There was something erotic about the way the young man outside my door was watering the tropical plants that dotted the hotel property, to the extent that I abandoned my plan to explore the streets of Aragum Bay, the Sri Lankan surf town where I was holed up, to sip water and watch him from my patio.
He was well aware that he had an audience, and flashed a boyish smile my way every once in a while, which is to say he always seemed to look at me just before I looked away from him. Rationally-speaking, it was a benign flirtation – to be sure, he was only three years more a boy than I am – but the longer it continued, the more inappropriate the future I silently predicted to myself became.
His skin glistened the color of coffee beans in the late afternoon haze, and the sheen of them too: It was decidedly matte, in spite of the sweat he was working up, which says nothing of the water he was spilling on himself, drop-by-drop.
“You’ve really got a system there, huh?” I asked, as he quickly filled two small buckets under the tap and, just before he set off to use them in his watering duties, placed a third, much larger one underneath it, which would reach the brink of overflowing the exact second he returned to fetch it each time, but never a moment before.
“It works, you know? If it wasn’t for me, these plants all be dead,” he laughed, and switched an empty bucket out for a full one, water once again dripping dropwise out onto the already-soaked sarong that may or may not have been all he was wearing. “Now, they live longer than me!”
The whole process lasted close to an hour, which only seems ridiculous if you didn’t happen to see the vast menagerie to which the boy was tending, a miniature forest of palms, bougainvilleas, roses and other tropical shrubs, not to mention a veritable laundry list of plants with Ayurvedic healing properties.
When he finally announced to me that he had finished I was shocked, if anything. The only real evidence that a human was capable of completing such intense, comprehensive physical labor in such a short period as he did was his toned, tight body, which tensed and twisted with each of his deep, exhausted breaths.
“I go shower now,” he said. “Let’s drink beers in cabana again tonight?”
I expected the encore cabana date to be a repeat of the first, and not just because we would be drinking beers inside a beachfront dwelling under moonlight for the second of our two nights knowing one another.
Not even his longest-lasting, most obviously sexual glances or touches yesterday evening led to anything, I reminded myself as I walked up to the cabana, Lion beers in hand, just after night set in. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing, but expect different results. Be sane, Robert.
Of course, it was nearly impossible to be completely guided by rational thoughts when it came to Kumaran, what with our meeting the previous morning having been so serendipitous. I’d been referred to the guest house his brother owned by a random local on the bus from Colombo. You know, one of those ‘My friend has a hotel’ spiels that almost always ends up being a scam.
Even if it had been in this case, I would’ve fallen for it: The first thing I saw upon rocking up to the property, lethargic from a sleepless night on the road, was the toned, tight body that would freeze me in my tracks on several subsequent occasions, said body clad only in a sarong (as per the usual) no less.
Besides, we had other things to discuss.
“I was a bit sad today,” I replied, after Kumaran asked me how I was doing.
“Yeah?” He asked. He popped the top off my beer bottle and handed it to me. “Why you sad?”
I sighed. “Have you ever loved someone?”
“Love?” He shrugged. “What do you mean?”
I clasped both hands over my heart. “I mean, love. Like, been in love with someone. Do you get it?”
“Oh, not fuck,” he laughed and took a sip of his own beer. “No, I’ve never been in love.”
“Lucky you,” I grunted. “Anyway, I was in love with someone recently, and they really broke my heart, and I was thinking about them a lot today.”
“Someone – a boy?” Kumaran asked, with a grin growing on his face.
I took a deep breath. “You’re clever.” I released it. “And cute.”
He grinned wider, but not wide enough for me to go assuming anything. “Do you have picture?”
“Actually,” I reached for my phone and tapped the “Photos” icon,” I have a picture of both of us together.” I gasped in horror as the folder opened to a photo that was indeed of us together, but not kissing sweetly for the camera as I’d hoped.
“I’m so sorry about that,” I said, and quickly thumbed through the explicit photos to get to the sweet ones.
Kumaran was anything but bothered. “Go back,” he insisted. “I want to see.”
I complied without saying anything.
His grin was definitely wide enough for me to make assumptions, which says nothing of the words that came out of his smiling mouth. “That guy has a nice cock.”
One thing, as you can imagine, led to another, and before I knew it I was inside my room, sitting on top of a person I’d been objectifying the entire time I knew him, a scenario that had played out countless times, but only previously as a fantasy.
He didn’t kiss me during sex – and actually, he forcefully shied away the kiss I planted on his lips after he made the first physical advance, up in the cabana – but I tried simply to be thankful for what I had, even if it didn’t last particularly long.
Or end with any particular romance. He practically sprinted out of my room, so as not to be seen by any prying, familial eyes. “By the way,” he said, turning around. “I’ve never fucked either, before tonight.”
“So you hit it and quit it?” A fellow American seated across from me at breakfast the next morning, asked.
“No!” I shouted, half-angry that he seemed to have forgotten the most important part of the story. “Remember the his-family-is-Muslim bit? Remember the this-whole-town-is-Muslim bit?”
He laughed heartily. “Yeah, I get that. But the real question, if it was more than a one-night stand I mean, is why are you over here at this swanky place, eating breakfast with me, and not back in your room gettin’ it on with him again?”
“Have you ever fucked someone from a third world country?”
The man, who I’d just learned had been married for nearly two decades, started blushing. “Can I plead the fifth?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m going to go ahead and assume you have. I’m also going to go ahead and assume she – or he? – asked you for money.”
“You,” he exclaimed, resuming his hearty laugh. “He asked a young, good-lookin’ fellow like you for money?”
“Well, I mean, not in a sex-in-direct-exchange-for-money sense,” I shot back, trying not to sound defensive. “But yeah, I guess he wants to open a t-shirt shop in front of his brother’s hotel, and he asked me – a few times – whether I could help him in some form or fashion.”
“So, what did you say?”
“Fuck me harder,” I laughed. “But no, I just kind of…well, I guess I did kind of hit it and quit it. Although to be fair he did to, even if it was out of fear of his family declaring Jihad on him.
“Speaking of which,” I continued, and pushed my empty plate aside. “I imagine he’s going to mosque soon, so you’re going to have to excuse me.”
After paying my bill I hopped, skipped and jumped back across the dirt road, only this time I veered behind my room, to the dusty patch of concrete floor Kumaran called a bed when he wasn’t banging me in mine. I would’ve knocked on the door if there’d been one, but there wasn’t so I invited myself in.
I was taken aback when he resisted my touch. “I’m sorry. Should I not do that?”
“Today, no,” he muttered, and without so much as looking me in the eye. “Today, Muslim holy day.”
“You can’t be gay today?”
He punched me lightly in the arm. “Be gay, yes, in secret of course. But sex, no. Nothing like this.”
Just then, the dreadful drone of the daily prayer – one of them, that is – began blaring out over the loudspeakers of the town.
In spite of my general disdain for religion and in particular, for Islam, I thought I’d let him humor me.
“What is he saying?” I asked him. “The man in the speaker?”
“The truth,” he said, and chose, seemingly at random, one of the shirts from the pile of clothes he’d been quite deliberately searching through, and headed out the door.
It proved extremely difficult for me not to think of the guy-who-broke-my-heart during my trip to Sri Lanka, and not just because one out of every hundred or so young Sri Lankan men I encountered kind of looked like him. (He was, you might remember, of Indian descent.)
This says nothing of how often I saw variations of his name – Nishant which, as I understand it, translates to something like “The End of Darkness” – printed on buildings, t-shirts and modes of transport, or of beautiful sunsets like the one we watched the night I fell in love with him, or of old Mercedes convertibles like the ones he aspired to own, or of any number of other things. He was on my mind.
Not only him, of course, but the way he treated me, and the way I liked it. It is for this reason that I felt so strangely cared about as I laid on the concrete floor beside Kumaran – I wasn’t even allowed on his mat with him, being that it was still Friday – as evening set in, the two of us exhausted from having scaled a towering, stone monastery (barefoot, speaking of pain) together that afternoon.
“That man,” he explained, and pointed to one of the more nondescript-looking characters from the Tamil-language sitcom he was watching, “is the hero.”
“Ah,” I said, doing my best not only to sound like I cared about, but that I understood what was happening in the program. I didn’t, but I did want to be around Kumaran, even if we weren’t going to fuck that night. And we didn’t – that didn’t happen until the following evening, one we ended like our first two together, with beers in the cabana.
Only this time, the proverbial seal already broken, we didn’t waste energy with flirtations or foreplay or the semblance of either, even if Kumaran managed to, um, hold himself together a little longer his second-time-ever-having-sex than he had the first. He still wouldn’t kiss me, and I still didn’t let it get the best of me.
We had breakfast Sunday morning in a curry shop off the main drag no other foreigner would dare to go, a dive so dodgy they cover their plates in plastic wrap so their guests don’t get sick, and there was something intoxicating about his nonchalant demeanor.
There he was, sitting around a table with the dudes, smoking a cigarette, talking rough and dressed somewhat like a thug. In spite of how incredibly out of place I must’ve looked, the others had no idea that I had done the nasty with their friend not once but twice. Forget intoxicating, it was almost erotic, erotic to the extent Kumaran’s garden duty had been.
And yet it was the beginning of the end of our time together – I would be taking the night bus to Colombo just hours later. The extent to which I felt present when I was in his presence, a feeling I hadn’t previously felt the brighter days of me and whats-his-name, so many months before, was thus ironic.
As the sun rose overhead, shone directly down from on top of us and then, with kamikaze acceleration, launched down toward the horizon, I began to suspect that maybe there was something more at play here – more than a horny boy in a town full of zealots, who may or may not have needed money and me, who could fulfill one of those needs for him, without a huge need to fulfill myself.
Noticing the difficult time he was having while searching for something to wear to mosque a couple days before, I’d discreetly snuck into him room earlier in the day and left some shirts that didn’t look quite right on me in there for him, hoping he’d find them at a later date, so as to prolong the happiness he would feel, whatever its underlying motivation.
But when he emerged from his room, after having retreated there to “get dressed” before taking me to my bus, he was wearing my personal favorite of the shirts I gave him, and I had a suspicion that my suspicion might soon get confirmed, in the way my hunch about the sex had ended up being correct.
“You know,” he said, and jumped up onto the ledge with me, “I was really sad before you came.”
“Yeah?” I asked, and grabbed hold of his hand, as discreetly as I could.
“Yeah,” he replied, his rich, black eyes clearly close to tears. “And tonight, when you leave, I fear I will be sad again.”
“Why, Kumaran? You live in such a beautiful place, with these beautiful plants you care for, and this beautiful sky you get to lay underneath, and this beautiful sea you get to surf in.”
“But without,” he squeezed my hand back, “this beautiful man.” It looked like he was actually going to begin crying, but just then he stood up. “Now, we must go, so you don’t miss your bus.”
“Before that,” I stopped him, a playful bounce in my voice, “can I ask you just one thing?”
“You want to make sex?”
I loved that he phrased it like that, but he was wrong. “No. Well, yes, but actually, I would love that kiss you never gave me.”
“Robert,” he laughed, and wiped his eyes dry. “You must understand something. In Sri Lanka, kissing is not so easy, like sex, you understand? I fuck you, it doesn’t mean something, maybe. But if I kiss you, it means we are together, you are mine.
“And you have only been here four days. You remember, I never been in love, just like I never fuck before I meet you. I like you, this is why I wear your shirt tonight. Your shirt is mine, but I don’t know if you are.”
It proved just as impossible for me to bring myself to say anything productive as it proved futile not to try and visibly hold his hand as we began walking toward the bus together as it proved insulting to the beautiful, bittersweet moment playing out to try and lessen its impact on me by indulging my lingering fear, that he truly was in it for the money.
So instead, I directed my attention to the neon trail the sun was leaving as it descended behind the tropical forests of Sri Lanka’s east coast, a majestic sunset the likes of which I haven’t seen since…well, you can probably guess since when (or, rather, whom) at this point.
The religious circumstances I mentioned earlier precluded us from saying goodbye in a classically romantic sense, which meant that he had to do like they did in the movies: Me looking out of the moving vehicle and him left behind on the stationary platform, only with so remote a possibility of catching up that he didn’t bother running behind my carriage like the lovers on the silver screen.
But the gravity of the situation set in just the same. As a light mist of tears began streaming down my cheek the further Kumaran disappeared behind me, I remembered what it felt like to love someone other than Nishant, to love anything other than Nishant. I remembered what it felt like to love anew, to love at all.
It wasn’t the same as last time; it wasn’t as desperate or as visceral or as impossible to leave behind. It was lighthearted and it was boyish and it was superficial and yet, for all its imperfections and its built-in expiration date and the extent to which it seemed meaningless until the very second it was too late for it to mean anything, it was precisely what I needed – it freed me, once and for all.