From StoryQuarterly 49: Cleanness

Garth Greenwell’s story, “Cleanness,” appears in the forthcoming issue of StoryQuarterly. His novel, WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, will be published on January 19 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Garth Greenwell



It was our usual table, next to the window that made up the bulk of the
restaurant’s east-facing wall. We liked to look out on the garden, where even
in mid-October, were it a normal evening, there would have been diners
talking and smoking at the tables that were empty now, stripped of their
umbrellas and chairs, a chain of black metal locked around their legs. It was
a lovely garden, its shrubs and flowers rare in Mladost; it offered an illusion
of seclusion or retreat, a green relief among the concrete desolation of so
much of the neighborhood. The illusion was incomplete, of course: there was
nothing to be done about the sound of traffic that was so near, or the exhaust
that tainted the air of the whole district, and of course one only had to look
up to see the gray of the apartment blocks, which put an end to all greenness.
It was a garden better enjoyed inside than out, we had learned, a place to
rest our eyes. But it was a mistake to sit at our table tonight, when there was
no restfulness outside, when everything was movement and agitation, as it
had been all through the past week, since a great wind had swept into or
descended upon or laid siege to the city, it’s hard to know how to put it, or
the sense of it shifted with the days. It came up from Africa, the guards at
my school said, old men who greeted it with resignation; it carries sand from
Africa, you’ll feel it, it is a horrible wind. And they were right, I found, there
was something almost malevolent about it, as if it were an intelligence, or at
least an intention, carrying off whatever wasn’t secure, worrying every loose
edge. It made the city’s cheap construction seem cheaper, more provisional
and tenuous, a temporary arrangement—as is true of all places, I know, though
it’s a truth I’d rather not acknowledge, of course I came to hate the wind.

R. was late, as always, and after half an hour I had begun to wonder
whether he would come at all. He often broke our plans, usually after I made
whatever arrangements were required by my own obligations, inconvenient
arrangements, often enough. It was a popular restaurant, busy with the dinner
rush, and I could feel myself becoming a spectacle, quiet in a convivial room,
a bit of negative space. I had already fended off several approaches from the
servers, saying I was waiting for a friend, he was on his way, gesturing to
my lifeless phone as though I had had some news of him, though in fact he
hadn’t responded to the texts I sent. The waiters had become more insistent
as the tables around me filled; soon I would have to order something or leave.
Even inside we could hear the wind; it was a sound above our human voices,
a sound beyond the scale of living things. I always forgave R. when he missed
our meetings, I accepted any excuse he offered, whatever my annoyance I
never complained. I wanted to think of this as patience, as understanding of
R.’s many complications, though really I knew it was fear; I would push him
away if I demanded too much.

It had been too long now, I was steeling myself to go, when with a sudden
increase of noise and a change of pressure, a slight disorder in the air, the
door opened and R. came in. He was wearing a hat and scarf and a heavy
winter coat, though it wasn’t very cold, certainly not cold enough for such
an elaborate defense; but then he was from a warm country, it was his first
time facing a real fall. He grew up in the Azores, and though all the photos
I had found online of his town were gorgeous, orderly white houses brilliant
against the sea, he would never go back there, he said; it was a small place,
he hated small places. He saw me right away, looking immediately toward
our table, and without waiting to be greeted by a server he began making
his way to me, pulling off his hat and scarf as he came. I was struck again by
the beauty of him, a peculiar, accidental beauty of disheveled hair and casual
clothes, entirely regardless of itself. Even now that it was familiar to me I felt
it as a kind of physical force, not welcoming me but pushing me off, so that
I was always astonished to find I could take him in my arms. This was what
I did now, embracing him though I had intended to remain seated, to greet
him coolly and punish him a little. We parted after just a moment, but not
before I heard, very softly, R. make a sound I had come to love, a little grunt
of happiness, a homecoming sound, and all my irritation drained away.

It’s terrible outside, he said as he sat down, gesturing to the window
beside us, the view that was fading as the evening faded, it’s totally crazy,
I’ve never seen anything like it, have you—but it wasn’t really a question, he
went on before I could answer. He was sorry for being late, he said, he was
supposed to go to a party but had bowed out at the last minute, and then it
had been hard to persuade his roommate to go on without him. I thought I
wouldn’t be able to come, R. said, and I made a noncommittal sound, feeling
a little of my annoyance return. Oh, he said, hearing it, are you mad, and he
wore an expression of such openness and willingness to be ashamed it was
impossible to stay angry. So I told him it was all right, he shouldn’t worry,
it was nothing. No, he said, it isn’t nothing, I hate that I can’t see you when
I want to, and he made a small gesture on the table, a slight reaching of his
hand to mine. We couldn’t touch, of course, it was a conservative country,
it would be imprudent, but he flexed his fingers in a way that I knew meant
desire, that though he was touching the polished wood it was me he wanted
to touch. This was clear in his expression, too, when I looked at his face
and he said very softly, almost mouthing it, Skupi , one of the few words of
Bulgarian he had learned. It means dear or of great price, which was what I
felt on our second or third meeting when he lay naked beside me and I ran
my hand along his side, tracing the edge of him, and I spoke the word almost
without thinking, Skupi , and he asked me what it meant and then drew me to
him and whispered it like an affirmation in my ear. It had become our private
name for each other, and I think it was then, when we first spoke it, that I
realized I was caught by him, that however things turned out they would have
consequence, and I was both frightened by this and gave myself over to it, I
decided I would let whatever might happen between us happen.

I remembered this when he spoke the word, and then, as if dispelling the
atmosphere he had created, he turned his attention to the menu, which the
server had long before laid down at his seat. The restaurant had an Italian
name but that didn’t mean anything, nearly every restaurant in Sofia served
pizza, and nearly all of them had the same dozen or so Bulgarian dishes,
meat and vegetables and eggs; it was the world’s least distinctive cuisine, I
sometimes thought. R. studied every page, and then he ordered what he
always did, pointing to it mutely with a smile as he angled the menu toward
the waitress: a salad of greens and strips of eggplant covered in a sweet dressing
that he loved. We handed over our menus, and then R. turned his face to the
glass beside us, watching the wind, which was visible both in the detritus it
carried, papers and leaves and the little plastic cups coffee comes in here, and
in the resistance of everything fixed. Already the last of the light was draining,
so that as much as the wind it was R.’s face I saw, which was pensive as he said
again it was a terrible wind.

But he was bright-faced when he turned back to me and I shifted my
gaze from his reflection to the real image. He asked me about my day, and
I told him something funny, I don’t remember what, something at my own
expense; he liked stories in which I was a little ridiculous, in which students
had the best of me. It had the effect I wanted, which was his laugh, or less his
laugh than the transformation his face underwent when he smiled. It isn’t
true, what I said earlier, really I think I was caught from our first meeting, or
even before our meeting, from the first photographs he sent me that showed
his face. We had been chatting for several days by then, emailing back and
forth on the dating site where we met, though it wasn’t for dating so much
as for sex, which at first was all we thought we wanted. And anyway he was
twenty-one, too young to take seriously; it might be a bit of fun, I thought
when I looked at his profile, a bit of fun but nothing more. His pictures
didn’t show very much, mostly his torso, which was thick and unsculpted, a
little heavy in a way I liked. In his second email he sent a link to a video that
showed what most men must have wanted to see: he was naked, exposing
himself, turning to give a full view before he brought himself off. There was
something dispiriting about it, the faceless body too starkly displayed, turning
as if on a dais; it shamed me a little to enjoy it. He waited several days before
he showed me more, and only after I had promised to be discreet; he wasn’t
out, he told me, not even to his closest friends, and so it was a pledge of trust
and a profounder exposure to send the photo in which finally I saw his face.
He was at a club, there were other people behind him in the dark, but he was
the only one looking at the camera. The glare of the flash was bright on his
skin, and he seemed gripped by joy, there’s no other way to say it, his eyes
were shut and his mouth stretched impossibly wide, revealing teeth that were
large and imperfect, an upper one in front just slightly skewed. When I saw
it I knew I wanted to be smiled at like that. I would never get tired of it, I
thought in the restaurant, each time he smiled it filled me with a happiness I
had never felt before, a happiness that was particularly his.

He told me about his day then, which was freer and more varied than
mine, the day of a student. He was in Sofia as part of a program that shuttled
college students around the EU, an attempt to stitch up the union though in
R.’s case it hadn’t worked; he hated Bulgaria, he said, almost as much as he
hated his own country. He had come with M., a friend from his university in
Lisbon; he had thought it would be good to know someone here but it wasn’t
good, he felt watched and constrained, bound to the self he would have liked to
leave behind, to compromises and deceptions that were really what he hated,
I thought, not the country he lived in but the life he had made there. He was
studying physical therapy, though he had wanted to major in languages, he
told me at our first meeting, when we spent hours talking in a café before he
came home with me. His parents insisted that he study something practical,
a trade, but nothing’s practical now, he had said, laughing bitterly a little,
There aren’t any jobs for anybody in Portugal, I should have just studied
what I wanted. He had a talent for languages; his English was almost perfect,
natural and easy, and he said with something like pride, when he learned I
was a teacher, that he had always done well in his literature classes in high
school, which were the only classes he enjoyed. When we got to my apartment
that first day, before we moved into the bedroom, while we were still in that
moment of delay that can be such a pleasure in itself, he spoke a poem to me
in his own language, a few lines of Pessoa he said everyone learned in school.
It could have been anything, I didn’t understand a word of it, but it charmed
me and formed the occasion for me to reach to him, to pull him close and
press my mouth to his.

In Bulgaria he was studying at the National Sports Academy, though that
wasn’t the kind of therapy he wanted to do; he wanted to help people, he
said, real people with real problems, not athletes with sore muscles. But today
at least there had been a change of routine, he told me as we waited for our
food; instead of practicing the techniques on each other, members of one of
the teams had come in, they stripped to their briefs and laid themselves out
on the tables. My guy was so beautiful, R. said, he wasn’t too big like some
of the others, and I got to spend half an hour just touching him. I had to be
careful, he went on, lowering his voice enough that I had to lean forward to
hear him, I didn’t want anyone to see how much I liked him. I was so scared
I would touch him wrong, I’m sure it was an awful massage. And he didn’t
speak any English, so he couldn’t tell me how anything felt, I just kept asking
him okay?, okay?, until the teacher told me to stop. It was kind of hot, he said,
looking up at me, and something he saw made him smile. Are you jealous,
he asked, and I denied it too quickly, though it wasn’t exactly jealousy I felt.
It made me fear we were in different stories; I would tell that to a friend, not
a lover, and it was as though R. had heard this thought when he continued.
I’ve never had anybody to talk to about this, he said, you’re the only one, and
then he smiled again. But I like that you’re jealous, he said, it’s nice, nobody’s
ever been jealous of me before, and again he made that little gesture with
his fingers that was like a caress, or the idea of a caress. But he snatched his
hand back quickly, almost guiltily, as the waitress set down our food, saying
first zapovyadaite , here you are, and then, more extravagantly, da vi e sladko ,
may it be sweet to you, a kind of courtesy that was out of place in such a
casual restaurant. I glanced up as I thanked her, and in the moment before
she turned away I thought I caught a look on her face that was something
more than politeness, a look that was kind, and I wondered whether she had
seen R.’s gesture and read it rightly and given it, in this small way, a kind
of blessing.

R. had already turned his attention to his food, salting it and then rotating
his plate until its arrangement pleased him. I loved to watch him eat, which
he did with a kind of joyful absorption, and I left my pizza untouched as I
watched him lift the first bite to his mouth and close his eyes for a moment,
only then returning his attention to me. After class it was a boring day, he
said, M. and I went back to our room and slept, but then the Polish girl woke
us up, the annoying one, remember, I told you about her. I did remember,
though I had forgotten her name, as I did again as soon as he spoke it. She
had pursued R. since they arrived, more and more aggressively, until one
night shortly after he and I met he let her take him back to her room. They
had been dancing at one of the clubs in Studenskigrad , a part of the city named
for the many schools and dormitories there, though it was the least studious
quarter in Sofia, full of discotheques and casinos and bars; it was where my
own students spent their weekends, I knew, it offered all the pleasures of the
center but at a cheaper price. R. told me this story at our second meeting,
while we were lying in bed together, an intimacy I was surprised to find I
wanted; usually after sex I was eager to be alone. I was drunk, he said, but
that wasn’t why I went, I wanted to know if I liked it, I’ve only ever been with
guys but I thought maybe I like girls too, I wanted to try. They had kissed
and taken off their clothes and lain down together, he told me, and he didn’t
respond at all; it was awful, he said, even when she gave me a blow job I
couldn’t get hard, it was like I was dead down there. She told me not to worry,
I was just too drunk, but that’s not true, I can get hard when I’m drunk, I can
always get hard. I guess this really is what I am, he said. We had been lying
next to each other while he spoke, both on our backs, not touching, but after
he said this he rolled toward me, he put his hand on my chest, and then he
laid his head on top of his hand.

She had knocked today to remind them of the plans they had made, a
whole group was headed to dinner and then out to the clubs; she wanted to
talk to me, R. went on, but I said M. was sleeping, I practically closed the
door in her face. I don’t want to be mean, he said to me, but what does she
want, she won’t leave me alone. She wants you, I said, laughing a little, I
sympathize; I had intended to be charming, but R. didn’t smile. He seemed
uneasy, shifting in his seat, pushing his food around though his plate was
still mostly full. Maybe it was the wind; each time it struck the glass he leaned
away from it, and again I thought I had been wrong to sit there, a table in the
middle of the room would have been better, we would have been less exposed.
And then M. got up, R. said, and when I told him I didn’t want to go, that
I was tired and would stay home, he started saying he would stay in too, he
would study instead. I thought I would lose my mind, R. said, his English
turning colloquial as it always did when he was agitated, using phrases he
had learned from American sit-coms, I mean Jesus, I’m not his mother, we’re
not married, he can do things on his own. M. was always his excuse for our
missed dates, and I grew increasingly annoyed as he went on; so much of
what he complained about seemed of his own doing, and so easy to change.
He lived in a modern country, it wasn’t like Bulgaria, men like us could live
openly there, could even marry; surely he only needed a little courage to
claim the freedom he said he wanted.

You could just tell him, I said, cutting into R.’s monologue, and though
I had said versions of this before he looked up at me blankly for a moment.
About us, I mean, you could tell him about us, and then you wouldn’t have to
lie. He made an exasperated sound at this, a dismissive sound that made me
angry, or not angry, quite, but more annoyed. Listen, I said, really, wouldn’t
it be better, isn’t it what you want, and though I knew I should probably stop
I went on. I want you to be happy, I said, really happy, and you can’t be happy
when you have to lie so much. I fell silent then, as did everyone else in the
restaurant, an instant of shock at a gust of wind that smacked angrily at the
building, an even stronger gust than the others. It was like being besieged, I
thought, as conversations picked up and the room filled again with noise, a
little tentative now, as if we were embarrassed at having been frightened or
alert for the next occasion for fear. R. began to speak but I had more I wanted
to say, I spoke over him, Wait, I said, let me just, and then I paused again,
at a moment’s loss. You’re happy when you’re with me, right, I said, and he
made his noise of exasperation again, a little glottal exhalation. You know I
am, he said, and it was true, it was something we had already begun to say to
each other, that we made each other happy. This was true for me from the
first evening, after I had pulled him to me and kissed him and we fell into bed
together, when I looked up at him in the dark and saw aimed at me the smile
I already loved. Sex had never been joyful for me before, it had always been
fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of
his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we
did. He had given me so much, I thought, for all that he couldn’t give, and I
was ashamed of the tone I had taken. I do know, I said, speaking more gently
now, and you know I’m happy too, and maybe the best thing our friendship
could do is show you what it would be like if you were open, if you let yourself
live in a fuller way. I could see my speech wasn’t having the effect I wanted,
that R.’s mood was turning darker; he wasn’t looking at me anymore but at
the window, at his reflection or the world beyond it. I should have stopped
talking but I couldn’t stop, I want you to be able to live, I said, really live,
I don’t want you to just wait for things to happen to you, I want you to be
happy. And what are you afraid of, I asked, do you really think your friends
won’t accept you, your parents? His family wasn’t religious, I knew, he was
from a small place but not a particularly conservative one. I think you should
trust them more, I said, I think you should trust that they love you.

Stop, he said. He was still looking at the window, not at his own
reflection, I saw as I looked at him, frightened a little by the tone of his voice,
but at something in the far distance, though there wasn’t a far distance, there
was just the garden wall invisible in the dark. Just stop, he said, you don’t
know what you’re talking about, and when he turned his gaze to mine I could
see he was angry. You’re talking to me like a child, he said, I’m not a child,
you can’t talk to me like that. I’m sorry, I said quickly, meaning it, I didn’t
want you to feel that, really, I’m sorry. He was silent then, he turned back to
the window, as though there were something to see there, and I thought I
could see him let go of his anger, all at once, his shoulders slumped a little as
it went. The wind continued its assault, that constant charge against the glass,
but R. wasn’t flinching from it anymore, he seemed almost to be leaning
toward the window as he gazed through it, or maybe he was just leaning away
from me.

It’s not just that I’m afraid, he said, though I am afraid, you can say
whatever you want but it’s scary, I don’t want people to change how they
think of me. I know, I started to say, I didn’t mean, but he made a little
motion with his hand to cut me off. It isn’t that, he said after a pause, I mean
that’s not the main reason. He paused again, and the noise of the restaurant
rose around us. I hadn’t been aware of it for some time, but now I heard the
voices at the other tables, heard without understanding; they were jumbled,
overlapping and indistinct, punctuated suddenly by an eruption of laughter
in a far corner. I would like to be there, I thought as R. prepared to speak
again, still not looking at me, I would like to be there in that laughter. When
I was little, R. began, speaking more slowly than I had ever heard him speak,
and almost with a different voice, muted and inward, a voice that though it
addressed me was uneager for my company. When I was living in the Azores,
he said, it was terrible, there was nothing to do, there were more cows around
than people. I had maybe two friends, he said, and we lived so far away from
everything I didn’t even get to see them very much, I only saw them at school.
There were my sisters, but they were older, they didn’t want anything to do
with me, and my parents—I don’t know, they were fine, I know you say I
care too much about what they think but we’ve never been close, I’m not
really sure they think about me all that much. All I did was watch TV, stupid
cartoons or American shows, it was the only thing to do. There was only one
person I was close to, and he wasn’t my friend, he was older, a friend of my
father’s. We had known him forever, we called him uncle but he wasn’t our
uncle, he was just my father’s friend. He was always nice, he would talk to
me and ask me things and listen to me, he was the only person who made
me feel like I was interesting. He was at our house a lot, he’d come over for
dinner, and I was always happy to see him, more than happy, excited; I guess
I had a crush on him, I don’t know, I didn’t think of it like that. When I was
older, twelve or thirteen, we would go on walks while my mother was making
dinner. It sounds weird now but it didn’t feel weird, my parents thought it
was good for me, and it was for a while, I think, R. said, I mean I was happy.
There was a place we used to go, close to the American base, a field with a
big concrete shell of a building. I don’t know what it was exactly, it was like
a mall, there were three floors but only the skeleton, nothing else; it was
something they started to build a long time ago and didn’t finish. It was a
place to walk, and to do other things; there were always bottles and cans and
cigarettes around, people hung out there, I guess, there was nowhere else to
go. Guys went there too, R. said; I didn’t know it then, we were only there
in the daytime, but at night it was a cruising place, and when I got older it
was where I went too, even though I hated it. It was always the same three
or four married assholes, but whatever, it was something. We’d go walking
there, just talking to each other, and then one day he stopped and pointed at
something on the ground. It was a condom somebody had dropped by one
of the walls, stretched out and dry, it was disgusting. He pointed at it with his
shoe and asked me if I knew what it was for. And that’s how he started it, R.
said, he put his arm around me and led me behind one of the walls where no
one would see us. I didn’t want it but I let him do it, I guess, I mean I didn’t
fight him and I never said anything, I let it happen. R. looked at me then,
finally turning away from the glass, he looked at me where I sat immobile as
he spoke, my fork still in my hand. I never said anything, he repeated, I’ve
never said anything until now. Oh, I said, the single syllable, not a word but
a sound, oh, and I sat my fork down beside the plate I had hardly touched,
that was past touching now. Skupi , I said, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but at this
his anger snapped back, a fierce anger as he said See, almost snarling it, you
see me different now, I don’t want you to be sorry for me, I don’t want to be
some hurt little boy, I don’t want it. On his face there was an expression I
had never seen before, on his face or any other, it was a desperate, frightened
face, though frightened of what I wasn’t sure. Okay, I said, leaning back, I
was frightened too, okay.

He turned away from me again and took a deep breath. The point isn’t
to make you feel sorry, he said more calmly, looking at the night and the wind
that filled it, the point is that I’m not just scared, that’s not the only reason I
don’t want to tell people what I am. If I was open, he said, looking at me, it
would be like saying what he did to me was okay, it would be like accepting
it. I don’t know if I was like this before, probably I was, probably he saw I
was and thought I wanted it; and maybe I did want it, maybe that’s why I
never said anything, maybe I let it happen because I wanted it. I don’t know,
he said, that’s the problem, how can I know what I wanted then, before he
did it, how can I know what’s me and what’s what he did to me? I know it’s
stupid, but what if he made me this way, how can I be proud of it then, he
said, how can I march in some fucking parade, maybe that’s fucked up but it’s
what I feel. He stopped suddenly, as if he had just realized how loudly he was
speaking; he looked quickly around but no one was paying us any mind. Can
we go now, he said, please, I don’t want to eat anything now. Yes, I said, of
course, and I scanned the room for our server, catching her eye and making
a little motion in the air to signal for our check. Was everything all right,
she said when she brought it, gesturing to our half-eaten meals, and I said it
was, thank you, we were just ready to go, and I gave her a too-large tip, not
wanting to wait for my change. R. was already pulling on his coat, wrapping
his scarf around his neck, bundling himself up as I rose. He was eager to get
away from what he had said, I thought, and I worried it wasn’t only the place
he was fleeing but me, too, that now I would show him an image of himself
he hated. There was so much I wanted to say to him but he didn’t give me the
chance, he had gotten up too quickly, and now he was moving away with his
back to me; I would have had to call out to him as I rose from my seat, which
of course I couldn’t do in the crowded restaurant, though I wanted to call or
reach out to him, to catch him and draw him near. I followed as he made his
way between the tables, and then he paused for me to join him before with a
shove he opened the door.

Immediately we were in it, the rush and moil of wind that dragged at us
and snatched our breath; I couldn’t have called out to him now, I had to duck
my chin into my coat to breathe. We leaned into the wind as we made our way
to the boulevard, slitting our eyes against the grit it carried, whether African
sand, or, as I imagined, the grime of the streets. We were walking against the
wind, kicking against the trash it swept toward us. It’s a filthy city, though
every morning an army of red-vested women descends upon the streets with
brooms and metal pails, cleaners hired to scour the streets, endlessly and
to no avail. We walked side by side, but it was R. who chose the way, he
strode as if taking no account of me, while I watched for every sign of his
intention. At the Sakharov intersection I thought he might turn toward the
metro, putting an end to our evening and maybe to more than our evening; it
was easy to imagine him slipping away from me into that life where I had no
place. Of course I had no claim on him, our entire relationship was founded
on claimlessness, founded or not founded, the opposite of founded, I guess;
and I was frightened to realize how much I would care if he turned, I would
be devastated, how had I let myself feel so much. But he didn’t turn, he
passed Saharov and began to cross the parking lot of the supermarket that
made one border of the tangle of streets in which I lived, Mladost 1A, the
name a remnant of the communist order indecipherable now in the mess of
new buildings. The market was nearly empty, it was late, almost closing time,
but the automatic glass doors were sliding open and shut, open and shut,
though no one was coming in or out; it was something to do with the wind, I
thought, the disorder it made of everything. I was glad he was coming home
with me, but it meant I would have to have something to say to him, when
we were out of the wind and together again in my room, in the bed where we
had said so much to each other—it wasn’t true that I had no claim, I thought,
each word was a claim, his words and mine—and now all I had wanted to say
seemed false, or if not false then irrelevant. Of course it wasn’t his fault, I
would say, of course he was blameless, entirely blameless; there wasn’t any
invitation he could have given, even if he had wanted it that wanting was
invalid, though that wasn’t what I meant, not invalid but a wanting that gave
no permission, there wasn’t any permission he could give. But none of this
was right, I struck the phrases even as they formed, not just because they
were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real
fear, which was true, I thought, that we can never be sure of what we want, I
mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves. Everything
in us has been put there by others, I thought, our very selves are artifacts,
unoriginal, a consequence of actions malevolent or benign; and not just of
actions but accidents, casual and without intention, free of any design, and
even as I thought this it seemed both true to me and false.

Just past the grocery there was a wide trench where they were extending
the metro across Mladost, tearing open whole segments of pavement and
earth a few hundred meters at a time, and along the length of it was a simple
chain fence, draped in green plastic mesh, the metal poles anchored in
plastic buckets filled with concrete. It was meant as a deterrent but really it
would have been easy to get through, the blocks weren’t heavy, with a little
effort you could shift them. Work had been stopped for days, it was too
dangerous in the wind, and when we came to the fence we saw that one of
the poles had tipped over; the wind had caught the green mesh so that now it
hung suspended over the drop, held in place by its neighbors, which for the
moment were still upright. Jesus, I heard R. say, or thought I heard it, and we
kept our distance as we walked to a segment of unbroken ground where we
could cross. And then we were on my street and at my building and the door
slammed shut behind us. R. started up the stairs, not waiting for the elevator,
as we usually did; I only lived on the third floor, but we had made a kind
of ritual of it, as soon as the doors closed we kissed and groped each other,
half silly and half sincere, pulling apart at the last moment before the doors
opened again. But today R. took the stairs, and I followed him, letting him
climb ahead of me. He hadn’t pressed the switch to set the lights running on
their timer and so neither did I, the hallways were dark but there was a dull
light from the window at each floor, neon signs and lights from neighboring
buildings filtered through the unwashed glass. I could hear noises from the
apartments we passed, televisions and voices that mixed with the sound of
the wind, and from one there was a quick burst of laughter, a man’s voice,
joining in the laughter from the show he was watching, and again I wished
myself in that place of laughter and not here, in whatever place this was. R.
reached my floor and waited for me at the end of the hallway, where it was
truly dark, there wasn’t any window to let in light from the street. He slid
past me when I opened the door and headed to the bedroom while I locked
it again, resting my hand for a moment on the knob. I didn’t feel any of my
usual eagerness, the eagerness he usually matched, though it wasn’t eagerness
I had sensed from him on our silent walk or in the haste he had shown just
now. I wasn’t sure what it was, as I wasn’t sure what I should feel in response,
and I hung back a moment as I heard the familiar sounds of him undressing,
fabric pulled off, the heavy buckle of his belt striking the floor, and then the
mattress sighing with his weight.

I pulled off my own clothes at the door, I left them and walked to the
bedroom naked. He was on his back, one of his arms across his face, as if to
block the light from his eyes, though there wasn’t any light, or hardly any. The
curtains were drawn across the windows, not the heavy drapes but the gauze
that obscured the interior from view, my building was surrounded by others,
someone could always be watching. I lay down next to him. He was beautiful
in the dark, his form a deeper shadow beside me, his olive skin and the dense
compactness of him, he was the most beautiful, I thought, as I had thought
before. I didn’t touch him, we lay silent for a moment until finally I spoke,
whispering Skupi , are you all right, talk to me, say something; and though
he didn’t say anything he did make a noise, a small noise of desire or grief, I
couldn’t tell which, and then he reached over and pulled me to him, my face
first and then as we kissed the rest of me, his hands urged me to move until
I was on top of him. It felt like passion, his mouth and his hands on me, it
felt like the hunger I was still amazed I could arouse in him. He pressed his
pelvis into me, making me feel that he was hard, as I was, I responded to him
even in the atmosphere left behind by his story, its dull balefulness like the
residual light in which I could see him as I lifted myself up, his eyes squeezed
shut and on his face an expression I couldn’t read, and then I pressed down
and his lips parted and he made a sound that was unmistakably of pleasure,
I thought. He pulled my face to his again, he slid his tongue into my mouth
and drew out my own, which he caught with his lips and teeth, biting it
almost to the point of pain. All the while he was making a sound I had never
heard from him before, a series of short moans, almost pants, and as we
kissed and pressed against each other he lifted his knees up on either side of
me, as if to wrap them around me, as if to embrace me with all four of his
limbs, though that’s not what he did; instead he shifted his hips up in a way
that opened him to me, or signaled an intention to open. For a moment I
was confused, it was a reversal of our roles, I had never fucked him before,
but when I whispered Are you sure the strange sounds he made intensified,
in frequency and volume both. I lifted myself off him and reached to the side
table to take a condom from the drawer, but as I tore the little package with
my teeth I heard R. say No, and when I said What, taken aback, he said it
again, more clearly, No, and though I hesitated I set it aside. I don’t know
if it was really a judgment I made in the moment I took before I went on,
it was more like a minor pressure overcome. Since we had met he had been
my only partner, he was the only partner I wanted, but it was a risk, I knew,
neither of us could be sure the other was safe, and maybe the risk was part
of my excitement, of course it was. Though it wasn’t my usual role or a role
I usually enjoyed I was eager for it, more than eager, I was surprised by what
I felt as I slicked myself with lubricant from the same drawer, hissing a little
at the cold of it; and then I applied it to R., between the legs he had raised.
I would take my time, I would be gentle, otherwise it would be difficult for
him, I thought, I mean more difficult. But he didn’t want me to take my time,
Go on, he said, I’m ready, drawing his legs up further to make room for me.
But he wasn’t ready, when I entered him he made a sound that wasn’t in any
way of pleasure. I stopped but only for a moment, since he said again Go, at
least that’s what I thought he said, go, and I pressed further into him, drawn
forward by what he had said and by my own pleasure, which was exquisite;
I had never fucked anyone bare before, there was a heat and silkenness in it
I had never felt. R. had covered his face with his arm again, I couldn’t read
his expression as I began to move, and really I was marveling so much at my
own feeling that for a moment I neglected his. Anyway he was hiding it, that
was why he had covered his face, to hide from me what he felt. I lowered my
own face to the arm beneath which he hid, to the pit of his arm; I loved the
smell of him, and tonight beside the familiar scent there was something else,
his endurance, maybe, his response to pain, since pain was what his noises
meant, or some of his noises. When I pressed into him there was a grunt of
pain and when I drew out a little sound of need, an invitation or demand
that I return, so that if it was pain it was pleasure too, or anyway satisfaction.
I liked that I could make him feel this, I found myself seeking new angles
to make him feel more, need and satisfaction and pain, it was like a new
intimacy, though maybe there was something cruel in it as well, some cruelty
in myself I sensed the shape of, a shape I had sensed before but never before
with R. I would give him what he wanted, I thought, though whether I was
giving something or taking it away I wasn’t sure.

There was a sudden noise then, a dull crack that startled me, that startled
R. too; both of us tensed for a moment and then the room was filled with
wind, with the noise of it and its force, it made the curtains billow, I felt
it cold along my back. The window beside the bed had come open; there
was a way to turn the handle so that it tilted in a few inches at the top, it
must have come unlatched. The wind made a kind of accompaniment as I
began to move again, a rhythm against which I moved, and as I continued
fucking R. I thought of the distance from which it had come, though maybe
it doesn’t make sense to think of it as having any origin at all, maybe it was
pure circulation, picking things up and setting them down again willy-nilly,
not just broken things but also things that seem whole, the sands of Africa
or Greece; it was moving the very lands, I thought, however slowly, nothing
was solid, nothing would stay put, and I thought this even as I held on more
tightly to R. and drove into him more fiercely, drawing from him those noises
of pain and of need, noises maybe of pleasure too. I wanted to root into him,
even as the wind said all rootedness was a sham, there were only passing
arrangements, makeshift shelters and poor harbors, I love you, I thought
suddenly in that rush that makes so much seem possible, I love you, anything
I am you have use for is yours.