The match is billed as Nadal vs Hien, but Roger thinks they might as well call it Las Vegas vs Dubai. The court on top of the shiny new Hotel Rouge surpasses the helipad he and Agassi played on at the Burj al Arab by only 75 feet.
It does, however, have a fence around it, temporary seats for the audience if they can afford $500 a ticket, and it's safe enough to be used by hotel guests after Rafa and Hien are done with it.
Any wild shots will not be going in the ocean. Roger watches the hotel owner pace as the sheets at the top of the fence slide into place. They make it look like the building has sails, but in fact they're meant to prevent lawsuits brought on by fuzzy, yellow death from above.
"They look absurd, don't they?" the owner says.
Roger was introduced to him earlier, but the man's name escapes him. "Well. A bit. It's just for this match?"
"Yeah. 'Cause you guys hit harder."
"Yes. But our balls do generally go where we want them to. On the court, you know, and not over the edge of a building. Something one cannot say always for amateurs."
The owner pales visibly, flipping open his cell phone as he turns away.
Roger settles into his seat, which is leather, plush, and arm-chair sized. It has a drink holder, in which sits a chilled bottle of some exclusive volcanic water. He'd rather live in Dubai, but he has to admit that Las Vegas has a certain flair.
On the far side of the court, Rafa is warming up, bouncy as ever. Roger spots his father and Toni in the crowd, and his sister, and his new girlfriend, an American model. Amy, Roger thinks, or possibly Ami, or Amie. The press can't seem to settle on one spelling yet. They'd better start getting it right soon; her relationship with Rafa is getting her bigger and better jobs all the time.
She's hanging onto Toni's sleeve like she might fall off the building if she lets go, and she looks nearly as pale as the hotel owner.
Rafa sprints over to them, still moving like he has springs in his feet even when he stops to talk. Amy lets go of Toni's sleeve and smiles for him. Roger can't hear what they say, but it's only a few seconds before Rafa bounds away again, clearly with no idea she's anything but fine.
It's not like him to miss other people's discomfort, especially people he cares about. Roger frowns, and instantly there is a waiter at his side, as if summoned by his mild and unrelated displeasure.
"Can I get you anything besides water, sir? We have a cocktail menu and a selection of hors d'oeuvres and miniature desserts," the boy says, with a bright smile. He's wearing a white polo shirt, wrist bands, and very tight white shorts.
"It's not a bit early in the day?"
"This is Las Vegas, sir. It's never too early for anything."
He gives Roger a look that says, Including sex with me, more clearly than Roger would've thought possible.
"Just an iced tea, I think. Thank you."
"Passionfruit ice tea, rose iced tea, iced green tea, iced white tea, mango cinnamon iced tea, or silver tip peach?"
Roger blinks. "The green, please."
"Right away, sir."
Las Vegas also beats Dubai in beverage choice, but Roger's not actually sure that's a plus.
The boy is back in under three minutes with Roger's tea on a silver tray. The tall, frosted glass sits on a white doily in the center. It's quite good, very cold. His mother would tell him probably that the essence of the tea is lost by drinking it at such a low temperature, but the sun is hot, despite this being almost the end of November.
"Thank you," Roger says.
"Ah." The boys shifts, shorts riding up one tanned thigh. "I'm totally not supposed to do this, and please don't tell or I'll get in trouble, but are you Roger Federer?"
Roger smiles. "Yes. I won't tell if you don't."
"I knew it, I mean, I was so sure, but I've only seen your picture on TV and stuff. Wow! Can I have your autograph?" And also sex?
Roger decides he's reading too much into the boy's body language. "Yes, of course. What shall I sign?"
The boy pulls out a marker and pulls his shirt up. "Right on my stomach, okay?"
Well. Maybe he's not reading too much into it. He can't see the harm, though, and signs just above the boy's belly button. He's signed stranger things in his life.
"Thanks so much, you're so cool! My name's Phil, like Philadelphia, city of brotherly love, just tell me if you need anything, okay? Anything at all, I'll get it for you."
He hurries off, leaving Roger rather relieved that the game is likely to be short. It's nice that people still want his autograph, but he could do without the groupies. He thought that would've died down after he retired, especially with Rafa, who is far more obvious groupie material, not a hundred feet away.
He looks better than ever, Roger has to admit. Maybe more solid, a little less puppy-like. More mature. Even more intense when he plays, which shouldn't be possible. He had a rough start this season, but he's won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, not to mention Olympic gold. Hien beat him in Australia and at Roland Garros, to everyone's shock except Roger's.
No one else, apparently, sees Rafa's game fraying at the edges. No one else, Roger is guessing, gets occasional text messages about the pain Rafa's knees are giving him, about the surgery the doctors tell him he'll eventually need, by the time he's forty if not before.
There was one text right after the U.S. Open, middle of the night in Rafa's time zone. It just said, it hurts. Roger still doesn't know if he meant his knees or something deeper than that. He called, but Rafa didn't pick up.
They haven't spoken since. Rafa doesn't know he's here. Roger's not sure he should be here. But it's been a long time since he saw Rafa play in person. The game is starting. He leans forward to watch.
It's shorter than Roger anticipated, and rather more vicious. Rafa's not playing like it's an exhibition match. There are no smiles, no trick shots for the crowd, no playing around. He has all of his normal intense focus and more, and Hien is left fighting to keep up. Rafa wins in two sets, 6-0, 6-2. Roger does like seeing him win, but that was more painful than satisfying.
The two of them shake stiffly at the net. Hien jogs off the court. People are stirring in their seats, their applause oddly hesitant. Maybe they were expecting a better show. Roger figures it's time for him to leave.
Other people, unfortunately, have the same idea. He's used to the crowds sticking around a bit after a match, but maybe they share Ami's difficulty with heights. There is a stampede for the elevators.
"Hey." Someone tugs at Roger's sleeve. It's Phil. "You want a faster way down?"
"Does it involve jumping?"
Phil grins. "Service elevator. It's kinda grubby, but." He shrugs.
"Thank you, yes."
The service elevator is lined with sacking and has sticky patches and bits of lettuce on the floor, but it doesn't smell bad. Phil leans against one wall and flips his hair back.
"So. I guess you don't need anyone to, like, show you around the city? I know all the best casinos."
"I don't really like to gamble."
"Gluttony is not my sin of choice."
Phil smiles. "Don't worry. Vegas has something for everyone."
"You like it here?"
"Yeah, I really do. I'm from New York, so it's not like it's a real city, but everything's so--shiny. Clean. And you know, the mountains and the big sky, the horizon. I go hiking in the hills sometimes. It's beautiful."
Roger finds himself smiling back. "It does sound nice."
"I could show you..."
"I'm sorry. I'm not here for long."
"It's cool," Phil says, too fast, ducking his head. "I know. You're busy. Oh, hey. Look, I got Nadal's too."
At the same time as the elevator doors open onto the hotel kitchen, Phil hauls his shirt up to reveal Rafa's signature scrawled just below Roger's.
"Oh," Roger says. He tears his eyes away from black marker on bronze skin to see Rafa signing autographs for a group of cooks.
"VIP elevator," Rafa says. "Faster than yours."
"And you headed straight for the kitchens, of course."
Rafa grins, a little tight around the mouth. "Hungry."
"You want to talk," Roger says, switching to Italian. Rafa's not perfect in it, but he knows enough.
"Yeah," Rafa says, in the same language. "You weren't even going to say hello?"
Roger shrugs and finally steps out of the elevator.
"Uh. You two want a room?" Phil says. "I mean, not like that, but. You know."
"Yes, we want a room," Rafa says. He doesn't look away from Roger's eyes once.
Phil shows them to a staff break room and slips Roger his card before he leaves. The door clicks shut, and Rafa locks it.
"He wants to, what is it, jump your boner?" Rafa says.
Roger snorts. "Bones."
"Huh. Boner makes more sense."
"Yes, that's English for you." Roger tucks the card into his pocket. It seems rude to throw it away, at least here, where Phil might see it in the trash. Rafa watches him do it. "I'm sorry," Roger says. "I didn't know if I should be here."
Rafa slumps into a chair in front of the orange plastic table. He pokes at a cigarette burn with one bitten nail.
"I'm sorry I didn't pick up. Didn't know what to say."
Roger sits across from him. "It's all right."
"Is always all right, with you." It sounds like an accusation. Rafa shakes his head sharply. "No, I'm sorry again. Not your fault."
"No one." He rubs a hand over his mouth and pushes his hair back. This close, Roger can see the dark circles under his eyes. "Amy think she is pregnant. She wants to get rid of it."
"Oh." Roger reaches for his hand across the table and grips it tight.
"Why would she do that?"
Roger can think of a number of logical reasons, but none of them would be helpful right now. "I'm sorry," he says.
"I did not plan to marry her, but I would. I mean. Why not? There are worse reasons, yes?"
"Maybe. You want a child? It would change many things."
"I want her not to say, hello, yes, am pregnant, I want to get rid of it! Why she even tell me if she's saying that?"
"You would rather she lied to you?"
"No! But." He hangs his head, hair screening his face.
"I imagine it was hard for her to tell you."
"I would've-- Mama likes her, even. I would give her anything she needs. I have money now, maybe as much as you, even."
Roger remembers saying the same thing about Mirka. She hadn't seemed to mind at the time.
"She's very young," Roger says. "Only twenty. She has her own career, one she seems to like quite a bit. Would you have wanted someone to give you everything at twenty?" Or even now, he doesn't add.
Rafa springs up, knocking his chair back a foot. He strides to the far wall and stands there. He puts a hand on it. "You and your logic," he says. "Always so sensible. Sensible Roger."
"If you wanted platitudes, you should've told someone else."
Rafa smiles at him over his shoulder, warm enough, but tired. "Nah. Who else would I tell? Always your job to put me in my place, no?"
"I do enjoy it. Has she seen a doctor?"
"No. But she's one week, you know, late."
"One week? You don't think it's a little soon to worry?"
"What do I know! She says she is real, you know, regular!"
"And for one week and a temper tantrum you did that to Hien?"
"I would beat him anyway!" Rafa leans his forehead against the wall and closes his eyes. "I know. It was maybe too much."
"Well. You would've beaten him anyway, you're right."
"You think he will forgive me?"
"I wasn't aware you two were friends."
Rafa looks back at him again. "Why, you jealous?"
He thinks of Phil's sex-on-demand smile and his offer to get them a room. It makes his answer too sharp. "Don't be stupid."
Rafa shuffles over and squats down beside his chair. He puts a hand on Roger's knee. After a second, Roger covers it with his own.
"Hey. Mirka's not with you?"
"She's in New York. She's designed a line of women's clothing."
"That's good." He sounds unsure. "Is strange. You two are always together."
"I'm going back there soon."
"You really weren't going to tell me you came."
Rafa bangs his forehead on Roger's knee. "Let's do something fun, yeah? Somewhere not here. This room smells like Benito's cooking."
"This room smells like my cooking. All right."
Rafa slings an arm around Roger's neck as they walk out.
"Oh, hey," Roger says. "Her name--A-M-Y, A-M-I?"
Rafa snorts out a laugh. "Just A-M-Y. Some reporter asked her to spell it, and she got smart with them."
"I think I like her."
Roger kicks off his shoes and falls onto the bed. It's after one in the morning. He's not sure where the day went. He is sure he's a bit drunk. They went to a bar that served enormous drinks in a number of colors, and also gave manicures and pedicures, in an even greater number of colors. Rafa's toenails are, at this very moment, purple. And a bit glittery.
The room spins gently. Roger closes his eyes.
Amy's a nice girl. He likes her. He could see Rafa and her together on a more long term basis than either of them seems to think is possible. Maybe that would be good. Rafa will have to retire soon.
He's certainly had worse girlfriends since Xisca. Roger always prayed he wouldn't marry any of them, especially the one with the incredibly nasal voice. Roger didn't think he could stand listening to that for the next few decades. Amy, he could live with.
He digs his phone out of his pocket and texts Mirka. I love you.
She writes back, after a few minutes: How's Rafa?
Fine. Im drunk.
Good for you, dear. It's almost four here.
She doesn't write back. Probably asleep.
Roger wakes up some time later with his cell phone on his stomach and all his clothes still on. The light coming through the curtains is grey and faint. He rubs crusty sleep from the corners of his eyes and pushes the curtains open.
The bare rock hills are just visible in the growing light. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and watches the dawn come. He turns the card in his pocket over, feeling its sharp corners. It's at least five minutes before he remembers whose it is.
Philly Star is the name on it. It sounds like a newspaper. It's a bad idea to get involved with fans. Especially fans who want to sleep with him. Especially male fans who want to sleep with him.
His phone buzzes. It's a text from Mirka with a photo of her latest design. The photo's so small he can barely make it out, but he tells her he loves it anyway. And then he calls Phil's number.
"I swear to fucking god, Emillio! If you drunk dial me one more goddamn time I am going to beat your head in!"
"It's me," Roger says. "Not Emillio." He realizes, then, how stupid it is to say It's me to someone he's met only once. It seems equally stupid to say This is Roger Federer, like he's someone important.
There's quiet on the other end of the line, but not for long. "Roger?" Phil says, hesitantly, like he's not sure it's okay to call him that.
Roger smiles to himself. "You still want to go hiking?"
Phil picks him up twenty minutes later in a battered blue Honda. The backseat is covered by a blanket, which looks like it might be covering a body.
"Sorry about the--everything," Phil says. "I didn't have time to shower and clean the car, so uh. That's like six months of pizza boxes and french fry things."
"At least they're not in a landfill," Roger says, instead of Well, that explains the smell. He doesn't say those things, but it seems to be getting harder over the years not to think them.
Phil laughs. "Mobile landfill. So, anywhere in particular you want to go?"
"I don't know the area at all. I'm in your hands."
Phil looks at him for long enough that the mobile landfill starts to swerve into the other lane. He grabs at the wheel and corrects their course. "Right! Sure. I hope you brought good shoes."
Roger brought shoes that are good for tennis. They turn out not to be ideal for hiking over uneven rock, slippery with sand and dust. Still, the landscape is beautiful, in a raw, scraped clean sort of way. The sky is so blue it hurts to look at it. Phil gives him a pair of sunglasses with such a hopeful look that Roger can't turn them down.
"Just a little further," Phil says, after half an hour of scrambling over rocks and under stunted, twisted pine trees, needles all pointing out toward the dead drop down into the city.
The trail is marked with stone cairns. Half of them have tumbled over. The last stretch is breath-stealingly steep. It wouldn't have winded him five years ago, but he arrives at the top of a naked rock spur panting. Sweat evaporates from his skin faster than it can form. He sucks down a few swallows of water and looks at the valley spread out underneath them.
"I brought sandwiches," Phil says, rather spoiling the moment. "One's veggie, and one's ham. You can pick, I like them both."
Roger takes the ham.
"What do you do down there? Waiters don't generally have business cards."
"That was just a one day gig. Uh. I mostly took it to meet Nadal. Usually, I'm just--well, I get stuff done for people. I fix problems."
Roger frowns. "Someone needs a hotel reservation, that sort of thing?"
"Uh. No. More like someone needs a dime bag or an introduction to a few hot girls or tickets to a show that's been sold out for six months."
"You're a criminal," Roger says, more surprised than anything.
"I don't deal, or scalp tickets or anything. I just connect people who can help each other out." Phil glances sideways at him. "I'm guessing you're not a big fan of drugs or hookers or even Celine Dion."
"Not really. I only came here to see Rafa play."
"He was fucking amazing."
"He always is."
Roger eats his sandwich and swings his legs out over the abyss. Hookers and drugs and Celine Dion. Before he retired, this would've been very bad. These days, the press probably don't care enough about him to dig up his hiking partner's background.
Something large, dark, and winged floats by overhead, silhouetted against the burning blue. Another follows it. The edges of their wings look tattered.
"Turkey buzzards," Phil says. The shapes sink down to earth behind a ridge. "They must've found something dead."
"Can we get there from here?"
"You sure you wanna see? Might be pretty gross."
Roger nods, and they pack up the remains of their meal. The path to the buzzards is worse, if it can be called a path. There are no stone cairns, no worn track. There's just Phil's jeans-clad ass right in front of him, leading the way.
At the top of the ridge, Roger coughs dust from his throat and wipes it out of his eyes. There are three ragged birds perched on the dried out hulk of something long dead. A deer, he thinks, but he can't see head or hooves; just spread wings shadowing tanned hide.
He takes out his cell phone to take a picture for Mirka, but there's no reception up here. His battery dies after the first shot anyway.
"It's very dry," Roger says.
"Yeah. Guess it's too old to have much guts left."
They stand and watch, shoulders almost touching.
Phil shifts and scuffs his foot against the rock. "I know this is the wrong time to ask, but..."
"Did you really not get me out here for sex?"
"Excuse me?" Roger jerks his eyes away from the carcass and focuses on Phil. Phil's cheeks are slightly pink.
"I just assumed-- You could've gotten anyone to show you this stuff."
"Yeah. Yeah, I offered. In my little white short shorts after you signed your name on my stomach."
"I-- I'm sorry." Surely this could not be a normal conversation, even in America.
"Whatever. I shouldn't have assumed shit." Phil drops his eyes. "You wanna go back to the car?"
They stop on the way back to drink water in the shade of a rock overhang. The wall is cool on Roger's back. The sun is hot already. Phil puts a hand on Roger's knee and slides it lightly up his thigh.
"I could just suck you off," he says. His face is completely serious. "You wouldn't have to do anything. It's a nice day for it."
"A nice day for a blowjob?"
"Yeah. Nice weather, good view, no snakes."
Roger stares at him, unable to find a response, and then Phil's hand is resting between his legs. He looks so earnest. He moves his hand, stroking, rubbing, and Roger's body is having much less trouble coming up with a response than his mouth is.
"Come on," Phil says. "Free blowjob, no strings. I'm not gonna beg. I mean, unless that's what does it for you."
Roger closes his eyes, seeing, for some reason, the boys he beat when he played junior. Children, really. Crying because he crushed them as badly as Rafa crushed Hien yesterday.
He shakes his head. "It doesn't."
"But I can, right?"
He doesn't say no, and that's apparently good enough. He hears his zipper go down, feels his trousers and underwear pushed out of the way. There's a rustle of plastic, and he opens his eyes in time to watch Phil roll on a blue condom with his lips.
Phil winks at him, and then he's sucking on Roger's cock, hard. There's not much build up, just sudden, shocking heat and suction. Roger's head thumps against the rock behind him, and he stares out over the valley. His hands dig into Phil's hair. Sun glints off the Luxor and winks at him, far below.
Phil cups his balls, rubs behind them. His tongue moves over the head of Roger's cock and up the shaft, pressing it up to the roof of his mouth. Roger hasn't seen Mirka for two weeks. That was the last sex he had, because he doesn't cheat. Except this is, yes, cheating. He comes fast and makes some too-loud sound that echoes off the bare rock around them.
Phil takes the condom off and ties it. He hesitates. "I can trash this if you want, but I don't want you to worry I'm, like, outing you or something. So. Maybe you should take it?"
It dangles from his fingers, both in color and shape jarringly unnatural in these surroundings.
Roger takes it. He just doesn't want to look at it any more. "I suppose so," he says. "Ah. Thank you." The middle of Phil's sentence, about outing him, finally registers. "I'm not gay, you know."
"No gay men in tennis, right?"
"No. Really. That was--" He rubs his hands against the grey grit on the rock. "Never mind."
Roger doesn't offer to do anything for Phil, thought he knows he should. He thinks about it all the way down the path. A cock in his mouth. How big is Phil? What is the taste like? He shapes his mouth and tongue experimentally, as if...accommodating something. It's not an unpleasant feeling.
They're mostly quiet while Phil drives him back into town, but Phil does ask: "Really your first time?"
"I don't think I want to talk about it, thank you."
He says thank you again before he gets out, and shakes Phil's hand. Phil squeezes his hand and smiles in a way that Roger thinks is meant to be reassuring. It's nice of him, but it doesn't help at all.
Back in his room, his phone burbles at him as soon as he plugs it in. It's Rafa.
Where are you???
Roger smiles at the triple question marks. I went for a hike.
With the man from yesterday, he adds.
I am coming over right now, Rafa texts back.
Don't wear sandals, your toes are purple.
There is a long pause. Then: Thank you for reminder.
Rafa sits cross-legged in the middle of Roger's bed, watching him pack. His chin is propped on his hands. He's quiet a long time, through the packing of folded shirts and underwear, right up to shoes.
"It's not nice, Roger. Not like you."
"To encourage him."
"I'm leaving tomorrow. He knows that. It was one hike."
"I see him looking at you yesterday! He's wanting more than one hike."
Roger sits on the bed. "As I said, I'm leaving tomorrow. What do you think will happen?"
"Nothing, I think nothing. You're usually nicer than this is all."
Roger looks down at the damask bedspread. "I suppose that's true." He still has the used condom stuffed in his pocket. He wishes very much he'd thought to throw it away before Rafa got here. He wonders what would happen if he told Rafa exactly how nice he'd been.
"You want a game?" he says suddenly. "There are courts downstairs."
Rafa blinks at him. "Sure, yeah. I always love to play you."
There are no courts available when they go down, but before anyone recognizes Rafa and clears a space for them, the two little girls on court 3 offer to play doubles with them.
The older girl's exact words are, "You can share with us until someone leaves."
Roger and Rafa look at each other and grin.
They play against each other, Roger with Kelsey and Rafa with Kelly. The girls, seven and nine years old respectively, don't even know how to score, and the main challenge is to hit the balls gently enough that they can hit them back. It's not the game Roger was expecting, but it's stupidly fun anyway and just as brain-clearing. He doesn't realize they have an audience until the flash bulbs start going off.
Of course, he thinks, belatedly. The press would love this.
Kelsey and Kelly are collected and herded away by their bewildered mothers, and Roger and Rafa meet at the net. It's funny how the reporters won't step on the court, Roger thinks. Even when they're not playing, it's as if there's some barrier there.
"We go again?" Rafa says, leaning into Roger, hand on his shoulder.
"You think you can handle it?"
"I always handle you." Rafa's voice is soft, smile intimate, and Roger's stomach squeezes up tight.
They retreat to opposite sides. Roger serves. The cameras go off again, and it's like a real match. He can hear the cheers, if distantly.
"You're holding back!" Rafa calls to him.
"You didn't tape your knees!" Roger slams the ball back at him. "And you're not wearing your right shoes!"
He should've known better than to think that would make a difference. Rafa seldom plays in anything but top gear, and playing Rafa has always pushed Roger into things he never thought he could do. Even now, out of practice and with a five mile rock scramble behind him, he's returning every ball.
It feels so good, but he's thinking about the news articles tomorrow, the inevitable comparison between this match and Rafa's against Hien yesterday. It'll be worse still for Hien if he beats Rafa, and right now that doesn't seem impossible. Rafa's tired, mentally, emotionally, and it was that mental strength of his that made him the most dangerous. Also, maybe, he wouldn't mind losing to Roger right now. Always your job to put me in my place, yeah?
Yeah, Roger thinks, and everything else falls away. It's just him and Rafa and the ball. He stops holding back.
There are only snapshots after that, mostly of Rafa's grin as he serves with a force that even Roddick would be impressed by, the sun on Rafa's face, the gleam of sweat on the curve of his neck. No one thinks to offer them towels here, but Kelly and Kelsey return to act as ball girls.
It's a close game, but Roger does win. It's the hardest work out he's had...probably since he last played Rafa, over a year ago. He stumbles a bit on the way to the net, and when he gets there, Rafa pulls him close. Roger leans in, forehead against Rafa's temple. They stay like that longer than they need to, and they walk the length of the net still touching. It's a shock when they get to the end and remember there's no umpire to shake hands with.
Instead there's a reporter from some local paper. He asks them the usual questions, most of which Rafa fields easily. And then he turns to Roger.
"We hear you've been spending some time with a man named Philip Star," the reporter says.
Roger's blank face is not faked. It takes some seconds for the name to register. "Oh, yes," he says. "I met him yesterday. He was kind enough to show me your beautiful mountains. The view is quite amazing."
He can see the triumph in the reporter's eyes and knows, just knows there's more coming. He can see the headlines, too: Former Tennis Star in Gay Affair with Petty Criminal. Well, perhaps that's long for a headline. He's not a writer.
"And are you aware that this man used to be a prostitute?"
Roger blinks. That's not what he was expecting at all. For a moment, he thinks of telling them, no, you've got the wrong story. It wasn't just a hike. He sucked my cock, right out in the open. With the buzzards watching.
Instead, years of practice take over, and he says, "Oh? Well, everyone must have some job. And it is legal here, yes? Nevada, the red light district of America?" He smiles and hears the chuckles all around him.
The reporter's face clouds. He tries to get in a few more pointed questions, but Roger plays it off easily, and then Rafa is dragging him away, demanding lunch.
"You want to call Amy?" Roger says, as they duck into the air conditioned lobby.
"You want to call Phil?"
Roger raises his eyebrows at that. Rafa looks away. They get take out from the deli in the hotel and take it up to Roger's room. Rafa put chips on his sandwich and crunches up a huge bite before narrowing his eyes at Roger.
"You were telling me when?"
"I didn't know he was a prostitute."
"Not that. The other thing."
"What other thing?"
Rafa just stares at him and takes another vicious bite.
"You don't tell me about your sex life," Roger mutters, finally.
"Is not about sex!" There's a brief spray of chip crumbs, and Rafa stops to wipe his mouth. "You--with a guy. And you're not with Mirka anymore? These are things you tell me."
"I am. With Mirka." Roger looks down at his sandwich, still wrapped up in white deli paper. He's not really hungry. "I think."
"She says I'm different since I retired."
"You are. Eat," Rafa says, poking a hard finger into Roger's lunch. "You're an old man. You do this stuff, the make-up business, the clothes, but you don't do it like life. You don't do it like tennis. You do it like hobby."
"I know." Mirka said the same thing, only she added that it made him weird and hard to be around. "I did have plans. I knew how it would be after I retired. Thought I knew. It's different."
"And so you're an old man waiting to die, only you got like two thirds more life left. Fucking hookers is not good answer."
"I didn't fuck him."
Rafa raises his eyebrows in clear disbelief.
"I-- I let him suck me off, all right? This is what you want to hear?" He stands, angry suddenly and clutching his chip bag so tightly it pops open with a report like a gunshot. "Oh," he says, as chips rain down on the carpet.
Rafa tips back on the bed, laughing.
Roger sighs. "Thank you. This is your fault." He steals the rest of Rafa's chips and eats them while Rafa tries and fails to get a hold of himself.
"Bang!" Rafa says, pointing his finger at Roger, still giggling. Roger knocks his hand aside gently.
Rafa lies prostrate on the bed and pulls a pillow over his face. Roger can see up his shorts from this angle. He looks away.
"Shit," he says suddenly.
"What?" says Rafa's muffled voice.
"I have to call Phil."
Roger drags his phone out. "In case he gets a visit from the local press as well."
That finally sobers Rafa up. He sits, pillow in his lap, and watches Roger dial.
"Roger?" Phil says, when he picks up.
"I'm sorry! I didn't tell them anything, honest. I don't know how they found out."
"Ah. I see they've been to visit you already. I meant to warn you."
"You--" He laughs, breathy and soft. "God. I thought you were calling to bitch me out."
"No. I'm sorry. I didn't think they'd bother you. I'm not news these days."
"Except when you're consorting with whores. Jesus. You're really not mad?"
"It wasn't any of my business. It certainly isn't any of theirs. I hope you won't get into trouble because of it."
"You're a really good guy," Phil says. His voice is thick.
"Please, it's nothing."
"Is he crying?" Rafa whispers, eyes wide. Roger pushes the pillow back over his face.
"It's a lot," Phil says. Possibly he is crying.
"You're a good person. Don't let them tell you otherwise." He doesn't know that, of course. Truthfully, he knows his drycleaner in Basel better than he knows Phil. But he thinks it's a fair bet. Most people are good, if you look deep enough.
"Thanks." He takes a shaky breath. "I'm gonna go. Get out of town for a while. You shouldn't call me anymore, you know, in case. I mean, not that I thought you were gonna anyway, but. Uh. Thank you."
"There's no need for thanks," Roger says, as gently as he can.
"Thanks anyway. Okay. Bye."
He hangs up. Rafa pats his ankle.
"Much nicer. Good job."
Roger pushes him flat on the bed and tries to smother him with the pillow while Rafa thrashes and laughs at him. He lets Rafa push him off, and they lie side by side on the bed.
"He's all right, I think," Roger says.
He reaches out without letting himself think and holds onto Rafa's forearm. "I'm all right," he says. "I'm fine. It's not a big deal."
"Yeah, yeah. Am glad you waited to have mid-life crisis until the tennis season was over. Thank you for that."
"I am not having a mid-life crisis."
"You shouldn't be. Is too early for that."
Rafa doesn't say anything else. Roger doesn't let go of his arm.
He's not having a mid-life crisis. That's ridiculous. He just needs a little more direction in his life. And fewer hookers. No. Fewer blowjobs from strange men, whether they're hookers or not.
He's been very, very lucky this time. The thought of the headlines isn't so bad. It's even faintly attractive, in the same way that standing on the edge of a cliff is attractive. What might happen if you jumped? But the thought of Mirka reading those headlines just makes him feel ill. He closes his eyes.
Some time later, Rafa says: "Are you going to be gay now?"
Roger turns his head and sees that Rafa has turned to look at him as well. There are about four inches of pillow between them.
"Ah? Okay. Mama, she really likes you. I think she would anyway, but, you know, Catholic."
"You're Catholic, too."
"Well, it's different. Anyway, you're my best friend."
"We only see each other a few times a year."
"Doesn't matter. You understand more, here." Rafa taps his own chest, over his heart.
In his whole life, Roger's never known anyone who can says things like that as easily as Rafa can. It makes Roger feel warmed and shaken all at once. He should probably say that, but, well, he's not Rafa.
"I don't think you're supposed to like me more than Jesus," he says, instead.
Rafa snorts and knocks their shoulders together. "Don't worry, He's very forgiving."
"I've heard that about him."
"Hey, you want to do a thing with me?"
"Amy's car, I said I would have it drove to Denver, because she goes to New York now for a job. I was going to go with her, but you want to drive instead? It's over the mountains. Could be fun."
They've never done something like this, just the two of them. There are always other people, Mirka, Rafa's family. Roger wonders why it took his mild breakdown and first homosexual experience to change that.
"Is okay, if you don't want to," Rafa says quickly. "I just thought, you know."
"I'd like that." Roger squeezes his arm, meaning to let go afterwards. He fails there, but Rafa doesn't seem to mind. "Is it a long drive?"
"I don't know, like maybe a day or something," Rafa says, casually enough that Roger resolves to look it up before they leave. "Nine tomorrow? I pick you up."
It's a few more minutes before they sit up. Roger pulls away and rubs at his face. He's embarrassed, but not as much as he might reasonably expect to be. Rafa pats his back and stretches.
"Okay. I go now."
Roger walks him to the door and leans against it when he's gone.
Amy's car is a white minivan. "Used to be her mom's," Rafa explains. "She won't let me buy her new one."
"It's roomy, at least."
"You think it's wrong, getting her stuff."
"I think it's not what she wants, and that's probably a good thing."
"What am I supposed to do with it all then?"
Roger frowns. "Well. Investments? Charity? Don't you have someone looking after it for you? I can recommend--"
"Stop, stop," Rafa says, laughing. "Should have known you would say that." He's quiet a moment. "I just mean...why's it so bad to give people stuff? I mean, I guess I know, but I don't like it."
Roger unfolds the map as they merge onto the interstate. "You can give me stuff, how's that?"
"You think I won't? You wait and see."
"Uh huh. Where are we stopping tonight? Did you make reservations?"
"We gotta stop? Is not that far."
"I think it's farther than you think it is."
"Eh, well. We'll find someplace."
"What if they're full up?"
Rafa fake gasps and puts a hand to his mouth. "What if they do not have room service? Or dry cleaning?"
"Hey!" But it's hard to be really offended with Rafa grinning at him.
"Oh," Rafa says. "Forgot to tell. She is not pregnant."
"Forgot! When did you find out?"
"You could've texted me. I was worried about you."
"Yeah, but we were having sex, so. I didn't."
"When I said you don't tell me about your sex life, you realize that was not a complaint, yes?"
"I could make up reason, but that is truth."
"Mm. What about Moab?"
"What's a Moab?"
"It's a city. There's a national park right there, Canyonlands. Very pretty. I looked it up last night online. While you were having sex."
"Not my fault you were googling all alone. You could have called Phil."
"I don't know why you say it like that. You can't dislike him. You haven't said five words to him."
"You see the papers this morning?"
"Well. No. It was bad?"
Rafa shrugs. "You know what the U.S. papers can be like. Not so bad, I guess. Only the trash papers said you for real slept with him. The big papers call you worldly and European a lot."
"How many did you get?"
"Don't know. A bunch. Figured you wouldn't want to read them."
He looks at Rafa's profile, sun splashed across the side of his face and down his arm. Rafa is looking straight ahead at the empty road.
"Thank you," Roger says.
Roger sinks back against the seat. It's more comfortable than he'd thought a minivan would be. The stead hum of the engine lulls him into a staring daze. The road through the desert goes on forever.
"I broke up with her, too," Rafa says.
Roger blinks. The road noise surges back into the silence, and Roger isn't at all sure he just heard that. "You what?"
"Broke up with her. Or she did with me. Maybe at the same time."
"Was this before or after the sex?"
"Before. But she said she still wanted to break up after. I checked."
"In case your superior skills changed her mind."
"Yeah, of course."
Roger snorts, really a lot louder than he meant to. It startles both of them into laughter.
"I have skills!" Rafa insists. "I do."
Roger points a finger at him. "Don't offer a demonstration."
"Is that what he did?" They look at each other a second, and then Rafa looks back at the road. "I am curious, that's all. Years and years in locker rooms, naked guys, good bodies, you know, and I never see you look once. Not look. And then you know this guy one day and wham, bam, thank you Mr. Ex Hooker."
It does sound slightly odd when put like that, Roger has to admit.
"I never thought about it then. I was with Mirka and--and really, I only ever thought about tennis. About my next opponent." About Rafa, mostly, but this seems not the time or context to say that. It's not as if he were ever lusting over Rafa's naked body.
He blinks out at the grey asphalt. These are thoughts he needs not to be having right now.
"Yeah," Rafa says. "I know what you mean."
Rafa always had a tendency to wander around the locker room without even a towel. The naked sprints weren't exactly erotic, but they were memorable.
Roger taps his fingers on the arm rest and flicks the lock button back and forth. Click, lock. Click, unlock. Click-click. Click-click. Rafa taps his knee.
Rafa pats his thigh and leaves his hand there longer than he needs to. Roger can feel the warmth of his touch afterwards, fading in the fierce chill of the air conditioning.
Time passes. There's not much to look at. Except Rafa. He's wearing baggy white shorts of some thin material that shows the shadow of his legs inside them. His tank top is turquoise and skin tight. Roger can see his nipples. He looks away quickly.
He doesn't think about Rafa this way. He doesn't ever wonder if Rafa's wearing underwear, even though right now it seems like a logical question, because wouldn't it avoid all those underwear difficulties he seems to suffer? Impractical on court, of course, but with these loose shorts--there would be no chafing. Good airflow.
Roger hates his brain.
Rafa turns on the radio, and they listen to some country singer whine about how his girl left him for his brother and stole his dog and his bible, but Jesus still loves him.
Roger makes faces until Rafa gives in and changes it. He spins the dial through miles of country and rock and static. When Rafa starts singing along to Like a Rolling Stone, he has to smile. And then he has to grip the wheel, because Rafa needs both hands for his imaginary microphone.
"You're ridiculous," Roger tells him, but he's staring at the long curve of Rafa's throat and it's horribly hard to tear his eyes away.
Rafa takes the wheel back and hands him the imaginary mic. "I know! Your turn."
"Forget it. I'm not singing." Roger realizes he's still holding the imaginary mic and lets it go.
Ten minutes later, it's somehow back in his hands, and he's singing along to Light My Fire, a song to which he knows maybe fifty percent of the words.
"You're a bad influence," he says, when he's done, but Rafa ignores him and sings Eleanor Rigby with his eyes closed, doleful expression on his face. He's licked his lips. Roger can see the faint shine on them.
"Shouldn't close your eyes when you're driving," Roger says, but softly. He's steering himself anyway, and there's no one on the road but them, all the way to the horizon.
Rafa's voice is--really not bad. Not great, not much range, but nice to listen to. Roger likes it anyway. Possibly he's biased.
Rafa has the cruise control on and sits with his legs spread wide, leaning back in the seat. His shorts are stretched tight across--well, never mind that. Roger's meant to be watching the road, for wildlife and rogue tumbleweeds.
Rafa breaks off the song suddenly. "Hey, stop the car!"
"Oh! Yeah." He pulls over and gets out, waving for Roger to follow.
"What?" Roger says.
"Just come here."
Roger joins him. They stand shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the empty road.
"It's just nice," Rafa says, after a minute. "All the--nothing."
"It's all right."
Rafa leans against his side, hand on his shoulder. "You like the city better, right?"
"Mm. My room service and dry cleaning."
"And cars that aren't minivans."
"Oh, yeah," Rafa says. "That is good. You really, seriously like the shopping? Not just the having your nice clothes, but hunting them up and buying them too?"
"Yes. It's satisfying. And I like the clothes themselves, the designs. It's an interesting industry."
"Uh huh. You drive now."
Roger drives. Rafa sprawls and takes up three fourths of the front seat all by himself. He drums his fingers, folds the map (incorrectly) and drinks bright blue Gatorade until his tongue is faintly purple.
Roger wonders if Rafa would fit into his clothes. They're the same height, at least. And no one else has yet shown him how to put together a decent outfit. He still has that awful mud colored suit jacket and wears it whenever he's forced to dress up beyond shorts and a Nike shirt. Most of his wardrobe is probably Nike. The rest Roger strongly suspects his mother bought him.
Is mentally dressing Rafa better or worse than mentally undressing him? Roger grips the wheel tighter. This entire situation is ridiculous. And also entirely his fault, which makes it worse.
But he'd look good, is the thing. Really very good. Maybe that charcoal Prada suit, with the light blue shirt and the tie just a shade darker. And sunglasses. Yes. Roger stares at the road and sees Rafa instead, wearing Roger's clothes, looking at him over his aviators.
Roger shakes his head sharply. There must be something wrong with him.
"What?" Rafa says.
"Just...having thoughts I'd rather not have."
"About your hooker?"
"He is not my hooker. And no."
"About fucking guys, then," Rafa says, like he's sure of it.
"Why should it be that?"
"Because you never have problems thinking about stuff, so it has to be hard stuff you're thinking about."
"I suppose. You know, in a way."
The road and the wind whistle at them. Roger braces for the next question.
"Hey, you think the place in Moab will have a pool?" Rafa says.
Relief, he's sure, is the appropriate emotional response here. "Why don't you find out? You can call and make reservations."
Rafa pulls out his phone, typing something on the keypad, hopefully looking something useful up online. It's a tourist town. There must be somewhere decent to stay.
"How about Big Horn Lodge? That sounds cool, yeah?"
"If there are dead animals on the walls of the room, I'm not staying there."
"What's a big horn? That's an animal, right?"
"It's a kind of sheep."
"Huh. Weird to name your motel after a sheep."
"...Motel? Not hotel?"
"It looks nice! Trust me."
The motel is not bad, Roger is forced to admit. It has more pine paneling and unfortunate watercolor prints than he'd prefer, but it's clean.
They're in the room about five minutes before Rafa drags him down to the pool, which is tiny. Rafa doesn't seem to care. He strips down to small white swim trunks and cannonballs into the water. Roger lays himself out on a deckchair and slides his sunglasses into place.
It's near sunset. There's no one else at the pool. It feels odd after the long empty road, like everyone but them has disappeared off the face of the Earth.
The temperature is falling steadily as the sun sinks. Rafa won't be able to stay in long, though he doesn't seem to feel the chill yet. He's floating on his back, arms and legs spread wide. Water pools in the hollow of his stomach. Roger looks away once, looks back, gives up and just stares. It's why he put his sunglasses on, really.
Nothing will come of this. It's a passing thing, a brief hang up brought on by a moment of stupidity. So it doesn't matter if he stares, or where his mind wanders while he does.
Rafa stays in the water until the air is cool enough to give Roger goosebumps. The sunset makes the red cliffs behind the motel look like they're bleeding out onto the landscape. Rafa hauls himself out, dripping. Even the water sheeting off him looks red.
He sits on the edge of Roger's deck chair and puts a hand on Roger's leg. Wet heat soaks into Roger's jeans.
Roger touches his shoulder and pulls his hand back fast at Rafa's look. "I can't believe you're not freezing," he says.
"Yeah, where is a cardigan when I need it?"
"I still like that cardigan."
"Am still not surprised. What you want for dinner?"
"There's an Italian place. We could get take out."
Rafa nods and stands, leaving behind a dark handprint on Roger's thigh. "Hey, come here," he says, moving to the edge of the pool. "Look."
"What?" Roger joins him and looks where he points, up at the red hills.
Rafa puts a hand on his back and shoves him into the water.
Roger bobs to the surface, shocked breathless. The water's actually quite warm. He looks up at Rafa, a dark shape in the lowering light.
"You little shit!" he says, and then switches to French because he doesn't know enough profanity in English.
Rafa whoops and holds his arms up as if to a cheering crowd. He does a small victory lap. While his back is turned, Roger climbs out of the pool, sodden and heavy, and tackles him from the side. They both tumble into the water.
The world goes blue and bubbly. Roger's eyes sting with the chlorine. He sees Rafa very close underwater, hands reaching for him, eyes tight shut like a sensible person. They both hit the bottom and push off.
When they break the surface, Rafa is laughing. "God, I wish I had a camera. Your face, Rogelio! Most funny thing ever!"
He's holding onto Roger's shoulders. Roger's holding onto him as well, one hand at his waist, one wrapped around his upper arm. Muscles shift under his touch. Rafa's skin is warm and wet and slippery. Rafa's smile is slowly fading, and Roger can't think of a single thing to say.
"What is it?" Rafa says.
The water laps at their skin, body-warm. Little ripples spread out and splash against the sides of the pool. Roger's eyelashes feel heavy, and he can see water droplets hanging from them, distorting parts of Rafa's face.
"Hey." Rafa puts a hand on the side of Roger's neck, fingers sliding up into his hair. "You're not really mad, huh?"
Not really, Roger thinks. "Just hungry." He hopes he's not lying too obviously.
Rafa just nods.
Rafa leaps out and Roger drags himself and his dead-weight clothes after him. He takes his shirt off by the pool side and wrings it out. Rafa's watching him with a little smile. Roger shivers from the chill in the air.
On the way back, Rafa talks about home, about swimming in the sea, about the fish he caught last time he was there; it was this big. Roger half-listens and wonders why Rafa only got them one room. It has two beds, of course, but still the logic escapes him. They've been in the car all day. Rafa can't possibly feel the need to spend even more time with him.
Roger showers briefly to get the chlorine out of his hair and goes back out with a towel wrapped around his waist to find something to wear.
"Don't wear a suit," Rafa advises, flipping channels on the small television.
"Why would I wear a suit to get take out?"
"I think you just like them. Maybe too much, you know?" Rafa wriggles his eyebrows, managing to give the impression that Roger has a biblical acquaintance with his suits.
"I look good in them."
"Yes, you do."
Roger looks round at that, but Rafa still has his eyes on the TV.
"Thank you," he says, feeling some vast chasm of uncertainty open up in front of him. He pulls jeans and t-shirt from his suitcase and dresses quickly. Rafa is supposed to tell him his hair looks funny and mock his cardigans.
"Are you just going to lie there or what?" Roger says.
"I ordered already. Five minutes, we leave. Got you puttanesca, okay?"
Roger sets things out for tomorrow, turns the bed back, and tries to ignore Rafa, lounging shirtless on the other bed. He's wearing jeans now, tight and cut low, very dark against his skin. The ends of his hair curl against his cheek, still wet.
This is deeply unfair.
"They don't deliver?"
Rafa frowns at him. "You the one who said take out."
"Oh, yes. Right."
Rafa tosses him the keys as they walked out the door. When they pull up at the restaurant, under the neon sign that said Pasta Jay's, Roger starts to get out. Rafa catches his arm.
"You stay here, yeah? Someone gonna recognize you for sure."
"Me? You, I'd think."
"No. I just play tennis. You're special. People can tell. Even if they don't know who you are, they know you're somebody. Anyway, you said I could buy you stuff. I'm buying you pastas. Stay here."
Roger lets him go. The neon lights flicker over the dashboard in red and green. Roger bangs his head gently against the steering wheel. Special. That's what Rafa has always said about him. He doesn't mean it any differently now.
Rafa comes back with a large paper bag and a t-shirt. He hands Roger the shirt. It has the restaurant's logo on the front and the town name on the back.
Roger has to smile. "What, all for me?"
Rafa smiles back, head tipped down and away. He rubs at the side of his neck. "Limited selection. I do better next time."
"I'll look forward to that," Roger says. He wonders suddenly if this counts as flirting. He doesn't do a lot of that, never has. He also wonders what the hell Rafa thinks of him right now, but he's wondered that before. For a such a straightforward man, Rafa is surprisingly hard to read.
In their room, they sit on Rafa's bed with the pasta containers and plastic forks, cans of Coke clutched between their legs and sweating condensation onto their jeans. There's a large box of garlic bread between them. Rafa puts on some show Roger's never heard of with spies and strangely colored wigs and an improbable plot.
This is a rerun, apparently. Rafa sets about explaining to him the previous three seasons, garlic bread swooping dangerously close to Roger's ear as he illustrates a point. Roger listens, the same warm feeling growing in his chest that he always gets when he's around Rafa for any length of time. Roger just likes him. Really quite a lot.
The show is half over when Rafa pauses. He looks at Roger and grins a little. He shrugs one shoulder. "Sorry. I should just let you watch. Or we pick something else?"
"It's all right. I like listening to you."
That was a little more than he meant to admit. Rafa looks at him, head tilted to one side. There's some resolution in his eyes that wasn't there a second ago. He leans closer.
Roger frowns. "What--" he says, but then Rafa's dry lips push briefly against his, and he loses the end of his sentence, his train of thought, and his ability to speak all at once.
Rafa's hand comes up to cup his jaw, large and warm. "Is okay, yes?" Rafa says.
Roger just nods, more than a little stunned. He lets Rafa kiss him, light, dry kisses, and for a few long seconds that's all it is; him letting Rafa kiss him. It seems like forever before he gets himself together enough to kiss back.
He pushes their mouths together harder and licks at Rafa's lips. Rafa makes a low sound in his throat and grabs at Roger's shoulder, yanking him closer. He puts a hand on Rafa's chest, fingers hooked over the collar of his shirt. They're leaning towards each other over the garlic bread. Roger's very conscious of the Coke can now tilted precariously, cold against his thighs.
Rafa backs off with a shaky sigh and looks at him. "We should move this stuff."
Roger nods again and lets Rafa take the cans and set them aside.
"What is this?" Roger asks, finally getting his words back while Rafa is bent over, finding a place for the various styrofoam containers on the floor.
"All the time I know you, you straight, you with Mirka." Rafa shrugs, still facing away. "Now it looks like maybe not so much."
"It was one time--"
"Yeah, one time. One time with some guy you know one day." Rafa faces him again, jaw set and hard. "Some guy not me."
"I didn't know--" Roger starts, but the sheer enormity of the things he didn't know makes him stop. "You never said--anything."
"What would I say? Don't be stupid, Rogelio. You're not stupid."
He certainly feels stupid. And blind. Foolish. Slightly ridiculous. He might leave if he had anywhere to go, but he doesn't. Just the minivan, and he doesn't even have the keys.
Instead, he pulls Rafa in by the front of his shirt and kisses him again. Rafa moans into his mouth and shoves him down flat on the bed. His hands push into Roger's shoulders, holding him there. Roger can feel his erection against his hip, strange and unmistakeable.
Rafa shifts to lie half on top of him, chests pressed together, knee pushing between Roger's legs. Roger spreads his legs and lets Rafa feel how hard he is. Rafa's breath catches, and he bends down until his forehead touches Roger's chest, hair spread out dark against the white of Roger's shirt.
Roger combs through his hair. Rafa doesn't move for what seems a very long time.
"Is it okay?" Rafa asks. "I didn't really give you a chance to say no before." He pushes a hand up under Roger's shirt. "Don't want to give you a chance now."
Rafa looks up at him. Roger can see his throat work as he swallows. His hand is hot on Roger's stomach, and he pushes it up further, across his ribs, over his heart, t-shirt material bunched up around his elbow. His thumb brushes Roger's nipple, and Roger bites the inside of his cheek, as much from the strangeness of it as from the pleasure.
Part of it, he's sure, is not having been with anyone but Mirka for--god, twelve years. Part of it, maybe, is the size of Rafa's hands, the calluses to match his own, the weight and hardness of him. The larger part, though, is just that it's Rafa.
"Take this off," Rafa says. He pulls at Roger's shirt with his free hand and, after a moment, even moves so Roger can.
Their shirts hit the ground at the same time, twisted together on top of the garlic bread. Rafa runs both hands up Roger's torso with a hungry look. He used to look like this when they played sometimes, when he really wanted the win. He usually got it.
Rafa kisses him again, sloppy and fast, lips sliding against his, tongue pushing into his mouth. He licks along Roger's jaw and says in his ear: "I want to fuck you. You'll let me, no?"
Roger closes his eyes and digs his fingers into the hard muscle of Rafa's shoulder. "Yeah," he says. "Yes. Okay." He pauses for a shaky breath. "Now?"
Rafa pulls back far enough to smile at him. He rubs a thumb over Roger's cheek. "In a minute," he says, and kisses him again.
There's a lot of bare skin now, more than seems possible. Roger smoothes his hands down Rafa's back and feels muscles twist and shift. His thumbs nudge over the bumps of Rafa's spine all the way down to the waistband of his jeans. Roger stops there, but only for a second. He drags his palms down over Rafa's ass and back up, fingers pushing under his jeans. He finds only bare skin.
"Jesus," Rafa mumbles against his lips. "Don't stop, don't stop."
Roger tugs at a belt loop. "Take these off. You're really not wearing underwear?"
Rafa sits up, straddling his thighs, and unzips.
"No, you're not," Roger murmurs. "Oh, my god."
"You okay?" Rafa says. "Please, please be okay. I don't want to stop. I don't want to a lot."
"I'm okay," Roger says automatically. He's not really listening. He's a bit distracted.
Rafa's cock is thick and dark, and it jerks when Roger brushes his fingers along it. Rafa is biting his lip so hard Roger can see the pale line where the blood's been forced away by the pressure of his teeth. He stays still, even when Roger closes his fist around the shaft and drags it up to the head. It's wet already, slick at the head with clear fluid, sticky and hot to the touch.
When Roger pulls his eyes back to Rafa's face, Rafa's head is tipped back. His mouth is open, and his hands are balled into fists on his thighs.
Roger puts a hand on his chest and pushes until Rafa falls backward and to the side, legs tangling with his. Roger untangles himself and leans in to lick Rafa's cock.
Rafa nearly whines and grabs at Roger's hair. "God, Jesus. Shit, don't. Don't." He laughs, breathy and shaky. "I think I come right in your face if you do that again."
Roger looks up at him, the flush on his cheeks, the little smile on his lips. "Do you want to?" he asks.
Rafa just stares at him, like Roger's short circuited something in his brain. It makes Roger feel slightly less out of control.
"No," Rafa says, finally. "Or yes, but no. Not now."
"You still want to fuck me."
Rafa closes his eyes for a second and nods. "Yes. I want that."
"Do we need to find a drugstore?" The answer better be no. He's not sure his nerve will last that long.
Rafa smiles. "I am prepared. Wait." He scrambles off the bed to dig through his suitcase.
"Did you break up with her because of me?" Roger asks. It's somehow much easier to ask these things when Rafa's back is turned.
"It would have been like that anyway." Rafa pauses, squatting down, hands pushed into the guts of his bag. "But yeah. Sooner maybe. Maybe otherwise I let it wait until after her job. But the baby thing, it scared us both, and there was no talking, not even fighting. That's bad, you know?"
Rafa comes back to sit on the bed. He sets down a clear bottle and a condom and takes his jeans off entirely.
"Should I-- How--" Roger says, searching for some way to say 'How do you want me' that doesn't sound either like a cliched come-on or utterly clueless.
Rafa crawls over and stretches out next to him. He puts a hand on Roger's chest, fingertips pressing into his skin. He leans in for a quick kiss and then smiles. "Don't worry. I'm more nervous than you."
"I wouldn't bet on that."
"I would, for sure. So--facing me, okay? I want it like that. Want to see you."
"Yes. That's--yes." He wants to see Rafa, too. Very much. "Good."
"Might hurt. A little."
"More than sports massage?"
Rafa grins. "No way."
"Then I'll be fine."
They smile at each other a moment longer and then stop, pretty much at the same time. Roger's not an expert, but he knows enough to be fairly sure this is where Rafa sticks a finger or two up his ass. It's not a prospect to induce many smiles.
"Is okay," Rafa says. " I mean. I know what I'm doing."
Roger nods. It's not the pain he's worried about. It's the incredible potential for awkwardness. He stands to pull off his jeans and underwear and crawls back to lie on his side next to Rafa.
Rafa rakes his eyes up and down Roger's body with an intensity that makes Roger feel like reaching for the covers. It's hard to stay still and let Rafa look, but he does it.
"You look so good," Rafa says quietly. "Wow. So good."
He pulls Roger close, sparing him the need to think of something to say to that. His mouth is hot, and his kisses are rougher now. Roger holds onto his shoulders and can't help rocking his hips forward. The touch of Rafa's cock against his is so strange he doesn't know how to think about it, hot and smooth and making him still harder. He wants more.
Rafa's hand smoothes down his back, over his ass, and pulls his leg over Rafa's. It fits them still closer together and lets Rafa's fingers skim between his cheeks until they rub across his hole. Roger gasps against Rafa's mouth.
"Is not bad, huh?" Rafa murmurs.
"Not...bad, no." It's mostly strange, like all of this; shivery and odd and hot, like he's just been introduced to several million new nerve endings. When Rafa's fingers return, slicked up, it's almost too much even before the first light push inside.
Roger wraps an arm around Rafa's back and holds on, face wedged against his neck. He has just about enough concentration left to keep breathing; none for kissing or even for embarrassment.
"All right?" One finger is all the way inside him. Rafa's free hand cups the back of his neck and strokes lightly.
Roger tries to tell him yes, has to nod instead. There's some vital connection missing between his brain and his mouth. He licks at Rafa's neck instead. His skin tastes of salt and faintly of chlorine.
This is easier than he'd thought it would be. Feels better too. Different from anything else he's done. Rafa works another finger in beside the first. The stretch is good. He doesn't think he should like it as much as he does.
Rafa combs through his hair, kisses the corner of his mouth. "Ready?"
Rafa tugs at his hair until Roger lifts his head to look at him. "You sure?"
Roger rests his cheek against Rafa's. "I'm sure. I like it."
Rafa says something Roger doesn't catch, low and quick with a reverent tone to it. "All right. On your back, okay?"
Roger rolls onto his back and pulls Rafa down on top of him. Rafa makes a surprised oof of expelled breath and grins at him, bright and happy. Roger drags him down for a kiss and spreads his legs as he does so that Rafa settles between them, pressed close.
Rafa squeezes him and laughs a little. "Yeah, for sure more nervous than you. Okay."
He pushes Roger's knees back almost to his chest, and Roger holds them there. This part is the hardest so far: letting Rafa look at him like this, so exposed and so turned on. His cock lies against his stomach, stiff and wet at the tip. It jerks as Rafa strokes his thigh and pushes his fingers into the soft skin there.
Rafa shuffles closer on his knees and puts the condom on. More lube, and then he's lining up and pushing in, so slowly it has to be a strain. His eyes are very wide. At this moment, he probably is more nervous than Roger.
It's strangely easy to take. He loses his hard-on a bit as the head pushes in, and there's a point where it does come close to hurting more than he's comfortable with, but that point passes.
Rafa's panting. There's sweat at his hairline, and his palms are faintly damp on Roger's thighs.
Roger reaches for his wrist and squeezes briefly. "Keep going," he says.
Rafa's thighs flex, and he pushes his hips forward in a long, steady slide. Roger is panting, too, by the end of it. Rafa's so close, over him and inside him. The heat they're generating seems untouched by the air conditioner grumbling away in the corner.
Rafa leans over him, one hand planted next to Roger's face. He looks as if he's going to speak, but he shakes his head. He leans down and rests his forehead against Roger's as he pulls out an inch and thrusts in again.
His face is a blur so close, but Roger doesn't want to shut his eyes. He strokes the back of Rafa's neck and winds his fingers through Rafa's hair.
The thrusts come faster, with hot puffs of breath on Roger's skin. Rafa is almost silent, which Roger would never have guessed given how he sounds on court. He shifts and grabs Roger's hips and shoves in hard.
The ache of pleasure Roger gets from that is so unexpected it almost feels like pain. He cries out, grips Rafa's shoulders, and Rafa doesn't stop. His hand finds Roger's cock and strokes, tight and quick.
Roger moans his name, and the next thrust is harder still, deep. He can feel Rafa's muscles shaking. He pushes his hips up to meet Rafa's and hears the low hiss of breath between teeth. There's a still, trembling moment, and then Rafa swears softly and grinds his hips down as he starts to come.
"You too, oh, please," he says in a rush, and his hand is working Roger's cock. It might be either of those things that tip Roger over the edge.
Roger groans as he comes, low and long. He can feel wet heat spreading out between their bodies as Rafa lowers himself on top of him. Rafa nuzzles at his neck and tucks his head under Roger's chin with a sigh, lips against his collar bone.
Roger wishes he were able to relax so thoroughly. Instead, he's already thinking ahead to what comes next. He doesn't know what comes next. That makes it worse. He slides his feet against the bed, bunching up the sheets.
"You are worrying already?" Rafa says.
"What would I have to worry about?"
Rafa smacks his chest weakly. "Look," he says, and then stops.
Rafa raises his head and blinks at Roger. There are shadows under his eyes, sweat at his temples. Roger smoothes his hair back from his face, and Rafa leans his cheek against Roger's hand like he's too tired to hold his head up.
"It's all right," Roger says. "I can worry tomorrow."
Rafa kisses the inside of his wrist and lets Roger take care of the condom and the clean up. He's flat on his back when Roger comes back to bed, arms and legs spread wide. Roger climbs under the sheets, and Rafa follows to drape an arm over Roger's chest and lie close against his side.
Roger lays a hand over the muscles of his upper arm and strokes lightly. Up close, the definition is fascinating. He traces a finger over curves and valleys, down to the soft skin at the bend of his elbow.
"Thirteen inches," Rafa says.
Roger raises his eyebrows.
"Not that," Rafa says, flushing slightly. "This." He flexes, obviously showing off. Roger doesn't think he should find that as cute as he does.
"Yes, yes. Very impressive." He pats Rafa's arm, but really, he is quite impressed. It's hard not to be.
Rafa edges still closer and lays his head on Roger's chest. Roger combs through his hair, and Rafa makes a soft little noise, muffled by Roger's skin.
"Your show's still on," Roger says. They never turned the TV off. A man in a pink spiked wig is pointing, apparently right at them.
"Mmph," Rafa says. He doesn't move.
Roger stretches to get the remote and hits the power button. The room sinks deeper into the stillness of night. The light bolted to the wall by the bed is the only one left on. Its soft yellow turns Rafa's skin gold. Roger's eyes follow the curve of his cheek, down his neck, to his shoulder and the long arch of his spine.
"Are you going to sleep?" Roger asks softly.
All he gets back is a cranky mumble and Rafa's face mashed more firmly against his neck. He has to smile.
"That seems to be a yes." No response at all. Rafa's hair is very soft, almost slippery as it slides between his fingers. "I don't know how you can even breathe like that," he whispers.
He's glad Rafa's asleep. It's a bit less pressure while he tries to think.
The uncertainty is killing. He'll have to tell Mirka, of course. And then--he has no idea. Maybe that will be the last thing she can take from him.
He looks down at the man sleeping half on top of him. It's funny how young Rafa still seems to him, how Roger's hand curves over the back of his neck, automatically protective. Maybe funny isn't the right word.
The curtains covering the window are an abstract pastel floral. Through them, he can see a hint of moonlight, pale and shivery, sneaking in through a gap in the blackout shades behind them. He thinks of disentangling himself from Rafa and getting a better look outside. He can imagine the broad stretch of stars, the silhouettes of the rocks standing out against them, black like empty patches of sky. In the end, he decides he'd rather be where he is.
Roger wakes up in the morning to find Rafa gone. The clock reads 9:13am, which is later than he's slept in years. He allows himself a brief moment of panic and checks to see that Rafa's bags are still there--which, of course, they are. He goes to shower.
He's pulling on his jeans when Rafa walks in the door with a white bakery bag.
"I got us breakfast," Rafa says. He's holding the bag to his chest, eyes flicking up and down over Roger's body.
"Smells good. What is it?"
"What, all doughnuts?"
"Yes! I am on holiday, I can eat just doughnuts if I want. Some of them have bacon, so there is protein too."
Roger smothers a laugh. "I see. Do I get some, or are they all for you?"
"Of course some are for you! I got one of each kind except, ah, except the ah. They had penis-shaped one. Don't know why."
Roger just nods. He's not even going to touch that, although the thought of Rafa's mouth closed around cock-shaped pastry gives him a brief but intense flashback to the feel of Rafa's cock against his tongue last night. He's abruptly half-hard in his jeans and wondering if they might have sex against before they leave.
That would be a bad idea.
He reaches for a shirt, but Rafa's right there, catching his arm in a hard grip.
"Leave it off," Rafa says. It's not a request. Roger blinks at him, bemused, until Rafa ducks his head, cheeks flushed. "Ah. Sorry. Please? I like to look at you."
He leaves it off. He doesn't generally go around half dressed, even at home. It makes him more aware of the cool air of the room, the pillow against his back when they settle on the bed to eat, Rafa's appreciative gaze.
They eat maple glazed things with bacon on top, and doughnuts encrusted with various technicolor cereals until Roger is hit with a sugar rush that leaves him lightheaded and fidgety and too inclined to lean into Rafa's body heat.
Rafa slips an arm around his shoulders and holds him there, tight against his side. He keeps on eating his Froot Loop doughnut like nothing's going on at all.
It takes Roger quite a long time to realize he's staring blatantly at Rafa's mouth, even as Rafa finishes up and licks his fingers clean. Roger's heart is beating unreasonably fast. It could be just the doughnuts, he tells himself, but the next words out of his mouth account for it perfectly.
"I want to suck you off," he says.
Rafa gets that short-circuited look in his eyes again and then pulls Roger in still tighter and kisses him. His tongue pushes into Roger's mouth, and he tastes of sugar, with a faintly chemical undertone of artificial flavoring.
"You really--? You don't have to," he says.
"I want to." He wants to a lot, in fact. He remembers following Phil down the path back to the car and wondering what it would feel like. He'd assumed at the time that he'd never find out.
"Unzip your pants for me," he says, and Rafa actually moans a tiny bit before slamming a hand over his own mouth.
"Yeah. Yeah, okay." Rafa kicks his sandals off and pulls his jeans down, first around his hips and then, after a moment of hesitation, entirely off. His cock is standing up stiff already. His toes are still sparkly purple. Roger wonders if that was meant to be a hint of some sort.
Roger eases himself down the bed and lies between Rafa's legs. His thighs are very hard, as well defined as his arms. Roger pushes them wider and hears a muffled sound. When he looks up, he sees Rafa chewing on his own knuckles and staring at him like he wouldn't look away if a bomb went off outside. Roger smiles and licks up the side of his cock.
"C-condom," Rafa says, but he couldn't sound less like he means it.
Roger shakes his head and licks again. He's being stupid. Reckless. Not sensible at all.
Rafa moans agreement and sinks his hands into Roger's hair.
Sugar lingers in Roger's mouth and mixes with the taste of skin and salt. Rafa sells very clean, of soap and desert air and, increasingly, of sex. He's so hard against Roger's tongue as to feel almost unnatural. Hot, too. Roger can feel the heat on his face and in his mouth when he slides his lips over the head.
Rafa's hands tighten in his hair, grab and hold and then reluctantly release. Rafa touches his shoulders and back, hands constantly moving.
Roger holds the shaft and gets maybe the first three inches in his mouth. This is not as easy as Phil made it look. It is good, though. He likes the small, desperate noises Rafa's making. He sucks harder, strokes the shaft, runs his tongue around the head, pressing hard. Rafa's hips jerk up.
"Sorry, sorry," Rafa says, breathless and soft. "Just--want you, this, so much, thought about it, Jesus--"
Roger swallows hard and wonders for how long, exactly, Rafa's been thinking about this. Longer than he has, for sure. He pushes Rafa's hips down, shakes his head, gets back to what he was doing.
He licks down the shaft this time, right to Rafa's balls and licks at them too. He glances up to see Rafa's eyes riveted on him, and Rafa's hands fisted in the sheets. Back up, dragging his lips to the head, tongue pressing against the tip to taste the fluid welling up there. Not great, but not entirely bad, a counterpoint to all the sugar. He pushes his lips down again and manages a little more than last time.
"Roger, Rogelio, I--"
Rafa doesn't even get the warning out before his cock jerks, and Roger's mouth is flooded. Hot, thick fluid coats his tongue, and he swallows automatically.
"Shit," Rafa whispers. "Sorry." He doesn't look sorry. There's heat in his eyes, and he grabs Roger's hair to pull his head back for a kiss that goes from hard to bruising.
Roger's cock throbs in his jeans. Rafa flows toward him and flips him onto his back. Rafa's mouth is on his again, and Rafa's hand is down his jeans, on his cock, squeezing, stroking. Roger groans, embarrassingly loud, and comes hard, just like that.
Roger can hear Rafa's breathing and his own. Rafa drags his hand, wet and sticky, up over Roger's stomach and rests it there. This might be more serious--for both of them--than Roger had thought.
"Would you ever leave her?" Rafa says, voice soft. "For me," he adds, still more quietly. "Would you ever leave her for me?"
"I-- I don't know," Roger says, just as quietly. It's the truth. It's the best he can do. It feels terribly cruel. "I love her."
"I don't want to hurt you. Her. Anyone," he says, uselessly.
"You will tell her," Rafa says. It's not a question.
"Yes. I have to. Yes."
"You do what it is you want to do. Do not worry about me. I be all right. Am not, you know, pining away without you." He smiles just a little, shrugs. "I don't want to hurt her either. She's my good friend."
Roger wraps both arms around his back and holds him close. Outside, he can hear a family passing by, children screaming happily about their new pool toys, mother talking to father about the restaurant she wants to try for lunch.
Roger feels a sudden lurch in his chest, not for himself, but for his mother, who started asking about grandchildren two weeks after he retired.
Rafa's body loosens slowly against his, head lolling, one arm flopped out to the side. Roger lets him doze. He has a lot of catching up to do.
Two hours later, they've both showered again, and they're on the road.
They showered together, in fact. Roger watches the landscape grow gradually more green and remembers Rafa's hands on him, very hot and slick with soap.
Roger gets a cab from LaGuardia to the Carlyle and checks into a suite overlooking the Central Park. He's meant to be staying with Mirka in her rented apartment in the Village, but he thinks the chances of getting kicked out on his ass are at least 50-50. He leaves his things in the hotel, changes, and walks outside.
The air is just crisp enough for a trenchcoat. Bare branches arch over the park, but as he gets nearer he can see crimson and gold still hanging on, bright against black bark.
He sits on a bench and pulls out his phone. He flips to her number and is nearly overwhelmed with the desire to do this by text message. Slept with Rafa. Hate me now?
In the picture of her on his phone, she's holding her hand up, showing off her ring with a huge smile on her face. He asked her to marry him. She didn't say no; she said not yet. She said don't think about it until you can't play anymore. She also said she loved him, and they had plenty of time.
Now he wonders if she knew what would happen after he retired, if it was this hard for her, too. She never told him, never complained. About anything.
He hits the call button.
"I'm here," he tells her. "Yeah, in the park. Sure, dinner's good. I can bring something over? Okay. No, I know. None of those weird mushrooms. I know. I haven't been gone that long. All right. Yeah, seven. Bye."
It's funny how she and Rafa share a loathing for wood ear mushrooms in Chinese food. Maybe, again, funny isn't the right word. He calls the Golden Garden on Third Avenue to put an order in. He can walk from there to her place.
He takes the subway and says hello to the rats. New York is not his favorite city.
The owner of the Golden Garden, Ivy, has his order waiting. She asks after Mirka and gives him two Asian pears for dessert. "You have to peel them," she reminds him.
He finds a smile for her. "I know. Thank you."
Walking down Third, bag in hand, he wonders if she would be so kind if he were with Rafa instead of Mirka. He has no reason to think otherwise. It's just something he's never had to consider before.
The apartment is a fourth-floor walk-up a few blocks off Washington Square Park. Roger had argued for something classier in midtown, but Mirka liked it here. He lets himself in and stomps up the stairs. At her door--their door, though he hasn't spent much time here--he pauses.
Deep breath, calm and cool, just like stepping onto center court. Right.
The door opens, and Mirka walks right into him with a bag full of garbage.
"Oh!" She stops, mouth open, and then she says, "You're early."
"Sorry," Roger says.
"No, no, no." She smiles and kisses him, garbage pressed closer between them and wafting aromatically upward. "I'm glad."
"I'll take that," he says. He trades her, garbage for take-out, and carries it to the trash chute. She leaves the door open and disappears inside. This is going to be harder than he'd thought.
It's after ten. The moon is up. Roger sits on the same park bench. It's a good thing he got himself a room.
A man with long, grey hair and a bottle in a paper bag shuffles up and sits next to him. The man tips his bottle at him.
"Oh, I know who you are."
Signing autographs for bums: exactly what he needs to make the night complete. Well, it's not going to kill him. He makes himself smile and reaches for a pen.
The man leans closer. "I knew the EBEs would bring you back. It's the five hundredth full moon since you disappeared tonight. You were the greatest, Mr Presley. The king! Can I have your autograph?"
Ah. No. This was what he needed to make his night complete. He already has the pen in his hand, so he scribbles out an illegible signature on the man's paper bag before walking back to his hotel.
He's just out of the shower when his phone bleats at him. He wraps a towel around his waist and hesitates, dripping, in the bathroom doorway. He doesn't know whether to hope it's from Mirka or not.
It's not. It's from Rafa. All it says is: U ok?
He sits on the edge of the bed, phone pressed between his hands. His feet are still wet. A trail of water spots leads back across the hardwood floor to the bathroom. He's getting the bedspread damp, too. He pushes his hair back and wipes water away from his eyes.
He texts back: I'm fine.
The phone rings ten seconds later. It's Rafa, of course.
"You do not sound fine."
"Well, I am. And I've just got out of the shower, so I will go get dressed if you don't mind?"
There's a long silence. "You're naked?" Rafa says, finally.
Roger's face feel abruptly warmer and he looks to the door to make sure the chain lock is on. "Ah. Yes. Well, a towel."
He hears Rafa's shaky exhale crackle across the miles. Rafa is home now. Roger had to make him promise not to follow him to New York.
"Sorry," Rafa says. "How did it go?"
"I don't know if I should say." It feels disloyal, talking about Mirka to Rafa now. He doesn't especially want to talk about it at all.
"Who else would you tell? I'm still your best friend, no?" Rafa sounds like he's not so sure of that.
"Of course." As if there's anything else he can say to that.
"Okay. Good. So. Tell me."
"She was angry." Roger sighs. "More about Phil than you. I don't really understand that part."
"Oh, God. You tell her about the hooker, too?"
"I had to!"
"Yeah, yeah. Keep going."
"We talked. A lot. About--the time we've been spending apart. About her new friends. I don't really know any of them."
There is a pause. "Not good."
"No. Not good." He doesn't know when that happened, when he started falling out of her life. Maybe when she started getting a life that didn't revolve around him.
"Is she really mad at me?" Rafa asks, after a minute.
"I don't think so. I don't even think she's that mad at me."
"Is over, yes?" Rafa says softly. "The way you talk, it sounds like that."
"There was-- We didn't decide anything." He bites at his thumbnail. "I'm seeing her again tomorrow."
"And after that?"
"I might go away for a while."
"No. No, somewhere--different. Brazil, maybe. Or the Sahara. Some place I don't know well."
"I think, yes. It would be better."
"You'll call sometimes and let me know you're still alive?"
They say goodnight soon after that. Roger dries off and gets into his pajamas. He slips between the cool sheets on the room's massive bed and turns off the lights.
Rafa was right. It does sound like it's over. Maybe it has been for a while. Maybe that's okay.
Roger leaves for Rio on December 1st. He takes an apartment there, near Copacabana Beach. It's on the small side, but it has air conditioning and internet, and it's in a neighborhood where he's unlikely to get mugged.
It has scuffed floors, a small television, and other people's books. The furniture is solid wood and striped, aged upholstery that reminds him of his parents' house growing up. Roger dumps his bag in the middle of the floor and sits on the couch to text Rafa.
I'm in Rio. Not dead. How are you?
The answer comes quickly, considering what time it is in Spain. Good. Went fishing today. Did not catch anything but was good to go out.
I'd like to go with you again some time.
You sure? Rafa writes back. Did not go great the last time. ;)
That was not my fault!
It's some time before Rafa writes back. Roger starts unpacking and almost jumps when his phone vibrates in his pocket.
I miss you.
Yeah. Roger closes his eyes briefly. Me too. Go to sleep.
He gets back a line of x's and o's and smiles at it a moment before he closes his phone. He does miss Rafa, and Mirka, and his parents, his friends. Having people around who know him. He hadn't realized how long it'd been since he was really alone.
The bathroom has black and white checked tile on the floor and an age-spotted mirror with a frame of dark, carved wood. Roger sets his toiletries on the counter and unboxes the electric razor he bought at the Sao Paulo airport. He doesn't want to be recognized, but more than that, he wants some kind of change.
The buzz of the razor against his skull makes his teeth vibrate. Long stripes of hair curl gently on the counter. His head feels very cool when it's done. He sweeps it all into the wastebasket.
It's a good disguise, strangely. With sunglasses on, he barely recognizes himself. He stands in front of the mirror a long time, just looking. All these changes--not what he'd expected. He'd thought his life would go on as it was, that he'd go on as he was.
In the next few weeks, it proves as good a disguise as he could've hoped. He keeps his hair short, just a shadow across his scalp to keep the sun off. Everyone here wears sunglasses, so that's no problem. He buys a few really ridiculous pairs once he's sure a pack of wild photographers isn't going to show up and share his bad taste with the world.
He lies on the beach day after day and gets a spectacular, cancer-inducing tan. He buys smaller swim trunks than he's ever owned in his life. He gets hit on, a lot, by both genders. He turns them all down.
What he doesn't do, for the longest stretch of time since he picked up a racquet at age two, is play tennis. He's not sure why, and he was never given to introspection, but it feels important. Even if it does make him twitchy and restless after the first week.
He texts Rafa from his lounge chair on the beach: Do you think it's possible to be physically addicted to playing tennis?
He gets the answer back less than a minute later: YES, and laughs under his breath, on and off, for the rest of the day.
He eats street food almost exclusively, except for his attempts to cook.
"Hello?" Rafa says.
"Do you really have to salt the water for pasta?"
Rafa makes a sort of outraged squawk. "Yes, you have to salt it! The water makes little bubbles when it boils, too!"
"Oh, funny. Come on, be some help here. I have tomatoes and onion and uh--some kind of pepper. Some herbs. I eat at restaurants. You know that."
Rafa sighs in his ear, and there's a sound of creaking springs. Roger imagines Rafa turning over on his bed. Rafa never complains, no matter how late he calls.
"Okay," Rafa says. "You got a knife?"
"Well, you know, sort of."
"How do you sort of have a knife?"
Roger looks at the blade in his hand. He had to scrape some rust off before he washed it. Twice. "It's sort of a knife."
Rafa talks him through chopping the onion and cooking it with the pepper. He could probably manage on his own, and maybe he knows the answers to some of the more clueless questions he asks. He likes to hear Rafa talk.
Mirka texts him just before Christmas: All right, I’m not mad at you anymore. Call your parents. They don’t want to bother you, so they keep calling me.
Roger just holds the phone in his hands for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe longer. Enough time for the light in the room to shift and brighten. He hadn't realized he'd been waiting for that.
He types back: Thank you. It's not nearly enough, but he can't think how to go on, so he hits send.
I love you, idiot, she writes back. For god's sake call your mother. I'm not kidding.
Roger calls his mother. He thinks she might be crying when he gets done telling her it's over with Mirka, though she denies it. He feels a bit like crying himself. It's so final, telling them. He hasn't even told Rafa yet, not officially.
He's pretty sure he doesn't have to tell Rafa, that he knows already, but that's not why Roger hasn't said anything. He feels that to say, No, I'm not with her, will be the same as saying, Yes, I'm with you now.
His father gets on the line. "The first time we called, Mirka said something about Rafa," he says. His voice is low, and Roger wonders if that's so his mother won't hear. His heart starts beating harder.
"What did she say?"
His father sighs. "Not very much of anything. It was more how she said it. It's your life, Roger."
That's a favorite phrase of his father's, usually followed up with but. There's no but this time. He has an opening right here, a space into which he could drop a few words, a statement, even an implication. He can't do it.
He tells his parents he loves them, says his goodbyes, hangs up. He sets his phone down, picks it up again. He starts to text Rafa, and then realizes that the sort of questions he has shouldn't be sitting around on Rafa's phone for anyone to read. He dials.
"Hello?" Rafa says.
"How hard was it, keeping it quiet? When you were--not with girls."
Belatedly, Roger hears the sounds of crowd. He wonders where Rafa is and listens as the sound grows fainter.
"So, pretty hard," Rafa says. "I stopped, with guys, after I get number two ranking. Just too many people watching, all the time."
"And before that?"
"Before that..." Rafa makes a clicking sound with his tongue. "Well. Sometimes with the guys on the tour. Safer that way. Not with hookers," he adds, in a mutter.
"I didn't know-- Wait. Who on the tour?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes!" He's pretty sure he meant to say no there. Of course it doesn't matter, Rafa, it's your own business, I shouldn't have asked. There are a few moments of silence during which he can feel his face heat up.
"Well, if it matters--" He can hear the grin in Rafa's voice.
"Stop it," he mumbles.
"Carlos. Feli, once, but we were both very very drunk, and he's very straight really. Unless you ask him about Sergio Ramos. Big crush. Uh, also Andy."
"It wasn't much with any of them," Rafa says. He sounds apologetic, anxious, like Roger might be angry with him for these things he did so many years ago, almost before Roger knew him at all. "You know, tension relief."
"And if we--" Roger stops abruptly. He jams his fist up against his teeth and tries to find the right words. "Is there anyone you would tell?"
Rafa's quiet a long time, long enough for Roger to get twitchy, to get up and pace to the window and back and to the window again. It's raining outside, a fine grey mist with the sun showing in slanted rays over the ocean.
"Anyone who'd listen?" Rafa says finally, with a little laugh. "Anyone you'd let me tell. How is that? Good answer?"
"Yeah, okay," Roger says. The movement of his lips and tongue feels mechanical, distant. He hopes he sounds normal. He probably does. He's heard his interviews from right before he walked onto center court at Wimbledon the first time, and he sounded fine. The amount of numbing terror is roughly the same now as then.
"I got you a Christmas present," Rafa says, into the silence Roger has left. "Should be there soon."
"What is it?"
"I can't tell you. It's a surprise." The sound of raised voices grows louder in the background. "Uh, look, I should go, okay? Am playing with Feli. Not official or anything, but a lot of people watching."
"All right, go play. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Rogelio."
Roger hangs up and imagines Rafa on court, surrounded by a sea of people, telling Roger about who he's had sex with. It's not entirely funny, but he laughs anyway. He's still laughing when someone knocks.
He finds a package left outside his door, return address in Spain, though it doesn't have Rafa's name on it. He slits open the tape with his rusty kitchen knife. Inside, among crumpled Spanish newspapers, is the robin’s egg blue of a Tiffany box.
Inside, shining against black velvet, is a bracelet of simple silver links. Or, not silver, he sees, reading the information card packaged with it. Platinum. One link bears the letter R, a tiny diamond set next to it, like punctuation. He rubs his thumb over it until it warms. R could be for either of them.
On his wrist, it looks quite plain. Less showy even than his watchband unless you spot the diamond. Elegant. He wouldn't have thought Rafa had that much taste, which is unkind, but also kind of justified.
Roger lifts his arm to catch the pale light from the window. He likes it. And he has to admit, with no small amount of guilt, that it's nice not to have to worry about where Rafa's found the money for this.
He wants to call and say thank you, but imagines Rafa's game instead, how his body looks, shirt clinging to his chest from sweat, white and nearly transparent.
Rio never stops. There were shows and parades for Christmas, a floating Christmas tree, costumes, tons of people everywhere. New Year's Eve is just as crazy.
Roger wanders, dazed, through the throngs. Ten million strangers, people he will never know brushing past him. A woman nearly walks into him. She wears a large straw hat and has a camera around her neck. She's sunburned, and her mouth is turned down at the corners. "You look just like my head husband," she says, and then she's gone into the crowd again.
Roger's stomach flips inside him, and suddenly the crowd is unbearable. He fights his way out to Copacabana Beach, right to the edge of the waves. Cool water foams across his toes, wetting his sandals. The salt air cools his body from the inside out.
He raises his eyes from his feet. The crowd is vast. Everyone is dressed in white. Every pair of eyes looks out toward the ocean.
Flowers float on the water. Even as he stares, a girl standing next to him steps forward and tosses a handful of white roses onto the waves. Her bare feet sink into the sand.
"What on Earth," Roger says softly.
"Iemanja," someone says, quite close to him. "The mother of waters. The gifts carried out to sea are the ones she accepts."
Roger turns and feels his face go blank with a shock he can't control. It's the same shock on the other man's face, reflected.
It's Phil Star.
For a long count of ten, Roger is absolutely sure he's dreaming. The crowd on the beach, the gifts to the sea were strange enough. This is--impossible.
"It's really you?" Phil says. He's leaning forward, frowning. "Hey, your hair. It was so nice."
That pretty much convinces Roger it's not a dream after all. "Yes, me. What are you doing here?"
"Told you I wanted to get away. Seemed like a good place. It's pretty cool here. I met this guy..." He looks around, and then shakes his head. "Lost him in the crowd, I guess. He's letting me stay with him. But--you know--if you wanted to, we could find some place."
Roger shakes his head. Strange as this is, his eyes are drawn out to sea again. "She's a goddess?"
"Yeah. Candomble. My friend told me all about her. The gifts are like offerings, you know? For favors or for thanks or just a good year." Phil puts a hand on his shoulder. "So, are you sure--?"
"I'm sorry. I'm with someone."
Phil studies him a second, and then shrugs. He looks disappointed, but not upset. That's good, of course, even if Roger feels momentarily miffed at how quickly Phil apparently got over him.
"Oh, well. Figures. Here." Phil pulls Roger's hands up and drops a fistful of white rose petals into them. "Tell the goddess I said hi, or whatever. I better go find Miguel."
Roger watches him disappear into the crowd, and then steps forward. Sand sucks at his shoes. Waves climb higher to wet his calves. He lets the petals fall on the sea foam, white on white, vanishing in an instant.
He turns and walks back through the crowd, back to his small apartment. The next day, he buys a ticket to Melbourne. The Australian Open starts January 19th.
Roger gets a hotel room in Melbourne and watches Rafa's games on the widescreen TV in his room. He hasn't told Rafa he's here yet.
The final starts in half an hour, Rafa against Gulbis. Roger hasn't got a ticket, isn't sure if he should say anything until it's over, but he can't settle. He paces his room, fiddles with the bracelet Rafa gave him. He keeps remembering that there's been an empty seat in Rafa's player's box during every game. Maybe it's coincidence. Probably.
Finally, he curses and slides on his sunglasses. Even if he can't get in, at least he'll be there afterwards.
As it turns out, getting in is no problem. Someone's left him a pass with security. He hangs it around his neck and gets waved through into the stadium. It's pretty easy to find Rafa's box. Toni turns to him as he picks his way down the stairs.
"I was wondering," Roger says. "Ah. May I sit--"
Toni doesn't even let him finish his sentence. He shakes Roger's hand and drags him a few steps forward in the process. "Sit, sit. He'll be glad you're here."
Roger collapses gratefully into a chair. That was much, much harder than he'd thought it would be. He wonders what Rafa has told Toni, if anything.
Toni's giving him a long, hard stare, up from his toes and back down again. His eyes catch on the bracelet, and he grunts softly. He says nothing, and Roger can't read his expression at all, but his face softens a little when he sees Roger looking.
"Watch the match," he says.
Roger doesn't think that's unqualified approval, but at least it's not complete horror. He watches the match. Rafa's serving.
The first ball hits the net, but the second is in. Rafa's doing well. His accuracy's good. It's looking like his point when he just--stops. The ball whizzes by him, and the score is 4 - 3, Gulbis.
Rafa's looking right at Roger.
It's just for a second, and then he's back in the game, but even all the way across the court, it was impossible to miss.
Roger fiddles with his sunglasses and has no idea how to feel. Bad, obviously, that Rafa missed the point, but there's also a sort of bubbly warmth in his chest that he can't shove down.
The rest of the match goes quickly, but not quickly enough for Roger, who spends most of it literally on the edge of his seat. He's not used to being the one watching.
Halfway through the third set tiebreak, Toni taps his shoulder. "They have spotted you, no?" he says.
Roger sees a few of the cameras turned on him and makes himself sit back and stop gnawing his thumbnail. It's not easy.
Fourth set. The score is 6 - 5, Rafa leading. It's Gulbis's serve, and he's been acing Rafa the whole match. Roger catches his foot jiggling out of control just like Rafa's does and makes himself stop that, too.
Gulbis serves, Rafa returns. Roger watches the ball, the placement of shots, Rafa gradually forcing Gulbis back and out of position. Gulbis runs for the next one, stretches out and just tips the ball with the edge of his racket. It goes wild, up into the bleachers.
Rafa falls to his knees, hands raised to the sky. Roger only just stops himself from doing the same.
After the trophy presentation, Toni draws Roger along in his impressive wake, heading for the locker room. Rafa is just standing there, still in his sweaty clothes, nearly vibrating.
"Congratulations," Roger says. "You played well."
Rafa completely ignores his words and takes a careful hold on Roger's wrist, the one with the bracelet. He's looking down, hair hanging over his face so Roger can't even see if he's smiling or not.
Toni sighs and says something in Spanish. He shakes his head and walks away.
"What was that?" Roger asks.
"He says, 'You always got to do everything the hard way.' Heh." Rafa looks up, finally. He is smiling, so sweetly it makes Roger's chest hurt.
"Did you...tell him?"
"He seed me packing this up." Rafa rubs his thumb over a link of the bracelet. "And, you know, maybe I was not always so careful before. Especially with Andy."
Roger tries very hard not to let his reaction to that piece of news show on his face. Judging from Rafa's gleeful expression, he's failing spectacularly.
Rafa pulls Roger close, right up against his body. Roger can feel the damp heat of him right through his clothes. Rafa's hand slides over his head, rubbing at the bristles of his hair.
"I like this," he says. "Is sexy on you. Makes you look more, hm. What is the word?"
"Butch," Rafa says, triumphantly.
Roger snuffles with laughter against the heated skin of his neck. "I don't think that's the word."
He's quiet a minute, both of them leaning on each other. Roger suspects the sweat from Rafa's clothes is seeping into his enough that it's going to show. He just can't care.
"Only," Rafa says. He pauses. "Only, you're growing it back, yes?"
Roger laughs and squeezes him tighter. He turns his head to kiss the corner of Rafa's mouth. Rafa sighs and leans harder against Roger's chest.
"You have a dinner to go to," Roger tells him. "And many things before that."
"Don't care. Where are you staying? Let's go there."
"Many things," Roger repeats. "That you should get showered and changed for. I'll give my spare key card. You can come by after."
"No way. If I'm going, you're going, too."
"I can't come to your presser."
"It's not my dinner."
"Toni be there. Maymo, Benito. You be there, too."
"Part of your entourage?"
Rafa pulls back to look at him and frowns. "That's not how it is."
"It's how it will look."
"Does it matter so much how it looks?" Rafa says, sounding almost forlorn.
Roger kisses his temple. "Maybe more to me than it does to you, yes. If I go, we'll both be distracted. People will ask questions. Ones I'm not ready to answer yet, you know?"
"No one's going to tell anything just from looking!"
"Rafa, you can't act for shit. I'm sorry, it's the truth. And right now neither can I. You're going by yourself, and try not to say anything indiscreet when they ask you why I was here."
"Like the truth?"
"Yes, like the truth," Roger says, as firmly as he can. Rafa's shoulders slump. Roger sighs. "I'm not saying never, all right? I'm just saying--I'm jetlagged as hell and I just spent a whole month talking to practically no one, and, you know, the hooker from Vegas showed up on the beach at New Year's, and there was this crazy thing--and. And. And I can't. Not tonight, Raf. I can't do it."
"A thing," Rafa says, drawing back slowly.
"Look, I'll tell you later. Go and shower, yes? Here." Roger hands over his key card, suddenly more exhausted than the excitement of the game or even the jetlag can account for. He's been here for days. He should have adjusted by now, but it seems to get harder with every year that goes by, especially on the commercial flights.
If he's going to travel with Rafa, he thinks, he's getting another damned jet. He shouldn't have sold his in the first place. Even first class is ridiculous, and the food is appalling.
"All right," Rafa says.
"I'm staying at the Langham, room 434. Just let yourself in."
Rafa doesn't hug him goodbye or even touch him again. It's not until Roger's well on the way back to his hotel that he thinks 'there was this thing' might have been a poor choice of words.
He pulls out his cell to clear things up, but--does Rafa really think he would do that? Again, Roger's brain supplies. He did it once, why not again? He was unfaithful to Mirka twice in less than 48 hours. Four times, if you count the three times he had sex with Rafa separately.
He goes back to the hotel and orders room service for dinner. His phone stays in his pocket. After dinner, he starts up his laptop and watches Youtube videos of the match. The cameras focus on him more than he'd like. The first shots are the worst; he looks more nervous than he's ever seen himself. Good thing Toni said something.
After dinner, he showers, changes into pajama bottoms and nothing else, and sits down by the window to think. Across the room, his trousers bleat. It's a text, from Rafa:
It's okay, don't worry about it.
It turns out to be the very last thing Roger can take. He dials, and doesn't even wait for Rafa to say hello when he picks up.
"I didn't sleep with him, that's not what I meant. Get over here. Now, right now."
"Dinner's not over," Rafa says uncertainly.
"I don't care."
"Thank god," Rafa mutters. "Fifteen minutes."
It feels more like an hour. Rafa lets himself in, and Roger is right there, waiting. He pushes Rafa back against the closed door and locks it while he kisses him, mouth pushed hard against his, free hand yanking Rafa's dress shirt out of his trousers.
"I didn't sleep with him. You believe me, right?"
"Of course." But Rafa's still stiff against him.
"There was nothing, I promise. He-- I saw him for all of five minutes, on the beach, a billion other people around. Nothing happened. He gave me rose petals." Roger bites his own lip. There is clearly something wrong with him tonight.
Rafa frowns. "Rose petals?"
"For this goddess. It's a thing, in Rio. Gifts to the sea on New Year's Eve. We talked for a couple minutes and he went to find his new boyfriend. That's all."
Rafa catches Roger's face between his hands, still frowning. He looks worried, and Roger can hardly blame him. He's aware he's not making a lot of sense.
"Rogelio. You okay?"
"I didn't want you thinking--that."
Rafa kisses him, off center, licking softly at the corner of his mouth. "I shouldn't have thought it."
Rafa doesn't argue with that, just kisses Roger again and says, "Bed."
"Yes. All right."
Rafa herds him across the room and sits him down on the bed, both hands on his shoulders, pressing down lightly like he's unsure Roger will stay where he's put. Roger raises his eyebrows at him.
"Sorry. You're not usually like that," Rafa says, and Roger can see the worry lingering in his eyes.
"Take your clothes off," Roger tells him.
"Okay, okay. Pushy." Rafa smiles at him and starts stripping; shoes, socks, suit jacket, tie, shirt, trousers, boxers. All on the floor in a little heap, and Rafa stands there just--being naked at him.
Roger pushes his pants off and slides under the covers. He holds out a hand. Rafa takes it and climbs in beside him, half on top of him, bearing him down, warm and very solid. He smells good, some kind of cologne Roger's never smelled on him before. Roger closes his eyes and breathes it in. Rafa's hands move over his skin, down his sides, over his shoulders, and he feels himself start to relax.
"Dinner was really boring," Rafa offers, after a while.
"They almost always are."
"You were maybe right, about being distracted."
Roger laughs softly. "Maybe. Thank you," he adds. "For coming over. I know it wasn't, you know, the wisest thing."
"I don't care about any of that."
Roger feels for his hand and laces their fingers together. "I know."
It's amazing to him how comfortable this is, how calming to the constant twitch and jump of his nerves. He's pretty sure it should awkward after so much time apart, after so many years of being nothing more than friends.
Rafa kisses his neck, opens his mouth there and sucks. Roger runs a hand down his back and follows the curve of his bare ass as far as he can reach. He feels the flick of Rafa's tongue on his neck and squeezes his ass lightly in return.
Rafa makes a pleased, humming sound. His fingers move through the hair on Roger's chest, up from his stomach to the hollow of his throat, and then start again, over and over.
"I like this," Rafa says. "Is very..."
"Don't say butch."
Rafa rolls his eyes. "Different. You. I don't know, that sounds stupid."
Roger kisses his forehead, the only part of his face currently in kissing range. Rafa obligingly turns his head and brings their mouths together. Roger licks into his mouth, slow and careful and quiet, as if he might disturb something with too much force. Rafa's tongue moves against his, and then Rafa pulls back a fraction to catch Roger's lower lip between his teeth and suck.
"So, I am getting another jet," Roger says.
Rafa blinks at him, wide eyes, wide pupils. His lips are wet and shiny.
"I don't know how you stand the commercial fights."
"Uh. Uncle Toni hates it. Says the seats are not big enough for him." Rafa is giving him such a look, like he can't fathom why Roger is still talking. "Jet? What?"
"For the tour."
"Oh. Oh," Rafa says. His eyes are even wider now.
"If you don't want me to come, it's perfectly all right," Roger says, aware as he says it that it's a blatant lie. Rafa can probably tell.
Rafa kisses him again, much harder, grinning through it so that his teeth press against Roger's lips. "Thought I would have to talk you into it," he says. He wriggles his eyebrows. "Persuade you." He humps Roger's leg briefly. "Somehow."
Roger snorts with laughter. "Your skills. Of course."
"My mad skills! Hey, Rogi, you want a demonstration?"
Roger smiles and shakes his head slowly, not meaning no at all. He kisses Rafa again, both their mouths wet and slick and sliding against each other. He feels Rafa's hand trace down his chest again and dip lower this time, to where his cock lies against his stomach.
Rafa strokes him as they kiss, tongue fucking into Roger's mouth with a steady rhythm. Roger's heart speeds up, and his cock gets harder, and he goes from languor to something approaching desperation in the space of a few seconds. He bucks up against Rafa's grip and pushes a hand between their bodies to touch Rafa in return.
They grind together, knuckles hard against stomachs, hot breath, Rafa's hair clinging to Roger's face. Roger opens his mouth wider and lays his free hand over the back of Rafa's neck, squeezing. Rafa makes a noise between a whine and a sigh and fans his hand out over the side of Roger's face.
His fingers slip to Roger's lips, and Rafa works them into Roger's mouth. Roger moans around them, unable to keep it in. He closes his eyes and sucks, tongue running over joints and calluses and the hard edge of nails. Rafa makes a strangled noise and stills, and Roger feels Rafa's cock pulse as he comes, wet heat on Roger's hand.
Rafa sucks in a few choked breaths, and then his hand is moving on Roger's cock again, stronger, faster. He bites lightly at Roger's jaw, and Roger closes his teeth over Rafa's fingers in return. And then he has to pull back and suck in air as he comes, thighs and shoulders tense and shaking with it.
Rafa lays his head on Roger's chest, rising and falling with Roger's quick breath.
"Stay," Roger says, hand tightening at the nape of Rafa's neck.
Rafa looks up at him. "What, really?"
"Really. I'll think of something. Sort it out. In the morning."
Rafa plants a wet and messy kiss on his chin and drapes a leg over his, settling his head right back where it was.
After a minute, when Roger is starting to drift, Rafa says, "You said not never."
Roger looks up at the ceiling. "You really want to tell--everyone? What, announce it at a presser or something?"
Rafa's quiet for a few seconds, hopefully thinking about what that would mean.
"What you said is right," he says, finally. "Am no good at acting. No good at lying. I don't like it."
"You managed it for years."
Rafa nods. "Not fun, but yes. I knew it would be a lot of trouble if people found out, many problems. I thought about it a long time. So I decided, has to be worth the trouble. It wasn't."
"And now you think it is."
"It's a big decision to make so fast."
"Seems fast to you because you have only been thinking of it since Las Vegas. For me, much longer."
Roger rubs his thumb over the slight protrusion of bone under skin at the base of Rafa's neck.
"You remember the second time you beat me at Wimbledon?" Rafa asks.
"So tired I thought I was going to die, right? And messed up in my head. You know how it is. And at the net, you told me I was brilliant, and the whole ceremony after, you were right there. You were so kind, and you never had to be."
"Of course I did."
"Only because you're you." Rafa pats his chest. "So, yes. Worth the trouble."
Since 2007. That really is a long time.
Put like that, it makes things strangely easy. "All right."
Rafa looks up at him. "For real all right?"
"For real. Just give things a chance to settle. A few months, maybe. I have to tell my parents. Mirka. A few other people."
"A few months." Rafa grins. "Say, after Wimbledon?"
"Hm. After you win Wimbledon. More incentive that way."
"Hey, no! What if I don't?"
Roger smiles at the outrage on his face and leans down to kiss him. "Just win it, Rafa. You can do it. You are brilliant, after all, yes?"
"Huh." Rafa settles down again. "Fine. I will."
Roger has no doubt.