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.”

I am 62 and I know I look my age, but I am also the head of a well-respected department of political science at a famous university. I brought some of my foreign students to Washington, D.C., to meet lobbyists, senators, and bureaucrats, to give these young people some notion of the political process firsthand, and also to do some sightseeing. One of the Polish students was Klara, about 24, rather small, with the classic Slavic look: clear skin, good cheekbones, a pouty mouth, and a slyness in her blue eyes. She stayed near me throughout the trip but spoke to me only when no one else was around, always friendly and respectful. She had read my work, she said; she was an admirer.

We were alone one of those days, walking along the Mall after visiting the Washington Monument. She said, “What if I told you I wanted to get you into my room and—”

And with a twinkle in her eye she described in detail one of the most extraordinary perversions I had ever heard. She was quite matter-of-fact, yet what she outlined was something altogether new to me, and almost unimaginable.

This shocked me, but I managed not to show it. All I could say in reply (my mouth very dry) was, “I suppose I’d ask you why you wanted to do this.”

She said very seriously, “I want to do something to you that no woman has ever done to you before.”

“Maybe we can talk about it,” I said. Back at the hotel, later that evening, I called her room. She said, “Are you ready?”

Of course we didn’t do exactly what she had suggested, but we approximated it. From the moment I entered her room I was in her power. I long to relive that night, but what she did was so extreme I cannot imagine even mentioning it to any other woman, much less repeat the act. She was a virgin. She remained a virgin, but I think I lost my virginity that night.


In a way, I have been preparing myself for this event, this feeling, for years. As a painter, I know many older painters, sculptors, photographers—say, artists—in my position. Something happened in the late 1950s and early ’60s. They met younger women, always the same sort of woman. Maybe I’m wrong, but I know of very few exceptions.

This woman was in her 20s. A woman of 20 doesn’t know if she has a place in the world; something about her age or our age. What will happen to her? Will she find a job? Will she find a husband? Will she ever have a child? Where does she belong?

She has no idea where she is going. She is anxious. She needs someone to intervene.

Here’s where the artist comes in. A painter or a photographer at 60 has either made it or stopped trying. If he has made it, he looks powerful—more than powerful, as indestructible as his art. But one thing he does not have: his youth. And he certainly questions the diminishing of his virility, what the Dutch call “the shutting of the door.”

He meets a 20-year-old and is immediately smitten. She is so relieved to be rescued, like someone plucked from a deep sea, that she believes she is in love with her rescuer. Not long after they meet she is secure, and happy, having been brought to safety, onshore at last.

Perhaps she has his baby, perhaps he leaves his wife, perhaps they live together and he paints her. Never mind; no matter—such meetings are always a disaster. She leaves him. She has a life. He is destroyed by this love. And even if you know in advance what the consequences will be, you still pursue her, as I did. Her name was Lucy, and I was wrecked.


Years ago, I was a waiter in Provincetown. My life changed when I met Ken and we moved to the far north of Vermont. People in the village accepted us as a gay couple. Twenty happy years passed. Ken died suddenly of heart failure. I spent two years being lonely. Then I decided to go back to Provincetown, just to see.

Because of complications, I spent only a few days there. The town had changed a lot. Rich gays had put up big houses. Many more people had come to live, but they looked nice, even outrageous in a nice way. They liked showing off. I heard one man say approvingly, “Look, billions of queens.” The butch gays had muscles. The lesbians looked pretty to me. I was happy, but those years in Vermont had made me an unsocial type. I am shy in large groups. And I don’t drink alcohol.

“I’ll have a soda water with lemon,” I said at the Atlantic House. The upstairs bar was full of butch gays in cowboy outfits, drinking beer out of the bottle. One was chanting, “Fudge till Tuesday!—whatever that meant.

People were dancing in the downstairs bar. I just watched. One man on the floor was alone. He wore a fireman’s helmet, and yellow rubber fireman’s trousers, and rubber boots, but other than that he was naked. The rubber trousers were held up by suspenders. This man fascinated me. I had never seen anyone like him in my life. He danced so energetically he was covered in sweat. I loved watching him.

He must have noticed me. When the music stopped, he came over to the bar. I was very worried, frightened that he’d talk to me, because I didn’t know what to say. He looked me up and down and smiled. He said, “Very nice.”

That’s all. That was the moment. Ever since, I have thought about him constantly, especially when life is hard for me or I’m lonely. I think of him, how he was dressed, what he said to me, and I am happy.

Presented by

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In