When he speaks, the words fall from his mouth strung together with steel chain-links like the tether for a pitbull.
-You-look-really-good-tonight-, he says.
-Where-does-your-family-live-and-do-you-have-any-siblings-?, he spits into his hands. The bar is dark, but you can see the silhouette of his throat through the shadows. His Adam’s apple bobs as the words roll up. He coughs them into his palm.
He notices you staring. He smiles coyly and sips his drink to avoid eye contact. When he sighs, it is a warm whiskey kiss on the tip of your nose.
-Sorry-, he says.
Don’t be, you say.
-Thank-you-. The two words fall onto his lap. He scoops it into his hand with the others sentences which sit in his large fist like piles of bracelets. He holds them out, palms up, a bowl of him. The metal reflects a dull glint from the bar’s neon lights. Around you, men are chattering and ordering more beer. Through the speakers above, a voice is singing about falling in love on a Friday. It is a Tuesday night.
He is unlike the other men you’ve found online. The ones with beaming teeth whose profiles you had to skip because they stated, “No fats, no fems, no Asians.” And then there are those flakey boys from GrindR, those removed hookups off of Craigslist, those self-absorbed gym queens on Scruff.
You’ve had a string of bad luck lately. Last week you went out with a blogger who couldn’t stop boasting about himself between bites of pasta. Trust me, he said, I’m internet famous. Before him was a man who claimed you would love his lake house outside Yosemite, the rental he owns on Maui, and how he found himself in India this past summer, you really should go sometime. Everything these men said felt like moats they were building around themselves. Their words came out unchained and existing only as noise.
But this man is different. He is listening intently with his whole body; he even reflects your own questions back at you. He has hazel eyes and no wrinkles yet.
-I-went-to-school-out-east-, he says. -What-about-you-?
He shares so little about himself that you take to filling in the gaps with what you can observe—the tone of his voice, his body language. You understand who he is in generalized terms, a vague but welcomed relief: he is kind, he is patient, he likes to laugh, he doesn’t drive a car, he’s athletic, he doesn’t care about money.
-You-sang-in-your-high-school-choir-, he repeats after you.
When his hands are full, he loads the chains into the pockets of his coat. When those pockets fill, he piles them onto the bar.
He holds the sentence out to you. At the end of the chain is a small padlock, dangling like an opened charm. He uses it to close the loop around your wrist when you hold out your hand.
He plucks up -I-don’t-really-go-out-anymore- and -Should-I-get-us-another-round-? from his pockets and clasps them around your biceps, a pair of heavy metal armbands.
-How-would-you-like-to-come-back-to-my-place-and-finish-the-night-there-? he takes from his mouth and drapes around your neck. The chain is warm from the heat of his inside.
Sure, you say. You notice you are now a little dizzy. Either from the drinks or his words or possibly both. When was the last date you went on with someone who did not bring up his Filipino ex-boyfriend, the smoothness of your skin, how lovely your skin tone looks against his?
He clicks the padlock closed around your neck and it sits on your collarbone. You don’t own necklaces or scarves, so wearing this collar feels unfamiliar. It itches a little, but its weight is full of gravity and comfort. You feel protected wearing it, looked after. You reach up to touch the padlock and think you are the world’s sexiest storage unit.
Soon you are making out in a taxi headed to his neighborhood up the hills in the center of the city. Between kisses, you rattle the chain-links to make sure you are really there. You are normally shy and going home with a man you have just met is not like you. His words jangle against your skin like rain.
When you step into his apartment, his lips and hands are all over you. He is made of a dozen hands, a hundred lips. You stumble with him toward his room between gulps of breath. Streetlamps beam through the windows, casting bent squares of light along the hallway walls. You peel off his shirt and drop it to the floor. You wrap your arms around him. He presses the fur on his chest against yours. The image of the wolfman bubbles up like a comic book thought—of animal instincts and the smell of earthiness, wearing jeans and Converse sneakers, groping you.
When he pins your wrist against the headboard above your head, act surprised. Breathe out a soft gasp of excitement.
-Are-you-okay-? he kisses into your mouth. You almost gag from his words slipping onto your tongue. You swallow them whole and continue kissing him further and deeper, because physics dictates that you must obey the laws of momentum. Playfully push back with your wrists in his hands.
He says, -You-are-so-fucking-sexy-you-know-that-? and -I’m-very-glad-we-finally-got-to-meet-up-tonight. He gathers them from his mouth and makes a matching pair of cuffs for your ankles.
He adds more words, more chains, adorning you from head to toe until you feel anchored to his bed, which is where you’ve wanted to be all night, no? As he explores your body, you tense your arms and thighs, appreciating how your muscles strain against his sentences. When the orgasm comes, your bodies shudder and buck. You both make guttural sounds like you’re praying to some primal god of thunder.
If you weren’t wrapped up in so much metal, you could just lift away right there. You would glide along the ceiling, out a cracked window, past antennas on roofs and cable wires on poles, out into an icy midnight wind that cocoons you above a city that is lit-up and dreaming.
When he finally speaks, you float back down into your body again. You are tangled in sheets, cuddled by a man you hardly know. You notice how heavy his head is, resting on your chest. The curls of his hair tickle your cheek. You smell of sweat and the iron insides of a hardware store.
-Would-you-like-to-spend-the-night-?, he asks.
This invitation surprises you. You don’t want to respond, so you begin petting him instead. As if you can sooth away your newfound discomfort in this manner. The skin on his back is smooth against your palm. His neck has a small rounded mole and fine brown fuzz at the nape.
Shhh, you coo, petting. Shhh.
-I’d-like-to-see-you-again-, he says. He pulls this string of words from his lips and lays it on your stomach by your navel. You can’t see the chain from where you’re lying, head on pillow, but it’s coated in saliva like a wet fat worm.
You distract yourself by looking around his room, filling in the gaps of who he must be based upon his possessions. A small flatscreen TV, a bookshelf, street signs mounted on the wall, two antique dressers, an old framed photo of him in a Boy Scout uniform with his hand help up, pinky finger pinned down by his thumb.
-I-think-I-might-love-you-, he blurts out.
And you are now seized by an urge to take flight. The need to get the hell out of here is vast, consuming. You figure you will excuse yourself to the bathroom. You will wash your face and call for a ride. You will put on your clothes in the dark and tell him you had a great time.
I need to pee, you say. And as you sit up, you notice how light the chains are. They feel suddenly brittle.
You hold up your left arm and shake it. The -What-kind-of-movies-do-you-like-? around your wrist clinks weakly. You don’t mean to reach up and pluck at the padlock around you neck; you just want to test its hold. But when you pull, the links break. They all break—the halo of words on your head, the cuffed sentiments up and down your limbs—everything crumbles like chalky, hollowed-out pennies.
The air is now thick with debris. You both cough in plumes of dust, which make your eyes tear.
When everything settles, your bodies are covered in powdery rust and words disconnected from their context: made, cool, bakery, guys, running, buses, grab, pups. The lone word And is sticking to the side of the man’s shoulder like random confetti.
It is not until you glimpse into his face that you notice him wearing a wide-eyed look of muted shame. The room is cold. For the first time tonight, you are truly naked. And even though there is nothing holding you there, you find yourself unable to move.
Danny Thanh Nguyen is currently a Kundiman Fiction Fellow. His stories and personal essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Hyphen Magazine, and the anthology The Full Spectrum. He is the editor of AS IS, an anthology of Vietnamese American art and literature. @engrishlessons