hypothermia, you’re paying my hospital bills,” she warns me, and then she grins suddenly up at me, the wind messing up the dark curls around her face. “Come on. Race you.” Then she starts stripping.
I let out an exclamation and drag off my t-shirt and shoes. She’s quicker than me, stepping out of her skirt and kicking off her flipflops. I momentarily curse my laces as I rip my shoes off, but catch her up halfway down to the water’s edge. I’m first in, wading up to my knees as she shrieks about cold feet, and then I’m the one shouting in pain as the cold water hits my crotch. She laughs uproariously at me and I splash her. She’s dumbfounded for a moment, just gaping at me, and then begins wading as quickly as she can after me. Finally we’re both in up to our shoulders, too cold to do anything except doggy-paddle in small circles and occasionally shout breathlessly at each other about who’s going to cave and get out of the water first. I duck my head under and then as I surface there she is in front of me, wrapping her arms around me, twining her legs around one of mine.
“So cold,” she explains in my ear, teeth chattering, and I wrap an arm around her waist, pulling her close to me as she loops her arms tighter around my shoulders. Then she stills, attention abruptly diverted. “Who’s that?” she asks quietly, pointing up to the sand.
Up on the beach there’s a lone figure: small, wrapped in a towel that looks suspiciously like the one I left beside my messy pile of clothing. It’s a little girl, her long brown hair whipped around her head by the wind. She has large dark eyes and I’m pretty sure they’re fixed on my face. She’s pretty for her age, I suppose, long-legged, skinny. About nine, perhaps. I can’t make out the details of her face too well. For an acutely strange moment, I feel as though I know her, and then her face creases in a bright smile, as if she knows me.
I tread water, pushing my hair back off my forehead, salt-water slicking it to my skull. Xisca lets go and drifts away somewhere, but I can’t take my eyes off this little girl. She raises her hand in a wave, a little tentatively, and I raise mine in return.
Then Xisca lets out a noise and the spell is abruptly broken as I look over at her. “My toe!” she shouts. “Ouch! Rafa, I kicked a rock!”
I splash towards her but as I reach her, I look back towards the beach. There’s no one there and my towel is flapping in the wind. I look around sharply but the girl is well and truly gone. I feel empty and bereft for some reason, and for a second I wonder if she was ever really there at all.
Chapter 10: 'Wait, what year are you from?'
Roger is 26, and Rafa is 21.
RAFA: Tonight I have a date, via webcam.
It sounds creepy. When Roger first mentioned talking to me on webcam I thought of those creeps who jerk off in front of each other over the internet and I was kind of reticent about the idea. But he convinced me, and so here I am staring at my laptop screen with the webcam (hopefully) turned on. Honestly I think just writing to each other on MSN would be easier but he says that my emails are incoherent enough that my spontaneously-written MSN conversations would have no resemblance whatsoever to proper English.
As I had to use a dictionary to translate that particular email of his, maybe he has a point.
Anyway it’s Christmas night. Earlier today Xisca and I made our freezing cold trip into the ocean. After she hit her toe on a rock and I got cramp in my foot because of the cold we decided it would probably be a good idea to make it back to dry land in case, you know, we drowned or something. I don’t think I’ve ever changed back into dry clothes as quickly before in my life. There was a strange lingering warmth on my towel and I couldn’t help but think of the little girl I was pretty sure I’d seen wrapped in it.
I still don’t know what to make of that. I don’t know who she was. Is. Maybe she was there with her family – but there weren’t any other people on the beach except for us, and then her. No cars in the carpark even. I don’t know, it was very strange. I sort of want to talk to Roger about it, but I don’t know what to say. ‘There was a strange girl on the beach and then she disappeared’? It just sounds crazy. I’m sure that if I wasn’t in such regular contact with Roger and his disappearing act I wouldn’t have thought it was weird at all. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective lately, actually. About this thing with Roger and Mirka. How it would be totally morally reprehensible to do this if I wasn’t sure of the outcome, if I wasn’t sure about how it’s all going to end. How it’s probably totally morally reprehensible anyway. See, that’s why I have tried before this to not think about things too hard. In tennis, I think about each point as it comes, I try not to think about past and future points played. With Roger, all I can think about is the past and the future, because without that all I have left is the present, and if that’s all I think about then I’m just some guy who’s fucking another guy who’s supposed to be in a relationship. And that isn’t the sort of person I am, not at all.
It’s difficult, that’s all, but he is worth it, worth the time we spend together. Like in Shanghai, when he crept to my room late the night he beat me at the Masters Cup. I’d already made my peace with what had happened during the match – you win or lose and move on – so he didn’t bother to say anything about that. Instead he just leaned against my doorframe and grinned, slow and gorgeous, when I opened the door. And the sight of him—
Yeah. It’s worth it. Just as long as I don’t think about it too hard.
I frown at my computer screen and check my Skype buddylist. (It is an odd thing, having Roger Federer on your Skype buddylist. It is even odder to have Roger Federer in your hotel room, humming happily as he downloads Skype for you and sets up an account. Odder yet is when he IMs you from his own laptop on the other side of the room and waves both in person and on webcam, like the loser he tries to pretend he isn’t.) He isn’t online yet though, so I’ll wait for him.
God knows, I’m used to that.
ROGER: Shit, I’m tired. Christmas, though! It’s been a good day – fun. We spent the day with my parents – last year we were with Mirka’s family. Next year... God knows. Mirka’s again, I guess. If things are still good with us, that is. Maybe one day I’ll be in Mallorca, although even the thought of that makes my stomach roll with nerves. Happy nerves mostly, but nerves nonetheless.
Anyway, Christmas is always a little fraught when you’re a millionaire. It’s difficult knowing what to buy people. I got my sister amethyst earrings, she got me socks, you know? It’s getting easier as time goes on, though. We understand each other more, and the thought is always what counts behind these things. And through the food and the gifts and the games and the laughing, I’ve had Rafa at the back of my mind. We didn’t get each other Christmas presents – there’s no point, I mean I haven’t seen him in weeks, and to be honest I’d rather get to smell his skin or touch his hair than unwrap a gift from him. But I’ve been thinking of him nonetheless, of getting to speak to him (almost) face to face this evening.
Only bad spot in a nice day: I travelled just after dinner. I excused myself from the table; my mother half got up, like she was going to follow me, but sat down again. She’s so used to it, after all. Mirka looked down at her plate. Just before I reached the doorway everything flickered in front of me and then I was in the Wimbledon changing rooms. My stomach rolled and I threw up neatly into a washbasin before settling down to wait, naked, on a wooden bench. Pressure thudded at my temples, everything swimming in front of me. I felt like all the strength had been dragged out of me, like hooks had been hauled from my chest, pulling out everything vital. After a while – a few hours, maybe – I was back in my old room at home. I got dressed and went downstairs to see my family again, fake smile plastered on, head still feeling like it had been filled with concrete. I sat down next to Mirka, put my arm around her, felt her shoulders stiffen as her smile froze.
I don’t know what’s going on with us. I don’t even know how it used to be any more, whether this weirdness began with Rafa or before that. I’m starting to think that maybe it’s been going on for a while because it reeks of familiarity.
In the evening I escape up to my old room, where my laptop’s already out and waiting on the old scratched desk where I used to keep my schoolbooks. I slide gratefully into the chair, sign onto Skype, and switch on my webcam. A few clicks of the mouse, a typed ‘hey!’ from me and then there’s Rafa right there in front of me. I feel this pang in my chest when I see his face. So familiar, so beloved, and he’s squinting a little, looking puzzled.
“Roger?” he says hesitantly. “You can hear me?”
“Yeah.” I wave. “Merry Christmas, Rafa.”
His frown melts into a smile, one of those big gorgeous smiles that I know well. “Webcams are strange, no?”
“You’re supposed to know how to work them,” I point out. “I’m old, you’re supposed to be good with technology, not me.”
He mock-scowls at me. “I am busy and important, have no time for webcams.”
“Okay, okay,” I concede. “How’s your day been?”
His shoulders move briefly as he shrugs. He’s wearing a white shirt, the collar bright and clean against the tanned skin of his neck. “Good. We had food and gifts yesterday, and today we just spend some time together. I went to the beach with Xisca.” He frowns for a brief moment then, as if at some kind of recollection.
“Oh yeah? How was it?” I swallow down unfair jealousy at the thought of him and Xisca laughing together.
“It was okay,” he says cautiously. I frown slightly as I look hard at his face, messy tangles of dark hair flopping onto his forehead, his eyes cast slightly downward as he looks (I assume) at my image on his screen. I wonder what I look like to him. He hasn’t seen the room I’m in, and if I was him I’d be intrigued to see part of his past, to make more of him my own, but Rafa isn’t reaching and selfish in the same way that I am. He has always had less of me than I have of him. It is fair to neither of us. His room is the way that I remember, from when I slept there during the Battle of Surfaces. I miss that clear simplicity, but there’s definitely something to be said for the new heavier intimacy that we have now.
“The water was cold,” he offers, with this shy lovely smile, and then the image flickers and it’s gone.
“Rafa?” I say as loudly as it’s safe to. I don’t want my family or Mirka to overhear. “Are you there?”
Nothing. See, that’s the thing. He’s the World Number Two at tennis, and he still doesn’t have a reliable internet connection in his house. It doesn’t matter, I guess. I’ll just think about him for now, and catch up with him in the future.
RAFA: I call him five days before we’re supposed to be in Australia. I’m really starting to look forward to seeing him; often as the season starts I feel an odd tinge of regret, like I’m going to miss something at home with my time away. But I felt okay when I played Chennai – and lost horribly – and I feel okay going into Australia.
When Roger says “Hello?”, though, he doesn’t sound anything close to okay.
“Roger?” I ask, slightly alarmed. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
“Rafa, hey. Um, nothing much. I think I ate something bad.” He sounds groggy and hoarse.
“You are being sick?” I ask, a flicker of worry pushing through my chest.
He laughs, wearily. “Oh God. Oh yeah. So much being sick, I can’t even say.”
“Oh God, poor you,” I say. “Mirka is there, no? You are in bed?”
“She’s downstairs, making me tea that I will inevitably throw up.” He laughs, a little bitterly. “But yeah, I’m in bed. I can’t stop sweating. Except I’m cold. You know?”
“Yeah, I know.” I haven’t been that sort of sick in years. Neither has he, judging by the tone of faint surprise and wonder in his voice, like he’s horribly surprised that his body could betray him in this way. “You be better soon,” I tell him comfortingly. “How long has it been?”
“About a day and a half. I threw up during training yesterday. On the side of the court,” he admits sheepishly, always ashamed of anything like that, ashamed of anything that isn’t refined and beautiful. “And I missed today.”
“Australia will be fine,” I tell him, because I have the feeling that’s what he’s worrying about. “Your stomach be better for tomorrow, no? And you can train a little, get better, and be fine for Australia.”
“Yeah,” he says, a little more enthusiasm in his voice. I hear him swallow. “Gotta go,” he says, and the line goes dead.
I stare at the phone for a moment, and then I shrug, and put the TV off mute. I’m watching Friends without the Spanish dubbing. I don’t really know what’s happening, but there’s a monkey involved. Five very confused minutes later, my phone rings again.
“I just threw up,” Roger tells me, sounding more miserable than I have ever heard him sound before.
“Poor Rogelio,” I coo. “If I was there--”
“I’m so glad you’re not here,” he says emphatically. “I never looked worse before in my life. And it’s not just throwing up.”
I wince, knowing what he means. We may be athletes and very matter-of-fact about our bodies and bodily processes, but vomit is definitely more socially acceptable to discuss than other side effects of food poisoning or stomach viruses or whatever it is Roger has.
“Gross,” I say succinctly.
Roger laughs quietly. “Very much so. You think you could handle something like this, Rafa?”
“I not good with being sick,” I say, matter-of-fact, and joke, “I cry and call my mother.”
“You say it like you’re joking but I think we both know that’s pretty close to the truth,” Roger tells me, still sounding amused.
“Cállate,” I concede.
He laughs again. “I meant, could you handle someone you were with being sick? Or... needing help?”
“Sure, why not?” I’ve never really done it. When I was little and older Roger visited me he often had bad headaches or nausea, but he was never really sick. When I was still dating Xisca she only really had colds. And when I was younger the older members of my family would look after us or each other when people got sick. But I’m pretty sure I could handle it. Looking after someone.
“Thought so.” There’s rustling and I assume he’s getting back into bed. I think suddenly of Mirka downstairs in their house, making him tea and looking after him, and I’m weirdly jealous. It is the sort of thing I never thought I’d be jealous of. He sighs. “Okay, I better sleep or something. Thanks for calling.”
“Is no problem. Feel better soon, Roger, no?”
“Yeah. I will. See you soon, yeah?” He sounds oddly young.
“Very soon. Bye.”
The line cuts out, and I sigh. Sometimes I miss him more than I know what to do with.
ROGER: The morning after I talk to Rafa I’m feeling a little better, far less likely to suddenly and inappropriately throw up. I’m half awake at about eight-thirty when I hear a knock on the door of our apartment. Rustling from the spare bedroom next door – Mirka stayed there, it makes sense that she wouldn’t want to sleep in the same bed as her sweaty boyfriend who smells like puke.
The door opens. Quiet words. Then it swings shut. Silence for a moment; I begin to drift back into sleep when my bedroom door crashes open. Mirka’s standing there holding one of the biggest bouquets I’ve ever seen, all oranges and yellows and red, with lush green flowing leaves. In the centre there are three fat beautiful sunflowers. Even before she strides over and thrusts the card in my face I know who they’re from.
I take the card anyway, struggling to sit up as she looms over me, her expression a slightly frightening mixture of anger and something that looks horribly like hurt.
“He sent you flowers?” she asks, her voice half a whisper, all wide eyes and horrified disbelief.
“Who did?” I mumble, my heart pounding in my throat as I take the card from her hand.
She lets out this noise and drops the flowers onto my bedclothed legs. “You know who did!” she says, her voice almost a shout, and then her face crumples horribly. “You know, how dare you say that to me? How dare you pretend, ” she says in a harsh whisper before trailing off. She sits down heavily at the end of my bed, her familiar silhouette outlined in dull light.
“I,” I say, and look at the card. Get well soon, from Rafa and his team, it reads simply. Nothing incriminating there at all. I look at her. “What are you angry about?” I say carefully.
“You know what I’m angry about,” she mutters. “Don’t make me say it.”
I’m silent. “It’s a nice gesture,” I say finally, and emphasise, “of him and his team.”
“How did he know you were ill?” she demands. “How often do you talk to him? All those times you’re on the phone and you stop talking when I come in, that’s him, right?”
“What? No,” I say, as if it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I think vaguely of telling her the truth – does she know the truth? – but that’s just not even an option. She has done so much for me; at the moment I have no idea what my life would be like without her. Empty. Horribly so. I feel a sudden hot flush of guilt and sadness and I push back my bedcovers and climb out of bed. Weakness, blood rushing to my head, but I make it over to her, sinking down next to her. She doesn’t move when I rest a hand on the small of her back.
“You’re so lucky I love you,” she says then, in a quiet angry voice. I think of something Rafa said a while ago, something very similar. It’s true. I am lucky, so painfully artlessly lucky. Creating a problem and hurting people because two of the greatest people you could ever meet love me.
Mirka turns her head and looks at me steadily for a moment. She pushes my hair off my forehead, presses her palm against my skin. “Your fever’s gone,” she says, matter of fact and inscrutable. Then she looks away from me. “You should take a shower.” Then she twitches away from me, stands, walks out of the room, eyes fixed straight ahead of her, not looking back.
RAFA: The day I send the flowers I get a text from Roger at about one in the afternoon. It says ‘why the flowers?’. There are no ‘x’s at the end. This doesn’t bode well.
‘what is wrong with flowers?’ I text back, and add a sad face on the end.
My phone buzzes thirty seconds later. ‘what did u think Mirka would say’, it reads.
Something in my chest sinks. I really hadn’t thought about that. I just thought it’d be something nice that might make him smile. Then again, I’ve been working on thinking about him and me, rather than him, me and her. I guess I’m doing too good a job. ‘sorry :(‘ I text back.
He doesn’t text back for an hour. I practise my serve. Toni yells at me a little. When I go to get some water for the third time I check my phone.
Two messages. One from Xisca that I don’t bother to read – later, later – and one from Roger. ‘its ok. beautiful flowers. see u in oz, sunshine’, it reads, and I exhale happily.
“What’re you so happy about?” Toni yells across the court at me. “You won’t be smiling when Roger Federer beats you.”
“I’ll be smiling when I beat him though,” I yell back, unable to stop myself grinning. It’s like it’s stopped raining, like stormclouds have drifted away, dispersed into a bright blue sky, and I have the sudden feeling that it’s going to be a very good year.
Roger is 26.
ROGER: I’m in Australia and it’s two hours until my third-round match with Tipsarevic. I’m in my hotel room, staring vaguely at a plate of pasta. I’m not hungry. I don’t know why. I’ve hardly seen Rafa all tournament and I miss him, but I’m not sure that’s it. I feel as though an ache has set itself into my bones, fed itself into my flesh like molten lead sinking through jelly. My skin is covered in tiredness and age.
“Come on, Roger. Eat, you have to play soon.” Mirka rests a cool hand on the back of my neck.
“I know. Thank you.” I throw a grateful smile up at her. She smiles back, pats my neck gently before moving off into our bedroom. I stare at my plate again. The pasta stares benignly back at me. Experimentally I fork a piece of it into my mouth. It tastes like sawdust, like something foreign that isn’t meant to be in my mouth, like I’m not supposed to be eating. I force myself to swallow.
This is useless.
I put my fork down neatly by the side of my plate and stand up. It’s then that there’s a loud bang and I see myself suddenly melt forward out of the air. He lurches forward, shins crashing into the edge of an armchair and he lets out a loud “Shit!”. He drops down into the chair, out of breath, and squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. Then he looks over at me, face white and drained. “Hey. Clothes?” he says.
“Sure.” My eyes are still on him as I cross to the other side of the room, find some underwear, jeans, and a shirt in the chest of drawers. “You’ve played the match today, right?”
He stares at me for a moment before letting out a harsh breath. “Of course not.” He lets out an annoyed hiss as he pulls on the clothes, and I stare anxiously at his face. He – I? I’ve always found pronouns difficult when talking about me and my other selves – looks exhausted, grey. “Oh shit. Two hours, right?”
“Mmhm.” I nod, rather pityingly, and then remember that this’ll be me in hours to come. “Oh God.”
“I know. I’m going to lie down.” He gets up, crosses across to the bedroom. I hear him exchange a few words with Mirka. Then she appears at the bedroom door, brow furrowed; even as she comes into focus everything else blurs and shatters and I am gone.
I stagger for a moment, bite back the nausea. It’s only then that I open my eyes and gaze around me. And I just – I have no idea. Outside, somewhere. I look around frantically for a street sign, my heart giving this horrible judder in my chest. This hasn’t happened in a while, not since I was younger. maybe it’s something to do with being unsettled – but there’s no time for thought, not when I’m standing completely naked on a street in the middle of God knows where.
Okay. Time to do something, anything. I turn, working out where exactly I am, silently thanking God for dumping me down in this strange city at nighttime instead of day, for extinguishing the passers-by that would inevitably be here if it was light. There’s a crumpled newspaper on the ground and I grab it, ignore the headlines, search for the date.
And then I see it: October 18th, 2035.
I feel sick for a second, sick and completely alienated. This is the furthest I’ve ever been, the furthest by a long way, and home seems such a long way away, that hotel room that’s been taken over by my future (admittedly only by a few hours) self not only hundreds of miles but countless days away from this place. Somewhere out there I am sixty or so. Jesus.
Where am I? I think dizzily, and wish desperately that I was wearing clothes. There’s a sound from somewhere far off and it’s instinct to dash towards an alleyway. What did I do when I was younger? flashes through my mind, and the answer’s obvious, albeit more than a little unpleasant. But it’s necessary to survive in times like these, when you’re thirty years into the future in a city you barely know, and you don’t have any clothes.
I’m just going to have to lie.
I stick my head out from the alleyway, observe the female figure wandering along. Tall and lean, but unmistakeably female by the curve of the ankle and the heeled shoe. Relief flashes through me when I see what she’s wearing: a long trenchcoat that hangs down to her knees. Oh, thank God.
“Hey,” I call softly. “Hey!”
The woman looks around, sees me and does a double take. Her eyes widen and she gasps something in another language, Italian, Spanish maybe, Portuguese, I have no idea, I’m just too busy eyeing her overcoat.
“Someone stole my stuff,” I say, trying to look suitably pathetic.
It seems to be working because almost before I speak she’s shucking off her coat, handing it over to me, scrupulously allowing her gaze to go no lower than my chin. In the dim light of the streetlamps this woman’s eyes are liquid and black, her features cast almost into darkness.
“Here,” she says, this time in accented English, although I can’t tell where exactly her accent can be placed. “Are you okay? Should I call the police?”
The buttons all done up, I’m buckling the overcoat tightly around my waist. It’s such a relief, although the breeze is somewhat blowing up my bare legs. That, however, is the least of my problems, and I’m pretty sure she finds it pretty cold as well, her arms folded tightly around her middle. “Please don’t,” I tell her, trying to sound somewhat humble. Humility has never been my greatest strength. “I... can’t,” I continue, unable to come up with a better excuse.
“Okay,” she says, and I’m grateful that she doesn’t try to push it. “How about coffee? Can I buy you a coffee? You must be hungry, how about food?”
I look into this strange woman’s face and am suddenly so desperately, feebly grateful for her easy selflessness, that I’m almost afraid that I’m about to start crying. It reminds me of Rafa. Suddenly I want him acutely.
“I would very much appreciate it,” I say faintly.
She smiles and nods very slightly. “No problem. Come on.” She cocks his head to the left. “There’s a great cafe down there. They won’t think it’s weird, the...” She indicates my bare legs and feet.
“Great. Good,” I say, almost faint with gratitude. In the past I have beaten people up for their clothes, I have made other human beings bleed for my modesty and dignity. This is just – something completely different. I am not accustomed to this easy kindness and generosity, traits that I associate almost completely with Rafa. My heart aches for him, stuck fifty years in the past, somewhere I am not, somewhere only the future me who has already experienced this meeting is. I wonder if he’s thinking about me. Once upon a time I wondered about Mirka in this way, which is something I don’t want to dwell too heavily on.
But there is only the present to deal with now. I follow the woman down the street. She doesn’t say much, just looks back at me very occasionally with a swish of her long dark hair, as if she’s making sure I’m still there.
When we enter the cafe a little way down the street she brushes beads of rainwater from the sleeves of her black sweater – it’s a nice material, cashmere maybe – and then she turns to smile at me. “Don’t worry about this place,” she murmurs, “they won’t think you’re weird or anything.” It’s probably true: it’s an eclectic crowd, a homeless guy asleep on the table in the corner and a group of giggling schoolgirls clustered around milkshakes, a sound asleep baby in a buggy next to its mother, who is gazing off into space and jogging the buggy like she can’t wait to fall asleep either. No one has looked at us.
“How can I help?” The girl behind the counter is pretty and young, with a thickly coiling brown ponytail and very slightly crooked teeth.
“I’ll have black coffee, and he’ll have...” The woman gestures at me and I’m already scanning the menus over the counter. Her kindness is overwhelming, but more so is my desperate stomach-gnawing need for food.
I order quickly, completely disregarding my match as long-lost as I decide on eggs and bacon and hash browns, and then we make our way over to a table. It’s easier to study her there, this woman who rescued me from an alleyway out of the goodness of her heart and the almost complete disregard for her personal safety. She has large dark brown eyes, faint hatchings of lines surrounding them, and the sort of lines around her mouth that make her look like she smiles a lot. The kind of lines that I think Rafa will have one day.
The waitress comes over and pours us both cups of coffee. She wraps her hands around the mug; I do the same with my own, hoping the caffeine will leech into my palms and push me back through time into the place I’m supposed to be. Unsurprisingly, it does not.
“What’s your name?” I ask her then.
“Oh, it’s Charlie.” She nods, and inclines her head slightly.
“That’s a nice name,” I tell her.
“Thank you,” she replies, and studies me for a second, her face serious. Then she says, abrupt, “You have CDD, right?”
I feel my eyebrows go up. “Excuse me?” I ask, and I can feel my hackles raising as my spirits dampen themselves down, a dull clot of annoyance that this is turning out as badly as the vast majority of my time travel always has.
“Chrono displacement disorder,” she says, like I should know it already, and then frowns sharply. “Wait, what year are you from?”
The question hits me like a punch to the jaw and I stare at her for a full ten seconds before replying. There’s no reason not to trust her. Her coat feels like good expensive wool and she allowed me to put it on over my naked rain-covered body. I have the feeling she’s one of the good guys, but then, to be fair, Rafa has always told me that I place too much value on the treatment and wearing of clothes.
“2008,” I say eventually.
There’s a slight flicker of a muscle beside her eye. “What’s your name?” she asks.
“Roger,” I tell her, somehow compelled towards the truth.
“I think I know you,” she says, her voice cracking on the last word, the corner of her mouth shaking. She leans in a little. “Federer, right?”
“Yes,” I admit, letting out a breath, relief coursing through me. A fan. That’s okay. That’s doable. A fan. From 2035, who knows who I am, who knows my condition and, what’s more, has a name for it. I’m dizzy for a moment and my fingertips dig into the plastic tabletop, but I stay firmly in place.
“You’re one of my favourites,” Charlie tells me then. “Will you excuse me for just a second?” She takes her phone out of her pocket and starts tapping away on the keypad before raising it to her ear. I smile and turn away slightly, in order to be polite, even though I’m kind of intrigued by what phones will look like thirty years into the future.
She’s talking rapid Spanish, I realise with a start, too fast for me to understand, and again feel a strong pang of need for Rafa; I catch the word ‘Papa’ and zone out, not wanting to intrude on her conversation. A plate of fragrant food is placed down in front of me and I smile my thanks up at the waitress before attacking it with gusto.
“I was talking to my dad,” Charlie explains, after she stops talking on the phone.
I look over at her, swallow a vast mouthful of bacon. For some reason her dark eyes are glittering with tears. “Okay,” I say, and reach out to touch the back of her hand comfortingly. She flips it over and laces her fingers with mine strongly, clinging on tight. “Are you all right?” I venture.
“Yeah. Yeah.” She sniffs, runs a fingertip beneath her eye. “Fine. Sorry.” She smiles at me, looking very watery, still holding tightly onto my hand. “Sorry. It’s just... my dad loved you so much. I wish he was here. This is wasted on me – although,” she adds, squeezing my fingers, “I loved you too.”
“I might be here for a little longer,” I tell her. She has full expressive lips and they’re wobbling slightly, as though she’s trying to contain emotion. “Invite him along if you want.”
“I can’t.” She shrugs. “He’s not in the country right now.”
“I’ll try to make it back here again some day,” I offer.
“Do that.” She smiles again. “I’ve always wanted to talk to you.”
I raise an eyebrow, unable to stop myself from grinning. I’ve seen a lot of adulation from people across the globe, but encountering fans at a time like this, one on one, is always special. “Thank you. I’m afraid I’m not very interesting.”
“I disagree,” she tells me, and grins back.
I exhale a little laugh. “So – CDD? There’s a name for it now?”
She frowns slightly, tipping her head to the side. “Yeah. But I’m not going to ruin the future for you.”
“Making it tough for me,” I say lightly, and she nods, mouth twisting wryly. “So what do you know about me?” I continue, curious for knowledge. I know I’m maybe putting myself at an advantage to the rest of the world, but this time travel thing, it puts me at a disadvantage so often that I think I’m allowed to use it for my good sometimes.
“Oh. You’re still the most successful tennis player ever,” she tells me. “Unbeaten records. That probably doesn’t surprise you,” she adds, looking mischievous.
“Not really,” I admit, and do my best not to look egocentric.
She’s laughing at me. “Um – I can’t tell you too much. I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
“C’mon. Give me something.” I seize on an idea. “Rafael Nadal.”
She looks at me then, hard, like she’s trying to figure something out. “It’s started?”
“How much do you know?”
“Aren’t you still with,” she says, and falls silent. “Oh.”
“It’s complicated,” I tell her uncomfortably.
“Clearly.” She stares into her coffee. “Yeah. You and Rafa Nadal. Happy. You’re known as a family man.”
“All I could’ve hoped for,” I say softly, a thud of relief filling my chest.
She smiles then, sudden and for some reason a little sad, but I don’t have much time left; things are getting hazy, the restaurant swimming around me. “Okay,” I say, “I...”
“You’re going?” Panic in her voice as I stand up, dash across the room to the bathrooms in the corner. I’m in the corridor outside the main restaurant, clinging to a wall as the world spins, when she catches up with me. She’s holding her phone out to me. “Say something, say something.”
“What?” I ask, and look at the phone. The name on the other end of the line is ‘Papa’ – so she wants me to speak to her father. “Hola,” I say uncomfortably, and centre myself enough so that things are less blurry. “Hello?” I revert to English. “This is Roger Federer. It’s nice to talk to you. I...”
Charlie is staring at me and now there are tears running down her cheeks, hands shaking as she wrings them in front of her. “He loves you,” she tells me, “he does. He loves you.”
“Thank you.” I try to think of something to say. “I guess – thank you. For everything.” I grin at Charlie and reach out to catch onto her arm reassuringly. I hear a breath that sounds like it’s choking before there’s a dialtone. “He hung up,” I report, and hand the phone back to her. As I do so there’s a jolt and I’m going, going, gone.
RAFA: After I get knocked out in the semis, Roger comes to my room afterwards. After the usual hug and the consolations I was expecting, he sprawls quietly on the other side of the bed, eyes focussed on the football on TV. After a while he leans over and puts his head on my shoulder. “I’m tired,” he says.
“I could tell.” I kiss his forehead before pulling away, a little alarmed. “You very hot,” I tell him.
He tries out a lecherous smirk. “I know.”
“Roger.” I smack him on the shoulder.
“Sorry. I know, though. I think I have a fever. I’ve had one for a while,” he admits.
“Do you feel ill?”
“Headache. Kind of sore.” He wrinkles his nose before sighing. “Semis tomorrow. I’m going to choke against Djokovic. How embarrassing.”
“I choke against Tsonga today,” I remind him.
“You didn’t choke. He just played better than you.”
“True.” I wriggle slightly before drawing Roger’s head back to my shoulder. I start to stroke his hair very gently.
“That feels good.”
“I know. Maybe you have a cold, no?”
“I guess.” He curls closer to me like a tired little puppy, and I have no objection to pulling him close and trying to push some of my energy into him through his skin. I don’t need it any more – this tournament is done for me this year.
Roger is 26, and Rafa is 21.
ROGER: “You have what?” Rafa says. His voice is breaking up over the poor phone connection.
“Mono,” I say patiently, and manage not to punctuate the word with a pitiful cough.
“What is mono?” he asks, a little stiffly.
Well, this is a hurdle I should probably have anticipated.
“Um,” I say, “it’s...” What do I say? Surprise, I might be out for a while, and you might have mono too, thereby wrecking both our careers? I think terrible, pessimistic thoughts about Mario Ancic.
“It’s a viral thing. Knocks you out for a while. Tiredness, I think, will be the worst thing. It’s not too serious a case.”
“Oh! Mono?” And he sounds slightly alarmed. “Ah, shit.”
“You okay, Roger?”
“I’ll be okay.” I cringe slightly. I feel like I’m telling him I might have given him genital warts or herpes or something, except less disgusting and a whole lot more career-threatening. “You need to get tested, though.”
“...yeah.” He sighs, all static and depression, into the phone. “Don’t worry. I be okay. Love to you, okay?”
“You too.” I feel kind of warm, and he hangs up the phone.
RAFA: “Shit, ” I say loudly, and smack my fist into my other palm as I stride into the changing rooms.
Across the room Fernando looks up at me, looking faintly perturbed. We have – an odd relationship. It’s not that I don’t like him. Of course I like him. He’s a nice guy. At least, I think he is. Feli knows him better than I do, and I mean, Feli has good taste in people, but still. We’ve never been particularly close, but obviously we know each other a little. I think it’s just that our personalities don’t gel especially well. He’s an okay guy, but we just don’t have all that much in common. Other than tennis, of course. And I have that in common with a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to choose to spend time with people like that asshole Soderling. Not that Fer’s as bad as him – no one’s as bad as him – but I need to have more in common than tennis to be friends with people on tour. I guess there’s one thing, but – that’s not the sort of thing you can bring up in conversation, like How’s that bisexuality going for you? It doesn’t work.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“I might have mono,” I mutter.
His eyebrows shoot up. “Mono? Wow.”
“Yeah.” I’m already mentally checking over my body. I haven’t noticed any strange fatigue; I’ve felt pretty well for a while now. But of course I could still have it, I might just not be showing any symptoms yet. “Shit,” I say again, mostly to myself.
“Where’d you get it?” Fernando asks interestedly. “Girlfriend?” He takes a swig from his water bottle, gazing curiously over at me.
“First, I don’t have it for sure,” I tell him, smiling very slightly. “You’re very negative.” He smirks at me. I roll my eyes. How did I get it? How will I explain this, if it is the case? “Second, probably from... drinking from someone’s water bottle,” I improvise madly.
Fernando looks dubious. “That’s possible?” he asks. “It’s called the kissing disease for a reason.”
I sort of want to punch him, and heroically do not.
“Of course it’s possible,” I say instead. “Learn some science.”
“I haven’t ever needed to learn about the kissing disease,” he says, looking like he’s about to start laughing.
This is too easy. “Because you’ve never kissed anyone?” I shoot back at him, grinning.
“Mmm, that line could’ve worked on anyone except me.” His eyes are dancing as he smiles over at me, a sort of challenge on his face, and I feel myself redden as I turn away. After you drunkenly kiss a male friend who you’re going to see constantly for the rest of your working life, when exactly is it appropriate to bring it up? My view on the subject is ‘never’, but Fernando Verdasco, Master of Creating Awkward Moments, clearly has a different opinion on the matter.
“Thanks for that.” I grimace over at him.
He looks highly amused. “No problem.”
Rafa is 18.
So here’s how it happens. It’s a pretty simple story, really.
We’re drinking. Feli and Fernando and me, in a hotel room in London just before Wimbledon, and there’s an odd tension in the room. We’re playing video games – I’m winning, for once in my life – and have consumed the best part of a bottle of JD between the three of us. Feli’s long hair is rumpled and falling over his flushed face, I feel very wobbly on my feet, and Fer is virtually indistinguishable from his usual self, except for the fact that he seems very inclined to drape himself over things. Like Feli’s shoulder, like my knees at one point, like the big double bed all evening. He takes up so much space. I kind of want to punch him.
I’m concentrating mostly on the game, because alcohol makes it hard to think of two things at once, while Feli and Fernando lag behind and chat idly just behind me. I hear occasional snippets: Fer has been dating a Spanish girl for a month and a half and I hear him say something like “But she’s so Catholic! ” and Feli snorts with laughter.
“So what?” I ask, mostly immersed in the game. “Catholics are okay.” I’m not particularly religious, but a lot of people I know are.
“Not the sort of Catholic who doesn’t,” Fernando mutters, before falling silent.
“Doesn’t what?” I kill Feli’s character and he kicks me. “Ow!” I protest, and kick him back.
“You know.” Fernando seems to be concentrating on the game more now.
“There are certain things she won’t do before marriage,” he admits tersely, and Feli snorts again.
“Oh.” I pause the game and look sideways at him. “Like...”
“Anything. She won’t do anything. Not even anything below the shirt.”
“Not even below the shirt? Wow.” I feel myself frown, and then smirk. “I guess skirts are off limits.”
“You’re telling me.” His mouth is a scrunched up line of something that resembles dry amusement. “She’s a nice girl, but – I’m not sure I’m that nice a guy. I just don’t want to be that one guy, you know?”
“What guy?” I ask.
“The guy who dumps his girlfriend because she won’t sleep with him,” Feli says helpfully.
“That guy,” Fernando agrees.
“There’s nothing wrong with waiting to be married,” I argue.
“But it sucks,” Fernando points out.
“Or doesn’t, in her case,” Feli says thoughtfully, and there’s a thud as Fer hits him in the ribs.
“Seriously though,” he says, after a moment, eyes wide and mock-serious. “She doesn’t.”
“Maybe it’s just because she finds you physically repulsive,” I point out. “Maybe she’s trying to spare your feelings and steal your money.”
“Smart girl,” Feli nods, mock-serious.
“I hate you both,” Fernando tells us, and begins to shuffle off the two-thirds of the big bed he has occupied. “I’m gonna leave you gentlemen to it.” He glances over at me. “Although, Rafa – you’re the baby here—”
“The baby with a Grand Slam,” I interject. It’s a sure argument winner, and besides that, mentioning it makes me feel warm and happy.
“Whatever. You’re the baby. Shouldn’t you be getting to bed too?”
I lean over to check the digital clock; its red digits blink 2:47. “Yeah,” I concede. “You have a point for once in your life.” I get up, and grin over at Feli. His face is oddly serious, gaze flickering between me and Fernando, who has grabbed my wrist to support himself. I guess he drank more than I thought he did. “Night!” I say cheerily to Feli.
“Night,” he says thoughtfully back. “Fer, can I just,” and pulls Fernando away to the corner of the room, talking to him quickly and quietly; I’m not really listening as I look around the dark room for my phone, but hear a couple of brief phrases.
“Can’t you just—”
“—well, if you weren’t so—”
“I know what you’re—”
“Can we just not fight about—”
I pick up my phone and brandish it in front of me. “Okay, I’m going,” I say loudly, planning to leave them to it. I’m not sure what they’re arguing about. I sometimes feel like I’m not privy to some of their conversations even when they’re taking place right in front of me. Maybe I just don’t listen hard enough.
“Me too,” Fernando says decisively. “Good night.”
“See you tomorrow,” Feli says. He looks defeated and irritated.
After the door has swung shut behind us I say to Fernando, “You won that one, right?”
“I guess I did.” He looks contemplative.
We walk companionably down the richly-carpeted hallway for a few doors. The floor seems like an odd distance away from my feet, and the wallpaper is intensely confusing.
“How drunk are you?” Fernando asks me suddenly.
“I’m not exactly wasted,” I tell him, and hold out a hand in front of me. “I’m a little, you know,” and sway side to side with a slight smile to demonstrate.
He huffs out a little laugh. “Yeah, I know.” He surveys me, and for a second I feel strangely naked.
“What?” I ask, self-conscious.
Fernando’s brow is slightly furrowed. “I was just thinking.”
“Makes a change.”
He laughs, a little snigger-snort, before turning away. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Okay,” I say agreeably. We walk a little more.
“We could,” he begins.
“What?” I ask.
We walk a little more. I keep glancing sideways at Fernando like I’ll somehow start to understand what he’s talking about. Finally we reach my room and I pull my wallet out of my back pocket, open it for my key card. It takes me a second to unlock the door, as I’m slightly inebriated and all, and Fernando lets out a gently mocking laugh behind me.
“Shut up,” I say good-naturedly over my shoulder as I go into my room, and for some reason he’s following me, gaze flickering interestedly around.
“Do you ever clean?” he asks, looking around.
I follow his gaze to the piles of heaped clothes and equipment. “No,” I say vaguely, feeling the sort of prickle of irritation I often feel around him.
“Huh.” He shrugs, and then looks hard at me. “Here goes?”
“Here goes what?”
There is something uncertain about his mouth and then he smiles and it hits me like a thunderbolt. Not an actual thunderbolt; like a big thunderbolt-shaped piece of metal slamming me hard in the skull, point first. It’s not the greatest of realisations but it sets off this chain reaction of tickly sensations in my stomach and suddenly I am very warm.
“Here goes.” He puts his hand on my back. I am suddenly worried that I’m about to sweat through every item of clothing that I’m wearing. Oh my God. He’s good-looking, I reason as I stare into his eyes – not Roger’s, not Roger’s, my mind keeps saying – and this would be so very, very easy. It’s been forever since I had sex, and he’s a friend, kind of. Well, Feli’s friend. I hope Feli wouldn’t be mad. Then again, I guess he doesn’t have to know.
Determinedly I lean in and press my mouth to his. He kisses back immediately and it feels strange. His lips are the wrong shape. I kiss him carefully, in a way that I imagine to be thoughtful and kind of passionate at the same time. That’s a good kiss, right? If I’m honest, it’s not the greatest. I’m pretty sure I can hear saliva sloshing between our mouths. This is the weirdest situation of my life, excluding any situations that have included time travel. It’s even weirder than winning the French Open. That was pretty weird but at least it was something I’d always aimed for. This really, really isn’t.
He pushes towards me as if he’s determined to make this work, and it gets marginally better. I stop thinking about the mechanics of what we’re doing quite as much. Instead I think of Roger again, of hips pressed hard against mine, my hand in his soft hair, his hands pressed firmly on my ass, and I’m curling closer to Fernando without quite realising it.
He responds, pushing his hands under my shirt, touching my stomach and for some reason, some reason, that’s it. That’s what gets me. Something about the hands, something about the calluses, the way they’re on the opposite hands from Roger’s, and something about the shape of them, and – it’s all wrong. I think forcefully of Roger, that shadowy figure from whom I felt intensely unconditional support and security as a small child, the man I grew closer to as a teen, who kissed me even though he seemed to think he shouldn’t, who held me and who is, at present, holding someone else in a bed far away from here.
I break away from Fernando, almost choking, and humiliatingly there’s this sudden hot rush of tears to my eyes. I turn away from him, dropping down on the edge of the bed, and he sits down next to me, concern and slight irritation on his face.
“Are you okay? That’s the worst report I’ve ever got after kissing someone,” he says, clearly trying to make light of it.
“I’m fine.” Although my eyes feel watery and someone apparently shoved a tennis ball down my throat to block it, and I’m starting to develop this shooting headache in my temples. I mean, I’m fine. I am. It’ll work out. I know that. I just – miss him.
He touches my knee and just leaves his hand there for a second. I let him. I blink away the ridiculous tears and I smile at him, rolling my eyes to make fun of myself. “It was just a bad memory,” I explain.
“Okay.” He sounds hesitant.
“Sorry. Come here.” I reach for him and although he’s frowning a little he moves towards me, kisses me back when I kiss him. I can make this okay. I believe that I can.
I deepen the kiss, moving my hand to the curve just above his hip, stroking his skin through his shirt. It’s okay, I tell myself; at least I’m going to get to have sex. This can’t go that badly.
There’s a shuffling noise in the bathroom and I somehow open my eyes even as Fer’s still kissing me. There’s a figure in the bathroom door, tall and lean, a familiar silhouette, and—
Oh my God.
Roger is 36, and Rafa is 18 and 32.
ROGER: Rafa makes a sleepy noise next to me, and rolls over so his face is facing mine, only centimetres away. I study it closely, in a way that I don’t usually get a chance to. The smattering of dark brown freckles over his nose, the lightly stubbled jaw. The silvery scar across his cheek. I will never get used to that, will never stop hurting about it, like when he stretches out his bad leg with a grimace of pain when he thinks I’m not looking, or says, consciously offhand, that he might go back to the physiotherapist. His hair’s still messy and thick lying across his forehead, lashes long and dark and casting shadows on his cheeks. My gorgeous Rafa, I think with a bubble of pride.
His mouth moves and I wonder for a moment if he’s dreaming, before it twists fully into a smile. “You wake me up,” he complains, still smiling as he stretches luxuriantly.
“Sorry.” I reach out a hand to touch his hair and he pushes happily against it like a cat.
“Is okay.” His eyes haven’t opened properly. “Back to sleep,” he murmurs.
“Damn right, sunshine,” I say quietly to him, and push my hand through his soft hair again. And then I curse because everything is blurring and I am going.
RAFA: He vanishes and I’m alone. This happens way too often, so much so that it barely phases me any more. I crane my neck to look at the clock – 3:42 – and I close my eyes again, determined to get back to sleep. I mean, it sucks for Roger and everything, and I don’t have the words to express how worried I get sometimes, and how much I miss him when he hasn’t been around for a few days, but that doesn’t mean I should miss out on sleep, right?
I curl up, pulling the blankets closer to my face; we’re all in Switzerland at the moment and the house here gets cold at night during the winter. Colder than home, anyway. I swathe myself in blankets, tucking them in either side of my body, and concentrate on getting back to sleep.
I’m almost there when there’s a crash in the corner of the room, a hissed swearword in German, and an abrupt punch to my shoulder.
“What?” I ask, opening my eyes blearily. “You finally gone crazy?”
“Yeah, you finally drove me crazy. You kissed Fernando Verdasco?”
“What – oh.” I remember the shadowy figure in the bathroom that was unmistakeably Roger. I feel myself flush. I had forgotten that this day was coming.
“Yeah. Oh.” He scrambles, pleasantly naked, over me, and starts pulling at the sheets. “I can’t believe you took all the blankets for the millionth time.”
“I get cold,” I protest, a smile making its way onto my mouth.
“I know.” He smiles back, a private, affectionate smile. My stomach flipflops. I don’t know if I will ever get used to having him. Finally he slides into the bed beside me, pressing his body against mine, all warm skin and slightly rough chest and legs. He loops his leg over one of mine and throws an arm around my waist. “Let me warm you up.”
It’s working, and I open my mouth to say so before I’m abruptly cut off by him biting my shoulder lightly. I hear myself let out an appreciative mumble as Roger snakes an arm around me, letting his hand rest on the small of my back. He is draped over me, and I can’t really remember much about anything we might have been talking about. “Mmm,” I say instead.
“Verdasco,” he murmurs into my neck. It’s not the most romantic thing that he’s ever done.
“Roger,” I say, in an oh please voice.
He snuffles out an amused laugh into my skin. “Tell me. Did you sleep with him?” I let out a distasteful groan and he strokes my back very gently. “I don’t care if you did. I just want to know.”
“No. I almost cried because I was thinking about you,” I admit after a second, the memory raw and painful even now, after all these years. All that time without him, wanting him, knowing he was choosing normality over me. It hurt.
He stills, face remaining in my neck, hand on my back, leg over mine. I feel a slow exhalation of warm breath.
“I’m sorry,” he says after a beat, voice still muffled.
“It’s okay.” I stopped caring about his apologies years ago. He doesn’t need to make them any more. The past is in the past, and we can’t make a good future without leaving it behind.
“I hate thinking of—”
“So don’t. Okay?” I pull away so that I can see his face. “Happy now, okay?”
“So happy,” he admits, sudden relaxation running through his body like molten silver.
“Exactly.” I press the tip of my nose against his. He makes a soft growling noise and presses his back. It’s the kind of thing you only do in the dark at night in bed when you’re both very sleepy, because I love him and everything but some things are just embarrassing. I laugh against his mouth; he presses his lips against mine quickly once and then again, hand ghosting up my side like an invitation to go back to sleep, and I don’t mind if I do.
Roger is 35, and Rafa is 16.
RAFA: A week after the party where I kissed Roger, and my parents still aren’t speaking to me.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. Only a little one, though. They said they didn’t think I was the sort of child who would do this. I told them that I’m not a child. My uncle Toni agreed with me. Sometimes he’s good for something other than telling me I’ll never be as good as Borg.
My sister keeps laughing at me. It’s understandable, really. We still keep finding things around the apartment, like a beer can behind my dad’s trouser press, and a girl’s shirt left drying in the airing cupboard. The worst thing was probably the used condom in my bedroom wastepaper bin. I wouldn’t have cared that much, if not for the fact that I haven’t had sex in months and it made me kind of jealous.
Speaking of sex, I should be seeing Roger today. Not that I’ve had sex with him. Because I haven’t. I’ve thought about it, though, probably too much. Sometimes it distracts me and I realise I haven’t been listening to someone for the last five minutes because I’ve been thinking about licking Roger’s throat. It’s weird, and it’s probably a little creepy because he’s so much older than me. It’s just that I feel as though my future is so tied up with him, it wouldn’t be weird. I have dreams too. I mean, the other night—
Well, the other night. I’m not sure if it was anatomically correct or anything because, well, I haven’t actually seen any gay porn. I know how it all works, kind of, but not the reality. Anyway, I don’t know if it was physically possible. But it was awesome. I really hope that one day I can find out whether or not it was physically possible. Preferably with Roger.
Anyway, I’m sitting on the little rock wall at the bottom of my garden, waiting for him. He will be here, I trust that, but I’m getting sick of waiting. Then there’s a noise and a sudden presence and Roger swearing. He always swears when he arrives. It’s pretty endearing.
“Hey!” I say happily.
“Don’t look,” he says as he pulls on trousers, and obligingly I cover my eyes.
“What if I want to look?” I ask, and he chuckles, sounding a little embarrassed, and doesn’t answer.
“When are we?” he asks, when he’s appropriately attired and sitting down next to me.
“I had a party last week.” I scrutinise his face, but I’m pretty sure he’s younger than the Roger who was here then. So he won’t remember those amazing kisses; I feel a judder of disappointment.
“That’s nice,” he says, smiling. “Was it fun?”
“Mmm.” I nod, and don’t tell him he was there. I kick my bare toes at the dusty ground. “A lot of fun.”
“That’s nice. How’s everything going, anyway?”
“Pretty well.” I chew my bottom lip for a moment, studying his familiar face. The sun is setting, like someone has swiped paint across the sky, and it’s cool and pleasant. If he knew more, I would – if he knew more I would reach over to him and—
I stretch out an arm and touch my palm to his side, his warm skin through his thin t-shirt. I curve my hand over his hip and he looks down dumbly at it, like he can’t believe it.
“How old are you?” he asks flatly.
He scrutinises me for a moment and then something clicks, like a sudden decision that everything’s okay. He puts a hand on my jaw and he leans in and kisses me almost chastely. My head is fizzing and I kiss him back, pushing towards him, wanting to crawl onto him, into him, under his skin. Quickly the chasteness of the kiss vanishes and he kisses me with urgency, hand tightening on my neck. After a moment we break away from each other.
“That what you wanted?” he asks.
“Um, yes.” I grin at him and he shakes his head, looking serious, before laughing, low and sexy and with this lightness that’s beautiful to witness.
“You’re so gorgeous,” he murmurs, and traces along my cheek with his fingernail, like he’s scarring me. I wish I could keep the lines he draws on me with me forever. “Come here.” He kisses me again and I can feel a smile behind his mouth. Above us the sun is crushing orange and red into the black outlines of tree branches and the night is cooling rapidly, but I want nothing more than to stay here wrapped up in him for as long as possible. Soon I’ll have to go inside and finish homework, and I’m supposed to be playing video games with my sister this evening and helping my mother cook dinner, but for now this is everything.