Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is taking the taking the literary world by storm. With lyric intensity and startling eroticism, Greenwell has created an indelible story that explores the perilousness of desire, troubles the boundaries between shame and longing, and considers the ways that, as Dwight Garner writes in his rave review in The New York Times, “expressions of love are nearly always, in part, performance.”
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.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.
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