by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by pseudonymeter
He didn’t return from the war a wreck. He didn’t return riddled with dreams of dust, sand, and glass. He didn’t return with a bullet wound in his leg or a voice in his head. He didn’t return a hero or a ghost. However, he did return home to an empty apartment, an uncooperative landlord, and all of the right words missing.
Boston in the morning was exactly how he remembered it, the cold autumn sunlight peeling over the still waters of the Charles River. There were the city buses that had passed him by on his way to his apartment, and he had stared at them, remembering, as well as the rest of the traffic, taken in from behind the tinted windows of his slow-moving taxi. The driver had offered to put his bags in the trunk, but he said no thanks; he wanted them on the seat beside him because he wanted to have a pillow as he napped. It’d taken him three days to get home. From Iraq to Kuwait, from Kuwait to Germany, and from Germany to Boston, Massachusetts, where the trees were shedding their golden leaves.
But when he took the four flights of stairs up to his apartment, he found that his key no longer fit the door, and his name had been scratched off the list of tenants in the lobby, replaced by someone he didn’t recognize, an E. Anderson.
“My cousin,” he tried to explain when he went down and woke the landlord. “He gave you the postdated checks.”
“I didn’t get anything,” Mr. Forrester said irritably, still in his pajamas and his slippers. “And hey, I’m as patriotic as anybody, but I couldn’t hold the damn place for ten months without rent.” He crossed his arms and stared. “Besides, I heard you aren’t even a real soldier.”
“I’m not a soldier,” Asim said. “I never claimed I was a soldier. I’m a writer.”
“Well,” said Mr. Forrester, “good for you.”
There was a lot Asim wanted to say to that, a wealth of responses that rested on the flat of his tongue. Such as my cousin and I’ve been up for twenty-four hours and my god, could you be any more condescending and I have seen the rushing fall of bombs. But Asim, fifth oldest of seven siblings, had a dislike for confrontation nearly as strong as his dislike of strawberries. It was a funny quality to have in a war reporter and an unhelpful quality when your lease has suddenly been terminated, but he couldn’t help it. He hated arguing. “Just tell me where my things are,” he said, pleading. “You didn’t throw them away, did you?”
“I donated the furniture,” Mr. Forrester said frankly. “The rest of your things, though, they’re in the shed out back. Good thing you came back now, because I was going to wait another month and donate that too.”
“At least someone benefited from my misfortune,” Asim said under his breath, except he wasn’t as quiet about it as he would have liked. His cheeks went hot when he realized Mr. Forrester had overheard, but Mr. Forrester shrugged. Asim’s problems weren’t his concern. Asim’s problems weren’t anyone’s concern but his own, and Asim was cognizant of that suddenly. War had the tendency to consolidate interests, to spread them around everyone’s shoulders and create bonds out of spit and an off-colour joke, but here in Boston he was alone. No one cared that he was out of a home or that his jet-lagged head ached with knots.
He left the apartment. He walked to the corner of the sidewalk. He called his cousin. No answer.
He called his mother.
“Ah, my darling,” she said after she had picked up on the fifth ring and he had told her what happened, slowly, slurring towards the end as his eyes drooped with sleep. “Your good-for-nothing cousin is in Las Vegas now. No, I have no idea what he’s doing there. Being a useless loaf as usual, I suspect.”
“I guess I’ll stay in a motel until I figure out what to do,” Asim said.
“Don’t you have friends you can call?”
“I did,” Asim said, “but I’ve been gone for months, and before that I was gone even longer, and Mama, it’s hard to maintain friendships when you’re always running off to the far corners of the world. The only people I would ask are Barb and Dave, but she’s pregnant, and I… I’m not going to intrude on that, okay.”
“There’s Luke,” she said.
Asim went quiet.
“Not a good idea?” his mama said. “But I don’t see why not. Half the time you’re running off to the far corners of the world, as you say, it’s with him. Why would it be so strange for you to call him in Boston and ask for a place to stay?”
“Because he’s Luke,” Asim said helplessly. “You’ve never met him so you don’t know what he’s like. He’s not the type of guy I can just waltz up to and be friendly with, and I’m a colleague, not a friend.”
“Well, if you really think you can afford to stay in a motel for however long it’ll take…” She let her voice trail off meaningfully, the way she always did when she was trying to show him what an utter blockheaded fool he was being. Asim groaned and when he hung up, he put his face in his hands because he had earned it at the very least. However, there was still sand under his fingernails, he noticed. That punched the breath out of his chest, seeing the sand that had crept in from the desert runway and how far he had carried it. It was still caught in the rough grains of his fingers, the same fingers that had clutched Sayid as he died.
I have a story to tell, Asim thought, and so he picked up his phone again to make the call.
In college Asim had studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history.
When it came to the children of immigrants, there were two general categories, he felt, and everybody knew what those two categories were. You could see it in the way they dressed, the way they talked, who they befriended, and how they treated their old world parents in public. Asim’s parents were liberal atheist intellectuals who had fled Iraq in the 70s before the cusp of the Iran-Iraq War. When Asim was born, his parents had already been living in Palo Alto for years and years, and through the trial and error of four other children, were less inclined to tell Asim what to do and what to believe. There had never been much religion in their house, just politics, and even Arabic was worn away after a while, supplanted by the easy quotidian chatter of English brought in from work and school. If not for the food his mother made, the oud his father played, and the occasional looks from classmates and passers-by, Asim would have never known he was not, in fact, the quintessential American boy.
He had even played baseball in high school, for god’s sake, though his knobby knees and waifish, slender wrists meant he was never very good at it, and also because he spent more time peeking up at the team captain than concentrating on their plays.
So out of all the people whose names had ever been butchered by a teacher on the first day of class, no one had expected Asim to study something so… ethnic. A double major in Arabic and Middle Eastern history was for the immigrants’ children who refused to assimilate, who still embarrassed their fellows in public sometimes with their sheer inability to understand that people were looking at them and saying things, ugly things. Either that, or those subjects of specialization were for well-meaning white liberals who wanted to know more about the world and studying Arabic was more interesting a conversation starter at parties than studying Spanish.
Asim was neither of these things, but there came a September when he felt like he’d been pulled violently out of his sleep, where his entire body trembled and his eyes burned with the salt that had been thrown at him. He knew then that he couldn’t stay an accounting major, as he’d originally started as. He’d be a terrible accountant anyway, and when he told his mother, she’d looked at him cross-eyed and said, “About time you figured it out.”
She also knew, years later, about the writing. He had no idea how, because his attempts at poetry in high school had always been secret and during college he’d never told her that he wrote occasionally for the student paper because he didn’t think he was any good then, and if he wasn’t good she was better off not knowing. But she knew.
And as it turned out, he was good, or at least good enough after graduation to land a freelance job writing about Middle Eastern politics, which led to connections, which led to publications. His knowledge of the local languages catapulted him into field reporting faster than anyone else he knew, and less than two years after graduation he was being sent to Saudi Arabia, to Afghanistan, and eventually, in the strange and painful way life works sometimes, to cover the war in Iraq. Asim had never set out to be a war reporter. Asim couldn’t even bring himself to watch nature documentaries where lions stalked impalas. He cried all the time at weddings. Spending a large part of his life writing about war wasn’t in his nature. It was just something that had happened.
Or, it was Luke’s fault.
There was a quality to Luke that made him seem like the photos that he took. Absolutely still, but alert; sharpness and violence just waiting underneath his calm exterior. He wasn’t good-looking — in fact, some might even call the overly thin angles of his face unattractive — but he was striking. He gazed at Asim from behind his plastic black glasses and he didn’t blink for a very long time.
“Are you going to invite me in or not?” Asim asked. Luke’s stare had unnerved him the first time they had met in the offices of National Geographic, when Patricia their editor had paired them together for an assignment. Asim would be lying if he claimed he was used to the stare by now, five years and a dozen assignments later, but he had learned to not let it intimidate him wholly.
Luke opened the door wider, wordlessly, and Asim figured it was as good a cue as he was going to get. He swept past Luke with his bags and deposited them in the cramped space that Luke called a kitchen. Asim had seen Luke’s apartment before in those rare occasions when he came over to pick up files, and one time to return a copy of Elizabeth Bishop that Luke had accidentally thrown into Asim’s luggage on their way back from Dubai. It was a small apartment, but cozy in a way, and stylish — a brick-walled loft in a neighbourhood populated by Harvard students and coffee shops. The cluttering of the apartment with mismatched furniture, black and white photos on the walls, and books with long foreign titles packed in towers all spoke to Luke’s hopelessly hipster tendencies.
Looking at Luke — grey sweater, black slacks, those glasses — one might have had difficulty picking him out from the other residents of his neighbourhood. If Asim hadn’t known him, he could clearly have imagined passing Luke by on the street and thinking he was a grad student of some sort, head buried in stacks and fingers stained with ink.
But then he might have never known the other parts. Luke’s face covered in sweat and dust. His fingers, bloody, sliding off his shutter button. Luke walking over to his bags and calmly pulling out a Glock 17, and then firing it. Luke’s foot on the gas pedal and his eyes on the rear view mirror that one time when they were under siege, and it’d fallen to the two civilian attaches, the writer and the photographer, to get everyone the hell out of dodge.
“Thanks for letting me stay,” Asim said, running a hand through his hair, as if still trying to get the sand out. “I know you don’t have a lot of room. But your couch looks great.”
“It’s not a problem,” Luke said in the monotone that everybody who didn’t like him made fun of. And there were, unsurprisingly, a lot of people in the business who didn’t like Luke. “I’ll be out for most of the next week. I’ve got an assignment with Reuters.”
“Ah, okay,” Asim said. “So we won’t get in each other’s way then. I’ve, uh, got a story to write for NG. You know, the one I was telling you earlier? I was going to go down to Starbucks and write it there, but if you’re not going to be around, maybe I’ll just stay in.”
“I don’t care,” Luke said, and Asim went quiet. He watched Luke wander barefoot to the kitchen where he had been making a cup of tea when Asim had knocked on the door. Asim waited, unsure, hoping for further instruction. Did Luke have extra blankets? Should Asim unpack? What were the rules of using the washroom? Instead of answering his unspoken concerns, Luke turned his back to him, focused again on the Earl Grey. So Asim pattered over to the couch and sat down.
“It’s nice here,” he said.
“Mmm,” said Luke.
“Oh, and you don’t have to worry about feeding me. I can take care of myself in that area.” Asim laughed nervously. “I can cook and clean for you too, since you’re letting me stay without rent.”
“Okay,” Luke said, and that was that. Asim felt the familiar twitch of frustration that jerked his eyebrow whenever Luke was being particularly uncooperative, but then he sighed and spread out wider on the couch. He needed sleep. Lots and lots of sleep. He pulled his bag from the ground to the couch, and after checking that it wasn’t dirty — because Luke might have no manners but Asim had plenty — he tucked it under his head and closed his eyes. A blanket would have been nice, but right now he wasn’t picky. He closed his eyes and slept.
When he woke up, Luke was sitting at the couch by Asim’s feet and he was reading Esquire.
“Mmgggh,” Asim groaned. “Give me that.”
Luke handed the magazine over. Asim tossed it as far as he could, and it hit the wall.
“What was that for?” Luke asked, not angry and not especially curious either, but scientifically dispassionate, like it was his purpose in life to know the answer to all events, whether he cared or not.
“You know I hate Esquire,” Asim said.
“You hate them because they turned down your article.”
“No, I hate them because their models are prettier than me,” Asim retorted. “Oh god, what time is it? How long have I been sleeping?”
“It’s nine a.m.,” Luke said.
“So I’ve slept for like an entire day. Great.” Asim kicked at the blanket around his legs and fumbled towards a sitting position, which was still more slouching against the couch than actually sitting, but he counted it as a victory. “I thought you said you were going to be out on your Reuters assignment.”
“I did,” Luke said. “Today’s was a 3 a.m. shot.”
Luke looked at him.
“How did it go?” Asim clarified.
“It was fine,” Luke said. He got up. “There’s fruit in the fridge if you want, and bread on the counter.”
Asim realized how hungry he was, and he was very, very thankful for the convenience of American supermarkets where fresh fruit and fresh bread was no more remarkable than clean water out of the tap. He’d told Luke yesterday that he would eat his own food and not be a mooch, but right now the temptation was too much to resist and besides, Luke was offering. So Asim stumbled over to the kitchen, still in his jeans and t-shirt from last night, and popped two pieces of bread into the toaster.
“Bliss,” Asim chanted. “Bliss, bliss, bliss.”
“Are you going to work on your story today?” Luke asked from the couch.
“Ugh, not bliss,” Asim said. Just thinking about the story that he owed National Geographic, the story he had stayed the last three months in Iraq to write, was making his head hurt. He had a few potential opening sentences on his laptop, and pages and pages of notes taken in his scribbling book, but to turn it into a coherent story worthy of publication was eluding him. He didn’t have the words. He didn’t have the right frame of mind. He didn’t have the dispassion to step aside from the events and not write endless reams of anger and grief over Sayid and what had been done to him.
The air in Luke’s apartment felt very heavy all of a sudden. Asim’s tongue was dry in his mouth.
No. He didn’t want to think about this right now. This was supposed to be his homecoming. This was supposed to be his chance to get back into his normal life, whatever that was. He was supposed to put Iraq behind him.
How can you put Iraq behind you when it’s your job, when it’s your blood? You are so stupid, Asim, so stupid.
The toast popped out of the toaster. Reaching for it was like moving through a flip book that was going too slow, lingering on each page instead of all at once, and there was an ache manifesting in his elbow where Asim had bumped it on the flight yesterday. It was like his body was waking up to Luke’s words, to his question that seemed deceptively innocent. If anything about Luke could ever be called innocent, Luke who had shot a man outside Sadr City to save Asim’s life. Asim shuddered.
“There’s juice too, and coffee,” Luke said.
There were two bedrooms in Luke’s apartment, but Asim still had to sleep on the couch because one of the bedrooms was Luke’s and the other was his makeshift darkroom. Luke had boarded all the windows in the darkroom and when he was inside, he stuffed towels under the heavy cracks of the door to prevent too much light from seeping in. He didn’t use the darkroom as often as he used to. Most photography these days was on the digital end, and accordingly Luke had his desktop and scanners set up in the living room where the computer’s pulsing light, even in hibernation, sometimes flickered over Asim’s face as he slept. But industry demands aside, Luke was a lover of film first and foremost. When he disappeared into his darkroom and then returned, he was the happiest that Asim ever saw him.
And his photography… well. In the first assignment they’d worked together, Asim had tried to open his article by describing the scene in Luke’s photo: a woman cooking on a narrow street in the poorest section of Kabul, fire flickering at the hem of her burqa. The article had been on Afghanistan street food, and he and Luke had wandered the alleyways of Kabul every morning for two weeks, trying to communicate to the locals in Asim’s semi-fluent but occasionally awkward Dari. Luke always carried the money on him, in the outer pouch of the gym bag that contained his camera and his lenses. Asim would ask, Luke would pay, and they would settle down together for lamb on lavash while the sun beat relentlessly upon them.
Asim had tried to describe that scene, and that woman who had made their lamb and served it on the thin, rich slab of lavash. But the depth of Luke’s photos made it difficult. He could bring out hues, private expressions, shadowed exteriors that Asim never saw until it was too late. Working backwards, Asim’s words tried to construct a house to hold Luke’s photos, but they usually failed.
Luke was a better photographer than Asim was a writer.
This wasn’t even a disputed point anymore. Asim was small game as writers were concerned, and while he dreamed fiendishly of one day getting a Pulitzer and having everybody shake his hand in respect, he knew that probably wasn’t going to happen. He was fine with this most of the time. Writing wasn’t meant to be a competitive sport, and as long as he got paid and got interesting stories to tell, stories that meant something, he was happy. Luke, on the other hand, had racked up a score of awards and recognitions, and his personal photography was a mainstay of the local art scene.
Luke had the option of working with far more famous names than Asim. He could snag far more prestigious assignments than the ones that Asim got sent on. But Asim always figured that the reason Luke stuck with him more than any other writing partner was because there weren’t many people who could put up with Luke on assignment. He was cold, he was stoic, he was notoriously fussy. Asim being easygoing — or passive, as he’d been called in less positive terms — was a good counterpoint to that. He and Luke never got into ego fights because what was the point? Luke would always come on top.
There was once a time when Asim thought he might have been a bit in love with him for it, for his ruthless genius, for the ability to capture tragedy in one snap of the lens.
But Asim had been much younger then, and foolishly romantic. He hadn’t seen then that while Luke’s shutter opened, Luke himself never did. He held himself closed, contained, an artist with a scientist’s eye for detail and a soldier’s hardened heart.
“Asim,” Luke said.
Asim didn’t hear him at first. He was on the couch with his laptop balanced on his knees, trying to rack his brain for the way to begin his article. The clock at the right hand bottom of his screen had said 3:04 when he started, and now when he looked at it, it said 4:15.
“Asim,” Luke repeated.
“Huh? What?” Asim looked up to find Luke standing over him.
“You’re sitting on my jacket,” Luke said.
“Sorry, sorry!” Asim scrambled to get off, and Luke swept the jacket up from beneath him. “Are you going out then?” He looked at Luke in his cleanly pressed pants, his pinstripe vest, and his gelled hair. He wasn’t carrying his gym bag, which meant this wasn’t a job. “Are you going out on a date?” Asim realized, his voice breaking on a squeak. He found he couldn’t actually imagine Luke on a date because weren’t dates supposed to require conversation? And being charming?
But Luke said “yes” and then he smiled slightly, amused.
“Well, have fun then,” Asim said. Another thought occurred to him. “I’ll make myself scarce if you’re, ah, planning to bring her over. Or him. I don’t judge. Because I’m gay. But you know that already. Or at least I think you do, because that one time you caught me kissing a guy. Or do you not remember.”
“You’re adorable when you’re incoherent,” Luke said flatly. “And if I bring him over, I’ll kick you out. Don’t worry.”
“Thanks,” Asim said dryly, while a part of him was still struggling with this bizarre concept of Luke on a date doing date-like things. Maybe he had been in Iraq for too long, covering the war, that he was losing grasp with the regular lifestyle of a twenty-nine-year-old American male.
After Luke had left — and Asim tried not to pay attention to just how tight those pants were, and if he had ever seen Luke wear pants that tight before –, Asim went back to his article. He rested his fingers over his keyboard, as if the mere touch sensation would be enough to fire up his brain. When that didn’t work, he went and grabbed a Coke from the fridge. The clock ticked from 4:15 to 5:02 to 5:47, and by the end of it all Asim had managed to type was Arriving in Baghdad is a departure in all the other senses of the word, before backspacing it.
It was by 6:12 that Asim decided enough was enough. He put his laptop on the coffee table beside Luke’s Sontag and Benjamin, both of which had post-its sticking out on top like a war zone. Then Asim turned on the TV and prepared to enjoy what he had missed while abroad: Thursday night sitcoms and MTV. There were some familiar faces but there were also enough newness that it jarred him. Who the hell is Lady Gaga? Asim wondered, staring avidly and with growing pleasure as he watched the video for “Bad Romance.” By 8:05 Asim had downloaded all of Lady Gaga’s singles and he was dancing around the kitchen making dinner while singing “p-p-p-poker face.”
Then he heard Luke’s key at the door.
“Oh shit,” Asim said, because he still had beef browning on the stove and soup stock bubbling, only halfway done. Luke came in, cheeks flushed from the cold and followed by a good-looking young man with blue hair and a lip piercing. Asim had never had the chance to see what type of person Luke went for — had not, until today, even known Luke’s sexuality — but he wasn’t overly surprised by Luke’s choice. Luke always have a taste for the club scene, and Asim could see the curls of a tattoo from beneath the sleeves of his date’s leather jacket.
“I’m not done cooking yet, but I’ll be done really soon and out of your hair,” Asim promised. Luke removed his jacket and helped his date remove his, a rather gentlemanly gesture that Asim had not anticipated either.
“You can stay,” Luke said. “We’ll be in the bedroom anyway, won’t we, Adrian?”
Adrian smirked. “I don’t mind,” he said. “Are you his roommate?”
“Nah, I’m just crashing with him for a while. I got evicted from my apartment. It’s kind of a long story,” Asim said, stirring his spatula around the pan. His cheeks felt hot. He hadn’t wanted to be around when Luke came back with his date. It was awkward, just like when his older siblings used to bring home dates, sneaking them into the house behind their parents’ backs even though Asim’s parents were the kind of sex-positive liberals that other liberals feared.
Luke headed for the bedroom. Adrian lingered for a second, cocking his head and saying, “Gaga. Nice.”
Asim blushed harder.
“Are you coming?” Luke called at the door.
“I’ll be there in a moment, sweet cheeks ,” Adrian said, rolling his eyes. “That guy, what a handful, right?” he said conspiratorially to Asim, who managed a nod. “Great in the sack though,” Adrian added, and he laughed as he followed Luke into the bedroom, closing the door.
Asim went immediately to put on his headphones. There were some things he did not want to hear. When he was done cooking, he settled down on the couch with his dinner and one of Luke’s horribly long, horribly pretentious books. He read for an hour before he figured he was safe. Then Asim took off the headphones.
“Christ, you tease, you fucking tease.”
“Oh my god,” Asim mouthed.
“Just fuck me!” Adrian shouted, and Asim couldn’t put his headphones back on quickly enough.
Half an hour later, Adrian emerged from the bedroom to use the washroom. He gave Asim a liquid, satisfied smile, and Asim smiled weakly back, trying not to stare at the teeth marks on Adrian’s shoulder.
While Adrian was in the washroom, Luke came out bare-chested, with a pair of sweats that hung low on his hips. He went and poured himself a glass of water from the sink. Asim tried to keep his eyes on the novel he was reading, but he found he couldn’t even remember what had happened in the last page. Luke’s gaze traveled slowly around the room before resting on Asim.
“I really needed that,” Luke said out of nowhere.
“That’s fantastic,” Asim said. “I’m glad for you, truly.”
“He’s my editor at Reuters,” Luke said.
“What?” Asim said, craning his neck to stare at the closed washroom door. “Are you serious?”
Luke smiled with his teeth.
“You’re such a bastard,” Asim said, and even he couldn’t tell if his voice was admiring or condescending. Luke shrugged and placed his empty cup in the sink as Adrian sauntered out of the bathroom and came over to kiss Luke. Luke was tall, so he had to stand on his toes to reach him. Asim looked away again. It was a long kiss.
“I’ve got to get into the office early tomorrow,” Adrian said. “Bye Luke. Bye Asim.”
“Wait,” Asim said after Adrian had clothed himself and left, and it was just him and Luke again. “Wait. How did he know my name?”
“I told him about you,” Luke said.
Asim narrowed his eyes. “What did you say?”
“This and that,” Luke replied. “Maybe a bit more of this than that.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” Asim said. He sank into the couch, annoyed. It’d been a long time since he’d had sex, and his body was very aware of that fact now, no thanks to Luke. “Anyway, if you’re still hungry, I left some food in the fridge for you. Or you can pack it up as lunch tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” said Luke. “You’re the best freeloading house guest ever.”
Asim threw the TV remote at his head. Luke ducked. “And your aim is still for shit,” he said, retreating into his bedroom where Asim couldn’t follow.
Even though Asim hadn’t planned on going to Starbucks to write, he figured after the fifth day of empty pages and his editor calling him up with questions that he might as well give it a try. He left Luke in the apartment watching the Bruins versus the Canucks and went down to the Starbucks around the corner where he ordered a latte and a pumpkin walnut cookie.
He couldn’t, however, get into the wireless network. After minutes of fruitless clicking and refreshing, Asim went up to the barista manning the cashier and said, “Um, I was wondering if you were having any problems with the wireless network? Because I can’t connect to it.”
“Oh yeah, we’ve been having network problems all day,” said the barista, who had skin even darker than Asim’s and a dimple on his left cheek when he smiled. “It’s not just you, don’t worry.”
“I see,” Asim said. “That’s good to hear! I mean, it’s probably better that I can’t get onto the Internet because it’d mean I would get less done, right?”
“That’s what I always think,” the barista said, whose tag declared his name was Greg. “Are you working on a paper? Because the Internet, I’ve got to say, is the number one killer of papers.”
“Dear lord no. Do I look that young?” Asim raised his hands up and laughed. “I’m a writer. A journalist. I’m working on a story that I need to hand in by next week.”
“A writer. That’s pretty neat ,” Greg said. “I’ve got a roommate who’s a writer. Or that’s what he calls himself when he’s not calling himself a genius, a maverick, and the emperor penguin of the toilet.”
“My roommate’s a photographer who bangs his editor and violates a million professional codes,” Asim said sadly. “I’ll take your roommate any day.”
“A roommate swap. Most excellent,” Greg said, and he really did have the kind of smile that Asim couldn’t help but notice. Or rather, that certain parts of his body, returning to active play after the events of last night, couldn’t help but notice. Except it was Asim’s failing in life to be even more awkward when he was turned on, so he blushed and stammered and swiftly excused himself back to his table before Greg could realize that 1) Asim had been flirting with him and 2) Asim wasn’t very good at flirting. There had been no safe place in Baghdad for men to flirt with men, or at least if there was Asim had never discovered it, and during those other times when Asim and Luke had traveled around the country with the Marines, that hadn’t been an option either.
At his table, Asim peeked up at Greg again. Greg was staring back, and Asim watched as his mouth crooked in a friendly smile that soon turned a shade deeper and more suggestive.
Greg pointed at Asim’s coffee cup and mimed taking the sleeve off. Asim took the sleeve off and found a phone number scrawled on the back.
Oh. Okay. Maybe Asim wasn’t so awful at flirting after all.
Luke was at his computer uploading photos when Asim returned. He was peering at the images intently through his glasses, and his sleeves were rolled up to bare his forearms. He had a plate of macaroons that he was picking from idly as he reduced the glare on his latest batch of photos.
“You look happy,” he observed.
“I just got a cute barista’s phone number,” Asim said cheerfully, dropping his bag with the laptop on the couch. “My love life isn’t hopeless after all. Hell, I have a love life. I should call my mom and tell her right away.”
“You and your mother,” Luke snorted.
“You’re just jealous that she mailed me cookies when we were in Afghanistan and you didn’t get to have any,” Asim replied. He looked over Luke’s shoulder. “Are those the Reuters photos?”
“Mm-hmm,” Luke said.
Asim tilted his head. “They’re good.”
“They’re okay,” Luke said. “Reuters doesn’t want art from me. They just want decent pics they can use to match up with stories.”
“That’s why you shot them digitally, right?” Asim asked. “I’ve noticed that when you want to go the art route rather than the generic job route, you use film.”
Luke looked at him. His eyes were the shade of blue just ambiguous enough to be considered grey, not that Asim had spent much time thinking about Luke’s eyes. It was just that sometimes, when they were in the wilderness and all the colours seemed sharpened and Asim’s skin thrummed with anticipation of enemies and ambushes and death, it was easy to look at Luke’s eyes and feel startled by them. “Film is deeper than digital,” Luke said slowly. “David Bailey has it right when he said that digital is like socialism. It flattens everything out and makes everything the same.”
“British fashion photographer,” Luke said. “He helped create the Swinging London scene of the 60s.”
“Never heard of him,” Asim said. “But hey, do you want lunch? I stopped by the grocery store on the way back and I bought some seriously fresh veggies.”
Luke nodded, so Asim headed to the kitchen. As he started throwing things around and gathering ingredients together, he kept up a running commentary. Why, he wasn’t sure, but Luke seemed like he was in a mood to listen and that wasn’t an opportunity so common that Asim wanted to pass it up. “I missed cooking,” Asim said, chattering. “When I was staying with the Safars, Mama Safar wouldn’t let me in the kitchen. I was supposed to be their guest and they didn’t want me to work for my food. Not to mention that there was a gender thing too going on. I was a man and no one expected me to cook, which was weird because at home with my family I used to help my mama all the time.”
“Did you eat western food or Iraqi food?” Luke asked.
“At home, you mean?” Asim asked. “A mixture of both. My parents preferred the Iraqi food, of course, but most of my siblings liked fries and burgers better.” He laughed in good humour. “And since there were seven of us, we generally got our way.” He started peeling the carrots. “The Safars had five children, so it was familiar living with them for the three months I was on the NG assignment. Sayid, their eldest–”
“Sayid is the son who died, right?” Luke asked. “You mentioned it in the email.”
Asim didn’t know why he had told Luke. Luke had been at his side for five of the ten months he spent in Iraq, but after the fifth month Luke had returned to the U.S while Asim stayed on, taking freelance jobs here and there, leading up to the last three months that he spent covering the Safars, documenting the life of an ordinary Iraqi family in war-torn Baghdad. Those last three months were Asim’s alone; he had discussed them with no one, not even with his editor. Yet when Sayid had died, Asim had broken that silence with a terse message over email.
“I guess… I guess I just wanted everybody to know,” Asim said. “That he died, yeah, but also that he existed in the first place. I wanted people to know that he was real and that he was… important.” He swallowed.
“Were you in love with him?”
“I… what?” Asim asked.
“It’s a simple enough question,” Luke said, sliding his glasses back up his nose.
“I loved him,” Asim said. “He treated me well even though I was a foreign reporter. I wasn’t in love with him, but that doesn’t matter at all. You don’t need to be romantically interested in someone to care that they died, Jesus Christ.”
Luke said nothing, but his silence felt condemning. Asim put down the carrot peeler. “You know what, I don’t feel like cooking anymore,” he said. “You want lunch, you can make it yourself. I’m going on a walk.”
He grabbed his jacket and left.
There were many ways Asim could begin his article. He had gone through all of them in his head, rejecting each line.
I met the Safars expecting politeness but I came away with warmth.
War has tried to diminish the beauty of Baghdad but only the most disillusioned would say that it has succeeded.
The bombs fell one night when no one was expecting them.
And then there was also his latest attempt, the most painful one yet to write:
Sayid Safar, ten minutes after we first met, took me on a whirlwind tour of his city, where we jumped and leaped and crawled, and I knew from that moment we would be friends.
There was lunch on the table when Asim returned from his walk. Luke had taken the remains of Asim’s prep and fixed it up into a meal that wasn’t exactly what Asim had been working towards but was close enough. A tall glass of orange juice had been poured beside the plate, and Asim loved orange juice. So he sat down and drank it, occasionally eying the closed door of Luke’s bedroom.
Luke finally came out two hours later. He found Asim on the couch, mindlessly watching TV. He sat down next to him and picked up the novel Asim had been reading. He turned it over in his hands. Then he set it down. Asim’s jaw clenched but he focused on the show rather than Luke, in order not to give Luke that satisfaction. Luke got under people’s skin. It was what he did. Asim had seen it so many times before with others, and it was always the ones who cared the most that got hurt the worst by Luke’s careless cruelty.
Luke spoke. “I’m an asshole, I know.”
“Knowing doesn’t make it all right,” Asim said.
“No,” Luke said. There was a brief silence, during which Asim tried extraordinarily hard to pay attention to Friends more than the sound of Luke’s breathing by his ear. Then Luke said, “My father used to put a gun in my hand, go stand by the wall, and tell me to shoot him.”
“He was a Marine. My mother died having me, so it was just him and me. We were always moving as he changed postings. Never stayed in one place for long.” Luke put his hands over his knees and held them. “He made me try to shoot him. He would laugh if I started to cry. He said he was showing me how to be a man, but really I think he was hoping that I would succeed. He never stopped mourning my mother. When I was fifteen, he killed himself. A bullet to the brain. He never missed.” Luke smiled mirthlessly. “After that, neither did I.”
“So that’s why you’re so good with firearms,” Asim said.
“Well, that and I’m from Texas,” Luke said.
Asim cleared his throat. “That’s not really funny, you know.”
“Sorry,” said Luke.
“You’ve never told me anything like this before.”
“I’m not exactly a touchy feely guy, in case you haven’t noticed,” Luke said. He shrugged. “But as sad as it is, you’re the closest thing I have to a friend. I’ve spent more time with you than with anyone else other than my dad, and that counts for something. Even if it’s just for work and you don’t actually like me.” He stood up. “Hope you liked the orange juice at least. I had to squeeze that shit out by hand.” He started walking back to his bedroom.
“I’m thankful for it,” Asim said.
“That you never miss. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,” Asim said. He looked down at his hands. “Um. Yeah. Well, I’m sure you know that already.”
“It does cross my mind sometimes,” Luke said drolly. “If you feel like you owe me, however, you could always pay me back. With your body.”
Asim’s cheeks flamed. “Go to hell.”
“I’ve already been there,” Luke said, and shut the door.
On his first date with Greg, they went to a chic vegetarian place on the corner of campus where Greg seemed to know everybody there, because he was all smiles and chatter until his face fell and he turned to Asim. “Oh crap, I’m not ignoring you, am I? I’m such an awful date.”
“No, no, it’s all right!” Asim said, even though technically Greg had been ignoring him. But Asim didn’t mind. Being around Luke so often gave him an appreciation for people wore their emotions on their sleeves. “Should we order now? I guess since you know this place so well, you should tell me what’s good.”
“Definitely try out the black bean tostada,” Greg suggested, and after they had placed their orders, he leaned over and put his elbows on the table. His grin was infectious. “So, Asim of the soulful eyes…”
Asim laughed embarrassedly. “Oh god, please. I’m completely mediocre-looking and I know it.”
“So Asim, conquerer of my heart,” Greg continued teasingly, “you told me you were a journalist but you didn’t say what kind. Who do you write for?”
“Whoever will have me, most days,” Asim joked. This was always the part where he hesitated because telling people the truth of what he did and where he specialized was off-putting, and he didn’t want to bring that level of solemnity to what was otherwise a great date. But he hated lying about it too, as if he was ashamed, so he plowed on and said quickly, “I mostly report on the Middle East. I, uh, spent the last ten months in Iraq writing various stories for various publications.”
“Iraq, really?” Greg’s eyes widened, and Asim was relieved to see that of all the expressions Greg could have, apprehension wasn’t one of them. “That sounds intense, man. So you covered the war?”
“Most of the time,” Asim said. “I’m not really… I don’t see myself as a war writer, but these days if you want to write on Iraq, and that’s where my family is from so it tends to be where I gravitate to, time and time again… but as I was saying, if you want to write on Iraq these days and have an American audience pay attention, you’re generally writing about the war.”
“But you want to write other subjects as well,” Greg prompted.
“There’s so much more to Iraq,” Asim said. “The food, the history, the culture. War’s a big part of what’s going on there right now, but it’s hardly the only thing. I’m working on an article that’s about that, I hope. I followed a family for three months to see their daily lives. But that’s also the article I can’t seem to write,” he added ruefully.
“That’s understandable,” Greg said. “It’s not exactly a light subject. But hearing you talk about your writing makes me feel bad about complaining that I can’t seem to write my paper for class.”
“Writer’s block is writer’s block no matter what!” Asim assured him, and Greg tilted his head back and laughed. Asim found himself smiling stupidly, so much so that he barely even noticed when the food arrived because Greg was already launching into a story about his roommate and the latest wacky thing his roommate did, which involved chihuahuas, naked Barbie dolls, and vinegar.
Greg invited him to his dorm room after, and Asim suffered a moment of embarrassment as he walked through the halls in hand with Greg, hand because these were college students and Asim was almost thirty; he was probably too old to be scoring dates with guys like Greg, who wore tight jeans and a polo shirt and confessed to playing guitar when he should be studying econ instead. A girl in the hall smirked at Asim as he passed, and Asim ducked his head, staring at the ground until he was in front of Greg’s room and Greg was pushing him inside.
“In! In!” Greg said. Also, “I want to see these articles that you’ve written. Are any of them online?”
“Most of them are,” Asim said, trying not to preen because as a journalist it wasn’t often that people were truly interested in his work, with his name attached. He told Greg the details and Greg sat at his laptop, pulling the pages up.
“By Asim Khoury,” he said, relishing the syllables of Asim’s name. “With photos by Luke Soderqvist. Is that the roommate you were talking about?”
“That’s Luke,” Asim said, but he didn’t want to talk about Luke, not tonight. Not when Greg turned his head around, still young and grinning, and pulled Asim down for a kiss. His hands wrapped around the back of Asim’s neck, dragging him in even closer, and his nails dug into Asim’s skin, making Asim groan. It had been a long time, far too long, and Greg was eager against his body, his mouth hot and sleek, his tongue clever.
“Welcome home, Asim,” Greg murmured, and then he took Asim’s bottom lip between his teeth and bit it gently. Asim trembled. “Let’s go to bed,” Greg continued, and Asim nodded silently, letting Greg take the lead and pull them onto his bed where his hands were suddenly on Asim’s ass, clutching and kneading while Greg pushed his jean-clad groin upwards. He was hard, Asim felt, and Asim ground down, pushing Greg back against the bed.
They rutted against each other, and Greg was beautifully wanton, thrusting against Asim with his eyes closed and a small smile on his lips. Asim looked down at him. For an electrically-charged moment he thought he saw a glimpse of Sayid, or what Sayid could have been, and the thought both chilled him and excited him. But then Greg opened his eyes and the moment was gone; there was no Sayid here, just a red-blooded American college student with a tight ass and sparkling eyes who wanted Asim.
Greg snaked his hand to Asim’s pants and undid the button clasp easily. His hand burrowed inside Asim’s boxers and when he touched Asim’s cock, Asim gasped.
“It’s been too long, hasn’t it?” Greg said sympathetically. “I bet you don’t even get to jerk off when your roommate is around.” He wrapped his warm hand around Asim’s cock and started stroking rhythmically, and that was it, that was all Asim needed. Asim moaned out his pleasure as he bucked his hips against Greg’s hand, and then Greg slipped a finger up to the tip of Asim’s cock, pressing hard.
It was almost too much. Asim had to look away, and his gaze skittered around until it settled on Greg’s laptop with the window still open and one of Asim’s articles on Afghanistan still loaded on the browser. There was Luke’s photo splashed across the page, the one he had taken of the cliffs in Hazarajat where the Buddhas of Bamyan used to be before the Taliban destroyed them. The picture of the huge empty spaces, the hollowness without a purpose, and Luke’s sharpness of vision; Asim stared at it all until his head filled with noise and he came in heavy jerks, spilling all over Greg’s hand.
It occurred to him later that he actually hadn’t started hunting for a new apartment. He’d been so busy trying to write the Safar article, and then Greg had happened. Greg was very distracting. Also Luke, despite his many failings, hadn’t made Asim feel like he was unwanted. So Asim had forgot, and probably would have forgotten for even longer if his mother didn’t call him up and remind him.
“How are you, darling?” she said, her concern melting her voice over the phone. “Are you doing all right? Are you adjusting to your life again?”
“Yes and yes,” Asim said, though it wasn’t strictly true. There were still pinpricks of wrongness, and he thought of Sayid every night, and how Sayid’s blood had coated his arm from fingers to elbow, like a glove. But he didn’t know how to tell anyone that, and his mother had enough to worry about anyway. “How are those courses you’re teaching?” he asked instead. “Still afraid for the future of American youth?”
“Deathly afraid,” his mama said. “You should see some of the drivel they write on their exams. There’s this one student who still can’t tell the difference between Iraq and Iran. It’s bloody awful.”
They talked of a few more things, and Asim’s mother promised to email him some links of promising housing ads that she’d google searched for him. Then Asim said, “Hold on, Luke’s coming home. We’re probably going to have dinner now, so I’ll call you back later.”
“All right,” his mama said easily. “Give him my thanks for rooming my favourite son.”
“Please, everyone knows that Dabir is your favourite son.”
“He is a highly successful surgeon who gets me discounts at the hospital,” she agreed. “And he remembers my birthday.”
“It was the once, and I was in a war zone,” Asim grouched, but his mother sent him a kiss over the phone and he was smiling as he hung up. Luke looked over in curiosity as he started unpacking his digital camera, a Nikon D3, from his bag. “Dinner’s on the table,” Asim informed him. “I made grilled chicken and chickpea salad.”
“And I’ve started a new project,” Luke said.
“For work?” Asim asked.
“No, for a gallery showing down at the Rotunda,” Luke said. Asim nodded, recognizing that name. There were a lot of good photographers who had their work shown at the Rotunda. “I’m planning on doing a themed series for them. The theme is: the other side of war.”
“The other side of war,” Asim echoed. “What do you mean by that?”
“I’m going to shoot people who make their living off war but aren’t soldiers.” Luke looked directly at Asim. “They’ll be medics, cooks, accountants, writers, that sort of thing. People you don’t normally associate with war but who keep the cogs running.”
Asim flushed. “I don’t make my living off war. That sounds tawdry.”
“Semantics,” Luke said dismissively. “You will let me photograph you though?”
Asim crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not a supermodel or anything like that.”
“Did I say I was shooting supermodels?” Luke said. “I’ve only done that once, by the way. It wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. The buffets aren’t as good.”
“I mean, I don’t really like being on the other end of the camera,” Asim said. “Not that I’m ever on the other other end, of course. I’m not a photographer. But I’m a writer. I stand beside the photographer. I do the showing, not the other way around. It’s weird to think about people… looking at me.”
Luke stared at him with his grey eyes. “Is this one of those self esteem things?” he asked.
“You have an attractive boyfriend. Or whatever he is. An attractive younger man willing to sleep with you on a regular basis. You really don’t need me telling you that the sight of your face on a gallery wall won’t send people screaming for mercy.”
“I didn’t say that,” Asim retorted. “I’m just saying that I’m not used to being photographed by major league photographers, okay. Give me a break.”
“I’ll be gentle,” Luke said coolly.
“Now you’re just making fun of me.”
“A bit,” Luke said, “but give me a break, Asim. I let you stay with me without rent.”
“I cook and clean for you,” Asim said.
“You also hog the TV,” Luke pointed out. “I haven’t been able to watch my shows since you got here. Now I’ll never know what happens in The Young and the Restless. The very thought of it tears me up,” he said with a straight face.
“You never even told me you wanted to watch TV!” Asim said. “I would have handed the remote over if you’d asked.”
Luke waved his hands in a gesture that could mean anything and had, at various points in their history together, meant pass me that fork or I think we ran out of dinars or sorry, I wasn’t listening because there’s someone trying to shoot the back of my head.
“Fine,” Asim groaned, “I’ll think about it.”
Without meaning to, he settled into a rhythm for his days. He woke up in the mornings, usually after Luke had already left, and he ate cereal on the porch while watching the traffic and listening to CNN. By the time the cereal got soggy in the milk was usually the time he was done listening for all the Middle East stories, his stomach lightened when there was no bad news that day from Iraq, at least nothing worse than normal. Then the next few hours were spent trying to write his NG article and failing. By noon he was reading blogs and emailing his mother. By three o’clock he was throwing on his jacket and taking a walk around Luke’s neighbourhood, popping by the Starbucks whenever it was Greg’s shift.
Greg. Asim felt his face heat up with pleasure when he thought about Greg. Greg’s smile, Greg’s easy laughter, Greg’s hands on his cock. Luke was right. It was pretty awesome that Asim had managed to pull in such a catch for his… well, he didn’t know if they were at the stage where he could call Greg his boyfriend, but they weren’t just fuck buddies either, not that Asim had ever managed to have a fuck buddy without falling irrevocably in love with him. Asim was bad at separating sex from emotion.
Luke came home around five o’clock, and by then Asim had either given up trying to write or had started watching YouTube mashup vids, which amounted to the same thing. He had dinner on by six, and after he washed the dishes, he would sit on the couch and let the TV lull him into a state of peaceful sleepiness while Luke went on his computer or made a few calls.
Luke brought home Adrian once more, but this time instead of staying around with his headphones Asim packed his bags and went to Greg’s, where Greg rolled him a joint and they smoked it under the cold, starry night. Greg put his hands into Asim’s pockets and said, “Does it bother you?”
“Hmm, what?” Asim murmured, nuzzling his cheek against Greg’s.
“That Luke sleeps with Adrian, that he’s obviously interested in guys, but he never made a move on you.”
Asim pulled away, shocked. “W-what are you talking about?” he asked. “Why would that bother me? Why would I ever have wanted Luke to make a move on me?” But it was a lie even as it rolled, storm-like, across his tongue, because there had been a time, years ago, when even the coldest glance from Luke could fire up the nerves of Asim’s fingers; make them shake as they tried to hold on to a pen. That was then though. That was the old Asim, and if there was one thing that could be said about living in Baghdad for so long, it was that it made you grow up, fast.
Asim licked his dry lips. “It’s the sort of thing that could happen to anybody,” he said. “For a lot of the time, it was me and him alone in foreign countries. I was young. I latched onto that, I think.”
“Hey, hey, you don’t need to justify it to me,” Greg said.
“I know, but I was so stupid then.” Asim laughed nervously. “I was really… you should have seen me, I was the stupidest.”
“It’s not stupid that you loved him,” Greg said, and Asim’s eyes flashed open because he hadn’t known that this was what they were talking about, love. The idea of loving Luke was a strange, prickly suggestion, like the heat of the desert sun beating down on Asim’s eyelids, making his pores open with sweat. How could you love someone that difficult, that doomed to disaster, Asim wondered, and he took one breath after another, steadying himself. He looked up at Greg, trying to see if there was jealousy in his face, but Greg was smiling, more amused than angry. This was an echo of the conversation he’d had with Luke about Sayid, and Asim wondered what was behind that, this desire of everybody to interrogate love out of him, to wrench it from him like it was all that he was made of.
You’re too open, kid, his first editor had told him, snapping the words with the stretch of her gum. You wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s going to break you out there, in the big bad world.
“You talk about him a lot,” Greg said.
Asim looked away. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry.”
But Greg cupped his cheek in his gloved hand and kissed him, his mouth rich with smoke. “I just broke up with my boyfriend of four years,” he said. “I think about him all the time.”
“Oh,” Asim said.
“So, you know, you’re not the only one,” Greg said, his mouth moving against Asim’s. Asim held on to him and shuddered, his fingers pressing into Greg’s slim hips, and then he said “please, now” and Greg was all too happy to comply.
He dreamed that night of Luke, of Sayid, of Greg, and of the tangled ravine of his own heart.
He dreamed also of Baghdad, which had been to him in the beginning a city of wonders, a city of Scheherazadian potential, the city where his parents had grown up, met, fell in love, and eventually left. He hadn’t had a tangible connection to Baghdad when he was a child in Palo Alto, playing baseball and failing at it, but after his studies, after his readings and after relearning Arabic so deeply that he murmured endearments in it sometimes without realizing — after all of it, he’d felt Baghdad the way he felt the mosaic tattoo at the base of his spine. Warm, alive, filled with first pain.
Then he had actually arrived there, and he’d felt it change and shift, nauseous under his feet. Because lucky him, the first time he ever got to set foot in Baghdad was during a crackdown on insurgents in May 2005, the bloodiest month yet after the 2003 invasion. He’d accompanied U.S-led Coalition forces, and he’d seen the shooting as the tanks rolled onto the streets. As the troops pushed onwards to the worst damage, Asim had heard the soldier driving the M1 Abrams tank he was in mutter “where the fuck are these towelheads?” and Asim had gone cold to realize the city reduced to that, to the expanse of fighting and dust and terror living in his veins. When the tanks had stopped and the soldiers got out for air, Asim hadn’t wanted to join them. It was better inside the metal than outside of it, he thought, despite the claustrophobia that made his shirt stick to his skin. He’d felt compressed on on all sides, struggling for breath and dreaming of home, of Palo Alto, of Boston, of why he didn’t become an accountant and just be done with it.
Learning to love Baghdad came later, with Sayid.
After that, Asim took to wandering. He would pack his bag with a camera and a notebook, and set out in any direction he could think of, sometimes with Sayid and sometimes without. Mama Safar would always warn him to be careful. She told him the city wasn’t stable yet and who knows what someone might do to a man who spoke Arabic with a slight American accent, which made Asim defensive because he didn’t like to be reminded of his accent. In Baghdad, after he had departed Luke and the troops, he had tried to divorce himself as much as possible from his Americanness. It would be a hindrance rather than a help, he thought, and for the most part this was true. It was easier to see himself as Iraqi, sort of, the son of his parents returning to the old land at last. It helped this way to sink into the daily motions and the wandering, winding paths through the city, past the toppled statues, past the mosques. But there was always moments, of course, when his history rose to bite into him, when the Safars would stare at him coldly and he’d felt like a stranger, incapable of comprehending the city, the people.
Except Sayid. It’d never been difficult to comprehend Sayid, or to grow close to him, because with his head of curls and his irrepressible smile, he’d given Asim every answer he ever needed for his article. When Asim asked, “What do you want for the future?”, Sayid had told him in a conversation that lasted three hours, where they had lain on pillows together and Sayid made gestures with his hands that captured the ceiling, the sky, the smell of kebab cooking for the evening meal.
I want us to be as prosperous as you are, Sayid had said, and for once Asim didn’t argue about the politics of ‘us’ and ‘you’ because he’d been choked up then, filled with longing for Sayid’s hopes. There had been guilt as well, living somewhere deep in his abdomen, and that guilt had felt like a cold punch the day Sayid died. Asim had collected all the luck for himself, it seemed like, because it could have easily been him who had stayed to look at the decorative leather books in the shop window while Sayid wandered up ahead. If that had been the case, then when the bomb went off, it would have been Asim caught in the periphery of it, and Sayid at a safe distance, untouched.
When Asim was in college, he’d written a horror story on a whim. After a night reading too much Stephen King, he’d scribbled a bloodthirsty little tale about a man and his supernatural nemesis, thinking up all the ways for language to capture horror. He’d spun the descriptions of the blood running down the man’s arms and the deep gouges on his cheeks, all the while thrilled with a vicarious violence. It’d been a good story, one of the first that he was truly proud of, and he’d gotten it published in a school paper.
It made him sick to think of it now.
How do I bring this article to its conclusion? Asim thought, restless on the couch, struggling with the blanket around his legs. The story of the Safars and my stay with them. It’s always going to end with Sayid dying. How do I put that into words?
To sort through the blurred memories, to tease them into narrative meaning, to publish them for millions of mildly interested readers who had never met Sayid, who didn’t ever know that he laughed like a schoolboy and punched like a rock star, and he knew all the best places in Baghdad to get in trouble.
Asim could speak three languages fluently and four passably. Sayid used to tease him for it, calling Asim “my friend, the linguist” and yet when it came to Sayid himself, Asim could muster none of them.
He woke from his dream and curled up, breathing hard.
Luke didn’t need words, just his camera, and not for the first time Asim envied him. Oh, he knew that photography was no easier than writing and that photographers probably suffered the same misgivings and frustrations. You had very few chances to frame a photo right, whereas a writer could go through drafts and drafts without repercussion. But Luke had the gift of making it seem effortless. It was just his finger on the shutter button, his eye behind the lens, and he could turn out beauty like it was his birthright.
Luke came to the breakfast table with his beloved Canon EOS-3, the camera he used whenever he wasn’t planning on going digital, and Asim found himself amused that he could recognize it right away, even though he knew little else about cameras. But this was the camera he’d seen Luke carry with him all throughout the Middle East, preferring it over digital because they weren’t guaranteed electricity in all the places they visited. Luke and his Canon, his set of lenses, and his endless rolls of film that Asim found everywhere, sometimes even in his own bags where Luke stashed them because Luke had pack rat tendencies and would always pick up more in his luggage than he left with.
Luke aimed the camera towards Asim. Asim lifted a hand to cover his face, and the other to curl protectively over his Cheerios. “I didn’t say you could use me as a subject,” he complained.
“Free rent,” Luke reminded him. “Also, I saved your life.”
“I’m never going to live that down, am I?” Asim said. He looked up at the walls where Luke had hung some of his favourite photos, and then he swallowed because Asim was foolish at times, as his mama was fond of saying, but even he wasn’t so foolish as to say no to Luke Soderqvist with a camera. “Fine,” he said. “But no naked shots, you hear me?” he added, playing for humour.
Luke didn’t smile, but his finger held down the shutter button and Asim felt his body shiver with the quiet sound of the click, followed by the whir.
“I don’t know what this has to do with war,” he said. “I’m in my boxers eating breakfast. What sort of hard-hitting message are you planning on saying with that?”
“There’s plenty to be said,” Luke replied. “Chief among them the idea of the mundane versus the violent, and how people can cross the boundary so easily, even without meaning to. Even the most hardened killers have to eat, have to bring in their mail, things like that.”
“There’s mundane violence all the time,” Asim said. “It’s called domestic violence. Check it out. And I’m really not hardened at all.”
“I know you’re not,” Luke said, and there was something funny in his voice as he said it, nearly intimate. Asim blinked and looked back down at his cereal, and how the colours were bleeding into the milk, turning it grey.
Luke lifted his camera and took another shot.
“Hey,” Asim said, jittery. “And what was so great about that moment?”
“Your eyelashes,” Luke said.
“You have long eyelashes. Has anyone ever told you that?” Luke said. “They should have. In the desert, when the wind was blowing against us, you’d get sand stuck in them all the time. I wonder if you ever noticed.”
“I-I noticed,” Asim said. “Sand in my eyes? Yeah. Hard not to.” He spooned cereal into his mouth, just to give himself something to do. He couldn’t look at Luke’s face right now because he was afraid of what he would find there. Mockery would be painful, but if it wasn’t mockery, if Luke was actually saying something meaningful, that was almost just as bad because Asim wasn’t prepared for this. Greg had said… but what did Greg know, Greg who had never set foot outside of the country and who had never held a gun in his entire life, or walked through streets silhouetted by ruined buildings. Greg didn’t know, because Asim couldn’t explain to him, the quiet moments that had passed between him and Luke when they came across the body in the dune, head splattered like a piece of ruined fruit.
That was why Luke was doubly dangerous. The first because he was Luke and his every move was precise and sniper sharp, and he could immortalize your deepest feelings in a 1/1000 of a second. And double because he was a part of Asim’s life that stretched beyond the comfort of Boston and back to lands where he’d left a fragment of himself buried. Nearly everything Luke did was a sudden reminder of the past; when he flicked his wrist, Asim remembered him flicking his wrist in a Kabul restaurant; when he splashed water over his face in the sink, Asim remembered him doing the same in a base camp in Bahrain.
Luke made a noise, a clearing of his throat. Asim looked up, involuntarily, and caught Luke’s eyes. It was one of those moments like the dropping of a bomb; longer than it needed to be, and filled with restless silence.
Then Asim said, “I should… get started on writing. I’m past deadline already and Patricia is kicking my ass.”
“I know how that goes,” Luke said, because Patricia was his editor for NG too, though as far as Asim knew, Luke had never turned in his photos late, ever, though there’d been some close calls where Luke spent all night in his darkroom trying to wring the perfect shot out of his negatives. Luke could be extraordinarily picky about details Asim didn’t even notice, but he supposed that was true of every artist and their work. Just look at himself, though Asim didn’t feel much like an artist at this point. Didn’t feel like much of anything, in fact.
It was on Thursday that Luke tossed a ticket onto Asim’s lap when Asim was watching 30 Rock, and he said, “I need a date to this gallery showing. Let’s go.”
“This is the most romantic moment of my life,” Asim said, but he was already getting off the couch and digging through his bags for decent gallery clothes. Luke went into his bedroom and when he came out he was wearing colour, actual colour; a dark blue shirt that looked cool to the touch and slacks that rustled as he crossed the room. Luke’s blond hair, courtesy of his Northern European ancestry and always so easy to pick up in a crowd in Iraq, was slicked back, making him look elegant and severe.
“This is all I have, sorry,” Asim said, gesturing to his sweater. “The rest of my dressy clothes are still in damn storage.”
“It’s fine,” Luke said shortly. “Everyone will coo at how sweet you look with your oversized sweater and your rumpled hair.”
“…I’m almost thirty,” Asim protested.
“And you have the face of a fifteen-year-old. I bet you get carded all the time,” Luke replied as he slipped on his coat, raveled a scarf around his neck, and put on his shoes. “Come on. The guy whose showing it is, I hate him. I hope he slips on a patch of ice and dies. I need to see his work and make sure it’s really as awful as I think it is.”
“Asshole,” Asim said, scrambling along.
They took a taxi to the gallery, which had no name that Asim could decipher and was an industrial cinderblock affair that was trying to pass for grunge but mostly falling along some spectrum of weary. Luke paid the taxi driver and wasted no time in dragging Asim out of the vehicle, causing Asim to bat at his hands and say “seriously, what’s your rush?” He might have been more surprised, but he had gone with Luke to galleries before and Luke was always like this, a bit restless and predatory, even when it was his own pictures being shown. Or scratch that; especially when his own pictures were being shown.
Inside, there was already a small crowd, and each person was dressed better or more stylishly than Asim. There were men in suits and women in cocktail dresses; men in leather pants and women in fishnets. Asim tugged at his sweater, which had been a gift from his mama and really was oversized, and decided to look at the photos instead. They were black and white, arranged in a haphazard pattern, and seemed mostly to consist of pictures of washing machines. They were nice, Asim thought, and there was clearly a lot of skill behind each shot, but that was about all he could say for them, not that he had ever been an art critic to begin with.
“Here he comes,” Luke said into his ear, and Asim turned around to greet a handsome man in a pearl white vest and two women in his arm, one blonde and one brunette. Asim looked at their plunging necklines and shuffled awkwardly when one of the women noticed and smiled back.
“Luke!” said the man. “Hey, dude, I didn’t think you’d come.”
“It’s your grand opening, Robert. How could I miss it?” Luke said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. His voice was smooth and mean.
“Requiem,” the man correct. “I’m called Requiem these days.”
“Sorry, Robert, I didn’t catch that,” Luke said. He gestured towards Asim. “This is my friend Asim Khoury. He’s a freelance journalist.”
“The Iraqi guy, right?”
“I’m American,” Asim said.
“Luke says you write good shit,” Requiem said, “but Luke has shit taste anyway, no offense.” He looked Asim up and down, and Asim opened his mouth to protest that it wasn’t like that, but then Requiem gave a short bark of a laugh and said, “Your sneakers are untied.”
“Oh,” Asim said. He had completely forgotten to pick out good shoes. He’d just grabbed whatever was by the door in his hurry to follow Luke. “Um. Thanks for telling me.” He looked longingly at the open bar and the bottles of tempting alcohol lining the counter.
Luke said, “That’s some interesting use of colour and shading you have in the pictures,” and Asim could see the defensive curl of Requiem’s otherwise cocky posture. He took that moment to excuse himself quietly and flee the scene of what was sure to be a photographers’ bloodthirsty duel of egos. He made a beeline for the bar where the bartender looked at him sympathetically when Asim said, “Just give me anything you’ve got.”
“That kind of night, huh?” the bartender said.
“I’m in a gallery full of washing machine photos and my roommate-slash-possible-inappropriate-lo
“I love martinis,” Asim said.
The bartender hummed and started mixing. Vodka, Chambord, pineapple juice, raspberry liqueur; Asim took the French martini eagerly when the bartender slid it over. The Safars had been strictly Muslim, so there’d been no drinking while living with them. Asim didn’t drink too much anyway, even in college, because he knew he was a lightweight and did embarrassing things when drunk. But when he glanced over and saw Requiem curl his fist as he shouted at Luke, he figured what the hell. It was a special occasion. He sipped the martini and when he was done, asked for another one, and then another one.
Half an hour later, Luke had stopped riling Requiem up and had disappeared into the washroom stalls. Asim knew this because he found himself in the washroom stalls as well, pressed up against it, making out with Luke. He had one leg hooked around Luke’s waist while his other tried to keep balance, and Luke’s hands were on his hips as his mouth moved over Asim’s, wet and hot and purposeful. Asim groaned low in his throat and pushed back against Luke, greedy. Luke moved his hands from his hips to his ass, and he hoisted Asim up.
Asim tried not to be turned on by how strong Luke was — how strong he had to be, always carrying that photographic equipment around — but failed spectacularly, judging by the hardness of his cock inside his pants and the gathering sweat on his fingertips as he trailed them over Luke’s cheekbones, over his eyelashes. “I love your eyelashes,” Asim said nonsensically, as the vodka slid deeper into his bloodstream. “They are so fucking pretty, and you shouldn’t be pretty at all, but you are.”
Luke’s tongue darted out and ran over Asim’s fingertips. Asim pushed them inside Luke’s mouth and watched, fascinated, as Luke sucked on them. Luke’s eyes were slivers of grey, half-masted as he stared at Asim. Asim shuddered and removed his fingers from Luke’s mouth because as hot as it was, he wanted his mouth there instead, and maybe his cock after, though he didn’t have the bravery to say those words. He just leaned forward and kissed Luke, hoping he would understand.
Luke kissed him for what felt like hours, and then his mouth traveled to Asim’s neck and he started kissing a line south, scraping his teeth in counterpoint to the movement of his lips. Asim gasped when Luke yanked down his sweater’s collar and started kissing the skin beneath, the skin Asim had tucked behind layers that were falling away for Luke now. Luke adjusted Asim’s weight to one arm. Just one arm, and oh god, Asim really was a lightweight and Luke really was that deceptively muscled. His other hand gripped the hem of Asim’s sweater and started pushing up, his fingers trailing over the warm flesh of Asim’s stomach.
Asim, knowing a good idea when he saw one, started fumbling with the buttons of Luke’s shirt. It was as cool to the touch as he imagined, and the cloth was slippery against his fingers, but he popped open one button with great concentration, his head swimming with alcohol and the weight of Luke’s kisses, and the way Luke was stroking his stomach now, over and over again. Asim managed a second button, but it was a long time coming. Luke shook as he laughed. “You’re awful at this,” he said, which made Asim bare his teeth and decide to rip the rest of it off, easy come, easy go.
Then his hands had easy access to Luke’s skin, and he caressed the scar on Luke’s stomach where he’d gotten hit by shrapnel during a skirmish, which had been like a prelude to Sayid because Asim had held Luke then as Luke bled and bled, and Asim had yelled for medics. Except Luke didn’t die. The medics got there in time and sewed Luke up, and within three days Luke was hobbling around, taking photos of the whole damn mess. Unlike Sayid, Luke was here with him now, intense and alive, and Asim felt like crying all of a sudden with the relief of it.
He felt Luke unzip his fly, the sound a blood rush in his ears, and he choked out a desperate sob when Luke’s fingers brushed the bulge of Asim in his underwear. Luke’s fingers were a marvel, long and patrician; they’d taken out enemies for Asim before. Greg’s had been entirely different, incomparable really —
Greg. Shit. Greg.
Asim stumbled out of Luke’s hold. He put his feet on the ground and pushed a safe distance away, though the stall didn’t allow for much space and there was coolness where heat had once been. “I can’t do this,” he gasped. “I’ve got… Greg… I’m not supposed to be…” He felt incoherent, ruined, his skin still hungry for Luke’s mouth and his fingers. “Luke, you bastard, why didn’t you ever do this before? I didn’t even know you liked me.”
“I fucking hate Greg,” Luke snapped.
“Huh? What?” Asim said, head reeling. “You’ve never even met him!”
“What does he know about you? Nothing. He’s just a spoiled college brat who wants to have some fun,” Luke said harshly. Asim stared at him for a long time before shuddering his breath together and tugging his sweater over his exposed belly.
“He’s got a good soul,” Asim said. “He’s not like us. He’s not… damaged.”
“You’re not damaged,” Luke hissed.
“I can’t fucking write anymore!” Asim yelled, and he didn’t care that they were in a public washroom, that anybody could hear. Good. Let them know. Let the entire goddamn world know, from here to Baghdad. “Sayid deserves to be remembered. All of the Safars do, but I can’t fucking write! I’m choked up and useless and I spend my day watching TV and angsting about stupid relationship problems that don’t mean anything in the end when there are people dying. I’m living the sort of life the Safars would kill to have, but I’m wasting it!” He slammed his hand against the stall. “What am I doing here? I don’t know. I should have never come back!”
Luke stared at him.
“I… I need to go,” Asim said. “It’s not you, it’s just…” He shook his head wildly. “I need to go.”
“Where?” Luke asked. “My apartment? Your parents’ place? Iraq?”
“Anywhere,” Asim said.
Asim didn’t return to Luke’s apartment. The taxi dropped him and Luke off in front of the steps, and Luke had looked at him stonily, his hands clenched at his sides. Asim had given him a weak smile and said, “I’ll see you later” because he couldn’t be around Luke right now, not without it leading to the type of disaster neither of them could recover from. So he took the scarf that Luke threw at him with a freezing “do whatever the fuck you want”, which was advice that Asim took. He did what he did best. He set off in a random direction and wandered.
At two in the morning, it was colder than he had expected, the October air brittle with the puff of his breath. Asim wrapped Luke’s scarf securely around his neck as he walked through the neighbourhood, weaving past students coming home from the bar or late night sessions at the library. He tried to keep to a steady pace but he found himself walking faster and faster the further he got, as if there was a destination he had in mind, when in truth Asim had no idea where he was going. This wasn’t the part of Boston he had lived in before, and while he’d been here for a few weeks now, it was still mostly terra incognita. Which suited him fine. He had made his peace with unfamiliarity; it was practically the byword of the foreign journalist. Asim was used to being shipped to whatever country his editors wanted him to write on, and being thrown off the plane without a parachute, so to speak.
So Asim walked, with his hands stuffed in his pockets and the smell of Luke tangled in the scarf. He walked and then he walked some more, working the alcohol out of him while trying to clear his mind. Nights like these reminded him of being with Sayid, but almost everything reminded him of Sayid; Asim had carried the dead with him across oceans. He tried to think of Luke instead, but that was a mistake as well, because his legs shook with the memory of Luke’s arm holding him up, and what Luke had said, that he never missed.
Asim and Sayid had talked often of love and desire. Sayid had shared his fantasies of the girl down the street, Jamila, who had liquid eyes and a smile that Sayid dreamed of seeing directed at him. Asim used to laugh at how embarrassingly clumsy Sayid became whenever Jamila was in earshot, as if it wasn’t completely, completely obvious to anyone with a brain that Sayid was enamored with her. Asim had liked Jamila and her quiet, steady competence, with her own dreams of being better educated, which she had confessed to Sayid once, and Sayid had confessed to Asim. They probably would have gotten married one day, Sayid and Jamila. It’d seemed inevitable. The last time Asim saw Jamila was the day before he flew out of Baghdad, and she had come over to say goodbye, her hands trembling in his.
But in all the conversations, Asim had never told Sayid about his own desires, because while Sayid was open and inquisitive about many things — and it’d gotten him killed — Asim was afraid he wouldn’t be about this, about men with other men. Sayid did come from a religious family, though he might have guessed. There had been moments when Asim was sure he had been found out, moments when Sayid remarked on the way Asim looked at some of the local men, at his friends. Asim had always laughed it off, blaming a reporter’s curiosity, but Sayid was smart. Sayid may have guessed.
He never did say.
I wish I had told him, Asim thought. Wait, no I don’t. He would have hated me. He would have thought I was disgusting. But still, I can’t help it; I wish I could have told him about Luke.
He hadn’t mentioned Luke at all to Sayid. He could have. It wouldn’t have been difficult to drop a comment about the photographer he was constantly working with, nor would it have been difficult to mention Luke in one of the stories Asim told Sayid about traveling with the American troops, both in the preceding months and in the years before, during different assignments. Luke had been there nearly all the instances, after all, a constant sure presence. But Asim never did speak his name when they were apart, because every time he tried it was like a snarl in his breath, like speaking the name of an avenging angel that he did not understand and would destroy him if manifested. Luke’s cool stares, his hand on his Glock, his photographs that Asim carried copies of all the way into Baghdad, where he showed them to Sayid without telling him anything about the man who took them.
Sayid had been warmth and fire in Asim’s life, his unexpected friend and companion when Asim was far from home. Luke, on the other hand, was nothing like that. Luke was ice, and Asim, child of the sunny beaches of California, had never thought that ice could burn him whole, until now.
And this was how he arrived at Greg’s dorm.
“Asim?” Greg said blearily, opening his door a crack. “How did you get in?”
“People opened the doors for me,” Asim said. He tried for a crooked smile. “The security in your dorm is pretty crap, I’ve got to say. Isn’t the goal to keep out fishy Arabs like me?”
Greg grabbed his collar and pulled him inside the room, where it was dark save for the low light of his computer, by which Asim could see that Greg had been working on an assignment. “Something happened, didn’t it?” Greg said, reminding Asim why he was wasted as an economics major. He should have gone into psychology instead. Asim said this out loud and Greg rolled his eyes. “You’re just ridiculously easy to read,” he said, sitting back down at his computer desk. “What’s up? Get into a fight with Luke again?”
“I… ah…” Asim trailed off.
“…a sex fight?” Greg amended.
Asim snapped to attention. “I wouldn’t do that to you,” he began, except he realized that he had. He’d kissed Luke and kissed him for far too long to still hold onto his virtue as a decent boyfriend.
“I’m a terrible person,” he confessed. “Greg, I really am. And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for leading you on. You deserve so much better and–”
“Slow down,” Greg said. “You sound like you’re going to have a panic attack. And hey, didn’t I tell you that I know already? About you and Luke.”
“There’s nothing between me and Luke,” Asim said automatically. “Even if there was, it doesn’t make it right.”
“No,” Greg said slowly, “but here’s the thing. I like you, Asim. You’re sweet and you’re smart and you feel passionately about things, which is what I see missing in a lot of people. But I knew from the beginning that you weren’t mine to keep. You hold parts of yourself away from me, and I get that. I hold parts of myself from you too.” He looked up at Asim ruefully. “You ever consider that maybe I wasn’t yours to keep either?”
Asim closed his eyes. “Greg, you don’t have to be understanding.”
“I don’t have to be, that’s true,” Greg said, “but guess what, you don’t get to tell me how I feel. And I feel fine.”
Asim opened his eyes. Greg stretched out in his chair and grinned. “You always go on about how people are dying, and sure, they are, but you’re not. It doesn’t help anybody by pretending that you are.” He stopped Asim from interrupting. “Remember, I was the one to write my number on your coffee sleeve. I took that first step. Is it that hard to do it yourself, for what you really want?”
“I don’t want Luke that much,” Asim said.
“You’re such a fucking liar,” Greg said fondly.
Luke was asleep when Asim finally returned to the apartment. Or at least, his bedroom door was closed and the apartment was shadowed and silent, though whether he was actually sleeping was anyone’s guess. Asim silently fumbled with his shoes and the buttons of his coat. He unwound Luke’s scarf slowly and a bit — if he were to admit it to himself — reluctantly, hanging it gently on the wall hook next to Luke’s coat and umbrella.
He made his way to the couch, sinking down on it with a sigh. He looked at Luke’s door again, considered an option, and then chewed on his bottom lip. There was no use. At the end of the day Asim was still a little frightened of Luke and Luke’s reaction if Asim were to bang on his door and wake him up. For what? For more making out, followed by confused ramblings?
“Ugh,” Asim said, burying his face in the couch. He flailed his hand out for the blanket and stopped when his fingers touched the smooth glossy surface of a folder instead. Asim looked at it blankly. The folder had been placed within reach, where it definitely had not been when he left for the gallery. It was a plain black folder, one of the many staples of Luke’s office, and Asim sat up slowly with it in hand.
He opened it, and as expected, there were photos inside. Twenty of them, shot in simple black and white, with all the characteristics of Luke’s style. Asim flipped through the photos and by the time he got to the third one, his hands had lost whatever steadiness they might have hoped for, because he’d thought at first that these were Luke’s photos for the ‘other side of war’ project he was working on, but they weren’t. These were photos that Asim had not known Luke was planning to take. They didn’t fit the profile for any of his projects. He recognized them nonetheless, because that was Afghanistan right there, that was Iraq, that was Saudi Arabia, these was all the places they had been in together, and in the centre of each and every photo was Asim.
Asim playing soccer with the soldiers, Asim reading a book, Asim with his pen between his teeth, Asim with a combat helmet strapped on, Asim staring off into the distance moodily, Asim looking down at his hands, Asim giving someone off-camera a smile that even Asim didn’t know he was capable of, joyous and amused and reckless. He couldn’t even remember the instance this had happened, it’d probably been so ordinary, but Luke had plucked that moment out of time and taken this photo, so clear in its statement and so full of —
These were not photos that Luke could have sent in as part of his assignment. They weren’t photos that could have been used to go alongside Asim’s articles. They were clearly personal photos, ones that Luke took not because he had to for the job but because he wanted to.
Asim thought of Luke developing these photos and keeping them with him as he traveled. Hell, some of them looked quite worn at the edges, not new and fresh at all. There were even stains at the bottom of one of them that looked like motor oil, and Asim could only guess where that had come from.
His chest felt cage tight, and he didn’t know how long he sat there, going through the photos repeatedly, seeing himself reflected back. Then he put them down, gathered his courage, and took the ten steps from the couch to Luke’s door where he knocked. Quietly at first, and then louder.
When Luke came out, it was obvious that he hadn’t been sleeping. He was still dressed in the ripped blue shirt. Asim froze when he looked at the buttons hanging off, evidence of his own desire. Then he forced his gaze up to Luke’s face, which was calm and impassive, but if Asim knew what he was looking for, he could see the tension of Luke’s jaw and the uncertainty of the way he stood, leaning against the door frame as support. “So that’s why I hate Greg,” Luke remarked, and Asim laughed low in his throat, helpless.
“You… you could have said earlier.”
“So could you,” Luke replied.
Asim reached for Luke’s hair, tumbling loose out of the gel. He raked his fingers through it, trying to control the shaking of his hand, and in doing so he almost missed Luke’s sharp indrawn breath. Almost. Asim swallowed against the ball in his throat. He thought of Greg. He thought of Sayid. Then he used his grasp on Luke’s hair to pull him closer where he said, very quietly, “Take me to bed.”
Luke didn’t need to be told twice. His mouth came down on Asim’s fiercely and then Asim stopped thinking entirely as he kissed Luke until his mouth was tender and soft with it, and even then he kept on kissing him. His hands returned to Luke’s shirt where he finished the job he had started earlier, ripping the rest of it, sending buttons everywhere. Luke laughed into Asim’s mouth, backing them up into the bed where they tipped over and fell onto the mattress, still kissing, still touching each other as much as they could.
“Luke,” Asim said. “Luke.” It was all he could say at this point, just Luke’s name, as Luke’s artist’s hands undid Asim’s fly and proceeded to strip him of his pants. Luke threw Asim’s pants over his shoulder where they hit a lamp, but he didn’t bother to look at his own poor aim. His fingers were already playing with the band of Asim’s boxers, and Asim turned red with embarrassment when he realized that they were his Batman boxers. He didn’t have much time to fret over this, however, because with a smooth movement on Luke’s part, the boxers were gone too and Asim was naked, his hard cock curving upwards.
“I knew you’d blush for me,” Luke said with a private half-smile, running his hands down Asim’s thighs. “But if this is embarrassing you, how are you going to handle what I plan to do to you very soon?”
“Yeah?” Asim croaked. “And what would that be?”
Luke trailed a finger up Asim’s thigh, to the bottom of his balls. Asim bit his lip to keep from making a very needy sound, and he saw the frown on Luke’s face, followed by the look of determination that Asim knew would have him making those sounds whether he liked it or not. “I’ve thought about this so long, and there’s so many things I want to do to you,” Luke said, “that I think I’ll be disappointed if I don’t do them all.”
“All?” Asim echoed.
Luke reached over Asim, stretching his body in Asim’s line of vision so that Asim could appreciate the glide of muscle in his forearms. Luke rummaged through his night table and when he found what he was looking for, Asim saw that it was a cock ring.
Asim was wordless as Luke fastened the ring around him because what could he say to that? The pounding of his heart and the rush of his blood was answer enough, and his hips jerked upwards, yearning for Luke’s touch, but Luke’s strong hands came and held them down. The ring was tight, and Asim suddenly felt huge and engorged, heavy with the weight of his balls. Luke looked down at his work in satisfaction, and then he peered up at Asim through the fringe of his blond bangs. Asim managed to catch Luke’s knife-quick smile before Luke ducked his head and took Asim’s bound cock into his mouth.
Asim’s breath fell from his lips at the feel of Luke’s mouth around him. The warm, tight pressure of it, the slickness of it, the deft manipulation of Luke’s tongue along the vein that ran up Asim’s cock… Asim felt his legs shake, and he couldn’t stop. He strained his back as he tried to arch up deeper into Luke’s mouth, and Luke laughed, a low rumble that traveled through Asim’s body and fired up every cell inside.
Even the way Luke sucked cock was full of smug superiority, Asim thought raggedly, and he could only be thankful for it this time because Luke proceeded to leave him a trembling wreck. “Don’t be shy,” Luke said when he pulled away for a second, and Asim stared at the string of saliva that tangled briefly from Luke’s mouth to his cock. It was utterly wanton. Then Luke went down on him again and Asim lost all notions of propriety. Even with Greg he had always been polite during a blowjob, never giving more than Greg could take, but Luke, as Asim knew, could take everything.
Asim bucked and writhed and forgot everything that wasn’t his cock, Luke’s mouth, and the trapped pressure in his balls that grew and grew, leaving Asim moaning loudly. “Oh god,” Asim said, “I think I’m going to come.”
“No, you aren’t,” Luke said, sitting back. Asim reached for him and his talented mouth, but Luke batted his hand away and crawled back over Asim’s body at his own pace. Instead of returning his mouth to Asim’s cock where it belonged, however, Luke’s tongue swirled over Asim’s balls and traveled downwards, curving along the inside of where Asim’s thighs met his groin. Then he darted forward, and Asim went white with shock as Luke swiped his tongue over Asim’s hole.
Asim’s back stretched tight and he let out a sound that was suspiciously like a sob. This was… he hadn’t actually thought anybody would ever… a part of him wanted to tell Luke to stop, that he wasn’t used to this, but Luke’s tongue was stroking Asim’s hole with languid confidence, and Asim felt himself twitch in response, his muscles straining at the attention that had never been paid to them before. Luke kept his tongue moving in circles to and fro, and Asim said his name once, and then twice, his voice breaking each time.
Then Luke’s tongue moved forward, breaching the ring of muscle, and Asim cried out in surprise and want.
“Fuck,” he said, “oh fuck” as Luke’s tongue thrust inside of him, pulled out, and then thrust inside of him again. Asim’s hips were working the air now, but Luke stopped him after a while, pinning him deep into the mattress as he proceeded to eat Asim out, filling the air with the noises of flesh and wetness and Asim’s moans.
“Luke, I can’t… ” Asim lost that train of thought when Luke ran his tongue over the rim of Asim’s hole, soothing the growing redness, before he delved back in, hungry. Asim keened with regret when Luke finally stopped licking into him, when Luke lifted himself off Asim’s body and returned to foraging inside his nightstand.
Luke found the bottle of lube, and he kept eye contact with Asim as he slicked up a finger generously. Then he was crawling back between Asim’s legs and he was putting his tongue down there again, voracious, at the same time as he pushed his lube-slick finger in as well.
It was almost too much. Asim’s balls were swollen with the desire to have come at least five minutes ago, but the cock ring kept him hard, kept him at that torturous precipice as Luke moved his tongue and finger inside Asim. Then he slid his tongue out, smiling that smug smile once more. Asim at this moment very much wanted to kiss him, but Luke didn’t let him have that opportunity because Luke was wetting a second finger and pushing it inside with a squelching sound that filled the entire room, and sent Asim panting.
He could feel the calluses of Luke’s fingers inside of him, where his index finger was rough from mastering shutter buttons and handgun triggers. Then Asim tilted his head back, let out a pained cry, and shook as Luke started fucking him with his fingers.
Asim fucked back. His body was overheating, sweat was running down his temples, and his ass felt like it was melting around the shape of Luke’s fingers, around his insistent push and pull as he worked Asim good. Asim pulled himself up to his elbows and looked down in time to see Luke add a third finger, hitting his prostate, and that was it, he was done. His body jerked with a sensation so strong that it sent him falling back into the mattress, staring at the ceiling until he saw spots.
“Was that… did I come?” Asim gasped.
Luke looked at his cock, still hard, and said, “Nope.”
Because he was wrong, he wasn’t done, not by far, and Luke finger-fucked him until he was on his hands and knees, giving him better access, begging for it. He was pushing himself down on Luke’s fingers, sobbing when they brushed over his prostate, and he was making noises that he’d never made for anyone else before. It was so fucking good. It was beyond what he could handle. And it never stopped. Luke fucked him on and on, and still he murmured that there was more, he wasn’t even halfway through the things he wanted to do to Asim yet.
Until finally Asim couldn’t recognize his own voice when he said, “Please, Luke, please. Fuck me. Just fuck me.” Luke finally took mercy on him, and Asim collapsed into a boneless heap, watching in the corner of his eye as Luke shimmied out of his pants and his briefs; expensive-looking fabric, not Batman boxers at all. “I’m so loose already,” Asim said as encouragement, and he saw Luke shudder as he rolled a condom over his own impressive erection.
Then Luke was guiding Asim back on all fours, holding him there with the strength of his arm, and his cock was pushing inside Asim where he was already messy and wet. Luke entered Asim in one easy glide, and Asim held his breath as his body took Luke’s entire length. He didn’t start breathing again until Luke was seated deep inside, and he could hear the shaky noises in the room that weren’t just him anymore.
“Asim,” Luke said, his voice hoarse, and Asim pushed back against Luke’s cock because what was he waiting for, a fucking silver-plated invitation?
When Luke started thrusting, Asim was surprised. He thought that Luke would continue to tease him with even, smooth strokes that would drive Asim to incoherency. That wasn’t the case. Luke started out steady, his hips working a rhythm that Asim could keep time by, but then he heard the increasing desperation of Luke’s breath. So it was Asim’s turn to say, “Don’t be shy” and Luke took that as a cue to moan and drive forward hard, pushing Asim’s entire body forward before pulling him back and driving into him again.
Then he was fucking Asim in all the crude senses of that word. No more games, no more languidness. He was using Asim hard and long and deep, and he was making noises into Asim’s ear that were a combination of curses, pleas to God, and Asim’s name, which had never sounded so beautiful or so obscene. Asim’s own mouth was put to use begging, and his vision went spotty when Luke started pounding his prostate, his entire body wound up with desire so intense that he wondered if this was the moment before his mind would break, if this was how he was going to go out, in a blaze of glory and Luke screwing him in abandon.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” Asim said, biting down on the pillow to keep from screaming the entire apartment down. “Luke, please let me come. Please, habiib ‘albi, I need to come.” His voice came out muffled, barely understandable, but Luke was on the same page as him because as his pounding grew increasingly erratic, he leaned over and loosened Asim’s cock ring. Then it was just a matter of the next thrust before Asim was coming so hard that he must have passed out briefly, because one moment he was shouting into the pillow as his body pushed out all of his pent-up desire, and the next Luke was making the most deliciously wrecked noise behind him as he reached his own orgasm.
“Oh my god,” Asim panted, trying to come to terms with what had just happened. “Oh my god, Luke, what is wrong with you, have you never had sex before?”
Luke pulled out of him gently, and then huffed a breath as he threw the condom into the garbage can. “We could have been doing that in Iraq, just so you know.”
“I don’t think we would have made it to Iraq,” Asim said. “We would have missed our flight because we were too busy fucking in your bed.”
“True,” Luke said, and when he laid down, Asim wrapped his arms around him. Luke didn’t object. He put his arms around Asim too, and there might have been more said after that, but Asim was out of words in a good way for once, and he held Luke close, afloat in a strange new land, as he slowly went to sleep.
It was past noon when he woke, and he heard the familiar sound of Luke’s camera go off.
“Good morning to you too,” Asim said, gazing up at Luke, who was kneeling with one knee on the bed, balancing himself for the best shot of Asim’s face. “Do I even want to know why you’re taking photos of me asleep?”
“Better not to ask,” Luke said. “Oh, and I made breakfast.”
“I’m impressed,” Asim said. After Luke went off to warm up said breakfast, Asim looked down at his body. He blushed when he saw all the marks of last night — or rather, earlier this morning — present, on his thighs, on his chest, on his hips. He was sore and his skin was tight, and his head hurt a little bit with the remnants of the alcohol. It was the best he had felt in a long time. Asim stretched out on the bed and smiled.
“Hey, lazy ass, you’re going to have to come out. I’m not serving you breakfast in bed,” Luke said from the kitchen. So Asim grabbed the first shirt he saw. It happened to be one of Luke’s Reuters t-shirts, which he never wore because Luke was too hipster to wear a t-shirt without an ironic slogan on it. Asim put on the Reuters t-shirt and slipped back into his Batman boxers before wandering out into the kitchen where Luke had bacon and eggs set out on a plate, along with fresh-squeezed orange juice.
“That’s, um, pretty amazing,” Asim admitted.
“Yeah,” Luke said, looking at him.
They sat down to eat, and when they were finished Asim pressed Luke up against the kitchen counter while Luke attempted to do the dishes. Asim had other plans. He kissed him, and then he got down on his knees and gave Luke a blowjob that made Luke’s knees shake. Ten minutes after Luke came his brains out, much to Asim’s satisfaction, Luke’s cell phone rang, calling him into work, which was not conducive for more fucking but wasn’t bad for other prospects. Asim was in the sort of mood where he felt like he could do anything, could conquer all mountains. In other words, the perfect mood to write. He doubted he would finish his article or even get very far, but today was a day where he wanted to try. Joy made it easier for him to explore sorrow.
When Luke was gone, he sat down at the couch and booted up his laptop. He looked at the photos splayed across the coffee table, and then when his word processor opened, Asim took a deep breath and plunged in.
It’s morning, he typed, and on an otherwise unremarkable street in Baghdad, Sayid Safar wakes up.