What Belongs to You

Garth Greenwell

December 20, 2016 
The following is from Garth Greenwell’s novel, What Belongs to You. Greenwell is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His novella Mitko won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and a Lambda Literary Award.

I expected Mitko to load his tray with far more than he could eat, as he usually did when I bought him food, but he only ordered a sandwich, fries, and at my insistence a milkshake, which he had never had before, he said, it had never occurred to him to try one. Mitko grabbed the milkshake as soon as the server set it down and put the straw to his lips, and it was a joy to see his eyes widen with pleasure when he tasted it. We walked with his tray to the most secluded corner, as far as we could get from the other diners, a few couples, one large group of friends. To the right of our table there was a closed glass door leading to a room for children’s parties. The room was dark now, and the door was locked, as Mitko found when he tried to turn the knob; but we could make out bits of the brightly colored interior, the plastic cubes for climbing, plush seats in the shapes of cartoon characters. It disquieted me somehow; it was a whole world molded for a kind of carelessness I doubted had anything to do with childhood, a carelessness I couldn’t remember ever feeling. Mitko sat and tore into his food, not pausing until almost all of it was gone. Then he looked up, almost embarrassed, as if for a moment he had forgotten I was there. Kak si, he said, smiling a little, and I said I was fine, a little tired maybe, but all right. It’s late, he said apologetically, I know you go to sleep early, I wouldn’t have rung the bell except I saw your light. This was untrue, of course, as we both knew, and maybe I spoke a little brusquely when I said Why did you come to see me, do you need something, but he brushed this aside, asking me instead if I had been to the clinic yet, if I had been tested. Yes, I said, I have to go again for a second test tomorrow, but the first was positive, I know I have it. Mitko looked at me silently, and then Oh, he said, I’m sorry, and it sounded genuine, more so as he said it again, suzhalyavam, I’m sorry. But I dismissed this, waving my hand a little in the air. I have it from you, I said, probably my friend has it from me, and you got it from someone, too; it’s an infection, I said, there’s no guilt, you don’t need to be sorry. Mitko looked surprised at this, that I had passed up an advantage, but he nodded in acknowledgment nonetheless. And you, I said, are you better, have the pills helped, but he jerked his head, the single vertical motion that means no here, like a door slamming shut. No, they haven’t helped, and gesturing to his crotch, I still have the same problem, he said, using the word he had used before, as if for a leaking faucet. I went to the clinic again, he said, I have to get the injections, the pills aren’t strong enough. It’s dangerous for me, he went on, the medicine is very strong, and I already have problems with my liver, I told you that. I nodded, remembering what he had said about his weeks in the hospital in Varna, which he had spoken of with more horror than of prison. So it’s dangerous, he went on, but I have to do it, to get rid of this other thing. Suzhalyavam, I said, repeating his word, I’m sorry. And it’s expensive, he went on, looking up at me to make the most of my sympathy, the shots cost much more than the pills, one hundred leva, he said, and then quickly added, but that’s for all three shots, after that I’m done. He hadn’t asked me for anything, but of course the request was there, it seemed cruel to make him say it. Dobre, I said, okay, so I’ll help you, you don’t need to worry. Some tension I hadn’t quite registered in him released as he smiled, and I realized that he had been worried, unsure whether my feeling for him would stretch so far. Thank you, he said, and then, you are a true friend, istinski priyatel, and I was disconcerted by the pleasure I took in his saying it.

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Mitko turned his attention back to the food on his tray, what was left of it, determined not to let anything go to waste. Wanting to get away from him for a moment, I pushed my chair back and stood, saying I would be right back. The bathroom was near the table we had chosen, just across from the locked playroom that seemed to me so oddly baleful. It was small, with a single stall and urinal and a sink mounted against the wall. I stepped up to the urinal, fishing myself out for form’s sake but feeling no urgency to piss; I closed my eyes instead and breathed deeply, grateful to be free from Mitko and what he had made me feel, that pleasure that was too sharp. I would wonder, later, whether that feeling itself was an invitation for what happened next, whether I allowed Mitko to see it; but I don’t think so, I think I was surprised when I heard or felt the door open, felt more than heard, I think, the tiny shift in pressure, the resistance of the air collapsing like my own resistance, which was swept aside when I felt the sudden warmth of Mitko behind me. I had known it was he when the door opened, it never occurred to me it could be anyone else, as it never occurred to me to tell him to stop, or occurred with so little force it was lost in the sweep of my excitement. There wasn’t a lock on the door, we could have been interrupted, and maybe the risk heightened my pleasure as Mitko pressed his whole length against me, placing his feet beside mine and leaning his torso into my spine, his breath hot on my neck. This was reality, I felt with a strange relief, this was where I belonged, and I thought of R., though it shames me to recall it, as though our life together, open and sunlit and lasting, were entirely without substance; I felt it disappear, simply disappear, like a flammable shadow, and part of me was glad to feel it go. Mitko’s mouth pressed at my neck and his hands reached beneath my shirt, touching me as he knew I liked to be touched, remembering exactly though so much time had passed. He pressed into me harder, forcing me forward, and I braced myself with one hand against the tile while I felt him grind against me; he wanted me to know that he was hard, that he wanted it too, that he was ready to do again what we had done so often. With my other hand I jerked myself off, I had gotten hard at his first touch, at the first intimation of that touch, and I was swept forward in a single motion, quick and reckless, swept forward by Mitko, the weight of him against me and his hands, and then suddenly his teeth at my neck, until I came with a pleasure I hadn’t known in months, that maybe I had never known with R. For a moment, as I let my head fall until my forehead lay next to my arm, before I could feel anything else I was grateful to Mitko. He stayed with me a little longer, wrapping his arms around me more tightly, as if he were holding me in place; and then there was a last pressure of his lips on my neck and he was gone.

I left my head resting on the tile, taking deep breaths, feeling my organism settle with a sensation like the clicking of metal as it cools. Without opening my eyes, I pulled on the lever to flush the urinal, then again, and then a third time. I was used to feeling regret in such moments, of course, sometimes I thought it was part of my pleasure, like a bitter taste making a flavor more rich; but I felt something stronger now, I was sick, I was infectious, and children came here, I thought, remembering that locked room as I flushed the urinal again and again. Then I stepped into the stall and unwound a mass of toilet paper, which I wet at the sink and used to wipe down the lever I had just touched, as well as the wall where I had braced myself, though there could be no danger there; and then I began wiping down the porcelain itself, inside and out. I knew the whole performance was excessive, I was wiping surfaces unlikely ever to be touched, but I kept at it as the paper dissolved in my hand. Finally I carried the wet mass to the toilet, and then I stood for some time at the sink, washing my hands. Only then did I let myself think of R., as I looked at myself in the mirror, my face still flushed. He loves you, I said, whispering the words out loud. And then I said it again.

I saw that Mitko had cleared the table when I stepped out of the bathroom. Only the paper cup of the milkshake was left, and he leaned over it with his elbows planted on the table, looking at me with his head quizzically cocked. He looked like a child, I thought, as I had so often before. He watched me with a kind of guarded expectancy, as if he knew he hadn’t acted strictly as he should, but thought he had been so charming he could still expect a reward. When he asked me if everything was all right, I said Yes yes, everything was fine. Malko sme ludichki, he said then, his face breaking into its smile, a real smile, full voltage: we’re a little crazy; and I had to agree that this was so, smiling at him weakly in response. But my smile faded quickly, and without sitting down I said that we should go. Yes, Mitko replied, your friend is waiting, and before I remembered my earlier excuse I thought of R. He stood up, then took his cup and sucked loudly at the straw one last time, gathering all the sweetness he could. The cold was brutal after the warmth of the restaurant, but I paused to give Mitko the money he had asked for, taking the five new bills from my wallet and folding them once as I passed them to him. Thank you, he said, closing the money in his fist and bringing it to his heart, thank you a lot, naistina, I mean it. It’s nothing, I said, you need it; and then quickly I asked him how he wanted to get home, whether by metro or by bus. But it was late now, and a Sunday, and neither of us was sure how late the metro would run. There was a bus stop across the boulevard that would get him downtown, and we made our way there together, the slush of the day’s traffic already frozen in the quiet street. Mitko walked confidently in his new shoes, a few steps ahead of me, no longer quite so attentive, I couldn’t help thinking, now that he had what he had come for; and he looked around restlessly, as if he were frustrated by the empty street. There was only one other person waiting at the flimsy structure of plastic and corrugated tin, a thirty-something man in a heavy coat, huddling away from the wind and curled around the cigarette in his hand. He glanced at us and then quickly looked away, but Mitko spoke to him without hesitation, calling him bratle, brother, asking first for a cigarette and then, when this was handed over, for a light. Dobre, I said after this transaction, all right, I’ll leave you here, I should get back, and Mitko stuck the cigarette in his mouth, holding his hand out to me for a brief farewell. Then he stepped out from under the shelter, and, though it meant exposing himself to the wind, turned his face in the direction from which the bus would come.


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From WHAT BELONGS TO YOU.  Used with permission of Picador. Copyright © 2016 by Garth Greenwell.

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