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.

He neither spoke nor gestured, and the longer he appraised me, the more I worried that having come all this way I would be told to leave. It wasn’t the time and expense of the trip to the center I would resent, but the waste of the anticipation that had mounted in me over the several days I had chatted with him online, an anticipation that wasn’t exactly desire, as it wasn’t desire that I felt now, though I was hard, though I had been hard even as I climbed the stairs, even in the taxi that had brought me there. He was an unhandsome man, though in the way of some older men he seemed solid in his corpulence, thick through the chest and arms. His face was blunt featured, generically Balkan; it was clear that he had never been attractive, or rather his primary attraction had always been the bearing he had either been gifted with or cultivated, the pose of uncaring that seemed to draw all value into itself, that seemed entirely self-sufficient. He would never be called a faggot, I thought, whatever the nature of his desires. 

Then, to my relief, ela tuka he said, come here, having decided to keep me, at least for a while. When I began to rise he snapped dolu, stay down, and I moved across the space on all fours, the carpeting featureless and gray and coarse. When I reached him he took my hair in his hand and lifted me up onto my knees, not roughly, perhaps merely as a means of communication more efficient than speech. I had told him I wasn’t Bulgarian in one of our online chats, warning him that when we met there might be things I wouldn’t understand, but he had asked none of the usual questions, seeming not to care why I had come to his country, where so few come and fewer still stay long enough to learn the language, which is spoken nowhere else, which even here, as the country shrinks, is spoken by fewer people each day; it’s not difficult to imagine it disappearing altogether, the language and the country both. We’ll understand each other, he had said, don’t worry, and perhaps it was merely to ensure this understanding that he had taken me in hand, firmly but not painfully guiding me to my knees.

He let go of my hair once this was done, freeing his hand to move down the side of my face, almost stroking it before he cupped it in his palm. It was a gesture of tenderness, and his voice was tender too as he said kuchko, addressing me as if solicitously and tilting my head so that for a moment we gazed at each other face to face, and his fingers flexed against my cheek, almost in a caress. I leaned my face into him, resting it on his palm as he spoke again in that tone of tenderness or solicitude, tell me, kuchko, tell me what you want. And I did tell him, at first slowly and with the usual words, reciting the script that both does and does not express my desires; and then I spoke more quickly and more searchingly, drawn forward by the tone of his voice, what seemed like tenderness although it was not tenderness, until I found myself suddenly in some recess or depth where I had never been. Because I spoke it poorly, there were things I could say in his language without self-consciousness or shame, as if there were something in me unreachable in my own language, something I could reach only with that blunter instrument by which I too was made a blunter instrument, so that I found myself at last at the end of my strange litany saying again and again I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing. Good, the man said, good, speaking with the same tenderness and smiling a little as he cupped my face in his palm and bent forward, bringing his own face to mine, as if to kiss me, I thought, which surprised me, though I would have welcomed it. Good, he said a third time, his hand letting go of my cheek and taking hold again of my hair, tightening and forcing my neck further back, and then suddenly and with great force he spat into my face. 

He pulled me forward then, still holding my hair, and pressed my face hard into his crotch, hard enough that it must have been as uncomfortable for him as for me, so that any pleasure we took would be an accident, as it were, or a consequence of some other aim. This is not to say that I didn’t feel pleasure; I had never stopped being hard, and when he said to me breathe me in, smell me, I did so eagerly, taking great gasps. I had felt it too in his earlier act, when he spat on me it was like a spark along the track of my spine, who knows why we take pleasure in such things, perhaps it’s best not to look into them too closely. He too was feeling it, I could feel his cock against my cheek thicken, then lengthen and lift; there had been no change in it during my long recitation, that catalog of desires I had named, but now at our first real touch he grew hard. He kept one hand at the back of my head, gripping my hair and holding me in place, though there was no need, as surely he knew; but with the other he reached for something, as I could tell from the shifts in his balance and weight, and when finally he pulled me back from him, he slipped it quickly over my head. It was a chain, I realized as I felt it cold against my neck, or rather a leash of the kind one uses with difficult dogs, and immediately he pulled it tight, letting me feel the pinch of it. This didn’t excite me, it was part of the pageantry to which I had always been indifferent, but I didn’t object; I assented, though he hadn’t sought my permission or consent. And then he took another chain, this one shorter and finer, with little toothed clamps at each end, which (using both his hands, letting the leash fall free, since after all I was not an animal, I didn’t need to be bound) he attached to my chest. I sucked in my breath at this, the first real pain he had caused me, but it wasn’t a terrible pain, and not unexciting; a thrill ran through me at this too, and at its promise.

Dobre, he said when he had finished, good, though he was speaking of his own work now and not of me. He took up the chain again and pulled it tight, twisting his wrist to gather up the slack, which he wrapped around his curled fingers until they were nearly flush against my neck. He was putting me on a short leash, I thought, though I was thinking more of his cock, which I was eager for now, perhaps because of the pain at my chest, which was more than pain, which was excitement too, as was the tightness of the chain around my neck, in which I felt the strength of his arm keeping me from what I wanted. Whatever chemical change it is had taken hold and I was lit up with it, each cell bearing its burden of want, so that after all I did strain against the leash he had been right to make so short. It was a kind of disobedience but a kind that would please, and even as he tightened his grip on the chain I heard him laugh or almost laugh, a slow satisfied chuckle. It was a sound of approval and I glowed with it. She wants something, he said, still chuckling, and he lifted his foot to my crotch, feeling my hardness as I knelt before him, she likes it, and then he used his foot to pull my cock down, letting it go so that it snapped back up, making me flinch. Then his foot moved lower and he placed his toes beneath my balls, which he fondled roughly, flexing his ankle until there was not quite pain but an intimation of pain. He was dulling my pleasure, not removing it entirely but taking off its edge. 

But he didn’t take off its edge, not really, and when there was a slackening in the leash I lunged forward, like the dog he called me. There was nothing extraordinary about his cock, it was solid and sizeable and thick, but none of these to a remarkable degree, and he had shaved himself there as all men here do, which I hate, the childlike bareness of it is obscene, I can’t accustom myself to it. Still, I was eager, and as I took him in my mouth I felt the strange gratitude I nearly always feel in such moments, which was gratitude not so much to him as to whatever arrangement of things had ­allowed me what as a child I was sure I would forever be denied. It was large enough that I didn’t try to take all of it at once; eager as I was there are certain preparations required, the relaxation and lubrication of passages, a general warming up. But immediately his hand was on my head again, forcing me further, and when it was clear that the passage was blocked, he used both of his hands to hold me, at once pulling me to him and jerking his hips forward in short, savage thrusts, saying dai gurloto, give me your throat, an odd construction I had never heard before. This too was painful, and not only for me, it must have hurt him also, but I did give my throat, finding an angle that gave him access, and soon enough it was easier; I relaxed and there was a rush of saliva and he could move however he wanted, as he did for a while, perhaps there was pleasure for him after all. As there was for me, the intense pleasure I’ve never been able to account for, that can be accounted for in no way mechanically; the pleasure of service, I’ve sometimes thought, or more darkly the pleasure of being used, the strange exhilaration of being made an object that had been lacking in sex with R., though that had had its own pleasures, which I longed for but that had in no way compensated for the lack of this. I want to be nothing, I had said to him, and it was a way of being nothing, or next to nothing, a convenience, a tool. 

He stopped moving then, taking his hands from my head and even from the chain, which fell superfluous and cold down my back. Kuchkata, he said, not kuchko anymore, the vocative that had softened the word and made it tender to my ears; no longer addressing me but speaking of the object I had become, he said, let the bitch do it herself. I obeyed it, the order he had expressed not to me but to the air, I forced myself upon him with a violence greater than his own, wanting to please him, I suppose, but that isn’t true; I wanted to satisfy myself more than him, or rather to assuage that force or compulsion that drew me to him, that force that can make me such a stranger to myself, it is a failing to be so prone to it but I am prone to it. He let me do this for some time, setting my own pace, and then there came again the shift in his balance that was his reaching to the table beside him, choosing some new object. He struck me with this a moment later, not very hard but hard enough that I jerked, interrupting the rhythm I had set, so that he placed his hand on my head again, taking hold of me as if I might bolt. It was another prop of the sort I had always scorned, a cat-o’-nine-tails, a kind of short whip with several strips of leather hanging down; the one time it had been used on me before the man had been timid and I had felt nothing at all, except to despise him a little because he used it only for show. This was something else, I had been struck with force, and though I had jerked more from shock than from pain there was pain too, less in the actual blow than in the moment after, a sharp heat spreading along my back. 

He said a word I didn’t understand then, which from his tone I took as something like steady, the kind of mixed reassurance and admonishment one might give a startled horse, and for a moment his grip on my head softened, he flexed his fingers in something again almost like a caress. I was surprised at my response to this, which was outsize and overwhelming, gratitude at what seemed like kindness from this man who had been so stern; it was something I hadn’t felt before, or not for a very long time. I began moving again, having paused at the shock of the first blow, brought back by his ­caress or perhaps there had been a very slight pressure from his hand, I’m not sure. I took the whole length of him, and I felt his hand rise and fall again, this time more gently, and since I had warning it didn’t interrupt the motion I had fallen into, it became a part of that motion; we fell into a rhythm together, and as his strokes grew quicker and more intense so did my own. Soon enough I was in real pain, my back had grown tender, and I realized that I had begun making noises, little whimpers and cries, and they too became part of the rhythm we had fallen into, his arm rising and falling and my own movement forward and back, and with that movement the swinging of the smaller chain at my chest, the ache that had grown dull but that shifted as I swayed. Then he broke our rhythm, suddenly pulling me to him and thrusting his hips forward at the same time, his grip tight, and as he ground me against him he struck me several times quickly and very hard, so that for the first time I cried out with real urgency, an animal objection. But I couldn’t cry out, the passage was blocked, and with the effort I began to choke, the mechanism failed and involuntarily I struggled against him; I tried to wrench my head away, I even brought my hands to his thighs but he held me firm. He struck me five or six times in this way, or ­maybe seven or eight, they were indistinct as I struggled, moving incoher­ently, at once pushing myself back from him and flinching at the blows. Then he was still, and though he didn’t release me he drew back, letting me breathe and grow calm again. Dobra kuchka, he said, again not addressing me but praising me to the air, and his hands were gentle as he held me, not constraining but steadying, a comfort for which I felt again that strange, inappropriate gratitude.

I was cold as I knelt there, I had broken out in a sweat. The man too was breathing heavily, he had exerted himself also, the rest was as much for him as for me. He knew what he was doing, I thought with sudden admiration; he knew how far to push and when to ease off, and I was excited at the thought of being taken further by him, of entering territories I had only glimpsed or had intimations of. Then, still keeping one hand on my head, he reached down and very quickly removed first one and then the other clamp from my chest, at which there was a quick flare of pain, making me cry out again, and then a flood of extraordinary pleasure, not sexual pleasure exactly but something like euphoria, a lifting and lightness and unsteadiness, as with certain drugs. He returned his hand to my head and gripped me firmly again, still not moving, having grown very still; even his cock had softened just slightly, it was more giving in my mouth. And then he repeated the word I didn’t know but that I thought meant steady and suddenly my mouth was filled with warmth, bright and bitter, his urine, which I took as I had taken everything else, it was a kind of pride in me to take it. Kuchko, he said as I drank, speaking softly and soothingly, addressing me again, mnogo si dobra, you’re very good, and he said this a second time and a third before he was done.