Cuba sits on the stool he dragged from his coworker’s kitchen out to the balcony. He tucks his heels onto the rungs and watches the sun set over the mountains of San Francisco. The lights are lit in all the pastel-colored houses that are stacked up on the mountain. The sky is orange paint smeared across a canvas. He takes a sip of his stout, closes his eyes, and inhales. The taste of the malt reminds him of the Malta drinks his mom used to buy from the corner store in Little Haiti, back when he still lived in Miami. She would add ice, one of the tiny cans of evaporated milk, and too much sugar. He exhales. He misses her.
“You got a light?” a muffled and raspy voice asks from behind him.
Cuba opens his eyes to a dark-skinned man with a cigarette tucked between lips surrounded by a tailored black beard. His hands dig into the weighed-down pockets of his khaki shorts. His thick black eyebrows raise, then he pulls out a transparent green lighter.
“Never mind. Got it,” the man says, cupping his hands around the cigarette, something Cuba has never known the purpose of. The man runs a thumb across the rigid edge of the sparkwheel and sends up a flame.
The smell of smoke is instant. Cuba slips off the stool and heads toward the sliding doors to the apartment.
The smoker backtracks to match Cuba’s pace and places a hand on his chest.
“Hold up, man,” he says, taking the cigarette out from his lips with the other hand, then blowing smoke to the right of him. “Where are you going? You don’t have to leave.” The man speaks quickly, like a debtor trying to squeal his way out of a deal.
Cuba looks him in the eye and inhales more recycled smoke as the man puts the cigarette back in his mouth. “I don’t like smoke,” Cuba says.
The man grins with half his lips, the other half keeping the cigarette in place. He grabs a fistful of his glossy black curls and lets go. “Okay, man,” he says, taking the cigarette out of his mouth. “But you could’ve just said so. Didn’t have to go running off on me.”
Finally, he puts out the cigarette cherry with two fingers. He pinches open the chest pocket of his mauve polo and places the cigarette inside like he’s laying it to bed. He pats the pocket, then throws a hand out to Cuba. “Raphael Kapoor.”
Cuba hesitates, then places his hand into Raphael’s—he stands up a little straighter due to his strong grip. Cuba can feel every ridge of Raphael’s calloused palm. “Cuba Jones.”Raphael removes his hand from Cuba’s and slides it across Cuba’s shoulder. He presses him in the direction of the stool. “Please, as you were. Go back to admiring the sunset.”
Cuba stands rigid against the hand, not giving in at all, and cuts his eyes to Raphael. Cuba has always been surprised at the electricity of a touch between strangers.
Raphael drops the hand and raises his palms in the air. “Sorry,” he says through a wincing smile. “My mom always says I’m too handsy.”
“Does she?” Cuba says, inching back to the stool, slowly, like he’s got something to prove.
“Nope, but people always believe something if they think your mom said it about you. It’s like moms are the chiefs of character judgement or something.”
Cuba makes a noise of lazy affirmation and hops back onto the stool, dropping his shoulders down into bad posture. Raphael steps towards the balcony and rests his forearms against the rail. Cuba takes a sip of his beer and tucks a hand underneath his knee.
“Crazy how chilly it is in the summertime,” Raphael says, turning his head to face Cuba.
Cuba takes another sip of his beer and raises his eyebrows in feigned interest in talk of the weather. He pulls the suctioned bottle off his lips. “Nothing new.”
Raphael squints at him as a sunbeam catches him in the eye and casts the rest of him in shadows. “Well that’s not true. These rays of sun are new. Those clouds are new. It’s a new day,” he says, then fixes his eyes on Cuba. “You’re new.” Raphael places a hand out in front of him to shield against the sun but he can’t seem to find the angle it’s coming from.
Cuba looks at him for a second, then cracks a smile. “I guess you’re right,” he says. He squints into the sunset, attempting to look enamored by it. He can feel that Raphael hasn’t turned away from him. There are limitless words you can say to someone you know nothing about, but Cuba can’t think of any at all.
“Hey babe?” says a voice from behind, causing to Cuba jump a little and Raphael to chuckle.
Cuba turns his head to a tow-headed blond with skinny-lined tattoos painted onto his arms, which are pressed up against either side of the balcony doorway.
“Hey,” Raphael says slowly, putting a hand up to the cigarette in his pocket, then letting it fall. “What’s up?”
The man leans farther into the balcony. “Ari says he wants you to get started on the barbecue before it gets too late.”
“All right,” Raphael says, but doesn’t move. The blond stays in the doorway and raises his eyebrows until Raphael takes a few steps to the silver range grill on the balcony and pops the top open.
“Thanks, sweetie,” the man says, jutting his lips out.
Raphael looks at him for a moment, then lifts a hand up behind the blond’s neck and runs a rough thumb through his spiraling peach fuzz. Cuba watches Raphael press his lips to the man’s and feels like something in his stomach is trying to tickle its way out through his abdomen. His face flushes and he turns back to the sun, hoping Raphael hadn’t caught him staring. He’s never been so close to two men kissing.
The man walks back into the apartment and Raphael bites at the corner of his lip and sighs, bending down to the red cooler next to the grill. He stands up with an armful of frozen patties.
“What’ll you be having, Cuba?” he asks. Cuba sees beads of sweat coming down from his hairline and onto his dark forehead.
“Nothing. I don’t eat meat.”
Raphael breaks into a smile, revealing a sharp tooth in the depths of his mouth. “This is California, kid, hardly anybody does.” He places the patties on the table next to the grill. “So, would you like a soy burger or a black bean burger?”
Cuba smiles in spite of himself. “Soy.”
“Perfect.” Raphael starts to fiddle with the grill. “I take it you just moved here?”
“Yep,” Cuba says. One-word answers have always spared him from small talk. It’s not that he isn’t interested, he just doesn’t ever know what to say.
“Yep, yep, yep.” Raphael turns around and crosses his arms in front his chest as the grill heats behind him.
Cuba lowers his eyebrows, not sure if Raphael is teasing him or not.
“Where are you from?” Raphael asks.
“And what did you do in Miami?”
Raphael smiles with closed lips and leans back into the grill, then jumps away and winces when his back touches the hot surface.
The stool screeches under Cuba and the bottle in his hand spirals to the ground as he rushes toward Raphael to pull him away from the perceived inferno.
“Are you all good?” he asks, gripping Raphael by the shoulders and looking down at his face, as if the pain is hidden somewhere in his features.
“I’m fine,” Raphael says, his omnipresent grin making its way back.
Cuba doesn’t move his hands.
“Just to be clear,” Raphael says, “I’m very open to touching.”
Cuba rolls his eyes and drops his hands. He heads back to the balcony. He kicks the stool out of the way and picks the amber beer bottle up off the floor. He closes one eye to look down the neck—it’s empty. He sighs and rests his arms against the balcony.
“Lost your beer?” Raphael asks. He rubs the singed part of his back and starts peeling the patties out of their plastic packaging.
Raphael leans back and shouts into the apartment, “Hey Braden!”
After a few seconds, the blond from earlier leans in the doorway and says nothing, just gives Raphael a look.
“Can you grab us two stouts, please,” Raphael says through a faux-sweet smile.
Cuba watches the two of them so overtly that he’s surprised neither catches him staring. Braden dips back into the apartment and a few moments later, one beer, then another, come flying through the doorway. Raphael catches them both in one hand and turns to face Cuba, who immediately bursts into furious head shaking.
“Don’t throw that to me,” Cuba says, putting his hands in the air. “I’m a butterfingers. I can’t catch.”
Raphael looks at Cuba through the corner of his eyes, like he’s trying to see if he’s serious or not. He tosses the beer.
“Jesus Christ,” Cuba hisses as the bottle flies to him. He stumbles but clutches the bottle to his stomach. His heart races like he just caught a fly ball at a baseball game.
Raphael giggles, and it’s so much airier than his raspy smoker’s voice. “You don’t ever have to worry about being a good catcher. Just know I’m a good thrower.”
If Cuba’s skin weren’t so brown, Raphael might have been able to see the blush coming in through his cheeks. Raphael holds his hand out to Cuba, who stares down at it. Raphael sighs and wiggles his fingers.
“Come on, let me open if for you,” he says, nodding his head toward the beer.
Cuba hands Raphael the bottle. He brings the cap to that sharp tooth of his and pops it off.
“Oh, my God,” Cuba nearly yells, as Raphael hands the foaming bottle back to him and tucks the bottle cap into his pants pocket.
Raphael turns back towards the grill, picking up a spatula and cooking spray. “That’s how we used to do it in Little Andaman, when I was a kid. I’ve got the teeth of an islander—rock solid,” he says, chomping his teeth together.
Cuba eyeballs Raphael. He sprays cooking oil on the grill and drops the burgers down onto the surface. While they don’t sizzle with the intensity of meat, they sizzle. He picks up a spatula and presses down on the patties. Then, all at once, he turns around. Cuba snaps his head back to the sky.
“So, how do you know Arian?” Raphael shouts, as if he has to get the attention of someone who hadn’t just been staring at him. Cuba can hear the smile through his words.
“Who?” Cuba asks.
“My cousin, Arian—Ari.” Raphael says. Cuba hadn’t ever heard his desk mate’s full name said out loud before, he’d only seen it on papers. Raphael speaks again, “How do you know him? And your answer has to have at least four words in it this time.”
Cuba looks back at Raphael. “Know him from work,” he says, tonguing the inside of his cheek, trying to stifle a smile.
Raphael repeats the sentence, counting out the words on his fingers. When he sticks up his fourth finger, he throws his head back and lets out a booming laugh that echoes through the air.
“You’re a funny guy, Cuba,” he says, wagging the spatula in Cuba’s face, then turning back to the burgers and shrugs. “You know, I own 3% of Centerfold. The only reason Ari has a job is because I’m into the arts.” He flips the burgers. “What do you do there?” he asks, turning around. This time Cuba doesn’t pretend he hadn’t been looking at the back of his head.
“I’m a UX designer.”
“An artist in its own right.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Cuba looks down at the beer bottle. It’s cold to the touch but searing with the image of Raphael’s lips around it. “So, you said you used to be in Little Andaman, where’s that?”
Raphael holds up a finger and yells inside the apartment that he needs burger stuff. “An island near India. I wasn’t born there but my mom was,” he says, dropping the finger. “Just visited a lot when I was a kid. Used to go in the summertime.”
Cuba finally takes another sip of beer and lets the malt remind him of home again. “I used to do that too,” Cuba says, watching condensation drip down the side of the bottle. “We used to visit Puerto Rico every summer.”
“Who’s we?” Raphael asks, placing a soy burger onto the bun someone just tossed him from inside.
“Me and my mom,” Cuba answers softly.
“Cool,” Raphael says. He spins on one foot and holds a paper plate topped with an open-faced soy burger out to Cuba.
“That makes us both islanders.” He places the plate into Cuba’s hand. “Try not to let your teeth do too much damage.”