Fiction Fiction 2009

Voices of Love

“I was dying with shame under the sheet. June was my best friend.”

“She put the light out and unbuttoned my shirt. This was the first sex of my life. It was heaven.”

“I was a waiter in Provincetown. My life changed when I met Ken.”

“My husband, Byron, was a terrible diplomat. He quarreled with his colleagues and neglected me.”

Image: Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum Photos


I was a graduate student, 23, living in Princeton with my boyfriend. We were very friendly with a couple, Greg and June, and we spent a lot of time with them—maybe too much. Greg was always after me, calling me and slipping me notes. He said that June was frigid and so on. He was very hungry, and I had to admit I liked his attention. One day we ended up in bed, and that was the beginning of our affair. The odd thing was that the four of us were still friends, even though Greg and I had this secret.

We had plans for dinner at our place one night, the four of us. Greg called me and asked me to come over—“It’s urgent.” When I got there he was naked, and we were soon in bed. In the middle of it the door banged open. It was June, screaming at him, “You bastard!”

He had been on top of me in a tangle of sheets. He covered me with a sheet and began screaming back at June: “Get out of here! How dare you come in here!”

I was dying with shame under the sheet. June was my best friend.

I was still cowering under the sheet when Greg got up and pushed June out of the room. She went away sobbing. I got dressed and left. That night the four of us had dinner, as we’d planned. Greg and June were a little quiet, but were holding hands. My own boyfriend didn’t know anything—he was cooking. We all remained friends. June never knew I was the other woman. But being discovered that way made me realize what a terrible thing I had done in cheating on her, and cheating on my own boyfriend, too. I thought of it as the worst day of my life—taking that risk. But I had done it for love, and within a year Greg and I were married.


As soon as I met Rita I knew she was unsuitable: not my type. And the odd thing was that she was completely willing—an agreeable companion, resourceful, submissive sexually but game for anything. She was pleasant, but after one night with her I wanted her to leave. When sex was over, I found nothing to say to her. A month later she called me and asked why I had rejected her. She said, “You hurt my feelings.” I couldn’t think of anything to say. She seemed a bit obtuse, unfunny, yet wanted desperately to please me. She was attractive, athletic, about 30, a landscape architect. I felt that on some level she was incompetent and slow, but she was very good-natured. Afterward I hardly thought of her, and when I did I became anxious, because I could not imagine her with any man I knew.

I met her 20 years later. She had married a graphic designer who was about her age, very intelligent and talented, and she was still a landscape architect. He loved her madly. It was obvious in everything he did—he adored her. They were a wonderful couple. He loved her and admired her talent and praised her. What had he seen that I hadn’t? They had no children, they were devoted to each other, they seemed very happy and well-suited to each other.

Their happiness made me think that I had judged her wrongly before; that the selfishness and incompetence I had seen in her had been in me—my faults.

I had been suspicious all those years ago when she had been so willing. But she’d been sincere. She’d found someone who appreciated her, needed her, loved her, and his love had improved her, too.


I met a woman in the local supermarket who said to me, “Are you the architect?” I had just done a big handsome building in town, and a piece about it in the newspaper had used a photograph of me.

“Yes,” I said, and looked at her closely: attractive; about 40; piercing blue eyes that were fixed on mine; and a fearless, upright, almost defiant posture, which seemed sort of boldly welcoming.

“I’m a huge admirer of your work,” she said, with a lovely smile. “I’m an interior designer myself—I feel I could learn so much from you, spending time with you. No strings.”

I was on the point of giving her my address when my wife came up to us and said, “Let’s go, Walter, or we’ll be late”—not even a glance at the woman. She had sensed something.

Well, so had I. About a week later a letter appeared in my mailbox. In this rather long letter the woman said that as she was a decorator and I an architect, we might work together. “No strings.” The letter was not stamped—this worried me: she knew my house. Somehow she had found out my address. She had written her telephone number under her signature.

I was sorely tempted to call her. “No strings” sounded like the recipe for a guiltless adultery, and when a woman is offering herself in such a casual way she always seems to me more attractive for being so easily available. Yet, more out of procrastination than indifference, I didn’t reply or call her.

One day at the local library, I was crouched, looking for a book, and I became aware of a woman looming over me. It was she. “Why didn’t you reply to my letter? You didn’t even call.” She was hurt, she said. But she mentioned that she was “hooked up with a wealthy lawyer.” Then: “He’s so uptight. I love to give oral sex—my lips are so sensitive—but he says it embarrasses him. He thinks it’s a big deal. It isn’t—I love pleasuring men. But he’s going to be history. I’ve told him, ‘No strings.’”

Soon after that, I got another letter from her. She’d left the lawyer. She wanted to see me. We can work something out. No strings. I’m free most afternoons. And she left her telephone number.

I began to dial her number, thinking, My lips are so sensitive, but before I finished I heard the front door open: my wife. “Walter, give me a hand with the groceries,” and the spell was broken. I wrote a short note: I don’t think I can help you.

That was not the end of it. Months later, I heard a loud knock at my door. It was the woman.

“I’m being evicted! I have no place to stay! You’ve done well—look at your nice house. I can’t get any work. You owe me. People have helped you—you have to help me. I’m going to be on the street! Don’t just stand there gaping at me—do something, you bastard!”

Screaming, crazy, demanding. I was shocked, and as I closed the door on her ranting, I thought: What if I had acted on my temptation? And that night I wept in my wife’s arms, though she had no idea.


My husband, Byron, was a terrible diplomat. He quarreled with his colleagues, performed his work badly, drank too much at parties, and neglected me and the kids—and yet, he got a promotion. This was in Germany, where he was a public-affairs officer. The head of his department was a man named Jay, who was very dapper and good-looking and devoted to his wife, Moura. He and his wife went everywhere together, which made me feel bad, because I spent so much time at home, looking after our three small children. My husband said that if I showed up at the Embassy parties, his Embassy life would be easier.

One night we went to dinner at Jay and Moura’s. I sat next to Jay. The party was quite large, but after the other guests left, Jay kept filling my glass. He was very solicitous and complimentary. I must have had a lot to drink because, after a while, I realized that I was sitting alone with Jay. We were talking about Germany, and children, and the weather, and then he put his arm around me.

“Please, don’t,” I said. “What if Byron sees us?”

Jay laughed. “Where do you think he is?”

I had no idea. I didn’t know what to say.

“He’s upstairs with Moura!”

In my drunken state, I needed almost a full minute to work this out. Byron was with Moura, therefore I was permitted to go with Jay, and somehow Byron’s job depended on my agreeing to this.

But I sat there, coldly, until Byron appeared. “Let’s go.”

“They’re swingers,” Byron said, as though that excused his behavior. Some months later, after Byron had been demoted for a petty infraction, I had a brief affair with the 19-year-old son of some Embassy friends. Byron and I have been utterly faithful since.


After my wife and I split up, when we had nothing to lose by being truthful, she told me that she had suspected that I had a mistress, because I no longer made love to her with any passion or desire. And what convinced her was that I was so kind to her, as though because I was guilty of infidelity, I was trying to cover it up with displays of kindness. I just smiled.

“Were you ever unfaithful to me?” I asked.

She shrugged and said that when she was sure I was being unfaithful she went one night to a bar alone. Naturally, a man came over to her and asked her if she wanted a drink. They talked awhile. She did not go home with him, but she agreed to meet him again. That was the night they made love. “He was very rough with me,” she said, somewhat dreamily. He tied her to a bed, forced her to perform several extreme sexual acts, and then spanked her.

We had never done anything like this. Her describing it (in more detail than I expected) aroused me.

I said, “He sounds like an animal.”

She said, “He knew how to please a woman.”

I thought: What? And there was more, she said. He had a girlfriend. He made no secret of her. Sometimes they went out together—my wife, the man, his girlfriend. One night, drinking at his apartment, the man demanded that my wife and his girlfriend make love while he watched. My wife got into bed with the woman.

“What did you do?” I said.

“We cuddled. What women do.”

“And then what did the man do?” The anguish in my voice terrified me.

She smiled but wouldn’t tell me any more. “This happened a couple of years ago. You had your own girlfriend. My affair was retaliatory.”

But it wasn’t. I had no girlfriend. My feeling had been that my wife had lost interest in sex. How I longed to be that man. And my wife—now my ex-wife: I had never believed this respectable schoolteacher capable of such debauchery.


I had arranged to meet a woman, Susan, on a particular evening. She was a successful advertising executive, highly intelligent yet easygoing. “I’ve been too busy to get married.” But she seemed perfect to me. We had been going out for a few months and she gave me to understand that tonight would be special—in fact, that she was going to let me stay the night. Sex, at last. And not only that, but that it would be passionate. She wasn’t subtle: she conveyed this to me by various expressions, by touching me, a look in her eyes, a tone of voice—the wonderful anticipation of lovers.

“Let’s meet at my conference, and we can go on from there.”

This was, she said, a weekly meeting at a colleague’s house. I said, “Fine.” I went to the house at the appointed time. The conference was all women—six of them. They were business types. They were at first polite to me, and then I could see that they disagreed with everything I said. A state election was about to be held. They supported the most right-wing candidate. We talked about capital punishment. They were in favor of it—electrocution. “All murderers are men,” one said. To change the subject, I asked what they did for work. “I’m involved with start-ups.” “I design Web sites.” “I do marketing.” Susan just smiled and mentioned an advertising campaign she was doing on behalf of a man. “People talk about his wealth, but he earns every bit of it.” They talked about money, venture capitalism, the exchange rate.

On the way home, Susan and I got into an argument about her friends. I hated them. She defended them. But at her house, when she said, “Coming in?,” I said no, made an excuse, and never saw her again.

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Paul Theroux is the author of more than 30 works of fiction and 15 nonfiction books. His most recent novel, A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, will be published in October.

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