Raymond had misunderstood when Max told him that he and Omar were polyamorous. He assumed it was a medical condition, because his English was still limited to words he had heard on American television and because he had only ever heard the abbreviated ‘poly’ in conversation. He told Max he was sorry to hear it, and how tragic it was that both of them should be afflicted. Max gave a wild howl of laughter and kissed Raymond hard on the mouth.
Max and Omar were a famous union around the bars of Oxford St where Raymond worked. They’d had their lip-locked faces printed on ‘Love Wins’ pamphlets and broadcast on news bulletins against billowing six-striped flags. The talk had always been about their decision not to get married. Apparently, marriage was a straight archetype and Max and Omar were the very model of what made the gay experience different.
The night Raymond met Max had begun in a vodka-red-bull infused laser-light hoedown and ended in the corner of the Town Hall McDonalds with a large chips and a caramel sundae. Max looked tired as if he had outgrown 2ams.
‘Thanks for the ice-cream,’ Raymond said with the plastic spoon hanging over his lip. Then he told Max his name, because he realised that so far, Max had only referred to him as, ‘Babe’ and he to Max as, ‘Daddy’. Max smiled and slid his phone across the table. Their hands met and Raymond wanted to put Max’s fingers in his mouth. They had stopped drinking around midnight but were drunk on something else entirely.
Raymond looked down at Max’s phone and saw the famous couple smiling all over the lock-screen.
‘Does he know you do this?’ Raymond asked. ‘Hook up with other boys?’
Max smiled and explained.
When they were spent, Raymond lay beside Max on his hot, speckled sheets in his hot, spavined share-house and pleaded with Jesus to give the sun the day off. He licked up the milky saliva that had pooled between his teeth and his bottom lip and used his blanket to wipe the sweat that gathered in his solar plexus. He turned his head and met Max’s eyes, which were kind and tired and focused all at once. He reached up and curled Max’s thick, blonde hair around his index finger.
Raymond had never experienced that sort of attraction before, the sort that kept you up after sex just to look at each other. He’d had other men of course, but he’d never loved any of them. He loved Max from the moment their eyes met, amongst the legions of smooth balloon muscles and coked up suits flailing on the dancefloor.
When Max got up to leave, at about 4 in the morning, Raymond begged him to stay, and he did.
The first time Raymond went to Max and Omar’s apartment, there was a thunderstorm. He apologised to Jesus and told him it was okay since Max and Omar weren’t married, but the sky continued to throw its tantrum all over Raymond regardless. When he knocked on their front door, he left a puddle on the hallway carpet. Max answered and asked Raymond if he’d been swimming.
‘Dad joke, I know,’ he said, winking.
Their apartment was not huge but it was open and neat and boasted a panorama of the city skyline beyond the back window, over which the clouds and lighting did backflips and summersaults. Omar was standing at the kitchenette with a meat cleaver in his hand. He had two, hairy, black bricks for eyebrows.
‘Raymond, this is Omar,’ Max said, even though Raymond already knew.
Omar put down the silver hammer and washed his hands before he shook Raymond’s. They were big, brown and spiny, like tarantulas.
‘I’m making a Moroccan goat stew,’ he said. His breath smelt like expensive wine.
‘I never had goat,’ Raymond told him. He hadn’t meant for it to sound so immediate, like he was divulging an allergy, or an aversion.
Omar’s jaw shut slowly. He smiled.
‘First time for everything,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘And I’ll tell you a little secret,’ he added, leaning in towards Raymond, ‘that’s what Max said the first time he went home with me.’
Max guffawed and slapped Omar across his arm.
‘I’m sure Raymond will love it,’ he said.
He wrapped Raymond in a huge towel that felt like fairy floss on his skin.
Sex with Max and Omar was not the same as sex with Max alone, but Raymond had never slept in silk sheets before, so he thought he would indulge the both of them and then reward himself by staying the night.
They bound him to the metal railings of the bed post with their business ties and stuffed a pair of black, cotton socks in his mouth when they weren’t using it. He could always tell the difference between Max and Omar’s hands, even when they blindfolded him, or when one of them was so deep inside that he couldn’t keep his eyes open. It wasn’t as though Max had softer skin than Omar, or Omar was particularly rough; there was just something electric about Max’s touch that made the little hairs all over Raymond’s skin stand up.
He slept between the two of them that night, the three a choir of gentle snoring. Under the blanket, Max and Raymond held hands.
Raymond woke the next morning to the sound of Max and Omar giggling furtively in the ensuite. He suspected he had been talking in his sleep again, a habit he was well aware of but which many of his past lovers had been too polite to address. He spread his arms and legs, enjoying the breadth of the bed and the coolness of the sheets. He dreamt he was a child back in Manila, and his American relatives had come to visit, and he had begged his sisters to let him spend the night in their air-conditioned hotel room. He dreamt he wore fluffy white slippers and squeezed into bed between his fat cousins, pulling the linen all the way up to his chin to keep him warm in the artificial cool.
‘What did I say last night?’ he asked Max, who had just stepped out of the ensuite naked and pink. Raymond caught a glimpse of Omar on the toilet seat as Max shut the door.
Max leapt up onto the bed and crawled up its length till he was face to face with Raymond. His eye lashes hung over his eyes like awnings. He smelt like spearmint.
‘You asked me if you could keep the potions in the bathroom, whatever that means,’ Max said. He kissed Raymond’s forehead.
In his mind’s eye, Raymond glimpsed tiny plastic lotion bottles and circular soaps wrapped up in paper, laid out in a line on a marble bench against a fogged up mirror.
‘Was that all?’ he asked Max.
‘Wait… I’ll show you.’
He reached over Raymond for Omar’s phone on the bedside table, grinning toothily, childlike.
‘Omar recorded me?’ Raymond asked.
‘You weren’t speaking English,’ Max said. ‘He was curious to know what you were saying.’
He played back a soundbite of Raymond’s voice, speaking speedy Tagalog in a low murmur. Max and Omar could be heard chortling in the background, like teenagers with a secret.
‘You always did pick the most defective fruit of the bunch…’ Omar had said.
‘Shut up,’ Max hissed. ‘You’ll wake him up.’
Raymond pretended he hadn’t heard what Omar had said on the recording. Guilt flashed across Max’s face for a second, quickly replaced by curiosity.
‘What are you saying?’ he asked Raymond, his pale brows furrowed.
‘Nothing,’ Raymond told him. ‘Nothing that makes sense. Actually, I’m praying. Just praying.’
Over the next half a year, Raymond would spend more nights in Max and Omar’s bed than he would his own. It was lucky that he was such a small man, or else there might not have been sufficient room for all three of them, not that Raymond was a stranger to sleeping three, four, five, sometimes even six to a bed. He would watch in the mornings as Max and Omar showered and shaved and did up all their miles of buttons, and he would make himself lunch from whatever was in their fridge and then go to his own house during the day and shower and change for work while his housemates were conveniently away; Raymond was a month behind on his rent since he had been sending most of his pay to his sisters back home.
One night, Raymond arrived at the apartment after his shift at the bar and found Omar alone on the lancaster sofa, watching a pre-recorded Masterchef in a burgundy bathrobe, downing a bottle of pinot like it was Gatorade. Something about the energy of the place made him aware that Max wasn’t home.
‘Max is working late, sweetie,’ Omar said. ‘He texted me earlier. He’ll probably stay at the office through the night.’
He said it casually, as if it happened all the time. He didn’t even look at Raymond as he said it.
‘I didn’t realise he’d given you keys,’ he added, finally turning to look at Raymond.
Max hadn’t given Raymond anything. Omar had left his keys at home four Thursdays before and Raymond had them duplicated.
‘Well I’m going to bed,’ Omar said, tipping the remainder of his glass into his mouth and asking the television to turn off. He looked at Raymond and smiled toothily. ‘I was just waiting for you to get home but in future, I won’t bother, seeing as how you have keys now, a matter Max neglected to discuss with me. There’s casserole in the microwave. Veggie.’
Raymond woke on the couch the next morning to the sonorous vibration of the coffee machine. Someone had thrown a blanket over him and slot a pillow under his head. He saw Max hurriedly eating a bowl of cereal over the bench.
‘Morning angel,’ Max said to Raymond. ‘I’m making you a coffee.’
‘I waited up for you,’ Raymond told him.
‘That was sweet of you babe,’ Max said, ‘but next time, don’t.’
He left his empty bowl in the sink and took the tiny glass of coffee and thrust it into Raymond’s hands.
‘Soy milk,’ he said.
He kissed Raymond’s forehead and hurried out the door.
Raymond was doubly shocked when he returned to the apartment that night to a repeat of Omar watching Masterchef with the same bottle of wine, in the same burgundy bathrobe.
‘He’s working late again,’ Omar said before Raymond could even ask.
Raymond locked the door behind him.
‘I didn’t cook,’ Omar added. ‘Ordered pizza. Double-Bacon-Cheeseburger. Max abhors it but it’s my absolute guilty pleasure. In the microwave.’
Raymond could not eat pizza; he was lactose intolerant.
‘I thought you weren’t going to stay up anymore,’ Raymond said, a little out of breath from the stairs.
‘Oh well, who can sleep when two thirds of your household is missing?’
‘Do you think he’ll come home tonight?’ Raymond asked.
‘Honey, I’m telling you, don’t wait up for Max. And don’t bother asking him to come home either. He’s obviously preoccupied with something, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Max in the last fifteen years it’s this; when he’s got his mind set on a goal, you can’t stop him. You just have to live your life around him if you want to keep him in it.’
‘What do you mean?’
Omar winked. ‘You’ll learn.’
Raymond was losing his patience.
‘And another thing,’ Omar added, ‘as much as I love to starfish, you don’t have to sleep out here when Max isn’t home. And I don’t mind your sleep-talking either. It’s like my own, personal radio telenovela. In fact I’m looking forward to finding out the gender of the baby.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Raymond thought about turning around and walking right back out the door until Max came home.
‘Well,’ Omar began, ‘the other night, you were dumping some unfortunate old Queen because your wife was pregnant.’
‘I was?’ Raymond found it disconcerting that Omar knew more about his dreams than he did. When he tried to remember what he had dreamt the other night, he could only see flashes of white tile and scarlet orchids in purple vases.
‘But I have a request, if I may,’ Omar said, his hand poised like a traffic controller's. ‘Could you stick to English? Thanks love. Normally I love a challenge but I don’t want to miss it when your wife finds out you’re a faggot.’
Raymond did not want to sleep next to Omar. Now that he thought about it, he wanted to spend the night in his own bed, in his own room with all his second hand clothes and posters of Grace Jones and photos of his sisters and his sister’s kids. He wanted to watch a messy porn and masturbate into a tissue and throw it at his bedroom door and then kneel and pray to the rosary around his bedpost for his mother’s sickness to go away. But much the same as the first night he had spent in Max and Omar’s apartment, it was raining like the Philippines in July and he had no money for an Uber.
He waited a few hours before going to bed, so that Omar was out cold when Raymond crept onto the mattress beside him. He listened for Omar’s signature snore, distinguishable from Max’s because it was hollow and staccato while Max’s was low but full throated.
He felt Omar’s spindly fingers meet his own under the sheets. He held still for a moment, stiff like a fainted goat, and then moved his hand away, reaching between his thighs for his cock and holding it whilst thinking of Max.
The thunderclap woke Raymond. The rain was pelting the roof, like a herd of sheep stampeding from one end of the building to the other. He shifted and peered out the bedroom window, which looked directly over the alley between their building and a huge, freestanding terrace. Someone was moving in the darkness. Raymond could hear the splash of their feet in the deep puddles.
He thought about getting out of bed but worried about waking Omar; he did not wish to invite any opportunities for Omar and him to speak.
He focused instead on the shadow in the alley, which appeared to be waving. The shadow pulled something off from over its head and stepped into the glow of a street lamp. He was yelling something, but his voice contested with the storm and lost.
Raymond shot up out of bed, threw the linen sheet over Omar’s long, limp body and opened the window.
‘Buzz me in babe!’
It was Max.
When Raymond opened the door, Max was still holding his blazer up over his head as though it were raining indoors. He had left muddy footprints on the hallway carpet, all the way up to the stairs.
‘Been swimming?’ Raymond asked him.
‘It’s a bloody typhoon,’ Max whispered.
‘Then it’s a good thing you live in this beautiful apartment and not a slum,’ Raymond said.
Max kicked his shoes off and left them in the hall. Raymond took his jacket and walked to the ensuite so he could hang it over the shower; Omar was still out cold.
He filled the kettle and switched it on as Max threw his wet clothes into the washing machine and stepped back out of the laundry in his underwear. His body had the stature and strength of a man his age but without any of the wear caused by gravity and time.
‘You want a glass of wine?’ Raymond asked. ‘Or something stronger?’
‘Just a tea,’ Max said.
‘Even after working so hard?’ Raymond looked at the digital clock on top of the microwave; 2am.
Max gave a sigh. He looked Raymond in the eye for a moment and then turned around. He took a seat at the table and Raymond brought over his tea. He felt calm now that he was with Max, despite the angry storm dancing over the city. It felt momentous too, like Jesus had spun the storm for a specific reason.
Max accepted the tea, thanking Raymond in a whisper. He drew circles with his head and rolled his shoulders about, as if they were in pain.
Raymond placed his hands over Max’s thick trapezoid, gently squeezing and releasing, squeezing and releasing.
‘That feels nice,’ Max said.
‘Is something wrong?’ Raymond asked him. Steam rose from Max’s mug, carrying Max’s scent up with it. He smelled of the day, of men who sweat under their suits, of second-hand smoke collected on the street, of gasoline and coffee and the pastrami he had for lunch. Raymond was intoxicated.
Max did not reply. Instead, he brought the tea up to his mouth and took a long, loud sip.
‘You shouldn’t work so hard,’ Raymond said. ‘Doctors say it will take years off your life.’
‘You want to know what’ll take years off your life?’ he asked Raymond.
He took another slow sip. He breathed in deeply, asked Raymond to massage him a little lower.
‘I have to tell you something,’ Max said, looking down into his mug.
‘Just say it.’
Max turned his head to look up at Raymond and Raymond felt his knees almost go out from under him. Max was the most beautiful thing Raymond had ever seen. Max, naked and wet and lit up by the storm.
‘I haven’t been working late,’ he said.
‘You’ve been seeing someone else?’
It was the most obvious assumption, and it wasn’t the first time Raymond had entertained it.
‘I haven’t,’ Max said, without hesitation, as if it were the truest thing he had ever said. ‘I haven’t been seeing anyone else and I don’t want to see anyone else. I’ve been staying late at the office because I can’t stand being here with…’
He shut his eyes.
Raymond’s heart lurched.
‘With Omar,’ Max said. His voice broke. He sounded like a boy, even younger than he looked, younger than even Raymond looked. His tears spilled onto his chest, onto his nipples and his belly. He curled into the table and reached over the back of his head so he could cling to Raymond’s hands. He squeezed, his touch electrifying. Raymond started crying too.
‘I broke the rules,’ Max sobbed. ‘I made a choice. I chose you.’
‘I choose you too,’ Raymond said. ‘I fell in love with you Max. Not him.’
Max turned in the chair and pressed his head against Raymond’s chest. His hair was still wet from the rain.
‘Can I stay with you?’ Max pleaded. ‘Can we go to your house and stay there?’
Raymond looked out over the balcony, at the thunder snaking the sky, at the sprinkle of fairy lights dotting the sprawl. He looked at the kitchenette and its silver appliances, at the lancaster sofa and the flat screen television and the glass coffee table on which Omar had left his bottle of wine.
‘This is your house,’ he said to Max. ‘Why should you leave?’
‘It’s his house as much as mine,’ Max said. ‘I couldn’t… it wouldn’t be right.’
Raymond mulled it over. He pressed his fingers deep into the back of Max’s hands.
‘Okay,’ he said softly. It wasn’t as if he and Max would stay in Raymond’s share-house forever. Max was a real man with real money. ‘Okay, we can go to my house. Don’t go to the office tomorrow. We’ll pack your things while Omar is at work.’
Max nodded like a child, wiping the snot from his nose on the back of his arm.
Raymond looked out at the storm. ‘But for tonight,’ he said to Max, ‘we will stay here.’
Raymond kept his eyes shut when he felt the bed shift the next morning. He pulled the blankets over his face and listened to the shower, unsure of who was in it. He had no intention of seeing Omar that morning. In fact, he had no intention of ever seeing Omar again.
He kept his face pressed against the Egyptian cotton pillowcase for as long as it took whoever it was in the shower to emerge and dress and pack in utter silence, as though goading Raymond to peek.
He got up only when he heard the front door shut and lock. He had a hankering for a cheese toastie; he would use some of Omar’s camembert to make it extra decadent.
When he stepped out into the living room, he saw Max at the circular dining table with a mug of coffee and his phone laid out upside down. The balcony doors were open, letting in the humidity of the morning. It felt like home.
‘You’re up,’ he said to Raymond, his mouth in a wry half moon. He was wearing his trousers but had thrown his business shirt and jacket over the back of the chair so that he wore only a tight wife-beater singlet. There were deep depressions beneath his green eyes and his blonde hair was sweaty and unkempt.
‘I’ll start packing,’ Raymond told him, forgetting all about his toastie. He knew all of Max’s possessions from Omar’s, from his suits to his underwear to his gym gear and his computer accessories.
Max sipped his coffee loudly.
‘I thought you weren’t going to work,’ Raymond said as he turned towards the bedroom.
‘I just got home,’ Max said.
Raymond spun around and watched as Max turned his phone over.
‘But you were here last night,’ he said.
Max shook his head gently.
Raymond’s head pulsed. He had morning vision. He couldn’t put meaning to Max’s words.
He needed caffeine.
‘Want another coffee?’ he asked, panicking, confused, praying to Jesus that it wasn’t true. ‘Or an omelette? I can make you breakfast.’
He wanted to cross the living room and sit on Max’s lap. He imagined himself dancing, massaging Max’s cock with his arse until he felt it massage him back. But some energy about the apartment held him still, rooted his bare feet to the floorboards. He couldn’t move a muscle. He could barely even move his lips.
‘Please don’t say you’re taking it back,’ he pleaded from across the room. ‘Please don’t change your mind.’
‘I never came home last night,’ Max said, looking into the black depths of his mug. Raymond thought he was trying to divine the future from the dregs. Not the future, but rather the past. Last night, as a matter of fact.
‘After you came home,’ Raymond said. ‘After you came home you told me you wanted to be with me.’
‘Omar and I…’ Max said, ‘we’re together. We’re a packaged deal.’
‘But you said-’ Raymond took a step back. ‘You said-’
‘I’ve been at work all night.’
Max tapped the screen of his phone to reveal the same photo Raymond had seen the night he and Max had met; Max and Omar, smiling sheepishly, two boys playing a game. He entered his passcode, opened an application and pressed his finger to a great, red triangle.
Raymond heard his own voice speaking to him, distant and muffled and low, like he was speaking behind a heavy curtain.
‘I choose you too,’ he was saying. ‘I fell in love with you Max. Not him.’
‘Max…’ He was still unable to lift his feet from the floor. ‘Max…’
‘Don’t go to the office tomorrow,’ he heard himself say. ‘We’ll pack your things while Omar is at work.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Max said again. He did not look up from the void within his mug. There were no tears in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry but we can’t see you anymore Raymond.’
The mid-morning sun shone into the apartment through the open balcony doors, almost blinding Raymond who had to shield his eyes with his hands. It was so hot and it wasn’t even 10am.
‘That wasn’t me,’ he cried. ‘How could he do this to us? Jesus Christ, how could he do this?’
The beat hit Raymond on the side of the head like a baton, over and over again. Doof. Doof. Doof. Clap. He could barely hear the customers, who came to him with pupils the size of dinner plates and their shirts hanging out their back pockets. He poured himself a shot and took another order and then poured himself a second, third, fourth. His manager shot him a warning glance but he poured a fifth anyway. He would make up for it later, on another night when he wasn’t thinking of Max and his sandy, yellow hair and his heavy arms. He leant against the bar for support. People were screaming at him, flashing their black Visa cards and silver Amexs, all their wealth and splendour and importance in this big, clean city where there was space to breathe and fuck and sleep on Egyptian cotton.
He tapped his co-worker on the shoulder, who nodded as Raymond walked out from behind the bar towards the bathroom under the stairs.
A tall brawny woman had commandeered the sink, adjusting her wig and applying too much lipstick. She looked at Raymond, who swayed left and right as he stepped up onto the long, silver urinal, and raised one of her thick, tattooed brows.
‘Honey if you’re getting as fucked as the rest of us, who’s gonna clean up all the mess later tonight?’
Raymond ignored her and let out a stream of steamy, amber piss which landed on two tiny faces locked in a kiss on a piece of paper. He read, ‘Love wins,’ and scoffed.
He zipped his fly half way up and then stumbled out of the bathroom past the growing crowds at the bar. He saw his manager motioning for him to come back to work, standing by the stairs and pointing to the ground, gesturing for Raymond to heel as though he were a dog. Raymond flipped him the bird and slithered out onto the dance floor amongst the other animals; the rhinos, the apes, the giraffes. And he twisted and writhed until one of them caught his eye.