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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

What Belongs to You

A Novel

Garth Greenwell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there. Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city burst warm still in one’s mouth. I was surprised to hear someone talking so freely in a place where, by unstated code, voices seldom rose above a whisper. At the bottom of the stairs I paid my fifty stotinki to an old woman who looked up at me from her booth, her expression unreadable as she took the coins; with her other hand she clutched a shawl against the chill that was constant here, whatever the season. Only as I neared the end of the corridor did I hear a second voice, not raised like the first, but answering in a low murmur. The voices came from the second of the bathroom’s three chambers, where they might have belonged to men washing their hands had the sound of water accompanied them. I paused in the outermost room, examining myself in the mirrors lining its walls as I listened to their conversation, though I couldn’t understand a word. There was only one reason for men to be standing there, the bathrooms at NDK (as the Palace is called) are well enough hidden and have such a reputation that they’re hardly used for anything else; and yet as I turned into the room this explanation seemed at odds with the demeanor of the man who claimed my attention, which was cordial and brash, entirely public in that place of intense privacies.

He was tall, thin but broad-shouldered, with the close-cropped military cut of hair popular among certain young men in Sofia, who affect a hypermasculine style and an air of criminality. I hardly noticed the man he was with, who was shorter, deferential, with bleached blond hair and a denim jacket from the pockets of which he never removed his hands. It was the larger man who turned toward me with apparently friendly interest, free of predation or fear, and though I was taken aback I found myself smiling in response. He greeted me with an elaborate rush of words, at which I could only shake my head in bemusement as I grasped the large hand he held out, offering as broken apology and defense the few phrases I had practiced to numbness. His smile widened when he realized I was a foreigner, revealing a chipped front tooth, the jagged seam of which (I would learn) he worried obsessively with his index finger in moments of abstraction. Even at arm’s length, I could smell the alcohol that emanated not so much from his breath as from his clothes and hair; it explained his freedom in a place that, for all its license, was bound by such inhibition, and explained too the peculiarly innocent quality of his gaze, which was intent but unthreatening. He spoke again, cocking his head to one side, and in a pidgin of Bulgarian, English, and German, we established that I was American, that I had been in his city for a few weeks and would stay at least a year, that I was a teacher at the American College, that my name was more or less unpronounceable in his language.

Throughout our halting conversation, there was no acknowledgment of the strange location of our encounter or of the uses to which it was almost exclusively put, so that speaking to him I felt an anxiety made up of equal parts desire and unease at the mystery of his presence and purpose. There was a third man there as well, who entered and exited the farthest stall several times, looking earnestly at us but never approaching or speaking a word. Finally, after we had reached the end of our introductions and after this third man entered his stall again, closing the door behind him, Mitko (as I knew him now) pointed toward him and gave me a look of great significance, saying Iska, he wants, and then making a lewd gesture the meaning of which was clear. Both he and his companion, whom he referred to as brat mi and who hadn’t spoken since I arrived, laughed at this, looking at me as if to include me in the joke, though of course I was as much an object of their ridicule as the man listening to them from inside his stall. I was so eager to be one of their party that almost without thinking I smiled and wagged my head from side to side, in the gesture that signifies here both agreement or affirmation and a certain wonder at the vagaries of the world. But I saw in the glance they exchanged that this attempt to associate with them only increased the distance between us. Wanting to regain my footing, and after pausing to arrange the necessary syllables in my head (which seldom, despite these efforts, emerge as they should, even now when I’m told that I speak hubavo and pravilno, when I see surprise at my proficiency in a language that hardly anyone bothers to learn who hasn’t learned it already), I asked him what he was doing there, in that chill room with its impression of damp. Above us it felt like summer still, the plaza was full of light and people, some of them, riding skateboards or in-line skates or elaborately tricked-out bicycles, the same age as these men.

Mitko looked at his friend, whom he referred to as his brother although they were not brothers, and then the friend moved toward the outer door and Mitko drew his wallet out of his back pocket. He opened it and took out a small square packet of glossy paper, a page torn from a magazine and folded over many times. He unfolded this page carefully, his hands shaking slightly, balancing it to keep whatever loose material was inside from falling to the dampness and filth on which we stood. I guessed what he would reveal, of course; my only surprise was at how little he had, a mere crumble of leaves. Ten leva, he said, and then added that he and his friend and I, the three of us, might smoke it together. He didn’t seem disappointed when I refused this offer; he just folded his page up carefully again and replaced it in his pocket. But he didn’t leave, either, as I had feared he might. I wanted him to stay, even though over the course of our conversation, which moved in such fits and starts and which couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, it had become difficult to imagine the desire I increasingly felt for him having any prospect of satisfaction. For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence. He had about him a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence, even as so clearly it had been withheld him. He looked at his friend, who hadn’t moved to rejoin us after Mitko hid away his tiny stash, and after they exchanged another glance the friend turned his back to us, not so much guarding the door anymore, I felt, as offering us a certain privacy. Mitko looked at me again, friendly still but with a new intensity, and then he tilted his head slightly and moved one hand over his crotch. I couldn’t help but look down, of course, as I couldn’t restrain the excitement I’m sure he saw when I met his gaze again. He rubbed the first three fingers of his other hand together, making the universal sign for money. There was nothing in his manner of seduction, no show of desire at all; what he offered was a transaction, and again he showed no disappointment when reflexively and without hesitation I said no to him. It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another. But as soon as I uttered the word I regretted it, as Mitko shrugged and dropped his hand from his crotch, smiling as if it had all been a joke. And then, since he did finally turn to leave with his friend, nodding in goodbye, I called outChakai chakai chakai, wait wait wait, repeating the word quickly and in the precise inflection I had heard an old woman use at an intersection one afternoon when a stray dog began to wander into traffic. Mitko turned back at once, as docile as if our transaction had already taken place; maybe in his mind it was already a sure thing, as it was in mine, though I pretended to be skeptical of the goods on offer, trying to assert some mastery over the overwhelming excitement I felt. I looked down at his crotch and then back up, saying Kolko ti e, how big are you, the standard phrase, always the first question in the Internet chat rooms I used. Mitko didn’t say anything in response, he smiled and stepped into a stall and unbuttoned his fly, and my pretense of hesitation fell away as I realized I would pay whatever price he wanted. I took a step toward him, reaching out as if to claim those goods right away, I’ve always been a terrible negotiator or haggler, my desire is immediately legible, but Mitko buttoned himself back up, raising a hand to hold me off. I thought it was payment he wanted, but instead he stepped around me, telling me to wait, and returned to the line of porcelain sinks, all of them cracked and stained. Then, with a bodily candor I ascribed to drunkenness but would learn was an inalienable trait, he pulled the long tube of his cock free from his jeans and leaned over the bowl of the sink to wash it, skinning it back and wincing at water that only comes out cold. It was some time before he was satisfied, the first sign of a fastidiousness that would never cease to surprise me, given his poverty and the tenuous circumstances in which he lived.

When he returned I asked his price for the act I wanted, which was ten leva until I unfolded my wallet and found only twenty-leva notes, one of which he eagerly claimed. Really what did it matter, the sums were almost equally meaningless to me; I would have paid twice as much, and twice as much again, which isn’t to suggest that I had particularly ample resources, but that his body seemed almost infinitely dear. It was astonishing to me that any number of these soiled bills could make that body available, that after the simplest of exchanges I could reach out for it and find it in my grasp. I placed my hands under the tight shirt he wore, and he gently pushed me back so that he could remove it, undoing each of its buttons and then hanging it carefully on the hook of the stall door behind him. He was thinner than I expected, less defined, and the hair that covered his torso had been shaved to bare stubble, so that for the first time I realized how young he was (I would learn he was twenty-three) as he stood boyish and exposed before me. He motioned me forward again with the exaggerated courtesy some drunk men assume, which can precede, the thought even in my excitement was never far, equally exaggerated outbursts of rage. Mitko surprised me then by leaning forward and laying his mouth on mine, kissing me generously, unrestrainedly, and though I hadn’t done anything to invite such contact it was welcome and I sucked eagerly on his tongue, which was antiseptic with alcohol. I knew he was performing a desire he didn’t feel, and really I think he was drunk past the possibility of desire. But then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly. I was performing too, pretending to believe that his show of passion was a genuine response to my own desire, about which there was nothing feigned. As if he sensed these thoughts he pressed me more tightly to him, and for the first time I caught, beneath the more powerful and nearly overwhelming smell of alcohol, his own scent, which would be the greatest source of the pleasure I took from him and which I would seek out (at his neck and crotch, beneath his arms) at each of our meetings. It put an end to my thinking, I lifted one of his hands above his head, breaking our kiss to press my face into the pit of his arm (he shaved there too, the skin was rough against my tongue), sucking at his scent as if taking some necessary nourishment at an inadequate source. And then I sank to my knees and took him in my mouth.

A few minutes later, well before he had given me what I was owed, the obligation he took on when he took a soiled twenty-leva note from my hand, Mitko made a strange loud sound and tensed himself, placing both of his palms flat against the sides of the stall. It was a poor performance of an orgasm, if that’s what it was, not least because for the few minutes I had sucked him he had shown no response at all. Chakai, I said to him in protest as he pulled away, iskam oshte, I want more, but he didn’t relent, he smiled at me and motioned me back, still courteous as he put on the shirt he had hung so carefully behind him. I watched him helplessly, still kneeling, as he called out to his friend, whom he called again brat mi and who called back to him from the outer chamber. Maybe he saw that I was angry, and wanted to remind me he wasn’t alone. Straightening his clothes, running his hands down his torso to settle them properly on his frame, he smiled without guile, as if maybe he did feel he had given me what he owed. Then he unlatched the door and pulled it shut again behind him. As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sinkwater from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees, and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.

I sought Mitko out repeatedly over the next weeks, and after our third or fourth encounter I decided to invite him to my apartment. I wanted him to myself, free of the audience we so frequently had at NDK, where men would hover outside the stall door or press their ears to its walls, as I had done also when I found myself among the unchosen. I wanted more time and more privacy with Mitko, but I was uneasy, too, and recognized the foolishness of bringing this near stranger into my home. I remembered the warning of a man who had invited me, after we met in the bathroom, to have coffee with him in the large café in the main building of the Palace. These boys, he said to me, you can’t trust them, they will find out about you, they will tell your work, your friends, they will rob you—and indeed I had been robbed, once successfully and once I caught a young man’s hand as he withdrew it from my pocket, after which he stared wild-eyed at me, the poor boy, and fled. The rest of this man’s warning fell on deaf ears, as I had very little to lose from such revelations—no one would feel betrayed, nothing would be marred by the telling of secrets I hardly bothered to hide; I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession. Mitko and I had already had sex; it was afterward, sitting on a bench in the sunlight, which was still warm though it was November now, the grapes had shriveled on their vines, that I decided to return to the bathrooms below and offer him my proposal. We set up a date for the following evening, and his eyes lit up at the sight of my phone, which I pulled out for the first time in his presence to take down his number. He snatched it from me, only after it was in his hand sayingMozhe li, may I, and as I watched him scroll through its various features and screens, I remembered the warning I had been given.

But this unease wasn’t enough to dissuade me, and the next afternoon after classes I hurried downtown. We met again at NDK, where I found him in a huddle with three or four other men at the wall farthest from the entrance. They scattered when I appeared, though I didn’t approach them but stood awkwardly at the threshold. Mitko, who had his back to me, turned and smiled, offering me his hand and at the same time directing me out of the room and away from his friends (if they were his friends), leading me toward the plaza above. As we climbed the long staircase, moving away from those rooms that had always seemed too small for him, his frame and voice and friendliness all hemmed in by the damp tile of the walls, I felt, along with the excitement I had anticipated, an entirely unexpected happiness. Kak si, I asked as we walked through the park at NDK, how are you, and he showed me the knuckles of his right hand, which were skinned and raw, the wounds still fresh. He said that he had gotten into a fight with another man down below, though the reasons for it remained unclear to me. I took his hand in mine for a moment, looking at the little wounds that made him at once fierce and damaged, and I imagined how I would salve them, rubbing them with ointment and then pressing them to my lips. But this was a kind of tenderness that had never been part of our encounters and that was especially out of place now, as he reenacted his fight with quick jabs in the air. We walked down Vasil Levski Boulevard, Mitko’s long legs devouring the pavement as I struggled to keep up, and he talked the whole way, only bits of what he said comprehensible to me. For the first time I asked him where he lived and he answered S priyateli, with friends, a term that he used often and that I was never sure how to interpret, since in addition to its usual meanings Mitko used it to refer to his clients. It became clear to me, as I struggled to understand his stream of talk (frequently punctuated with razbirash li, do you understand?), that Mitko shuttled between places, sometimes sleeping with these friends, sometimes walking the streets until morning. When the weather was bad, he could go to a small garret room to which a friend had given him a key (Edna mansarda, he said, making the shape of a roof with his hands), where there was a mattress but no heat or running water.

Speaking of these things seemed to make Mitko uneasy, and he changed the subject by saying that, though I had found him at NDK, where he had spent much of the day, he had nevertheless been saving himself for our evening together. He looked at me sidelong as he said this (Razbirash li?) and I felt myself flush with excitement. Mitko seemed eager, too, full of an energy that propelled him forward, and as we walked down Vasil Levski toward Graf Ignatief, crossing innumerable side streets and alleyways, more than once I had to grab his arm and, saying to him again Chakai chakai chakai, pull him back from oncoming traffic. When we turned onto Graf Ignatief, he stopped in front of the many electronics stores and pawnshops, evaluating the products laid out in their windows. I was surprised by how much he knew about these phones and tablets, his monologues punctuated by English words for the various devices’ specs, pixels and memory cards and battery life, information he must have gleaned from the advertisements and brochures he picked up wherever they were offered. I tried to hurry him along, impatient to get home and uneasy at what seemed more and more like hints, especially when Mitko told me that his current phone, a model he clearly hoped to upgrade, was a gift from one of his friends. This word, podaruk, gift, would recur again and again in Mitko’s conversation that evening, applied, it seemed, to nearly everything he owned.

Finally we came to the end of Graf Ignatief, and as we approached the small river that circles central Sofia, really little more than a drainage ditch, Mitko said Chakai malko, wait a little, and stepped off the sidewalk toward the sparse vegetation at the river’s bank. I walked on a few steps, then turned to look back at him, though I could barely make him out (it was dark now, the autumn night had fallen as we walked) as he stood at the bank to relieve himself into the water. He seemed entirely unconcerned by the passersby, the heavy traffic on one of Sofia’s busiest streets; and when he caught me watching him, he stuck his tongue out and wagged his cock in his hand, sending his piss in high arcs over the water, where it glimmered in the lights of oncoming cars. It was a gesture so innocent, so full of childlike irreverence, that I found myself smiling stupidly back at him, filled with a sense of goodwill that buoyed me toward the metro station and our short commute. There was only one metro line in Sofia (though more were planned and great trenches had been gouged in neighborhoods throughout the city), and during peak hours it seemed as though the entire population were shuttling underground, alternately swallowed and disgorged through the closing doors. There were no seats on the Mladost train, and Mitko and I were separated from each other, standing finally some distance apart in the press of bodies. Mitko studied the maps above each set of doors, watching the stations light up as we passed them, but every now and then he glanced at me, as if to make sure I was still there or that my attention was still fixed on him, and his look now wasn’t innocent, anything but; it was a look that singled me out, a look full of promise, and under its heat I felt myself gripped yet again by both pleasure and embarrassment, and by an excitement so terrible I had to look away.

When we emerged at the subway’s last stop, Mladost 1, spilling with the other passengers onto Andrei Sakharov Boulevard, I was surprised to see that Mitko knew the area well. Once he had oriented himself, he pointed toward one of the blokove, the dire Soviet apartment complexes that line both sides of the boulevard, and said that it was the home of one of his priyateli. As was always the case during our time together, I was frustrated by the fragments that were all I could understand of his stories, both because of my poor Bulgarian and because he kept speaking in a kind of code, so that I seldom understood precisely the nature of the relationships he described or why they ended as they did. Never before had I met anyone who combined such transparency (or the semblance of transparency) with such mystery, so that he seemed at once overexposed and hidden behind impervious defenses. We fell silent as we walked toward my building, both of us perhaps thinking of what awaited us there. On my street, the relative prosperity of which marked it off from its neighbors, Mitko turned into a shop for alcohol and cigarettes, a place I stopped at often; the people who worked there knew me, and I wondered uncomfortably what they would think when they saw us together. Mitko walked in first and placed both of his hands palm down on the glass counter, making the shopkeeper wince, and then leaned over to peer at the more expensive bottles displayed on the back wall. He examined several of these, asking the man repeatedly and to his increasing exasperation to pass them over the counter so he could read their labels. He chose the most expensive bottle of gin, as well as a cheap orange soda to accompany it, and then took the bag from my hand to carry it up the three flights to my apartment. I lived in a nice two-bedroom provided by my school, a fact I tried to communicate to Mitko when it became clear he thought I owned it. I don’t have that kind of money, I told him, wanting to establish the modest reality of my means, but he greeted the claim with skepticism, even disbelief. But you’re American, he said, all Americans have money. I protested, telling him I was a schoolteacher, that I made hardly any money at all; but of course he would think this, having seen my laptop computer, my cell phone, my iPod, signs of comfort if not particularly of wealth in America that here are items of some luxury.

Mitko placed the bag with his bottles on the kitchen counter and opened the cabinets above it, looking for a glass. I stepped up behind him and slid my hands beneath his shirt, pressing my mouth to his neck, but he shrugged me off, saying we had plenty of time for that, he wanted to have a drink first. He took his large tumbler of gin and soda and opened the door to the small balcony that all apartments here have. He stood there for a while as he drank, looking out over the street where I live, which seems never to have been given a name. None of the smaller streets in Mladost have names, though in the center the nation’s whole history, its victories and defeats, the many indignities and small prides of a small country, play out in the names of its avenues and squares. Here in Mladost, it’s the blokove, the huge towers, that anchor one in space, each with its own number individually marked on city maps. As he looked over the street, I asked Mitko what it was he did for a living, by which I meant what it was he had done, before he turned for whatever reason to his priyateli. He was smoking a cigarette, that was why he was on the balcony, though as the night wore on this consideration would lapse, and the next morning I would wipe from the floor small piles of gray ash. Largely through gestures, he conveyed that he worked in construction, mimicking with his wounded hands the motions of his trade, going so far as to walk a few steps as he would on a high beam, balancing against the wind. It took me a moment to realize that these movements, which were oddly familiar, were the same as those with which my father, in my childhood, often made us laugh as he told stories about the single summer he spent working construction in Chicago, fresh from his farm in Kentucky, earning his tuition for law school and thus, among other things, purchasing my life.

Mitko told me he was from Varna, a beautiful port city on the Black Sea coast and one of the centers of the astonishing economic boom Bulgaria briefly enjoyed, before, here as in so much of the world, it collapsed suddenly and seemingly without warning. There were some good years, Mitko said, he made good money, and with sudden urgency he dragged me from the balcony toward the table where I had laid my computer. When he opened it, he made a sound of dismay at the state in which I kept it, the screen mottled with dust; Mrusen, he said, dirty, with the same tone of voice he would use in response to the requests I made of him later, a tone of mockery and disapproval but also of indulgence, spotting a fault it was in his power either to exploit or to repair. He rose and stepped to the kitchen counter, opening two cupboards and then a third before I understood what he was looking for and fetched the bottle of cleaner from beneath the sink. He put his drink (the large glass almost empty) on the table beside him and placed the computer in his lap, almost cradling it, and with a dampened tissue he began cleaning the screen, not in a desultory hurried way, as I might when finally I bothered, but taking his time, working at it with a thoroughness I would never think it needed. He turned to the keyboard, almost as dirty as the screen, and then he closed the machine and with his fifth or sixth tissue wiped down the aluminum case. Sega, he said with satisfaction, now, and set the computer back on its perch, pleased to have done me a service. He opened it again and navigated to a Bulgarian website, an adult social networking site that I knew was popular among gay men. He wanted me to see the pictures from his profile, which he enlarged until they filled the screen. This was two years ago, he said as I looked at the young man in the image, who stood on Vitosha Boulevard with a bag from one of the expensive stores there, smiling radiantly at whoever held the camera, showing his unbroken teeth. I was shocked by the difference between their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me; not only was his tooth unbroken, but also his head was unshaved, his hair full and light brown, conventionally cut. There was nothing rough or threatening about him at all; he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in class at the prestigious school where I teach. It was hardly possible they could be the same person, this prosperous teenager and the man beside me, or that so short a time could have made such a difference, and I found myself looking repeatedly at the screen and then at Mitko, wondering which face was the truer face, and how it had been lost or gained.

Look, Mitko said, pointing as he rattled off the brands of what seemed to me fairly nondescript items of clothing: jeans, a jacket, a button-down shirt; also a belt; also a pair of sunglasses. He even remembered the shoes he was wearing that day, though they weren’t visible on the screen; maybe they were special shoes, or maybe it was a special day. Hubavi, he said, a word that means lovely or nice, and then, fingering his collar,mrusen, and he pulled the offensive shirt off and turned back bare-chested to the screen. I leaned forward (I had sat down next to him) and kissed his shoulder, a chaste kiss, an expression of the sadness I felt for him, perhaps, though it wasn’t only sadness that I felt, with his torso now exposed beside me. He looked at me, smiling broadly, the same smile as in the photograph or almost the same, though they looked nothing alike, one transformed—it was astonishing how thoroughly—by the broken tooth, its evidence of something undergone. He bent his head toward mine, but not to engage in the kiss I expected; instead, in a quick surprise, playfully and without any hint of seduction he licked the tip of my nose, then turned back to his task. There were many more photographs, the young man featured in shifting scenes: here at the seaside, here in the mountains, always in the casual clothes of which he was so proud, the generic uniform of affluent young Americans, the stuff of endless racks in endless suburban malls.

Then there were photographs in which he wore nothing at all, angling himself in postures of erotic display that were difficult to reconcile with the sweetly innocent gesture he had just made. In one of these photos Mitko was lying on a bed, leaning on one side so that he faced the camera, fully extending the length of his long body. He was hard, and one of his hands angled his cock, too, toward the lens, the focus and centerpiece of the photograph. He wasn’t smiling now, his expression was serious, as is almost always true of the photographs on such sites; I’ve spent whole nights scrolling through them, feeling an odd mixture of anticipation and dullness, each click a promise of novelty that’s never kept. Even without his smile, there was an intensity to Mitko’s gaze that convinced me this camera, too, was held by someone significant, someone who elicited his look; and the effectiveness of the photograph (were I scrolling through images I would have lingered, I would have been caught by him) was precisely this gaze, which, though it wasn’t meant for any of the men who might be scanning through these pages, still we could claim for ourselves. I tried to claim it now, I turned to Mitko and placed my hand on the inside of his thigh and again leaned in to kiss his neck; the photos had excited me, I wanted to pull him away from the computer. Chakai, he said, imame vreme, we have time, I want to show you something else. He clicked on another photo, and I saw that I was right, there had been someone behind the camera: a young man of Mitko’s height and build, with the same style of hair and dress. They were fully clothed, which only made their embrace more erotic, and their attention was focused wholly on each other; there was no one behind the camera now, it was held by Mitko, one of whose arms extended weirdly toward us, toward me and that other Mitko as we gazed at him together. His other arm was wrapped around the boy, both of whose arms in turn gripped him; they seemed balanced in desire, in their urgency and their hunger for each other. It was tempting to think there was nothing theatrical about this kiss, that it was wholly sincere; and yet the very lens that allowed me access to it made their embrace a pose, so that even if their audience was only hypothetical, even it was only a later version of themselves, later by a year or an hour, still it made their grappling, however passionate, a performance.

Here Mitko, the Mitko who sat next to me, taking long drafts from the tumbler he had refilled, put his finger on the screen, a finger stained with cigarettes (mrusen) and flattened with labor, broad and inelegant, the new wounds still fresh at the knuckle. Julien, he said, the man’s name, and told me that he was his first priyatel, using the word now in a way that was clear, his first boyfriend and, he went on to tell me, his first love. There were more pictures, always the two of them alone, one or the other awkwardly angling the camera. They were so young, these boys in the frame, children really, and yet despite their eagerness for each other it was as though they were documenting something they knew could not last. Of course there were no witnesses in their small town to what they were together, neither their families nor their friends, not even strangers passed on the street, since none of the photos was taken outside. Except for these photographs, these digital memories he scrolled through now, nothing would have survived of those embraces that for all their heat had come to an end. Where is he now, I asked Mitko, flooded with tenderness and wanting access to some greater intimacy with him. He didn’t look at me as he answered, still clicking from image to image, his hand moving absently across his chest. He was a schoolteacher, Mitko told me, he left to study abroad and lived in France now, having fled his country along with (I thought) nearly everyone with the talent or means to do so. Of these two men locked together on the screen, then, one left, buoyed by talent or means or both, and the other stayed and was transformed somehow from a prosperous-looking boy to the more or less homeless man I had invited into my home.

As if he sensed my sadness and shared it and wanted to give it voice, Mitko opened a new page, a Bulgarian site for video clips, where one can find almost anything, copyright laws have little meaning here. Music, Mitko said, I want you to hear something, and he typed the name of a French singer, someone I had never heard of and whose name escapes me now, into a search engine that dredged up a remarkable number of files. Mitko scanned through several pages, searching for the clip of a song he had shared with Julien, something they had listened to and loved together. Each of the thumbnail images showed a frail woman softly lit, holding a microphone prayerfully in both of her hands. Maybe all of these clips were from the same concert, or maybe the simple, floor-length white gown she wore in each of them was a sort of signature. Mitko found the video he wanted, and as it began I was moved by the thought that he was granting me access to a private history and so to the intimacy I longed for with him, and that this music, so connected to his past, might allow that intimacy passage across our two languages. And yet, as I watched this woman, who was beautiful with a hollow sort of beauty, I was increasingly repelled by what seemed to me a transparent and entirely artless manipulation. She sang in a choked whisper, affecting an extremity of dignified, photogenic devastation, and at the end of a particularly tragic passage she broke into what seemed to me obviously rehearsed tears, lowering the microphone in a posture of defeat. From time to time, the camera (it was a professional film, an elaborate concert video) positioned itself at the singer’s shoulder, forcing us into greater sympathy with her as we shared her vantage on the thousands of fans stretching out into the darkness. They burst into a kind of ecstasy at the sight of her tears, producing collectively a sound of mingled dismay and joy. Ah, said that sound, here at last is the life of significance, the real life that frees us from ourselves.

These thoughts took me away from the moment I shared with Mitko, and made me feel that I too had been played, lured into a sentimentality entirely inappropriate to what was, after all, a transaction. As Mitko continued looking tenderly at the screen, a look that now I suspected was artificial, calculated and sly, I stood up, I put my hands on his shoulders and bent my face once again to his neck. Haide, I said, come on, tasting him and tugging at his shoulders. He tried at first to put me off again, he said we could take our time, the night was long; he was counting on a place to spend that night, and no doubt had experienced hospitality withdrawn by men whose desire dissolved immediately to disgust. But I insisted, wanting to assert something, to set the terms of the evening, to claim, finally, the goods for which I had contracted, to put it as brutally as that; it was something brutal that I wanted. When he saw I wouldn’t be put off, Mitko became compliant, even eager; he rose from the chair and put his arms around my neck, then hopped and wrapped his legs around me. I had never felt his weight before, he had always been standing when we had sex, and I was surprised by how light he was as I carried him from the kitchen to the bed. I set him down and he stretched out, extending his arms to either side, as if in welcome, and the new sternness I had assumed fell away; I was the compliant one now, this compliance being, finally, what I had purchased. The room was dark, but I could still see him in the light from the hallway and the window, the glow of neon signs and streetlamps, and I gazed at him without moving, as if now that he had given me permission I was hesitant to touch him. He smiled at me, or at what he saw on my face, and then he reached up and pulled me to his mouth, which was sweet with soda. He kept his hand at my neck, and after we kissed he pulled my face away and then pushed my head down; he was already hard, he had responded to our kiss as much as I. But I wasn’t so compliant after all, I shook my head to free it, and then I took his hands in mine, as I had imagined doing, his wounded hands, and brought them to my lips. He smiled at me again, tilting his head a little in confusion at the delay, but I didn’t delay for long, and he shifted his legs apart as I lowered my mouth to his cock, clasping his hips with both my hands like the brim of a cup from which I drank.

He was wrong to have feared (if he did fear it) that I would want him to leave once he had settled our accounts, as it were, that I would make him return to the center and wander its streets. I wanted him to stay, I wanted to lie close to him, to touch him without passion now but more tenderly, and I felt disappointment and even pain when he bounded up off the bed, as if eager to escape. Everything good, he asked, vsichko li e nared, and then he receded down the hall naked, returning to the computer as I put my clothes back on. I heard the sound of more gin being poured, then the pressing of keys, then the distinctive inflating chime of Skype as it opened. I went to join him, and watched as Mitko began what would be a long series of conversations over the Internet, voice and video chats with a number of other young men. I sat in a chair some distance behind him, where I could see the screen without myself falling within the frame. These men seemed all to be speaking from darkened rooms, in voices that were hushed, I realized, to avoid disturbing their families sleeping (it was late now, one or two in the morning) in the next room. Most of them existed only as faces, which was all that could be seen of them in a single bulb’s small circle of light. They greeted Mitko fondly, familiarly, though I would come to learn that he had never met most of them in the flesh, that their friendship was restricted to these disembodied encounters. As I listened to these men, all of whom lived outside of Sofia, many in small villages and towns, I was struck by the strangeness of the community they had formed, at once so limited and so lively. Mitko moved from conversation to conversation, speaking and typing at once, the screen lighting up regularly with new invitations. I couldn’t follow what they said, I could hardly understand anything; I was exhausted, and as time passed I grew bored. Every now and again I would snap to attention, alerted by some stray word or tone of voice that Mitko was discussing me; and I felt helpless at being the object of conversations I couldn’t understand or partake in. Once or twice Mitko orchestrated an introduction, tilting the screen so that I was captured in the image, and the stranger and I would smile awkwardly and wave, having nothing at all to say to each other. I became increasingly ashamed as the night wore on, as more and more I suspected I was the object of mockery or scorn; and besides this I felt bitter at my exclusion from Mitko’s enthusiasm, and jealous of the attention he lavished on these other men. To nourish or stave off this bitterness, I’m not sure which, or maybe just out of boredom, I pulled from my shelf a volume of poems and held it open on my lap. It was a slim volume, Cavafy, which I chose in the hope that I would find in it something to redeem my evening, to gild what felt more and more like the sordidness of it. But I was too exhausted to read and flipped the pages idly, afraid that if I went to bed I would wake to find my apartment robbed, that Mitko would take my computer and my phone, things he coveted and that I neglected and (no doubt he felt) didn’t deserve. As I turned these pages, failing to find any solace in them, I noticed that the tenor of Mitko’s conversations had changed, that he was no longer speaking fondly but suggestively, and that his priyateli were now older than he, men in their late thirties or forties. From stray words I caught, it became clear that they were discussing scenarios and prices, that Mitko was arranging his week.

There was one man, older than the others, with whom the conversation was more prolonged. He was heavyset and balding, with a stubbled face that looked at once flabby and drawn in the flat light of the room where he sat smoking one cigarette after another. He lived in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, which escaped bombing in World War II and so retained its beautiful center. As I listened to them speak to each other, listening not to their words but to the tones and cadences of their speech, I remembered the first time I visited this city, the first place I had been outside of Sofia and so my first time seeing the architecture typical of the National Revival, with its elaborate wooden structures and bright pastels that were like expressions of an irrepressible joy, so different from the gray of Mladost. Plovdiv was built, like Rome, as a city of seven hills, which is how many Bulgarians still describe it, though one of the hills was destroyed and mined, in Communist times, for the stones that now pave the streets in the pedestrian center. On one of the remaining hills stands a huge statue of a Soviet soldier, Alyosha he’s called by the locals, around whom a large park descends, at each level opening into plazas and observatory points with sweeping vistas of the city. One side of this park is well maintained, with wide staircases and well-kept paths, frequented by couples and families and weekend athletes, society parading its public life. But on my first visit, not knowing any better, a friend and I made our way up the other side of the hill, which seemed largely to have been abandoned. This side too had its stairways and plazas, though the stones shifted and crumbled beneath us; frequently we had to grab at branches or shrubs for balance, once or twice we even dropped to our hands and knees. And yet, as we climbed, it became clear that these paths were not entirely deserted. Pausing to look out at the city and back at the way we had come, we noticed a man on one of the lower observatories whom we hadn’t seen on our way up, either because he had been hiding or because we were distracted by our own exertions. He held a plastic bag in one of his hands, which now and again he brought to his face, burying his mouth and nose in it and taking huge, famished breaths; even from a distance we could see the heaving of his shoulders, which shook as if he were weeping. As he lowered the bag from his face his posture softened, his whole frame shrank and relaxed, and he stumbled a little, unsteady on his feet; then he straightened, and advancing to the rusted rail thrust out his arms toward the city, an expression of longing or ecstasy or grief that haunts me still. At one point he gripped this railing with both hands and leaned over it, with great composure vomiting into the bushes below. As we climbed we came across abandoned structures, squat and concrete, slowly being dismantled by incursions of branches and roots, so that often only the outline of a room remained, sometimes only a single wall. But at one observatory point, where again we stopped to catch our breath, there was a line of these structures, concrete shells that, though they lacked doors and windows, seemed otherwise more or less intact. The interiors were too dark to see into, but I had the impression that they extended far back, burrowing into the rock, a network of small cells like a hive or a mine. As we stood there I became aware of three men standing not too far away, who must have hidden at our approach and now emerged from the shadows. They stood apart from one another, solitary figures, middle-aged and lean, each sheltering a cigarette in a cupped palm. Though they never acknowledged our presence or looked our way the air buzzed with an electric charge, and I knew that with a gesture I could have retreated with one of them into those little rooms, as I would have (I was myself humming with it) if I had been alone.

Maybe it was something reminiscent of this charge that caught my attention in Mitko’s client or friend, a note of need I hadn’t heard in the other men he spoke with. He seemed so eager to please, his eagerness mixed with trepidation; and it seemed to me that Mitko enjoyed the power he wielded, his power to be pleased or to withhold his pleasure. I have something for you, I heard this man say, and heard also podaruk, the word Mitko loved and that the man used now for the cell phone he held up to the camera, still in its box, one of the models Mitko had looked at so covetously on Graf Ignatief. And Mitko allowed himself to be pleased, he smiled at the man and thanked him, calling his gift strahoten, a word that means awesome and is, like our word, built from a root signifying dread. You have to come get it, the man said, and Mitko agreed, he would take a bus to Plovdiv the next day. As I sat there in my fatigue, I realized it was my money that would buy Mitko’s ticket to this man and his expensive gift, and I wondered how it was I had become one of these men in the dark, offering whatever was asked for something we wouldn’t be given freely. Mitko had already introduced me to the man, he had tilted the screen toward me so that we could greet each other, which we did tentatively and with a shade of hostility on the other man’s part, maybe because I was younger than he and (for a little while yet) more attractive; and maybe simply because I still had possession of Mitko, who told him to hold up his podaruk again, for my admiration or, more likely, for my instruction. Mitko was still mine for the night, there were still hours in which he was bound by our phantom contract; I could still enjoy the desire this man was counting on as his own, his reward for the extravagance of his gift. I felt something of the jealousy of ownership, even though my ownership was temporary, wasn’t really ownership at all, and I was already bitter at the thought of sending Mitko off the next morning to Plovdiv and this other man, who had lured him away so easily.

My fatigue was a kind of agitation now, I kept opening and closing the book I held unread on my lap. I couldn’t find what I had found in it before, the recovery of something like nobility from the mawkishness of desire, the sense that stray meetings in dark rooms or the shadowy commerce of my own evening could burn with genuine luminosity, rubbing up against the realm of the ideal, ready at an instant to become metaphysics. I set the book aside, seeing that Mitko was tired too, tired and noticeably drunk; he had emptied nearly two-thirds of the bottle we had bought. He was unsteady on his feet when he stood up, having said goodbye to the man in Plovdiv and having announced his intention, finally, to sleep. There were three hours left until we would have to wake, he for his short trip to Plovdiv, a couple of hours on a comfortable bus; and I for a day of teaching, when I would stand before my class wearing a face scrubbed of the eagerness and servility and need it wore as I followed Mitko to the bathroom, standing behind him (he was still naked) as he stood to piss. I rubbed his chest and stomach, lean and taut, the skin of my hands catching just slightly on the bristles of hair; and then, at his words of permission or encouragement, something like Go on, I don’t mind, my hands went lower, and gingerly I took the base of his cock and wrapped my hand around the shaft, feeling beneath my fingers the flow of water, heavy and urgent, and feeling too my own urgency, the hardness I pressed against him. He leaned his head back, pressing his face against mine, rubbing it (it too was stubbled and rough) against the softness of my own, and I felt him harden as he finished pissing, as I carefully skinned him back and shook the last of it, feeling almost suffocated with longing, having never touched anyone in that way before, having never before been of that particular service. Mitko turned to me and kissed me, deeply and searchingly and possessingly, at the same time pushing me backward down the hallway toward the bedroom, pushing me and perhaps also using me for support, to the broad bed where we had lain together earlier and where now we lay down again. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close to him, and not just his arms, he wrapped his legs around me too and with all four of his limbs pressed me to him, embracing me so that when I breathed in the air was filtered through him, smelling of alcohol of course but also of his own scent that elicited such an animal response from me, that so fired me up (I imagined the chambers of the brain lighting up, thrown switches in a house). He lay like some marine creature wrapped around me, wrapping around me again if I shifted or half woke, and I slept as I have seldom slept, deeply and almost without disturbance, held like his beloved or his child; or held, I suppose it must be said, like his captive or his prey.

Copyright © 2016 by Garth Greenwell