Heisenberg by William Shih


William Pei Shih lives in New York City. His stories have been recognized in several competitions, including the 2011 North America Asian American Writers’ Workshop/Hyphen Magazine Short Story Contest (both 2nd Place and Honorable Mention), the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Short Story Competition, Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award, and Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Story Contest. William has written a collection of linked short stories entitled The Disease of Kings and is at work on a novel. He is a graduate of New York University (BA and MA) and teaches at NYU.

3rd place - 2013 Raymond Carver Contest
Notable Story - Million Writers Award


You make the first move, a vague email saying something to the effect that you’re around and bored, and if he’s free, you might be free, too. Romain replies back almost immediately, and writes that he’s been meaning to get in touch with you. He suggests dinner. Okay. You tell yourself, it’ll be a date if he pays. Not a date if you split the bill. You meet him at a place on St. Marks, a Japanese restaurant he recommends, where the tables are cramped and the anime pictures of interlocked naked bodies on the menus border on porn. You both order a smorgasbord of appetizers. Gyoza, cow stomach, intestines. This is before you’re a vegetarian. He dips into each dish with a pair of chopsticks and takes a bite, fairly dividing half of everything on your plate like your mother used to do when you were still a young boy. You drink your Tsingtao, nibble politely and think, this must be how the French do it. Later you’ll find out that it isn’t. When you both finish, he lifts the plates one by one and slurps up the leftover sauce. He wishes for some bread to mop it up with, like at home. You somehow get him to confide that he’s still a little homesick. When the check arrives, you insist that it’s on you.

You like his accent, because it’s French, and you like him because he tells you that he once cried when he saw Carmen, but that was a long time ago, when he was growing up in Toulouse. You think he’s still kind of a boy, in a purplish button-down shirt tucked into jeans that show off his slender physique. And even though he’s starting to lose his hair, he gives off the essence of handsomeness, and for you, it is enough. You make a mental note that he’s a man who cries, and even better, a man who’s not afraid to admit that he cries—to you of course, and that must mean something. After dinner, you accompany him up the Lower East Side, to Stuyvesant Town, which isn’t so much a town as it is a cluster of buildings that obscure the stars. But before he invites you up to his apartment, you both sit on the edge of a park bench overlooking a fountain, watch the rushing water illuminated by such bright white under the backdrop of the late night that it almost looks holy. He lights a Marlboro, offers you one while bouncing it playfully between his pink lips.

You say, “I don’t want to start something that I know I won’t finish.”

He looks at you. “Suit yourself,” he shrugs.

Last week, he was your physics TA, and you studied your ass off to get that A, but when you ask if you were the best in the class he tells you the truth, because he’s honest about things like that. And then you remind him that school’s out.

At 24, he’s not that much older, because you’re 21, about to graduate, and you had to take physics later than most of your classmates. And that’s okay, because you don’t have much in common with kids who went to private schools, who will spend their summers either in the Hamptons, backpacking through Europe, or driving cross-country on road trips trying to find themselves like it’s a pastime. You tutor high school students for money. You’ve done this for years now. Your summers are all starting to look the same.

Without realizing it, you’re holding your breath. You find that you can’t really take secondhand smoke. “You okay?” Romain asks. You smile and nod. After he tosses his cigarette, he invites you back to his apartment. You wonder if he’ll kiss you, or if this is just the beginning of a brotherhood. This is the closest you’ve been to a boy in a while because you think that no one knows that you want to be close to boys and that you long for it. Though some have had their suspicions. And it feels as if you’ve spent all of your conscious life trying to prove them wrong. You’ve become good at it. You don’t want all that you’ve cultivated to go to waste, while keeping yourself protected. But here you are, wasting away. Because time is running out.

Romain tells you that he shares the place with a Pakistani roommate he never sees. His own room is quaint and messy and musty. There are boxes that still need to be unpacked, a stack of textbooks next to his unmade bed, a stuffed book bag. It looks as if he’s just moved in. “You sure like to take your time, don’t you,” you say. He laughs. You both listen to music off his laptop over a disheveled desk of papers filled with equations.

Romain tells you that he shares the place with a Pakistani roommate he never sees. His own room is quaint and messy and musty. There are boxes that still need to be unpacked, a stack of textbooks next to his unmade bed, a stuffed book bag. It looks as if he’s just moved in. “You sure like to take your time, don’t you,” you say. He laughs. You both listen to music off his laptop over a disheveled desk of papers filled with equations.

He teases you, says that you should be able to recognize it—The Uncertainty Principle: Heisenberg. Then he shows you his favorite albums, bands you’ve never heard of, but you know their songs, like “Sexy Boy” by Air. They’re all burned on to CDs, titles written on the glossy reflective surfaces with blue marker. Both of you listen and pretend to watch the screen, even though there’s nothing really to watch, just a screensaver that swirls hypnotically to the music. He’s leaning back with his arms behind his head, facing upward. You lean forward, look down to avoid the urge to stare at him. The floor is littered with the plastic wrappers of earplugs he says he needs because he can’t sleep through the police sirens that intermittently pass throughout the night. It’s hot and humid. It’s June. He doesn’t want to turn on the air conditioner because he says he’s doing his little part to save the environment. You think he’s better than you even know. You’re both sweaty and his face is glistening under the tungsten light. You swear he’s glowing like an angel.

Afterward, he walks you to the L, shakes your hand like a gentleman might. He tells you that his friend from Florida is out of town, visiting family in St. Petersburg, Florida. You both laugh. So it’s just Romain by himself for the next two weeks. You ask him what’ll he do, and he says he’ll probably see a couple of movies. Run, now that he has the time. He loves running; he just has to get back into shape, that’s all. He’ll also try to continue his research on scanning transmission x-ray microscopy at the lab.

“Sounds fun,” you say.

“Oh yeah, it sure is.”

.  .  .

Over the next two weeks you meet Romain almost every other day. You watch reruns of The Simpsons on his laptop. Foreign films at The Angelika. Have dinners at Italian restaurants over candlelight that are practically romantic. No one else in your life knows where you go, or whom you’re with. It feels like an affair, but whom are you cheating on? Your family, your friends, yourself. But you get to know Romain. You learn that he’s sick of his research, that he believes that all the good stuff’s already been discovered and that he’s just chasing after things that are as trivial and insignificant and elusive as electrons. That he visits Southern California in order to get away from it all. He has fond memories of Redondo Beach. He likes to swim in the crystal-blue waters of the Pacific.

One night, after watching a movie in German, he tells you at the pizzeria, “You’re a little mysterious.” And then adds, “But I don’t mind.”

He’s revving up the courage to leave New York.

“It’s getting complicated here,” he says.

You ask, “Why?”

He takes a drink from his glass of water and crunches down on an ice cube.

“Because when you stay somewhere long enough, it gets complicated.”

.  .  .

A few evenings later, you both take a walk along the East River. The sky is pink and red and dark. It smells like decay and decomposition. Romain says that the smell is dimethylsulfoniopropionate and that he likes it. A moist threat of precipitation lingers in the air. Then it rains. You both run back to the apartment. You’ve already prepared yourself for this, umbrella in hand. He has a stack of ponchos and puts one on. The clear plastic hood tied over his head makes him look young and naïve and unfashionable. You both walk back to the river. There, he receives a phone call.

“It’s my friend from Florida,” he tells you. Then he silences the phone and says, “I’ll call him back later.”

 It starts to pour and you both run, follow the river and brave the windy and warm rain before ducking into a sushi bar. You’re both soaked, clothes sticking to your skin, hair dripping wet. When his hair is wet, it makes him look like he has less of it. The soggy clothes reveal a belly you didn’t notice before. But it’s okay. For a physicist, you notice that he rarely ever talks about physics. He nibbles on the ginger you don’t eat, dips it into soy sauce and wasabi. Tells you that he prefers mystery novels like Ruth Rendell to Hemingway, and recommends a couple of them, which you will read just so you both will have a little more in common. Days pass and they feel as if they are some of the best in your life.

.  .  .

Then he tells you that his friend from Florida is back. He wants you to meet Cedric, and you picture someone worthy of Romain. A tall and olive-skinned figure with a Floridian tan and chiseled good looks and a six-pack, until you see him in person and realize that people in New York drink too much to ever look that good. Cedric is stocky and not very tall. He wears glasses and is as pale and pasty as Wonder Bread. He’s a bit effeminate, but it’s not obvious to anyone who’s not looking. For a best friend, you see that Romain doesn’t care about appearances. He just wants someone who’s willing to keep him company in this strange city, where he still feels uneasy. That’s where you come in. The three of you are in Romain’s room, and Cedric is sizing you up like he’s ready for a street fight and thinking, I can take you. He has an even smile that doesn’t reveal much except for slightly crooked teeth. And you can already see that the boy’s in love with Romain and has been for a while. Cedric takes a seat on Romain’s bed, and you’re in the swivel chair at his desk, turning from side to side, acting oblivious while trying to say all the right things. You still think there’s a chance that Romain has a girlfriend back in Paris named Sophie.

Romain plays host, tells you that he and Cedric met through a friend in the physics department. Cedric’s an accountant. Romain points out how much you and Cedric actually have in common. You both listen to The Violent Femmes and Beyoncé and The Killers. You both like math and sushi. Cedric nods with restrained and dim acknowledgement. You think to yourself, you both are also in love with the same man. You smile and nod, too.

Cedric grows accustomed to you because you can make him laugh. You’re kind to him like it’s a favor to Romain, and that’s probably why Cedric’s also kind to you. Somehow, this is enough of a foundation for a pseudo-friendship. You go to various bars together. You learn that Cedric doesn’t like gay bars if Romain’s around. You learn that Cedric’s father is a pastor. When Cedric came out, he knew he couldn’t stay home anymore. He and his father still don’t really speak. But he calls his mother every day from his desk during his lunch break. They eat over the phone together, but he’ll never tell her what’s really going on in his life. The hookups, the bars, Romain. That’s what he tells you. You drink more than you ever have. Eat like an epicurean, because Cedric’s picky and doesn’t do fast food. Watch Romain and Cedric bicker like a married couple. Cedric tells Romain that smoking causes cancer and that it will kill him one day.

“So?” Romain says. “We all have to go somehow.”

You’re all at a bar near Astor Place. Cedric then turns to you and says, “Romain’s a stubborn ass.”

You want to defend Romain, but you can see that he doesn’t care to be defended. He doesn’t pay Cedric any mind, staring at the space before him like he’s already light years away.

“Earth to Romain,” Cedric says, waving a hand in front of him, then rolling his eyes. “What a twat.”

But you know that really, Cedric, like you, finds all of Romain’s quirks endearing.

.  .  .

Romain’s leaving for Paris in a couple of days, where after a week, he’ll take the Eurostar to Toulouse to visit his family. It’s a bright afternoon in July. A Sunday. The two of you go to Washington Square Park and lie down on the grass. Look up at the cloudless sky, at the people passing. Kids on their way to the basketball court, mothers with strollers, people walking their golden retrievers, hair glimmering under the bright sun. Romain’s wearing a pink polo and jeans that have somehow enhanced his handsomeness. He plucks out a blade of grass and sticks it between his teeth like he’s Huck Finn. You haven’t lain on the grass since you were a boy and it makes you feel like you’re somewhere else, away from New York City and all its anxieties. You feel good.

“Are you asleep?” Romain asks.

You say, “No, I’m wide awake.”

.  .  .

That night you all stay out so late that Romain announces you’ll have to spend the night at his place.

“Cool,” Cedric says. His face is deadpan. His smile, even more even. He says that he has to get up early for work the next day and needs to get some sleep. But he waits at the corner of a crowded 1st Ave. and watches until the both of you disappear around the block.

At the apartment, Romain takes out the air mattress he uses when he goes on camping trips to Lake George with his lab group, and spends half an hour taking deep breaths and blowing up the mattress because the pump is out of batteries. He becomes lightheaded, falls to the floor laughing. You can’t help it, you laugh, too. You tell him that he doesn’t have to waste his breath but he insists. He looks up at you, puppy-eyed, like he’s willing to do anything for you. All you have to do is ask. And you think that he’s filling this void of loneliness that’s been inflating inside of you for years. And you actually feel it slowly begin to fill with something dense and heavy like liquefied gold. And you think it’s love. Real love, because it’s all that’s available to you, the most that’s been available to you, and because you have nothing else to compare this to, this warm and attractive body in front of you, so close and fine that you can no longer discern anything with lucidity. It’s not like you want to, anyway. And also, because you drank too much, too much to think straight.

Romain turns off the light and you lie down on the mattress that he’s dragged like a dead body over the floor beside his bed. You look up at the clock. 4:40 a.m. In the dark, you can just make out his shadowy figure. You can see him still in his jeans, sitting on his bed, and then he asks if he can lie down beside you as he does it, climbing onto the airbed with no space for you to answer. You can hear yourself breathe, feel yourself drawing deep breaths that won’t seem to end. Your pulse races along. You feel the mattress undulate and squeak as he nudges his way closer and closer until finally, he’s touching you. His sticky skin against yours. You think of all the intermolecular attractions that are holding you two together. Electrostatic, hydrogen bonding, van der Waals—all bending to the almost divine rule of nature: opposites attract. You feel his body relax, him sinking like a weight in water as he exhales. You’ve always wanted this, some boy to make the move, so you won’t have to relive the handful of beautiful friendships that have ended over something as reckless as an affectionate glance. Those moments make you feel really stupid. Mere boys can really make you spend the rest of your life hating yourself.

Then Romain asks you if you have a girlfriend, or a boyfriend. But before you can even answer, he places a hand on your chest, and slides it over your heart as if to muffle it.

“I don’t care,” he murmurs.

You nod.

“You see, I have a boyfriend in California, and you kind of remind me of him, so…” He leans closer. “I just want to touch you a little. I would like that very much. Maybe kiss you? Nothing more. I’ve just been so lonely in New York.”

You stare into the darkness. Objects slowly make themselves more clear to you. The rotating fan on the ceiling, the empty desk, a pile of textbooks on top of a cardboard box. And it surprises you that they’re noticeable now because they’re darkening.

“I know that Cedric’s in love with me,” Romain continues, “but I don’t love him, not like that. I’ve told him many times before, but he just doesn’t get it, so what can I do?”

He is facing you.

“Don’t worry about Cedric,” he says. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

He leans in closer. His eyes are blinking. You feel his lashes brush against your face, smell his rich gin-infused breath and the sweet and sourness of his musky cologne that’s mixed with his sweat. This is coming to you all at once like a force, but not like gravity. Still, he embraces you, holds you tightly, like he won’t let go so long as he needs you. It feels like the finishing off of a dream. You think of Cedric telling you that he’s been taking French lessons in secret in order to surprise Romain. That he can already tell the difference between a Parisian accent and the way people from Toulouse speak French. And that’s when you push Romain away like it’s for good, but he comes back for you, and you collapse into his arms and start to cry as he reaches for your belt.

.  .  .

After Romain leaves for France, you realize that there’s no one else you can really talk to except for Cedric, now that you’ve gotten a taste for saying what you mean. You let your guard down, just a little, get as close to the young man as he will allow you, as you will allow yourself.  You learn that you’re both fans of Big Brother. You both read Kafka and Alice Walker. You learn that Cedric plans to move to Paris someday. No surprise there. And you learn that he collects designer underwear. And that you were both traumatized by bullies when you were boys in middle school. Maybe you had it a little worse because you thought you deserved it.

“What I’ll never understand is how they knew,” you say to Cedric one night at a bar on Avenue B. “How did they know, even before I did?”

“They didn’t,” Cedric answers plainly. “It was because you weren’t like them. And also, they were probably just assholes.”

His answer isn’t good enough to make you feel okay, so you say, “I guess.”

Cedric takes a long sip from his mojito and tells you, “When I was thirteen, I was in love with some pretty boy in my class. His name was Justin. He really gave me hell, did stuff you wouldn’t believe kids could do to each other.”

“That’s horrible.”

Cedric shrugs. “But I let him. I let him get away with it all. Once, I even defended the kid when a teacher saw him shove me against a wall. What did I know? I was fat, ugly, unpopular. I sort of still am. But I wanted him to like me, I mean really like me. And when he pushed me around, I had his undivided attention, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

Cedric narrows his tipsy eyes on you. You suddenly regret telling him so much, and you’re afraid that for Cedric, it’ll just be tomorrow’s gossip.

“Give me a little credit here,” Cedric then says.

“Excuse me?”

“Do you really know?”

“Yes, of course.” Then you joke, “It sounds to me like Stockholm Syndrome.”

Cedric doesn’t laugh. Raising an eyebrow skyward, he shakes his head. Then he says, “whatever,” and you’re relieved that it’s the end of that conversation.

But you don’t tell Cedric that even though your bullies are gone now, you still continue to bully yourself. It’s ingrained deep inside the machinery of your brain like a virus that you can’t erase. And you don’t know how to tell him that you feel like there’s no place on this earth for you anymore. That sometimes, you wouldn’t mind it so much if you disappeared, and that you’re sure that most people wouldn’t mind so much either. And that you were raped by that man you met at your neighborhood A & P, which you never told anyone about because you still think that it was your fault for indulging in his advances in the first place, thinking that he was the only person who was like you that you’d ever know. And when he invited you to his apartment, you chose to go with him. And when he put his hand on your knee and squeezed, you were already afraid. But instead of running for your life, you froze because you thought that it was the only thing you could do to save yourself. And you thought that you were going to die, you really did, because at that age, what did you know? And that night when you made it home, you were actually grateful to God because he’d answered your prayers and that you’d survived, and it was enough that you could still walk through the front doors of your house, see your parents watching the evening news in the living room, your mother telling you from the couch that she had saved you a plate of dinner in the refrigerator and that all it needed was a few minutes in the microwave. It felt like heaven. And you remember thinking to yourself, how could you ruin this? And why would you? And even though you never saw the man again, you can still see him passing you in the streets, you can see him in the people you meet. Years later, you see him in yourself. That’s why you can hate yourself.

.  .  .

Late one night, after a string of bars and being introduced to several random men whom Cedric acts like are all his best friends, though you know that he’s only been out with them once or twice before, you follow Cedric back to the apartment he’s subletting from a physics professor at NYU. “Nice,” you say, distracted by all the books on Galileo and Isaac Newton and Niels Bohr. Then Cedric strips off his shirt and pants. He’s sporting black velvet boxer briefs with printed fire patterns, and he’s so drunk that he does a little dance. He dances his way over to you and swears that he still hears music.

“Put your pants back on,” you tell him.

“You no like?”


“You sure?”


“Not even a kiss good night?”

“No, Cedric.”

“Fine, good night then. I probably won’t see you in the morning, but you can let yourself out when you have to go.”


“I guess I’ll go to my room now.”


You get ready to sleep. A part of you wishes that you won’t wake up. The weaker part of you is too afraid to make a real move. You turn off the lights, lie down on the sofa, stare at the ceiling, and wonder what Romain’s doing at that very same moment.

A few minutes later, Cedric flicks on the light and pops his head back in.

“You’re a damn prude,” he bawls. “You know that?”

“Good night, Cedric.”

“What do you think you’re doing, hanging out with us? You don’t deserve to hang out with us. You don’t play along. You’re not even out. You’re fucking good for nothing you know that? You’ve got problems. Why the hell do you even have a problem? And you’re not even…out!”

“Cedric, I am out.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. Do your parents know? Your real friends? The ones I’ll never get to meet because you’re too fucking embarrassed by me?”

You know he’s right, but you say, “I’m not having this conversation with you right now. You’re drunk. You don’t know what the hell you’re saying.”

You stare at the whiteboard behind him. An unfinished equation jumps out at you, all of the x’s, Σ’s, and ∞’s blur into a single mass of color. And then you see it, you recognize it. Heisenberg. Every time you try to measure the position of an electron, you change its original state. Forever. 

“Does your girlfriend know?” Cedric asks.

“Fuck you.”

“You don’t think that I know about you and Romain? Well, I do.” Tears are welling up in his eyes. His face contorts, and he wails, “I know all about your one-night stand. You really fucked things up with him, you know that? With us, with me. You really fucked things up! And you’re not even out! You’re just hiding out. You’re like a fucking parasite, that’s what you are, some Godforsaken malaria ridden parasite. It’s fucking selfish what you’re doing. That’s what it is—selfish.”

“Cedric it’s not like that at all.”

 “Go! Get out! Get out of my face!” He’s a man possessed. “I can’t stand your miserable face!”

Cedric slams the door as you leave. You hear him lock it behind you and glimpse his shadow lingeringfrom underneath the crack of the door. You descend the stairs and end up out in the streets. Yellow taxis speed by. You think about hailing one, but then you don’t. You can’t go home; it’s too late, and you don’t want to be there explaining to your mom where you’ve been all night. You don’t have to lie when you’re alone. You also won’t have to lie anymore when you’re gone. You find an empty café that’s still open in this neighborhood that never seems to sleep, and sit down at a table. The Italian waiter brings you a café crème and tells you about his evening and about how people just don’t tip like they used to. Your phone is dead. Again, you wish you could just fall asleep and not wake up. But then, you probably shouldn’t be drinking this coffee.

A few minutes later, Cedric enters the café and plops himself down across from you.

“I knew you’d be here,” he says. “You have nowhere else to go.”

He orders a glass of wine.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough,” you mutter.

“Yes.” But Cedric drinks anyway. His face looks drained and dehydrated. Then he says, “Sorry about all that before. It’s the whole Romain thing. It’s really put me in a bad place. I miss him.”

“It’s all right,” you say. You miss him too.

“And I hate that he misses you. But you know that he misses you only because he misses his boyfriend. You’re just another boyfriend to him, you know. A lesser boyfriend, just his boyfriend du jour.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.”

“I bet that he has a boyfriend in Paris, too. Maybe even the boyfriend himself. Don’t let it get to you. I’m just telling it like it is.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Cedric.”

“What can I say, Romain and I are like this,” Cedric twists his second and middle fingers together and waves the contortion in your face. “You know, he and I talk every day. And I’m not saying that to be nasty or anything. You and I are past that now. Right? We are.”

“That’s nice.”

“Anyway, he calls me or I call him. And it’s not like we ever tell each other what really goes on in our lives. We just keep it simple. I suppose it’s easier that way. And he doesn’t tell me much, so I know that he’s keeping things from me. And I imagine the most terrible things. That’s how I figure everything out.”

His smile lacks substance. His eyes are like fallow land. Then Cedric says, “Romain was so good in New York. Anyway, he says that he can’t wait to see me—he misses New York. He tells me everything he thinks I’ll want to hear. He says that when he comes back, things will be different. And I’m holding on to that. I think about him all the time.”

“All right,” you say. “Stop talking.” It actually pains you to know that someone can love Romain more than you do, and you wonder how true your love really is, anyway.

Cedric takes another long sip. He shuts his eyes and winces. “This is cheap stuff.” He looks at you with uncertainty, the look he gives you when he thinks you’re acting like you don’t know better when you really do, and shakes his head determinedly. Then he can’t help but laugh. He leans across the table and says, “Between you and me, I don’t think he plans on ever coming back.”