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It seemed like one moment Roman was cuddled up next to me in bed.
With our naked bodies pressed together beneath an ocean of sheets, I could hear his voice whisper, “Why are your hands so cold?” I could hear him laugh in ticklish glee as my fingers brushed his chest and I lightly pinched his left nipple. I could taste his lips, embrace his warmth, and feel his bare feet rub against mine.
However, in the slumber of my mourning, I would wake at three am to discover that he still wasn’t there. It had been a year since Roman had went missing, and life as I knew it felt as if it had come to a grueling end.
One day he told me he was on his way home from work and that he would be home and that he wanted Chinese. But an hour passed and the food I ordered started to go cold. I had called him at least twenty times when the clock struck ten.
I dialed up his best friend, Winnifred, and she told me, “No, Michael, I haven’t heard from him. Is he okay?”
And I replied, “I don’t know.”
Those words were heavy with concern, like an anvil tossed into a dark sea of worry.
I called the police, told them that my boyfriend hadn’t come home. This turned into a missing person’s report and eventually two weeks went by.
“We’re doing all we can to find him,” the police would tell me. “Are you sure he didn’t have any enemies who would want him dead?”
“No,” I told them. But in the back of my mind I wondered if he did. The idea of someone abducting him and hurting him killed me. And, of course, there was the thought that perhaps he had run off with another man.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” his sister would tell me, a month after hearing no word from Roman. “He had just left the office. Besides, it doesn’t seem like him to just wander off with another guy if he was gonna propose–” She stopped. There was a silence that stuck like pins my heart. Finally, after three seconds of an awkward pause, Roman’s sister hissed, “Fuck.”
Ultimately the police told me and his family that the search was off and only the worse could be assumed. For the longest time I didn’t sleep, because anxiety gave me thoughts that perhaps some maniac had scalped his curly, chestnut hair, or gouged out his copper-colored eyes.
Whenever I took a shower, I got down on the tub floor in fetal position and let the steam engulf my nude vulnerability. As the water rinsed over my body, I cried for Roman and ached for him in my gut.
With every passing day a part of me that was connected to my boyfriend died. My life had turned into a consistent state of pain. I didn’t want to move on, and the worst part is that there was never an end. Believe me when I say the unknown is worse than the idea of death.
Winter thawed into Spring, Spring became Summer, and the green leaves on the trees turned into vibrant oranges and reds. I didn’t enjoy any of the holidays that came in and passed, because I never left our apartment. I still called it our apartment.
And suddenly, out of nowhere in this vast black hole of grief, I received a phone call.
On the side of the bed where Roman use to sleep, I reached over and picked the telephone. In a voice drenched in depression, I answered, "Hello?”
Light breathing could be heard and a male voice that sounded familiar replied, “It’s me.”
At first I thought I was dreaming. See, when your life becomes nothing but a miserable coma, you can't tell the difference between what is real and what is not. For months all I did was lay in bed and I never washed the sheets in fear that detergent would remove Roman's scent. I shook my head a little to confirm that I was indeed awake and asked, “Who is this?”
On the other side of the line, I heard the flick of a lighter and the inhale of a cigarette. The voice said, “Come to room 205 at the Motel Astor in Benson.” There was a pause and the person seductively whispered, “I’ll be waiting for you, tiger.”
And with that, the conversation was ended by a dial tone.
A streak of lightening shot through me, because the only person in the world who called me “Tiger” was Roman. Without rationality, I jumped out of bed and switched from my birthday suit into boxer briefs, jeans, and an old shirt. This was what I had died a thousand times for: a clue, a hint, a sign, something to ease my mania and, most of all, a sliver of hope.
I'm going to find you, Roman, I thought to myself, as a grabbed my keys to my truck. After putting on my boots, I stormed out of the apartment and embarked on a quest to find him.
Now, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t immediately notify the police. Instead, try to understand why I didn’t. For starters, I tried to *69 the phone call, but all I got was an automated recording telling me the number had been disconnected. Also, the town of Benson was a twenty minute drive outside of the city and, to be honest, I couldn’t tell if this was real or just desperation.
The only thing on my mind was getting to him and God did I speed. A mix of desire, hope, and shock controlled the gears of my truck. My foot stomped the gas and my heart raced at seventy miles per hour. The city lights dimmed and the horizon darkened into the country night. Adrenaline rushed through my veins and desire trembled inside me.
The thought that perhaps somebody may have been prank phone calling me didn’t even cross my mind until I saw a sign that read: "Welcome to BENSON – The Town Where Dreams Come True.”
But if Roman really was waiting at the Motel Astor, I couldn’t decide on whether or not I wanted to hug, fuck, slap, kiss, or scream at him. Where had he been? Why did he vanish? What happened? Why didn’t he just come home? Was this really happening?
And then it had dawned on me – I didn’t even know where I was going. I mean, yes, I knew where the town of Benson was, but I had no idea where this said Motel Astor was.
When entering downtown Benson I pulled over at a diner called Henry’s and parked the truck. I figured I would ask someone directions to the motel – if it even existed, that is.
In a rush, I burst through the establishment doors. Upon entering, the smell of coffee beans, waffle batter, and hash brown grease hit me in the face.
The first person I saw was a middle-aged waitress. Her hair was damaged and one could tell it had once been red. The waitress’ face appeared tired due to working a late shift and, in a caring and warm voice, said “Welcome to Henry’s, how may I–”
“Where is the Motel Astor?” I interrupted, practically throwing myself over the counter. My alertness seemed to startle her. When the waitress didn’t respond fast enough, I shot quickly, “Can you please tell me where it is? I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
“I can tell, sugar,” she replied, “You look like you just stepped out of an F5 tornado.”
The only customer in the diner sat a couple tables away from me. He was broad-shouldered man, bald and bearded. He took a sip of his coffee and asked, “Why you wanna go to the ol’ Astor for?”
Heavy in my mouth was the entire year of suffering I had endured: my worry, my love, and damaged heart. Somehow in the clusterfuck of all the information I was trying to process, I simply replied with, “Can you just tell me how to get there?”
He shrugged and said, “Yeah, just go up E Street and take a left onto highway 70. You’ll drive for about a good ten minutes and it’ll be on your right.” He paused and added, “But you might wanna take a gun with you.”
I looked at the man rather dumbly and asked, “Why?”
“Ain’t nothing but trouble out there,” he informed. “Meth heads, drug dealers, prostitutes… Hell, the place is practically an STD with vacancy.”
I didn’t care. The man drinking his coffee could have told me the Motel Astor was an active volcano about to explode and I still would have ventured there to find Roman. Without saying anything else I left the diner, got into my Chevy, and sped to the directions I had been given. On the radio the Golden Earring's Twilight Zone could be heard through a light static.
Thoughts echoed through my mind.
Why would he want me to go to a crime infested motel? Had my lover been abducted by criminals who wanted ransom? What if this is a set-up?
But most importantly, was I really prepared to find out?
I took a left off E Street and merged onto highway 70. With the window down, cool, phantom sheets pounded me in the face. My fists gripped the steering wheel and my foot pressed the gas. Images of Roman at the beach flashed in my mind. I recalled him exclaiming, “Hey, tiger, take a picture of me!”
And images of what was to come haunted me. IF Roman was really waiting in room 205, would he still be all put together? Would his arms and legs be attached to his torso? Would he be physically complete the way he was when he left me? All of these questions ran through my head at sixty-five miles per hour down a dark highway.
After a short while I finally reached my destination, and before me in the headlights appeared a sign. In neon yellow letters, it read: MOTEL ASTOR and the NO next to the word 'Vacancy' flickered.
The building was two stories and looked as if it had been built sometime in the early seventies on an American dream that fell into hard times. Some of the windows were boarded up and the gated pool had been drained, leaving dead algae on the bottom.
I parked the truck, got out, and didn’t even hesitate to stop into the lobby and inquire any information about who was staying in room 205. I followed a cracked sidewalk and doors numbered 101 to 120. Each passing room increased the anxiety of what was to be discovered.
At the bottom of the stairs that led to the upper story stood a grungy, female prostitute. Her hair was an oily black mess and her short, magenta skirt and fishnet hoes suggested a blowjob would be cheap. Her tanktop, that ripped and shredded excuse that covered her braless cleavage, had the graphic design of The Rolling Stones lips.
When I tried to pass her, she struck an erotic pose and said, “I can turn a faggot straight with these lips. You lookin’, doll face?”
This hooker’s eyes, these two slits in her sockets smeared with black eyeliner and dollar store mascara, ogled me head to toe in search for green so she could obtain some crack cocaine.
“Out of my way,” I said, rather rude and giving her a clear indication that she was the last thing on my mind. When heading up the steps, the prostitute laughed and called back, “Your loss, Nancy boy!”
At the second level of the building, I gulped an anvil and realized I was close to figuring out what was going on. I passed room 210 through 206 until I stood in front of the blocked threshold of a door that read 205.
There’s no turning back now, Michael, I thought myself.
My hands trembled, the hair on the back of my neck and in the pits of my arms stood up, and my feet went icy. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. At first, there was no answer. I waited about three seconds before knocking again.
At that moment, right when my knuckles were about to hit the wood, the sound of a chain unlatching from the other side could be heard. My heart dropped like an elevator down a long, dark shaft as the door opened.
And standing there wasn’t Roman, but instead it was a guy who almost looked identical to him. He was about the same height, his bleached blonde hair grew from a dark scalp, and his bright, blue eyes that gave me a cold glance.
“Can I help you?” he asked, with a voice that wasn’t warm and inviting like my lover. He also didn’t wear thick-rimmed glasses like Roman. Hell, even his style was completely different. Instead of an ironed, clean dress shirt, this guy wore a tank-top that read "Starfucker" in the same font used for the Hollywood sign. His shoulders and arms fit loosely in a large leather jacket and his pants were cut off into short-shorts.
I didn’t know what to say at first. With my mouth open, I tried to find the words, but instead all I could do was stare aimlessly. The guy lit a cigarette, stuck his head out the door and looked left to right. “You aren’t a cop, are you?” he asked.
After a short and confused pause, I replied, “No, I’m not.”
“Okay, well, what’chu want?” he seductively purred. “You a bottom or a top? Or versatile?” He dropped the eroticism in his voice and then added, “I don’t bareback for strangers, sorry.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, dodging his offer.
“Ohhh,” he crooned. “It can be anything you want it to be.” The guy laughed and said, “You look like a man who likes to be sucked.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and it was then I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed and shook him hard while yelling, “I’m not fucking playing around, what hell is your name?!”
“Jesus H. Christ!” he exclaimed, pushing me off. “What’s ya problem?”
I stepped back, pulled myself together and said, “I’m – I’m sorry. See, my boyfriend went missing a while back. I got a call from someone telling me to meet them at room 205 and it sounded like him. And what’s strange is you favor him tremendously.” I paused for a moment and added, “Forgive me, I sound like a lunatic, I know.”
The guy looked at me for a good three seconds and asked, “What was his name?”
“Roman,” I told him. “Roman Cardinal.”
The guy took a drag of his cigarette and said, “Well, that’s not me. My name is Kevin High. Now, do you wanna have a little fun or what?”
I hesitated for a moment as the disappointment of not finding my boyfriend set in. But I couldn’t stop looking at Kevin and thinking of the times Roman and I use to make passionate love. I stared at Kevin’s legs and jawline and felt my crotch getting tight. Perhaps he wasn’t the man I was looking for, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t become him.
“Well?” Kevin asked, as if I were an object that comes and goes. When this guy looked at me, he didn’t stare avidly like Roman. Instead, he viewed me as a cash dispensary, a coin-operated pleasure unit, and dirty business.
Temptation peaked inside me and I finally gave in.
I put my hands on his hips and stuck my tongue in his mouth. We exchanged saliva in the open doorway before shutting it and getting undressed. Kevin put his hand on my genitals and asked, “Do you like that?”
When I stared into his deceitful eyes, I tried to imagine Roman looking back at me and saying, “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Kevin giggled and, with a dark wisp, instructed that I screw my pain away. “I needa big ol’ cock in my ass,” he whispered. “Don’tchu just wanna fuck me into place?”
I nodded my head.
“Rubbers are in the nightstand along with the lube,” he informed me. “Let’s get this over with.”
I shook my head and tried to drown out his lack of self-respect. See, Roman would never do this. My lover once told me that he was my slut, and only mine.
Kevin positioned his nude body on the bed as I slipped a rubber on my pulsing dick. It had been so long since I had had sex that it felt new again. “Oh, yeah,” Kevin moaned. “You know you wanna rip my ass open and feel my guts.”
“Please don’t talk like that,” I told him. “I don’t like it.”
He paused and then asked, “Well, what do you want me to say?”
“Nothing,” I shot back, sternly.
I put his legs above my shoulders and shoved myself inside him. While thrusting over and over, I still questioned whether this was actually happening. I moaned; releasing a softer side that I had kept locked up within me. Between the sweat and force, Kevin looked directly in my eyes. He let out an orgasmic groan as I used him up.
Images of Roman taking it in the middle of our bed flashed in my mind. He had been so sweet and loving because I was his first. I recalled how he curled up and wrapped around me. “Don’t ever let me go,” whispered in my ear, and it echoed through my mind.
My thrusting became more aggressive as a mix of salty lament and joy came to my eyes. “I adore how you love me,” Roman said in my heart. These words erected inside Kevin as he started to moan uncontrollably.
“Yeah, fuck yeah!” the guy I dominated exclaimed. “Don’t stop!”
I covered Kevin’s mouth and his tongue felt around the palm of my hand. As I ravaged this substitute for Roman, I stared my reflection in the mirror above the head rest. Looking back at me was a distortion of lust and power. In my mind, it said, He is never coming back.
“Shut up,” I hissed back.
Beneath my sweaty hand, Kevin thought I was talking to him and muffled – something – in agreement.
With my teeth, I lightly sucked his neck to leave a bruise. It had never dawned on me before, but he even tasted like Roman. And the more I pushed myself inside, the more it felt like I had found him.
Suddenly, in the heat it of it all, molten pearls made their way up and released. With great relief I moaned a pleasurable orgasm and felt the relaxed feeling of ejaculation cover me. It was so intense that I collapsed on top of Kevin and began to lightly sob with ecstasy.
I kissed him repeatedly as if he were an elixir sweet as honey that could cure the poison making me sick. I wanted to consume every drop, like an addict who had not poured a glass of wine in over a decade. If it wasn’t for the skin between us, I would’ve made a home inside him and never leave. With my emotionally parched tongue, I licked him and begged, “Please, don’t ever leave me.”
Kevin then pulled away and said, “Alright, it’s gonna be sixty bucks.”
As he leaned up and attempted to stand, I grabbed his arm and asked, “Where are you going?”
“Uh – I’m going take a shower,” he replied.
On a filthy bed in a smoked stained room, I laid naked and fragile and desperately asked, “You’re not going to cuddle with me?”
Kevin gave me a look and replied, “I guess, but it will be an extra ten dollars per hour.”
“I don’t care,” I told him. He shrugged and made his way to the bathroom, at which point asked, “Can I join you?”
He said yes, and the two of us got in the shower together. As the warm water formed hot sauna, I caressed his wet body. I pressed against him and grabbed his bare buttocks with my needful hands. With my eyes closed, I rested my head on his bare shoulder and whispered in my mind, Why did you leave me, Roman?
Kevin then hissed, “Because it became too much.”
I then opened my eyes and noticed the water was black and stunk of decay. I quickly lifted my head and saw that his face looked like a misleading scab that had been picked and oozed yellow pus from a slash for a mouth. My body then jolted back and I screamed.
“Hey!” Kevin exclaimed. “What’s wrong?!”
When I blinked his face and the water went back to normal. Dripping and wet, Kevin looked at me as concern was written all over him. I put my hands on the side of my head and replied, “Nothing, I just – I don’t know.” My racing heart settled down and I added, “It’s just been a hard year. Everything doesn’t make sense like it used to.”
He placed his hand on my trembling shoulder and, for the first time and in a compassionate voice, asked, “Do you wanna go lie down?”
I nodded my head and replied, “Yes.”
After getting out of the shower, we got in bed and I spooned his nude body. In a state between a world of hurt and one of longing, gripped his right nipple between my fingertips and kissed the back of his neck.
Kevin snickered and asked, “Do you miss me, Michael?”
After feeling a bit of hope in a warm place, something perked inside of me. It was then I realized that during our entire sexual altercation that I never once told Kevin my name. I looked him straight and the eyes and asked, “How did you know that?”
“Know what, tiger?” he asked, placing seductive emphasis on the last word.
I then rose from the bed and gave him a fearful look and demanded that he tell me who he was. Kevin reached over to the nightstand beside him and lit up a Marlboro red 100. After exhaling smoke, he said, “Michael, I am the fear for which you keep running back to, I am the need in you for more.” Kevin took another drag of his cigarette and added, “I am that feeling you deny, that voice that curls up inside your head, the manifestation of everything you want, the remnants of time you’ll never get back, and the guilt that rips you to pieces.”
No, I thought, turning backwards inside of myself.
“Every day you push it further back, hoping it isn’t true,” he continued. “You always come running back in the pit of your subconscious, praying I can undo everything and heal your wounds. Hell, you even worship me. But Michael, I’m not Jesus. I can’t wash your feet and cleanse you of what’s been done. I am not your salvation and I am not your answer. I am just a recreation of what’s been destroyed.”
I began to shake. My mouth went dry and my throat became tight. I asked him what he meant.
Kevin exhaled smoke and then concluded, “You murdered Roman Cardinal.”
Those words made everything around me stand still. Gravity pushed down on my shoulders and the world grew a thousand times heavier. I quickly shot back, “That’s not fucking true.”
“It’s not?” Kevin asked. “Then explain this.”
He reached under the bed, pulled out a newspaper, and tossed it on top of the sheets. In big, bold letters, the headline read: “Homosexual dispute leads to murder.” On the front page was a picture of me, handcuffed and being walked out of the Motel Astor by two police officers.
I skimmed the article and the words ‘argument’, ‘breakup’, ‘kitchen knife’, ‘blood’ and ‘psychotic breakdown’ stuck out at me. Each one hit me in the face and caused me to want to vomit.
“But it’s okay, tiger,” Kevin purred. “I’m here in your head, I’m the slut in your bed, you can fuck your sorrow away... I don't mind.”
I started to put my clothes back on and shot back, “This isn’t true! None of this true!”
“Oh, and where do you think you’re going?” Kevin asked. “Are you going to run away again?”
I buttoned my shirt, slipped on my shoes and grabbed the keys to my truck. I then proceeded to leave room 205, but the only problem is the door wouldn’t open. Over and over I tried to turn the handle, and each time the lights in the motel room flickered.
A distorted and almost demonic voice from behind me growled, “C’mon, Michael… come back to bed.”
I turned around. I did not see Kevin, but a naked, bloody Roman with stab wounds all over his body. Blood poured from his mouth and fear rose to the top of my lungs. I let out a scream. “Go away!” I yelled, frantically trying to escape. Eventually the door opened and I ran out as fast as I could.
I made my way down the steps.
The female hooker who had offered me a sexual favor before was still there, only her face appeared like the hallucination I had seen in the shower. She yelled, “You’re a murderer, Michael!”
Tears streamed down my face as I made my way to the truck. I got inside, cranked it, and sped out of the motel parking lot.
As I sped down highway 70, a pair of oncoming headlights illuminated the inside of the Chevy, and I noticed that my hands were covered in blood. Through the static on the radio came a twisted voice that snarled, “You can’t run from this, it’s already been done...”
In a manic state, I could barely control my driving. I veered off into the other lane and another pair of headlights blinded me. Everything went white and I then woke up in a sterile room. In a cold sweat, I let out a shriek and the door to the room opened.
A man dressed in eggshell blue scrubs – the same one I saw in Henry’s diner – came to hold me down. I squirmed violently as he and another man held my arms and legs. Behind them entered a woman holding a syringe. This woman looked like the waitress and she said, “Michael, calm down. It was just another dream.”
Through the aggression of trying to pull away, I caught a glimpse of one of the men’s nametag. It read: Kevin High. “Please,” I screamed. “I want Roman! I need him!”
The woman, who I now realized was a doctor, stuck me with the needle and pushed down. A cool feeling coursed through my veins and calmed me down. In the spiraling vortex of both confusion and realization, I sunk inside myself and passed out.
Hours later I awoke to straps around my ankles and wrists. Beside me sat the doctor who asked, “Are you going to continue to be a handful?”
“Where am I?” I asked, ignoring her question.
The doctor informed that I was at Dorthea Dix, a mental hospital for the criminally insane, and that I was being held here to see if I was fit to stand trial. Unlike the waitress I imagined at Henry’s diner, the doctor’s voice was cool and too the point.
“What trial?” I asked.
“The trial that determines whether you are guilty or innocent,” she told me. “You have been charged with the murder of your boyfriend.”
“I don’t understand,” I replied, trying not to cry.
“The police apprehended you at the Motel Astor in Benson after discovering Roman Cardinal’s blood in your apartment,” the doctor said. “It is believed you disposed of his body and were on the run. However, you keep saying you didn’t do it, despite the neighbor’s testimonies that they heard a loud dispute next door and, like I said before, the blood.” She paused and added, “They even found the knife in room 205 where you were hiding out.”
I tried not to cry, but through snot and sobbing, I asked, “Why would I do that?”
“Roman’s sister informed the police that he was going to break up with you,” she continued. “After putting two and two together, investigators have decided you murdered him because he broke your heart.”
I then recalled the night Roman came home from work. I had gotten down on one knee and asked him to marry me. I expected to see the glimmer of excitement in his eyes, but instead there was a look of rejection.
“Michael,” he said to me. “We need to talk.”
Those words have never meant anything good. He had then proceeded to tell me that we should be friends, and “this” has become too much. With a look of shock on my face, I asked, “I don’t understand, I thought we were in love.”
“We were in love,” Roman told me. “At least I was in love. Don’t get me wrong, Mike, you’re an amazing man and I will always, always love you – just not like that.”
I stood up, met his eyes and asked, “Why are you doing this to me?”
Roman’s copper eyes watered up behind his glasses and, in a voice clear as day, said, “I don’t want to do this, honey. As a matter of fact, it’s the last thing I could possibly ever want to do to you. The sad truth is, I no longer love you like I use to and, believe me, I don’t want to see you in pain. In the shadow of everything we have overcome, the light simply isn’t there anymore. And I’m sorry.”
I was quiet for moment, gritted my teeth, and asked, “It’s your co-worker, Michelle, isn’t it?”
A stray tear dripped from his puffy eyes. He didn’t say anything, but it was completely obvious what the answer was.
“And does she know you’re with me?” I hissed, beginning to slowly unravel. “Does MICHELLE know that you and I sleep together?”
He gulped and sternly replied, “I told her you were my best friend. I told her we were just roommates. And I told her you were like my bro.”
“Bros don’t fuck each other!” I yelled. This caused Roman to jump. By this point my fists were shaking with both pain and anger. My heart, my ginormous heart that I had poured out to him when I was naked, started to slowly break into a thousand pieces. “You want this to be easy for me?!” I screamed. “Well, fuck you!”
And I don’t exactly remember doing it, but the next thing I knew there was a kitchen knife in my hand and Roman’s throat had been slashed. With both hands he covered his severed throat, and blood flowed between his fingers. When he fell to the floor, I got on top of Roman and stabbed him over and over again, yelling profanities and crying uncontrollably.
“And that’s what happened,” I told the doctor, snapping back to reality in the present day. “I wanted him to love me, and if Roman couldn’t love me then he couldn’t live.”
After the doctor left the hospital room, I closed my eyes and heard a voice seductively say, “Do you miss me, tiger?”