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The Education of Peter Obata

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. Is This Love?, by Lowry PeiThe 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 fuck-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 was usually 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?”

Sheldon, who was gay, said: “Are you sure ‘lucky’ is the right adjective? Anyway, I don’t think it’s you.”

“Wait—you mean you’re the one?” I said.

“She probably paints her fingernails while she fucks. 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.

I thought if you had come in naked, the invitation to imagine having sex with you would not have been more blatant, it would have been less so. Your nakedness would have been an invitation and yet it would have revealed your helpless humanity, vulnerable and in need of care. My care, I wanted to think. The shape of you was like a word spoken to me alone.

I was summoned to the office of Professor Tutwiler; I sat in the chair facing him where I had sat many times in the past four years. In class, where I first encountered him, he was like the host of a good dinner party, who makes the guests seem smarter and wittier than perhaps they really are; he made me want to carry on the conversation one on one. In the kitchen, as it were, behind the scenes. For quite a while that seat in his office had felt like it was mine by rights as his advisee, research assistant, TA. I felt that he was letting me in on mysteries by taking me on that way; but I never seemed to be able to grasp the secret, if one was revealed. I could see in his eyes that I was a disappointment now. The office was shadowy except under his desk lamp, and books climbed all the way to the ceiling. Tutwiler was not a tall man; he had to stand on tiptoe on a chair when he wanted to reach the top shelves. “I’m working my way through the titles you recommended,” I said, knowing that wasn’t enough. “It’s really a case of… “

He waited, exhibiting patience. “A case of?”

Satisfying you. “Fine-tuning,” I said.

“Has your argument—shall we say, evolved?”

I had nothing to offer that he had not already turned down. “Well, my focus is still the same, of course. It’s a question of finding the right approach to the material.”

Appearing to study his desktop, Tutwiler took a breath and let it out. Then he looked up at me. “Mr. Obata,” he said. He seemed to reach for an easy tone that no longer came naturally, but the “Mr.” wasn’t a good sign. Tutwiler had been calling me Peter for a couple of years. “You know—I’m sure you know this—before every school year we have a faculty meeting to talk about the graduate students in the program. Their prospects, their progress.” He waved his hand as if to say, You understand, it’s all routine. Then it stopped waving. “Also their funding. Both the students at the dissertation stage and the more recently admitted ones. They’re going to ask me whether we should extend your fellowship again. What do you want me to tell them?”

“Um—please let the department know my research is—that we’re, um, close to a workable proposal.” The “we” did not come easily, as it once would have.

“Are we?” Tutwiler said, gazing at me over his glasses.

“I believe so.”

“You do understand that I need to see an approvable dissertation prospectus on my desk by the end of the summer at the latest.” Tutwiler’s voice almost sounded like he regretted having to say the words. He had never before set an absolute deadline.

“I see,” I said.

“At the latest,” Tutwiler repeated, nodding slightly in agreement with himself. This time there was no hint of apology. “Before you register for fall quarter.”

“I see,” I said again.

After the dimness of Tutwiler’s office I was momentarily blinded by the sun on the Quad. Before you register. The threat was clear enough. Hoover Tower looked balefully down at me, the gravel under my feet seemed to tilt.

“Something’s the matter with you, Obata,” Sheldon said. “What have you got up your butt?”

“Rottweiler’s foot.”

Jay said, “Isn’t he supposed to be helping you?”

“He wants a proposal that is quote, approvable, unquote, by the end of August. ‘Before you register,’ he tells me. You know what that means? Or else. No fellowship, no T.A.ship, finito, kaput.”

“You’re kidding,” Jay said.

“You don’t think he means it? Take it from me, he does.”

“Go to the chairman,” Sheldon said.

“That’ll make it worse.”

“Go to the chairman and tell him you’ve reached an impasse with your adviser and you need to switch. I did it,” Sheldon said.

“But maybe you wouldn’t want to do it the way he did,” Jay said.

“Why?”

“He claimed his old adviser never turned anything back and wouldn’t meet with him. So now the guy won’t even say hello to him in the hall.”

“So maybe I exaggerated. Just make it work. Tell him Tutwiler has been hitting on you.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” I said. “He probably hasn’t gotten it up in a decade. Listen, you didn’t see the letter the chairman wrote me when they extended my fellowship. It’s not good when they start using phrases like ‘maintain satisfactory progress toward the degree.’”

Jay grunted, Sheldon rolled his eyes. “That’s boilerplate,” Sheldon said. “They never kick anybody out. If they were going to, I can think of a couple of people in English they would have started with years ago.”

“I’m not in English,” I said.

I was outside Liddicoat’s on University Ave., the expensive grocery store where I never shopped, when I saw you for the first time outside the bar. You were all business, wearing a suit: gray and severe, floppy bow tie at the neck, gold metal brooch on your left lapel with imitation pearls, no one could have looked more proper. Your outfit matched your careful hair and your composed face, and I felt a little crazy remembering you in the bar, as if that other outfit were a delusion of my own.

It excited me more to see you that way, in front of Liddicoat’s, than in the Shutter, because when I saw you there I thought I could one day speak to you, I thought I could get to know you somehow, and that made me follow you inside, along the meat counter where I saw you buy ground sirloin (which was my first clue) and then the produce (tomatoes, onions) and then the frozen foods (peas, lima beans) and the cereal-and-pasta aisle where I saw you take down a box of linguine and one of corn flakes and I thought I might understand what to say to you.

You sat at the bar yet again one night when I was there with Jay. We accepted your presence now; we didn’t have to talk about you after the first acknowledgement that you were with us again. After you had been there for a few minutes, sipping your colorless drink and turning your back on me and all the other men, I saw you pick up the bar menu and study it, then set it down and push it away disdainfully. Before I quite knew I was going to, I stood up and began to move toward you. I couldn’t have done it if Sheldon had been there to stare too; I wanted neither of them to see this, I knew neither they nor anyone else in the place would understand what I was about to do. Standing up and making my way from the table to the stool next to you, I felt that I floated above myself and slightly behind, watching myself in silent amazement.

Though I didn’t look at you when I sat down on the stool to your right, I could feel the force field around you. I knew how intensely you were aware of my presence, but I couldn’t tell what it meant.

The bartender came and asked me, poker-faced, what I would have; I ordered a beer. I did not offer to buy her a drink. I took a sip and felt that she could get up and leave at any moment and it was now or never if I was going to speak.

“I hope you don’t mind,” I began. Stupid thing to say, of course she minded. Start again. “Is there anything good on the menu?”

She passed it to me without speaking. Potato skins, nachos, fried lumps of mozzarella—no wonder she wasn’t interested.

“I see what you mean,” I said. “Not so fabulous, is it?”

No reply.

“I was imagining something more along the lines of a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Or even a hamburger would not be too, um, mundane.”

I was sure she hadn’t looked at me, but then she said, “You speak English very well.”

It helped me get a grip, because for a moment I didn’t want her so much. “I was born here.” In a relocation camp, the second child born to my parents there; the first, a girl, died.

“Oh.”

“Actually, I was born in Heart Mountain, Wyoming.”

“Wyoming?” I was sure she knew nothing, like most people.

“Yes.”

“Are there many Japanese people there?”

“Um—not now. There were at one time.”

More silence. I avoided looking at her in the mirror behind the bar, after one glimpse of the outline of her head between and behind some bottles. “What did you want to say to me?” she said, catching me unprepared after all.

“I was going to suggest going somewhere for a bite to eat. Probably Stickney’s. Not very creative, I realize.” All I could do was tell the truth.
“No,” she said, looking at me directly for a moment. But I thought she faintly smiled. “Try again.”

“We could go out for sushi.”

No reply.

“Surf and turf. Eel and veal.” Would she smile?

“Try again.”

“I find you beautiful.”

She drew a breath, straightened her back, turned her face toward me with complete composure. “You’re not supposed to tell me that.”

“Why not?”

You smiled faintly—I was sure of it this time—but to yourself, not to me. Would I have to slink away like the other failures? The song on the jukebox ended, it clicked complexly, another one came on while you perhaps thought about an answer, or ignored me. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” As if pointing at me and laughing. I willed you not to hear it.

“Grilled cheese is much easier to find than sushi,” she said. “But I don’t like Stickney’s.”

“Well… I know it’s not very creative either, but there’s always the Bun ‘n’ Burger.”

“I have been there a time or two,” she said. Her voice was flat, routine, but my heart leapt. I didn’t dare look at her, not even glance down at her legs, much as I wanted to.

“What about now?”

“I suppose I could.”

I took another sip of the beer, got up off the stool; something told me not to say anything more but to act as if all were taken for granted, of course you would stand up and go with me. When you did get off your bar stool I could not help one glance at you. I wanted you to come straight to my apartment, to my bedroom, where I would take off what was begging to be taken off and make love to you all night, every way I was imagining. But I knew better than to let you hear me thinking that; I had to look away and somehow my thoughts had to be on grilled cheese. You picked up your handbag off the bar, and as we walked to the door I felt the whole place stare. When I opened the door for you some man groaned behind us, and as it closed some remark got lost in clatter, thank God, because I knew what kind of remark it had to be and you could be spooked at any moment. If there was anything I understood about you it was that.

“My name’s Peter, by the way,” I said.

“Margo.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

She nodded but didn’t reply.

We were stared at on the street when we got out of my car, we were stared at in the Bun ‘n’ Burger. People made half-heard remarks that I tried not to notice. I thought I had a pretty good idea what it was like to be her, foreigner, outsider, disturber of the peace. She ate only half her sandwich, in a well-mannered way that put me on my best behavior. When she ate the pickle I cringed inside, certain that some man in the place was making a comment about her giving a blow job. I knew better than to imagine I could look forward to that.

She told me her work (business analysis in an investment bank), I told her mine (Japan in the Tokugawa period). Neither of us cared much about that; but every once in a while she looked me in the eye for an instant, and it excited me so much I would almost lose my way in the middle of a sentence. Fortunately the table was there to hide the lump in my pants.

When we left, she insisted on paying her share. We got into my car, to drive back to hers, and there she was in the dark semi-privacy of the front seat with me, eighteen inches away; it was all I could do not to lay my hand on her naked thigh. I knew that if I did it, she would lock herself closed to me at once and I would end up asking myself what the hell I could have been thinking when I chose to approach her, why did I bother anyway? But I did not try to touch her on the way to her car, which was a white BMW 2002, many cuts above my ancient Datsun. Before she got out she looked me in the eye momentarily and said, “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” I said. “Would you like to do it again?”

Pondering the parking sticker in the corner of the windshield, she thought about it. “Perhaps,” she said, with little enthusiasm.

“If you could tell me your phone number… “

“What’s yours?” she said. I knew exactly this much: the first name she’d told me, and the kind of car she drove. I could see she wanted to keep it that way. I told her my full name and my phone number.

“I’ll let you know if I want to go out,” she said.

“Okay.”

“No. I told you. We went to the Bun ‘n’ Burger. I had a grilled cheese, she had tuna salad. That’s it.”

“Yeah, but after that,” said Sheldon. “Your place or hers?”

“Sorry, that’s not how it went.”

“It is impossible to wear what she wears and not want to get laid.”

“How would you know?” said Jay. “Have you ever worn that?”

“I have better taste,” said Sheldon. “Come on, did she take it off, or did you?”

I sat with crossed arms and said nothing, trying to keep a straight face.
“The question is,” Jay said, “did they make it all the way to the bed, or did they have to stop at the couch first?”

“The kitchen table.”

“The desk.”

“Wait’ll Rottweiler smells your next prospectus… “

“Maybe he’ll finally approve it.”

“If you leave it with him so he can jerk off.”

Eventually they wore themselves out with pornographic invention; then they started theorizing about the social construction of sexuality; then the conversation wandered back to Nixon and whether the Judiciary Committee would ever nail him, if what they had on him already wasn’t enough.

The next time, I met her at the Bun ‘n’ Burger, and she was wearing the outfit again. It was even more outrageous there than in the bar, under the bright lights, against the red of the Formica table top and the upholstery of the booth. I was sure now that it was a test; I had to keep my gaze from travelling down her ruffled neckline to the irresistibly bare and touchable place between her breasts—had to exhibit an inhuman absence of lust, had to pretend that we were not stared at, to override embarrassment at being part of her public spectacle. She ordered a hamburger and a side of fries; she ate less than half of the hamburger, and three French fries. I counted. I ordered the same and finished mine; after a while, she offered the rest of hers to me.

“Don’t you want any more?” I said.

“No, thank you. Please—go ahead. I never finish my food in a restaurant; they serve too much.”

“Not for me,” I said.

“You’re a man,” she replied, and for the first time she gave me more than the hint of a smile. It came and went, but her admitting that I was male, and she a woman, as she sat across from me looking the way she looked, was almost unbearably exciting.