Richard can’t talk to Rob.
It isn’t that Richard doesn’t know what to say to Rob; he can imagine up a veritable novella of dialogue, of conversation and camaraderie, relativism and relation and experiential discussion. It isn’t that there’s no time to talk in their schedules, it isn’t that their trailers are too far from each other’s to be inconvenient. It isn’t that Richard is intimidated or too different or too not-Rob, though the second and third had been on his mind more than once in the beginning, when their own personal dichotomy – legitimacy and scandal – seemed too polar to bridge. It isn’t that Richard is too insular, too over-thought.
It’s that last week, Richard had stood toe-to-toe with Rob in front of his car and said kiss me, and Rob had, and now it was too much, too raw, too open and treacherous and tumultuous; now if they spoke it was a liaison, now if they spoke it was a tiny betrayal in a veritable growing sea of bigger ones. Richard has a conscience, an erosion of the heart, and now, simply: it’s too painful.
“Penny for them.”
It doesn’t, necessarily, mean that Rob can’t talk to him.
Richard blinks and the way he turns is slow and deliberate, the way he looks at Rob is half-lidded and shuttered, wary and dangerously soft; the lines wreathing his eyes are more relaxed than he is. He doesn’t frown, not quite. He hears the words again, the voice (penny for them) and Rob isn’t young, but sometimes Richard remembers that Rob carries his age in experience, not years; he doesn’t look anywhere near as weathered as Richard himself.
“Rob,” is Richard’s reply, succinct but so very layered. He isn’t sure how his voice fares when he isn’t acting (and he is almost always acting, but not with Rob, lately, and certainly not now); he isn’t sure he how he speaks so many volumes, how he can be enthralled and disappointed in one three-letter one-syllable word.
Rob answers with a smile. His hands aren’t in his pockets. This puzzles Richard. When he pictured this conversation, Rob had his hands in his pockets and his scarf was twined around his neck, and his hair was longer, like it had been last year, and it wasn’t this. Richard almost wishes for the order of a prepared conversation, but only because Rob is Rob, and he doesn’t want to hear new variations on the words he expects to come. Rob answers with a smile, and he says, “No, really. I’ve got a penny right here.”
Richard holds out his hand. The first shaky etchings of a smile linger on his lips; it isn’t a smile yet, but it could grow from a fledgling upturn, a quirk in shape, to something of actual meaning if he lets it. He doesn’t know if he wants to let it. “Let’s see it, then,” he says, and curls his fingers up.
This throws Rob, Richard notices with – yes – affection, and he watches the way that Rob has to bend his head (the light playing off the pale-bright curve of his neck, austere and beyond sublime) and take out his wallet, searching through bills and cards and folds of soft brown leather for the denomination in question. When he finds it, he places it squarely in the centre of Richard’s hand (tails); his short, clipped fingernails crescent into Richard’s skin. Richard has to resist pushing up with his palm in response to touch.
“There,” Rob says. “Now tell me what’s on your mind.” He gestures to a bench and nods to indicate that they sit. Richard follows, walking right behind Rob, though he doesn’t mean to show his obeisance quite so plainly. He’s still not sure why Rob doesn’t know the answer to his own question. He doesn’t understand why his pangs aren’t Rob’s pangs.
And there’s the rub, he thinks. Because what if it was a moment in moonlight, done and dusted and over for Rob, barely a blot on the landscape of his memory?
“What do you think?” is Richard’s answer, and he says it as he sinks onto the bench, one arm along the back of it, the other picking at a stray thread on is dark, still too-new jeans.
It’s at least two minutes before anyone speaks again. It’s Rob that does it, says “Me too,” looking only at the space in front of them, and that’s when Richard realises it: this whole time, Rob hasn’t (can’t?) look him in the eye.
“I’m sorry,” Richard muses, “But I’m not.”
Because he’s not. He’s not and he should be, he’s not and it’s wrong, he’s not and he remembers the way that Rob’s lips felt, soft to his tongue but strong and surprisingly firm, and the way he tasted, surprisingly, like spearmint (and Richard still isn’t sure why that was so surprising). He remembers that he was moved it and that he hasn’t been moved by one kiss in years. He remembers the touch of tongues, the quiver of sensation. The way that the roof of his mouth actually tingled afterwards.
“I can’t do this again,” Rob says in a voice that’s almost a groan, and Richard means to be sympathetic, but he isn’t: a range of varying responses and imagery flash through his mind: well you shouldn’t have had sex with a fucking minor; that groan sounds pornographic; I didn’t ask you to do anything. Richard settles on none of the above and says nothing. He stares out and it’s twilight, the blush of sun dusked by approaching night.
Rob sighs in that strangled half-moan way again. “I can’t, Richard,” he insists, and Richard takes that in, thinks about it. Can’t? Won’t? In the end it’s all the same, isn’t it. A no is the great equaliser, he knows, the grand finale.
“Then don’t.” Richard had known it: he can’t talk to him. Can’t do this. Can’t steal Rob from reality in pocketed moments of silence and sighs, can’t kiss him, fuck him, when no one is watching. There’s too much waiting in the light and at home, too much heartache and – that word again – betrayal. This world, Richard thinks wearily, This world that tempts.
And this is it, Richard understands. This is the moment, the moment where he must stand and say: we’re done, turn to Rob and say no more, the moment where reality needs to be champion, where impulses and thoughts and honestly, feelings too, must be all locked aside and away, out of reach and away from view. Now is the moment where Richard must speak.
Instead, he turns and walks away, enveloped by that old friend the night, slowly darkening to black.