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I think I was about ten when I found out there was a word for what ailed my Mum. She was a Francophile. From the outside, our house looked utterly, utterly ordinary, just like every other shonky fibre-cement clad rectangle the early eighties churned out. Inside it was a different story. Inside was Mum’s domain, and every picture, every trinket, every piece of furniture had to be French, or at least ‘French-style’. There were little gilded fleur-de-lis tacked up around the place, Eiffel tower candles and salt-shakers, prints of cows grazing in Normandy, cross-stiches of Monet’s waterlilies, bunches of dried lavender…the whole nine yards.

Looking back, I can understand the obsession. It was an escape for her, from the rectangular realities of daily life. France was romantic, steeped in history, full of the vestiges of knights and castles, and old crumbling stone things, baking sun and fields full of flowers – all of which probably seem pretty attractive when your life’s ring-fenced by rectangles of four-metre high Sarlon wind-break populated with kiwifruit vines, living by their rhythm, breathing in their weird fug year round, alongside a husband whose supreme ambition in life is to be able to fit a game of golf into a weekend…

I don’t know whether the francophilia pre-dated the marriage, but it definitely pre-dated us kids. My baby sister, who came along when I was six, got called ‘Chloe’, and Mum was very particular (read: mental) about making sure the everyone double-dotted the ‘e’, because that was the French way. But hey, it’s a nice name for a girl. My brother was saddled with ‘Benedict’. He drew some side-eye now and then, but mostly he got away with ‘Ben’ – so long as Mum wasn’t in earshot.

Oh, but me? The firstborn? I got to be ‘Michel’. Yeah, that’s right. In a three pub, one high school, one dairy factory town – a place that qualified as small and provincial even by the standards of a small provincial country, I got to haul around Michel for a name.

Did I get called ‘Michelle’ every school day of my life for thirteen fucking years? You bet your tits I did. Every single one. The kids I went to kindy with were the kids I went to primary school with, for eight years of those thirteen years, after which a decent cohort of them passed on to high school along with me to spread the joyous tidings of my stupid girly name to an even wider audience.

It could’ve been worse though – it could’ve been worse. For all of primary and most of high school as well, I was pretty much guaranteed to be the biggest kid in the class, so the harassment never got physical. Also, I played rugby and I was good at it, which gave me a certain amount of cachet (yes, that’s French) among my peers. But back to the rugby for a moment.

The rugby, yeah. From the beginning, rugby was for me what France was for Mum. What I focused on, surrounded myself with, what I lived and breathed. Except in my case it held the promise of being something beyond simple escapism. If I was good enough, it was an actual way out. I was going to give rugby my all, and rugby, in return, was going to give me everything.

That was the idea, anyhow. For a while it looked like it might just pan out. As a junior player, I was kind of a hot-shot. I had the proudest parents for miles around. They stood in their gumboots and jackets under umbrellas at the sidelines of hundreds of sodden fields, shouting me on season after season, as I shoved or ran my way through the opposition and slid around in the mud.

When the time came, I was selected for the regional under-sixteen squad. I’d assumed I would be. It was a whole different kettle of fish, that level of play. Not bad, but definitely different. Now the guys I was playing with and against were all hot-shots – they wouldn’t have been there if they weren’t. As usual, I was the biggest. My team-mates nick-named me ‘brickie’, not because they were forecasting a career as a mason, but because I was built like a brick shit-house. I didn’t mind. It was a fuck sight better than ‘Michelle’.

During my time in that squad a lot of the other guys caught up size-wise. Some weeks it was hard. It hadn’t been like that for me before. For the first time, I had to look inside myself for the hunger that we were given pep-talks on, the hunger that makes you dig deep, find more, that drives good players to become great. I dug deep, I put in the work, and I was selected for the under-nineteens. But I knew that this time round I wasn’t an automatic choice.

Under nineteens was tough. Tough-tough. More of the guys caught up on the size front and quite a few actually overtook me. Being really big as a child is not a guarantee of being really big as an adult. At fifteen I was already 6’2″ and 110kg, but that’s actually where I stayed. Still made me bigger than the average guy on the street, but not big for a first-class rugby player. So that was problem number one – up to that point, finesse hadn’t been a major issue for me. I was a bulldozer. illegal bahis I had size, speed, and fitness, so I’d never needed to attend to things like feinting, footwork, mind-games. I was maybe not the greatest team player, either – too used to being the centre of attention. Now when I got attention, it was often the negative sort. But I had to stick it. This was my thing.

By the time I failed to be selected for the under-21’s, I was actually a tiny bit relieved to have a way out, and for more reasons than one. I’d reached the point of being fairly sure I liked dicks better than tits, and I knew deep down that that meant rugby was not going to be my ticket out of town, my saviour, my life’s great work.

Don’t get me wrong; the professional levels of the game, they’re kitted up and ready for that eventuality. When – finally – a currently contracted first-class player comes out as gay, he’ll get a hearty round of applause from his management, his team, and his public. But the path to professional rugby goes via clubs and development squads and academies, and that? – that’s a whole different world. First-class rugby was still a long way away, and I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a pioneer or a political statement-maker. I wasn’t built for that sort of thing.

So I didn’t make it into the under-21’s, and I wasn’t surprised, and I wasn’t sad either, but I had to pretend to be devastated so my folks didn’t find it weird. I felt uncomfortable about that. Get used to it, Michel, I told myself. There’s a bunch more pretending coming up on the road ahead. Buckle down and get used to it. Dig deep.

I don’t remember agonising over it or trying to fight it – I guess I knew it was pointless. I do remember standing in the bathroom at home after a shower and staring hard at myself in the mirror – as if it would help me know, somehow – as if there was something to see that’d indicate to me whether all this shit was real or not. All I saw was myself, the same as always, and all I felt was…resignation. A grumpy sort of acceptance. Well, that’s all I need, isn’t it, to go with a name like Michelle. Fan-fucking-tastic.

I had big plans to change things up when I went to uni. I chose to go to Massey, despite the fact that there were two much closer universities I could’ve gotten into, one of which was definitely regarded as ‘better’, because I wanted to put some distance between me and home. I wanted space to work out how to be a different sort of Michel.

Before I arrived in Palmy, I’d toyed with the idea of maybe coming out when I got there. But there were a few drawbacks I hadn’t foreseen. In the unfamiliar environment of my hostel, surrounded by several hundred other similarly disoriented eighteen and nineteen-year olds, I did what everyone does when they’re confused and a little bit threatened. I reverted to type. It wasn’t difficult. Actually, it wasn’t even conscious. I just sort of…aggregated…with a bunch of rugby dudes, some of whom were actively playing, some of whom were simply part of the culture.

And then that was that done. I felt like if I stuck my head up above the parapets and said, ‘He-e-y guys, I’m actually gay,’…I wasn’t so much worried that I’d get unfriended, as that everyone would just be convinced I was pranking them. There were a few evidently gay guys at the hostel, and I was so far removed from what they were like, culturally, aesthetically, everything-ly…I carried myself with the poise and elegance of a Mack truck, I cut my own hair short-all-over with a buzzer, I had a thick neck, the beginnings of a cauliflower ear on one side, and no idea how to dress. I was pretty sure that if I tried to come out, the heteros would be all like, ‘Hah, yeah right, mate,’ and the homos would be more, ‘Ick. No thanks, mate’.

So I stayed with my pack for the year, and I passed all my courses in between drinking a hell of a lot of beer. In fact, I combined so much beer-chugging and pie-eating with no rugby training at all that I came home for the holidays more than a little lardy. Over Christmas the family all got together and I realised that, looks and build-wise, I was a younger version of my uncle Jason and that if I didn’t sort myself out, I was gonna end up pretty fucking fat. It’d just never been a problem during the rugby years, but now it was making its way to the surface. Literally.

I knew I was all done with rugby though. I couldn’t even find a desire to play at hobby level. Instead I decided to have a go at triathlons. God knows why, I think I was looking for something I could understand that didn’t have a team element. I started training as soon I got back to uni, and found the swimming depressingly difficult and the cycling unbelievably hard on the arse to begin with, but the running was never a problem. I was plenty used to that. I’d swim three days a week, cycle three days, always early morning, and then run in the late afternoon after my last class, six days a week. Sundays I kept free for finishing assignments illegal bahis siteleri and having hangovers.

I lost my flab inside of six weeks, but even without it I was heavy, and pounding pavements was getting to my knees, so I switched to turf and ran laps of a park area near the pool I swam at. There were several soccer fields, a cricket pitch, a kids’ playground and a high school all kind of haphazardly slapped on and around the place, so it was big enough to keep me occupied.

As time went on I got to know the rhythm of the area. Little kids soccer training some evenings, bigger kids on others, adult friendly leagues playing games on yet others. The same faces lurking around the playground, too old for swings and see-saws, too young for the cigarettes they were smoking.

Every evening when I was done, I’d stop to fill my water bottle at a tap protruding from the concrete block wall of a building by a small hot-sealed area painted up with basketball markings. A board and net were affixed to the wall, and invariably there’d be the same guy there, alone, practising his dribbling, his footwork, his shots, sparring with invisible opponents, sinking ball after ball. He was Asian, tall and lanky, big hands, big feet, neither heavy nor stringy – built like…well, a basketballer.

In theory, I was just hydrating and doing a bit of a warm-down while he bobbed about in the background, but I was watching him, of course I was watching him. Despite being basically a jumble of limbs, he ducked and wove with surprising ease and shot with enviable precision. Each afternoon, I’d notice some new detail – a birthmark on the side of his neck, the way his hair stuck to his forehead once he was sweating freely. I wasn’t lusting after him…exactly, I told myself. I was appreciating him.

I said ‘hi’ the second or third day because, hey, it would’ve been weird if I didn’t. He flicked his eyes over briefly, grunted a ‘hi’ back without breaking stride, and continued his practise. After that I’d just nod at him when I arrived and wave when I left. Sometimes he’d acknowledge me, sometimes he wouldn’t. A few weeks in he astonished me by actually stopping to ask what I was called.

“Michel,” I replied.

He frowned. “That’s a girl’s name?”

I didn’t feel much like explaining it all yet again. “Spelt differently.”

His brow cleared as he nodded understanding and tapped his chest. “Brian.”

“Nice to meet you, Brian,” but he was already turned away and warming up his ball once more – toing, toing, toing, on the hard surface.

His name wasn’t Brian, of course – that was just an identifier he’d chosen for use in an English-speaking context, but I of all people could get why someone would do that. If I’d thought our brief conversation might start something flowing, I was wrong. He didn’t seem to be a talker, but then everything he did say he was having to assemble carefully word-by-word before verbalising, and that’d make anyone a bit sparing with their speech. It must’ve been a fortnight before we had another conversation, but one random day he stopped again and turned to me.

“Do you come here every day?” he demanded.

I shook my head. “Not on Sundays.”

“Do you go to church?”

I managed not to snort. The only religions I’d encountered were rugby and golf. I’d tried one and written the other off without bothering.

“No – do you?” I enquired politely.

I saw the tiniest hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he replied, “This is what I tell my mother…”

I was smitten.

I’d almost managed to convince myself so far that I was just getting aesthetic enjoyment, neutrally savouring his athleticism – but this, the sharing of a harmless secret, the accompanying co-conspirator’s smile, the sense there was some humour, some mischief, buried in him – I couldn’t pretend it was going to be all objective from here on. So I didn’t even try. I leaned back against that wall day after day and just basked in his presence.

He stopped again one afternoon, abrupt as ever. “Do you want to play?”

I shook my head. “I’m all good, thanks.”

He paused, building a sentence. “I won’t make it very difficult.”

That wasn’t what I was bothered about. “It’s okay,” I assured him. “I’m happy just watching,” adding, “you’re cute.”

It was a calculated risk. I wasn’t worried he’d try to bash me. I figured the worst that could happen would be that he’d be weirded out, leave, and take up practising somewhere else to avoid me in future.

What actually happened was…nothing. He simply turned away and gave his attention back to the net, springing and dodging around the meagre court area, seemingly totally unbothered by anything I’d said. I realised that probably the nuance of the word ‘cute’ had passed right by him, and I was trying to decide whether this was a good or a bad thing when he suddenly threw the ball at me. I didn’t see it coming, and it whacked me square in the solar canlı bahis siteleri plexus, but I caught it anyway – a lifetime of having people launch stuff at you while you’re running full-tilt down a field will do that. I looked across, and he jerked his head at me. The message was pretty clear. Come over and play.

I gave it a shot. I was probably less terrible than a ring-in off the street might’ve been, though not so much due to my ball-handling skills and for sure not my aim, but I had practise amassing knowledge about an opponent on some instinctive level, so after a few minutes I could predict, at least some of the time, which direction he’d lunge, whether he was feinting or not. He was still way outpacing me, nonetheless – then he stopped in characteristically sudden fashion, tucked the ball under his arm, and started away. A few paces on, he jerked his head at me once more in summons.

Side by side we walked for almost four blocks in complete silence, as I wondered internally just-what-the-fuck was going on here and how concerned about it I should be. We clomped up the stairs of what had once been a nurses’ hostel, now re-purposed as international students’ accommodation, and he inserted his key, shoved the door open, stood back to let me pass. I stepped into the room, turning to lock eyes with him as the door swung closed on its hinges, and I knew without a doubt that he understood exactly what ‘cute’ meant.

God…Brian, with his big sinewy thighs, his intoxicating personal odour, his generous black bush, his hair-trigger dick. He dropped to his knees, yanked down my shorts and went to town on me with his mouth with the same silent dedicated ferocity he brought to his practice, all before my mind had really managed to assimilate what was happening. I didn’t get to return the favour, seeing as he creamed himself while he was bringing me off.

It was the same the next time, and the next. Exactly the same. The fourth day, as his door slapped shut, I put a hand on his chest to arrest his descent, and told him, “My turn.”

It was all that I could’ve imagined and more. I loved every single thing about it except that it was over too soon. But there were other days, there were plenty of other days. Six days a week, for the seven remaining months of the academic year, we followed a near unvarying routine, meeting up at the end of my runs, slinking off together to his room to swallow each others’ loads – first me, then him, because he could never last through an orgasm of mine without blowing.

I went to kiss him once but he jerked his head away, so that was out. I tried to slide a finger up his crack when I was sucking him and he cuffed at me, so obviously that was out as well, but I was too thankful for what I was getting to waste much energy being disappointed about what I wasn’t.

The one and only deviation from the pattern we’d established came on a Thursday in August when the weather was bad. Not just ordinary winter bad, but cartoon villain-style bad. The kind of weather that only a complete idiot would even consider going running in. Or a horny idiot. By the time I reached our usual meeting place, I was soaked to the bone and too cold to be horny. Too cold to be anything other than cold – but it was worth it, because Brian was there. He had his ball with him, but he wasn’t even pretending to practice. He was just huddled in the meagre shelter the block wall was offering, getting wet and cold, waiting for me. For me.

When we made it back to his, he pushed me wordlessly through to the bathroom, turned the shower on, and started shucking off his clothes, indicating that I should do the same. I’d never gotten to see him all the way naked before, and even the fact that I was still bloody freezing did nothing to blunt my delight. We crammed ourselves like sardines into his tiny shower, which barely had space for one large human, let alone two. Thigh to thigh, chest to chest, face to face, we stood under the steaming spray. I drank him in, marvelling at the contrasts between us – me, lumpily muscled, skin pale, dotted with pin-prick tiny freckles, dusted with dark reddish-brown hair, him, long necked and long limbed and all his unblemished warm-toned skin, his brown oval nipples…

But if everything else about us was different, our excited dicks were the same – height from the ground, length, girth, degrees from the vertical – identical. Dick twins. Except his listed ever so slightly to the left and mine an equally tiny bit to the right, meaning they were head to glistening head, leaning in, calling out to one another.

It had to happen. Had to. Down and up, my eyes flicked between between his face and that almost-connection, down and up. It was a silent pleading, but he heard me. He reached down and closed his massive paw around us both in a gentle embrace, and then he started thrusting lazily up into his hand, along my length, skin on skin on skin. Thank god he was doing the work. It was all I could manage to keep my knees locked, stay in place. I watched his hand, his face, his dick…mine. Watched my stomach muscles flinch, contracting helplessly, bit my lip, trying, just trying to hold on a little bit longer. I didn’t close my eyes – I couldn’t.

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