Raf stood on the upper deck. The sky was cloudless and the ocean before him was an expanse of gentle ripples. Without any land in sight, the whole world was a powdery blue. All other colors came from the men who reveled on the ship. Lining the railing on either side of Raf and surrounding the swimming pool on the deck below, every man wore trunks the various shades of the rainbow. Speedos flaunted superhero physiques. Diesels boasted butts so round that Raf could sink his face in between their mounds. Guys were downing beer, clinking glasses, nibbling on cherries and pineapples that embellished their drinks. In his glass Raf twirled an ice cube with a toothpick that was topped with a pink paper parasol. He leaned on the railing to relish the wind. The sun darkened his body a ruddy tan.
He had never been on a cruise, much less a cruise in which the passenger list consisted exclusively of near naked gay men. Hesitation didn't exist for anybody onboard - hesitation to flirt, to touch, to share the same bed. Neither did apologies. This cruise existed for one reason alone: for those like Raf to have fun with as many partners as he pleased without any regrets. Far at sea, they were free of any law that could condemn them for fucking and loving.
From behind Raf, a pair of arms wrapped around his torso and a man's crotch pressed against his ass. The man shoved a tongue into Raf's ear and whispered, "You're lost in thought. Anything wrong?"
It was Grant, his lover of five years, handsome Grant whose fuzzy arms tickled and warmed, whose sapphire eyes Raf drowned in whether they were disagreeing on a film or slurping soup from the same spoon.
For all the years they had been together, Raf never stopped marveling that their casual meeting at the gym had led to a relationship currently on its fifth year. Never mind that Grant grew up in a small town in the Midwest with scarcely a minority, while Raf was educated in an international school across the Pacific. So what that Grant's daily diet had been peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, while Raf's childhood meals consisted of coconut salad and mango pie. Love transcended culture and race. In honor of that love, Grant presented this cruise to Raf for his 40th birthday.
This was their second day at sea. Everything had been perfect until Raf picked up a magazine and happened upon a story about someone from his past. "Remember Tomas?" he asked.
"My friend when I was in college. My frat brother. My..."
"Your first boyfriend, the guy who entered the military."
Raf was silent. He and Grant were face to face. Grant was never taller and larger than he was at this instant - a powerhouse of strength shining with tanning oil. Regardless of his 48 years, his energy didn't seem to diminish. Grant still hugged with the force of Goliath, and when he would squat to tie his sneakers, his thighs would appear to burst through his jeans. Though strands of white were beginning to lace his black hair, his hair remained as lush as when they had met.
Raf hugged him, pressed his own torso against his, then buried his face in his lover's arm pit. Grant's meaty man smell sent Raf into a delirium.
"Hey, baby," Grant said. "Whatever's bothering you, it's okay."
"Is it?" asked Raf.
There was a time when Raf thought he could never love again when it ended with Tomas. Raf was 18 and Tomas was 20 when they had met. The first time they saw each other was in the dormitory. One afternoon, Raf walked into the common area to watch TV and toying with the foosball table was Tomas. He didn't notice Raf at first, but Raf sure noticed him. With one look, feelings Raf had pent up for guys when in high school surged forth. Tomas was standing before an open window, green eyes darting across rows of plastic footballers impaled in metal bars. Sunlight speckled hair birch brown. Forearm muscles inflated upon the swift turn of a metal bar.
"Wanna play?" Tomas asked. A good two minutes could have passed before he saw Raf across the room, leaning against the back of a sofa and watching him.
"I came... well... for the TV," Raf said.
"I was watching TV just before you got here. Trust me. Nothing good's on." Tomas motioned with a sway of his head for Raf to come closer. "Please. One game."
"I don't know how to play."
"Nobody does when he first gets here. I'll teach you."
Raf was lousy in games. This guy would laugh at him, think him a dud. But fuck... he was inviting Raf. He really wanted Raf's company. He extended a hand for Raf to shake. His hand was large. Manly fingers complemented the girth of his muscular neck.
"I'm Tomas," he said. "Without an 'h'. Never call me Tom or Tommy. Always Tomas."
Raf took his hand. With that one touch, there was no turning back.
Tomas was a patient teacher. He was consoling. "You'll get the hang of the game," he said every time Raf missed a goal.
It snowballed from there. Foosball led to meals together, a midnight rerun of "The Rocky Horror Midnight Show" in the Village, and talks while jogging around the track field and spotting each other in the weight room. Raf learned to play foosball and he learned to play well. But what he enjoyed learning most was about the life of this junior who had taken the hand of this freshman. Tomas Christiansen was half Argentinean, half German and born and raised in Cincinnati. A student of law and diplomacy, he planned on a military career upon graduation so that he could apply his knowledge toward creating a world less racked by war and political dissension; such was his youthful idealism. He liked Ben and Jerry's ice cream. His favorite color was brown because brown was the color of the earth. He knew the lyrics to the songs in "Xanadu" and he cried in "West Side Story." He was a brother at Zeta Psi.
"You should rush," he told Raf during one foosball game.
"I'm not the fraternity type," Raf said.
"You would make a perfect brother." Here Tomas was again, enticing Raf to do something he was unsure of. "Let's make a deal," Tomas said. "If I win this set, you rush. If you win, you... we discuss it."
They played for nearly an hour, slamming the ball against the foosball table, swerving left to right in exercising their reflexes. Then Tomas raised his fists in victory and let out a triumphant yell. He placed an arm around Raf's shoulders. Raf feigned disappointment.
The truth was that Raf let Tomas win.
The rushing was a semester of absurdities: running up and down the dorm stairs, naked save for a pair of underwear concealing his head; not bathing for a week; eating a raw onion. Come the end of spring, the brothers threw a welcome party for the initiates in the basement of the frat house, a brick structure with bars barricading the lower level windows. Guys danced with girls to music blasting on a loudspeaker, and beer pumped out of a barrel and spilled on the floor. The basement was packed. And yet - like the scene in "West Side Story" in which Tony and Maria see each other for the first time across a crowded dance floor, bewitched, and the revelers blur into the distance like fog receding into a cave - Tomas and Raf were rooted to their spots at opposite ends of the room, their eyes on nobody but each other.
Raf could not mistake the look on Tomas's face. It was the look he imagined on himself when he used to yearn for the older boys in his high school locker room. He had seen that look before on Tomas, but it had been a fleeting look during foosball or a walk to class and so he would dismiss it. Only tonight Tomas was not turning his head away.
Tomas cut across the basement. Guys parted from their girls to make way. He took Raf by the hand and he said, "Let me show you something."
Tomas guided Raf up a flight of stairs to the rooftop. Washington Square below was bustling with listeners surrounding a street violinist. Throngs of people were strolling, rollerblading, and gathering around the fountain that jetted water aiming for the sky. Trees were in full bloom and the sun was beginning to set late.
The two stood against a cement ledge, contemplating the world around them. Tomas remained holding Raf's hand. An amber glow cast down upon them. For the first time an awkward silence befell both.
At last, Tomas took Raf in his arms. Raf did not pull back. They stood motionless for several moments more. And then they kissed.
Raf had never kissed a boy before. He had never even kissed a girl before. Yet what he was doing with Tomas, he did without having to think. It was instinctual, as natural as waking in the morning to live the day ahead.
They scurried to an alcove located across the rooftop. There they hastily undid their sneakers, dropped their jeans and underwear, and threw off their sweatshirts and t-shirts. Even though the door to the rooftop was on the other side and facing the opposite direction, Raf hesitated.
"What if someone comes up?" he asked.
"No one will," Tomas said.
Tomas laid Raf down on their clothes. He lay beside Raf, spat on a finger and tickled Raf's asshole. Losing himself to this new sensation, Raf placed his head on Tomas's chest.
"Stay right there," Tomas said. "Listen."
Tomas's heart pounded in Raf's head a hypnotic drum beat.
"But..." Raf began once more.
"Only I have access to the rooftop," Tomas said. "I got a copy of the door key from the maintenance man. It's forbidden to be up here."
"How did you manage that?"
Tomas smiled slyly.
"I've wanted you since the first moment I saw you at the foosball table," Raf said.
Tomas got up while Raf remained lying. He stood above Raf a manboy demigod. His penis jutted out like a diving board, hungry for a buddy fuck. His muscles were robust and his skin was the shade of ginger.
This is so what I thought college in America would be like, Raf thought. Where he came from, Americans were notorious for being sexually liberal. "Porky's," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Animal House" - Tomas was proving those films to be no exaggeration. Thank God for that!
Raf got on his knees, grabbed Tomas's dick. He looked beseechingly up at Tomas. His eyes watered from a mixture of joy and desperation. With the head of his cock, Tomas wiped away a tear that fell.
"I won't hurt you, Raf," he said, softly. "I promise I won't hurt you. You've made it this far. You're a brother now, my brother. Rushing was easy, but staying in... This is the real initiation. I can have you kicked out if you don't do as I say. You wouldn't want that, would you?"
It looked as though a bee had stung Raf in the eye. "No, Tomas. No, I wouldn't."
Another tear fell. And this one Tomas wiped away with a kiss.
Raf could have sworn Tomas's own eyes were glazed with a mixture of sadness and ecstasy. "I've never seen you like this, Tomas." He took Tomas's Argentinean-Germanic cock in his mouth, swallowed driblets of beer piss and dude jizz.
"Fuck your butthole with your thumb while sucking me," Tomas said.
Raf did as ordered.
"Nibble my balls."
Raf did as ordered.
"My big balls full of cum that I'm gonna unload up your ass."
At that, Raf munched ever more desperately. He grunted. He sighed. "Yeah, Tomas. That's what I want. That's what I've always wanted - a guy as wonderful and beautiful as you."
"And that's what you're getting. But first..." Tomas said, "lick my scummy frat boy shithole."
Tomas turned around so that his ass was on the level of Raf's face. He leaned forward and rested his hands against a wall. Raf rammed his face up Tomas's asshole. Tomas's anal lips sucked on his tongue like a suction tube. His big brother's rectum was pink and twitching and dank and soft.
"Do you wanna know how that feels?" asked Tomas.
"Yes, yes, I do."
Tomas had Raf stand up so that he could lie down. "Sit on my face, my newly initiated little bro."
Tomas's tongue felt like soap slithering around Raf's butt - titillating, nasty. Raf couldn't contain himself. "Fuck!" he yelled and shot his load all over Tomas's head.
Cum wet Tomas's hair and spilled onto his forehead. Raf slid down so that they were face to face. He licked his own spunk off Tomas's forehead then kissed Tomas, spitting his semen into Tomas's mouth.
"I'm not done with you yet, you dirty bitch," Tomas said.
He sat up and leaned his back against a wall. Raf faced Tomas and squatted down onto his penis. Raf let out another yell, but this one was of pain.
"Slowly. Slowly," Tomas said. "I promise I won't hurt you. Slide it in slowly."
The pain was not quick to subside, but Raf did not want to stop. He focused on Tomas's eyes, those eyes that were drawing him in, encouraging and consoling him. He felt Tomas's embrace possess him. He smelled Tomas's butt rank off his upper lip. His asshole opened up. His butt juices started to flow. They lubed up his first boyfriend's fuck muscle.
Tomas sped up his humping. He was bouncing his hips up and down with increasing velocity. The most beautiful frat jock in the world was invading Raf's most private orifice. Tomas's penis was like a baton pummeling Raf's inner fuck guts, tearing open Raf's sexed up boyhole.
Pain? What pain?
"Your ass is like velvet on my cock," Tomas whispered. His eyes were shut. His head was bent back in surrender. He shot his load, climaxed inside Raf, marinated Raf's ravaged prostate gland with his love fluids.
"Stay right there," Tomas whispered. He opened his eyes. "Keep me inside you. Keep looking into my eyes. Just like that. Repeat after me."
Tomas: Raf belongs to Tomas. Tomas belongs to Raf.
Raf: Raf belongs to Tomas. Tomas belongs to Raf.
Tomas: Tomas and Raf are one.
Raf: Tomas and Raf are one.
Tomas: I love you.
Raf: I love you.
"Is it?" Raf asked Grant. "Is what's bothering me really okay? You don't even know what it is."
"Well, then tell me."
The article in Advocate magazine painted a glorious portrait of Lieutenant General Tomas Christiansen: he risked his life in the Gulf War by leading his men to safety during an ambush; he was awarded a Medal of Honor; he shook hands with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The accompanying photograph presented a man whose smile was a little bit goofy, a little bit cocky, a smile on a face square of jaw and boyish of features. All this time and Tomas looked as though he had never lost his small town, world welcoming idealism, which was a bad thing. Such innocence could have rendered him mindless of the suspicion of his superiors. Whatever his achievements, they fell apart when his e-mails were compromised on his twentieth year in service. Military investigators discovered messages they deemed unbecoming of an officer, love letters that incriminated him as homosexual.
On June 21, 2007, Lieutenant General Tomas Christiansen was ordered to resign his commission.
"He died a few days after that," Raf said. "A self-inflicted gunshot wound. That was three months ago and I'm only learning about it now. He died on the last Sunday of June."
"Oh, Raf. I'm so, so sorry."
On the deck below, a drag queen in red stilettos and an oversized hat to match was reading the winning numbers to a raffle. Couples stood with arms around each other's waists or with a head resting on another's shoulder. Friendships were forming. The world continued as it had been yesterday. Then again, not quite: nobody was a stranger on this cruise anymore. Even though these men may not yet know everybody by name, each man was now a familiar, welcoming sight.
And so the party rolled on.
"Thank you," Raf said to Grant.
"For being here. For being alive."
"Baby," Grant said. "I'm not going anywhere. Nothing will happen to me."
Don't say that, Raf thought. Tomas had said that. He had said that the last time they had made love.
"Why?" Raf had asked him. "Why enlist?"
"I'm not enlisting," Tomas said. "I'm accepting a commission."
"Whatever. Same thing."
They were lying naked on Tomas's bed. On senior year, Tomas had gotten his own room in the fraternity, where Raf had spent more time than he did in his own dorm. They had decided not to live together for the sake of discretion. The whole frat came to know about them anyway and none of the brothers gave a damn.
Tomas's books were now packed. The walls were bare of the battleship posters and images of verdant landscapes torn from Life magazine.
"Nobody's making you accept any of this military crap," Raf continued.
"Don't talk like that. This is important to me."
"Is it more important than me?"
"That isn't fair, Raf."
"You have a choice."
Tomas spooned himself into Raf. "And I choose to use my education for the benefit of many," he said. "The military is the way I know how. My uncle did it. My grandfather did it."
"I'm worried." Raf's tone reduced nearly to a whimper. "The military isn't kind to guys like us. I thought it would be when we first met and I was new to this country. Not anymore. In some ways freedom in America remains an illusion."
"Nothing bad will happen to me," Tomas said.
"What about us? What about that forever shit? You're the only reason I joined the fraternity. I did it to always be close to you."
They had used one toothbrush. They had worn one another's piss stained jock straps. They had surreptitiously slid their hands down each other's backside during frat parties, probed their holes, then shoved their ass sordid fingers inside a drunken fellow bro's mouth. And now Tomas had nothing to say.
Tomas remained lying on his side, spooned into Raf. Raf grabbed Tomas by the chin and turned his face over his shoulder so that he was looking at Raf.
It was Raf's turn to violate Tomas. After a year since the initiation, it was Raf's turn. Raf had never fucked before, and for this first time, he was going to fuck with a vengeance. He spat on his cock and plowed into Tomas's rear, ground his pelvis, and pushed deep as far as he could go.
Tomas focused on Raf's eyes. His own eyes were murky green with venom and submission.
"You like that, Tomas.... Tom... Tommy."
"Fuck you, Raf. Fuck you."
"No, fuck you," Raf kissed Tomas. He kissed Tomas and he fucked him up the butt like a maniac. "Take that up your filthy, stinking faghole," he said.
"Who are you calling a fag?" Tomas spat on Raf's face. "Who? You're a worthless piece of shit, you know." He tightened his butthole muscles. His sphincter clamped like a visor around Raf's manhood.
Raf experienced his first orgasm in the depths of another soul, a beautiful soul to whom a year ago he had lost his boyhood and who had just now lost his own boyhood to him.
"Repeat after me," Raf said. "Raf belongs to Tomas. Tomas belongs to Raf."
"Raf belongs to Tomas. Tomas belongs to..." Tomas's voice trailed off into a sob.
They held each other on the damp sheets. Their bodies were soaked in sweat, spit, tears, and cum. Through the open window, the sun shone. It bathed the pair in a golden mist. The tip of a tree was visible, as were schools of birds distant in the sky.
Raf didn't understand why Tomas was sacrificing him for an esoteric cause. A star studded epaulet possessed no eyes to gaze into, no mouth to savor, no heart to touch. Nobility didn't exist in saluting generals if it meant searching for the most natural of human connections in a public bathroom. But Raf did understand this: wherever Tomas was going, he would have to go alone... and there would be no turning back.
On the cruise, Grant promised Raf, "Nothing will happen to me." He stood in front of Raf, held both of Raf's hands in his. How could anything happen to Grant? He was Raf's protector, alpha male muscles bursting with vitality and a face vibrant with life.
And yet, if by some miracle Tomas showed up and said to Raf, "I want you back," Raf didn't know what he'd do because in a way, he wanted Tomas to come back, if only to witness this - the happiness that could have been possible between the two of them, or the happiness that Tomas himself could have had with another man.
"I can't ever forget him," Raf said.
"Never forget," said Grant.
*"No Turning Back" was originally published in "Pledges" anthology (2013) by Cleis Press