I was 70 when I met Richard. He was 32. He told me he was a young man, and I didn’t respond to that because I really didn’t know what that was, to be a young man, if that was a good thing to be or a bad one. He had moved in next door to us, me and Rose, my granddaughter, in January. She was hardly home that summer. She had gotten together with a new guy and was mostly at his place across town. All my friends were in assisted living, but I wasn’t. We didn’t have the money, and besides, I didn’t care much about going. I didn’t want to be around people I didn’t know.
Richard had parties at his place every Saturday. At first, it was just the housewarming, and then it was other things. His apartment was an open door, people coming in and out at all hours. Sometimes there were just kids, little ones, over there, with Christmas lights all over the floor. Other times it was middle-aged people crawling through some tent maze built out of cardboard boxes. He even had a party where people brought over their bikes, and we took a tour of the city with him. I did not have a bike, so he let me ride with him. I sat on the bar in front of the seat and he pedaled. He told us stories, personal ones, about his time living here. He’d been in the city for a few years. On the bike tour, he told us about a woman he’d loved once, his roommate. Where they ate in the city and skipped out on a bill, the places they kissed. The city became his with those stories. When I walked by that building, that corner, his stories were there, the way he told them.
“There’s no such thing as love. It’s a construct,” Richard told me one day when I went over to his apartment. I had gotten a package of his in my mail. “You know anyone who is in love?”
I thought of Rose, who always said she was in love whenever she met a new guy and then would wait by the phone all day, crying. Then I thought of my friends and my own experience. We had all known it, but it was something that happened a long time ago, not something we sat around thinking about. It happened, and when it’s happened, there is no need to think too hard about it.
“Maybe,” I said, “you haven’t had much time to know a range of people.”
He told me he knew a lot of people. Thousands was the number he gave me. I got the feeling that what I wanted to say to him was about the quality of closeness, not what he was talking about. A few minutes passed between us, and he said, “People say that they are in love all the time, but they’re not. I don’t believe them. They think they should say it because it’s what you say. Doesn’t mean they really know what it is.”
I looked around his apartment. There wasn’t much in it. A few plastic chairs, a couch he had dragged back from someone’s front lawn, a table, and a little anatomy man. The anatomy man had little plastic bits inside. I reached inside him and took out a small brown thing the size of a pencil eraser. I didn’t know what it was and put it back.
Richard liked to talk about the women he had slept with. There were two he brought up a lot. The first was his roommate, whom he didn’t talk to anymore, the one he told us about on the bike tour. The second was a woman named Eve. She lived in New York now but came back once in a while to visit. He said he wasn’t in love with her, that they were best friends. They had, for seven years, been a couple, but then they weren’t anymore. The chemistry wasn’t there. When she didn’t answer his emails or phone calls, he would google her. He always wanted to know what she was doing.
I asked him, “Do you think maybe you’re in love with her?” He said no, to be in love, you should have sex with that person, and he didn’t want that with her. He asked me if I’d had sex with anyone lately. I took my time to answer. I could tell he had no use for anyone who didn’t have sex. I tried to remember the last time. I hadn’t been with anyone but my husband. He died 30 years ago. A heart attack.
Sudden. 30 years is a lifetime for some people. As far as I was concerned, I hadn’t had sex for such a long time that I could consider myself a virgin. I couldn’t remember how it all happens.
Richard knew how. He was always talking about all the sex he’d had. Hundreds of women, he told me.
“It’s easy. You just ask. And you never know. If someone tells me no, I don’t get worked up about it. I mean, they said no. What’s more clear than that? ere are always others who want to. It’s sometimes just athletic to do it.” Richard was not a beauty but he acted like one. He said, “I’m not bad-looking. Anyway, looks don’t have anything to do with it. Sometimes good-looking people don’t do anything in bed. They just lie there. You want someone who has imagination, who is excited. It’s the best feeling ever.”
Richard had one of his parties. is party was different from the others. There wasn’t any food, and it began later in the evening. There was a green glass bottle in the middle of the room. All his furniture had been cleared, piled on one side of the room. For all his talk, I had never seen him with a woman before. I knew what the bottle in the middle of the room was for.
I looked around the room, at the 25 or so people, to see if there was anyone I would hope it would land on. ere wasn’t, but I wanted to play. When I spun the bottle, it landed on a beautiful blond woman. A lawyer. She was still in her business suit, with the jacket. I kissed her on the forehead, like she was some child, and everyone laughed. Richard said, “Isn’t she sweet?” I hated that he said that. I didn’t want to be sweet. I was old and I knew it and I had been called a lot of words, but “sweet” really irritated me. I watched as those who were chosen by the bottle kissed each other. After a while, it got boring. The people at the party thought so, too, and started to file out. It was Richard’s turn again, and each time it was, he always spent a long time with that person, kissing. There was a man with a beer belly whom he kissed, and a dancer. I didn’t want to go home. It was the start of summer, and I wanted something to happen to me.
Richard told me, “You could go home, if you want. We’re just going to keep playing this game. It might get boring.” But I didn’t go. There were three of us now. The other woman was named Lorrie. She worked at an art gallery. Lorrie behaved like she was a girl. Giggling, chewing on her long hair, blushing. When Richard spun the green bottle, it landed on me. He laughed, and said, “You don’t have to. You can say no.” But I didn’t want to, to say no. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, and I leaned over. He chewed spearmint gum. When we stopped, she was gone.
He said, “It’s three in the morning. You should go home.” He said it like a good friend who was looking out for me. I got the sense too that Richard didn’t like me being there at that time, alone with him, like he was afraid of what an old woman wanted. “I don’t want to,” I said. I don’t know why I said that. Just to see what he would do. He was a man, and I was bored.
His bedroom was clean and quiet. I said, “Can you take off your clothes? I want to see.” It surprised me, how he listened. He didn’t protest like I thought he would. He didn’t say it was a bad idea. He stood there naked. He was beautiful, the way women are. He had hair on his chest and legs. I hadn’t seen hair on a chest for a long time and so I reached out to touch it. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. It was so easy. He sat down on the bed and I sat on top of him. He didn’t go in deep, but held me there. I was supposed to lower myself. But I didn’t. I could go as far as I wanted. The morning light came in, and he said, “We have to stop.” I didn’t want to. I liked looking at Richard’s face when he held me there. He looked scared, or like he was about to cry. Then he lifted me off of him and turned around so I couldn’t see his face. He said, “You have to go. I want to fuck you.” And that’s why I didn’t want to go. Because he wanted that.
I didn’t see Richard for a few weeks. He had his parties and people came and went. I heard their talk through the walls, and the women too. I wanted to know what it would feel like to have a sound like that in my mouth. But it was only the women. He was silent, breathing quietly, probably.
I asked him why he never made any noises, not even a grunt. “Concentrating,” he said. He always talked that way. Easily. He told me what it felt like, for him, for a man, and what it was like having sex with a woman. I had never known that, but he did. He told me things I wished I could have asked my mother when I was a young girl, but this was better because he gave me facts. I wanted to know how he knew where to put himself, if it was the same each time, how he got them to come home to his apartment, how he undressed them. He always asked them, Can I do this? Is this all right? You’re okay with this? The way he told it to me, it was like I had done it, too, had also been inside them, just like him, as a man. There was no metaphor, no seed and soil and growing flowers. Just the facts.
“What have you been doing all summer?” Rose asked me one afternoon when she came home. I knew how she would react if I told her. When she left for the weekend, I knocked on Richard’s door. I tried the doorknob and went in. I could hear the shower going, and when he came out, he said, “You hungry?” Just like that. He was a good cook. I watched him cook. Bringing out plates, the pan, opening the cupboards, the fridge. He looked graceful. His long legs and arms. I liked that he wasn’t mad at me for what happened last time, after the party, when we had gotten so close. “Why would I be?” he said. “Don’t have sex with men who get mad about things like that.” He smiled at me and said, “I liked that nothing really happened. We were close. That’s the best part. To be that close. And to let nothing happen.”
Soon after, we were sitting on the edge of the bed. I sat on top and I had Richard between my legs. We had been kissing. It started off really slow. And then I kissed harder. Then he pulled his mouth away from mine. His mouth was open, and he was breathing heavily. His head tilted back when mine leaned forward. We were so close, breathing into each other. Then I lowered myself onto him and said, before I pushed farther, “Do you want me to pull out?” I meant stop, but I didn’t say that. He knew what I meant and why I didn’t say that. He laughed, and said, “No, no. God, no.” His lips were red, his cheeks pink. I wanted him to say it, even though I knew it wasn’t true. “Tell me you love me,” I said. “Even if it’s not true. Say it.” And he did. I wanted to feel what it was like to have someone inside me again, and I pushed him into me.
It was the end of August, and Richard didn’t have his parties as often. We were spending more time alone together. He’d call me on the phone and ask whether I wanted to come over. I knew what he wanted me over for, and I wanted that, too. I went over whenever he called. Sometimes we spent the whole day together, not talking at all. And sleeping. We didn’t have much to say, doing what we did. What I liked about the sex we had was how slow it was, and how long we could go, how he waited for my body to respond. When we began it was usually dark outside, and then we stopped when there was light. He told me, “You should get a boyfriend. I can’t be your boyfriend.” I didn’t want a boyfriend, whatever that was these days. I wanted what I had. I didn’t say anything. I just watched him put on his clothes. Then he asked me if I wanted to go with him to see Eve the next day; she was in town, and she wanted him to meet her new boyfriend. He said he didn’t want to go alone. It was the first time I did anything with him outside the apartment.
I stood on the front porch of a house, on a small street, and Richard went inside to get Eve. She was in the back of the house, where the kitchen was. She called to me to come inside, waved me in. She had long, shiny black hair and brown eyes. She said her boyfriend was upstairs taking a shower and that he’d join us in a few minutes. Richard talked to Eve, asked her about this new man of hers, teased her about him, about being in love.
Then Richard said, “Well, I’m in love,” and pointed to me. “With her.” We laughed, Richard and I, as if this were our joke and Eve were outside it. You can do that with a joke, hide how you feel and mean what you say at the same time, and no one will ask you which it is.
Eve’s boyfriend, Daniel, came down the stairs in a white T-shirt that clung to his chest and plain khaki shorts. “Hey, guys, how is everyone?” I didn’t reply because it wasn’t really directed at me. Richard answered for himself.
That morning, we played board games and charades. Eve and Richard had a way of talking with each other that made it difficult to join in. They made references and jokes and told stories about each other in bits and pieces that never came together because they’d break out in laughter. They never bothered to explain what any of this was about, always saying we would have had to be there to know. I had been around. I knew what was happening. Richard was oblivious to what Eve was doing with him. Playing the two men off each other.
I got up and went out to the front porch. It was only three in the afternoon. I thought of going home, and then Daniel came out for a smoke. He lit his cigarette and we watched the trees around us. The leaves were far apart from one another; they waved, darted left and right. Pushed by the wind, they looked like a school of sh in the blue sky. A thing out of place. We did not know what to say to each other. We were there at the same time and wanting the same thing, but from different people. If there was anyone else who understood what it was like to be on the outside looking in on those two, it was Daniel.
After a while, he said to me, “You ever seen a tornado before?” I told him I hadn’t. He nodded and went on, “They destroy everything. You can see it coming in the distance. Most people would try to get the hell out of there. Some people see it coming and can’t help but watch.” I didn’t say anything. He winked at me. I had only known him for a few hours that day. He saw me.
Afterward, Richard thought it would be a great idea to bike around the city. Eve and Daniel didn’t want to go, so it was just us again. We arranged our bodies on the bike like we had done once before, me on the bar in front of the seat, and he pedaled. We went around like this, without helmets. I wasn’t scared of getting into an accident. That’s what it felt like then, to be with Richard. I didn’t think about what would happen to me, what the future would look like. I was in it. I had had a life and had still gotten there.
Richard biked past the crowd at the ferry dock, and we followed the trail out of the city until we got to the lake. We weren’t supposed to swim in it because it was polluted, but he did, saying there was nothing wrong with it. He swam far out but close enough for me to see him pretend he was drowning. His arms waved about and his head bobbed. Then he swam out farther and did it all over again.
We returned to his apartment. He told me his friendship with Eve was changing. She was getting on with her life, without him. She didn’t drop everything to see him anymore. “I should marry her,” he said. “I love her and I don’t want to lose her.” I did not tell him what to do about her. I did not ask what it would mean for me.
He took off his clothes. One by one, and then mine. The afternoon had changed him somehow. He had always been very tender with me but was even more so now. He put himself down on the bed and closed his eyes. I took him in. I did it slowly. “Yes,” he said. I wanted to put something inside him that we could both see come in and out. I put a finger into his belly button, and he got so loud about it, like the women I heard him with through the wall of the apartment. I was quiet, breathing, taking everything in. Then he gasped like something was about to happen to him. He sat up and pulled me closer. He kissed me very hard and did not pull away. We continued like that, face-to-face. I love you, he kept saying.
He asked me to sleep over, but I didn’t want to. I watched him with a sadness he couldn’t see. I didn’t want to be with someone who could do that—who could deny what I was. He had the time to have regrets, to be stupid. I didn’t. And when he turned around, I don’t know why I did what I did. I reached out and grabbed a piece inside the anatomy man. It was his stomach. A small plastic thing. It wasn’t real, of course, but it was there, and it was something.
I went home and was surprised to find Rose there. She asked me where I had been, said she knew that I was spending a lot of time with that guy next door. She said, “He’s never going to love you, you know. Have you forgotten how old you are? Look at all your wrinkles.” That’s the thing about being old. We don’t know we have wrinkles until we see them. Old is a thing that happened outside. A thing other people see about us. I didn’t know why she was talking to me this way. I didn’t know whether she meant this about me or whether she was telling herself. I didn’t say anything. It seemed to me she’d been drinking, so I let her talk. After a while, I didn’t hear anything she said. My mind was somewhere else.
I did see Richard one last time, later that year, in October. It was at Daniel’s funeral. Richard was there, with Eve, supporting her, holding her, like a partner. It seemed strange to me to have done the things people who loved each other did, so often, and for it to seem now like they had never happened. And it seemed strange to me to see him go back to her, to want so little. And what kind of person was Eve to see someone else’s love and agree to see it wasn’t there. But after a while, it didn’t matter to think about it.
I looked over at the closed casket and thought of Daniel, how he died. He was a strong swimmer, in excellent shape, but it was very cold, he got a cramp, and he drowned. I thought of him and his whole life, how short it was. Forty. at isn’t much time. I was there with him when he loved someone, and he was willing to wait it out. I wondered whether, in life, you get one big role, some message you need to deliver to someone, and when it’s done, it’s time to go. I thought of what Daniel said about tornadoes. He was wrong about me. What he said wasn’t true. We weren’t the same. I did not wait. I am not the kind of person who watches something happen in the distance.
Daniel’s family and friends stood up and told stories about him. I did not tell mine. It was for no one to know, and I left. I looked back at the black everyone was wearing. I could not tell which one in the crowd was Richard. I was beginning to forget his face.
Once, walking down the street in front of my old building, Richard called out to me. I must have been closing in on 80 then. I looked through him and spun around. I wanted to be in the distance, beautiful and dark, spinning all by myself, in the clear. I didn’t want him to come close. Nothing, not even the call of my name, could make me stop.
This story first appeared in Harper’s. See the other 2019 O. Henry Prize stories here.
Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in 1978 in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recentlyCluster. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Ploughshares, NOON, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, is forthcoming. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.