I can’t understand it. I never will. Why? And why me?
And why my sister?
He shook my hand with a sweaty group of sausages. He smiled and said his name and even in that short moment of meeting him, with two steps of distance between our bodies and his thick and soft fingers in my hand, I noticed the smell.
From that day on it was always there. I walked past his nodding face behind the reception desk, unsure whether to breathe in deeply or to hold my breath. It was not something that made me jump out of my shoes, but it made my nose itch and my feet sweat. The smell was musky but light, intruding and penetrating but relaxing and, even as that is hard to admit, arousing.
That smell lingered wherever Anthony stood and walked. The bathroom, the cafeteria on the ground floor, the coffee shop right outside the building. Everywhere I could sense whenever Anthony had been there a minute or five or sometimes thirty before me. The longer he stayed in a place the longer the smell lingered. Even on a Monday morning, on those rare days when I had to be at the office before dawn, the smell greeted me as the lift doors opened to welcome me to the empty reception area.
Anthony tried to befriend me. He said Hello and How Are You? to many people, but only a select few received his invitation for coffee or lunch or movies. I was among the few lucky men.
His emails stayed unread in my inbox. I read the first two or three emails but none of the later ones, Opening them made me feel as if I had to reply. It was hard to lie to Anthony and his genuine smile and friendly words. It was just the smell and ever one of his emails made me blush red with guilt and shame for my own shallowness.
On a Wednesday morning he began to ask me in person.
“Any plans for tonight?”
“Sure,” I said and rushed past the smell.
On a Thursday morning he caught me. I was already past the desk.
“You don’t like me, do you?”
“What? No, that’s not true.”
He looked down.
“I’m sorry if I bother you.”
“No, really, you don’t bother me. I like you.”
“I’m just always really busy.”
That was my mistake.
“Cool,” Anthony said. “Which night are you free?”
Tuesday night. Drinks. It went okay. He talked and I asked questions. It was hard to concentrate with the smell so thick and strong. Hard to think with disgust and arousal armwrestling inside my head.
Seven beers made it easier to stand him.
I woke up with a headache and an entry marked in my calendar. Another Tuesday. Movie night at his place.
For the rest of the week I carried around fake paperwork to dodge him.
“We’re still on for Tuesday?”
“Sorry, Anthony, I have to get this done.”
A week of dodging helped him more than me – I didn’t get the occasion to say No.
His place was in an apartment block of eight apartments with gray outer walls. I rang the bell and Anthony buzzed the front door open. The smell took my breath away.
“Second floor,” his voice said. “Right next to the big metal door.”
I took the first step into the building. The musky and somewhat sweet smell invaded my nose and lungs, then slowly seemed to seep into my brain. First a wave of confusion rolled through my mind; then a wave of arousal followed. It was hard to control myself. It was hard to even keep walking.
With every step the smell invaded another, deeper layer of my mind. My taste, hearing, vision, all seemed to slowly fill with smell.
I don’t remember walking upstairs but I remember seeing other men, some standing, some sitting in beach chairs and some others lying on the floor.
“You like the place?”
Anthony’s voice came from somewhere above me. I looked up and had to grab the stairrail to stop myself from falling back down the stairs.
“Weird,” I said. My voice was dry and throaty. “What’s that smell?”
Anthony, from his position at the top of the stairs, smiled.
There were large pipes above his head.
“We pay good money for that.”
“Come inside. I have one of the best rooms.”
My memory from the rest of the time at Anthony’s is patchy; there are only flashes of scenes in my head.
A dirty room; clothes and plastic wrappings all over the floor.
A large black screen that moved up.
Anthony’s smile and a bottle of cold beer in my hands.
A huge TV, from the floor to the ceiling, nearly as wide as the sofa.
Bondage porn. Women tied to walls and wooden planks. Sweating intensely.
Nothing I would ever watch on my own but in that moment – excitement.
Both of us on the couch; each with a hand wrapped around our shafts.
He said “Sadly that’s all we are allowed. You have to bring your own if you want more.”
I woke up in the middle of the night. I was still on the sofa; Anthony was not in the room. The black screen covered the TV.
Confusion and a sick feeling filled my body. Arousal followed but the sick feeling grew.
I heard someone crying. A woman.
I struggled on my feet; fell. I managed to pull my trousers back up and stumbled towards the front door. I turned his key; stumbled outside.
Two men stood and two men sat in front of the large metal doors. They looked drugged.
I walked down the stairs; my hands grabbed the stairrail; my feet slipped down one step after the other.
My vision grew cloudy. I fell over a man that lay on the stairs. He groaned but didn’t bother to get up.
The front door. I shook the handle until it opened.
Fresh air. I threw up next to a street light; then sat down right next to the brown and yellow mass that had left my body.
My phone woke me up. I was in my bed, fully naked, with foam in my mouth and my left hand wrapped around my shaft. Something dry and sticky on my legs.
“Dude, why did you leave the door open?”
A headache burned into my forehead.
“Man, you really can’t handle women, can you?”
“You let two guys into my apartment. I had to kick them out. Fuck you, man.”
He hung up.
The ceiling started to spin. Slow, at first, then faster.
Some of the vomit ended on the bathroom floor; most made it into the shower.
Warm water on my head.
Only then I smelled the bile.
Only then I realized that Anthony’s smell was still lingering around me. The smell of Anthony’s apartment block. Not a dream.
He still greeted me every day but I ignored him. Wherever his smell lingered my throat ached and my stomach began to churn.
I wanted to be nice. I felt weird around him but guilty for ignoring him.
It was my 30th. A big party. I invited too many others from the office.
“Hey man,” he said.
I tried to rush past the reception.
“Hey,” I said.
“I heard it’s your birthday soon?”
“And you’re having a party.”
Why did I say it? Why did I not just walk by and ignore him?
And why did I invite my sister?
I don’t know who introduced them. They stood first at the buffet, then near the window. He was leaning in; she was laughing.
Why, Amber, why him?
There was cake. Then a “30 drinks” challenge for me.
The group chanting my name. A cold glass in my hand. My eyes towards the window; towards Anthony and Amber Nicole.
Anger. The liquid hit my throat. More chanting. Another shot.
She hugged me.
“Goodbye, big brother.”
My wristwatch showed 2am. Maybe 3am. I’m not sure.
I never called her Amber.
“You can stay here. Don’t go alone.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “One of your friends offered to bring me home.”
“Okay,” I said.
Why did I not ask which friend?
The night is a blurr. There were more shots. People signed my bedsheets while I was asleep.
“Congrats, old man.”
“Wish you a great life.”
“Impressed you didn’t throw up.”
I woke up with my arms around a colleague from work and with my best friend’s arms around me. Both were naked – I was not.
I made it to the toilet before my stomach went up in flames.
The image of Amber Nicole kissing Anthony flashed in my mind.
I scrambled through the apartment; past the three sleeping in the living room; past the red wine stains on the carpet. My phone was on the kitchen counter.
A message from 2:48am.
Not sure if you’ll remember. Lol. I’m going with Anthony. Take care brother, awesome party. Congrats on your 30.
A missed call at 3:38am.
A message from 3:40am. New voicemail. From Amber Nicole.
“Call the police. Please fucking pick up, call the police! I don’t know where we are!”
A crashing sound in the background.
“There are women locked up here and he has a huge fucking window to watch them. A huge fucking window! And this whole place stinks of sweat!”
Anthony screamed in the background.
“He wants to…”
Breaking wood. Amber Nicole’s scream. Anthony’s scream; then his laugh.
Sweat. Women’s sweat. Why couldn’t I recognize that?
The police raided the block. They found a few men passed out on the corridors, but no women and no men in the rooms.
They opened the big metal doors. Shackles and wooden planks. Heaters. An industrial scale ventilation system.
They said a few drugs were pumped into the air, but mostly the pipes just ended in the heated rooms; ended in the rooms with shackles and wooden planks and large windows at the sides.
The police called it a “Sweat House.”
They said that there are many of them, although few so big.
They said that they recruit new customers by inviting them in. They said that the sweat arouses. Pheromones are addictive.
They said that the operation likely moved somewhere else.
They found her clothes on the bathroom floor. They found her blood on the sofa. But they didn’t find her body.
The police said that the men must have kept Amber Nicole.
They said she is in a Sweat House now.