Excerpted from the novel by Lowry Pei
From Above Ground: An Anthology of Living Fiction
Harvard Square Editions 2009




On University Avenue in Palo Alto in the 1970’s there was a bar called the Shutter, where I hung out with my graduate student friends. We could just afford it if we didn’t drink much. I was in East Asian Studies and my friends Jay and Sheldon were in English; we were ABD’s ― all but dissertation. The bar was a decent place to sit and argue ideas, not too loud to hear ourselves talk.

On a night that was in all other ways like many nights before it, a woman came in alone who made everyone in the place stare and then try not to. She looked about thirty. She was blonde, her turned-under hair looked sprayed in place, but the reason we stared was she was wearing a garment whose top was all ruffles and plunging neckline and whose bottom half was hardly more than hot pants. Something only one step away from a piece of fuck-me lingerie, worn to be taken off. What was she thinking walking into a bar alone, dressed like that?

She looked at no one, advanced to the bar through stares as if parting the waters, sat down on a stool with no one on either side of her, and gazed straight ahead. The bartender kept his composure. He did not ogle her exposed sternum, he placed a napkin in front of her and took her order, which I saw was tall and clear and could have been a club soda with lime. She crossed one very naked, very smooth leg over the other and sipped her drink from its narrow red straw, her back turned to the room. I could see the knobs of her erect backbone where the little ruffled item was scooped out in back; and below her bare upper back I could see the zipper that all the men in the room were thinking of pulling down.

People went back to their conversations but she had altered the shape of the room and the taste of the air.

After five minutes, a recently graduated fraternity brother got up from another table and approached her, perched on the stool next to her, everyone watching. He gestured toward his friends, trying to invite her, giving his sincere pitch. She barely turned her head. The answer was no; he tried again and it looked like the answer was nothing at all. He got off the stool and tried not to slink. After that it didn’t surprise me that no one else came near her.

Sheldon was the first to find his voice. He usually was the first to comment on anything, but also he was gay, and probably she didn’t have quite as direct an effect on him as she had on Jay and me. “Now, what do we call this?” Sheldon said.

“I don’t think I know the word,” I said.

“Man,” Jay said a little dreamily. “Who’s the lucky guy?”

“Are you sure that ‘lucky’ is the right adjective?” said Sheldon. “Anyway, I don’t think it’s you.”

“Wait ― you mean you’re the one?” I said.

“She probably paints her fingernails while she fucks. And talks on the phone.”

“No, that’s too cold,” I said.

“Does she look warm to you?” Jay said.

But I thought my friends were all wrong, that they knew nothing.



I lived alone in an apartment in Mountain View that I could afford because it was on a four-lane street and on the other side of the street were the commuter train tracks. The only time there was actual quiet was between two and five a.m.; I seldom opened the windows over the street unless loud music was playing. I had yard sale furniture, stacks of library books on the floor around my desk, and a calico cat named Clarice whose litter box made the bathroom smell bad. I was locked in a struggle with my adviser, Professor Tutwiler, who for the last year had turned down every dissertation proposal I brought him. Something needed to work, soon. The department had already extended my fellowship once, with visible reluctance. I was nearly twenty-nine years old and my life not only had not begun, it sometimes seemed that it never would. Intellect, like a tapeworm, was beginning to eat away at me from the inside; the only things that made me feel fully human were my cat and the insistence of my thwarted desire for a woman to share my bed.



The next time came a week or ten days later, and again, when she entered it was as if a pulsing sign had lit up over the bar that read Sex. Again a man tried to talk to her and failed.

“What the hell is this?” I said to my friends. “She never talks to anybody except the bartender, why does she do this?”

“It’s a psychology experiment,” Jay said. “She has an assistant who takes notes. Either that, or she just does it to make your balls hurt.”

“No, I’m serious. What does she want out of this?”

“You have to ask?”

“If she wanted to get laid, all she’d have to do is look at somebody for once.”

“Maybe she’s a he,” said Sheldon.

“What?” said Jay.

“Maybe that’s why she never does anything but sit there. She’s a drag queen, she’s a guy, she just wants to see if she can pass.”

“She can pass,” said Jay, “I’m giving her an A-plus right now.”

“Hey, it makes some kind of sense.”

“I’m telling you, she’s not. Look at her ankles, look at her feet. She’s not a man.”

“But what does she want?” I said.



I thought if you had come in naked, the invitation to imagine having sex with you would not have been more blatant, it would have been less so. Your nakedness would have been an invitation and yet it would have revealed your helpless humanity, vulnerable and in need of care. My care, I wanted to think. The shape of you was like a word spoken to me alone.



I was summoned to the office of Professor Tutwiler; I sat in the chair facing him where I had sat many times in the past four years. For quite a while that seat in his office had felt like it was mine by rights as his advisee, research assistant, TA. I could see in his eyes that I was a disappointment now. The office was shadowy except under his desk lamp, and books climbed all the way to the ceiling. Tutwiler was not a tall man; he had to stand on tiptoe on a chair when he wanted to reach the top shelves. “I’m working my way through the titles you recommended,” I said, knowing that wasn’t enough. “It’s really a case of . . .”

He waited, exhibiting patience. “A case of?”

Satisfying you. “Fine-tuning,” I said.

“Has your argument ― shall we say, evolved?”

I had nothing to offer that he had not already turned down. “Well, my focus is still the same, of course. It’s a question of finding the right approach to the material.”

Appearing to study his desktop, Tutwiler took a breath and let it out. Then he looked up at me. “Mr. Obata,” he said. He seemed to reach for an easy tone that no longer came naturally, but the “Mr.” wasn’t a good sign. Tutwiler had been calling me Peter for a couple of years. “You know ― I’m sure you know this ― before every school year we have a faculty meeting to talk about the graduate students in the program. Their prospects, their progress.” He waved his hand as if to say, You understand, it’s all routine. Then it stopped waving. “Also their funding. They’re going to ask me whether we should extend your fellowship again. What do you want me to tell them?”

“Um ― please let the department know my research is ― that we’re, um, close to a workable proposal.” The “we” did not come easily, as it once would have.

“Are we?” Tutwiler said, gazing at me over his glasses.

“I believe so.”

“You do understand that I need to see an approvable dissertation prospectus on my desk by the end of the summer at the latest.” He had never before set an absolute deadline.

“I see,” I said.

“At the latest,” Tutwiler repeated, nodding slightly in agreement with himself. “Before you register for fall quarter.”

“I see,” I said again.

After the dimness of Tutwiler’s office I was momentarily blinded by the sun on the Quad. Before you register. The threat was clear enough. Hoover Tower looked balefully down at me, the gravel under my feet seemed to tilt.



“Something’s the matter with you, Obata,” Sheldon said. “What have you got up your butt?”

“Tutwiler’s foot.”

Jay said, “Isn’t he supposed to be helping you?”

“He wants a proposal that is quote, approvable, unquote, by the end of August. ‘Before you register,’ he tells me. You know what that means? Or else. No fellowship, no T.A.ship, finito, kaput.”

“You’re kidding,” Jay said.

“You don’t think he means it? Take it from me, he does.”

“Go to the chairman,” Sheldon said.

“That’ll make it worse.”

“Go to the chairman and tell him you’ve reached an impasse with your adviser and you need to switch. I did it,” Sheldon said.

“But maybe you wouldn’t want to do it the way he did,” Jay said.


“He claimed his old adviser never turned anything back and wouldn’t meet with him. So now the guy won’t even say hello to him in the hall.”

“So maybe I exaggerated. Just make it work. Tell him Tutwiler has been hitting on you.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” I said. “He probably hasn’t gotten it up in a decade. Listen, you didn’t see the letter the chairman wrote me when they extended my fellowship. It’s not good when they start using phrases like ‘maintain satisfactory progress toward the degree.’“

Jay grunted, Sheldon rolled his eyes. “That’s boilerplate,” Sheldon said. “They never kick anybody out. If they were going to, I can think of a couple of people in English they would have started with years ago.”

“I’m not in English,” I said.



I was outside Liddicoat’s on University Ave., the expensive grocery store where I never shopped, when I saw you for the first time outside the bar. You were all business, wearing a suit: gray and severe, floppy bow tie at the neck, gold metal brooch on your left lapel with imitation pearls, no one could have looked more proper. Your outfit matched your careful hair and your composed face, and I felt a little crazy remembering you in the bar, as if that other outfit were a delusion of my own.

It excited me more to see you that way, in front of Liddicoat’s, than in the Shutter, because when I saw you there I thought I could one day speak to you, I thought I could get to know you somehow, and that made me follow you inside, along the meat counter where I saw you buy ground sirloin, and then the produce (tomatoes, onions) and then the frozen foods (peas, lima beans) and the cereal-and-pasta aisle where I saw you take down a box of linguine and one of corn flakes and I thought I might understand what to say to you.



You sat at the bar yet again one night when I was there with Jay. We accepted your presence now. After you had been there for a few minutes, sipping your colorless drink and turning your back on me and all the other men, I saw you pick up the bar menu and study it, then set it down and push it away disdainfully. Before I quite knew I was going to, I stood up and began to move toward you. I couldn’t have done it if Sheldon had been there to stare too; I wanted neither of them to see this, I knew neither they nor anyone else in the place would understand what I was about to do. Standing up and making my way from the table to the stool next to you, I felt that I floated above myself and slightly behind, watching myself in silent amazement.

Though I didn’t look at you when I sat down on the stool to your right, I could feel the force field around you. I knew how intensely you were aware of my presence, but I couldn’t tell what it meant.



The bartender came and asked me, poker-faced, what I would have; I ordered a beer. I did not offer to buy her a drink. I took a sip and felt that she could get up and leave at any moment and it was now or never if I was going to speak.

“I hope you don’t mind,” I began. Stupid thing to say, of course she minded. Start again. “Is there anything good on the menu?”

She passed it to me without speaking. Potato skins, nachos, fried lumps of mozzarella ― no wonder she wasn’t interested.

“I see what you mean,” I said. “Not so fabulous, is it?”

No reply.

“I was imagining something more along the lines of a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Or even a hamburger would not be too, um, mundane.”

I was sure she hadn’t looked at me, but then she said, “You speak English very well.”

It helped me get a grip, because for a moment I didn’t want her so much. “I was born here.” In a relocation camp, the second child born to my parents there; the first, a girl, died.


“Actually, I was born in Heart Mountain, Wyoming.”

“Wyoming?” I was sure she knew nothing, like most people, about that chapter of American history.


“Are there many Japanese people there?”

“Um ― not now. There were at one time.”

More silence. I avoided looking at her in the mirror behind the bar, after one glimpse of the outline of her head between and behind some bottles. “What did you want to say to me?” she said, catching me unprepared after all.

“I was going to suggest going somewhere for a bite to eat. Probably Stickney’s. Not very creative, I realize.” All I could do was tell the truth.

“No,” she said, looking at me directly for a moment. But I thought she faintly smiled. “Try again.”

“We could go out for sushi.”

No reply.

“Surf and turf. Eel and veal.” Would she smile?

“Try again.”

“I find you beautiful.”

She drew a breath, straightened her back, turned her face toward me with complete composure. “You’re not supposed to tell me that.”

“Why not?”



You smiled faintly I was sure of it this time but to yourself, not to me. Would I have to slink away like the other failures? Another song came on the jukebox while you perhaps thought about an answer, or ignored me. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” As if pointing at me and laughing. I willed you not to hear it.



“Grilled cheese is much easier to find than sushi,” she said. “But I don’t like Stickney’s.”

“Well . . . I know it’s not very creative either, but there’s always the Bun ‘n’ Burger.”

“I have been there a time or two,” she said. Her voice was flat, routine, but my heart leapt. I didn’t dare look at her, not even glance down at her legs, much as I wanted to.

“What about now?”

“I suppose I could.”


I took another sip of the beer, got up off the stool; something told me not to say anything more but to act as if all were taken for granted, of course you would stand up and go with me. When you did get off your bar stool I could not help one glance at you. I wanted you to come straight to my apartment, to my bedroom, where I would take off what was begging to be taken off and make love to you all night, every way I was imagining. But I knew better than to let you hear me thinking that; I had to look away and somehow my thoughts had to be on grilled cheese. You picked up your handbag off the bar, and as we walked to the door I felt the whole place stare. When I opened the door for you some man groaned behind us, and as it closed some remark got lost in clatter, thank God, because I knew what kind of remark it had to be and you could be spooked at any moment. If there was anything I understood about you it was that.



“My name’s Peter, by the way,” I said.


“Pleased to meet you.”

She nodded but didn’t reply.

We were stared at on the street when we got out of my car, we were stared at in the Bun ‘n’ Burger. People made half-heard remarks that I tried not to notice. I thought I had a pretty good idea what it was like to be her, foreigner, outsider, disturber of the peace. She ate only half her sandwich, in a well-mannered way that put me on my best behavior. When she ate the pickle I cringed inside, certain that some man in the place was making a comment about her giving a blow job. I knew better than to imagine I could look forward to that.

She told me her work (business analysis in an investment bank), I told her mine (Japan in the Tokugawa period). Every once in a while she looked me in the eye for an instant, and it excited me so much I would almost lose my way in the middle of a sentence. Fortunately the table was there to hide the lump in my pants.

When we left, she insisted on paying her share. We got into my car, to drive back to hers, and there she was in the dark semi-privacy of the front seat with me, eighteen inches away; it was all I could do not to lay my hand on her naked thigh. I knew that if I did it, she would lock herself closed to me at once. But I did not try to touch her on the way to her car, which was a white BMW 2002, many cuts above my ancient Datsun. Before she got out she looked me in the eye momentarily and said, “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” I said. “Would you like to do it again?”

“Perhaps,” she said, with little enthusiasm.

“If you could tell me your phone number . . . ”

“What’s yours?” she said. I knew exactly this much: her first name, and the kind of car she drove. I could see she wanted to keep it that way. I told her my full name and my phone number.

“I’ll let you know if I want to go out,” she said.




“No. I told you. We went to the Bun ‘n’ Burger. I had a grilled cheese, she had tuna salad. That’s it.”

“Yeah, but after that,” said Sheldon. “Your place or hers?”

“Sorry, that’s not how it went.”

“Man, it is impossible to wear what she wears and not want to get laid.”

“How would you know?” said Jay. “Have you ever worn that?”

“I have better taste,” said Sheldon. “Come on, did she take it off, or did you?”

I sat with crossed arms and said nothing, trying to keep a straight face.

“The question is,” Jay said, “did they make it all the way to the bed, or did they have to stop at the couch first?”

“The kitchen table.”

“The desk.”

Eventually they wore themselves out with pornographic invention; then they started theorizing about the social construction of sexuality; then the conversation wandered back to Nixon and whether the Judiciary Committee would ever nail him, if what they had on him already wasn’t enough.



The next time, I met her at the Bun ‘n’ Burger, and she was wearing the outfit again. It was even more outrageous there than in the bar, under the bright lights, against the red of the Formica table top and the upholstery of the booth. I was sure now that it was a test; I had to keep my gaze from traveling down her ruffled neckline to the irresistibly bare and touchable place between her breasts – had to exhibit an inhuman absence of lust, had to pretend that we were not stared at, to override embarrassment at being part of her public spectacle. She ordered a hamburger and a side of fries; she ate less than half of the hamburger, and three French fries. I counted. I ordered the same and finished mine; after a while, she offered the rest of hers to me.

“Don’t you want any more?” I said.

“No, thank you. Please – go ahead. I never finish my food in a restaurant; they serve too much.”

“Not for me,” I said.

“You’re a man,” she replied, and for the first time she gave me more than the hint of a smile. It came and went, but her admitting that I was male, and she a woman, as she sat across from me looking the way she looked, was almost unbearably exciting.






The third time, she told me where she lived and allowed me to pick her up. She lived in a “garden apartment” near San Francisquito Creek, a two-story stucco box containing a dusty rectangular courtyard with two or three palm trees, spiky palmetto, and low mounds of ice plant. Her second-floor apartment was reached by a balcony walkway that extended all the way around the interior of the box and reminded me of a motel, or the similar place in L.A. I lived in as a kid. She was waiting by the door and heard me coming; as soon as I knocked, she slipped outside, locking the door behind her with a resounding clack of metal on metal that told me not to imagine being invited in later.

For the first time she was dressed as she would have been during the day, in a pants suit but without the mock bow tie. I took her to Ming’s, which if not absolutely romantic was at least not the Bun ‘n’ Burger. At dinner she questioned me about my life and graduate school, and withheld all but the most innocuous information about herself. She gazed at me steadily with unnerving attention; I talked more than I wanted to about myself. I told her what a relocation camp was, and how my father lost his dry-cleaning business and became a gardener after the war. I told her my father was senile now, lived in a nursing home in San Diego, my mother in their small tract house in Clairemont Mesa, working at a department store and not making enough money to keep up the house. She asked me why I was getting a Ph.D. and I told her about my run-ins with Professor Tutwiler. She nodded and said, “But what I was wondering was why.”

“Oh.” That was a harder question. “Well, because it’s Japanese, I guess. Because ― you know ― that’s why they put them in the camp.” Some logic, I thought. She nodded as if she understood, but how could she?

When we arrived back at her place she placed her hand on my arm, opened her door, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and was out of the car before I could react. She left me the faintest smell of her: a scrubbed clean smell with a tiny hint, unless I was making it up, of perfume.



At night I groaned my hard-on against the bed, wanting you. I imagined the orgasms I would give you, imagined you finally relaxing, naked, into my arms, lying on me between bouts of making love and giving me lazy kisses in a bed where the liquids of sex made a wet spot in the center.



The fourth time, Ming’s again (I could tell she was a creature of habit); again she was properly dressed ― calf-length gray skirt with a narrow leather belt and a white button-down shirt, man style, open at the neck.

When I asked her a question about herself, she said, “You go first.”

“But I already did,” I said. “Last time.”

“Now Peter. You haven’t told me everything.” Have you forgotten? she seemed to say ― I’m a woman, women are entitled to their mystery, women keep their secrets and that’s why you want us: you’ll never know.

I told her how my parents had a child before me, the sister I never knew, who died in the camp. “Your poor mom, can you imagine?” Margo said, and I thought her eyes glistened with tears. “Seeing your own child . . . ?”

“No,” I said. No, I could never imagine fully enough the devastation of my mother’s hopes, that was a given. No matter how I tried or what I did, I would never have cared enough. Stumblingly, I tried to tell Margo the things I had not said before. I said things I wasn’t sure I should, drawn out by her gaze ― that I was a double only child because my sister died, that I was supposed to make that up to them somehow. That at the beginning, senility had temporarily improved my father ― revealed someone who tried to make a joke, who could forgive others for not being stoic and on duty all the time. That I finally thought I understood, even though my father never saw fit to explain himself before he became senile, nor could afterwards: they thought he was Japanese, so he would be Japanese. Or he would be what Americans thought Japanese people were like.

“But he is Japanese, isn’t he?” she said.

“He’s American.”

“I know, but ― “

“He’s American,” I said again.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s not your fault.”



Again when we stopped outside her apartment she kissed me on the cheek, and I was ready and turned toward her, put my hand over hers before she could remove it from my arm, and said “Don’t go yet.” My heart was pounding, I felt I must kiss her on the mouth or frustrated desire would be more than I could bear.

“Silly boy,” she said.

I put my hand up to her cheek and tried to turn her toward me for a kiss, but she hardened into a kind of statuary under my fingers. The sensation of it paralyzed me, and while I could not move she slid out from under my touch and out of the car; but she bent down and looked back in at me, as if from a safe distance, the way one might look at an animal that could prove dangerous.


Were you thinking you might want that kiss after all?


“Goodnight,” she said, and clicked her way inside.



While we were at Ming’s I invited her to dinner at my place; she said, “I didn’t know you could cook.”

“Of course. Who’s going to cook for me? I know how.” I wasn’t too sure she’d like my cooking, which was mostly of the pork chop in a skillet variety, but I had seen what she bought at the store and I knew she was no gourmet. Besides, it seemed to be more the idea of eating she liked, the first bite and perhaps the second; after that she lost interest and only tasted now and then, out of politeness I thought, so as not to leave her dining partner eating alone.

“I’ll think about it,” she said. Two days later she called and invited me to dinner at her apartment.



Did you know what fantasies would possess me the moment you made that invitation, what dreams that I had passed your tests and so now you would take me into your privacy and trust me with the reality of yourself, trust me to give you everything I had imagined? You must have known, you must have meant me to think those things.



The inside of her apartment was not what the building led me to expect. The paint job was so meticulous I wondered if she had done it herself. She had hung up a few framed reproductions ― a Mondrian, a portrait of a girl who avoided the painter’s gaze. She had an iridescent butterfly framed under glass, and some little nubbly glass vases, probably old, arranged in an etagere. In a corner of the living room was an antique-looking writing desk, with delicate turned legs and tiny drawers and cubbyholes. Knick-knacks abounded on the horizontal surfaces ― ceramic turtles, frogs, a unicorn with a flexible gold mane. The few books visible were fat novels – Ayn Rand, James Michener, Pearl Buck. On the coffee table and the end table she had made neat overlapping arrays of Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Fortune, Time. In the corner of the cover of Time was a banner that read “Watergate: The New Evidence.” Below that issue was an older one showing the Presidential seal with two hands in front of it, thumbs up, thumbs down. “The Press: Fair or Foul?” it read, but I was more interested in which sign Margo would give me.

She wore a red ruffled top with a scoop neck; a print knee-length skirt with a wide black belt; an apron; black open-toe shoes with medium heels; a little gold cross on a thin gold chain around her neck that made me wonder if she was Catholic. Or perhaps it was just part of this costume.

She served grilled chicken breast with lemon squeezed over it and a few grains of pepper, asparagus, rice pilaf, white wine, weak coffee.

When I went to the bathroom I got a glimpse of the bedroom. Ever since she had called I had been trying to imagine it, and her inviting me into it, but seeing it, my heart fell. Stuffed animals were heaped on the pillow of the single bed. The closet with two sliding doors was so crammed that dresses were peeking out where it would not quite close. Cosmetics crowded the top of a ruffled vanity, the blinds were down and curtains hung over them, the air was stuffy with the smell of powder. There was no place in that bedroom for a man.

In her home she became talkative; she seemed to possess an endless fund of chat, yet still she managed to tell me nothing about herself. She talked about a show she liked on PBS, her boss, her co-workers (did they know of her evening excursions?), she told me about missing half a year of school as a teenager, because of an unnamed illness . . . she talked until I began to wish she would stop and then decided she was holding me at arm’s length with determined blandness, that she would talk until she wore out desire, wore out any wish to be in her presence at all, and I would meekly go home. Or was it another test?

I went to the bathroom again in order to collect myself. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, What am I doing here? I opened the medicine cabinet and saw a circular plastic case which I wanted to think was the right size to hold a diaphragm; I opened the case, and it was empty.

She wants to but she doesn’t know how, I thought. She’s nervous and that’s why she’s talking so much. She doesn’t understand how any of this works, she doesn’t know how to give the right signals, that’s why she wore that outfit to the bar in the first place . . .

I opened the bathroom door and saw her still sitting on the couch, her feet drawn up under her, in the same girlish pose I had left her in, and before she could arrange her social face I glimpsed something shy that made me think yes, I was right. She took up the thread of her monologue again, but I went and knelt on the couch facing her, my knees almost touching her, hemming her in, and said, “Margo.”

“What?” she said. She looked me in the eye.

“Could I tell you something? Something I’ve been wanting to tell you? Could I right now?”

“If you need to,” she said.

“I really need to.”

“All right, then.”

“I mean, I wouldn’t do anything you don’t want, but I can’t understand all this and I have to tell you I want you so much, I’ve been dying to make love to you ever since I first saw you, I’m sorry if you don’t want me to tell you this but it’s the truth.”

She glanced up over my head. “I know that, Peter. Do you think I don’t know?”

“I just can’t tell what you want, or if you want anything from me, but I can’t help it, I . . . ”

“Of course you can.” What did that mean? Was she taunting me? I reached for her, took her by the shoulders and when she didn’t let herself be pulled toward me, leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth. She let me kiss her but her mouth did not open to me; but I could not stop trying. Then her mouth did open, too wide, as if she were at the dentist in unhappy surrender to pain. I found myself kissing a void between her teeth and pulled back.

“Please,” she said. I had no idea what she meant and at that moment I was unable to care. Her hands were at her sides on the couch, open with fingers slightly curled. Was she giving herself over to my will? I began to unbutton her blouse. She made no response, no sound, she stared at me in what might have been silent reproach ― invitation? ― then she closed her eyes, and her hands remained passive by her sides. I undid her buttons, and saw that her frilly bra hooked in front and unhooked it with trembling fingers. To see her breasts naked was a maddening fulfillment; I caressed her gently and insatiably, watching her face for any flutter of response, but there was none except that her lips parted slightly. I thought I understood that if she kept her eyes closed and pretended she didn’t know what was happening, it could happen. I didn’t try to kiss her mouth again, but I kissed her neck and her collarbone. Mouth against her skin, breathing the smell of her, I moved down her to the place between her breasts that I had imagined kissing from the first time I saw her; my tongue barely touched her nipple before she pushed my head away forcefully. Yet she did not open her eyes and after the push her hands remained resting on my shoulders without resistance. I thought she was telling me not that I should stop, but only what she didn’t want. I laid my hand on her knee, noticing for the first time that she had a scar there as if from a childhood fall. I caressed her thigh, all the way up, lifting her skirt until she was as bare-legged as she had been when she first came into the bar, and then more so. She was wearing red silky panties that matched her blouse. Her legs were closed but I stroked her where they met, trying to tempt her, coax her to open them.

“Please,” she said again.

We were alone, she was on the couch next to me with her blouse and bra undone, her breasts naked to my touch, her skirt bunched around her waist, I wanted her so much I could barely speak. “Please what?”

“Not like this, Peter. Not at all.”

“But tell me how, then. Tell me everything,” I said. “Whatever you want.”

She shook her head. “That’s not the way, either.”

“Then let me tell you how I want to make love to you,” I said. “Wouldn’t you like to hear?”

“Haven’t you said that enough?”

I thought if I too were unprotected, she might be able to trust me. “Would you like me to take off my clothes?”

She said nothing, and as fast as I could I unbuttoned my shirt and threw it on the floor, pulled off my shoes without untying them, unbuckled my belt ― “Please turn off the light if you’re going to do that,” she said. She turned her head slightly away. In a moment I had turned off the lamps, and in another I was naked next to her in the not-quite-dark. A light in the courtyard cast stripes on the ceiling through the mini-blinds. She glanced at me and then away again. I picked up her hand and guided it to my throbbing penis, tried to curve her fingers around it. “It’s okay. Don’t you see? Please, I’m dying to have you touch me.”

Her fingertips barely touched the head of my penis. “I used to think there was something more,” she said.


“Like a pin. Something more that comes out sometimes. When men have erections.”

“A pin?”

“You can make yourself come now if you have to.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Isn’t that what you want? But you can’t come on me. Or on the couch.”

“Wait,” I said. “Wait. This pin. Do you just not know anything? About making love?” A miraculous, impossible story blossomed in an instant: that I would be her first, her initiator, her tender guide into the depths of love.

“I must have heard it from my mother. I know, it’s silly, isn’t it?”

“You believed that?”

“Well, I was only a little kid.”

But not any longer. I traced the hard curve of her rib cage and the soft firmness of her breasts. She acted as if nothing were happening, but she didn’t stop me. My fingertips tingled with tenderness and desire. “Doesn’t it give you pleasure when I touch you?” I said. “Doesn’t it?”

She turned to look full at me in the dimness. She examined my nakedness up and down, not skipping my hard penis that stood toward her. “I’m yours,” I said. “Please let me be your lover. I’ll do anything you want. I can’t stop thinking about you, I want you so much.”

I tried to put my arms around her but she turned herself in such a way that instead I grasped at air and slipped awkwardly to the floor. I righted myself and knelt in front of her and thought, What did I do wrong? The carpet was scratchy beneath my knees. “Margo,” I said.

She wouldn’t look at me. “What?”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know you don’t.”

“Please,” I said. “Look at me.”

But she didn’t look. “Get dressed.”

Slowly, I picked up my clothes off the floor and carried them into the bathroom. I closed the door behind me; I thought of turning off the light and masturbating. In the mirror was my bewildered self. No wonder she didn’t want me if I looked like that. I got dressed, listening for any sounds from the living room; but all was quiet.

One lamp by the couch was on again, but she was not there. Not anywhere in the living room, not in the kitchen that was separated from it only by a counter, not in the bedroom; she was not in the apartment at all. She had left the door to the outside slightly ajar.





It was nearly midnight and I was alone in your apartment. Was it so intolerable then, what had almost happened, so unthinkable that you were hiding in the shadows and waiting for me to go away, wishing you had never let me set foot there, much less touch you? But there was no taking it back.

It was time for me to leave, and I knew that if I did, I would never come back. But I felt your secrets all around me and I couldn’t walk out on them. It was a crazy thing to imagine after what had happened, but maybe leaving me alone with them was a way of trusting me, inviting me to another kind of intimacy . . . wasn’t it all strange with you from the start? I had an illicit vision of myself untying a bundle of saved letters, pulling one at random from its envelope. Going through your drawers, your keepsakes, reading your diary, crawling into your bed to know what it felt like to sleep there alone. To leave the imprint of myself there so that you would, all unknowing, sleep with me, grow used to me, make room for me. I imagined stealing one of your dresses and taking you with me in that form when I left . . . yet all your clothes were only disguises, your closet burst with untruths.

In your bedroom I turned on a lamp on the vanity and looked around at all the armaments of your femininity, foreign to me, inviting and repelling me at once. Were they meant to make you beautiful to a man (to me?) or to armor you against all men, to draw the line of this far and no farther? Apparently I could not stop trying to cross it. On top of the dresser was a wooden chest with a hinged lid, carved, with ivory inlay; inside the chest a tangle of necklaces, an old charm bracelet, an amber comb, and a photo album, red leather with gold embossing. I picked up the album and carried it over to the vanity where I could open it under the lamp. If you came in now. But why had you left me alone there, if not for me to know you?

Banal snapshots of what I assumed must be your parents. A raised ranch house, a cocker spaniel, a swing set with a child on it, but the child was only five or six and I could not be sure it was you. She appeared to have been specially dressed up for the picture. Child with parents. Was she the only child? Apparently. They were not rich and not poor. They were white. In their driveway was a 1952 Ford. Then a different house. I was more certain now that it was you in the pictures. You posed on your father’s lap on a front porch swing, riding with your small legs straddling one of his thighs, his big hands grasping your torso. He looked as if having his picture taken made him uncomfortable.

Then it was your birthday. You were smaller again, wearing a party dress with lacy short sleeves and a spangled cardboard party hat held on by elastic, sitting at a kitchen table in front of an enormous birthday cake. I tried to count the candles and thought there were five, but the focus wasn’t very sharp. Next page, next birthday. Everything but the dress and the number of candles was the same. Next birthday, you were sitting at a different kitchen table, a chrome and Formica dinette, must have been after the move. And the next. In this one there was a big candy 8 on the top of the cake, and I recognized the Margo I knew. I decided that your mother must have made you a birthday dress every year because the style was always the same, and they were always some shade of pink, and they always fit so they had to be new. I turned the page, you were nine and apparently your parents never got tired of the same ritual. I turned the page and it was the same scene at a different kitchen table (moved again?), the same cake with a 10 on top, but the dress was different, this time you were wearing a miniature evening gown, your hair waved like a grown-up’s, you were wearing a little strand of fake pearls and if I wasn’t mistaken lipstick, and you had on white net gloves and a ring on your gloved finger. I thought of the work your mother must have put into dressing you like that, how indulgent she must have been. Next page, birthday again, everything was again the same, same kitchen as before, same cake, another evening dress, but the girl in the dress, now eleven, was terribly wrong, still smiling with lipsticked mouth but out of a face in which every bone showed, your nose sharp like an old woman’s, your arms like twigs, joints protruding, the cake that had always been too big now obscene in front of what appeared to be a starving child, starving yet smiling – how could you be smiling, and how could such a picture be taken as if this year were no different from the last? How could it be just one more page in your family album, did they not understand that it was like dressing up the inmates of the camp for a photo op? I thought I heard a footstep in the other room and hurried to turn the page, glimpsed the next year (you looked almost as bad) before I was sure that you had returned and I had to close the album. Because surely you did not want me to see that.



“Oh,” she said, in the doorway of the bedroom. “I wondered where you were.”


“What were you looking at?”

I held up the album, red under the lamplight. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have.”

“You must have gotten bored, if you found that.”

“Not at all.” Wasn’t she angry, now when she should be?

“It wasn’t very nice to just leave you here, was it? Without saying a word.”

“Oh well. I guess I upset you. I mean, I know I did.”

Margo avoided my eyes. For an instant I thought, though it made no sense, that she looked guilty, but I was the guilty one, pushing the evening over the edge and then on top of that, prying into her private things ― “I’m sorry,” I said.

“I have a little, tiny, baby headache,” she said slowly, still without looking me in the eye. “I think what I need is some tea. Would you like some?”

I did not understand, but I was becoming accustomed to not understanding, with her. “I would,” I said carefully, telling myself that I would assume nothing anymore.



She had put on a blue linen jacket over the red blouse when she went out; it was the first time I had seen her wear something that didn’t go with an outfit. Her hair, too, was no longer just so. Margo put the kettle on the stove and we both stood in the kitchen waiting for it to boil. The clock on the wall said twenty past twelve. She seemed to be in no hurry to talk, and I wasn’t, either. What had happened didn’t seem to bear talking about, but neither did anything else.

I said, “Did you go for a walk?”

“No.” Would she say more? Apparently not. The silence grew too long before the kettle started to sing.

“Do you mind that I looked at your photo album?”

“No.” But didn’t she know what I saw there?

“Where did you grow up?”

“All over. We moved around a lot. Actually I don’t remember much of it before I was nine or so. I see the pictures but they don’t really seem familiar.”


“I guess they were never satisfied.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. The kettle whistled. Once we were sitting on the couch, I took a sip of tea and said, “My dad was never satisfied, either.”

“With being a gardener?”

“With anything.”

“He must have been satisfied with you, Peter, when you did so well in school.”

“He kept it a secret. Anyway, it wasn’t enough.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know. To make them happy, I guess.”

“Well, of course not,” Margo said, as if she knew. She slipped her shoes off and rearranged herself so she was sitting with her feet tucked under her. “I’m not quite ready to go to sleep,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I said, “Just tell me when I should leave.”

She smiled as if I meant to amuse her, and touched me on the arm, sending a current through me. “You’re a funny boy, Peter.”

“I am?” I didn’t want to be called a boy ― but if it meant she could touch me . . . “Can I ask you something?”

“It’s not the same thing as before, is it?” she said, but now maybe there was a faint gleam of amusement in her eye.

“No. It’s about the pictures. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.”

We sat and sipped at the too-hot tea, looking not at each other but at the furnishings. I felt as though I had been in her apartment for more than an evening.

“I wouldn’t eat,” she said, as if that were an explanation.

“It must have been awful,” I said.

“I really don’t remember it being one way or the other. Supposedly I wanted to look that way. That’s what my mother would tell you. But she doesn’t know.”

“What did you want, then?”

“I’m not sure.” She blew on her tea delicately; her shoulders were hunched a little as if she were chilly.

“Do you still have a headache?”

“A little,” she said. “It’s nothing.” Her eyes met mine, and for the first time it seemed as though we saw each other with nothing to gain or lose. Haven’t I always known you? I thought, as if it had unaccountably slipped my mind, and if I stopped to think I would remember.

“Want me to give you a backrub?” I said.

“Are you going to get other ideas?”

“I already had them.”

She turned her back to me and I massaged her shoulders through the thin material of the jacket, gently; I paid attention to each vertebra in her neck, to the hollows behind her earlobes, I slid my fingers up into the roots of her hair at the nape of her neck. I held her head between my hands, only touching with the tips of my fingers and thumbs, and she let me tilt her ever so slightly from side to side. I closed my eyes and leaned closer to her, pulled down the collar of her jacket a little in back, and kissed her lightly on the back of her neck. She did not move away; I could smell the scent of her skin and the faint perfume. My hands remained on her shoulders; neither of us moved for several breaths.

I felt the unimagined was about to begin.

She touched my hands with her fingertips, briefly. “Thank you,” she said. “You do that really well.”

“Any time.”

“Will you be my on-call masseuse?”

“Sure,” I said, wondering if she had any idea that was a euphemism for someone to have sex with. “Masseur, that is.”


“Masseur. Masculine. Not masseuse.”

“Oh.” I thought she sounded disappointed. “Well, are you usually available this time of night?”

“Try me and see.”

“But I’m not calling for ― you know.”

“I know, believe me.” I’m crazy to let this make me happy, I thought.

Margo sighed contentedly. “Now I could go to sleep,” she said. She stretched her arms above her head and arched her back, shrugging my hands off her shoulders.

“Yeah,” I said reluctantly. It was almost one by the kitchen clock. “Well. Yeah, it’s time.”

She turned around and looked me over in a sprightly, sisterly way; she tousled up my hair with her nails and laughed at the effect. “Sleepyhead,” she said. “Are you a sleepyhead too?”

“I am.”

“Want to sleep here? You wouldn’t have to drive back to Mountain View.”

“I ― of course I ― I mean you know that . . . “

“The couch pulls out. It’s really a perfectly fine bed, I’ve slept on it before. I’ll give you a robe and a toothbrush, and we can have a sleepover,” she said brightly. “What do you say?”

“All right.” I knew nothing, I understood nothing, what did she want, what did she mean . . . I had to stop trying to make sense of her. No telling what she knew and what she didn’t, or whether she was thirty or thirteen. Margo went into her bedroom and reappeared with a white silk robe, embroidered with orange peonies, a kind of garment I had never imagined myself wearing. “There you are,” she said. “You can have the bathroom first.”

“Thank you.”

“You’ll see, there are some toothbrushes in a cup on the shelf, they’ve never been used. I buy too many, that’s all.”

She went back in her room and shut the door, and in a daze I took off my shoes and padded into the bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror. Okay, Peter, who are you now? And what do you think this is? Decipher this word: a sleepover. But I could not.

I chose one of her extra toothbrushes and brushed my teeth, peed, took off my clothes except for my underpants, then realized I had left the robe in the living room. I imagined her undressing in the next room, sleeping on the other side of the wall, with me on call, whatever that meant . . . would I sleep at all, or only spend the whole night waiting for her to say my name? I opened the bathroom door with my clothes under my arm and stepped out to find Margo, in a red robe over pajamas, taking the cushions off the couch. She looked at me in my white underpants and smiled indulgently. “You bad boy,” she said, as if I had told a risqué joke that had nothing to do with her. “Put your robe on.”

I slipped on the slick silk garment and tied its long sash, feeling absurdly Oriental, a cartoon Asian, a eunuch, was that what she really thought of me?

“Help me pull it out, okay?”

Together we unfolded the sofa bed and made it up, tucking the two sides in synchrony like a married couple. She had brought a comforter and two pillows ― could it mean . . . ?

“Do you have everything?” she said.

I managed not to say that I had everything but her. “Thank you.”

She went into the bathroom and turned on the fan, so I wouldn’t hear her pee, I thought. I turned off the lights, took off the robe, got in bed and lay there waiting for her to come out. Certain now there would be no sleep. She opened the door and turned the bathroom light off; in the dim light from the courtyard I could see her looking down at me as I lay there. What was she thinking? Come here, I thought to her, let me hold you, you will not come to any harm.

“Goodnight,” she whispered, as if something might be disturbed if she spoke in her normal voice.


I prayed that she would leave the door to her room open but she closed it with a click. And now the rest of the night stretched ahead.



I heard her footsteps in the bedroom, a drawer opening and closing, the click of a lamp being turned off, then silence. The neighborhood was quiet. I had to hold onto my penis to bear the desire; again I wanted to masturbate but I wouldn’t let myself. If I told Sheldon and Jay that I had spent the night at her apartment, they would refuse to believe this was how I spent it, alone on the fold-out couch holding onto my dick and feeling it throb. Yet I had to triumph over desire, over self ― it was all too private and inexplicable to tell anyone. But why, they would say, if I finally convinced them of what had happened, then what made her ask you to stay, what did she want? and I would have no answers but they would not accept that, as if there had to be a why, as if I knew. Or worse, as if they did.

Their language had no word for this. But I understood why Sheldon thought she might be a man. Something was always off. I could testify she wasn’t that, but what was she then, a woman or a child or what, and was she always acting a part or only sometimes? Now I was onstage too, in her play called “sleepover,” but she wouldn’t let me see the script, I didn’t know my lines, I didn’t even know what my part was called. Play date, brother, boyfriend? Was this her idea of boyfriend? That would be worst of all.

It was too late now to go home and neither could I open her bedroom door, enter her room, enter her bed, why not was unclear but I knew. All I could do was lie there one room away from her with nothing stopping me but everything stopping me. It was like doing isometrics all night. And what was she thinking, or was she serenely asleep while my heart raced and my balls ached?



I wanted to get angry, to call you a cock tease, a ball breaker, if only so I could go to sleep, but it was impossible to do anything but continue to lie there as if I knew, in fact, everything that mattered: you wanted me, we were going to be together . . . on the basis of what?

The bright stripes on the walls and ceiling cast by the light in the courtyard didn’t move. Every once in a while, a car passed by outside, but its headlights did not reach into the apartment. I kept turning over, changing the position of my legs, trying to get comfortable and never succeeding. The small of my back hurt, clenched in frustrated desire. I kept wanting to know what time it was but couldn’t see the kitchen clock. Maybe it was good that I couldn’t watch the hands crawl. And when morning did come, what then? How could I be anything but useless after such a night? Just imagining the effort to be on my good behavior was too exhausting . . .

Without realizing it, I fell asleep.






The sound of the bedroom door opening penetrated my sleeping brain and by the time I surfaced and opened my eyes, she was standing by my bed in the dark in her pajamas, holding something in one arm, watching me. I raised my head slightly and saw that she had a stuffed animal.

“I had a bad dream,” she said.

“Oh.” I had a hard time getting my voice to work. My mouth was dry and tasted bitter.

“Can I be here for a while?” Like a little girl coming to her parents for comfort.


She got under the comforter and put the stuffed animal between us. I felt its head and its horn and realized it was a unicorn. Foolish thing. “What did you dream?” I said.

“Bad things.”

She lay with her head turned away from me, on her stomach. “Thanks for letting me come in,” she said.

“My pleasure.”

A kid crawls into her parents’ bed after a nightmare and in a moment she’s out like a light. But I was not her mom and dad. Was she actually going to go to sleep, right there, less than an arm’s length away? Worn out but helplessly awake, I imagined caressing her, first through the thin material of her pajamas, and then sliding my hand under the top, up her bare back, and then past the waistband of her pants – how she would turn over and let me unbutton . . .

I laid my hand in the middle of her back and did not move it, felt her breathe in and out. Silently I pushed my hard-on against the mattress. The contact between us radiated outwards from where my hand rested on her. I felt it entering every part of me and willed it so to enter her, to spread gradually and irresistibly until she knew she could open to me because she already had. Please, I kept thinking. Please.

Margo reached back and took my hand away, but held onto it and didn’t let go. She lay holding my hand and every once in a while she would give it a little squeeze. After a while I wasn’t sure if she was awake, or doing it in her sleep. Or perhaps we were both asleep. Would I even remember this in the morning?

She turned her head to face me; I opened my eyes, and saw that hers were open, gazing at me.

“Are you okay like this?” she said.

“I guess.”

“I’m sorry I woke you up.”

“It’s okay.”

“I don’t sleep well. I’m kind of used to it. But I shouldn’t wake you up.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

She closed her eyes and gave my hand another little squeeze, as if to say goodnight. After a bit I closed my eyes too, though I was sure I wouldn’t sleep.


“Yes?” I looked at her, but her eyes were still closed, and I closed mine again.

“Is this too hard for you?”

Yes, it is. “I can do it.”

“Thank you.”



My awareness was all in that hand that was holding and being held by yours. There, we were already together.


Lowry Pei has written seven novels, the first of which, Family Resemblances, was published in 1986 by Random House (Vintage Contemporary, 1988). He had a story in Best American Short Stories 1984 (“The Cold Room”), and one in The American Story: The Best of Story Quarterly (“Naked Women”). He has published half a dozen short stories, some non-fiction (essays, memoirs, criticism), and some book reviews, including two in the New York Times Book Review. Most of this work can be found on his website, www.lowrypei.com.

Pei has taught at Harvard University, Simmons College, UC San Diego, and the University of Missouri. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife, Vaughn Sills, a photographer who also teaches at Simmons.


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