“He’s Brandoesque.” This is what Farud’s wife is saying about the guy in the jeans and the red t-shirt; the one who has just walked into the restaurant and made the ladies gasp.
Farud looks him up and down and wonders what it would feel like to be so effortlessly charismatic. Though handsome enough himself, with his North African complexion and thick Italian mouth, he has never made a room stop. He is jealous, even afraid. Angela loves him, but her eyes are burning for the magic of a stranger, and although that blaze will go out in a second or so, Farud regards it as a precedent. There are always cracks, he thinks, and the Devil works best in tiny fissures.
He returns his attention to the table, to Angela and their travelling companions, Ruth and Con, and to the Mexican banquet they are sharing. He pours the Margheritas and proposes a toast. “To crazy times,” he cheers.
They join in, knowing what he means. Crazy times, meaning that little window in the wall of a year when it does not matter what day it is; the festive week when they finally get to live.
This means the world to Farud and Con, who work together in the tourist trade and spend long hours serving other people on holidays. They would usually be doing double shifts at this time of year, but they have bullied their boss into giving them time off together. Angela and Ruth can hardly believe their luck.
It is Boxing Day, and they are a quartet. They raise their glasses and celebrate, while the new arrival hovers at the periphery, making the women blush and Farud’s heart beat with odd timings.
In the morning he is poolside, not swimming, but reading his newspaper in the shade. His sunglasses hide his eyes, but his unbuttoned shirt shows off a taut frame. Farud notices the way Angela’s gaze consumes the morsels on offer. He is tempted to say something but thinks better of it.
Everywhere there are couples, on the deck taking breakfast, lounging side by side in the morning sun, quietly recovering from last night’s excess. He sits alone, not seeming to notice the world, his eyes fastened to the pages he turns with deliberate slowness. Farud thinks he might be a spy, or some other lone wolf profession.
“I wonder if he’s gay,” Angela is saying.
“The guy in the sunnies over there. He’s very Marlon, don’t you think?”
“He’s very sexy too. Very exotic.”
Angela purrs when she says this and Farud smiles. In the early days she always called him her exotic dish. Her Australian and his Algerian parents had held their breath, hoping it would not last. They had married across cultural and religious boundaries. If only their parents knew just how many rules were transgressed in the pursuit of their love.
Farud smiles warmly at his wife. “Depends on the sauce,” he says.
Angela leans across the bowls of Bircher and kisses him wetly. “My guess is, it won’t be too long before someone’s squeezing his bottle.”
This kind of flirtatious behaviour is now rare for Farud and Angela. Their lives have settled down, their passions have come into line with the routine of careers and the gradual diminutions of time. This is why they need a holiday, to remind them who they are.
Day two, and they are already falling into the space between past surrender and future capitulation. They finish their breakfast and retire to their room overlooking the bay.
In the lift, on the way up, they stand silently next to him. His scent, tangy and masculine, fills the tiny, mirrored cell, and they both allow the prickle of sweet electricity to cascade through their wires.
The resort organises day trips to a nearby wine region and Con urges them all to go. Wine is in his blood, he says, indicating his textbook Hellenic features. Ruth and Angela are keen but Farud, who is not a wine drinker, demurs. He wants to disarm the detector in the room and smoke hashish on the sixth-floor balcony with the Velvet Underground for company. There is some discussion, and not a little arm twisting, before Farud gets his way.
He is already ensconced on a hotel branded deckchair as the officially logo-ed bus pulls out onto the Esplanade below. He watches it and sighs deeply. Farud is not often alone, but his soul seems to expand whenever he is, as if breathing more deeply.
The hashish is good. He draws it in and lets it curl out between his lips in strands as sensuous as a woman’s hair. His employers work him too hard for such indulgences, and hash is something he has had to sideline. Like music, which they never let him play in the office; so he how spends his days listening to inoffensive pop songs that offend him greatly, and his evenings eating healthy dinners.
Farud knows he is not a very good Muslim boy at heart. He prays five times a year if he remembers, but he wears nice suits and earns good money and always behaves impeccably around his Algerian relatives. Sadly, however, he now finds himself playing the same respectable role around his once wild wife.
There are times when he wonders who he is.
Well stoned, he decides to go down to one of the many ‘themed’ bars at street level. He takes his mp3 player, a few dollars and descends. With Lou Reed’s New York drawl in his head – thank your god that I just don’t care – Farud makes his way to a plush armchair overlooking the footpath. He orders a European beer and melts into the seat, enjoying the high and the liberating blue of the light outside.
He is busy watching girls when Brando takes a seat nearby. Today, he is wearing a tight white t-shirt with his blue jeans. Although it is hot he sports heavy boots, laced sturdily. His drink is short, a spirit of some sort, which he dismisses with one swift motion. Farud is feeling slovenly in comparison.
His self-conscious straightening of clothes catches the man’s eye. He waves at Farud, who removes his headphones.
“You play chess?” he is asking, his voice slow, rounded and not at all American.
Farud is surprised. As a boy his father taught him to play, drilling it into him, insisting that mastery of it was akin to a sacred, manly duty. He nods, words not forming properly.
The man catches the attention of the one of the crisply attired waiters, who soon returns with a dark wooden chess set, which is unfolded and set up with great care by the un-American.
“Best thing about this place,” he is informing Farud. “Met some damn fine players in this bar over the years.”
“I haven’t played for ages,” Farud responds.
“They all say that.”
While the game unfolds, Farud’s opponent sits in contemplative silence, occasionally grunting when a good move is made. Farud spends his spare thoughts cataloguing the man’s gestures. The way he moves with deliberate consideration, the fractional curl of his lip in a minute smile, the subtle flexing of fingers as they come to rest on a denim thigh, the focus of his impenetrable eyes.
He concedes the game after an intense forty-seven minutes and looks squarely at Farud. The two are shaking hands, a thin sweat of intimacy between them. There is something primal in this normally sedate formality, as if the two men are confiding.
“Would your wife approve of you being wasted before eleven in the morning?”
Farud laughs, unshackled, the tense choreography of the chess match spilling into free dance.
“Same time tomorrow then,” the man concludes, and as he is walking away Farud is short of breath. He understands that he has just been given an oblique lesson. In what, he dare not say.
When Angela tumbles half-drunk into the room in the afternoon he greets her with flowers, and she says, “Gee, Farud, what have you been up to?”
They are on their backs, all four looking up at giddy stars, the beach cool beneath them. In an hour the sun will rise and shower them with brightness. Yet their heads are hazy with the clouds of fun, the warm honesty of drinking and disco, and they are talking about him.
“I think he let me beat him,” Farud is telling them.
“Sounds kinky, bro,” Con burps, and they are all laughing in response, shaking sand into the gaps between their clothes.
“He must be a fag,” is Ruth’s theory. “He’s way too cute to be straight.”
“I wonder if he’s a good dancer,” Angela wants to know, imagining him cavorting on the floor the way she has all night; with gay abandon.
“So, you gonna play him again?” Con is asking his buddy.
“Sure, man. I’ll whip his damn arse.”
The girls are out shopping, and the boys are hanging in Farud and Angela’s room sharing a joint and watching cricket. They are trying desperately not to talk about work, but it nags at the edges. Both men know what awaits them upon their return.
“I’d like to do something, y’know, really crazy before we go back,” Farud is saying.
“We could get a girl,” Con suggests. “Even if we just get her to do a little strip for us. Some nice pussy to look at, bro.”
Farud knows this is not what he wants. What he wants is intangible, and yet he feels it in his stomach; something close to home but elusive, maybe impossible. It is an appetite for another way of eating, not simply a taste of untried exotica.
He thinks of his chess partner, wonders what he would say. Of course, Farud knows this is stoned thinking. He certainly hopes it is.
Meanwhile, Con is on the balcony with the digital camera, zooming in on sunbathers, the young girls with their tops off going cancerous in the cauldron of summer.
“Some nice tits out here, bro.”
The comedy of it breaks Farud out of his introversion and he is soon throwing his arm around his friend’s broad shoulders and asking for commentary.
“Hey, and there’s the faggot.”
When Farud spots him in the viewfinder he is sitting on the seawall, impassively surveying. His feet are bare and, when Farud zooms in, he sees that his jeans are unbelted. It seems to Farud that he is sad, in the scene but not part of it. Above it. Beyond it.
In the two minutes that Farud watches, several women slow their walk in front of him. One even approaches. He tells her the time and she pauses hopefully before moving off, disappointed.
“I’m going to ask him up for a smoke,” Farud hears himself say, and Con laughs awkwardly. By the time Farud reappears with the man in tow, Con has excused himself. Although he is not quite sure why, Farud is glad.
Expertly, he breaks up the hash and rolls a juicy stick. He offers the first draw, and the newcomer lights it insouciantly, taking a deep lungful. As he hands the joint over he exhales with one long, graceful movement, after which he licks his bottom lip and stares hard at Farud under dark lashes.
“You know this a non-smoking resort, don’t you?”
Farud nearly blushes. “I’m on holiday from the rules.”
“Does that mean you cheat?”
“What do you mean?”
“Cheat on your wife?”
Farud is struck. “No never,” he is coughing.
“At chess?” his companion presses.
“My father would report me directly to the Devil if I even tried.”
“Pleased to hear it.”
Farud takes a toke, his lips noting the wetness left over, the taste of another man’s saliva. In the sweet haze he realises that he has never noticed this before.
“Are you here alone?” he asks.
“Did you see anyone come in with me?”
“I mean— “
“—I know what you mean. The answer is yes. I’m on holiday too.”
New Year’s Eve…and the hotel is in full swing. Angela and Ruth are gorgeous in their slinky new gowns, Con has his shirt buttoned up for the first time since Christmas dinner, and Farud is nowhere to be found. The evening is warm and the air crowded.
“Where’s your boy?” Ruth asks Angela.
“He’s gone to fetch you know who,” Angela lets on.
Up on level four, Farud is watching his new friend finish the last of the hash.
“It occurs to me that I don’t even know your name,” he says.
“Let’s keep it that way,” the chess player replies through a veil of pungent smoke. “Names are a liability.”
“How am I going to introduce you then?”
It is a dashing pose, a fantasy, the outsider with his brooding deliberation and beautiful mouth. Farud feels so ordinary in his presence, so unspectacular. He watches his friend stub out the joint and walk across the room to where his evening’s shirt hangs on the back of chair. His skin is dazzling in the downlight, the muscles on his back sculptural. He is like a Michelangelo. Renaissance marble in motion. Farud wants to touch him.
“You are aware that every woman in this hotel wants to fuck you, aren’t you?”
He nods, not even bothering to smile. It is of no consequence to him. Instead, he is studying Farud for signs of jealousy.
“Your wife is very attractive,” he is saying.
“Are you going to try and seduce her?” Farud trembles as he says this, his feelings a blizzard.
The man walks up to him. His lips crease. The slightest smile. As Farud looks evasively at the floor, he reaches out a finger to lift his chin. He looks deeply into eyes that stare back. They are dark and blazing, not angry, but on tenterhooks, a fire on the verge of conflagration.
“Work out what you want,” he mutters as he turns back to his shirt and puts it on.
Farud recovers in time to make it downstairs and lead him over to Con and the girls. He can tell they are squirming, somehow lit up by the presence and polite handshake of this Brandoesque man of few words. His eyes play over their bodies. They love it. Con notices it too, and bristles.
As the evening builds towards midnight, Farud observes him circulating, watches the way he moves through the packed space without ever having to stop or alter his path. Women squeeze as close to him as they can and he holds his ground.
It is not like this for Farud. He bumps into people, waits ages for drinks and catches no flames in female eyes. Dancing with Angela he knows that she finds him exceptional, but Farud is in the process of deciding that this might not be enough. Not anymore.
Even as his wife’s breasts bob sexily in front of him he is looking for the man, looking for the clues he must surely be leaving behind.
Farud is having a lousy time amidst the chorus of good cheer, in the presence of his loving wife’s slightly boozy attentions. He wants to hide in the room and stare at the inky horizon. He is starting to form the first syllables of his excuse and, not hearing him, Angela leans in closer and breathes her mix of perfume and cocktail into his nostrils.
Inside the din of the music, he is miming his salvation.
“I love you.”
One last game before the airport shuttle whisks them away. Although he has beaten his opponent every other morning, Farud is losing. He is three or four moves from defeat. Still, Brando is a rock, stoic and surly and sexy, his hair freshly washed, chin cleaned of stubble.
As he slides his rook across the board, Farud wants to take his hand. Wants it madly. Would like to feel those rough knuckles against his soft palm. He very nearly does but, as he did last night, he stops on the threshold. In the pause, he asks himself if his braking is the fear a momentum more worthy.
The man had urged him to work out what he really wanted. Now he nearly has. In this moment he is testing his resolve, wondering if he is right to get on the bus and go back to his life; back, but not backwards to the holding pattern that is keeping his fire in check.
Farud recognises his paramour for what he is. More avatar than lover. He is working it out, just in time, as his queen is cornered. He wants what this man has, or appears to have; not just his sexual appeal but the very quality that creates such gravity. He is not afraid to be. He is living brilliantly in the filigree spaces between the solid and squashing layers of comfortable compromise.
Angela remembers when Farud lived in the same gaps, and it is this memory she loves, not so much the man who comes home five nights a week and groans under the weight.
Farud sees in Angela’s smouldering glances at the man the passion he once evoked in her.
“Check mate,” is the cry, as Farud’s queen dies, and for the first time all week the man smiles, a boyish grin that turns him from stone god to mortal skin and bone. He stands and offers his hand; the same one Farud has longed for. Their handshake is warm and strong.
“You’re one of the best,” he is telling Farud. “Play more often and I’m sure you’d be a champion.”
It reminds Farud of something his father said when he was fifteen, when he had just won a tournament against men with decades of experience. “This is for you to be great,” he had declared in broken English, proudly beaming at his skinny son.
“Thank you,” Farud says, enjoying the strength of the victor’s hand.
Next to Angela, on the bus, Farud runs his fingers in the dip between her thighs and he can feel her burning while oblivious passengers either chatter aimlessly or stare out the window and wonder when they too will ever get to live like this again.
Angela had been wanting to ask him about the stranger but now there is no need. She decides that the two of them must have been talking dirty during their daily chess games.
She will not be overly surprised, however, when Farud later tells her that they played in taciturn sobriety. She always knew Farud had it in him.