After graduating from library school, Shelley moved to San Francisco and I visited her the following spring. She lived in a group house that was correctional-center-jumpsuit orange. Tibetan prayer flags festooned the windows and fluttered in the breeze. Her move into the group house surprised me because when she was stressed out, she used to wipe our doorknobs with alcohol swabs, but she said she’d come to terms with dirt.
“It’s natural,” she said. “My immune system has only gotten stronger since I stopped fearing filth.” She laughed to show me she was joking but she also told me I needed a probiotic. There was a sign in the Orange House bathroom. It read: If it’s brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow, let it mellow.
Over dinner at a vegetarian diner, she mentioned that she wanted to take me to a party in Oakland. One of her housemates was a dot-com sultan who’d cashed out before the first bubble burst. He was slumming with the rest of them, but her housemates speculated that he was rich—a potential point of contention, their strict anti-capitalist ideals at odds with wealth, but he paid his dues on time and had built the chicken coop. Either way, some of his friends owned a house in the Oakland Hills and were throwing a party.
She leaned forward. “They rented a hot tub.”
I was surprised how excited Shelley was about sharing a hot tub with strangers.
I told her that I hadn’t brought a bathing suit.
“I wouldn’t worry about that. You can wear your bra and panties if you’re feeling shy.”
If I was feeling shy!
“I know,” she said. “I’ve changed.”
I nodded, thinking I should congratulate Shelley on her growth, but I felt I didn’t know her anymore.
As we walked back to the house, Shelley spoke rapturously about Tom—the Dot-Com Sultan— and told me I was going to love him. After a beat, she said, “He’s Chinese,” and her announcement hung between us. She glanced at me, eager for my approval. It was like when a teacher sat an Asian kid next to me in school, all matchy-matchy.
I asked what kind of company Tom had before he cashed out.
“He’s very cagey about it. I tried to look him up but couldn’t come up with anything.”
Then Tom walked in. He didn’t work, but Shelley said he’d been away buying supplies for a project. He was back for the party.
I don’t know what I expected. Maybe a bearded man-boy cloaked in social anxiety and a hooded sweatshirt. Instead, Tom was clean-shaven, had good posture, and wore a plain button-down shirt. He had a confident hairline, a strong jaw made adorable by a cleft chin, and eyes that trained on your face as if he was imprinting you on his brain for future daydreaming.
I was interested in everything he had to say.
Tom offered me his hand. “Ready to take a dip?”
I said I was undecided.
Shelley squeezed my arm. “I’m so glad you two could finally meet.”
Tom had a truck, so Shelley and I squeezed into the cab with him. She sat between us and wore a prim, satisfied look.
We drove across the Bay Bridge and the temperature rose. Shelley lectured me about microclimates and I stared out the window.
We arrived at a large stone house that made me think of a ski chalet, although I’ve never been skiing. Inside was a large open room with a sunken conversation pit lined with cushions and tasseled pillows.
In front of the conversation pit, a large fireplace had been filled with computer monitors from the 1980s and 1990s retrofitted as fish tanks. They were all lit up and the colorful fish flitted amongst kitschy treasure chests and sunken ships. The people in the conversation pit watched the fish tanks like they were television.
Shelley walked over to a table set with champagne in tiny cans, energy drinks, and beer. She brought me champagne. Tom took a beer. I didn’t see any food.
Warm, blippy electronic music came out of dozens of hidden speakers, streaming from a computer in a dim alcove.
The kitchen was off a small corridor. There was a tight knot of people standing over a vegetable platter. Tom put his hand on a young white woman’s shoulder and squeezed it. I’d just met Tom, barely spoken to him, but I hated seeing his hand on her shoulder. She leaned her head back. She was blond with a stubby nose and three eyebrow rings in the outer corner of her right brow. She gave Tom an air kiss.
Tom introduced us. Shelley and I gave shy waves.
“Has anyone gone in yet?” Tom looked eagerly at the group.
Kiera, the blonde, reached over, linked arms with Tom, and said, “We’ve only got it for the day, so we better go enjoy it.” These were the nascent days of tech excess.
Tom unlinked arms with her and took my hand. “Alice and I will go in together. She’s our guest.”
Shelley looked at Tom with disappointment, then grabbed my other hand. “Me too.” When I looked at her and tried to shake my head, she said, “Come on, Alice. It’ll be fun.”
Kiera walked over to Tom and said, “It’ll be a tight fit but I guess you don’t mind.” She flicked her eyes across Shelley, but pointedly ignored me.
Tom crinkled his eyes in appeasement. I suspected he was using us as a buffer.
He swung our arms. “Can’t wait.”
Kiera ran ahead. Cheap lanterns hung from the trees and cicadas competed with the little splashes as she invited us into the hot tub. She was naked. The soft burbling sound of circulating water had never sounded as menacing to my ears as it did then.
Shelley broke free from Tom and pulled her clothes off. Her pale skin stood stark against the dark night and then she was in the hot tub. Tom pulled his clothes off and levered one tanned leg over the rim.
I didn’t want to be naked, not in front of Shelley, Tom, or Kiera, but I didn’t want to be a prude. I stripped. First my full support bra with its heavy straps and unsexy beige reinforced cups, and then my plain white underwear. I stepped into the hot tub with as much dignity as I could and settled in between Shelley and Tom.
The steam from the hot tub made Shelley’s hair go frizzy and her glasses go foggy.
Kiera had curves but no extra fat that I could see. Shelley had a thin boyish body. And then there was me. Sometimes Shelley said she envied my large breasts but she never said anything about my thick thighs.
Kiera splashed about and kept murmuring how “awesome” she felt, then she lifted her foot out of the tub to show off her green manicured toes.
“Tom,” she said, “did I tell you a guy paid me $500 to photograph my toes?”
“That right?” Tom said.
“Yes, and then he offered me another $500 if I’d let him suck on my toes and film it.”
Shelley leaned forward. “What did you do?”
Kiera leaned back and kicked her feet a bit so water splashed us. “I made a thousand bucks for something I would have done for free.”
“That’s so empowering,” said Shelley. We used to laugh at people who said things like that.
Tom was quiet. He put his arm around me and that was Kiera’s cue to stand up and say she wanted to smoke. I moved away from Tom and his arm fell into the hot tub with a splash. Kiera looked at me and said, “Tom likes it when girls play hard to get.” She winked at me but it felt as if she’d pinched me instead.
Shelley stretched her foot and nudged my shin. “You can’t do this in New York, can you?”
“I better not get a UTI,” I said.
Shelley sat tracking my every movement, looking to see what Tom did with his hands.
Tom turned to me and said, “I guess this isn’t as glamorous as it looks on TV.”
“When I think of hot tubs, I always think of these cheesy ads for the Mount Airy Lodge,” I said.
“I remember those!” said Tom. “If only we were sitting in a hot tub shaped like a martini glass.”
Shelley pouted. “No fair.” She had grown up in Maine, far from the Poconos and the tri-state area.
Tom stood up. I looked at his groin and saw that the hairs were wiry but nearly straight like mine.
“Want to go to In-N-Out?”
I looked away from his cock, but not before I noticed the way it twitched, halfway erect.
The next day Shelley left early. She’d been quiet after we returned from In-N-Out but when I asked if she was upset, she said she was just tired. Tom had asked me lots of questions about my life in New York, but I always tried to pull Shelley into the conversation.
I flipped through my travel guide and felt exhausted thinking about all the touristy things I should do while I was in town. I looked at a map and saw that at the end of Golden Gate Park was a beach. In between jobs, I worked part-time organizing and cataloging a rich man’s private library. I thought I’d take a bus to the beach and read there before heading back to pick up a rare book Mr. Haggerty had on reserve at a store downtown. When he found out I was heading out west he’d become excited and said he’d pay me fifty dollars to act as courier.
When I grew tired of walking, I sat on a bench. I had a book, but I wasn’t really reading it. Then a man sat down next to me. It was Tom.
He gave a shy wave.
“Did you follow me?” I meant it as a joke, but it came out like an accusation.
“I like to come out here once in a while.” He bumped my shoulder playfully. “Look at that.” He pointed out into the sea at dramatic rock formations.
I looked where he pointed.
“Have you been inside the camera obscura?”
I shook my head no, and he took my hand and tugged it before dropping it again.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
We walked up a hill, and there it was, the camera obscura inside a small building made to resemble a cheap 35mm camera.
We stepped inside and were surrounded by a silvery image of the sea and swooping birds. The dark rocks looked cruel.
It was mid-morning; no one else was there. Tom held my hand again.
“Did you have big plans for today?”
I told him I had to go to pick up Mr. Haggerty’s book. He asked if I wanted a ride back into the city.
The bookstore only traded in rare books and prints. When I told a man behind the counter that I was picking up something for Mr. Haggerty he nodded and went to the back. When he returned, he placed the book in front of me. Tom was standing next to me and I could feel his eyes as he watched me examine the book for flaws. The man had given me white cotton gloves and I carefully examined the spine and binding before I turned the pages. It was an art book of color reproductions of Japanese erotic wooden block prints—ukiyo-e shunga. By today’s erotica standards, the prints were somewhat comical with exaggerated phalluses and bodies twisted into sexual positions, participants nearly fully clothed except for their inflamed genitals.
After I determined that there was no damage, I signaled for the clerk to prepare the book for travel.
There was an awkward silence while we waited. To fill the void, I explained to Tom about Mr. Haggerty.
“Are you some kind of expert?”
“It’s just a job,” I said. I’d already decided I didn’t want to work in archives.
“Is he a pervert?” Tom asked.
“I mean, does he collect erotica? Yes. Does that make him a pervert? I don’t know.”
“But what do you think?” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. I spent very little time with Mr. Haggerty. I wasn’t getting call-backs for interviews. I’d spent every spare cent on this trip.
“I think I like a paycheck,” I said.
“He’s white, isn’t he,” Tom said.
“Typical,” he said, mouth pursed like he’d tasted something rancid.
I ignored him and waited for the book and then tucked it under my arm and exited the shop, not waiting for Tom to follow.
Back in his truck, I nestled the heavy book in my lap. Tom said, “Could I show you something I’ve been working on?”
“Depends on what it is.” I imagined something techy and addicting; some product that would net new riches.
“Let’s keep that a secret until we get back to the house.”
I’ve always liked secrets. I nodded happily.
He turned on the radio and we listened instead of talking.
At the house Tom opened the door to his bedroom and invited me inside. His room was spare— a large comfortable-looking bed with a white down comforter on top and a wooden wardrobe instead of a closet. There was a small table pushed up against the wall with two windows, but other than that, there wasn’t anything else in the room except for a small bookcase.
He pulled a wooden chair out from the table and motioned for me to sit down. Once I was positioned, I saw that behind the door, in the far corner, stood a dressmaker’s dummy and a basket of ribbons and other findings. I had expected computer towers and electronic doodads but the only computer was a laptop on the table with crappy speakers attached.
He moved to the wardrobe and pulled back its doors. He took out a few items on metal hangers and laid them on his bed. They were corsets. One was a shimmery blue in a quilted silk, topped with blue lacy cups; the other was similar but in a gradually deepening pink with black lacy cups. They were beautiful objects but the hooks in the front made them seem punishing, as well.
Tom gestured toward the corsets. “I made them.”
He looked at them lovingly, but with a hint of confusion. “I’m good with my hands.”
He walked to the bed quietly, as if afraid to disturb his creations, and gently lifted the pink one. Then he walked over so quickly I didn’t have much time to react. He held the corset in front of me, as if measuring its potential fit against my body. I stiffened.
His voice came out hesitant and husky. “Would you try it on for me?”
I tried to move the chair back but it bumped against the table.
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not? I’ve already seen you naked.” He tried to smile, but when he saw the look on my face he said, “I’m sorry. That sounds awful. Would it help if I told you I think you’re beautiful?”
What woman doesn’t want to be told she’s beautiful?
I gave him a skeptical look. “Why don’t you ask one of your friends? Why not ask Kiera?”
“She’d get the wrong idea. Plus, she’s already too vampy. Tattoos up and down her body. You already know what you’re going to get. You’re a blank canvas. I like that.”
“Oh, come on. Do you really expect me to fall for that?”’
He lowered his eyes in mock contrition. “Maybe.”
“How do you know her?”
He kept shaking his head slightly, as if he couldn’t explain to himself. “I used to go to this bar, Crimson & Clover. We’d see each other around.”
“And we were sort of involved.”
“And now you’re not?” I said.
“No. But we have mutual friends, so I still see her around.”
“She still likes you,” I said in a teasing voice.
“I can’t help it if someone wants something I can’t give them.”
“Why do men think women want things men can’t give?” I asked. “When the truth is they just don’t want to give anything at all?”
I remembered how he’d held my hand and then let go, like he was testing me.
He looked at me head-on for the first time. “Anyway, that was a long time ago. I’m actually celibate. Trying not to let things get complicated.”
“Making corsets is a terrible way to take your mind off sex.”
“True,” he said.
“This is very San Francisco,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“San Francisco seems to live by this ethos of ethical abstention. It’s not about what you do, but about what you don’t do.” I wrinkled my nose.
“You’re not wrong,” he said.
“Is this the kind of hobby dot-com millionaires take up when they retire? Why not devote yourself to good works?”
“Everyone thinks I’m some kind of computer guy because of my friends. I guess I let them believe that. I had a carpentry business back in Jersey—I built all the furniture in this room. I saved enough to take some time off.”
I fingered the bottom of the corset.
He looked down at me. “Come on. Try it on. I promise, this isn’t sexual. Not the way you think it is.”
“That’s not exactly a compliment.”
He took my hand and held it against his crotch. I let him hold my hand there and I felt his erection.
“This seems very sexual to me,” I said, ready for the obvious to happen.
I stood up and faced him. Then I took the hanger and walked to his bed. Once I was down to my underwear I turned and saw him watching me. He had an unreadable expression on his face.
I took off my bra and pulled the corset down over my torso. I adjusted my breasts—the cups were stretchy—and pointed to my back. “How do I do this up by myself?”
“You don’t. You need a partner.”
I turned again and waited for him to pull the laces tight. I gasped a bit as he did. He was gentle, though, and was careful not to tug or pinch. When he finished, I turned around. I realized he must have had a big girl in mind, bigger than Kiera, bigger than Shelley, when he made the corset, because it fit like it was made just for me.
He pulled and adjusted the front and then stepped back as if to admire his handicraft. I felt shy and looked over his shoulder out the window into the backyard. There was an elaborate wooden chicken coop and a couple of chickens pecking in a fenced-in area. I squared my shoulders and imagined myself as a male peacock, unfolding my tail feathers in haughty grandeur. I looked into his face and walked up to him, my hands on my hips.
He just stared at me, making me nervous.
“So? What do you think?”
He licked his lips and took a step back. “Can I take some pictures?”
I shook my head. “No. No, no, no, no. Are you crazy?”
“I want to remember this.”
“That’s what your memory is for,” I said.
I read desire on his face. It was like a war he was losing with himself.
“Fine,” I said.
He walked to his wardrobe and pulled out a camera. He posed me in front of the white wall. I stood still, the flash of the camera making me hyperaware of my body. I was glad it wasn’t a digital camera. I didn’t want to see myself.
After photographing me he walked over to the wardrobe and pulled the other door open. There was a full-length mirror. He pulled me to the door and stood behind me and made me look. He held me close to his body and took a photo of us looking into the mirror, his face obscured by the camera. The flash was blinding when it bounced back at us.
The corset was beautiful. They’re made to cinch us in, and I felt turned on just wearing the thing. I surprised myself.
I turned around to look at him. He wrapped his arms around me. He was much taller than I am. When I moved my arms to hold his torso, he flinched at first but then relaxed. For a long time we held each other without moving. We were seemingly fused. I could feel everything in my breasts, between my thighs, in the way my back prickled in anticipation. I waited for him to move on, to kiss me. I anticipated it with so much longing I could almost feel a shadow weight against my lips, but instead of kissing me he leaned his head into the side of my neck and placed his nose against the back of my left ear. I’ve always been sensitive there and this made me grip him tighter. He took a big breath. He made these animalistic snuffling sounds as he sniffed me, like a truffle pig. Then he released me and moved away.
“Thank you,” he said, face flushed.
I was also flushed, and confused. I moved toward him, but he took a step back.
“This is enough,” he said.
I didn’t believe him, so I walked up to him but he backed away and shook his head.
“You have to undo me,” I said, frustrated at being trapped in his disappointing fantasy. I pointed at my back.
“I’ll loosen you. I want you to keep it. I don’t need it anymore.”
I turned around and like a film in reverse he undid the ribbon and I realized how shallow my breaths had been. I was lightheaded.
He walked over to the window and stared out at the chickens.
I put my shirt on over the corset—he’d loosened it, but it was still snug enough to wear. I put my jeans on and bundled my bra in my hands.
I walked over to Tom and touched his arm.
“You better go,” he said. He hugged his torso, all rigid, and refused to look at me.
I waited, but when he continued to look out the window, I walked out the door.
As I closed his door Shelley came down the hall and saw my bra.
She didn’t say anything but pursed her lips and shook her head. As she was about to close her door I said, “It’s not what you think,” but it didn’t matter. She thought we had fucked, and I would never be able to convince her otherwise.
I left the house and walked around Haight-Ashbury as if everything was normal. As if I felt normal.
When I returned, I saw Shelley had been crying, which seemed like an overreaction. I asked her what was wrong, even though I already knew.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“Look. Nothing happened.”
She stood up and said, “I have to get out of here. I’m going to stay with my friend Karen. Leave the key with Dan before you leave.”
I reached for her arm and said that she was being silly, and she shook me off and said I didn’t have any boundaries. That I didn’t know how to read people’s signals. I lost my patience and said she was acting like a middle schooler whose crush doesn’t like them back. She looked at me with hate so I took it back, and I said we shouldn’t be fighting over Tom, but she shook me off again.
The next day I knocked on Tom’s door. There was no answer, so I looked up and down the hall before I tried the knob. The room was empty. I walked inside and opened the wardrobe and fingered his shirts and jeans. I saw his camera at the bottom and picked it up. There wasn’t any film in it. He had either already taken the film to be developed or he had been role-playing. I hadn’t brought a camera, but the light was unusually clear for San Francisco, so I took the camera and bought film at a drugstore down the block.
Shelley came back that night and we hugged and agreed that it had been silly to fight over a man. From a distance our friendship looked intact but up close you saw the cracks.
After two days I knew Tom wasn’t coming back until I was gone.
I couldn’t ask Shelley about it. This was a topic we so strenuously avoided it almost hurt, physically.
I wandered down Valencia Street for an afternoon. I visited all the touristy places in my guidebook and documented everything with Tom’s camera.
I stood in a bathroom in a café. The wall was surprisingly white and graffiti free. I took a felt-tipped pen from my bag and wrote in big letters: “Where’s Tom?”
I stood next to my graffiti and took some self-portraits, hoping at least one came out halfway decent.
After I returned to New York I asked for doubles at the photo place. The story my photos told was so ordinary. I couldn’t believe how deranged I’d felt walking the streets.
I mailed my best self-portrait to Shelley’s house and included my phone number. I wrote TOM in big letters on top of the address and hoped for the best.
A week later I woke up to my telephone ringing on my nightstand.
Then I heard his voice.
He breathed heavily.
“What would you have done if I had kissed you?”
He sounded drunk.
“I should have kissed you, Alice.”
I loved the sound of my name in his mouth. He whispered what he’d do to me if all those lonely, inconvenient miles didn’t separate us, and I heard the strain, and then the sigh after his release. I was flattered by his desire and felt superior to his cowardice. I didn’t touch myself until we hung up, so he couldn’t hear what he did to me.
Years later, Shelley had three sons, posted wellness videos, and said she wasn’t against vaccines for other people, but it was her body, her choice. I only followed her to hate-watch what a silly, dangerous bitch she had become.
Tom was a ghost. He had ceased to matter.
But after I was married and almost slapped my teenage son when he was rude to me, and forced myself not to run out of the apartment screaming when my husband forgot something at the store, and marveled at my therapist when she insisted that forgetfulness was a form of passive aggression, like I was supposed to do something as impossible as change a man and his bad habits, that was when I wished I’d asked for the photos Tom had taken. Not to destroy them, but because I was lovelier than I had understood, and to remember a time when I was careless, but my life wasn’t so predictable, and there was still room for surprise, even if it was fucked up, and not something you could tell anyone else about.