Cleansing Flame

Amir is far from home, in America for the first time on a study scholarship. He has trouble fitting in, but the truth is he had trouble fitting in back home in Jordan too, for reasons he could never discuss. Now a handsome stranger walks into his life and offers Amir a way to finally be free – but can he accept such an offer?

He first noticed him as he walked towards the counter, a broad-shouldered, well-groomed man, between thirty and forty, dark and classically chiselled, his stance erect and unapologetic. He had a paper tucked under one arm – something local, liberal leaning – and he had an easy charm with the female barista, making inaudible small talk that brought a bubbling laugh to her cherry-red lips. She had a tattoo on her wrist and one that spread across her half-exposed chest, several facial piercings and bangs that she constantly had to flick out of her eyes to perform tasks and earlier, when he had ordered his own coffee, he had been unable to look directly at her. This man’s easy familiarity with apparent strangers stirred something in him, but he kept his head carefully down, pretending absorption in his reading material, while watching him surreptitiously from the corner of his eye. The handsome man had not ordered his coffee to go and now, balancing a bowl-shaped mug atop a saucer in one hand, he sought around the crowded shop for a place to sit. His eyes alighted on the empty chair opposite and he approached with an easy smile. One hand rested on the back of the chair and he made a polite noise that was not quite a cough. “Do you mind if I…?”

“No, of course,” he answered, “please.” He risked a quick glance up, getting his first good look at the man. He was not so flawlessly good-looking up close; perhaps a bit older than he had first supposed, with a slight grizzled quality about him, but his very dark eyes more than compensated and he was forced to look away quickly. The stranger sat down smoothly, keeping a respectful distance, putting his coffee down on the edge of the small round table but crossing his legs, turning slightly away and opening his paper in front of him. It lent his movements a certain awkwardness for the first time as he had to let go of the paper with one hand to take a sip of his coffee, so he instead rearranged it, folding it over so he could read it one-handed, like a commuter on a train. His own coffee went untouched as he tried to lose himself in the contents of his book, tried to avoid making constant quick glances up to look at his unexpected companion, had to constantly avert his gaze and feign disinterest whenever he thought he might be about to be caught staring.

“What are you reading?”

“What?” He looked up, shocked, meeting the other man’s eyes fully for the first time, and feeling a jolt in the pit of his stomach as he did so.

“Sorry,” his smile was lopsided, easy, outstandingly attractive, “it just looked interesting.”

“Oh, no, it isn’t.”

He seemed able to read the situation. “I’m interrupting you. I can see you’re absorbed in whatever it is. Sorry.” He went back to his newspaper as if there was nothing more to be said.

“No, you aren’t… I mean, you just wouldn’t be interested in it.”

“Try me.” The man had placed his folded paper to one side on the table now, and was giving him his full attention.

“It’s really an academic book. It’s about mosques.”

“Mosques?”

“Design, architecture. I’m studying…that is, I’m a student here for a semester. I’m an architect. I mean, I want to be an architect.”

The man studied him silently for what felt like a very long time. “This is going to sound like a cliché,” he said, “but you’re not from around here are you?”

“I’m Jordanian.”

“And you want to build mosques?”

“I want to build many things, but it all begins with mosques. The design must adhere to rigorous criteria, but also allows for creative flair. There can be no images of people, as in a Western church, as this is idolatry, so the internal decoration must be patterns…designs…script. The rules are strict, but within them has flowered incredible variety. I…sorry, I’m babbling…”

“Not at all.” The man was smiling warmly now. “My name’s Jack.” He held out a hand.

“Amir.” He took Jack’s hand, holding it awkwardly for a moment, attempting a kind of nervous shake and then withdrew quickly, embarrassed. “I’m keeping you from your paper.”

“It’s just a paper. So you’re here in Boston to study architecture? At MassArt?” He took a sip of his coffee, continuing to watch him over his cup.

Amir bobbed his head. “Yes.”

“And is this your first time in America?”

“My first time outside Jordan at all.”

“Wow. And what do you think of it so far?”

“It’s nice,” he replied automatically.

“Oh, I bet you say that to all the cities. Come on; tell me what you really think, Amir.”

“I…” he paused, trying to summon the words he wanted to say, trying to articulate his experiences over the last two months. “It’s…strange…”

“Strange?”

“Loud, bright, confusing. Everyone is very…different…it’s hard to know how to approach some people. I share my living space with several others. One dresses very conservatively, and I thought we might have a lot in common, but he avoided me. I found out after a while that he goes to a church that tells him to think of Muslims as enemies. One girl dresses provocatively and has bright pink hair, and I didn’t know how to speak to her, but she was the most friendly to me. Another man plays a lot of sports. He doesn’t talk to me much either. It’s like they’re all from different nations, but they can speak to one another, they share a lot in common despite their obvious differences. When I walk around the streets here, I see people wearing so many different things, listening to different kinds of music and going to different places. I thought I understood America, but there is more to understand than I realised. It’s as if you have a thousand different cultures, but you all seem to seem to be able to communicate nonetheless.”

Jack looked thoughtful. “You don’t have that in Jordan?”

“In Jordan, I know my neighbours, I know what they believe, where they came from, what they have done in their lives. It’s…simpler…”

“I think I might feel differently if I was dropped suddenly into your neighbourhood, Amir. I think there are differences you can’t see. The only difference is that you don’t know the rules that apply here.”

“I thought I did,” Amir said wistfully, “I read a lot of guidebooks, watched some movies.”

“Which ones?”

“One called Grease.”

Jack’s eyes twinkled. “Did you like it?”

“It was…confusing.”

“Oh?”

“Why does the woman have to change her way of dress and her attitude to conform to the man’s ideas of what is desirable? Everyone here tells me that the Islamic world treats women poorly, yet this way of doing things seemed much more disrespectful to me. She adopts the same sexual aggressiveness as the male characters, discarding her polite, demur demeanour and this is supposed to be a happy ending?”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to note the disparity, Amir,” Jack admitted as he drained the last of his coffee, “but you might be the first to articulate it through the lens of Muslim culture.”

“It’s just confusing,” he said weakly, looking back down at his book. Jack was standing up now, tucking his newspaper back under his arm.

“Well, I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Boston, Amir. It was nice talking to you.”

“And you, Jack.” He said the name tentatively, as if the consonants were the source of some strange magic.

Jack paused, turning slightly, his hand resting on the back of the chair again. He gave Amir a small half-smile and his eyes twinkled mischievously again. “Unless…”

An hour later, Amir gasped breathlessly as he pressed his hands against the cool bathroom cubicle wall. Jack’s breath was heavy and hot in his ear, on the back of his neck, and the bristly hair of his bare chest was pressed against his back. His hand was groping around, grabbing at him, stroking, slowly at first, but then faster and harder. He pushed backwards, urging this man, this virtual stranger, to fill him more deeply, more fully, to reach an itch he pretended, even to himself, never needed to be scratched. Jack bit his ear, moved a hand up his narrow chest, squeezed hard on one of his nipples eliciting another gasp, and then closed around his throat. Amir shut his eyes, let Jack find his rhythm, let him do what he wanted, felt him heave and thrust, faster and stronger, then spasm and buck like a wild horse, push as deep as possible and then surge catastrophically, filling him with heat and wetness, coming in a series of furious, glorious pulses.

They stayed like that for what felt like a very long time. Amir was still hard – harder than he’d ever been before – and, when Jack’s breathing began to slow, but while he was still inside him, still hard, his hand slipped back down and his fist closed around him. He worked back and forth again, starting slow, getting fast, moving his wrist expertly. Amir kept his hands away, let himself be abused, let this strange man take control of him, relieve him of responsibility and a tension many months in the making. Jack turned him around, towards the open toilet bowl, moving him as effortlessly as a little girl and then, as he stared down at the filthy bowl, any sense of cultural disgust evaporating in a haze of hot desire, he brought him off and he came explosively, jerking like a gutted fish, bending almost double as the orgasm shuddered through him and thick, white sperm shot out into the toilet in a series of stringy spurts, splashing obscenely in the discoloured water, sinking into the murk in weirdly shaped blobs, out of sight.

Jack was limp now, and he pulled out easily. His arm encircled Amir’s shoulders and he pressed himself against him. “Was that okay?” he asked, close to his ear.

“We should leave,” Amir whispered.

“It’s okay. No one will bother us here. Everyone knows who comes here and what they do. The police turn a blind eye. It’s no problem.”

“All the more reason to go.” He was already pulling up his pants, grimacing at the moisture now seeping down his thighs, but too ashamed to reach for toilet paper to clean himself up.

“That’s okay,” Jack told him as he too retrieved his clothing, “let’s go for a walk, get some air.”

“I have to go home.”

“Why?”

“I have to go home,” Amir repeated.

“Okay. I understand.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Hey.” As he turned, Jack took his chin in a sudden, forceful grip. He pulled him close and gave him a fierce, passionate kiss full on the mouth. “We’re not so different,” he said, a million years later after he broke the kiss, “maybe you come from another world, but there was a time when I was ashamed too. There was a time when I snuck around, when places like this were all I had. But you’re a long way from home, Amir, and you can be whoever you want to be.”

He said nothing, but when Jack pressed his business card into his hand before he left, he took it and put it in his pocket.

Amir stole back to his dorm, feeling as if everyone was watching him, as if everyone could see what he had just done. In his imagination, the walls of the public restroom had been somehow transparent from the outside, and everyone had seen him, pressed up against a cubicle wall like an animal, an older American man violating him, him enjoying it, him ejaculating into a disgusting toilet bowl from the pressure and friction applied by the same man’s strong hands. He imagined their derision at first, seeing him bent over like a woman, skinny and hairless and feminine beside the strong, hirsute man who used him, and then that amusement turning to disgust as he visibly enjoyed his humiliation. He imagined they saw the way his eyes roved around the cubicle, taking in his dank, repulsive surroundings, relishing their very uncleanliness, and that they guessed the horrible thoughts in his head just from that. They knew the vile darkness in his deepest imagination, of the horrible thoughts and ideas that popped into his head, of the indignities he imagined Jack heaping upon him, the violations of his most sincerely-held beliefs, and the teachings of his faith and culture. He believed the human body was sacrosanct, a pure vessel anointed by God, but in the throes of passion he would have seen it utterly befouled. The passers-by, the ordinary people, with ordinary thoughts, must have sensed in some way how unclean he was now. So hateful and revolting had been his thoughts while he was in that cubicle that surely he must exude some kind of visible taint. They would surely know. He kept trying to surreptitiously check his pants for signs of Jack’s semen seeping through, staining him, marking him out as something less than a man. Something disgusting.

He went straight for the shower, undressing in seconds, turning the temperature up as high as he could bear. Cleansing flame. He stood under the gushing water for a while, letting the near-scalding water wash over him. He kept his eyes closed, murmuring breathless snatches of prayer. Almost instinctively, he started to bow for the ruku’, but stopped himself and straightened. He was not clean yet. He was not sure he would ever be clean. Furiously, he covered himself in soap, rubbing furiously at every part of himself. He washed his face, his hair, his chest, then paid special attention to his penis and to his anus. As he scrubbed, and as he reflected on the sins he had committed, he found himself hardening again. He screwed his eyes tightly shut, trying to force the thoughts to the back of his mind, but he couldn’t stop himself and, like finding a second wind, he quickly masturbated to completion again. Done, he sank down to his knees, then hugged himself into a foetal ball, lying in the shallow water that pooled around him, praying for God to send a real flame that would make him clean.

It was a little over a week later that Amir found himself making the call to Jack, and this time he went to his apartment, and they made love in a bed. Amir thought that Jack was rich; the apartment was large and modern, with floors made from polished wood. The design was sleek and austere, not to Amir’s taste. “You left this at the coffee shop,” Jack told him, handing him back the book he had completely forgotten. “I was there the next day, hoping to bump into you again, and the barista recognised me.”

“But this is my book…”

“Right. I suppose she saw us talking.” Jack lounged easily on a black leather sofa, reclining in the corner unit, a glass of water in one hand. He was wearing a short robe, unconcerned with his exposed body. Amir had dressed quickly again, and he perched uncomfortably at the end of the sofa. His book was sitting untouched beside him.

“Do you want anything to eat?” Jack asked.

“No, thank you.”

“We could go out. What do you like?”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

He made an odd face, somewhere between mockery and anger. “Do you just want to leave?”

“No.”

“Do you want to leave, but you’re worried I’ll be offended if you do?”

“I…no…”

Jack sat up. “Amir, what are you afraid of?”

“Nothing.”

“No one here knows you. Your whole family, all the people you grew up with, everyone who told you to be ashamed of who you are, is half a world away. I told you, you can be who you want.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Why? Because of your religion?”

Amir stood up. “You say it like it’s something I chose.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Is being what you are something you chose? Is being…is loving men…something you picked, or something that you have always been?”

Jack shook his head. “You’re confusing me, Amir. Are we talking about you being gay or being a Muslim? Because one is biology and the other is just a choice you made about how you think the world works. I respect your faith, but why adhere to a belief system that tells you you’re unclean?”

“I am unclean. The hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, are very clear. I deserve to die. So do you,” he added more quietly. “Both the…passive and the…the active partner…”

“I don’t care about some religious mumbo-jumbo.”

Amir shook his head. “We are from different worlds. You think Islam is something I can pick up or drop when it suits me. But you have to understand, this is how the world has been made. I don’t believe it because I choose to; I believe it because it is the truth.”

Jack leant back and took a sip of his water. “You didn’t believe it back in the bedroom.”

“Exactly. That’s the problem.”

“You seemed to enjoy yourself.”

“I do…at the time…”

“At the time?”

Amir sank back down onto the sofa. “When this…this hunger takes hold of me…when the beast that is inside me,” he pressed his hands against his chest, “when it is allowed to come out and…and rage…there is nothing I will not do. The thoughts in my head…the things I imagine you doing…”

“Go on…” Jack said.

“Horrible things. Vile things. Hurting me. Degrading me. When we were in that stall, the first time, I thought about…no…” he shook his head again, “no.”

“You know, Amir,” Jack said, his expression serious, “sometimes the things we find most revolting in everyday life can be the very things that press our buttons when it comes to sex. Revulsion can cross over to sexual desire. Think of the politician who likes to be dominated by a prostitute, or the neat freak who’s into getting peed on. Cleanliness is such a big part of your ritual life, maybe when you give in to your sexual desire, these forbidden behaviours bubble up to the surface. But that’s okay – it’s fine to explore those things, to try out these fantasies. With me. If you want.”

“I can’t. I have to go.”

“Amir: I’m not ashamed to be who I am. I like you. I read your book. It was beautiful. I’m fascinated by you, by your world, by your ideas. I know there’s a passion inside you, not just in there,” he jerked a thumb towards the bedroom door, “but inside here,” he slapped his palm against his bare chest. “You love things, but you’re too embarrassed to admit it. You’re scared to be inside your own skin, because you’ve spent your whole life hating it, hating what you are, being ashamed.”

“You said you used to be ashamed…”

“I did. I was. When I was young, before I came out. I used to be a scared, awkward young man too. I’ve been where you are.”

“So you understand.”

“I do, but if I’d had someone in my life, someone who offered to let me by myself, and if I’d been far away from home with that person, knowing no one where I was knew or cared what I did…well…things would have been different. At least for a while.”

Amir looked away. “You think I can just run away. I cannot flee God, Jack. He sees me.”

“And he made you. As you are.” Jack stood up, crossed over to where Amir was sitting and cupped his chin in his hand, forcing him to look up at him. “God is great, isn’t He?”

“Yes.”

“And He made us all?”

“Yes.”

“Well then. He made you gay. And he made me gay. You want to do God’s work, don’t you?”

“Always…”

Jack put his thumb in his mouth, pressed down on his tongue, made him lick and suck it, then opened his mouth and took the back of his head in a fierce grip. Amir accepted it, accepted Jack’s insistent erection, took it past his lips, into his mouth where he could taste it. He thought about where it had been less than twenty minutes ago, found himself growing hard too, beneath his pants. He pawed desperately at his own clothes, wanting to be naked, wanting to be on his knees, wanting to be subservient as Jack swelled within him, pushing deeply into his mouth, down his throat. He was finally free of his pants, his underwear. He threw his shirt to one side so he was completely nude. He dropped to his knees on the hardwood floor, let Jack take control, put his hands behind his back, imagining himself bound, imagining himself completely controlled by this man, unable to resists his furious, disgusting advances. He was being thrust into, like his mouth was a second pliant anus, or a vagina, being used. He kept still, letting himself suffer this, choking down his gag reflex, tried to be passive, to be a receptacle, imagining what he must look like, picturing his humiliation. His cock strained at its own skin, and he wondered if he could orgasm without even touching himself. Jack was grunting rhythmically, pushing deeper again, and then he started to convulse and suddenly Amir felt the surge of pressure, felt it pulse along the length of his lover’s manhood, then the slickness in his throat as his semen was spurted down his gullet, so he had no choice but to desperately, gratefully swallow it. Jack still held his head, still moved rhythmically, riding out his climax, then pulled free.

“Did you enjoy that?” he asked hoarsely.

“Let me clean it,” Amir whispered, and Jack did so. He kept his hands behind his back, stayed on his knees, licked the sticky head clean like a dog, not looking up from his work.

“Do you want a turn now?”

“In your mouth?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“No. I want to use my hand.”

“Okay…”

“Watch me.”

“Watch you?”

Amir nodded. “Watch me do it. Watch me masturbate. Sit over there and watch me come like this. Put…put more clothes on…”

“I…sure…okay…”

“I will wait. Wait here. On the floor, like your pet. You will be clothed, but I have to be naked, masturbating.”

“Okay.”

He did it. He told Jack to sit there, in a hastily donned pair of slacks and a shirt, watching him stroke himself. “I want you to hate me…to be disgusted by me…”

“I don’t know if this is healthy, Amir…”

“Just do it. Please. Curl your lip in contempt. Spit…spit on…” He came hard. Harder than he had in the restroom the other week, hurling his seed all over the nice floorboards, breathing in desperate, ragged gasps and then, when it was done, sinking down onto his hands and knees, burying his face in the rug, trying to summon tears, but finding no energy for misery, for grief, for anything.

“It’s okay,” Jack said, gathering him up in his arms, “we’re going to figure this out. We’re going to make this work.”

Amir wanted to listen to him, but he was already five thousand miles away, hearing the call to prayer from the mosque just three streets from the house where he lived with his mother, father and sisters, where these thoughts were private and forbidden, where he knew which way was up and which down.

When they next met, it was in the coffee shop again. Amir began by apologising. “I want to love you, but I can’t,” he told him, “I want to be free, but I’m not.”

“I know,” Jack replied sadly, “I could have made you happy.”

“Happiness isn’t enough.”

“It is for most people.”

“Not for me. Not for God.”

“Do you think you’ll be punished for what you’ve done? For what you are?”

“I know I will.”

“What kind of God would do that? What kind of God would make a universe, put people like us in it, and then punish us for being who we are?”

“The idea is to resist temptation,” Amir said, not meeting Jack’s accusatory stare, “the idea is to suppress this.”

“Why? So you can be miserable your whole life? So you can marry a wife you’ll never love, who you can’t stomach making love to? Bring children into a loveless marriage, teach them the same oppressive bullshit that will destroy you? Be bitter and twisted by your own self-loathing until it literally kills you? I’d love to see some research done into young gay Muslim boys who take their own lives. And lesbians too. I don’t hate your God, or your faith, but I hate the culture that’s made you into a person you can’t stand to be around.”

“I can’t change what I am.”

“And neither can I.” Jack stood up brusquely, dusting muffin crumbs off his labels. He shook his head sadly. “I have too much respect for myself to spend time chasing after someone who holds themselves in such contempt. I could have made you happy. I still can. If you’re ever back in Boston, and you’ve realised that the world wasn’t built to hurt you, there’s a chance I’ll still be waiting. Goodbye, Amir, I wish you as much happiness as you can find.”

“Wait, I wanted you to have this.” He held out the book about the architecture of mosques, the one he had been reading the first time they’d met.

“Keep it. The memories are enough for me. Unlike you, I don’t find them difficult to dwell on at all. Enjoy your life.”

He knew he couldn’t. He went back to Jordan, tried to immerse himself in his dream of being an architect, tried to use his experiences in America to his advantage, but he couldn’t. He tried to blot out his memories but at night, alone in his bed, they came back to him, and he’d pleasure himself again, thinking about what he’d done and what had been done to him. He sought solace in the Quran, in the other teachings of his faith, tried to find answers to his agonising questions, but they were always the same: he had sinned, he was unclean, he deserved death. The cleansing flame. Jack’s rejection still stung him. Was it heartbreak? Had he been in love? He didn’t know. His worldview had no room for these concepts; his culture did not recognise such feelings, at least not for another man. He had always assumed whatever trysts he would manage would be brief, anonymous, shameful. The idea that he might have been able to indulge his basest desires, to become the beast, with someone else, someone who trusted him, respected him, perhaps even loved him…the idea that he might have thrown away his only chance to be happy…

Boston was a world away. He started attending a different mosque, one that practiced a stricter interpretation of the Quran, one that demanded more. He put aside his desire to become an architect, and threw himself wholeheartedly into studying his new, crueller creed. He sought a flame to cleanse his befouled spirit, to suppress the sinful feelings, to fill the hole left in his heart. His society had no outlet for heartbreak of this kind, save one. And, as his new imam helped him strap the dynamite to his body, he knew he had found his cleansing flame.

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This entry was posted in Contemporary, LGBTQ, Sexuality, Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

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