Figs from Thistles

by Dr. Noh


Owen spent the first night of the Christmas holidays chain smoking in a pub on the outskirts of Oxford. The cigarettes and the beer and the general fug of the place felt like his first taste of reality since the start of the term.

He had thought Harrow would prepare him for university — that was its job, after all — but the shock of his acceptance had only metamorphosed into the sense that he was swimming just ahead of the tide, waiting for the surf to break over his head and pull him under.

It wasn’t the work. He could manage the work. It was the fact of being there at all, and that was inescapable, a odd warp to the fabric of his reality. Reconciling that would take something stronger than beer.

A man sat down beside him and ordered a whisky. Owen told the bartender to give him one as well. Getting pissed seemed like a solid plan for the evening.

“I’ll pay for his,” the man said. “No one who looks that miserable should have to buy his own drinks.”

Owen turned toward him and blinked a couple of times. That was a face he’d recognize no matter how much beer he’d had. “Adam?”

Adam frowned at him. “Do I know you?”

Owen drained the rest of his beer in one go. One of the clearest memories of his childhood was Adam Enderby holding him down and pinching little round bruises into his back like leopard spots while he cried. It had been his first year at Harrow and Adam’s last. “You wouldn’t remember me,” he said. “We were at school together, but I was much younger.”

Adam was still frowning. “What’s your name?”

The bartender returned with their whiskies and gave Owen a moment in which to consider lying. It was possible Adam did remember him and simply didn’t recognize him. He’d only been thirteen then. Hopefully he looked a bit different at eighteen. He took a sip and watched Adam do the same. No, he needed to know. “Owen Grant,” he said.

Adam’s face stayed blank. “Sorry. Did we talk at all?”

Owen recalled begging him to stop. That probably didn’t count. “No, not really. I suppose the younger boys are always more aware of the older ones than the other way around.”

“Oh God, yes. There was one my first year, Mark something. I remember practically worshipping him. Sad, really.” He looked into his whisky and swallowed it down all at once.

“Was it?” Owen said.

“Well, it was a fairly pathetic crush, and I didn’t even know it. I’d call that sad, wouldn’t you?”

“I’d call it part of growing up.”

“Then you’re a kinder man than I am.”

Owen remembered blunt nails digging into his skin, the sharp little twist, the hand on the back of his neck shoving his face against the floor. He said nothing.

“Hell, it wasn’t me, was it?” Adam said. He stared at Owen with wide blue eyes, already glassy from just one whisky. “I wasn’t your Mark, was I?”

Owen felt as if that deserved a good solid laugh, but he didn’t have one in him. “No, you definitely weren’t. Don’t worry about that.”

Adam nodded a couple of times. He looked at Owen’s whisky. “Going to drink that?” Owen pushed it toward him, and he finished it off. “I hate this place. Don’t know why I came. Do you want to get out of here? Maybe go on somewhere?”

He put a hand on Owen’s knee and looked at his mouth. They weren’t going on anywhere. Owen said yes anyway.

He couldn’t bear the idea of Adam stepping so casually into his life and slipping away again like someone whose class timetable Owen hadn’t memorized in order to avoid him, like someone he might’ve played rugby or eaten lunch with. Even this seemed better. He’d certainly had sex for worse reasons.

They walked along with their hands in their pockets. Adam’s face turned sallow in the streetlights and was obscured by the fog of his own breath.

“My flat’s around the corner. I’ve got beer,” Adam said.

“That’s fine.” Owen wondered what it would feel like to have Adam above him now, if he’d still try to hold him down, if he’d still leave bruises.

Adam’s building was a converted Victorian house with ivy growing up its brick facade and a deep arch over the door, not terribly smart but several steps above Owen’s shared flat in Jericho. A flock of tiny birds shot out of a bare bush as they walked up the front path. Adam worked the key into the lock and paused. Owen thought he would say something, clarify his intentions maybe. In the end, he only shook his head, unlocked the door, and let them inside. “Up the stairs,” he said.

Adam’s flat was one of two on the second floor. His door had been painted a dark glossy green. A lot of low furniture squatted inside, made of pale wood with very little cushioning. Adam had a row of cacti in little pots on his kitchen windowsill. Owen touched one lightly with a fingertip. It had a little mane of flowing white hair.

“It’s an old man cactus,” Adam said. “Cephalocereus senilis.” He opened his mouth again, shut it, and went to the fridge.

“Know a lot about cacti, do you?”

“Do you really care?” The back of Adam’s neck showed pink in the light from the fridge.

Owen touched him there and felt him freeze in place, one hand clasped around a chilled bottle. “I’d guess you know more about cacti than about picking up men in bars.”

“So what if I do?”

“Nothing. You did all right.”

“You were easy,” Adam said sharply.

“I still am. And I don’t really need anymore beer. Don’t think you do either.”

Adam straightened up and closed the fridge. “I started before I went out. Is this a terribly bad idea? It seemed good at the time, and you look good … God, do you look good. But I don’t know anymore.”

“I’ll suck you off. Where’s your bedroom?”

Adam twisted half around to stare at him and then caught his arm and pulled him out of the kitchen and along a short, beige hallway. His room was at the end of it: more pale wood furniture, a light blue duvet, and a mirrored tri-fold closet door opposite the bed.

“I share the place with my sister, but she’s off somewhere with this — nevermind. You hardly care.” Adam took off his shoes. “Anyway, she won’t be back tonight.”

“Good.” Owen took off his own shoes and socks and knelt between Adam’s legs. He looked up into Adam’s pale face. Sweat shone on his upper lip. “You’re not going to be sick, are you?”

Adam hung his head so low that Owen couldn’t see his face anymore. “I actually know a lot more about cacti than about picking up men.”

Owen sat back on his heels. “How much more?”

“Well, this isn’t my first time growing cacti.”

Owen ran his hands back through his hair and tugged at it hard. “I’m too drunk for this.”

“That’s funny. I was just thinking I’m not drunk enough,” Adam said.

“Right. I think I’m going to leave.”

“Please don’t.” Adam gripped his shoulder and leaned down, face close to his. “I do want to. Really. I just don’t quite know where to start.”

“I can’t ease you into it any more gently than with a blowjob.”

Adam frowned at him. “No, I know. I think — I think I just don’t want you on your knees. If that’s all right.”

There was something in his eyes. Almost an apology.

“You do remember me,” Owen said.

Adam’s whole face flushed, pink to red to pale again. “I didn’t at first. Not until I saw you outside. You looked younger.”

Owen rubbed his hands over his thighs. He was hard now, and he hadn’t been a minute ago. He didn’t really want to think about that. “Why don’t you fuck me,” he said.

“I don’t know how.”

“I’ll tell you how. Do you want to?”

“I do. A lot.”

They undressed. Owen watched the emergence of Adam’s pale, long-limbed body from his clothes. He had about as much muscle on him as he’d had at Harrow: not much. Owen was taller than he was now but just as skinny. He tried to remember the last time he’d done this with all his clothes off and was suddenly unsure that he ever had.

They lay on top of Adam’s blue duvet, and it puffed up around them as air caught between its layers. Owen fought a brief mental battle between desire, comfort, and conscience. He was tempted to make due with minimal lube and prep to get things moving faster, but that wouldn’t do Adam’s next partner any good.

His conscience won. It didn’t happen often, and he was a bit annoyed about it. Adam had a brand new bottle of lube. He knelt between Owen’s legs as Owen lay on his stomach and took one finger and then two and then three. He was bored by the time they got to two, wanting simultaneously another drink, a cock inside him, a smoke, and to be somewhere far away from Adam’s neat little life. He shifted on the bed.

The heavy press of Adam’s hand at the small of his back stopped him. “Hold still.”

Owen bit the inside of his cheek. “It’s enough. More than enough. Get on with it.”

The hand stayed where it was a moment longer, and then Owen heard the sound of a condom packet being opened. He started to get his knees under him, but Adam pressed him flat again. Owen stayed where he’d been put. He’d gone soft while Adam was stretching him. He was hard again now, so hard he wanted to rub against the duvet.

Adam held his cheeks spread open and sank slowly into him with a low noise that sounded as if it had been pulled out of him by force. He spread himself over Owen’s back and jerked his hips forward. Owen felt his hot breath between his shoulder blades.

“Why didn’t you ever tell anyone what I did to you?” Adam said.

Owen thought of the battle to get accepted at Harrow, the narrowly acquired scholarship money, the foster homes before that where complaints had usually done more harm than good. Explaining it all succinctly while getting fucked by the boy who had bullied him was more than he could manage. “It didn’t matter. It wasn’t their business.”

“I kept waiting for you to tell on me. Every time, I was sure you would.”

“I’m not going to tell this time either.”

Adam let out a hissed breath through his teeth. The hand he laid on the back of Owen’s neck was shaking. He gripped tight and pressed down, and Owen was abruptly so hard he could barely breathe. It was a good job that Adam seemed to have no idea where his prostate was, or he might’ve come on the spot.

As it was, he was left with his hips grinding down as Adam rode him, cock dragging against soft cotton and getting it sticky with pre-come. Adam urged his thighs wider, and Owen obliged as well as he could, one knee pulled up to the side.

“God, you feel so good,” Adam said. The last word was nearly a sob.

“Harder. Fuck me harder. Hold me down.” Owen looked up and saw their indistinct reflection in the mirror. Adam pressed his other hand to the middle of his back and snapped his hips forward. Owen’s breath escaped him in a soft whine. “Pinch me.”

Adam froze over him.

“Do it,” Owen said.

Adam’s fingers were tentative on his skin, finding enough meat at the bottom of his shoulder blade to squeeze tight between thumb and forefinger. He pinched and twisted. Owen breathed through gritted teeth. He rutted against the bed. “Again.”

“Do you like it?” Adam whispered.

Owen didn’t know, but he needed it. “Do it again. And–” He grabbed for a pillow and got it stuffed under his hips. It changed the angle enough that Adam’s cock nudged him just right every time he thrust now. “Oh, fuck, fuck–”

Adam pinched his side hard, weight all on top of him and nearly crushing him. Owen tipped over the edge so suddenly that he hardly had time to get a hand around his cock.

“Did you — oh,” Adam said, voice gone oddly soft. He pushed wildly, almost frantically into Owen’s body, face pressed to his back, teeth scraping at his skin. Owen felt the jerk when he came and the tightening of his hands, the way Adam pressed him more tightly against the bed.

The rock of Adam’s hips slowed and stopped. Owen felt sweat cooling at the small of his back when Adam sat up. He stayed where he was. Adam walked away from the bed. Owen heard the condom being disposed of and the sound of water running. Adam came back with a damp flannel. The mattress dipped under his weight. “It’s sort of a mess with the lube. Do you want me to …?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Owen lay still and let Adam clean him up. He wanted to be pressed down, held down. He wondered if he could reasonably ask for that again. He’d hated it when he was thirteen. He’d been afraid Adam would break his neck. “Was I the only one you did it to?”

Adam’s hands hesitated. He set the flannel aside. “Yes. You were the only one. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want a fucking apology,” Owen said.

“What do you want?”

“A beer. And a cigarette.”

“It’s a non-smoking flat.”

“Too bad.” Owen rolled off the bed and groped for his cigarettes in his jacket pocket. He got one lit up and sat on the edge of the bed and sucked in smoke like oxygen.

Adam pulled his boxers back on and walked out of the room. Owen heard the clink of bottles a few seconds before he returned with beer. Adam climbed under the duvet to drink his. After a minute spent hunched over and desperately inhaling enough nicotine to make him dizzy, Owen joined him. The window was cracked open and, without the heat of arousal, he was nearly shivering.

He blew out a long stream of smoke. “This is the most fucked-up one night stand I’ve ever had.”

“Have you had a lot of them?”

“Yes.” He felt fairly confident that, however many ‘a lot’ was in Adam’s mind, he’d had at least that many.

Adam pulled his knees up and rested his beer bottle against them. “Do you ask all of them — what you asked me?”

“God, no. I never — no, never.” Owen tipped his bottle back and drank half of it before he came up for air. “Do you have anything stronger?”

“No. Sorry.”

A siren whined past in the distance. They both looked toward the open window. A sliver of ice-cold moon showed through the white curtains.

“Did you furnish this entire place at Ikea?” Owen said.

Adam laughed shortly. “Just about.” He picked at the label on his beer bottle. “I don’t know why I did it. I mean, I know why I did it to you. Everyone said how smart you were, and it made me so angry. Everyone said that — says that — about my sister too. No one ever said it about me.”

“Boo hoo.”

“Oh, fuck you. You think I was having fun that year? I was miserable.”

Owen tipped his head back against the wall. “I had nightmares about you.”

There was a long pause. “I am sorry. Really. That’s not much help now, is it.”

“No, not much,” Owen said.

“I remember thinking it would be better than hitting you. The pinching.”

“It was certainly easier to hide than a bloody nose.”

“I still don’t see why you’d hide it at all.”

Owen looked over at him. “Did you want to get in trouble for it?”

“I don’t know.” Adam drained the rest of his beer and set the bottle aside. “Does it have to be a one-night stand?”

Owen took another drag on his cigarette and leaned over Adam to tap the ash unsteadily down the neck of his beer bottle. Half of it landed on the bedside table. “I’m not interested in being your boyfriend.”

“Right, no,” Adam said quietly.

He let his eyes slide closed and remembered the weight of Adam’s body on his and the hard clutch of his hands. “We could fuck sometimes if you like. You could give me your number.”

Adam got a pen from the nightstand drawer and wrote it on the back of Owen’s hand. “Will you really call me? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.”

“I don’t know, honestly. I might. Or this might seem like a terrible idea when I’m sober. It might for you too.”

“I suppose so.”

A few minutes later, Owen finished his cigarette and dropped the butt down the neck of his now-empty beer bottle. He picked up his clothes and pulled them on while Adam watched.

“I have a car. I could run you home,” Adam said.

“No, thanks. I’d rather walk.”

Owen kissed his cheek and left him at the door. It was past midnight. He was still very drunk and nearly out of cigarettes. He let his last one hang from the corner of his mouth and tried to make it last.

He’d had nightmares about Adam as recently as last week. Stress tended to bring them on, and the end of term rush had supplied stress in previously unknown quantities. He didn’t think he’d be having them anymore.

The air had gone from damp and chilly to a sharp, cloudless purity of cold that made the crescent moon seem both brighter and closer than it could be. Owen was shivering before he was halfway home, but it didn’t bother him. Despite the haze of too many beers, his world felt as if it were coming into clearer focus with every step he took.

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