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'Beneath the National Palace of Culture': Fiction by Garth Greenwell

One of the hardest stories to write is a love story. It's difficult to render chemistry in writing, and it's particularly difficult to capture one-way obsessions, or unrequited love. This story does.


Illustrations by Esther Watson

This short story appears in the September Issue of VICE Magazine

One of the hardest stories to write—I think, and other writers I know have agreed—is a love story. It's difficult to render chemistry in writing, and it's particularly difficult to capture one-way obsessions (unrequited love). Thomas Mann nailed it in Death in Venice, Proust in "Swann in Love," and Mary Gaitskill in "The Dentist," but no other examples come to my mind. What marks a good story of one-sided love is the sweetness, the near-gooey awe, of the lover who is never satisfied. Also, of course, the way the world seems to bend to the obsession.

Garth Greenwell's first novel, What Belongs to You, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January. Set in Bulgaria, it is the story of a young English teacher's one-way love affair with a Bulgarian prostitute whom he meets in a public bathroom. What distinguishes the story—in addition to Greenwell's ability to capture passion and obsession—are the unexpected ways it develops. Although almost the entire affair is in the narrator's mind—he and Mitko spend two nights together, the rest of their encounters only lasting an hour or two at a time—we feel the force of it, and the size, and the way the narrator's passion gives an epic scope to the years that are defined by it. I don't want to give the story away, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave that vague. The final things I'll single out for praise are Greenwell's fearlessly, frankly poetic lines and his humor. Shortly after Greenwell's narrator brings Mitko home for the first time, Mitko sees his computer. He is fascinated. He cleans it, and at the first opportunity, he logs on and starts Skyping. He Skypes for hours as the English teacher watches, just out of the frame.

Greenwell writes, "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 30s or 40s. From stray words I caught, it became clear that they were discussing scenarios and prices, that Mitko was arranging his week."

I don't usually like to say these things, but Garth Greenwell is a remarkable new talent.

—Amie Barrodale, fiction editor

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 50 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 that lined 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 are 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 some 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.

I could smell the alcohol that emanated not so much from his breath as from his clothes and hair

There was no acknowledgment, throughout our halting conversation, 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 my 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 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 confidence 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 glace 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 down 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 out Chakai 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 chatrooms I used. Mitko didn't say anything in reply, 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.

I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another

When he returned I asked his price for the act I wanted, which was ten leva until I unfolded my wallet and found only 20-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 23) 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 20-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 sink water 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.