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 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.


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.


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.


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 …”


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.

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.

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