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

1. CHEATING FOR LOVE

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.

2. THE UNSUITABLE WOMAN

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.

3. NO STRINGS

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.

4. EMBASSY WIFE

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.

5. SPLIT-UP REVELATION

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.

6. MY LOVER’S FRIENDS

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.

7. MY GRADUATE STUDENT

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.

8. TWENTY-YEAR-OLDS

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.

9. THE DANCER

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.

10. MY OLD FLAME

I was trying to think of a way of breaking up with my girlfriend, Paula, who was uncommunicative, always saying, “I’m not verbal like you.” In spite of this she often corrected me. When I referred to a woman’s sex, she said, “You mean gender.” And she sometimes talked about her “goals.” I am suggesting that she could be rather irritating. Or was it me? She was gentle and very kind to me, and good company in a quiet, listening-type way. She was passive, and I think I was looking for someone to take the initiative. She liked “torch songs”—that’s what she called these love songs.

To break the news to her gently, I took her to an expensive club where a black woman sang these love songs. I thought I would offer Paula a good time, an expensive meal, the whole business, and later I could more easily say, “We’re not really suited to each other.”

She loved the club. She loved the music. She sat transfixed, drank a little more than usual, and said that this was one of the most pleasant nights of her life. Back at her apartment, she interrupted me before I could tell her what was on my mind. She said, “Let’s make love.”

Not only was that unusual in this normally passive woman, but while we were making love, she said, “Can I tell you a secret?”

I must have said something. I was dazed. I hadn’t planned to be making love, but the evening had swept us up.

“I wanted to go home with her,” she said.

That was Paula’s secret, spoken in the darkness of her bedroom. I was overwhelmed. It became our secret. We talked about it all the time. I could not leave her. In the end, she left me, and I was heartbroken.

11. FIRST LOVE

Everyone was pretty much the same at my junior college, but after I dropped out to get a job, and started night school, everyone seemed different: the real world was much harder for me, much more complex. I was living with my meek old grandmother in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. I felt like a failure—working in an art-supply store, living with my grandmother, going to night school. I was 18 years old, the youngest student in the class. One man was over 60. Many were quite old, one or two were middle-aged men, some were older women, some housewives. “I deliver bakery goods,” the man sitting next to me said. “I guess I eat them,” the woman in front of him said. The class was Economics for Small Businesses; everyone was aiming to start his or her own business, but somehow I knew we were all doomed to failure.

The woman who had said “I guess I eat them” saw me standing at the bus stop and offered me a ride home. This happened a few times. Then one night she stopped at a house and said, “I live here. Want to come in?”

The way she screamed at her child, who was upstairs, scared me and made me obedient. She put the light out and unbuttoned my shirt, and she said, “Let me, let me.” This was the first sex of my life. It was heaven. Night school was three times a week—I couldn’t wait to go. After every class she drove me to her house and we made love. And after a few weeks she met me outside the art-supply store. I saw her sitting in her car and I was joyous.

Some days I had errands to run, and couldn’t see her; even so, she stalked me and asked me to come with her. “I can’t, I can’t,” I’d say, though I wanted to. Another day Grandma was sick and I had to stay home. The woman came to Grandma’s house and banged on the door and begged to see me. Although she was sick, Grandma yelled at her, while I hid. Grandma won: the woman went away, and Grandma said, “No more night school for you.” So I went to New York, where I became successful in real estate. That was my first love, and I suspect hers, too.

12. EPISODE IN BANGKOK

As a sculptor and welder of large metal pieces, I was always invited to the unveilings, especially when a big company was involved as the sponsor or patron. My Bangkok gallery sold one of my pieces to a bank for its courtyard’s inaugural, and I flew there for the opening. My translator was a lovely young woman, very slender and pale. Hardworking and sleep-deprived, she was attractive to me: her weary fortitude made her seem waif-like, and it aroused me. Yet, she was strong—stronger than me. I tended to fade in the evening, while she was still alert. She was always early at the hotel in the morning to pick me up. She said, “Call me Pom. My real name too hard.”

She grew lovelier to me each day, and I found myself desiring her. In the taxis, I would sit close to her. Sometimes I’d put my hand on her warm, receptive hand. I asked where she lived. Far, she said. I suggested getting a room for her at my hotel. She said, “Not necessary.” What did that mean? I tried to be as polite as possible, knowing how important manners are in Thai culture. I thought my extreme politeness might work magic on her, but it didn’t.

One day she was late. She’d never been late before. She was apologetic, but had an explanation. Her explanation took almost an hour of nonstop monologue. To summarize: after leaving me the night before, she had been accosted by two men who’d taken her in a car to a remote place and raped her, over and over. She spared me no detail, and her English was perfect, which made it all worse. Her story was a harrowing narrative of violent sexual assault.

“We must go to the police,” I said, when she finished.

She said no. “We will say no more about this.” I could not read the expression on her face. It was not a smile, but it was something so enigmatic, it seemed akin to either ecstasy or anguish. My sculpture was unveiled. I left Bangkok. Only later did I realize that she must have invented the story as a way of attracting me, but of course by then I was home with my wife, who is the love of my life.

13. SWEET TOOTH

Traveling around Japan, especially in the smaller provincial towns, I’d always stop in convenience stores for candy or a chocolate bar, or cookies. I had a sweet tooth. Maybe the bland Japanese food I’d been eating exacerbated my craving.

Invariably, the cashier at the convenience store was a girl in her late teens—slender, pale, with flawless skin, delicate hands, fine-boned, smiling, submissive, and sweet, always obliging. I would linger over the transaction, often ask a question just to detain her, and if no one else was around, I would ask her name, her age, and what sort of music she liked. She was always delightful. I am not talking about one or two girls like this, but 20 or more. I had encountered a whole social class of delightful teenage cashiers, smiling at me while they went about their dreary job. I always thought: If I were not married, I’d move to Japan and marry one of these beauties.

A year after my trip, I needed a cabinetmaker in my small town in Massachusetts. The man, Arthur, showed me pictures of some of the work he’d done—in Japan. I got to know him better. He had lived in Japan for 15 years.

I told him my fantasy of the cashier.

He laughed and said, “I married her.”

He had fallen in love with the very girl, 19, beautiful, a cashier in the convenience store in a small town near Nagoya. He too had a sweet tooth.

“Our marriage was horrible almost from the beginning,” Arthur said. “Yes, she was submissive and sweet at the store, but most of these girls are the opposite, privately, of what they are in public. As if to compensate for that public role of helpfulness and deference, at home they’re nagging and dominant, hypercritical, unhelpful, frigid, and unpleasant. Mean with money—mine took charge of my whole salary. Her mother was the same. We ended it.” He thought a moment, then said, “Maybe they’re not all like that, but …”

14. GUESTHOUSE VOICES

Our son and his wife and their small baby visited one summer. I had to put off the Butlers, saying, “If my son weren’t visiting, we’d be glad to have you on the Fourth of July. Come after that—the guesthouse will be free.”

The Butlers said they’d visit the following weekend. I looked forward to their visit, because they were a happy couple and liked us, and frankly, Joe and I were going through a rough patch.

I should also add that my son and his wife were model parents, extremely attentive to their little 6-month-old son, who never gave a moment of trouble—usually slept through the night, and if he fussed, they seemed to know it instantly, even when we were eating in the main house, kind of like parental extrasensory perception. I was amazed at how prescient they were to this infant’s needs—changes of diaper, wakefulness, teething, whatever.

I said to my husband, “That’s a lesson to us. They’re on the kid’s wavelength in a way we never were.” We were sorry to see them go.

The Butlers came. Wonderful couple, no kids, devoted to each other. Ron Butler had been the best man at our wedding, one of our oldest friends. We had felt an emptiness when our son and his family left, but the Butlers perked us up. They’d driven a long way and said they were tired. I said, “Have a nap. Everything’s informal. We have no plans. Let’s do something tomorrow.”

They went to the guesthouse and shut the door.

I poured myself a glass of wine and settled in front of the TV, but before I turned it on I heard, “I told you they’re pissed off.” It was Ron Butler’s voice. My husband came into the room and made a face. We heard from a corner bookshelf: “You’re such an asshole. This is the last goddamned time. Did you see how they looked at us? They don’t want us here.” And then the wife, “Oh, shut up, you queer.”

We sat, horrified, until at last we found the “baby monitor” my son had left behind, the apparatus under the bed, the receiver in our TV room, to hear whether the baby was crying.

That night my husband embraced me tenderly and said, “You are so precious to me.”

The Butlers were their delightful selves, but we were not surprised when they said they’d have to leave earlier than they’d expected.

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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