I once brought a girl home because I liked her shoes. That was the only thing I noticed about her. I live in a really small apartment. A lot of my clothes end up piled on my mattress or draped over the open door of the microwave. I guess the girl with the pink high heels woke up in the middle of the night and didn’t remember where she was. She went out naked in the hall and closed the door behind her. She said that she had asked me, and I told her that was the way to the bathroom, to go out the front door. I don’t remember doing that. I remember I woke up with the cops in my house, asking me if I knew this girl. I said of course, she was the girl with the pink high heels. They thought that was really funny. After that, I didn’t drink for about five months. I was mostly celibate, except for my upstairs neighbor, until she moved away. She was this Indian girl. She liked to do it from behind, in this one position. That was the only thing she wanted to do. The other things were boring, she said. When I went to the shower, she got up on all fours to masturbate.
I was alone for a while after that. I got rid of everything in my apartment. I worked ten- and twelve-hour days. Each night, I went to hot yoga. They had a studio between my home and work, on the fifteenth floor of this building, so that, across from you, while you were sweating, you could look in at people living their lives, and see all these slow-moving domestic scenes, like a man standing in front of a microwave. After yoga, I liked to walk home. I liked the cold. I bought a Mediterranean style salad from the same place every night. The woman who worked there was Lebanese and studying to be a doctor. I ate my dinner in front of the TV, watching Sans Soleil.
It was a weeknight around ten P. M. the first time she called. I let it go to voice mail, because I wasn’t expecting any call, but when I went to get the message, it was just quiet for a while, and then the person hung up. At that time, I slept on an army-style cot. I ate on it, too, lying down with the food under my face, in the posture of a dog. This was the posture I was in several days later, the fourth time she called, and I answered.
“Who’s this?” I asked. She said, “It’s Koko.” “Koko? I don’t know any Koko.” “I saw you at a party; it was a long time ago.” “Oh, so I gave you my number?” “No, I got it from one of your friends.” “I don’t understand.” “He told me your name is William.” “Who was he?” “I can’t tell you that. He said I couldn’t tell you that. He said he was only telling me because he’s worried, you don’t go out anymore. He said you just lie around watching the same movie and eating the same food.” “That’s a lie,” I said. She said, “He said you do hot yoga.” “I don’t even know what that is,” I said, “hold on.” I reached out an arm and put the movie on pause. I put the container of salad under my cot and propped myself up on my elbows. “What do you look like, anyway? Maybe I remember seeing you.”
“I’m about forty-eight years old.”
“No,” I flipped over onto my back and put an arm over my eyes, “I can tell from your voice you’re younger.”
“I’m attached to a breathing machine.”
“Okay, fine—don’t tell me, look, I’ve got to go.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that kind of joke—I mean, everybody says stuff like that. Why can’t you just tell me what you look like?”
“Okay,” she said. She sounded shy now. She thought around and said, “I guess I’m normal looking.”
“I’m twenty-five. I have my hair cut into bangs.”
“I don’t want to say any more than that.”
It was weird, because I looked at pornography pretty frequently at this point. It was even a problem, so that I would spend an hour looking for the most disgusting pictures I could find. Maybe disgusting is not the word. For example, I liked a short video where an older man was fucking a girl in the ass while he put a Blow Pop inside her. Then he stopped and put it into her ass. Then he put it into her mouth, and he started to fuck her again. But somehow this conversation ...
We talked for a long time, more than an hour, until I got sleepy, so I started to fall asleep with her on the phone. The next night, around the same time, she called me again. I was really happy she did that. We had a nice conversation. She told me this story, how she used to prank call a math teacher of hers in junior high. She did it so much, she figured out how to reprogram his outgoing message, using his two-digit remote-access code. She redid his outgoing greetings, said things that were explicitly sexual. Her teacher didn’t understand technology or remote-access codes. He assumed someone was breaking into his house each day to rerecord his message. It filled him with fear and paranoia. He bought a dog. He had an alarm installed and got a prescription for sleeping pills. It was a long time—nearly a year—before the police identified Koko and got to the bottom of the mystery. I loved that. I have stories like that, too. I told her the thing I did to my video teacher at an arts festival, and the things I used to say to my science teacher and to the owner of this antique store called J. & B. Lowther. I said, “Why don’t you come over here right now?” and she told me she lived five hours away by train.
She had a business selling old clothing on the Internet. She was a night owl. She stayed up until sunrise pretty frequently, working on her business. All the clothes had to be cleaned, pressed, tried on, photographed, and entered into her Web site. By this time I had seen a lot of photos of her body. She used herself as a model, and the way she did it was very artistic. I’m not just saying that because I cared about her; I worked with major fashion houses, so I know what I’m saying. She really was artistic about how she did it, even though she always chopped her own head off. She made it look exciting and interior, like she was a party of one. In fact, she had a lot of admirers on the Internet. It wasn’t just gross men; it was women in fashion, too. That’s how it happened we were at the same party.
“What party was it?” I asked. “I don’t think there was any party.”
“They had set up a small stage on the roof, with that carpet rubber as a stage. That foam stuff they put under carpets.”
“I remember that. That was a terrible party.”
“You looked really drunk.”
“I think I was really sad; I wish you had come and talked to me.”
“You were talking to some other girls. You were always talking to lots of girls. I didn’t think you’d want to talk to me.”
“I’m sure I wanted to.”
I knew that she drank, and most nights she was talking to me, she was drunk and taking pills, but I didn’t think anything about it. She never slurred, or got sloppy, but she did seem sometimes to check out. It was like her heart would go dead. It was one time when she was like this that she told me she had had other romances on the telephone. I said I didn’t care about that. She said, “You don’t understand; I’m a sociopath.”
“What’s that mean?”
She was gone for a while, and when she came back, she said, “All I mean is, what if when you see me, you think I’m ugly?”
“I’m not going to think you’re ugly.”
“You’ve never even seen my face. I could be completely deformed.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’d love you even if you were deformed.”
I guess that was a mistake. After I said it, she got really quiet. Then she said something weird. She said, “All my life, I’ve been looking for my man. I think I finally found you.” I think that was the moment, for both of us, when we realized it wouldn’t happen. It was the next day, I think, that she started to tell me something about her mother being sick, but I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. Besides, I had already bought a ticket.
On the train, I kept telling myself to just be myself. I had a prescription for a low-milligram antianxiety medication, as well as a mild beta-blocker, and I kept going into the bathroom to take more—I wanted to get the mixture right. After I took a pill, I’d check myself in the mirror, and I’d always be surprised at what I found. I kept expecting to find a monster.
At the station I checked my phone, and she’d left me this message where she just said my whole name, William Wei. She sounded completely freaked out. I knew her pretty well by this time. I could tell from how she sounded, it took everything in her not to run.
She was waiting across the street from the terminal. Just standing there, in front of her old car. She had on a green army coat and paint-splattered corduroy pants; her features were something like I pictured—wide eyes, Frida Kahlo—but she was more beautiful than I expected her to be.
When I got over to her car, before I could say anything, she said, “Are you nervous?”
“We’ll go to my house and relax.”
In the car ride, she kept switching the tapes in her tape deck, and peering at me while she did it. I could tell she didn’t like what she was seeing, but I didn’t know what to do. I thought she had already seen me. I thought I was the one who was permitted to feel some disappointment.
She lived on the top floor of a converted flour mill. The sleeping area was the size of an ordinary bedroom, divided from the main area by ten-foot industrial shelves full of record albums—the inventory from her brother’s store. He was itinerant and sometimes wrote to her, asking her to sell so many feet of albums. Her bed was a queen-size mattress on the floor. She pointed to the rotary phone beside it and lifted her cat to introduce him by name. Then she led me through the center portion of the loft, past a sliding-glass door that connected to another apartment, a place rented to someone named Douglas. He was gone for the weekend, and so I didn’t think much about him.
I don’t think I will describe her kitchen or her work area, except a photo on the fridge. It was of an old man in a top hat and tails. She told me that was Douglas. I was about to tell her a story that the photo reminded me of when she handed me a piece of banana bread, a glass of milk, and two pills.
“What’re these?” I said.
“My mom sent them to me earlier in the week. Something about her bowels.”
“She can’t have opiates.”
I ate the pills and broke the bread into pieces. What I wanted was for the two of us to go and sit by the window and listen to record albums and get soulful, but Koko turned on the TV and flipped through the stations until she found a documentary. When that was over, she got a couple more pills for us, and found a medley on a different station. We got take-out from a delivery service, and around eleven, her hair had fallen down, and her cheek was resting on her hand so the top of her head just touched my shoulder. I still have the shirt I was wearing at that time. It’s hanging in my closet. I turned on my side to look at her body, and she pretended to keep watching TV.
I said, “I like your shoes.”
“Those?” she lifted her head and turned to look at her feet. “Those are ballet slippers.”
“I like how you are wearing them as shoes.”
“Everyone does that.”
“Everyone does what?”
She shook her head lightly from side to side.
“Everyone does what?” I said.
“I travel business class,” she pointed a finger in the air. “Un momento, por favor. Muchas gracias, señor.”
She was singing along with the television, but I stopped her before the next line. I mean I kissed her. It was a bit like kissing a doll, or a timid old lady. I mean that she didn’t kiss me back, but I don’t know if you know this. That can be very attractive. Later, Koko and I were together in haze, and her shirt was off, and she told me how she often induced men to love her and then abandoned them. She said, “Didn’t you notice how I forced this on you?” I said, “I don’t know what you mean,” and she said, “Yeah. That’s what I’m telling you.”
So that was where it ended. Or really, it ended in the car, the first time we looked at each other. I mean, she thought I was ugly, and I could see that. But the thing about a dark truth is it is indistinguishable from doubt. And so—since I couldn’t just go home—I kept approaching the dark area. Not by anything I said, but by what I did, and by watching how she reacted. She was nice at times, but at others, when her kindness drew me in, she was sharp, and I spent the weekend confused. I kept thinking, “But she already saw my face.”
The next morning I was buttoning my shirt in the mirror when Koko opened her eyes. She yawned and smiled at my reflection and said, “You have a nice face.” Then she pushed herself up onto all fours and shifted her butt in the air. She rested her cheek sideways on her folded arms and said, “We should go and eat eggs.”
I wonder why I didn’t say anything to her then. Like, “Why are you putting your butt in the air?” I guess it was because I didn’t know what was going on. I had gotten clammed up, by the stuff the night before. I was shaky from the pills.
The restaurant was walking distance away. It was one of those local-ingredients places. It had polished stone floors, and the polish was so high that when the hostess led us into the dining room, I thought there was a step up, but there wasn’t one. It was just a trick of the light.
“What’re you doing?” Koko said.
“I thought it was a step.”
“You were like,” she galloped one leg in imitation.
Everything I did made her angry. After we had our omelets, she pointed to a place between two of her teeth and said, “What’s that thing there?” I have a large filling between two of my teeth about where she was pointing, so I told her that—“It’s a filling”—and she said, “I can see it when you talk.”
We went for a walk around the neighborhood. It was starting to feel like spring. We crossed into a residential area. On the sidewalk, one leashed dog was meeting another dog, and he got so excited he lost his footing and fell down on his side. An old suburban house was up for sale, and we let ourselves into its backyard to have a look around. One of its windows had been broken from the inside, and the pane lay in four pieces in the soil of a flower bed. I brushed my hand against Koko’s, and she whipped her head around and said, “Do you want to take mushrooms?”
“I have ten.”
They were mixed into chocolates. They had been given to her by a friend, a photographer for Playboy. She said that several times, Playboy. She ate two chocolates and I ate one, and then we split a fourth. We got into her bed, and when I opened my eyes an hour later, the world was brilliant, alien, and unformed, and Koko was talking on the phone in the voice of a transistor radio.
“I’m fucked up,” she said. “I’m on mushrooms. I’m on drugs.”
“Yes, he’s here since Friday.”
“No, I don’t think so. No. Not anything like that. Hold on,” she pushed the phone aside and said, “I’m talking to Douglas.”
I was really confused, so I went to get some air. I stood up out of the bed and went to look out the window. I stuck my head out and looked down at the alley, where a homeless man was digging through the garbage for glass bottles. I was really messed up, so I couldn’t remember what to do. I was trying to remember if it was proper to throw money down at him. Somehow, I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t figure out why, so I leaned back into the apartment and went to find my wallet. I looked for it out in the front room, and then I remembered where I left it. Yes, I was thinking, it definitely was what you did: you threw the money down. That was when I realized that Koko had put the phone down, and she was crying. She had been explaining, for how long I am not sure, that her mother had cancer. She told me that her mother had cancer of the bowels. I tried to console her; I sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. She let me hold her for a second, and then she stood up, and in a moment, she had her keys, and a door slammed, and she was gone. The cat was doing a little dance with its claws, that dance that’s somehow associated with cat sex, and I was alone on her bed. It wasn’t until recently I realized that whole thing about her mother was a lie. Besides, when I was consoling her, I wasn’t really consoling her at all.
Anyway, it was a long time before she came back. The sorts of things I thought during that time, while I sat there, I can never really say. It was heavy. I think that’s what people say—it was a bad trip; it was heavy. I think I can safely say it changed my life.
Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.
David Gates, Alcorian A-1949
Cathy Park Hong, From 'Fort Ballads'
Iman Mersal, A Celebration
D. Nurkse, Empire of Days
Frederick Seidel, Arabia