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By Chi Ta-wei, translated by Susan Wilf. First published in Renditions no. 63 (Spring 2005), pp. 47–60. Reproduced by permission of the Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Read in Chinese here.

This would be the last subway train.  If I went out now, I’d have to stay out all night. Rummaging through my suitcase, I found my old sports jacket; it smelled a bit musty, but luckily still looked chic. Then I flipped through the business cards in Dora’s diary, and memorized the address of the striptease club.

Emerging from the station, I tightened my collar and headed for the corner, where the glare of the strip club’s gaudy yellow neon lights blotted out all of the stars in the sky. At the doorway, an attractive young man flashed a neatly arranged sheaf of stage photos at me. They all showed scantily clad men—this club didn’t peddle female flesh. But I didn’t need a hard sell. I’d come of my own accord, even though I’d never dreamed of setting foot in such a place before.

I bought my ticket and went inside, where I saw a small assortment of men.  Well, there wouldn’t have been any women.  This wasn’t a soft-porn club for couples, where the strippers danced in filmy little G-strings, egged on by women who were there for a laugh. It was a hard-core gay club, where the dancers took everything off for an audience of lone men.  A poster behind the counter caught my eye: a pin-up of a naked man with a giant erection, his flesh under the lights as golden as fried chicken.  A ring of bold red lettering proclaimed in Chinese and English:  “TODAY’S SHOWBOY:  HOT SIGMUND.”

I’d never met Sigmund, but Dora had known him.

“Mister,” I asked the cashier, “have you seen a lady around here recently?”

“You know perfectly well, mister, that this is no place for ladies.”

“I know, but she’s a friend of Sigmund’s, and she’s been here.  She had one of your business cards—that’s how I found this place.  Her name is Dora…”

“This is a gay club, so what do you want girls for?”  The cashier’s eyes flashed shrewdly.  “Well, you can ask Sigmund about this chick if you want to.  But it’ll cost you something to talk to him.”  He rubbed his fingers together as if counting money, then reached out to poke me in the chest—I recoiled in alarm and went to find a seat.

The club was no bigger than a small movie theater.  In the dark I could make out about a hundred seats, with shadowy figures scattered sparsely throughout.  Uneasily, I chose a seat that wasn’t too near the stage or any other spectators.

Soon the stage lights came on and the speakers began to blare exotic music.  A dancer sprang onto the stage.  It was Sigmund; I recognized him from the poster.  He was bare to the waist, clad only in baggy off-white martial arts pants.  He did a few fierce kicks in the spotlight, like Bruce Lee.  I almost thought it was a martial arts performance.  Then he suddenly turned his back to us and bowed deeply, lifting his rear end in the air.  His pants dropped to the floor, revealing a pair of bright red briefs, but he was still wearing gym socks, like a schoolboy.  The effect was comical, yet childishly appealing.  Then he lifted his rear end a second time, and I thought he was going to strip naked, but I was wrong.  He wriggled out of his red briefs, flashing his bare buttocks, keeping a tiny sash tied around his waist.  When he turned to blow the audience a kiss I saw that his genitals were partly covered with a skimpy fig leaf.

When he finally stripped bare, flaunting all of his rosy flesh, a hush fell over the audience.  Even the sound of breathing seemed disrespectful.  But I was muttering to myself:  it had been a long time since I’d seen a naked man.

Then he spoke.  Snapping a towel in his hand, he beamed at the audience.  “I’m tired and sweaty.  Please dry me off.”  It was true.  His performance had been strenuous, and he was glistening with sweat in the blazing lights. He looked like a god newly descended to earth, and his voice was as steady as a preacher’s.  “Please take care of me,” he wheedled.  Then he plunged off the stage and into the audience, the spotlights tracking his every move.

I was puzzled. What was he going to do next?  A gentleman in the first row crowed with delight as Sigmund allowed him to give his naked body a vigorous rub-down with the towel.  Sigmund performed a graceful bump and grind just for him, his swiveling hips looming gently over the man’s face.  The man’s hand traveled down Sigmund’s leg and slipped something into one of his gym socks; he wasn’t stark naked—he still had his socks.  Now I understood—by “take care of me,” he’d been inviting spectators to stuff a tip into his socks.  I remembered that people were supposed to keep their hands off the dancers at these clubs, even as the dancers teased them.  But for a price, the dancers might let them touch.  “Drying off the dancers’ sweat” was just a euphemism.

Remembering the cashier’s warning that it would cost me to talk to Sigmund, I extracted one big bill, then a second one, from my wallet and readied them in my hand.  Then I tore a blank page out of Dora’s diary and scribbled, “Sigmund, I want to talk to you.  I’ll look for you after the show.”  I wadded the note up with the bills.  By then Sigmund, an angel ringed in a mesmerizing halo of spotlights, had almost reached me, his provocative gaze fixed on the people in the row ahead of me.  The gray-haired gentleman right in front of me reached out to rub Sigmund’s sweaty flesh, mumbling all the while as if reciting a prayer before an idol.

Sigmund finally reached me and tossed me the soggy towel.  Although I’d expected this, my heart leaped when I caught it, as if I’d taken up a sword to signal my readiness to begin a duel. The amber spotlights had singled out the two of us.  As he shimmied for me, squinting in the glare of the lights, he seemed oblivious to me, as though taking it for granted that I was drooling over him like everyone else.  I wasn’t.  A bead of sweat from his groin landed on my jacket.  I didn’t reach out to wipe his body with my towel, but I was staring hard enough to dry him with my burning gaze.  I’d almost forgotten what a man’s body looked like, and this was a timely reminder.

While dancing so strenuously, Sigmund couldn’t maintain the erection he’d displayed in his photos.  He was gyrating right in my face, and I caught a whiff of his crotch.  His pink, semi-erect penis bounced in its tuft of hair like an unruly child.  My gaze traveled upward along his straggling pubic hair to his navel, then further upward to his eyes, which were half-shut.  He was gripping my shoulders, and as his belly heaved, his navel seemed to be winking at me, like an eye.

Suddenly he opened his eyes, as if wondering who I was, and why I wasn’t horny like the other customers.  He looked me up and down, noticed something, and lifted my chin with his hand.

“You're different from the others, aren't you?" he chuckled.

As I tried to guess what he meant, he reached out to grope at my chest, but I brushed his hand deftly aside. Shooting me a perplexed glance, he turned to go.  In the nick of time, I remembered the note and money I had for him, and stuffed them quickly into his sock.

“Have you seen Dora?” I called out hoarsely when he glanced back to flash me a smile.

My question must have been drowned out by the booming speakers, since he turned away and continued to work the crowd.  Not wanting to waste any more time in such a  raunchy place, I got up and went outside to wait for his performance to end.

I waited for a long time outside the theater, exchanging cold glances with the cashier.  He must have thought I was a real oddball.  First, I’d come to a gay club looking for a woman, and then I’d walked out early, missing all the fun.  Embarrassed, I bought a magazine to pass the time, but it turned out to be full of male centerfolds.

Someone grabbed me and planted a loud kiss on my forehead.  It was Sigmund.  His performance was over, and he’d changed into a Nike tracksuit, looking like a healthy student fresh from gym class.

“So, you want to talk?  Where to?” he asked suggestively.  The logo on his sweatshirt rose and fell with his breathing.  It read, “Just Do It.”

“There’s a 24-hour Viennese café around the corner.”

“Okay.  I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.  I have to talk to a couple of other customers first.  You aren’t the only one who gave me a tip.  Yours was pretty big, though.”  He giggled girlishly, but I detected a masculine edge.

I sat down alone by the picture window in the café, lettered with the word, “WIEN.”  With my back to the dreary hubbub inside, I looked at my reflection in the mirror and straightened my necktie.  As I finished sipping my espresso, Sigmund bounded in and approached me like an old friend.

“Do you like strawberry cheesecake too?” he asked.

“No, I've sworn off that stuff.  And I take my espresso without sugar or cream, to cut calories.  I got the cheesecake for you.”

“I just love it, but desserts are off limits for people in my line of work.  If I eat stuff like that I have to go to the gym to work it off.  You—you’ll be the death of me!”  He giggled coyly.

As I wondered what he meant, I heard someone behind me call out, “Fags!”  His taunt was clearly aimed at us.  I didn’t turn to see who had spoken, but I must have looked annoyed.

“Do I look like too much like a fairy?” whispered Sigmund, ducking his head.  “I’ll lower my voice.  It’s not a good idea to rub certain people around here the wrong way.”  But he kept the grin on his face.

“Sigmund, I want to ask you about somebody.  Do you know where Dora is these days?”

“Oh, so you came to look for someone, not to see my show.  No wonder I thought there was something fishy about you.”

“Why?  Because I didn’t have the hots for you?  Or didn’t I tip you enough?”

“No, there’s more to it than that.  You see, that’s a club for men, but I could tell right away—“ Sigmund grabbed my necktie and twisted it up like a cruller.  “You aren’t a man at all, are you?”

The color drained from my face, and I pulled away from him, but he was clapping and chortling with glee.  “Even in your boxy men’s jacket I can tell you’re not a man.”

“It’s not a man or a woman,” a voice chimed in from behind me before I could say anything.  Turning, I saw a leering face, and lost my temper.

“What d’you mean by that?” I yelled, banging on the table.

Sigmund quickly grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of the café.

“What d’you think you’re doing banging on the table and cursing that guy out?” he hissed angrily in the dark alley outside.  “Didn’t I just warn you not to rub people the wrong way?  We’ve got to keep our cool!”

“What are you talking about?” I countered coldly.  “I didn’t curse him out!”

Sigmund glanced over his shoulder, his face ashen under the neon lights.

“You seem to think it’s okay to stand up to these guys, but you don’t get it. You’d better believe me. They murdered one of my friends in cold blood over on Liberty Street, right in front of Citibank.  Just because he’d talked back.  And nobody took him to the hospital.”

“You’re kidding,” I snickered.

“No, I’m not.”  He shrugged wearily, and headed for the other end of the alley.  “I’m out of here.”

“Wait!  I need to talk to you…”

“I’m just going home to take a shower,” he said, without looking back.  “You can come with me if you want to talk.  I live pretty near here.”  He turned and smiled at me.  “I bring customers home with me all the time—it’s a kind of fringe benefit.”

With his hands in his pockets, he led the way as we walked silently in the dark.

We arrived at his place, a tiny studio apartment, and he went to take his shower, leaving me to look around his room.  The walls were plastered with photos, which, to my surprise, weren’t all pornographic. To my left hung pictures of a bank.  Each photo showed the same building from a different angle, and they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle—Citibank.  Scenes of a small park decorated the wall to my right.  The wall in front of me displayed pictures of a street, as did the wall behind me.  There I found a Polaroid photo of Dora standing right in this room with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers.

I felt someone pinch the back of my neck.  Sigmund had finished his shower, and his boyish grin was restored.

“What should I call you?” he asked politely.

I traced the letter K with my finger on his palm.

“Oh, so you want me to call you Mr. K?”

“How could you tell I wasn’t a man?”

“Because you weren’t really paying attention to me when I was working the audience tonight.  Your eyes were on me, but you were looking for someone else.  You stuck out like a sore thumb in that place, so I got curious and started to watch you.  That’s something I don’t usually do during my shows—people are supposed to watch me!  But I did, and I saw right through you.”

You’re right, Sigmund.  Men’s bodies don’t turn me on.  I just want you to help me find Dora.

“Is Dora your partner?”

Dora left me a long time ago.  Now I live alone in a motel.

“What makes you think I know where she is, K?  And how do you know about me?”

Should I tell him my story? I wondered.  I felt like a sinner in a confessional, or a mental patient facing a psychoanalyst.

I’d kept Dora’s diary as a memento.  I’d given it to her for her birthday, hoping that she’d use it to keep a poetic record of everything we did together, which would become a volume of poetry.  But when I’d opened her drawer to peek at it, I’d found that all she had done was to stick various business cards to the pages, jotting down dates on their corners.  Ever since she’d left me, I’d been following these leads to all of the places she’d been: pizza shops, laundromats, and video stores.  But I hadn’t found her.  On a new page I’d noticed a male stripper’s card with the name Sigmund on it, so I’d gone to the club.

“K, where are you going to look for her next?”

“At an adult toy store,” I confessed, wondering why Dora went to such places.

“Take a look.  That’s where this came from.”  Sigmund whipped out a fancy rectangular box of chocolates.  But when he flipped open the lid I saw that it contained a black rubber dildo with a harness.

I pushed the toy aside.  “Don’t get the wrong idea,” I told him calmly.  “Dora and I didn’t go in for these.”

“No, K, you’re the one who’s got the wrong idea.  Dora bought me this for my birthday.”  When she’d asked him what he wanted, he’d told her that he didn’t want trinkets that might make him sad, like china, which could break, or candles, which would melt.  Instead, he wanted a ticket to a comedy.  “After dinner, we were walking along the street, and we passed this adult toy store.  I saw this gizmo in the window, and joked that I wanted it, the way you would with a black forest cake in a bakery display.  But she actually went in and bought it for me.  Anyway, a toy isn’t bad company for a lonesome guy like me.”

“Sigmund, what kind of relations did you have with her?”

“Oh, we were really close.  I liked to sleep in her arms.  That’s because I was an orphan she rescued.   But you can relax—I’m only interested in men.”

“What do you mean, ‘an orphan she rescued’?”

“Just that. Once I asked her where I came from, and she joked that she’d salvaged me from a garbage heap.  I’ll bet she rescued you too.”  His words were a clear challenge.

Was he right? Is that why she’d thrown me away again?

“I would never have met her if I hadn’t gotten really sick one time,” I told him.

Dora was chubby and plain, but her warm fleshy hands were my only comfort when I was flat on my back in the hospital.  I’d been separated from my husband for a year, and was completely alone.  I thought I had nothing to live for.  I never imagined that anyone would ever want to take care of me again, but Dora did.

Yes, I’d been married to a man.  I’d even given birth to a child.  But both of them are gone now.  I didn’t manage to carry the child to term.  It just drained out of me like water, along with all of my dreams.  My good-natured husband assured me that everything would be all right.  We could have another baby, he said, and no matter what, we still had each other.  But I refused to try again.  My husband cried more than I did, and I got fed up with his tears.

When I recovered my strength I told him that I needed a big change in my life.  Did I want a new house? he asked.  No, I replied, gritting my teeth.  I needed to leave him.  Sniveling, he asked me if I was still mourning our baby.  No, I told him, I wanted to follow my childhood dream:  to float on the breeze like a butterfly. During my confinement I’d started to fear that I’d never amount to anything more than a caterpillar.  My husband listened with brimming eyes, and then asked me if there was someone else, or if I’d stopped loving him.  I told him not to pester me with such silly questions.  I just needed to spread my wings.  But he persisted, vowing to love and care for me forever—all this made me scream.  There were no tears, no hysterics, just a burning sensation in my throat, as if a wild animal had been scratching me there.  I wanted him to leave my bed forever.  He didn’t understand me at all, nor did he want to.

Sigmund was sitting curled up on the floor in fetal position, clutching his toes with his fingers and listening quietly.  I continued my tale.

Single life had been peaceful, until I’d gotten sick and gone into the hospital.

“Guess what was wrong with me, Sigmund.”

He shook his head, his eyes as bright as those of a choirboy.

“Sigmund,” I sighed, closing my eyes.  “Would you do me a favor and put your head here?”  I opened my arms.  “This emptiness makes it hard to finish my story.”

He slipped wordlessly into my embrace, and glanced up at me.  “So, what was wrong, K?”

“I had breast cancer and a double mastectomy.  Now there’s nothing under my shirt but a long scar.”  A scar as long as a river.

“Then is it still okay if I put my head here?” he asked, without recoiling.

I nodded.  As they explain on the Discovery Channel, a cobra on night watch puffs out its neck, but patiently refrains from sticking out its tongue.

Sigmund’s head, resting on my hollow bosom like a brand-new breast, rose and fell with my heartbeat.

I remember how blank my gaze had been in the hospital.  The doctors and nurses bustled in and out, but one chubby girl volunteer aide stayed by my bedside.  She was the only person I could turn to with my complaints, or to ask why I was in so much pain.  Was it a punishment for leaving my husband?  Not necessarily, she said, shaking her head.  Was it because of my miscarriage?  She shook her head again and told me that even women who’d given birth to healthy babies could get breast cancer.  I bowed my head. Had heaven condemned me?

“What are you talking about?” she asked with a smile, caressing my face.

“Is it because I’m a loner?”  She didn’t reply.

Why?  Why?  What if…but she lifted my chin with her warm hands and told me to stop asking so many questions.  It was just an illness, and it would pass.  The warmth of her hands took the chill out of my wounds.

Her name was Dora.  She was so serene that I felt free to cry on her shoulder.  I wept a silent river of tears longer than my scar, remembering how dry my eyes had been back in the days of my husband’s histrionics.  In despair I asked Dora if she’d stay with me if I ever got out of the hospital.  I had thought of myself as a wife, but I’d gotten divorced; I had thought of myself as a mother, but I’d lost my child; I had thought I was a woman, but my now my breasts were gone.

“Actually, you are a wife, mother, and woman, and you’re a silly goose.”

Nobody had ever taken such good care of me.

After I was discharged, I did move in with her.  She slept in my arms at night, and I discovered how nicely a woman’s head fit into the hollow where my breasts had been.

“Sigmund, the reason I didn’t let you touch my chest in the club wasn’t because it would’ve hurt.  It was because I don’t want anyone but Dora to touch me there.”

I needed mental space for Dora, but my brain was cluttered with weird dreams.  I dreamed that I was lying beside my husband, who was clutching my legs, and had finally stopped weeping.  My baby was in my arms, but curled up into a ball so that I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a boy.  Both of my breasts were still firmly attached, and their weight brought back the pain of the tumor.

I’d wake up groaning, to discover that these apparitions had vanished, and that Dora—and nobody else—was there in my arms.  I caressed the ivory skin on her back to make sure that her warm, cuddly body wasn’t just a figment of my imagination too.  My old shirt seemed baggy now.  I felt as if my missing breasts were twitching.  They were gone, but I still felt twinges in the severed nerves.  The nipples prickled and itched, as if a non-existent baby were sucking them.  Dora said this was “phantom pain,” a common postoperative syndrome, whose sufferers forever felt as if their bodies were still studded with tumors, like balls on a sinister Christmas tree.  She wanted to take me to the doctor, but I thought of something else to do instead, to avoid the nuisance: I switched to men’s clothing that was too tight for any imaginary breasts.  And for the first time in years I chopped off my long hair, which my ex-husband had treasured.  To my surprise, I felt much better.

Dora was taken aback when she came home from work and saw me in my jacket.

“Don’t you like my new look?” I asked.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she replied. “Is this how you really like to dress?”

But she stroked my cropped hair in bed all night.

When she came home the next day I’d switched back to women’s clothes.  I told her that I’d cut up the jacket and thrown it away because she didn’t like it.  Cutting the stiff cloth had hurt my hand and dulled the scissors.  Eventually I’d given up and torn it into shreds with my fingernails.  When Dora heard this, she gave me a big hug.

“You didn’t have to do that.” She held me tight.

As we lay with our bare backs pressed together, I asked her if she thought we seemed like a married couple.  But she shook her head. Even though we were happy together, she replied, she didn’t want me to depend on her forever.  Shocked, I argued that I had an income and did my share of the housework—how could she accuse me of being dependent on her?  Tactfully she explained that I was missing the point.  She wasn’t ready to settle down yet.  Did she want to move? I asked her.  She said no.  Was there someone new, or had she stopped loving me?  She laughed, dismissing my questions as silly.  I promised to love and care for her forever, but she just shook her head and smiled, insisting that I didn’t understand.

Her replies were bewildering, and our conversation gave me a sense of déjà-vu. I wasn’t at all surprised when she eventually walked out on me.

When I woke up one afternoon a few days later, I finally convinced myself that  Dora had left me for good.  All of her stuff was gone.  The only thing I’d managed to hold onto was her diary full of business cards, which I’d secretly removed from the drawer before she left.

“Dora doesn’t like people to depend on her.  She’s motherly, but she’ll push her kids to grow up and stand on their own two feet, and she’ll sneak away to make it happen.  Well, I guess she’s right that most kids need to be weaned against their will.”

“You told me a little while ago that Dora had rescued you.”

“Yeah—guess why I have so many pictures on the walls, and the ceiling too.”

I looked up, and there they were:  patches of blue sky dotted with white clouds.

“I’ve decorated my room with scenes of the place where Dora saved my life.  That morning I lay bleeding in the street, with the bright blue sky above me, Citibank on my left, and a little park for families with children on my right, but I was too severely injured to be aware of my surroundings.  Everyone who walked by just thought I was a drunken bum. Even the police ignored me.”  He glanced up at the clouds on the ceiling.  “But Dora helped me get to the hospital and saw me through my loneliest hours.  So I took my discarded camera back to that street after I got better, and photographed it for my walls.  Whenever I lie in this room I remind myself that I was granted a new lease on life, and I’d better make good use of it.”

Sigmund told me that he’d gone pub-crawling one night to drown his sorrows, and had gotten soused on “Long Island iced tea.”  When he staggered out of the last pub at midnight, some loiterers on the street had picked a fight with him. He was such a weakling that he’d collapsed helplessly to the ground.  They’d taken his earring and ripped his T-shirt—a black one with a pink triangle on it.

“How did the argument start?”

“They called me a fairy.”

“And then?”

Sigmund reached toward the ceiling as if to pluck down one of the cloud photos.

“Imagine this.  I used to be a photographer.  My first show was a flop, so I fell out with the manager of the gallery and my roommate, even though they’d promised to support me.  You know what I mean?  The gallery was on the corner behind Citibank.  Once the manager tried to seduce me with red wine.  And one day my roommate and I sunbathed naked on the grass in that little park, in the middle of all the family picnics.  Of course we got arrested.  And then I was beaten within an inch of my life right between the bank and the park.”  He chuckled.  “I had it coming to me.  I suppose I’m not much of an artist, but I didn’t face up to it until then.

“Before I met Dora I’d had no idea how comforting it was to sleep in someone’s arms.  I’d had encounters with lots of men, but I didn’t know how soft and sweet a woman’s breasts could be.”  Sigmund lay on the scar on my chest, which was covered by my jacket.  “In Dora’s arms, I stopped trembling.  But she said she couldn’t stay with me forever.”

He sighed.  “I understood, of course.  Even babies have to be weaned.  Anyway, Dora and I were good friends.  She wanted me to get my strength back, so I joined a gym.  I lifted weights and did sit-ups, and watched my muscles develop in the gym mirrors.  As a photographer, I’d observed other people, but now I was starting to observe myself.”

Sigmund went on to say that he’d seen an ad for dancers posted in the gym.  Needing a job, he’d gone to apply, and found that the place was a striptease club.

“I figured, why not?  It was time to keep my eyes to myself and let other people gawk at me for a change.”  Sigmund also provided special post-show services for his greedier customers.  For the right price, he’d take them to his home, where they could even manufacture souvenirs:  he had a Polaroid camera for their instant gratification.  This apartment was a ready-made studio.

He handed me a photo one of these customers had taken:  it showed Sigmund draped with a fig leaf against the background of the cloud photos on the ceiling, as if he’d descended from the heavens.  The customer had rejected the photo because it wasn’t explicit enough to be sexy.

He’d also brought Dora here.  The picture of her here with the flowers was the finishing touch on his simulated street scene.  He’d outgrown his tears and the need to sleep in her arms, and was satisfied with just a birthday shopping trip.  She’d bought him that naughty gift.

“I insisted on having that ridiculous present.  Why?  Because it would always be good for a laugh.  Nobody can cry when they’re looking at a dildo. I didn’t want anything sentimental.”  His voice dropped.  “When you reach a certain age you begin to understand why people are fascinated with toys.”

I stroked his hair, which was still damp from his shower.  “Knowing how much Dora loved you, could you have lied to her?”


“Could you have told her a lie?  I did, even though she loved me too.”  Wrapped up in myself, I went on with my confession.  “In fact—I never cut up and threw out that men’s jacket she hated.  I just hid it in a suitcase, and I’m wearing it right now.  I lied to her just to calm her down, because I couldn’t stand the look on her face.”

I paused, and then continued.  “You know, there is something really motherly about her.”

Later, just before sunrise, I too took a few Polaroid shots with Sigmund in the simulated street scene.

He nestled against my belly, and I clasped my arms around him.  To make the photo more interesting—or maybe this was only an excuse—anyway, just for fun we took off our clothes and posed with the dildo.  I strapped on the harness and buried the dildo in Sigmund’s buttocks.  His anus looked like a second navel.  Our Polaroid photo whirred out promptly, and in the chemical image that gradually appeared you could make out a man and a woman connected by the plastic toy, as if it were an umbilical cord.

With Sigmund slumbering in my arms like the child I’d been denied, I lay sleepless, musing about Dora.  Then I got up stealthily, to avoid disturbing him, and slipped back into my tight underwear, white shirt, and black jacket to wait for the first subway of the morning.

I was still wondering whether I should stay away from Dora or try to get back together with her again, even though I sensed that a clean break was probably necessary.  In her arms, I’d felt like my lost, faceless baby.

I thought I’d been lying when I told Sigmund that Dora had left me, but it was hard to be sure.  Had I actually been the one who had left?

The other day, I had indeed sneaked out of her apartment, with only her diary as a memento. Then I’d started to retrace her steps, without daring to face her in person, like a child who grows up and moves out on his own, but still likes to peek at his childhood home from around the corner.

Feeling forlorn, I knotted my tie and walked out of the dank little apartment.  The chilly morning dew jerked me back to the cold, rational world.  I decided to return to my motel for a nap.  That evening, I’d take out Dora’s diary, flip to a new page, and search for traces of her at another of her old haunts.

I glanced back.  Sigmund was still curled up on the wall of photographs.  And Dora was still there too, with her bouquet of flowers.  Her enlarged pupils reminded me of the areola on her breasts.

I wasn’t a child anymore.

June, 1996