“Oh my God,” says Tony in one single breathless exclamation. He pants, eyes closed and fingers tugging rudely at someone else’s short hair and trying very hard not to shove his dick further down that same someone’s throat.
He finally finds it in himself to look down at his partner: grey eyes, dark hair, angular face, very much a man although a pretty one, mouth currently occupied, drool running down his chin.
It’s obscene and absolutely filthy and exactly how Tony likes it.
He’s been in an experimental phase. And today Tony is with a total stranger in a rare lockable public toilet in the departures terminal D at Laguardia Airport. Such is the freedom of absolutely insatiable late-teen-aged youth, and in an hour he’ll be off again to France for the summer on dear old dad’s dirty dime and he fucking loves it for the time being, stuck betwixt yet another change in boarding schools.
He’ll have to grow up soon enough — sooner, he knows — and he also knows the fickle charity won’t last, but right now he’s having spectacular oral sex with a total stranger, wedged next to a toilet of all places, and he’s flying far, far away from wherever his father will be spending the same summer.
It’s all pure, unadulterated bliss, and he’s sure he doesn’t want this particular summer to ever end.
The stranger now jerks him off frantically with a hand, having removed his mouth. Probably too squeamish to take it in his mouth and swallow but not too fastidious that he’s afraid of getting ejaculate on his hand, arm and chest.
“Oh my God,” says Tony again as he comes, and then he slumps down onto his haunches and simply stares eye-to-eye with this man he’s never met before in his life. He’s fucking brilliant, this stranger. “What’s your name?” Tony asks.
“Benjamin,” says Benjamin, hurried. “Now it’s my turn, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t,” assures Tony, although he’s not entirely sure.
After, Tony’s jaw aches a bit and he feels a little stupid, but Benjamin offers him a cigarette and a smile, and they sit on opposite sides of the small room to smoke. Benjamin explains that he’s English and a music student in London — violin — he makes sure to point at the case that’s propped on the sink. Tony explains that he’s American and an aimless, confused youth with no real passions who sort of knows how to play the piano. Someone knocks, angry and impatient.
“Kindred spirit, maybe,” remarks Benjamin.
Tony laughs, and they exchange information, and then they have to part, and this isn’t exactly the anonymous no-strings-attached hook-up Tony thought it would be.
“Write me, yeah?” says Benjamin, and Tony says he will.
Tim has been away for what feels like a year but what has actually been just under a month. He’s been “on assignment” in Japan — thank you Director Vance — and while the photos have been amazing and the e-mail messages interesting and sweet, Tony must be frank: he is desperate for sex. Or at the very least, a kiss and a grope. More specifically: He needs Tim to be home now.
Ziva has already made fun of him for it; she’s needled him relentlessly, even gone as far as to brag about her new boyfriend and the sex-filled holiday they spent on some island in North Carolina watching wild ponies. It’s ridiculous and oddly erotic and Tony has to fight off a very inappropriate erection for the rest of the working day, which makes the situation even more intolerable.
Gibbs has even joined in, obliquely, asking how “things” are “at home.” ‘It’s awful!’ Tony wants to exclaim. ‘Thank you for asking!’ He doesn’t exclaim anything though, because he’s cringing from Gibbs even indirectly asking how “things at home” are going. He could turn around and ask Gibbs the same thing, but somehow he thinks that might shorten his life expectancy.
So it’s the Fourth of July, and Tim still isn’t home and won’t be for an indeterminate amount of time. The time difference is brutal. 19:49 here in D.C. and 08:49 there in Singapore. Gibbs has invited him and a few others over for a cook out, and later there will be mortars and roman candles and those spinning sparking things set off by the neighbourhood kids with pyro-tendencies. At least one dog will show up in the backyard, insensate with fear, and they’ll let it bunk in Gibbs’ basement with a hamburger and a bowl of water until the morning.
Abby has made a gorgeous layered jello mould in the shape of the United States, and she’s got D.C. marked with a toothpick and a paper flag. She has also marked Gibbs’ hometown, her own home town in Louisiana, Susan-in-accounting’s home town of St. Louis, and — oddly and uncomfortably and Tony spots it right away and is properly horrified — the place where he and Tim first had sex. And not good sex, but the fumbling, hesitant kind that happens between friends who don’t want to fuck things up but just can’t help themselves. It’s somewhere in South Dakota, and it happened on a trip they took once… before. He knows exactly where it happened, if not exactly how it happened, and the place-marker looks decently stuck. He can’t remember when he ever told Abby about it, but somebody must’ve — probably Tim, ugh. He will pay for that, whenever he finally comes home.
Nobody at Gibbs’ cook out mentions anything about the mysterious South Dakota toothpick, though, and Tony is fine with that.
When the sun finally dips behind the line of single family homes and the leafy maple trees, and the sky glows orange and pink, and the summer insects hum loudly, Gibbs sets a plate with a hamburger and a cold can of beer in front of Tony.
“Eat,” he says.
Tony considers the food, takes a long drink from the can of beer, sets it down. He doesn’t eat.
“I had a talk with Director Vance,” says Gibbs. His voice gives nothing away, which is just like Gibbs.
“Don’t tell me he’s sending me on my own special assignment. I didn’t much like the first one.”
“No. He’s recalling McGee from CFAY. He should be back within the week.”
“Oh,” says Tony. It’s hard for him to keep the look of instant relief from his face, he wants to avoid dramatic displays of emotion in front of Gibbs. “That’s great news.”
“Yeah, well,” Gibbs remarks, “don’t sound too excited.”
“I’m not. I mean, I am.” Tony fumbles over his words. “I mean—“
“Don’t hurt yourself.” Gibbs points again at the hamburger and says, “Eat.”
Tony’s reply is automatic, “Okay.” He spends the rest of the evening in a pleasant haze. He can’t remember ever feeling so… happy. It’s absolutely saccharine, this thing he has with Tim. It shouldn’t even be real, given the amount of shit he’s given him over the years. But right here, right now, with the knowledge that he’ll have someone to watch TV with again, and there’s always the sex — well, it feels like he’s won the lottery.
“You look happy,” Ziva says as she sits beside him at the picnic table.
“I am.” Tony smiles at her. She is watching some of the kids light a roman candle. She’s wearing her hair down; it covers her shoulders, dark and curly. The light catches in her eyes, and even in the dark, Tony can tell she is smiling, too. Her smile is captivating. Tony thinks it’s because it doesn’t start with her mouth. It starts in her eyes and kind of radiates out from there. Ziva is a rare kind of woman, beautiful — and terrifying — in all those ways Tony wouldn’t expect. Maybe in another life… but never now.
“If someone told me ten years ago that I would be here, I would think they were insane,” Ziva says. Her statement is random yet honest.
Tony catches her eye. “You mean, here here or just generically here.”
She makes a face at him, not understanding.
“Never mind,” Tony waves it away. “You were saying?”
“I miss home,” Ziva goes on, “and your country is weird. Your people are weird. But—“ There it is with that smile again. “I like it here. It’s like a mishmash of too many things. A little bit of everything. It’s dizzying. It’s incredible.”
“I do think that was the point. And look at you, another brick that doesn’t match any of the other bricks but yet somehow still we’ve all formed a whole.”
“You mean a wall.” She’s confused.
“No, not a wall,” says Tony. “Maybe more like a road made of bricks.”
“I am not a brick,” Ziva mentions.
“Right. You are not a brick. And, apparently, metaphor is lost on you.”
“Ah! See? You are so weird. I will never understand.” She goes back to watching the backyard fireworks show. She’s given up on him.
Tony’s cell phone lights up. It’s a text message: Good morning! I just got new orders this AM. I’m coming home!
He types out a quick reply, hesitates, over-thinks it -- Is it too sappy? It is. -- then sends it anyway: You know I’m crazy about you, right?
“I’ll have another,” says Tony, gesturing at the empty glass.
The barkeep pours him another before continuing his wiping of the counter. The amber liquid glows in the subtle light of this hotel lounge. The piano music is soft, the conversation from the surrounding tables is quiet.
He sits alone at the bar, tapping on his smartphone while he drinks from the refilled glass. He feels the warm pleasant buzz wrapping around him. It’s more welcome right now than an actual, tangible embrace. Being stood up by an ex-lover he hoped to — maybe — rekindle a flame with is a bitter to pill to swallow.
He realises just how desperate this is. He hasn’t reached the bottom of the barrel, the bottom of the barrel has reached him.
“Another,” says Tony, “please.”
The barkeep obliges.
He has a room booked on the twenty-third floor. When he gets drunk enough, he’ll slither on up there, jerk himself off quickly and furiously — and it’ll take too long and it won’t be nearly as satisfying as it needs to be. In the morning, when the sunlight stabs through the gap between the blackout curtains, he’ll be hung over.
His stomach is in knots for the entire flight from DCA to PBI. He wants to reconsider this whole thing. Why is he doing this?
The heat smacks him in the face as soon as he steps off the plane and onto the air bridge, and it brings him to reality. Tim is right, as he usually is. He needs to face this.
His mind wanders for the entire car journey from the airport to the address he put into the GPS.
It’s been twenty-four years since he first met Benjamin in that airport toilet at the beginning of his wild summer in France. Meeting someone the way he met Benjamin was stupid and foolish, Tony now knows, but at the time, it felt like the most perfect arrangement ever. It wasn’t until they met up again in France that Benjamin admitted that he’d never done such a thing before and he was half-way crazy at the time and maybe a little bit self-destructive.
Now, twenty-four years on, Benjamin looks like hell. He says he’s been thirty days sober, a whole month, but he has a long way to crawl if he wants to fully escape the hole he’s thrown himself down.
They sit opposite each other at a table in a public space at the rehab facility Benjamin has voluntarily enrolled himself. Apparently this time, his family had thought it prudent to pluck him from familiar environs and bad influences and drop him in Florida, of all places.
There are things that have remained the same about Benjamin: his dark brown hair — kept a little shorter now, but still curly and thick; grey eyes; a smile that tends to twist only one side of his mouth; his caustic, self-deprecating wit. Other things are different. He’s thin to the point of being emaciated. There’s a dull, tired look in his eye. There are marks on his hands, undoubtedly more under the long sleeves of the jacket he is wearing.
Tony isn’t necessarily surprised by any of it; he has met enough junkies throughout his career, in various stages of addiction. He’s arrested them and locked them up without much remorse, and then tossed the keys to a dispassionate court system. What surprises — and bothers — him most is the fact that this is what Benjamin has made of himself. Once brilliant, once amazing, once gifted Benjamin.
It’s true that he was Tony’s first boyfriend of any emotional significance. There had been girlfriends, too. Many of them. But Benjamin happened during a time of great upheaval in Tony’s life. He’s remained in a place of special significance ever since.
“I didn’t think you would come,” says Benjamin. The surprise looks genuine on his gaunt face.
“Neither did I,” Tony agrees, voice soft and serious, “but somebody told me it would be a good idea — good for me, good for you — so I had to. You’re lucky I didn’t find your e-mail first. I would’ve deleted it.”
“Oh.” Benjamin looks away quickly before he can regather his courage. “Then who is that somebody? Somebody important. Your wife?”
“No wife. Not married. No girlfriend even. He’s, uh, a man.” Tony feels awkward, and he’s not sure why. “Boyfriend, I guess. It feels a bit more than that. We’re not married, though.”
“So it stuck then?” asks Benjamin with some surprise, before remarking, “Tricky habit, that.”
Tony isn’t following. “Huh?”
“You know. Fucking men,” Benjamin answers. “Being fucked by men.” His bluntness is another thing that hasn’t changed.
“Yeah, well. It’s not a simple thing,” says Tony. He scratches at the back of his neck. “Most of the time, it isn’t even about sex.”
“I’d beg to differ,” says Benjamin, deadpan.
Tony bites down the laugh. Benjamin’s easy humor helps break and ice, and Tony appreciates it. He settles for leaning back in his chair and breathing steadily from his nose and watching Benjamin from over his hands which he has clasped in front of his face. He suddenly feels like a teenaged boy again, freer than he’s been for a while. “You know I like fucking women just as much, if not more,” says Tony. “I’ve had more girlfriends than I can count on all my appendages. I was engaged once, to a woman.”
Tony can’t hold back the laugh this time. “I know you would love the credit. You are the first man I…” He trails off. “Well, I liked you very much.”
“Can’t say it, can we. Not out loud and in person anyway.”
Tony agrees. “Admitting it makes it real. I liked you,” he repeats. “A lot.”
“I said my piece via that e-mail. A cop-out, I know. Isn't that what you say? Cop-out... And here you are,” says Benjamin.
“Don’t look so smug,” says Tony.
Benjamin leans forward, puts an elbow on the table and rests his chin against his palm. He hugs himself with his other arm. He is truly nothing but skin and bones and needle scars and a marked sense of regret and a gentle, quiet sort of gloom. He stares at Tony sideways and says, “Have you seen the garden yet?”
They find themselves outside, Tony trailing behind Benjamin as he knew the quickest route to the back exit. Tony hasn’t seen the garden yet, not that he cares. The Florida air is oppressive and wet and a storm builds just to the east.
Benjamin walks slowly, both arms now hugging himself. His hands are trembling. He’s staring at the orchids. “I come out here to look at these everyday. Sometimes multiple times a day.” He runs a tongue over his dry lips, narrows his gaze on one plant in particular, a speckled purple one. “I’ve been keeping track of how long the blooms last.”
Tony honestly has nothing to say in reply to that, as it’s a bizarre statement.
“It’s better than sitting in a group of fucking dimwits and talking about how fucked up things are.” Benjamin reaches the end of the orchid garden, and he huffs in disappointment.
“Isn’t that the point?” says Tony.
“The point is not to use again. That’s my point anyway.” Benjamin looks away. “I am a fucking bore, aren’t I?”
“The orchids are nice.” Tony waits for him to pick a new direction to wander.
“They are,” Benjamin says, “They are truly lovely.” Then he suddenly adds, “You look like you could use a cigarette.”
“I think you’re the one who wants the cigarette.”
“You’re right.” He pulls a slightly crushed pack and a lighter from his jacket pocket — even in this heat, he wears a jacket, afraid to show the wreck of his arms. He lights one, breathes in, hums in relief. He holds up the lighter so Tony can see. The design on it is a gaudy red, white and blue, stars and stripes. “Trying to be a proper American,” he says with a grin, “here in America.”
They follow a gravel path that hugs the shore of a pond. By this point, they are both sweating, and the sky is bruise-blue and heavy with rain.
“I heard there’s a ten-foot long alligator in there,” says Benjamin as he blows smoke at the pond. “Of course I heard it from a bloke who’s been constantly hallucinating, so… might be better off asking the alligator.” He scratches at his nose, brings the cigarette to his lips. “So what is it you’re doing now’days? Tell me again, I’ve forgot.”
“I work in law enforcement,” Tony answers, vaguely.
“Oh, wow, so that’s interesting, I’d bet. Doing what exactly?”
“Even better. Like Poirot.”
Tony shrugs. “I finally found what I wanted to do, and I went and did it.”
“Amazing thing, that. And it’s something I’m happy to hear, Tony. So, any interesting stories to tell?”
“Where could I even begin?”
“At the beginning, I suspect.”
“Benny, there’s too much.”
“Fair enough. Are you sure you don’t want a cigarette? You look bothered.”
Tony wants to say, ‘I’m bothered over you. You look like absolute shit. Near death. You should eat. You should get more sunlight. You should never stick another needle in your veins ever again.’ But instead he says, “No, I’m fine.”
The path comes to a sudden end. Benjamin stops at the edge of the sandy gravel and stares at the swamp. The cicadas are loud; they create a constant drone underneath the frog noise and the nearby highway noise. “Do you still play the piano?” he asks, completely off-topic, if there ever was a topic.
“A little. I’m rusty. I don’t have much time for hobbies. I’m much better at handling a firearm now than piano keys.”
Benjamin nods. A frown tugs at his mouth. He has a sudden request: “I’d like to meet that bloke of yours.”
“Maybe if you stay alive, you can,” says Tony. “I don’t want you going home and ending up like all the other common junkies, overdosing in some flophouse and dying from it because no one thought to call an ambulance. I just can’t fucking stand thinking about it, Benny. I know you’re doing well now, but what about later?”
“I’m doing fine, thanks. And I hate to tell you, but I am a common junkie, Tony,” says Benjamin. “Can’t avoid that. Open your eyes.” He holds up the hand holding the cigarette; it shakes. "I can't even play. And it kills me every fucking day."
"Yeah, well, you should have thought about that before shooting up again and again."
Benjamin stares at him, taken aback. Then suddenly, he starts to laugh. Loud, hearty laughs. "And this is why I like you, Tony.
When Tony was eight years old, he turned his father’s $3,000 designer ski suit into an astronaut costume for Halloween, and at the time, he thought he was the cleverest eight-year-old in the universe. Of course, his father caught him before he was out the door and the beating his rear end received in the aftermath of such a crime was truly something to remember.
That same night, determined not to miss Halloween, Tony ended up stealing sheet from one of the guest bedrooms, cutting two holes into it for his eyes, and calling himself a ghost as he gimped — rear end still on fire — from one well-apportioned home to the next with his group of trick-or-treaters.
Unfortunately, unlike a ghost, he wasn’t actually invisible and the one sheet he’d managed to filch was white but also covered in little pink flowers. In his haste to get out the door with the new costume, he hadn’t noticed. He was laughed at so mercilessly that night, that he poured his friends’ buckets of candy into a pillowcase while they weren’t looking and hid it under his bed until the nanny found it several months later.
Tony enjoys telling Tim this story, and countless other bizarre stories from his fractured childhood. This is one of the least egregious. They usually involve these common elements: his father’s intense, sometimes violent, anger; his mother’s drinking habit; boredom and loneliness; and an ingenious little boy’s bad behavior.
During another story — one in which Tony’s father smacked him on the ear so hard, all he could hear was ringing for at least a day — Tim has to interrupt. “You know that’s not right,” he says with absolute conviction.
“I bet it left a mark, too.”
“What? I don’t remember, doesn’t matter,” Tony shrugs dismissively. “I am no fan of my father, but I was a terrible child. I deserved whatever I got. Did I ever tell you about the time I stole everybody’s pencils while they were out on recess? This was in the second grade.”
“My dad never once hit me,” says Tim.
“Yeah, well, you are you, Tim.”
“Why are you defending him?”
“I’m not. Why are you making this such a big deal?”
“I’m not,” Tim concedes. "I'm just saying."
At night, Tony replays Tim's words in his head, on repeat.
Kids aren’t Tony’s thing, but sometimes in this job, there’s no other choice but to pretend one is capable of being a well-adjusted adult. Which means he drew the short straw and is on baby-sitting duty until further notice. He remembers Ziva’s smirk and helpful advice: “Don’t make him cry.” With that in mind, Tony readies himself for certain failure.
“Okay, kiddo,” says Tony, “what’ll it be?” They stand together in front of the window at a free-stranding ice cream shop shaped like a gigantic cake cone with a huge swirl of soft serve. “Chocolate? Vanilla? Strawberry? A combination?”
From inside the cone, a teenaged girl smiles beatifically at them both. She considers the little boy and speaks to him sweetly. The boy avoids eye contact, and Tony thumbs awkwardly through the bills in his wallet, doing the math. He ought to buy Tim something as well; he wouldn’t hear the end of it if he didn’t.
The kid stares morosely at the traffic on the nearby highway.
“Hey?” says Tony, hoping to attract his attention. “You look like a strawberry man.” He turns to the girl. “Two small strawberry cones, please.” He then resumes digging nervously through his wallet while the kid keeps up with his vacant stare.
Logically, he knows the child is in shock. One look at the home they prised him out of makes that obvious. But they have to wait for CPS to get on scene, and it’s the beginning of July, and the air is as hot and thick as newly poured asphalt, so ice cream it is.
Sometimes ice cream makes things better. Other times it’s just tasteless cold glop.
The boy grabs ahold of the cone with both hands. He gives it a tentative lick while it begins to melt, drips of it running over his fingers, pink and sticky.
Tonight, this child will not be watching fireworks like most other children. Tony hopes the ice cream will make up for it.
“50,284 unread messages,” says Tim with a touch of awe as he leans a hip against Tony’s desk and looks at the inbox of Tony’s personal gmail account.
Tony, meanwhile, isn’t in the least bit embarrassed by such a thing. In fact he looks exceedingly proud of himself.
“How long has this been going on?” Tim asks, like a physician attempting to diagnose an ill patient.
“Probably since the internet was invented,” says Tony.
“Don’t you ever delete anything?”
“What would be the point? It’s gone this far already. Besides, I like to keep them in case I need them for later.”
“When would you ever need an e-mail about—“ Tim leans close to the screen. “—cheap airline tickets to Nebraska?”
“Fair point. But if I delete one, I’ll have to go through all of them and clean out the whole inbox.”
“How about we just delete this one? Only this one,” Tim encourages. “As a start? You’ll feel good after. Promise.”
“No,” says Tony. He turns his nose up at the idea. He even goes as far as to move the keyboard out of Tim’s reach. He guards it, eyes narrowed. “Nice try.”
“Okay.” Tim nods slowly. This has to be some sort of weird Tony-obsession-compulsion, e-mail hoarding. “How about just marking them all as read?” he compromises. Anything to get rid of that scary 50,284 in bold font. It makes him twitchy, and quite frankly, it’s something that could keep him out at time. Tim realises that maybe he has his own obsession-compulsion regarding e-mails.
“Again. Point?” Tony asks, voice hard.
Tim wonders, briefly, if this is a fight. Not a fight fight, but an argument all the same. “I have an idea,” he says.
“I’m not deleting one.” Tony crosses his arms. “And I cannot commit to going through the entire inbox. See that? It says this is page one of hundreds. Hundreds of pages.”
“Let me do it then,” Tim offers.
“Clean out your inbox.”
“Hell no. God only knows what’s in there. Bad poetry, sex-emailing, pornography—“
The look on Tony’s face is funny. “Well, I guess it would sort of be like sexting, but long form. Less photographs.”
“So you basically wrote erotica to past girlfriends.”
“Yes. Mostly girlfriends. And I didn’t say it was particularly good.”
“Ah, so not Pulitzer Prize worthy e-mail erotica.” Tim grins at him.
“Not at all. You know the quality of my prose from my reports.”
Tim feigns shock. “It’s always so evocative.”
“Ha ha.” Tony frowns.
“So how about it?”
“How about what?”
Tim looks meaningfully at the screen. The 50,284 e-mails are waiting.
Tim has woken up early on a Sunday to finally begin the Great E-mail Cleanout. He sits at the kitchen table, cup of fresh hot coffee to his right, a slice of buttered toast on his left, his laptop opened in front of him. The unread e-mail count has reached 53,382. “How is this even possible?” says Tim under his breath. He glances at the bedroom door, opened a crack. Tony is still asleep. Better that he stays that way. Tim can’t handle his neuroses right now.
He glances at the newer e-mails first. One catches his eye. It looks more personal than generic spam.
The subject line simply says “Tony” and the sender is email@example.com and it’s dated from yesterday, last night. Late. 11:23 PM. He clicks it. He has to. Something pings at the back of his mind: This is important.
“Hi Tony,” it starts benignly enough. “It’s Benjamin. I am sorry, for a lot of things.”
Tony stumbles groggily out of the bedroom. “Oh god,” he groans. “You’re starting that already? Can’t we have breakfast first?”
“Who is Benjamin Adley?” Tim asks.
Tony freezes. “Who?”
“He sent you an e-mail.”
“Delete it,” answers Tony immediately.
“The other day you wanted me to delete at least one e-mail, and now all of a sudden you’re fighting me on deleting that one e-mail.”
“Who is Benjamin Adley?” Tim repeats. There’s no anger. Why would there be?
“Please, Tim. Delete it.”
“Because he doesn’t matter. Not anymore.”
“Says here,” Tim glances back at the e-mail, “he’s checked himself into a residential drug rehab facility. Sounds like he’s going through some things.” Tim looks up but Tony’s face is impassive. “Also says here—“
“No. It says that he loves you, even after all these years.”
“Why are you doing this?” Tony begs.
“Why are you so bothered by it?”
“Because I want to be with you not him.”
Tim smiles at him. “Of course you do.” It’s a soft, indulgent smile. He gets up from his chair and rounds the table to stand in front of Tony. He takes his hands, kisses him on the side of his mouth. “Go and visit him.”
“He needs a friend. You’re a friend.”
“And by the time you come back, I’ll have you’re inbox taken care of,” Tim says.
“You’re just trying to get rid of me.”
“Of course I am.” Tim sits back down in front of the laptop. He opens up a new browser window. “Let’s check flights.”
“Fine. You win.” Tony sits down as well. He glares at Tim. He asks, finally, “So, don’t you want to know where I met him?”