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 f**k-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. He made a face on the way back, silently whistling, eyes to the heavens, playing for a laugh from his friends that he didn’t get. 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 f**ks. 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. They didn’t fit well; even when they were closed, grit managed to sift in onto the windowsills. 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 in the last year had earned the alias of Rottweiler by turning 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.