The soft press of lips is grounding, centering amid the scents of stale sweat and remnants of chemical cleaner. Suhayl touches rough cloth, under to smooth skin damp from the heat. Étienne gasps, arching closer, head tilted up to catch Suhayl’s lips in his own, hand pulling Suhayl down to his level. The disadvantage of almost a head’s difference of height.
The dim light brings Étienne’s sun-bleached hair to a shade closer to its natural brown. There isn’t the time to savor the feeling of it between his fingers or to strip out of uniform to touch skin and see it contrasted with his own. He wants, but want is all they can do at the moment. Étienne works Suhayl’s belt open, breaking the kiss with a soft French swear Suhayl is starting to recognize, to look at what his hands are doing. “It is too complicated,” he complains, in English, always in English when they are like this because it is the only language they can still think to communicate with in these moments, the only one in which they are both fluent.
Suhayl laughs. Étienne’s forehead presses against his chest as their hands free their arousals. There are faint dust motes in the air, lit from dim sunbeams, and there is sweat on Étienne’s neck. “It is only complicated because you are excited.”
“Of course.” Rough hands—rough from forever washing them—pull Suhayl free. He sighs, leaning for another kiss. Étienne meets him halfway. “How could I not be?” he says against Suhayl’s lips. Soft sounds slip between his lips when Suhayl touches him in return. There is the ever present wonder of how he would sound if it wasn’t in a stolen moment like this, if they could take things slowly and enjoy each other fully. Whenever that chance occurs, Suhayl will take full advantage of the desires he has stored up from moments like this.
Their hands move just out of synch with each other, Suhayl a beat slower in his strokes because he wants this to last even though he knows it can’t. Étienne breathes fast against him, hips rocking up into Suhayl’s touch. It is quiet desperation. Soft gasps. Slick sounds of lips and mouths and hands. The rub of cloth on cloth. Suhayl drifts in it, lost in the bubble of the moment and sensation. He is taller, broader, than Étienne, but he is the one pinned by a kiss. He is the one who leans back against the wall to remain standing. He is the one struggling to keep his voice in check and his breaths as breaths only.
“Suhayl,” Étienne says. “Suhayl, come for me.” His fingers twist in the upstroke, almost too much against sensitive skin. Étienne rubs under the head with his thumb, once, twice, but it is the feeling of his breath and the press of his lips to Suhayl’s neck that are Suhayl’s undoing.
His knees wobble before firming, his body all but curled around Étienne’s. He rests his head back against the wall and watches through shuttered eyes as Étienne twists higher, higher, then breaks. Suhayl works him through the aftershocks, pressing soft kisses across his face and neck. Each kiss is a declaration, an ‘I love you,’ that he can’t bring himself to say yet.
“Wow, you’re big,” a man says in English.
Suhayl looks up from his meal, because it is always him those words are directed at, and because it’s not common to hear English between members of the Israeli Defense Force. The man is fair skinned with sun burn across the bridge of his nose, stiff in the way that people still unused to uniform often are. The pin on his beret marks him as part of the medical brigade.
The man waves a hand in greeting, then hastily mutters a quick, “Shalom.” The man clears his throat. “Can I sit here?” he asks in halting Hebrew.
Suhayl slides to the side, offering a bit more space. “Go ahead.”
He gets a smile in response. Most people don’t smile at Suhayl until they get to know him. Many still don’t smile after that because a man two meters tall with mixed heritage tended to attract more negative attention than positive regardless of personality.
“Étienne Duval,” the man says, holding out a hand.
“Suhayl al-Madhoun.” He shakes the hand and goes back to his meal.
Duval takes two mouthfuls of his own meal before talking again. “Is it always this hot here?” In English.
“No,” Suhayl answers in the same language. He’s grateful for the tourists he practiced on growing up. It isn’t his most fluent language, but he is clearly more fluent in it than Duval is in Hebrew. “It will get hotter before it gets colder though.”
“I was afraid you would say that. It was so much cooler back home.”
“Home was where?” Or no, “Where are you from?”
“Northern France. Parlez-vous français?” Suhayl waits for clarification. At the nonresponse, Duval sighs. “I thought not. No one seems to speak it.”
Ah. “Hebrew is the national language,” Suhayl said. “English is also taught in most schools, but French is one most people would have to learn on their own.”
“I don’t suppose you know anyone interested in learning? I would gladly exchange French lessons for more Hebrew.”
Of all the room full of people Duval could have sat next to, he chose Suhayl, who has made languages a hobby. It’s fateful enough that Suhayl has to laugh. Duval stares. Suhayl thinks for a moment he is intimidated, but there’s something else in his stare, and it isn’t intimidation. “You have asked the right person,” Suhayl says, still smiling. “I would love to learn what you can teach me, and I will gladly share in return, Duval.”
The meal passes much faster with company and conversation. It’s the best meal Suhayl has had since he left home.
If someone had told him five years ago that he would spend three days a week at a public library in America, Suhayl wouldn’t have believed them. But at twenty-six, Suhayl was a very different person than he had been at twenty one. At twenty-one he had still been in his compulsory military service, feeling torn between national loyalty and what that meant to him, and then reeling with the loss of his lover. At twenty-six he was halfway through his medical undergrad program, living in a tiny one room apartment in New York, and no closer to feeling sure about his life choices than he had been at twenty-one.
There were hundreds of people that came and went at the library on any given day, any one of them who could have been in the exact same position as Suhayl, struggling with medical school concepts over cups of horrible, bitter coffee, and feeling relieved every morning that it was another morning that he didn’t have to hold a gun in his hands. Suhayl had a pattern to his life now, a pattern of his own choosing which was both freeing and terrifying in its freedom. He had class, a part time job for a few hours, then hours spent abusing the library’s light, heat, and table space next to other people who had lives and things to do just like he did.
There was a particular regular that showed up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or, Suhayl should say, he was always there those days when Suhayl got there and was there presumably until closing, since Suhayl left a half hour before then. He had scraggly black hair that he tied back half the time, carried a seemingly bottomless cup of coffee, and was always at a laptop with headphones plugged in. He also had sunglasses on at all times.
It took a few weeks to realize this was because the man was blind, not just a fashion choice.
At any rate, he was someone Suhayl didn’t mind sharing a table with. He kept to his own space and didn’t have loud phone conversations that broke Suhayl’s concentration like some of the other people who shared a table did. The only time his presence did distract Suhayl was due to Suhayl’s tired brain wondering what the man’s life was like outside of typing at a laptop and drinking large amounts of coffee in a public library. Or wondering what his face looked like when the overlarge sunglasses weren’t blocking it.
It was one of those days today. Suhayl tried to read his organic chemistry text, but it was one of those days where his brain refused to untangle complicated English terms. He found himself watching his table partner instead. The man had a sharp face, Suhayl thought, all angles and narrow features. Thin lips, thin nose, sharp chin and cheekbones. He typed three times faster than Suhayl could ever manage, only pausing to sip at the giant coffee cup at his elbow.
Maybe he was an author. That was why he was never parted from his computer. Or maybe he was researching. Or perhaps he wasn’t a student and he did work with computers. Coding or something else that went over Suhayl’s head.
It was fascinating how despite how much liquid the man drank, he never seemed to have to make trips to the restroom like Suhayl did.
“You’ve been staring a lot lately,” the man said suddenly, the first words he had ever spoken to Suhayl as he hadn’t even verbally given permission back when Suhayl first asked to share a table weeks, or maybe months ago. The man unhooked the headphones from his ear, not turning toward Suhayl. “And yes, before you ask, I can tell. I’m not totally blind. You’re this blurry brown shape out of the corner of my eye, and I can sort of tell if your head’s pointed toward your book or not.”
“Apologies,” Suhayl said after a moment. “I was not trying to be rude.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” the man said. “Just curious. You sit at this table even when other ones are open.”
Suhayl blinked, realizing this was true. He hadn’t thought about the habit; somehow this table had become ‘his’ spot. “I do not mind sharing a table with you.”
The man snorted. “Yeah, after the third time you sat next to me, I kind of figured. After the tenth time, I guessed you just wanted company.”
“I did not put that much thought into it.” It was a little funny to spend weeks sitting next to each other two days a week and not interact though. “Although I suppose I have enjoyed sharing the space.” After living with three younger siblings, then in military housing, his little apartment was rather lonely.
“You’re not a bad table buddy,” the man said. He stretched and plopped his headphones on the table. “I’m about out of coffee, want me to grab you one while I get a refill?”
Suhayl, not sure what to make of the offer, politely declined. “I am afraid I am not too fond of American coffee regardless.”
“Really? I thought they were doing pretty good here. A step above chain stores.”
Suhayl smiled. “I would offer to share some proper coffee, but I would need a stove to make it.”
The man made an intrigued sound. “I’ll have to keep that on a to experience list then. I’m Cecilio, by the way,” he said as he picked up the cane he kept folded under his seat. “If I come back and find my laptop stolen, I will be so pissed, so don’t do it.”
Suhayl laughed. “I promise it will be where you left it.”
“It better,” Cecilio said with an answering grin. “I got my eye on you.”
Suhayl stifled laughter into his chemistry book for a lot longer than he would willingly admit.
“Khatúl,” Suhayl says against the wall watching the world hurry on around them.
“Chat,” Étienne says, eyes on the indicated cat. He points to a wheelbarrow. “Brouette.”
“Meritza,” Suhayl replies. He looks for something more complicated than a simple noun. “Lashir,” he says pointing.
“Wait, the people running or the woman singing?” Étienne asks in English.
“Ha’isha.” Suhayl smiles as Étienne switches his mind back over.
“Lashir… Lashir…Oh! To sing?” he asks. Suhayl’s smile widens. Étienne looks proud of himself. “Chanter,” he says in French. “La femme chante.”
“Dujaj,” Suhayl says to see if he can trip Étienne up.
Étienne frowns, looks at the chicken and back at Suhayl. “That isn’t Hebrew at all, is it? It should be ‘of’”
“Arabic,” Suhayl says. “You remembered the correct word just fine.” Étienne looks so offended, Suhayl can’t help laughing.
“T’es con,” Étienne says, shoving his shoulder, a smile fighting with his scowl. Smile aside, Suhayl knows an insult when he hears one.
“Are we on to swear words, then?”
“Very funny.” He rolls his eyes, still stubbornly refusing to smile. “How many languages do you even know?”
“Hebrew,” Suhayl says. “I am near fluent in Arabic and somewhat fluent in English. I also know some Amharic.”
“My mother was born in Ethiopia. Her family made aliyah when she was young. My father is Arabic.”
“Oh.” He is surprised, understandably so. It is against halakha to intermarry. It would have been strange if his mother had been born an Israeli citizen. The immigrants from Ethiopia rarely married outside their communities at all, Jewish or not. “That makes a bit more sense now, why you’re always…” He waves a hand.
“Apart?” Suhayl nods. “I could have dodged conscription if I chose to identify as Arab and Muslim,” he says. “But I have always been closer to my mother, and being Jewish always felt more right.”
“I know what you mean. My family is not very religious. My father is Christian—or perhaps Agnostic? He never attended church at any rate. My mother used to joke she was only Jewish when there was a holiday. My aunt was religious though, and moved here with her husband. I visited one summer and something fit. It’s like finding a new part of myself. A good thing.”
“Love and respect your parents, but children will find their own way, hmm?”
Étienne shrugs. “Something like that.” He looks back at the passing people. “More vocabulary?”
“Yes, why not?” It is funny, Suhayl accepted the exchange for learning some French, but his English has improved in leaps and bounds since they started as well. He has never spent so much time just talking to someone outside of family.
“I’ll start,” Étienne says, pointing at a potted flowers in a windowsill. “Fluers.”
Suhayl settles back to enjoy the moment, glad for once that he doesn’t have anything to do for a while longer.
“Okay,” Cecilio said from where he sat on Suhayl’s single kitchen chair, “that does not smell like coffee you’re grinding there. Also. Hand grinder?”
Suhayl smiled, finishing turning the crank. “It is cardamom seeds.”
“Cardamom. You put cardamom in your coffee?” Cecilio leaned over the table where Suhayl had put ingredients out earlier, smelling them. “And…cloves?”
“Okay, you’re right, this isn’t like any coffee I’ve ever had.”
Suhayl laughed softly to himself. He couldn’t help feeling light as he moved through the preparation process. It had been a long while since he made coffee for someone else. It was nice to host a friend at the moment. Tracking down the best ingredients were worth the effort. Cecilio listened to him work, head tilted to the side, trying to guess at what he was doing.
“Okay, so boil the water?”
“Remove it from the heat and add the coffee grounds,” Suhayl said, narrating his actions. “Then put it back on the heat.”
“Okay…” Cecilio crossed his arms, leaning back against the kitchen table. “This is a ridiculously complicated process just to make some coffee.”
“It takes longer than your drip coffee,” Suhayl agreed, leaving the pot to simmer for the next ten minutes, “but it tastes far better.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Cecilio muttered. “So what else goes in it?”
“Once the coffee grounds have simmered, I will add the cardamom and cloves and bring it to boil again.”
“Ah, twice boiling, wow, really time-consuming.”
Suhayl tossed a towel at him, grinning as Cecilio sputtered and swatted the cloth away. “Then I let the grounds settle before pouring it into a thermos with rose water to serve.”
“No.” Sweetening it or adding cream the way so many Americans did to their coffee would only ruin the flavor. He had set some of each out just in case Cecilio was someone that preferred his beverage that way, but he would have him try it first before offering. “It is often drank with dates or sweets on the side.”
“Huh, cool.” Cecilio tilted his head, listening to the soft sounds of bubbling water. “You make this often?” he asked after a few minutes.
“Sometimes.” It was rarely worth the effort for himself, though he did love the taste. “It is made often for guests, though, as hospitality.”
“And I’m a guest,” Cecilio concluded, grinning. “You just wanted an excuse to have something other than drip coffee.”
“I admit to nothing.” Cecilio laughed as Suhayl removed the pot from heat again and added the next ingredients. It didn’t take much longer for the foam to bubble up again after that. He removed it from heat a second time, moving about his tiny kitchen to grab the other items he had bought while the grounds settled.
“Dates,” Suhayl said, setting a plate before Cecilio. “And on the left, rugelach.”
“A pastry with fruit and nut filling.”
Cecilio looked pleasantly surprised, his smile meeting his eyes. Suhayl was still not used to seeing him without his ever present sunglasses. It was only recently that Cecilio was comfortable enough to remove them indoors when Suhayl was around. He had dark brown eyes and surprisingly long eyelashes. Suhayl busied himself with pouring the coffee into the thermos.
“Hold out your hand,” Suhayl said. He curled one of Cecilio’s hands around a tiny cup.
“It’s so small,” Cecilio said.
“It cools quickly this way and is more satisfying.” Far more satisfying than guzzling half a liter of the sort of coffee Cecilio normally drank at any rate.
Suhayl poured himself a cup and leaned against the counter as Cecilio took a sip. Cecilio’s eyebrows went up. He took a sip of his own coffee and found it almost as he remembered making at home.
“It’s barely bitter at all,” Cecilio said. “Reminds me a bit more like tea actually with the spices.” He took another sip. “Different, but not bad.”
“I am glad it is within your range of enjoyment,” Suhayl said.
Cecilio stuck his tongue out at him. “You say things the weirdest way sometimes. You could just say ‘glad you like it.’”
“Glad you like it,” Suhayl parroted, finishing the small cup. He poured another, helping himself to a date. “Try the food.”
Cecilio tried both between sips of coffee. “Good,” he said. “Sometime I should bring over some pastries I grew up with. Since we’re practically neighbors now.”
“I would like that.” Suhayl poured Cecilio a second cup of coffee.
He would like to learn more about Cecilio very much.
Suhayl does not like guns. He does not like bullets or the acrid stench of gunpowder after he takes a shot. He does not like the crack like thunder each shot makes or the inevitable result of said shot. He had not liked it in training when it was only dummies and balloons, and he did not like it now when it is men who bleed out onto the sand. He does not like it, but he is good at it, like he somehow always knew he would be.
He shoots a man, and another, and another because he is trained to do so. His hands do not shake. His breath comes no faster than the first rush of adrenaline at the start of the attack made it, steadying the longer time goes on because he has settled into the routine they practiced. He takes his shots, supports his squad around him, and doesn’t let himself think beyond the moment.
He has killed more men since he was conscripted than he has had friends in his whole life.
It is chaos around him with screams and gunfire and the heavy mechanical sound of the advancing tank but he barely hears it. There is only him and his gun and the people who are trying to kill him and hurt his country.
He takes the shots and doesn’t think, doesn’t think at all.
The sharp hospital scent of antiseptic is not enough to cut the lingering scent of blood and dirt and gunpowder from Suhayl’s skin even if his clothing has been changed. It stings in the hundreds of tiny cuts along his body and has sunk into his pores. His injuries are minor enough that he isn’t here for them. He is here more for the shock than the three centimeter cut along his right eyebrow—three stitches required—or the abrasions along his right side from debris.
A grenade, they said after it was over, but it doesn’t matter what it was after the fact when in the moment it was an explosion and bodies. He is not sure how he came out almost unscathed while the man next to him (Yosef, youngest of three) ended up dead from a shard of metal catching his throat. Natan (sent money to his mother every month, only child) lost a leg, lost part of his side, lost a life bleeding out too quickly. Three others (David, Anis, Fathi) wounded bad enough to require surgery. Suhayl does not know if they lived or died. The others are like him, covered with minor wounds and wondering how they survived.
He is not feeling the deaths yet, but he wonders how acutely he will feel them anyway. Units, his neighbor told him once, become like family; for Suhayl this has not been the case. He is just as willing to work alongside them as when he first came, but while he cares for them, he does not care for them like he would his brothers or sister. And he has never reacted to death as he feels he should. He feels more for the grief of those around him than grief over the dead themselves. Sadness will come, but it will come harder when he sees the others mourn. Now it is like ripples in a pool he can tell exists, but cannot see past a curtain of fog.
There are footsteps. He expects the nurse, ushering him on his way so the room can be used for someone else. Instead, he looks up to see Étienne. Étienne pale and out of breath and wide eyed like he is the one that witnessed someone die.
“Tu es en vie,” he says all in one breath, then in struggling English, “You are not-dead. Okay.”
“Alive,” Suhayl says. “Somehow.”
“Your unit, I heard…” Étienne crosses the space between them with a soft sound of frustration. “Words are not coming now.” He catches Suhayl’s face in both hands, inspecting the damage.
“I am fine,” Suhayl says. “I am—” Étienne cuts his words off with a press of lips, hard and fast, pulling back again so quickly only the lingering pressure confirms it happened at all. Suhayl has thought about kissing him. He has never thought it would actually happen.
“You are okay,” Étienne says, unable to look away like if he did, Suhayl would vanish. He touches the edge of the bandage at Suhayl’s brow, ghosts over a patch of tiny cuts. “One in surgery died. I don’t know who. No one said names.”
“Oh.” Was it David or Anis who had been hurt worse?
“I would have come sooner, but work…”
Suhayl understands. They are soldiers; you check on friends on your own time.
“I am sorry,” Étienne says. “I am sorry, but I am glad.” There are tears in his eyes and they push past the fog in Suhayl’s mind. He feels tears in his eyes too. He clutches at Étienne’s forearm and hip as he is kissed again. It tastes like salt. “Thank you for living.”
The fog clears and Suhayl weeps. Étienne holds him through it and weeps with him.
The world had a sleepy non-reality to it, curled up with Cecilio in a dark room at one in the morning on a Saturday—Sunday, now. It was Cecilio’s couch in Cecilio’s apartment because despite moving in only a few months ago, he had more furniture and small comforts than Suhayl had amassed over the last two years. He also, as Cecilio liked to point out, kept it at livable temperatures. (“For the love of fuck, if you weren’t a human furnace, you would freeze, I swear to God.”) Suhayl had had the evening free, so they had watched—or listened in Cecilio’s case—to a movie on Cecilio’s laptop.
The credits had rolled an unknown amount of minutes ago, but Suhayl had no desire to move away from the bubble of warmth they had created leaning against each other. He enjoyed feeling Cecilio’s chest rise and fall against his side and the soft sounds of his breath in the silence.
“Suhayl?” Cecilio murmured against his shoulder. He twisted around so he was facing Suhayl, one hand lifted. “Can I touch your face…? It’s not…it’s not the same as seeing but.”
Cecilio’s hands were unexpectedly soft. His fingers were cold and Suhayl blinked at the first brush of them against his cheek. They explored the contour of his jaw and the trace of stubble there, up along to his ear, his hair, skating along the tight curls that were growing too long until he reached Suhayl’s forehead. Cecilio’s lips parted, his face a mask of concentration in the dark. The pad of a thumb brushed over one eyebrow, then skimmed cross Suhayl’s closed eye. “I know you have dark skin and hair,” Cecilio said, voice falling into an almost reverent whisper as his finger followed the curve of Suhayl’s cheekbone. “And you are very tall and wide. Like you could fit two of me in one of you.” Suhayl smiled as Cecilio investigated his nose, sweeping across the breadth of it. His second hand moved to join the first and Suhayl shut his eyes and let Cecilio touch. “I kept wondering what you looked like. Not that it matters. Just.” He understood. It was the same sort of curiosity that had had Suhayl wondering what Cecilio looked like under his sunglasses months ago.
Cecilio’s thumb brushed Suhayl’s lips. He lingered there, brushing back and forth. The moment that could have been platonic became charged. Suhayl held still.
“Can I kiss you?” Cecilio asked.
Suhayl drew a breath past the pressure on his lips. “Yes.” He met Cecilio halfway, tilting his head to make it easier. It felt like they had kissed a dozen times before, comfortable and right.
“Oh,” Cecilio said against his lips, then, “again?”
Suhayl pulled him closer and did some facial exploration of his own until they were both warm and breathless.
They fell asleep on the couch. It was worth the ache in his neck the next day.
“There’s a scar on your eyebrow,” Cecilio said, tracing fingers along Suhayl’s face, over eyelids, across his brow, and down the ridge of his nose. “Whatever did that had to just miss your eye…”
Suhayl let him touch a moment longer before catching his hand and dragging it down to kiss the palm. “It is healed now,” he said.
Cecilio wrinkled his nose. “Well, yes, that’s what scars are.” He had a half smile at the edge of his lips. “Wounds that have hea—”
Suhayl pulled him into a kiss, and all talk of scars was quickly forgotten.
“Someday you should visit my family home,” Étienne says. “My parents would like you. Mama would make you clafoutis and Papa would ask about your father’s shop and the books you have read.” He traces patterns on Suhayl’s skin and it has been worth the cost of the apartment to have this, to lay next to him in these twilight moments of peace. “I can show you where I grew up and the best places to watch sunrises. I would take you to see where I went fishing in the summer and let my grandmother smother you in pastries.”
Suhayl tilts his face into Étienne’s hand as it trails up along his jaw. “I would love to meet them. You really think they would like me?”
Étienne snickers. “They would love you. You are polite and kind and a gentle soul.”
Suhayl’s smile dims at the description; he is not as gentle or kind as Étienne insists. Gentle souls do not kill men who could be distant cousins. Gentle souls do not choose the life of a soldier if they can help it. There is a sharp pinch to his side and he twitches away from it.
“I know what you are thinking,” Étienne says in the knowing way he has. “And you are wrong.”
“And you, of course, are always right,” Suhayl says more forcefully than he means.
Étienne smooths his hand over Suhayl’s skin again. “In this at least, I know you better than you know yourself.” He presses soft kisses along Suhayl’s neck and back until he lets the tension fade away. “And your parents? If they met me? Would they accept their son with a man?”
“They know where my interests lie,” Suhayl says honestly. “They love me the same. My father would ask what brought you here. Mother would take you for a walk and probably barely speak a word, but by the end of your stay she would give you a shirt she made herself.”
“She is quiet, then?”
“She is someone of actions more than words,” Suhayl says and thinks of small tokens that brightened his childhood, and his mother’s quiet, steady support no matter where his heart took him over the years. Her words meant more when she used them too, more powerful for the rarity of offered advice and opinions. He has never doubted either of his parents’ love though.
“We will have to visit sometime,” Étienne says. “I want to see the people and places you love.”
“Sometime,” Suhayl agrees. “They would like you as well, I think.” He cannot imagine them disliking anyone Suhayl loves.
“The next time we are both free to go, then,” Étienne says. “I’ll hold you to that.”
When Suhayl reached his usual library table, Cecilio greeted him with a wave as he so often did these days. One side of his headphones were already tucked back from his ear in anticipation of conversation. It was one of his neater days, hair tied back and an actual button down shirt on instead of whatever t-shirt he happened to pull on that day.
Suhayl sat at his spot, the work he had to do forgotten for the moment. “Was something different today?”
Cecilio plucked at one of his shirt cuffs, nose wrinkled. “Counselling appointment,” he said. “Don’t have them very often these days, but sometimes I have to, you know, actually make an effort.”
“Your counsellor cares about what you wear?”
“Nah, the other people we met with do though.” He paused. His fingers drummed across the table in a nervous tic Suhayl hadn’t seen from him before. “I got into some trouble as a teen, so sometimes I get checked in on to make sure I’m becoming a proper member of society or something. …For the record, I didn’t kill anyone or go to juvie or anything.”
“I would not presume the worst of your past, or that you are the same person you were then. I know I am nothing like I used to be.”
“I am no longer a soldier, for one,” Suhayl said. “And I never intended to go to medical school.”
Cecilio relaxed with a sharp exhale. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for the soldier type. Maybe it’s cuz I only ever meet you when you’re studying, but you seem more the scholarly type.”
“I am both,” Suhayl said, and it doesn’t sting any longer to accept both sides, the person who can do what needs done in the moment and the person who loves to think about all that lies outside of the moment.
“Well I’m neither,” Cecilio said. “Don’t suppose you know any apartments looking for rooms around here? I’ve been working toward moving out and my counselor finally convinced my parents to let me.”
Suhayl wondered what Cecilio’s parents must be like to discourage independence rather than fostering it. And what it meant that Cecilio would rather live alone than with them. Suhayl had made his own path as had been expected, but he would have been welcome, would have been comfortable even, if he had returned home instead of choosing to keep going farther. “Actually,” he said, thoughts shifting to apartments, “there are openings where I live, although I am not sure if they would meet your family’s standards.” He had the impression that they were well off, overprotective to the point of being stifling, and distant from the things Cecilio had mentioned.
“They’re not the ones living there, I am.” Cecilio dismissed. “Tell me about them.”
“It is a three-story apartment building. Most of the apartments are single rooms with a bathroom and closet. There is a laundry room in the basement that is shared. The building is old, so it is…drafty in the winter.” Suhayl used as little heat as possible to save costs as well, which made an accurate description hard. “The landlord is fair though, and can be quite kind.” Suhayl was certain that the man was barely making a profit from the building. He had gifted Suhayl a pair of thick socks last winter after a conversation about the radiators that had somehow become a discussion on the history of Abrahamic religions. Felix was an interesting person.
“Studio, hmm? I can do that.” He tugged his laptop closer and poised his fingers at the keys. “Can I have his number?”
Suhayl passed along Felix’s phone number and the address of the building. “Would you like me to keep an eye open for other places?” he offered.
Cecilio smiled and waved him away. “I can handle it. Just figured I’d ask. Thanks. Now I have an essay to get back to, and I know you have that thing you started Tuesday to finish, so study on, table buddy.”
Suhayl stares, hands on his belt as Étienne removed the last of his clothing. There is a world of difference between seeing the naked bodies of men in day to day routine, and seeing the body of his lover fully for the first time, knowing that that nudity is for him. Étienne smiles, one eyebrow lifted in both question and challenge. In all his twenty years, Suhayl is sure he has never removed his clothing as fast as he does then.
He stops, nude and suddenly terribly aware of it, but the feeling is set aside when he sees Étienne’s parted lips and pupil-dark eyes. Étienne wants this, wants it as much as Suhayl does and that takes all the pressure off. They have touched before; this is not so different from what they have experienced together already.
“Enjoying the view?” Suhayl teases.
Étienne’s mouth snaps closed. “About as much as you are,” he snipes back, nodding at the growing interest between Suhayl’s legs. He steps forward until they are thigh to thigh, each small patch of bare skin that brushes against Suhayl’s own is like a brand, heightening his awareness and leaving bright-sharp sensation lingering behind it in his mind. Étienne pulls Suhayl down into a kiss. He kisses slowly, drawing Suhayl into it as slowly and inescapably as the moon pulls the tide. “What do you want to do?”
“Anything,” Suhayl says. “So long as it means I can touch every centimeter of you.”
Étienne’s smile squints his eyes along well-worn folds. “Funny, I was thinking the same.” He puts one hand in the center of Suhayl’s chest and pushes lightly. Suhayl goes willingly. The bed hits the back of his legs and he falls against it. Étienne follows slowly, appreciating the sight of Suhayl sprawled against the sheets. “I could spend all night just looking,” he says, running one hand up the outside of Suhayl’s thigh.
Suhayl shivers, cock twitching with a rush of blood south. “I sincerely hope you are not going to spend the whole time staring.”
“I can look and touch.” Étienne leans down and licks a line along Suhayl’s collarbone. “And taste.” He looks at Suhayl behind his lashes. Suhayl pulls him up into a kiss. Suhayl wants slow, wants to savor, but at the same time he wants everything at once. Everything and anything that Étienne is willing to give.
Suhayl runs his hands across the soft skin of Étienne’s belly and up to the curl of hair on his chest. He feels the bump of each rib and the flex of muscles in Étienne’s arms as he holds himself up, braced against the mattress. His thighs are soft with fine hairs and firm muscle and his ass, when Suhayl cups it, pushes back into his hands, filling his palms. There is just enough give to it that Suhayl feels some primal satisfaction in kneading it.
Étienne groans against his lips. His hips twitch forward. His cock skims along Suhayl’s hip, hard and leaving a bit of sticky wetness where their skin brushes. Étienne’s pale skin blushes past his neck when he is aroused and the contrast of his white thighs against the brown of Suhayl’s hips might be one of the most beautiful things Suhayl has ever seen. “Let me explore?” he breathes against Suhayl’s ear. Suhayl lets go of his ass with some reluctance; it would be so easy to use that hold to pull their hips into alignment and build friction between them.
Étienne’s lips follow the curve of his ear, the tendon along his neck, leaving wet, openmouthed kisses and enough soft suction to stimulate. It isn’t enough to mark him, though Suhayl wants him to. As Étienne scrapes teeth against his collarbone, fingers pressing hard into Suhayl’s biceps, he cannot help picturing those teeth pressing a bit harder and the dull ring of bruises they would leave behind. Suhayl breathes, but his lungs cannot seem to keep up with the rapid pace of his heart.
“You taste good,” Étienne murmurs as he licks sweat from the hollow of Suhayl’s throat. “Feel good.” His hips rock down and Suhayl arches up in reflex, almost bucking Étienne out of his lap in reflex. It is so much and Étienne has barely touched him. He closes his eyes, trembles as Étienne’s wicked tongue moves to his chest. His nipples are drawn as tight and hard as his cock, and half as sensitive. Suhayl gasps at Étienne’s mouth there, pictures it going lower.
“Étienne.” He isn’t sure if it’s a plea, a statement, or a demand, but he knows that he needs more of something.
“I’ve got you.” Étienne’s rough thumbs make circles on his sides. He slides between Suhayl’s legs, half off the bed, then lower. There is warm, damp breath against Suhayl’s navel. Those same hands move to Suhayl’s inner thighs. Rough against smooth sensitive skin, up, up, to the crease of his pelvis and down again.
Suhayl intended to let him explore in peace, but his control breaks. With a moan he cannot recognize as coming from his own throat, he curls forward, catching Étienne by the back of his neck to kiss him as if they can merge their bodies that way.
“I was going,” Étienne gasps between deep kisses, “to suck you off.”
Suhayl grinds his hips forward into the soft flesh over muscle of Étienne’s stomach. “Another time,” he says. “Another time, I need…” His hands are shaking. He needs with his very being and he doesn’t know how Étienne can look as calm as he does smiling nose to nose with Suhayl as their breath mingles. It is like Suhayl is back to their first fumbling touches over clothes only it isn’t nerves making his hands shake but the intensity of emotion.
“I’ve got you,” Étienne says again, moving back up Suhayl’s body until he is in his lap. Suhayl clutches his hips on instinct. Étienne cups Suhayl’s face in both hands. He is still smiling so gently it almost hurts. His hips cant down against Suhayl’s and Suhayl’s eyes snap closed. His hands tighten and pull Étienne closer, with more force. Their erections grind together, cocks trapped between the crush of their bodies.
It could have been a minute or an age that Suhayl rocks against him, his world a shattered matrix of pressure, sticky-slick stutters of cock along cock, lips at his throat and the give of flesh under his fingertips. He drags Étienne down hard as his hips jerk up, and he is coming, his breath choked in his throat and Étienne’s sweat on his tongue.
When Cecilio finally stirred it was with a shaky inhale that sounded loud in the stillness between them.
“When I was fifteen I ran away from home,” Cecilio confessed after dozens of breaths. “I was so sick of everything. Of my room being the only place I was allowed to be alone, of Father’s smothering and Mother pretending I didn’t exist. I hated my four-year-old brother just for existing. I didn’t get caught for almost a year.”
Suhayl listened to the pause between breaths. Like Cecilio hovered on the edge of his personal void.
“I met a guy on the streets a little older than me. He took me in.” Cecilio licked his lips. “Everyone thinks he dragged me into shady shit, but wasn’t like that. We were friends and he was some hotshot teen playing at being tougher than he really was. He needed to be needed and back then I knew shit about how the world worked. He would get me audiobooks from the library and showed me how to throw a punch without breaking my hand. I helped him keep track of money and helped him read better—could see more back then…”
Suhayl could feel where this was going and his heart ached. He held Cecilio closer still, and Cecilio curled into him.
“I loved him, and I think he loved me back even if we didn’t say it. He was stupid and got involved with bad shit. Illegal shit. Didn’t bring it home, but he kept taking bigger risks. We argued about it and I started following just to know how deep it went and he hated that. We fought the day it went to shit. Gang war stuff, I never really got it, I was just his boyfriend, the moon to his sun, you know?”
Cecilio had a crude tattoo of a sun on his hip that made much more sense after that sentence. Suhayl rubbed tension from his neck and shoulders.
“He got shot and died, and I got caught by the police for not running and it’s only because everyone knew I was just the boyfriend that I got off without a criminal record. Was sent back home since I was a runaway and shoved into therapy and shit right back into feeling trapped and traumatized on top of that.” Suhayl knew that feeling. Not the same one Cecilio had, but forced to finish infantry life after watching his world fall to pieces was close enough. “I still hate that we never made up,” Cecilio said.
“I never told the man I loved that I loved him,” Suhayl said, letting his soul bare in return. “I saw him die and will forever regret never saying it out loud.”
Cecilio sniffed. Suhayl didn’t look to see if he was crying or not. “We’re both fucked up a bit aren’t we?”
Suhayl thought of sleepless nights and how the smallest thing could lead to reliving his worst moments. “Regrets haunt the longest,” Suhayl agreed softly. “Thank you for trusting me with that.”
Cecilio pressed his face against Suhayl’s chest. “Thank you for listening.”
“I’ve been fine,” Suhayl says into the phone receiver. The wall is cool against his back as he leans against it, sun from the window warm on his face. His eyes are closed. It is just a moment, a moment of stillness in which he can feel the aches of the months of training. The aches are not as acute as they had been at the start though. He is a soldier now. There is pride in that, of excelling in it even if it is a feeling he tries not to indulge in. He isn’t doing this for personal pride but because it is right. He smiles at his father’s voice on the other end. “Truly. I feel like I am doing my part already.”
He has had some problems integrating with his unit. He doesn’t tell his father that though. There is mutual respect between him and the other unit members and that is enough at this point. He trusts them to have his back and they trust him in return.
“I have made a friend.” Friend. He has not had much luck making many so far here, but Étienne is quickly becoming someone Suhayl cannot help but seek out every free moment they share. There are other emotions there that he will not look at yet. It is too new, too precious to let any other emotions ruin it. “He is from France. His Hebrew is awful, but he is improving. I am helping him with Hebrew and he is teaching me French. French resembles English in some ways and is nonsensically different at others.”
He laughs as his father points out that of course he sounds happier about having someone to practice languages with than anything else he is accomplishing in his military time. “True. I will have to work on that.” It was his life choice to become a soldier so he supposes he should put more of himself into it. He has never liked doing anything half ways anyway. Why put a minimum of effort when he can put his best effort in at all times? There is no point in doing less. “Still, I am getting a lot of English practice out of it. I think I am better at speaking it than you are now.” Suhayl has been helping with English since halfway through high school whenever his father’s shop requires it. He probably passed his father’s skill a while back. He misses practicing with his father on tourists though. Misses all of his family fiercely. Sitting like this with his father’s voice in his ear, he could almost be back at home hearing his father go about his day and his sister and brothers in the background. Or perhaps in the shop with the creak of the front door every time it opens. “Give Mother and the others my love. I will call again soon.”
How soon depends on what he is assigned. They know this though.
“I’ll do my best.”
Suhayl hangs up the call and opens his eyes. He is in a hallway and far from the comforts of home.
There is still time left before he has to get back to work. He uses it to find Étienne.
Étienne is restocking bandages and checking over an inventory in the medical building. He smiles when he sees Suhayl.
“I hope you are not hurt?” he says in his improving Hebrew.
“I am just visiting.” The list is shoved into Suhayl’s hands.
“Great,” Étienne says switching to English. “Help me go through this list? Another pair of eyes are welcome.”
“Sure.” Suhayl reads items off the list and Étienne checks their status one by one. It is a companionable way to spend the afternoon. Suhayl thinks that homesickness aside, he has made the right choice to be there in the military.
“I don’t know if you celebrate it, but here, merry Christmas.” Cecilio plopped a crookedly wrapped gift in Suhayl’s lap, narrowly missing his cup of tea. “It’s kind of early but—”
Suhayl picked up the gift, torn between laughing at Cecilio’s blank confusion and sighing at yet another assumption that everyone celebrated Christmas. It was something that took a bit of getting used to when he first got to America. “I’m Jewish,” he said again. “So I do not celebrate Christmas. I do celebrate Hanukkah however, which begins on the same day this year.”
“O…kay…” Cecilio tilted his head. “Wait. You’re Jewish. I’ve been dating you for a while, how has this never come up?”
“I did say I was from Israel,” Suhayl said, amusement winning over. “And you did not ask. I also have not been practicing my religion much since I came to America. It is harder to manage when work or classes interrupt the times I would do so at home.”
“Huh. I’d been leaning toward maybe Muslim, but even that was kind of…eh…” He tilted his head the other direction. “It’s your name I guess.”
“You would have been partially correct. I came from a Jewish-Muslim background. My mother is Jewish, my father is Muslim.”
“How did that work?”
“Very carefully,” Suhayl said, “with each respecting each other’s beliefs and being inclusive of their practices and holy days without expecting the other to do the same.”
“And, this is why you don’t eat bacon,” Cecilio said standing straight with sudden epiphany. “That makes so much more sense. I thought you had a pork allergy or something. I knew someone like that once. For the record, I was raised Catholic.”
“I know.” Suhayl smiled as Cecilio’s mouth hung open again. “You cross yourself sometimes when you are startled.”
“I do?” He blinked. “Shit. I do. Wow, turns out that was ingrained in me a lot deeper than I thought.”
Suhayl laughed. “Religion does that.”
“Guess that can’t be a Christmas gift then. It can be a Hanukkah gift? Early birthday gift? Late birthday gift?” Cecilio buried his face in his hands. “Oh my god, I just realized I never asked you when your birthday is either.”
“April twelfth,” Suhayl said. “I will be twenty-six.”
“Oh. Great, good to know. Also good to know your age. Which I should have asked about. Like a normal person.” He muffled a groan into his palms. “Mine is—”
“August seventeenth and you are twenty-three,” Suhayl said, smiling so wide his face hurt. “You mentioned it off-hand before we started dating.”
Cecilio groaned again before launching himself in Suhayl’s direction. “Oh my god, how do you even remember that?”
Suhayl slid out of his way easily down the length of the couch, laughter slipping past his lips. Cecilio tripped face first over the armrest. He sputtered, coming back up looking affronted and about as threatening as a half drowned cat.
“Stop being the perfect boyfriend!” he yelled, fishing around the couch for a pillow before trying very inaccurately to smother Suhayl with it. Suhayl laughed so hard he fell off the couch. The pillow glanced harmlessly off his elbow as Cecilio threw it in a fit of disgust.
“I hate you,” Cecilio announced from on top of the couch. Suhayl wheezed. His ribs hurt from laughing.
“No. No you don’t,” he gasped. He got his laughter under control and dragged Cecilio off the couch and onto him. Cecilio yelped as Suhayl trapped him in a hug. “You love me.”
“I feel something, and at the moment it wouldn’t be called love,” Cecilio grumbled. He stopped squirming and relaxed against Suhayl’s chest. “So are you going to open your gift?”
“You still want to give it?”
“Well I already went to the trouble of getting it and you don’t really have to have reasons to give people gifts… It’s just less awkward when there’s culturally sanctioned reasons.” He wiggled his shoulders. “Are you going to let go and open it or not?”
Suhayl let go reluctantly. It was nice to hold him, but Cecilio was not one for prolonged physical contact out of the blue. The gift had miraculously escaped getting squashed in their tussle, ending up on the other side of the couch. Suhayl plucked at the taped edges.
Cecilio made an impatient sound in the back of his throat. “Just rip it. It’s not like it’s fancy paper.”
He’d used pages from that week’s advertisements. Suhayl had wondered where the grocery ads had gone. He pulled back the paper and pulled out…a bag of bamba.
Cecilio had his arms crossed, waiting to hear his reaction. Apparently he was taking too long as Cecilio babbled, “You mentioned you missed eating certain things, so I tried finding them online. Only wow were those websites not friendly to my software. And I tried to find…hashar? Hasachar? I don’t know. Either way I couldn’t remember it or spell it so it was kind of a lost cause with that one. I could probably get it if you wanted me to.”
“Hashahar,” Suhayl said, pulling Cecilio down into another hug. “You did not have to find this.”
“Oof. I take it you like it.”
Cecilio finally smiled, all his angles softened for the moment. “I’m glad.” Suhayl let his hug loosen so Cecilio could get comfortable. He propped his head on crossed arms like Suhayl was a cushion, his smile lost somewhere in his elbows. “You’ve been talking about home a lot lately. It sounded like you were homesick so maybe a taste of home would help.”
“Thank you.” He did get homesick from time to time, but moments like this were what made him sure that he was where he should be.
“You’re welcome.” Cecilio leaned over and gave him a quick kiss. “You know, this whole thing means we’re going to have to talk about what you do and don’t celebrate and stuff so I don’t do something stupid like buying a Christmas gift for my Jewish boyfriend again. Or maybe how we handle holidays if we’re sharing them?”
“We can do that.” A bit later though. “First you need to try bamba.”
It is hot in the apartment even though the sun has long since gone down. It is hotter still with Étienne’s warm, sweat-sticky body alongside him, but there is nowhere else Suhayl would rather be. Night is the space between reality and dreams or duty and desire. Here, like this, there is nothing else but their shared breaths and shared bodies. The night goes on in the city outside their open windows, but they have long since tuned it out.
Étienne hums, head against Suhayl’s chest lifting to stare at him in the dim light. “Suhayl, after this, what will you do?” he asks, in English because even after his Hebrew has improved, it is English that they have built their bond in, and English that Suhayl has become fond of because of it.
‘This,’ meaning his conscription. He is nearing its end, less than six months away. It is not the first time Étienne has asked, but it is the first time Suhayl has thought enough to give an answer. “A year ago, I thought I would stay on and make the military my career,” he says.
Étienne’s smile in the dark is sad because he knows why that is no longer the case. “And now?”
Suhayl is silent. Étienne shifts, propping himself up and taking Suhayl’s hand in his own.
“You have good hands, you know,” he says, thumbs rubbing against Suhayl’s palm. “I thought that when I met you and I thought it even more as I got to know you.” He is indistinct in the dark, but Suhayl can see him smile. “They’re very strong hands, but they’re gentle. I’ve seen you calm hurting men with these hands.”
“You have seen me kill with them too,” Suhayl says.
Étienne is quiet, tracing each finger and turning the hand over to commit the skin of his knuckles to memory. “Your hands are not meant for war,” he says softly. “And you know that.”
“I do not think anyone’s hands are truly meant for war,” Suhayl says. He closes his eyes against Étienne’s earnest stare. “I am not sure where they would serve me best,” he admits. He has considered returning home to help his father and sister run their business, but while he could be content there, he does not think it is the right choice for him.
“You need purpose,” Étienne says. “Find a path that helps people.”
“Become a doctor like you?” Suhayl asks drily, pulling his hand away. “I think it’s better suited for you than me.”
Étienne laughs softly. “I don’t know. I think you’d make a good doctor though. Or perhaps a scholar. You said once you considered studying the Torah, and I know you spend every free moment you have without me reading things. Books and knowledge suit you better than guns and bloodshed.”
“I wanted to serve my country. But serving it has only made me question what I am serving for.”
“You can love a country without loving what it does.”
Suhayl is not sure he believes that. And yet it fits the divide he feels, so perhaps Étienne is right.
“There is more than one way to support Israel,” Étienne says. “And breaking yourself in the military does not have to be that way.” He took Suhayl’s hand again, twining their fingers together. When Étienne says it, Suhayl can almost believe it. He pictures helping the sick or teaching in a school or reading the writings of scholars deep into the night. None fits quite right, but they all fit better than leveling a gun at yet another human being.
“You will figure it out,” Étienne says, “and I will be a doctor in a hospital and we will figure our world out from there.”
In the night it feels like a dream that can become a reality. Suhayl tucks the dream close to his heart.
“You know,” Cecilio said one day, oversize coffee switched out for what appears to be some sort of melting, frozen concoction—possibly still with coffee. “We’ve been talking twice a week for ages now and I realized the other day that I still have no idea what the heck you’re studying.” He waved a hand in the general direction of Suhayl’s pile of books and notes and half written research paper. “And you’re only ever taking notes or reading so it has to be studying something.”
“Except when I am talking to you,” Suhayl said.
Cecilio grinned. “Yeah. You like talking to me though or you’d’ve told me to shut up by this point. Politely. Because you’re weird that way.” He leaned forward. “So, what career are you selling your soul to?”
“I am studying pre-medical at the moment,” Suhayl said. “May I ask what you are doing on your laptop at all times?”
“Hmm, it’s fifty-fifty if I’m studying or goofing off,” Cecilio said. “Audio books and text-to-voice software are my friends. More seriously though, I’m trying to get a degree to become a social worker.” He shifted, playing with the cord of his headphones. “Real slow going though. I only got my GED a year and a half ago. My own fault for blowing off school when I was younger, but I really do want to do something with my life. Why not help people?”
“An admirable goal.”
Cecilio ducked his head a bit, cheeks tinged pink. “I don’t even know if it’s really possible since I’m legally blind and all, but I figured I’d give it a shot. What made you choose med track?”
Suhayl looked away from Cecilio’s honest curiosity. His essay, painstakingly written between work hours all but looked back at him. “I suppose I wanted to see if my hands could help someone after all,” he said finally.
“Don’t see why they couldn’t,” Cecilio said. “There’s a lot worse people than you who become doctors every day.”
“You barely know me,” Suhayl pointed out.
“I know enough,” Cecilio said. “You care about people. Or did I imagine you mothering me about my caffeine intake half a dozen times?”
“That much caffeine is bad for anyone,” Suhayl said.
“See?” Cecilio grinned. “I consider you a friend now, so you’re not going to convince me otherwise.”
Suhayl paused. “Are we friends now?”
Cecilio shrugged. “Well, besides you, my only friends are a couple homeless people, so yeah, good to have another friend. I mean maybe you can consider the one nosy asshole from yoga a friend. Does someone count as a friend if you want to punch them ninety percent of the time?”
“I would not consider that friendly.”
“There you go then.” He nodded. “There’s you and two people who love to talk with me and hold up the food line when I’m a server.”
“I have not made many friends here.” He was friendly with coworkers. Outside of them… “I suppose I have something of a friendship with my landlord and one of my neighbors.” Felix found time to talk whenever he checked in on the building to the point where Suhayl knew about his family life enough to get asked advice, though why he would be asked still confused him a bit. He and his neighbor Viktorei regularly exchanged recipes and used paperback novels picked up from secondhand shops. She was a mother of two and somehow ran a mail order candle business out of her one bedroom apartment.
“Glad to join their number. Speaking of numbers, do you have a cell phone?”
“Yes?” The phone was one luxury he allowed himself for the sole purpose of keeping in contact with his family on a regular basis.
“Want to trade phone numbers? Or are you not really a phone person?” Cecilio whipped out his phone, pressing through buttons with far more ease than Suhayl had ever felt when faced with technology. He tilted his head expectantly.
“I use it. I do not have much data access on it currently though.”
“That’s fine. Not like I’d be sending pictures.”
Suhayl told him his number. Cecilio entered it with a grin.
“Nice. You’re in my contacts as ‘Table Buddy,’ by the way. I’ll send you a text with my number.”
“Thank you. Now I’ll stop distracting you.”
Suhayl extracted Cecilio’s number from the text, smiling to himself. Feeling whimsical, he entered the contact as ‘Distraction.’
There is a letter tucked into the bottom of his clothes drawer that he will never send. It is addressed to a certain house in a certain town in northern France, painstakingly handwritten in French, each word crisp and neat along the page. Suhayl realized as he wrote it that he didn’t know the recipients’ first names. He knew about their family trips, the color of roses in their backyard, the trouble their children gave them in their teen years, and how they celebrated the holidays. He knew their son’s favorite food and things he had never told them about his college years. He knew what their son looked like when he was thirty-two hours without sleep and running off caffeine. Or how he looked when he laughed so hard he cried. How he looked in the throes of passion. How he looked running triage.
Suhayl knew how their son looked dead and he knew when he wrote it that he would never get to meet them or grieve with them.
The letter isn’t really a letter. He has all the dreams he and Étienne shared in there that had been cut short and little moments that had meant the world. It is a chronicle full of the Étienne he knew and how empty the space is without him. He wrote it and addressed it to Étienne’s family name and added the house address Étienne once typed into Google maps to compare what their homes looked like. It sat for a while under Suhayl’s pillow to be mailed, but he never does mail it.
In the end he can only feel that it isn’t his place to send it. He never met them, never spoke to them, and doesn’t know how much Étienne ever shared with them despite their dreams of showing each other their hometowns.
He can’t throw it away either, though.
He takes it with him when he leaves Israel. It’s one last piece of what could have been that he allows himself to not let go.
Suhayl checked the clock, seeing it was almost noon. “Cecilio, do you have a moment?”
Cecilio unhooked the other half of the headphones from his ear. “Yeah? What’s up?”
Suhayl sat next to him. “I promised I would Skype-call my family today. If you wanted, you could meet them. They have been asking to meet you.”
“Wait. Meet your family. Meet your family as in Skype right now meet your family?” Cecilio’s eyes went huge.
“Yes?” Suhayl put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“Meeting your boyfriend’s family isn’t something you just drop on a guy.” Cecilio tossed his headphones on the coffee table. “I am not dressed for this. I’m wearing—what am I wearing? Sweats and a shirt that I’m pretty sure was given to me at some event so who knows what’s on it.”
“It is an ‘I Love NY’ shirt.”
“Where did I even get that? Doesn’t matter. Also, find me a hairbrush; I misplaced it again.”
Suhayl watched him rush to his closet and rifle through his clothes, checking the stitching on the tags for whatever one he wanted. The hairbrush in question had been left on the back corner of the kitchen counter by some chance. Suhayl fetched it and watched Cecilio debate over two shirts.
“Be honest, which one looks better? Because I have no idea what either one is beyond green or blue, but I remember I got complimented in them before.”
“The green one,” Suhayl said. The t-shirt went up and over Cecilio’s head in exchange for the green shirt. “It is not so big of an occasion. They are not going to judge you.”
“Suhayl, families always judge their relatives’ significant others, they just usually do it out of earshot.” He held out a hand. “Hairbrush.”
“May I?” Suhayl said instead, touching Cecilio’s shoulder. Cecilio liked when Suhayl brushed his hair. It put him to sleep once, and he seemed to need the calm at the moment. Cecilio nodded, and Suhayl went to work, gently removing the tangles that seemed to crop up as soon as Cecilio did anything. Cecilio relaxed into the touch as intended, a long sigh forced from his chest. Suhayl looped a hair elastic around it once he was done, tying it back neatly. “If it is too uncomfortable, you do not have to meet them now,” he said, running the brush through the ends of Cecilio’s hair one last time.
“I want to meet them,” Cecilio said. “I’m just nervous they won’t like me.” He reached out, following Suhayl’s arm to his hand and squeezing it. Suhayl squeezed back. “Use my laptop? The camera and screen are better than your phone.”
Cecilio fidgeted the whole time Suhayl connected to skype, worrying at the ends of his ponytail. He twitched when Suhayl’s sister started the call, and his face went all but blank when Suhayl answered. Suhayl squeezed his hand reassuringly as he was greeted by his sister’s face.
Desta grinned as the image settled, her hair pulled back in a puff on top of her head the way she preferred it when she was home and relaxed. “There you are,” she said, familiar Hebrew falling from her lips. “You’re late. Amram was worried.”
“Was not!” Suhayl’s youngest brother said somewhere in the background. Desta moved and must have set her phone down since he could see his whole family crowded around, Desta in the center with his father, Amram and Errai off to one side with his mother. Suhayl grinned as Amram asked in a loud whisper, “Is the person with him the guy?” at the same time Cecilio whispered much quieter, “Are they there? Can they see me?”
“They are there,” Suhayl said to Cecilio in English. To his family he said, “I needed to see if Cecilio was up to meeting you today.”
“Ooh, so that is him!” Amram said, getting Errai’s elbow in his ribs. “Ow.”
“Cecilio, this is my family.” He switched to Hebrew for a second. “Say something when I introduce you, please.” Cecilio had a nervous smile on his face, Suhayl’s hand in all but a death grip. “My father and mother.” They both said hello in thickly accented English. “My sister Desta—”
“He looks like we’re going to eat him,” she said, knowing Cecilio wouldn’t understand a word she said.
“…And my brothers, Errai and Amram.” Both his brothers said hello in Hebrew, which worked well enough. “And this is Cecilio,” Suhayl said to them, nudging Cecilio gently.
Cecilio froze before bobbing his head. “Uh. Hi? I’m Cecilio. I’d say nice to see you but, uh, since I’m pretty much blind, I’ll have to say, nice to hear you instead. Good to meet you?”
“He’s shy,” Desta said, teeth glinting white over the blurry camera image. “He is interesting looking. I don’t think you have a type. He is really blind then?”
“Desta,” their father sighed.
“I am kidding, he looks cute. I suppose.”
“He looks like he needs a good meal,” Errai muttered. “I think his type is people who need looked after.”
“I am sure he gets plenty of looking after,” Desta teased.
Suhayl felt his cheeks go warm despite himself.
“What are they saying?” Cecilio hissed.
“I am being teased,” he said.
Cecilio blinked, then laughed. It was a bit shaky, releasing most of his tension. “Well you are pretty easy to tease.”
“Oh!” Desta said. “I have a question! Does he want to marry you? Suhayl, ask him if he wants to marry you.”
“I am not asking him that,” Suhayl said, face even warmer.
Desta looked back at Errai. “You’re better at English. How do you say it?”
“Something like, ‘Will you marry?’” Errai asked.
“Yes! You, Cecilio, will you marry?” Desta asked in English.
“What?” Cecilio was blushing too now.
“We haven’t talked about that,” Suhayl cut in.
“But you are thinking about it,” she said, smiling. “He does want children, yes?”
“Desta,” their father said again. He sighed. Their mother set her hand on his shoulder and they both looked at the camera for a moment. “We are glad you are happy,” his father said. He had said that when Suhayl joined the defense force and when he told them about Étienne years ago. They were a family that followed their hearts first, no matter what the rest of the world thought. His happiness for Suhayl’s happiness was genuine, and it warmed Suhayl every time it was reaffirmed. “Translate for us, please?” he asked, because while Suhayl’s siblings and his father could all speak English in varying amounts, Suhayl had always been the one most interested and dedicated to learning languages.
As his father steered the conversation away from embarrassing overly personal questions and on to day to day life, Cecilio relaxed more and more against Suhayl’s side until he was laughing at the occasional English comment Suhayl’s siblings would add in and passing along stories of his own. When the call ended almost an hour later, Cecilio leaned his head against Suhayl’s shoulder, smiling.
“They seem nice,” he said. “You miss them.”
“I do.” He loved them. But Suhayl also knew that he had needed to leave Israel to find himself, and he couldn’t regret that choice. “They love me as I am. They accepted me before I could accept myself, and have taught me to see the world in broader ways than I would have if they were anyone else.”
“I want to meet them in person someday,” Cecilio said. “We’ll have to start saving for that trip.”
The inclusion, the assumption of moving forward together that Cecilio did more and more often always set Suhayl’s heart spinning into new depths of gratitude that he had this. That the emotions went both ways and he did not have to be alone.
Cecilio sighed suddenly. Suhayl turned to him, waiting. “This means you should probably meet my parents,” he said, like he would rather peel his own skin off than actually go through with the thought.
“In your own time,” Suhayl said.
“You’ve met my counsellor,” Cecilio said. “You don’t get more intimate than meeting someone who knows the inner workings of my mind. I’m a little worried they’d scare you away though.”
“I have no intention of going anywhere.”
“I’ll start with my dad,” Cecilio said after a moment. “He’s safe. We can work up to anyone else.”
Suhayl pulled him into a hug and they tipped sideways on the couch, comfortable together. He could get used to this. If he had the choice, he would stay like this forever.
The world is shattered glass. Each breath feels like knives in his throat and his eyes burn from tears shed. Suhayl thinks that for the first time he understands why grief is often depicted as a violent thing. There is nothing muted in how it has ripped through him or how he wants to yell the world quiet for one lasting moment of acknowledgement for what has been lost. He has been taught that grief is okay, but grief in excess is not, and he can only see this as excess as he has never felt this much from the loss of any other life.
Étienne does not have his parents close to mourn him, but his aunt and uncle have come to mourn him and see his body buried. Suhayl is not a relative, is not a spouse and able to follow the mourning practices he wants to, and that adds a whole new wave of grief to the storm inside him.
He wants to go home to his family and take comfort in them. He wants to tear apart the apartment he shared with Etienne. He wants never to touch it. He wants to run and never stop running. He wants to never move again.
Étienne was good. He died helping injured men, died doing what he believed in and that is something to take comfort in. He will be at peace in death and yet that is not enough.
Étienne was good, but Suhayl does not know if he himself is good enough.
Something in him is broken without Étienne already and the world that felt full of possibilities a day ago is nothing but shadows.
They planned to visit Suhayl’s parents in a week.
Suhayl stares at hands Étienne loved and does not know how to move forward from here.
If Suhayl had one bad habit, it was leaving books spread across his space. It was one that had carried over into Cecilio’s apartment the more he spent time here. His text books took up residence on the end of Cecilio’s coffee table. Suhayl’s notebook found itself often at the kitchen table, and whatever novel he was reading ended up on Cecilio’s bedtable more often than not. Thankfully it was something that Cecilio did not seem to mind despite being a fastidiously organized person by necessity.
“What are you reading now?” Cecilio asked. He turned the paperback over in his hands, feeling the wear in the cover.
“Voyage au centre de la Terre,” Suhayl said. He looked at the book with a twist of his lips that didn’t quite reach a smile. “The Voyage to the Center of the Earth.”
“In French?” Cecilio asked, impressed. “How many languages do you even know? I know English isn’t your first.”
“Four,” Suhayl said. “Hebrew, Arabic, English near fluently. French I am still learning, but have competency in. I also speak some Amharic.”
Cecilio whistled and set the book back down. “As someone who can understand a lot of Italian by ear, but can barely speak a word of it, I’m really impressed.” He touched the book cover one last time. “Can I ask why French? I know the others are because of family, right?”
“Someone I loved started teaching me the language.” Suhayl crossed the room, picking up the book to flip through the pages. The margins were full of his notes as he tried to muddle his way through translations. Each time he tried it got a little easier. “He mentioned this book once. I thought I would try to read it in its original language.”
“Huh.” Cecilio tilted his head to the side. He knew there was more to it than that, but he didn’t press. He often didn’t press when Suhayl didn’t feel like sharing too deeply, and it conversely made Suhayl want to share more. They each had things that were hard for them to talk about.
“A lover,” Suhayl clarified, “who died unexpectedly.”
“Oh.” Cecilio reached out until he found Suhayl’s elbow and then pulled him in for a hug. “Is the book good?”
“It is. It is a sort of science fiction adventure story.”
“I’m glad.” He bit his lip. “Read some to me sometime?” he asked. “It doesn’t have to be that book, but I’d like to hear you read.”
It could have felt strange to consider reading a book Étienne loved to Cecilio, but it felt oddly fitting, piecing one part of his life back around into the present in a way that made it whole. He didn’t think Étienne would have minded. “I would love to.”
“You’re wearing too many clothes,” Cecilio said. He had his arms crossed behind his head as he laid across his bed in only a pair of briefs preserving his modesty.
“Am I?” Suhayl asked, ducking out of his shirt.
“I haven’t heard your pants hit the floor yet, so yes, too many clothes.”
Suhayl unbuttoned his pants and let them slide off his legs. Cecilio grinned as he waited, head tilting just the slightest bit to better hear Suhayl’s movements. Suhayl slid his underwear off as well. The bed dipped as Suhayl settled on its edge. “Better?”
“Hmm…” Cecilio reached out, finding Suhayl’s knee first and running his hand up it to Suhayl’s bare hip. His grin widened. “Much better.”
Suhayl snorted and leaned down for a kiss. Cecilio responded with a hum of approval. Cecilio would be happy to spend the evening doing nothing but chasing the breath in each-others’ mouths; they had done it before, but tonight he would take Cecilio up on the offer for more.
“You missed a spot shaving,” Suhayl said when they pulled apart. Cecilio had missed several spots, a few places frequently enough for the hair to have gained a bit of length. It was something that was equally endearing and amusing and never failed to get a reaction if he brought it up.
Cecilio swatted his shoulder. “You try shaving by touch alone. Who the hell wants to put a sharp object on their face anyway?” He pinched at Suhayl’s clean shaven cheeks. “I should just have you shave it for me.”
“Hmm, but do I trust you with a razor at my throat?”
Suhayl nipped the throat in question. “Do you?”
Cecilio huffed. “Fuck me, yeah, I do.” He wrapped his arms as far around Suhayl as he could manage and buried his face in the nearest patch of skin so he could hide his face as he added, “If I trust you with doing things like this, I’d trust you with pretty much anything.”
He was surely blushing. Suhayl let him hide for a moment before coaxing him back into a kiss. “Thank you. I trust you as well. Although perhaps not with a razor at my neck.”
Cecilio’s laugh came out strangled with a groan. He shoved at Suhayl’s shoulder lightly. “Really?”
“I like to hear you laugh.”
“You’ve ruined the moment.”
“Have I?” Suhayl teased, pressing his hips against Cecilio’s. A soft gasp was answer enough, as was finding Cecilio half hard already. He ground them together, relishing the friction and the way Cecilio’s breath sped up and got less even.
“No.” Cecilio licked his lips. “No you haven’t. Please keep doing that.”
Suhayl moved slower, more a hint of what it could be than actual grinding and Cecilio actually groaned out loud in frustration. He was usually quiet when they did this, full of words before the clothes came off, but barely making a sound past heavy breathing when things got heated. It made Suhayl want to push further, to hear Cecilio’s voice in pleasure as his control broke down. He wanted to see all the sides Cecilio had to offer in all moments. Some days it was alarming how much he wanted that.
Cecilio arched up and grabbed at Suhayl’s face until he could force him back down into a kiss. It was messy as it often was when Cecilio was the one initiating it, lips catching his upper lip before they corrected a fraction lower. Suhayl kissed back readily. Misaligned kisses or not, Cecilio’s enthusiasm was rewarding enough. Cecilio parted his lips, inviting the kiss deeper. The slick press of mouth and brief swipes of tongue had Suhayl’s control fraying as well. He slid his thumbs into the waistband of Cecilio’s briefs.
“May I?” he asked.
“Yes.” Cecilio looked halfway gone already, pupils blown wide and lips red and spit-slick from kissing. He lifted his hips to help Suhayl slide them off. “God, just touch me already.”
Suhayl did, sliding one hand around Cecilio’s cock. It was long and as proportionally narrow as Cecilio was thin. He was uncircumcised, which had caught Suhayl off guard the first time. Now though, he knew just how to twist his grip so the slide of foreskin gave more pleasure. Suhayl watched the red head slide in and out of his palm and at the tense line of Cecilio’s body and the arch of his neck as he threw his head back. He could come like this, panting and writing between Suhayl’s thighs, wrung out from Suhayl’s hand alone. It wasn’t what Suhayl wanted that night though. He rubbed his thumb under the head of Cecilio’s cock and getting a soft moan that was as good as if Cecilio had touched Suhayl back. Then he stopped.
Cecilio gave a much louder groan from frustration. “Please don’t tell me it’s one of those times you want to build up and go so slow I want to punch you.”
“No.” Suhayl stroked his side and Cecilio twitched, ticklish along his lower ribs. “I wanted to try something different.”
“Different how?” Cecilio propped himself on his elbows.
“Not what you are thinking,” Suhayl said because Cecilio had the start of the same uncomfortable look he’d had the one time they discussed their feelings on anal sex. He touched the soft skin high on Cecilio’s inner thigh. “Like this.”
“Like…? Oh! Oh.” Comprehension came with obvious relief. “How…?”
Suhayl grabbed the lotion bottle Cecilio kept on his bedside table. “Like this…” Cecilio repositioned himself at Suhayl’s light touches until he was on his side with Suhayl spooned up behind him. Suhayl took a dollop of lotion and slicked Cecilio’s inner thighs. Cecilio’s breath hitched. His heart was beating fast under Suhayl’s palm when he placed one hand across Cecilio’s chest. “Okay?”
“Yeah.” Cecilio licked his lips. His head tilted back against Suhayl’s chest, hair all over in a tangle of black strands. He shivered as Suhayl pushed his hips forward and his cock settled between Cecilio’s thighs. “Oh. Wow, thighs are a lot more sensitive than I thought,” Cecilio babbled, one hand moving down to rest on Suhayl’s hip behind him. “Still okay. This just feels different.”
Suhayl shifted, bending to press open mouthed kisses along the back of Cecilio’s neck. Cecilio shivered and his grip on Suhayl’s hip tightened with the bite of fingernails. Suhayl rocked his hips experimentally and Cecilio gasped softly.
He moved again, feeling the smooth, slick slide of skin around him. Suhayl kept one hand on Cecilio’s chest feeling each stutter of breath and uptick in heart rate beneath his palm. Cecilio’s thighs clamped tighter around him as Cecilio pushed back against him. Suhayl could feel the head of his cock brush up against the back of Cecilio’s balls on each thrust and felt each punctuation of breath that came with it.
Cecilio’s body rocked with Suhayl’s, his fingernails scrabbling at Suhayl’s hip and thigh trying to hold on and bring him closer. “Oh, god,” he gasped, deep and breathy and much louder than he ordinarily let himself be. “This is… this is…”
“Yes.” Suhayl wrapped one arm around Cecilio’s side, anchoring him close, and the other left his chest to reach for his erection where it tapped against his stomach after every thrust of Suhayl’s hips. Cecilio actually let out a sharp cry as Suhayl wrapped his hand around his length. It was quickly muffled into the mattress. Cecilio’s free hand gripped Suhayl’s hand against his chest. Their bodies moved in tandem, each thrust of Suhayl’s hips pushing Cecilio’s cock through the tunnel of Suhayl’s hand in a further spiral of pleasure.
When Suhayl heard the tight whine of Cecilio’s voice in his ear and the tension building in his frame, he knew how close Cecilio was to coming. He twisted his hand, rubbing a thumb along the slick head of Cecilio’s cock, and he was gone, cresting the edge of orgasm with a sound that broke halfway through leaving his throat. Wetness spattered against Suhayl’s hand. Between it and the tight grip of Cecilio’s thighs, Suhayl came with only a few more thrusts, a grunt rumbling through the depths of his chest.
They stayed curled together, unmoving as they caught their breaths.
“Holy fuck,” Cecilio said after a few moments. “That was intense.”
“Mm.” Suhayl wasn’t inclined to move, warm and thoroughly sated. He buried his face in Cecilio’s hair.
“No, seriously. I have never come that hard ever.” Cecilio’s breaths slowed bit by bit no a more normal rate, his heart beat returning to its usual pace a bit faster than Suhayl’s own. “I know we need to clean up, but can we not move? For a while? I think I kind of need…”
Suhayl pulled Cecilio into a full body hug, not really caring what bodily fluids smeared where at the moment. Things could always be washed. “I have no plan to go anywhere,” he said against the top of Cecilio’s head.
Cecilio turned in his arms until he was facing Suhayl’s chest and he could tuck himself as close as their bodies would allow. “Good.”
Suhayl was halfway through brushing his teeth, one hand absently wiping a streak off the bathroom mirror when it occurred to him that this was the third night in a row that he had stayed over at Cecilio’s apartment. He had a toothbrush here. He had several sets of clothes among Cecilio’s things, and Cecilio had taken to stocking Suhayl’s favorite teas and snacks in his cupboard. Truthfully, he spent more time in Cecilio’s apartment than his own these days despite being only a floor apart.
“Are you done in the bathroom yet?” Cecilio asked. “Don’t tell me you’re making faces in the mirror or something.” He had one of Suhayl’s shirts on, one shoulder almost slipping free and the hem halfway down his thighs. He didn’t have anything else on either; Cecilio wore as few clothes as he could get away with in the summer months as Suhayl had come to know. He also was very much not a morning person. That he was talking at all meant he had already finished his first cup of coffee.
Suhayl spat out his mouthful of toothpaste. “I was contemplating how normal it is to wake up here.”
“Well you do practically live here.” Cecilio yawned, rubbing remnants of sleep from his right eye. He walked into the bathroom and straight into Suhayl’s side. Rather than backing away or bouncing off, he decided to just stay there, face mushed against Suhayl’s armpit. He muttered something into it.
Suhayl patted his back and pulled him upright. “What was that?”
“I said you could just move in,” Cecilio said. He was still half asleep, but it sounded sincere. “You spend most of your time here and it would save us both money.”
“You want me to move in for finances,” Suhayl said, amused.
“I want you to move in because you’re a space heater and I like warming my toes on your legs,” Cecilio said. He reached around Suhayl for the toothpaste and his electric toothbrush. He squeezed a bit too much onto the side of the bristles. “I just figure you’d appreciate the financial aspect.” He stuck the toothbrush in his mouth.
“Of course.” Suhayl put his brush away. It had nothing to do with how they slept better when they shared a bed than sleeping alone, or how it was happening on its own anyway.
Cecilio finished brushing his teeth still using Suhayl as support. “There’s also the fact,” he said in a carefully light voice as he washed the foam from his lips, “that I love you and want you near me.” His cheeks were a dusky pink though his expression was neutral.
Suhayl stared for the space of a breath before he wrapped Cecilio in a hug. Cecilio squirmed, blush deepening as he tried to get free.
“Nope. Too early for this. Off. Too much emotional mushiness.”
“There is nothing to be embarrassed about,” Suhayl said. “I love you too.” It was different saying the words when it wasn’t teasing back and forth or in the heat of the moment. The meant more in the domesticity now than whispered in the dark.
Cecilio stopped squirming. “I’m not allowed to say it and just walk away, am I?”
“No.” Suhayl held him tighter. If Suhayl had been sparing on the words, still having trouble saying them, Cecilio talked around them, never denying the implication that he loved Suhayl, but almost never acknowledging it either.
In the mirror, Cecilio worried at his bottom lip with his teeth. “I do love you,” he mumbled. “And I’m not saying it just because I want you to move in. I’m saying it now because I know I’m shit at saying these things and I want it to be clear.”
“I know.” Suhayl was used to reading actions rather than words. That didn’t mean the words were less valuable though.
“Well. Good.” Cecilio let out a heavy breath. “While I feel better after saying that, this is all too heavy for this early. I don’t know what my brain is thinking.”
Suhayl laughed softly. “I think I’d like to move in.”
“Yeah?” Cecilio relaxed back in his arms.
“Yes.” He took a breath. Live with no regrets, he thought. “I would like to stay as long as you will have me.”
“That might be a long time,” Cecilio said.
“I think I would be okay with a lifetime.”
“Too early for this,” Cecilio repeated leaning back with his eyes shut. He was smiling though.
“You just need your second cup of coffee.”
“Make it for me and I might just propose.”
“Is that a promise?” Suhayl teased.
“Mm.” Cecilio cupped a hand around Suhayl’s. “You’ll have to stick around and find out.”
Not today, Suhayl knew, but the tilt of his head and the smile on his lips said someday. Suhayl could do someday. Someday and every day after and in between.