If Aidan Greene had stuck to the main streets, he probably would have been fine. But he was restless, walking all day, killing the three days between his arrival in Tunisia and the start of his teaching job. Though he loved the contrast between the stark white buildings and the bright blue, often cloudless sky, the plazas strung with tiny red flags, and the narrow cobblestoned streets of the medina, he didn’t want to think of himself as merely a tourist; he was going to be living in Tunis, working there, starting a new life.
He passed the broken remnants of the Roman aqueduct, confusing signs in Arabic that might have been warnings or simply directions, pavements stained with centuries of sewage, rows of low whitewashed buildings with exposed wires leading to decaying poles.
Men approached him asking for cigarettes, children for baksheesh. He ignored them all and wasn’t even nervous, until the dark-skinned boy in the torn T-shirt approached him as he walked down a narrow alley. The two- and three-story buildings leaned in toward him, blocking the sky, making him feel like a caged animal. “American?” the boy asked. “You give me dollars?” He was eight or nine, wearing sandals and a pair of ragged shorts.
Aidan shook his head, said, “No,” in a firm voice, and kept walking. Behind him, he heard a second voice, speaking what he assumed was Arabic. When he glanced back, he saw a second boy in his early teens.
He remembered the way he’d felt sometimes walking through the gay neighborhood of Philadelphia, afraid of being bashed by random toughs. But in other parts of the city, he’d felt safe -- he was often mistaken for Italian or Greek because of his olive skin, and his deep-set eyes and dark eyebrows made people think he was more dangerous than he really was.
At the end of the alley, two more boys were waiting, both in their early teens. “American,” one of them said. “Dollars.”
Aidan’s heart accelerated. The street ahead was wider than the alley but nearly deserted. It was late in the afternoon, the sun broiling above, and most sensible people were inside somewhere waiting for the night to cool things down. Somewhere in the distance he heard the heavy backbeat of Arabic music. A man’s voice, high and almost whiny, twisted through the rhythm of the strings. It reminded him that he was in a foreign place, one with lurking dangers.
He had no idea where he was. His usual strategy was to keep walking, and eventually he’d run across a landmark, refer to his guidebook, and orient himself.
Looking ahead, he saw one of the older boys holding something that glinted in the bright sun -- probably a knife. Another alley branched to the right, toward a broad plaza, so he took off at a run.
Back in Philadelphia, Aidan had walked everywhere -- to his job, teaching English as a second language to recent immigrants at a private college in Center City, to the grocery, the dry cleaner, the gay bookstore where he went to readings now and then. But he hadn’t run much, and he knew he couldn’t hold out for long, especially not in the heat, when he was dehydrated from a day on the pavement.
What a stupid idea it had been, he thought as he sped toward the plaza, the boys behind him. Giving up everything he had known back home to run away to a strange country, just to distract his broken heart. He had thought he could put aside the waste of eleven years on Blake Chennault, a man who had probably never loved him.
Years before, right after graduating with his master’s degree in English as a second language, he had traveled through Europe teaching, jumping from job to job and country to country as the mood took him. Then he had gone back to the States to visit his family, met Blake, and settled into a succession of tedious part-time jobs and a dull life that had never satisfied his desire for adventure. Once Blake had kicked him to the curb, he’d thought he could resume that itinerant life. But had he gotten too settled, too sedate, to survive on his own again?
The boys shouted and chased him, and it was sheer panic that kept him moving. He rounded a corner onto the plaza and saw that it was nearly empty too.
His heart was pumping, and sweat was pooling under his arms, dripping across his forehead, streaming down his back. Where could he go? He didn’t know a soul in the city -- he hadn’t even met his boss-to-be, Madame Habiba Abboud, having communicated with her through e-mail.
Aidan kept running, his heart thudding, his feet slamming against the rough concrete pavement. He rounded another corner and saw a blessed sight -- a neon beer bottle glowing beside a curtained doorway.
One of the teenagers was gaining on him. Aidan could almost feel the boy’s breath on his back as he reached the beadwork curtain that led into the bar, and pushed through. His guidebook had indicated that the few bars outside hotels were often seedy and not recommended for tourists. But it was too late to be squeamish.
The walls of the dim, high-ceilinged room were whitewashed stucco, the floor an indecipherable mosaic tile pattern. Three slim-hipped Tunisian men in jeans and cotton shirts sat at rickety metal chairs around a small square table painted bright blue and inlaid with chipped tile patterns.
He had a sudden memory of high school, the way he’d often run into the library to escape bullies. He felt the same sense of sanctuary. The men looked up as he burst into the room, panting and sweating. He rushed to the bar, where a dark-skinned bald man in a clean white T-shirt was working behind an elaborate brass coffee urn. Aidan slid onto one of the three bar stools and pointed at a bottle of lemon soda.
He looked behind him. None of the boys had dared follow him inside, which was good. He worried that they might be waiting outside, though. It would be dark in a few hours, and he had no idea where he was or how he could get back to the little apartment he’d rented.
Stupid, he thought to himself as he took a long drink of lemon soda and waited for his racing heart to calm. How could he have been so stupid? Not just to get himself lost and in trouble in Tunis -- but to have ended up here in the first place? He didn’t speak the language, didn’t know more about the country than he’d read in his Lonely Planet Tunisia Travel Guide
. It had all been a knee-jerk reaction to being dumped.
When his heart rate had returned to a manageable level, he paid for his soda, then walked over to an opening in the back wall -- you could have called it a window, if there had been a frame around it, a piece of glass. But it wasn’t that kind of bar. He looked out at a small dirt courtyard -- and a naked man standing under an open showerhead.
The sight was startling enough that for a moment Aidan forgot the boys who had been chasing him. His dick surprised him with an erection as he watched the water cascade over muscles and gleaming skin. The man had close-cropped brown hair, high cheekbones, and a few days’ growth of beard. One small gold ring pierced each fat brown nipple, which sat on a pair of almost square pecs. From there, his body formed a V down to a narrow waist. He was tanned a deep brown, all over, almost as dark as the Tunisian men in the bar.
Aidan lounged against the wall, enjoying the sight of the naked body, daydreaming a bit about touching and being touched. The roughness of another man’s cheek against his, the taste of another man’s lips. That initial intoxication with someone new, learning the ins and outs of his body, what turned him on, and the things he would do that would surprise Aidan with his own responses.
But that led him to the pain of breaking up. Was it worth it? To have your heart torn open when a man you thought loved you enough to last forever walked in one day and said it was time for you to move out?
Aidan looked into the courtyard again. Damn, the guy in the shower was sexy. His biceps flexed as he bent to soap himself. His groin was flat, with a mound of bushy brown hair at the root of his thick, semihard dick. He scrubbed himself with no self-consciousness, enjoying the soap and the clean water. When the man turned his back, Aidan salivated over a perfect bubble butt with a narrow trail of dark hair running between the cheeks.
He closed his eyes and imagined the man’s big hands roving over his own naked body, the feel of fingers wrapped around his dick, a tongue lapping at his puckered asshole. Bee-stung lips on his, kissing him in a way he hadn’t been kissed in years. The scent of another man filling his nostrils. The taste of a man as his tongue roved from collarbone to belly button. And how much more wonderful all that would be if he were in love.
Then he remembered he was in a Muslim country. They stoned gay people here, didn’t they? He turned away from the window, afraid someone would see him staring, and realized that his erection had given him away, tenting his shorts. He adjusted himself, but one of the men at the table had already noticed.
As the man approached, Aidan marked his bushy eyebrows, gold front tooth, black hair slicked back from his forehead. He was older than he’d appeared at first; lines creased his dark skin. Muscles bulged from his upper arms. Aidan’s pulse raced again. Would the man accuse him? Hit him?
Instead, the man smiled broadly and placed his hand on Aidan’s groin. He said something in a language that had its roots in French. Though the words were unknown, the meaning was clear.
Equally clear was Aidan’s reaction to the man’s touch. His dick deflated faster than an escaping hot-air balloon. The man looked puzzled, and Aidan dropped the soda bottle on a nearby table and hurried out of the bar, forgetting the danger that lurked outside.