The Tale of a Chinese Finger-Trap

Zak Salih


It starts as whimsy. You’re bored and it’s late on a Thursday and you had one too many beers with your new coworkers and you can’t sleep like you usually do after beers. So you go online. Maggie says you’re too good for apps like that and she’s always been right about men in the past but here you are, creating a profile. FINN. 5’8” (but you’re really 5’6”). 175 pounds (but you’re really 190). Just moved here. Friends and fun only. You pull your hair up into a thick red rooster crest, hold the phone above your head, make a moue of your mouth, and take several photos. In the bathroom, careful not to wake your roommate across the hall, you take several more while contorting your body in the shower, on the toilet. You check to make sure the angles are slimming, the light from the weak wall sconce not too garish (because no one loves a corpse). You play with filters and crop judiciously. Back in bed, you upload yourself into a digital universe filled with neat squares of face and flesh. There you are: sandwiched between RICK79 and PAPA_BEAR. Someone messages you. Cute face. Private pics? You share them. No thanks. More messages. Hey. Hi. Welcome to D.C. Horny? You say hi back to the men you think are handsome, the men who look like they have some kindness behind their sultry eyes. Your conversations quickly fade, and you’re not sure if it’s because you’re tired or bored. Maybe they’re not even real people. Maybe they’re just chat bots, programmed to minister to the lonely and unloved while avoiding the prospect of actually meeting up. You’re trying to coax more conversation out of a graphic designer when someone writes: Sure you’re just 175? The whimsy fades. You leave your phone charging on the kitchen counter and sleep apart from each other like quarreling lovers.

A late afternoon rain shower sweeps through downtown’s ordered streets, keeping you inside after work, where you twist water out of your dress shirt over the kitchen sink. You ruminate over whether or not your nipples were showing on the bus ride home. Your roommate is in Michigan on business for the rest of the week, so you indulge in the Indian carryout whose stench and spice he loathes, eating on the sofa (his sofa, where you’re not supposed to eat) while watching television. Next to you, on its own purple cushion, is your phone. The app is on, interrupting your reality show with occasional chimes; you sit idly tonight, measuring your self-worth by the frequency with which you hear them. What does one message per minute say about you? What does no message for the last 17 minutes say about you? On the television, a panel of drag queens sits in judgment of a contestant. The boy—JEREMY, 26, BROOKLYN, the chyron reads—trembles as he awaits his fate. A flick of gold and silver bracelets cleaves him away from the rest of the contestants. You finish your dinner while watching his postshow interviews. The boy’s in tears. He can hardly articulate his disappointment, his shame.

The next afternoon, during a quarterly company meeting, last night’s carryout hits you in a way it never has before. You slip out to the bathroom between slides of growth charts and quarterly earnings. You take out your phone and check your mail and social media feeds. Your stomach shudders and you fear you’ll never get up off the toilet, that your boss and coworkers will think you’ve fled after only three weeks on the job. He couldn’t take it, they’ll say. Guess the big city was too much for him. You check your app. One message. A long one. Finn, hi! I’m Adam. I think I actually live in your building. The Whitman? Passed by you in the lobby a couple times. Hope you’re enjoying it in D.C. so far. Hard to make friends here, I imagine. You should come hang out with us sometime. My boyfriend and I. Zeke. Gin and tonics on the balcony maybe? Before it gets too swampy? You’ll learn to hate the summers here. Later!

That night, he spots you online and invites you three floors upstairs, sends you a picture of a gin and tonic speared with rosemary. This has your name on it. And you have no choice, really. The messages tonight have been sparse and, as usual, worthless. There’s only so much of the bickering housewives on your laptop you can take. Before you head upstairs, you change shirts several times. First, you try a cotton button-up. Then a linen one. Then a T-shirt with the faded logo of a soda company on it. You check your hair, your face in the mirror. You stand in profile, then in three-quarters profile, thinking of the disconnect between your photos and your body (and of the private photos you’ve yet to send). The front door of apartment 901 is a blank canvas on which you paint the personalities of the two men you’ve never met before, just as surely as they stand on the other side of the door painting you. Then it opens, and your imagination, your hopes are forced into the handsome man standing before you, smiling through a goatee, holding out a gin and tonic as if he’d been waiting there the whole time, perhaps even his whole life, for you to arrive. Adam’s thick like you, and so you immediately relax, shake his hand, let him guide you with a hot palm on the small of your back into the living room. Nice place, you say (because it’s all you can think to say). Along the walls are framed photographs of male sculptures: fragments of weatherworn torsos and thighs and veiny hands. Adam sees you looking, explains his amateur photography, his interest in the sculpted male form. All these men, he says, leading you through the small dining room and out onto the balcony, are from buildings and monuments around the city. If you see one you like, it’s for sale. He looks down at the drink you’ve already almost drained and smiles. Outside, on a far corner of the outdoor sofa, is Zeke. Bald, reedy, pale—anything but sculpted. He sits with his legs coiled under his body like the tail of a snake, looking at you as if you’ve already done something terrible, committed some shameful faux pas. He doesn’t get up when you hold your hand out in greeting. Adam does most of the talking, leaving you ample room to talk about yourself. You feel Adam’s eyes (and, off in his corner, Zeke’s) running along your body. At first, you feel self-conscious about the way you’re sitting on the lumpy sofa cushion but, as you notice their eyes don’t look away, you start to feel more relaxed. Empowered. You sit up straighter, lean forward, make small gestures with your hands as you talk about your new job, your childhood in western Virginia. When Zeke leaves to make more drinks, Adam rests his hand on your knee. His breath smells like a Christmas tree. His eyes, you think, are so kind. Zeke comes back out, pauses by the door. You wait for Adam to move away but he doesn’t. Zeke sets the tray of fresh drinks down on the side table and sits next to you. He looks not at you but at Adam. He sighs. So, he says. We’re actually going to do this. And there you are, in their bedroom. White walls, white dressers, white lampshades, the white down comforter on which you’re eased back and undressed. You watch Adam and Zeke undress one another, the latter breaking off the unbuttoning and unzipping with forceful kisses that look more pleading than passionate. They ease down to their knees and nuzzle their faces in your crotch and you have to try not to laugh because you’re reminded of kneeling for communion at your family church. Then Adam’s heavy dark thighs are in front of you and he’s inside your mouth. Behind you, Zeke tests your ass as if it were the flank of a steer. You can’t look up from where you are, face full of warm musk, but you know they’re looking at one another. Then you feel the pressure that turns into pain and then, behind that, pleasure as Zeke enters you. Adam pulls you forward, then Zeke pulls you backward. The rhythm moves from slow and exploratory to fast and insistent. At one point, you’re turned over onto your back (and again, you have to try not to laugh, thinking now of a rotisserie chicken rotating in its own juices) and you can see both their faces now as they fuck you—and, you suspect, in fucking you, fucking one another. You close your eyes and enjoy the sensation of being full. You feel complete, even if only for a short time. Zeke asks, Is this what you wanted? You like this? Eyes closed, mouth full, you mutter your agreement. Adam says, Yes, I told you this would be fun, and you realize it’s not you Zeke was talking to. You’re just there, on the bed, in the middle, expanding and contracting like a bellows, waiting for the inevitable withdrawal, the inevitable patter on your chin and chest and crotch, the inevitable feeling—despite, and perhaps braided with, the rush of pleasure you haven’t felt in months—of being used.

But not discarded. Three days later, Adam invites you up again and after another round of drinks and a look from Zeke that sets you on edge, that makes you think it was a mistake to come back, you’re on the bed again. And you love it. For the first time since you moved to this city, you feel in control—a control heightened, perversely, by the control you clearly lack, caught between the couple’s angry thrusts. You forget about the old lover you left behind, about the lump that was just found under your sister’s right breast. Afterward, Zeke stalks off to the shower and Adam steers you through a postcoital calm among his photographs. Curled toes from a statue of St. Jerome on Sheridan Circle. The gold bicep of an equestrian statue on the Memorial Bridge (It’s called Sacrifice, Adam says). Then Zeke comes out of the shower and you feel as if the temperature in the room has dropped several degrees. He’s taking a towel to his head, violently. He looks from you to Adam to you. He scoffs and says, You’re still here.

Another work week. Your mother calls on Monday to talk about your sister’s diagnosis and you tell her you’ve made some new friends. Tuesday evening, you see Zeke in the lobby while you get your mail from the front desk—he acknowledges your friendly greeting with pressed lips and raised eyebrows, a curt nod—and you linger, waiting to see if Adam’s following behind. (He isn’t.) The humidity picks up on Wednesday and you come home late from work soppy with sweat to find your roommate at the kitchen table serving linguini to a woman, the second you’ve seen him with since you moved in. Thursday, you wait by your phone for a message from Adam and, when you hear nothing, slip outside onto the small balcony and strain to hear what sounds like angry voices dropping down from several floors up. It’s 8:45 on a rainy Friday night when Adam sends you a message. Hey handsome. We’re bored. Are you?

You’re lying on your back, penetrated from both ends, and you can’t believe they’re actually having an argument just inches above your belly. It’s taking you forever, Zeke says. I’m just enjoying this, Adam says. Stop straining so much, Adam, you’re going to give yourself an aneurysm. Fuck you, Zeke. Adam pries your mouth open wider with two thumbs, shoves himself farther down your throat. Zeke grabs you by the tops of your thighs and pulls himself deeper into you. Later, as you say goodbye to Adam by the front door (your throat and lower back deliciously sore), you hear a crash from the kitchen. Zeke says, And how many times do I need to tell you not to put my tomatoes in the goddamn fridge?

On the phone, your sister sounds tired but hopeful about her upcoming round of chemo. She wants to know when you’ll come see her. Then there’s a knock at the front door and you hear your roommate go to open it, introduce himself to a familiar voice. You tell your sister you’ll call her back and leap off the bed. In the hall, Adam holds a small package wrapped in what looks like paper grocery bags that he hands to you once you’re in the privacy of your bedroom. An apology, he says. For the other night. Open it. He sits on the bed and smiles as you attack the wrapping. Aren’t you going to see what it is, Adam asks, and you realize you’ve been looking at him the whole time instead of your gift. It’s one of his photographs, framed in simple black: a bearded giant being swallowed by sand, gleaming aluminum arms outstretched to the sky, mouth open. It’s called The Awakening, Adam says. It’s my favorite sculpture. He moves closer to you. You tell him it’s beautiful while you try to decipher whether the giant’s in the act of waking up or drowning. We fight a lot now, Adam says. As if you couldn’t tell. I don’t think he likes me much, you say. It’s not you, Adam says. He’s always been a little hysterical. But I love him. That sentence wounds you, and you tell Adam that maybe you should stop coming up. That would make me very sad, Adam says, and then he takes your face in his hands and puts his lips to yours. The bedroom door, you notice, is open and you get up to go close it but Adam follows you. No, he says. I should go. He’s upstairs waiting for me.

You’re in the laundry room waiting for the timer on the dryer to tick down to zero, thinking about where, exactly, you’ll hang Adam’s photograph. Above your bed? No, too obvious. Then you turn and see Zeke in the doorway. He doesn’t have a laundry basket. He watches you while you take your laundry out of the dryer. You don’t bother folding it like you normally would; you just want to leave. As you pass him on your way out, he takes your arm. We don’t need you anymore, he says. But thanks for coming by.

Hair sharp with chlorine from the community pool you’ve just joined, you come home to find your roommate gone and Adam sitting on the purple sofa, on his phone. It feels like a dream, and you can’t help but smile. Your roommate just left, Adam says. Invited me to sit and wait for you. I think he thinks we’re dating. You pour two glasses of inappropriately chilled red wine and listen, patiently, to his apology. Zeke never should have done that to you. He needs help. I wish he’d go back on his medication, but his therapist thinks he’s fine without it. And then I get yelled at for fucking tomatoes. You’ve been thinking about saying it and then, wine glass drained, you finally do: Maybe you’re not right for each other anymore. Adam sighs and leans back on the couch. It’s complicated, he says. We’ve been together forever. I thought opening things up for a while would help. Add some excitement. God, he’s impossible sometimes. It’s just sex. But I do love him. Adam stares at his hands. I do, he says. Now it’s your turn to stare at your hands. You feel used—and not in the way you want. Adam comes across the couch and tries to kiss you but you shy your head away, make up an excuse about your stomach.

Despite the messages, you don’t go up there for a while. You take the stairs instead of the elevator. You keep to a strict schedule: work, pool, home. Your roommate and his girlfriend invite you out for drinks, but you decline. In the evenings, you sit outside in an old plastic deck chair left behind by the previous resident, reading the news, texting your sister, tracking your ex’s new lover on social media. Occasionally, you hear their voices, snippets of alfresco arguments. You wonder what everyone else in the building thinks of this. One time, you hear a crash that sounds like an upended patio table. Another night, you hear scuffling and groaning and you think they’ve made up and now they’re fucking in the night air and you imagine Adam’s eyes and lips in a slack ecstasy and you feel a twist of envy. Then something drops through the air in front of you and you think, was that a frying pan?

Back on the app, you hope the sound of late-night queries will soothe you. Hi. Sup? You look for Adam’s profile, but it’s disappeared. Cute photo. Bottom here. Your mom calls, says your sister’s doing fine and wants to know if you’re still coming to visit. Horney? OMG, I’m new here too! You say you’ll look at flights in the morning. You say it’ll be good to come home for a few days. Hey. Hey. Hi.

A handwritten note you find in your mail slot the next afternoon reads: Told Zeke I’d get offline. Thinking of you anyway. You take a sheet of yellow legal paper out of your bag and write, Thanks. Maybe less fun and more friends, though. Let’s go to National Harbor and see that statue you like so much. You hand the note to the desk clerk, ask him to put it in the slot for 901. He takes the folded paper with a look that says he’s seen all this drama before. Later that night, your roommate knocks on your door and hands you an envelope. Someone slipped this under the door, he says. It’s for you. Inside is the torn lower half of your note. Come for dinner tomorrow. Just dinner. I think Zeke wants to apologize for his behavior. 8 pm. Your roommate watches you put the note into your pocket. He laughs and says, What is this, the sixth grade?

Apartment 901 smells of green chilies and crisping pork. Tacos, Adam says as he takes the flowers, the bottle of chilled white from your hands. Zeke pokes his head around the corner and you brace for his glare but instead he smiles and says hello, offers you a frozen margarita he’s already poured in anticipation of your arrival. You’re as stunned by this gesture of friendship as you are by the subsequent freeze that grips your forehead as you drink too fast. Watching Zeke cook and Adam set the table (neither of them want your help), you feel as if you’re watching them from a remove, behind a screen, perhaps. You’re seeing them, paradoxically, at their most intimate. Handing over bowls of refried beans and shredded cheeses. Pulling a napkin of warm tortillas from the microwave. Setting a coaster under the slim pitcher of water. Watching this display of gentle domesticity, you’re not sure which is more erotic: the bedroom or the kitchen. Then you take your seat—next to Adam, across from Zeke—and start to eat. Adam suggests trying the pork with pickled onions and you dutifully follow his orders. Zeke doesn’t say much, but you’re grateful that he’s not glaring or frowning, only staring off over your shoulder, perhaps at the framed photographs of the massive marble buttocks behind you. The discussion between you and Adam turns to Mexican street tacos and he mentions a new taqueria that just opened on the top floor of what used to be a homeless shelter. Never been, you say. Oh you have to go, Adam says. I’ll take you. I’ll need you to keep an eye on me while Zeke’s gone. You ask where he’s going. Slowly, between sips of melted margarita, Zeke tells you he’s been feeling off the past few weeks. He mentions a farm in western Pennsylvania with counseling sessions and horse therapy. You break the awkward silence with, That’s great. It’s great you’re taking care of yourself. Thanks, Zeke says. I’m sure you two will have lots of fun while I’m gone. Zeke, Adam says. Zeke gets up and starts collecting plates and bowls, and you get up to help. Sit, Zeke says. Please. He goes into the kitchen and then you feel a warm grip on your thigh. You put a hand over Adam’s, prepared to pry it off, but you just let it rest there. You shake your head at Adam, but you also can’t restrain a small smile, the kind you’d give to a misbehaving child you couldn’t help but find adorable in its recklessness. Two weeks, Adam mouths. Just you and me. Then Zeke’s back with small bowls of chocolate ice cream and shot glasses of thick port. Try it on the ice cream, Zeke tells you. You reach into the center of the table for a fresh napkin and knock the shot glass into your lap. Shit, you say. Damn. Adam pulls his hand up from under the table, wipes port off the back of his hand. Is that the sloppy outline of a palm on your shorts? Clutching the stained fabric in your hand, you excuse yourself for the bathroom. Zeke’s eyes follow you out of the room. In the bathroom, you turn the tap on full blast and wet the stain until your entire left thigh is dark with water. Then you sit on the lid of the toilet, wondering whether you should go downstairs and change or just go home for the night. You’re also thinking, shamefully, of the next two weeks, of Adam touching you while Zeke touches horses, and then you remember: You won’t be here next week. You’re leaving in two days to visit your sister and your mother. Perhaps you could cut your trip short, leave a little later, but you already imagine your mother throwing your heartlessness in your face. She’s sick, Finn, and you’re swooning over a silly boy you can’t have. You turn off the faucet, dry your hands, open the door. Adam’s standing there with port running down his shirt and you’re about to say, No way, you too? when you see his hands at his throat. Then his hands are on your shoulders and it’s his blood on your chest and stomach. You take his hands and press them back against his throat and help him into the bedroom because it’s the only thing you can think to do. You scream for Zeke. You take off your T-shirt, twist it into a fat braid, wrap it around Adam’s neck. You’re unsure of how tight to cinch it because you don’t want to strangle him. But the blood. There’s too much. It’s everywhere. You yell again for Zeke and then he’s there, behind you, and he’s bleeding too and your heart chokes when you see what’s in his hand and you think of the giant aluminum face you foolishly hanged over your bed—not yawning but screaming—and you turn from Adam who’s collapsed back onto the reddening duvet cover to Zeke who’s crying and walking toward you with the knife and you can see a small square of bloodied onion on the side of the blade and you are numb and you are scared and you are trapped.