Issue 209, Summer 2014
It would have made me laugh in English, I think, the word he used for himself and that he insisted I use for him—not that he had had to insist, of course, I would call him whatever he wanted. But in his language there was a resonance it would have lacked in my own, partaking both of the everyday (gospodine, my students say in greeting, mister or sir) and of the scented chant of the cathedral. He was naked when he opened the door, backlit in the entrance of his apartment, or naked except for a series of leather straps that crossed his chest, serving no particular function; and this too might have made me laugh, were there not something in his manner that forbade it. He didn’t greet me or invite me in, but turned his back without a word and walked to the center of what I took to be the apartment’s main room. I didn’t follow him, I waited at the edge of the light until he turned again and faced me, and then he did speak, telling me to undress in the hallway. Take off everything, he said, take off everything and then come in.
I was surprised by this, which was a risk for him as for me, for him more than for me, since he was surrounded by neighbors any of whom might open their doors. He lived on a middle floor of one of the huge Soviet-style apartment blocks that stand everywhere in Sofia like fortresses or keeps, ugly and imperious, though this is a false impression they give, they’re so poorly built as already to be crumbling away. I obeyed him, I took off my shoes and then my coat and began to undo the long line of buttons on my shirt, my hands fumbling in the dark and in my excitement, too. I pulled down my pants, awkward in my haste, wanting him and wanting also to end my exposure, though it was part of my excitement. It was for this excitement I had come, something to draw me out of the grief I still felt for R., who had left months before, long enough for grief to have passed but it hadn’t passed, and I found myself resorting again to habits I thought I had escaped, though that’s the wrong word for it, escaped, given the eagerness with which I returned to them.
I made a bundle of my clothes, balling my pants and shirt and underthings in my coat, and I held this in one hand and my shoes in the other and stood, still not entering, shivering both from cold and from that profounder exposure I felt. Ne ne, kuchko, he said, using for the first time the word that would be his only name for me. It’s our word bitch, an exact equivalent, but he spoke it almost tenderly, as if in fondness; no, he said, fold your clothes nicely before you come in, be a good girl. At this last something rose up in me, as at a step too far in humiliation. This is what most men would feel, I think, especially men like me, who are taught that it is the worst thing, to seem like a woman; when I was a boy my father responded to any sign of it with a viciousness out of all proportion, as though he might keep me from what I would become, a faggot, as he said, which remained his word for me when for all his efforts I found myself as I am. Something rose up in me at what he said, this man who still barred my way, and then it lay back down, and I folded my clothes neatly and stepped inside, closing the door behind me.
It was a comfortless room. There was an armoire of some sort, a table, a plush chair, all from an earlier time. These spaces are passed from generation to generation; people often spend their entire lives amid the same objects and their evidence of other lives, as almost never happens in my own country, or never anymore. I stood for a moment just in front of the door, and then the man told me to kneel. I could feel him looking at me in the clinical light, inspecting or evaluating me, and when he spoke it was as if with distaste. Mnogo si debel, he said, you’re very fat, and I looked down at myself, at my thighs and the flesh folded over them, the flesh I have hated my entire life, and though I remained silent, I thought, not so very fat. It was part of our contract, that he could say such things and I would endure them. I wasn’t as fat as he, who was larger in person than in the photos he had sent, as one comes to expect, larger and older, too; he was as old as my father, or almost, anyway nearer to him than to me. But he stood there as though free of both vanity and shame, with an indifference that seemed absolute and, in my experience of such things, unique. Even very beautiful men are eager to be admired, wherever you touch them they harden their muscles, turning their best angles to the light; but he seemed to feel no concern at all for my response to him, and it was now that I felt the first stirrings of unease.