Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing: homeFiction

The Asymmetry of Desire

A short story

The red silk, high-collared, floor-length dress swirled and flowed around my limbs like chilled liquid. I had no doubt that it drew the gaze of every single eye in the room. I am a painfully shy person — in normal circumstances the most timid and diffident in this company by a very long chalk. This dress though, it had transformed my personality, even as it convinced me that it had reshaped and controlled the body it enclosed — a body which, dressed in its normal attire, would already have fled this room, this occasion.

I was wearing flat shoes, hidden beneath the long skirt of the dress, yet I was sure that I was noticeably taller and thinner than I am in my normal state. Apart from the shoes and the dress, I was wearing nothing, not even earrings or, indeed, any jewellery. There was no underwear to disrupt the flowing line of red silk. I wouldn’t have been wearing a bra in any case — I’ve never worn one, except briefly to try on one of my older sister’s. Instead, small, subtle breast forms were sewn into the fabric of the dress. The forms were not attached to my chest and they moved freely in a way I found excitingly unpredictable, if not entirely verisimilitudinous. I’d had a few misgivings about not wearing anything to hold in my genitals but now I was sure I’d made the right choice. I was thrilled and at a high pitch of arousal but I was somehow entirely confident that that wasn’t going to manifest itself in the form of an erection. Nothing so masculine was possible, so long as I was dressed like this.

If I was frightened of anything, it was the possibility of being asked to dance. If any of the young men were to ask me, it could only be in order to mock or embarrass. Most of them wouldn’t dare but I inadvertently caught Henry Lindsay’s eye and saw at once that he’d accepted without hesitation the challenge I hadn’t intended to issue. I looked away quickly, and saw that Irina was watching me. “Dance”, I mouthed at her, with an inclination of my head towards the dancefloor. She frowned and shook her head vigorously but I was already moving towards her, anxious to preempt Henry’s similar move on me. I took Irina’s arm firmly (firmly, me?!) and she didn’t resist though I sensed her continued reluctance.

As I pushed onto the floor with Irina in tow, I had a couple of moments of panic. “I can’t dance”, I reminded myself, unnecessarily. “What am I doing? This is going to be as embarrassing as it can get.” I had promised myself that I’d keep my embarrassment to the minimum, given that there’s already an almost lethal dose inherent in the idea of appearing in a scarlet dress among a group of my peers. And then I was dancing. We were, Irina and I. What had happened? In retrospect, it seems that whatever mental process had previously made it impossible for me to interpret the minutely discrete instructions of my hapless dance teacher into a smooth, integrated, physical flow had somehow been turned off momentarily. It had something to do with the dress. That’s what I thought afterwards. While it was happening, I didn’t dare think. I danced.

As the dance ended, I thought I saw one or two people getting ready to applaud. More embarrassment to be avoided. “I need to get out of here,” I whispered to Irina. Now she took the lead, with a small nod, bringing me out the nearest door and up a staircase which I hadn’t seen before. With me still holding her arm, she went straight to the room where I’d changed earlier. How did she know which room that was?

Inside, she gently, carefully and very quickly helped me out of the dress and draped it, equally carefully, on one of the chairs. It felt strange not to feel strange about being naked in front of her. Her gaze, passing — even dismissive — as it was, felt like a benevolently unthinking caress. Her lips hinted at a smile.

“Sorry about that,” I said. I wondered if she understood that I was referring to my insistence that she dance, when she clearly hadn’t wanted to.

“Don’t worry about it,” she answered. I wondered if she had been referring to the same thing. I smiled, less enigmatically than she had. At least, that’s what I intended.

I woke in the bed in the same room. It was daylight. The bed was comfortable and I was still naked. I stretched and turned. I had a sense of being more in my body than usual, my senses sharper, as if I’d had sex, though I couldn’t remember having done so. I sat up in the bed. The dress was gone but there was something, obviously a garment, in its place. I pushed myself out of the bed. I still felt exactly as if I’d had sex though there was no sign of my having ejaculated. If I hadn’t been enjoying the sensation so much, I’d have worried a bit about the apparent gap in my memory. The garment was a kind of tunic. Obviously, I was meant to step into the leg-holes and pull it up, putting my arms and shoulders into the short sleeves. It didn’t have any fastenings but it was stretchy around the chest — to make it easier to put on and take off, I imagined. I put it down on the bed and took a look around the room, which was at once luxurious and haphazard, even cluttered.

Like the bed, the rest of the furniture was old but well looked after — clean and polished and artfully, if eccentrically, arranged. A large sideboard rested in the middle of the floor, far from any wall. The chairs were of different styles but apparently all antique and there were too many of them for a room this size. Behind them was a large window, with the heavy curtains open. It seemed, from where I was standing, to look out on the street at the front of the building. Opposite the window, on the inside wall, there was a second door, not the one I’d come through with Irina last night, or earlier, before the event, when I’d changed into the dress. I felt a compelling urge to try the door.

But first, I went back to the bed and put on the tunic. It fit me loosely but well: notwithstanding the absence of any fastening, there was no danger of the top slipping from my shoulders. I slid my feet into the flat shoes I’d been wearing the previous evening. Dressed, I went to the window and looked out. I’d been right about its position to the front of the building, but there was no sign of life out there. Maybe it was earlier than I’d thought. I looked around for a clock but there didn’t seem to be one. I’d left my phone at home, as instructed.

Not doubting that the room held as yet unexhausted opportunities for exploration, I nevertheless decided to move on. I tried the doorhandle. The opening door led, not to a corridor as I had expected, but to another, smaller room, furnished very differently from the one I’d just left. The curtains were closed but they allowed in a little light which showed that they, like virtually everything else in the room, were of a bluish-grey colour. This room wasn’t cluttered: the desks, of which there were three, were arranged near the walls, each with a chair behind it. There was a fourth chair, on my side of the desk opposite the door. All the furniture matched: the frames and hard surfaces were of a metallic substance which yet, I was sure, would feel soft to the touch. A metal-plastic alloy with a wood finish, I guessed. Functional and low maintenance but not cheap.

The chair behind the desk opposite me was occupied by a man I hadn’t seen before. He wore a business suit, which seemed only slightly anachronistic in this setting, with a sedately patterned tie, which was outlandishly so. He seemed to be working on an angled screen which was recessed into his desk.

“Come in,” he invited as I appeared in the doorway, with an inpouring of daylight from the room I’d slept in. “And close the door, if you wouldn’t mind.”

He did something with the screen and the blue-grey curtains opened about halfway. “Is that all right for you?”

“Yes. Thanks,” I hesitated a little longer than was polite before closing the door and taking a step towards his desk. “Perfect.”

“I have some questions for you, if you don’t mind. I’m with the customer satisfaction team. To tell the truth, I am the customer satisfaction team, except when we’re very busy. These days everything is so less labour-intensive — does that mean more labour-extensive, I wonder? Do sit down, please.”

I obeyed, confirming my guess about the chair frame’s material. The man behind the desk introduced himself as David Jennings, head of Consumer Research.

“I’m very satisfied with the experience. I don’t know what else you’d like to know,” I said.

“Where did the idea for the dream come from?”

“I can’t say I really know. I’ve had it for some time.”

“Since childhood?”

I thought for a few seconds. “Probably not that long, though I can’t really be sure.” Jennings made a handwritten note on a pad which lay to the right of his screen. He pushed the screen flat, flush with the surface of the desk, and pulled the pad in front of him.

“Would it be true to say that you don’t remember the origins of the idea which we’ve realized for you in the form of a dream simulation?”

“As far as I can tell, yes.” I didn’t try to keep the impatience out of my voice.

“As far as you can tell? But you can tell whether you remember something or not, can’t you?”

“What does it matter? I’ve said the dream was satisfactory. What more could you possibly need to know?”

“We deal in dreams, Mr Gordon. In other words, we very soon become aware of the gap between what people say and what they feel, often without themselves recognizing the divergence. For example, you say you are satisfied but you appear to be angry.”

“I’m not angry, just a little exasperated at this waste of my time. As for the experience itself, as I’ve already said …”

“But this is still part of the experience.”

“In that case I was happy with the experience until you insisted on … on …”

“On introducing an element of frustration, of friction? Good. We’re getting somewhere.”

“Good?!” By now I’d moved beyond exasperation to real anger.

“Yes. And I assure you, we’re not wasting your time.” I glared at him, determined not to speak first, unless I could think of something devastating to say.

Jennings broke the silence. “You’re impressed by our modest establishment, I don’t doubt. By our ability to construct dreams to order? Of course you are. Would you be surprised to learn that that isn’t our core activity?”

“Astonished,” I said tonelessly. “Will this take much longer?”

“Just give me two more minutes. If by then I’ve failed to engage your interest, the session will be over and you will be free to leave immediately. Not that you’re not already free of course. I’ve memorized the script, naturally, but I always seem to go wrong at that point. Sorry. Do you mind if I do that bit again?”

“Yes, I bloody mind. I get it. I’m free to leave right now but you’d like me to give you another two minutes. Right, your time starts now. Please get on with it.”

“Thanks. I’m supposed to ask you now if you know anything of the history of our institute, but I’ll just assume that you don’t and plough on, OK? The whole thing started with the discovery that we could induce dreams, like the you’ve just had. And some very unlike the one you’ve just had. A wide variety, in fact. We call them dreams but it would be more accurate to say ‘illusions’. They’re induced by stimulating a precisely defined area of the brain, using a wholly non-invasive, magnetic … but of course you were told all that before you signed the consent forms. The point is that the procedure is completely safe and, while it often has long-term effects, these are entirely benign. Unfortunately, it’s also astronomically expensive. At first, it was possible to offer our services to none but the wealthiest um … this is another point at which I keep going off the script. I keep wanting to say ‘clients’ but that word is one that we are absolutely not permitted to use. Not ‘subjects’ either. Don’t worry it will come to me. You know who I mean. People like yourself who come to us to have their dreams realized.”

“‘Customers’?” I suggested.

“Frowned on but not forbidden. It will do for the moment. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that, if the ‘customer’ were to pay the full economic cost of the procedure, only the very wealthiest would be able to afford our services. And, given the evidently beneficial effects enjoyed by those who could afford it, it seemed unconscionable to deny it to others, merely on the ground that it was outside their financial reach. So we began to look for ways to fund the process apart from direct payment.”

“And you found one.”

“Indeed we did. We had been collecting a large amount of information on each of our ‘customers’. We’d have been collecting a certain amount anyway, for Customer Satisfaction purposes but our Compliance division advised us to gather even more, in case anything should go wrong. In case anybody should suffer any … injury or damage. Don’t worry — we’ve been operating for over fifteen years now and nobody ever has. I’m not allowed to say this before you undergo the procedure but, now that you have, I can confidently state that the risk is negligible.”

“But you still continue to collect the data?” I thought that Jennings started almost imperceptibly at the last word.

“Yes, because …”

“It was valuable.”

“Enormously so. We discovered that, almost without noticing the fact, we were assembling the largest depository of, um … data on …”


“Well, that’s what we call them, but … ‘A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes’, as Mack David so well expressed it. People come to us with their fantasies and we give them the illusion — the very realistic illusion — of having realized them. And, in the process, we amass a colossal database of human fantasies.”

“Which you sell to … to whom? Advertisers?”

“Oh, no, we don’t sell our data. On the contrary, we guard it carefully. We mine it; and in it we find patterns, correlations, effects and their causes. And I’ve no doubt that you’d like to know what we do with the results but I’m afraid that that information is just too sensitive. Market sensitive, if you get my drift. Suffice it to say that it’s more than enough to keep us in business. I see my two minutes were up some time ago. Can I entice you to stay a little longer?”

He could, of course.

“I quoted Mack David a few minutes ago. Our researches in the data we’ve collected confirm that his insight, slightly reformulated, is a revealing one.”

“A dream is a wish your heart makes?”

“The language is metaphorical, of course. Mr David was a lyricist. It would be more precise to say “a fantasy is a statement of your desires”. Our data mining reveals some strong patterns of correlation between the fantasies which our customers present to us and the fundamental desires which drive them.”

“Isn’t that kind of obvious? I mean, did you really need to collect massive amounts of data to discover that?”

“Well, let’s see, shall we? What does your fantasy tell us about your deepest desire? What would you say that desire is?”

“Exactly what I’ve just lived through.”

“That’s merely the fantasy. What’s the desire?”

“I guess … to experience something I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to.”

“True, but vague. To experience what that you wouldn’t normally be able to?”

I shrugged.

“As a child, did you ever feel aggrieved or angry or regretful that you had a boy’s body and not a girl’s?”

“Well, yes. I imagine that that’s a pretty universal experience. Among boys, I mean. There’d be no reason for a girl to resent not having a girl’s body. It’s natural to want what you don’t have. I accepted it; adjusted to it.”

“What age were you when you had this feeling?”

“Prepubertal. I guess 10 or 11. I can’t really remember.”

“So it’s not your earliest memory, then?”

“I don’t think so. Oh, wait — I was in a playpen.”

“Not at 10 or 11 you weren’t.”

“I was remembering a memory. Remembering having a memory, I mean. The original sense of wanting to have a girl’s body came very early. I don’t think I can have been more than 3, maybe 4. I recalled it later — I’m probably wrong in thinking it was prepubertal — when I first heard about the Freudian idea of penis envy. I thought it was amusing and yet puzzling that he’d turned it on its head. Who was he trying to fool?” Was it really possible to accept with straight-faced solemnity the laughable notion that girls envied us our dangling loose threads and not that it was we who longed for their rounded, self-contained completeness? Wasn’t it more likely that Freud had formulated his proposition in consciously perverse terms to provoke an instant recognition that it was the opposite of the truth?

“Freud certainly seems to have got it wrong. Most of the souls — erm, the customers — we’ve interviewed about it report a memory similar to yours. Male children in general want to have a female body. That’s their fundamental desire. The majority, like you, recognize that it’s not possible. It’s after that recognition that things start to get interesting. The desire is impossible so it has to be redirected. It really is a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.”

“Something’s gotta give. What, exactly?”

“A substantial majority of men divert the impossible desire to have a female body of their own into a drive to occupy or colonize another one. They thrust into it, penetrate it; to the extent that they can, they make it theirs, pinning it to the earth with their weight. The desire can’t be satisfied but it can take most of a lifetime to abate so they keep trying. There are, of course, several other possible paths, not all of which we need to go into. The fantasy we enacted for you last night points in a certain direction, and that’s why I wanted to interview you in more depth than is usual.”

“OK, but I really don’t remember a lot about my childhood desires. About my childhood in general, come to that.”

“We’ve looked at male desires. That’s the easy part, in that we’ve both experienced them. But what do you suppose girls and women desire?”

“Back to Freud, eh? I can’t possibly imagine what they desire.”

“Ah, but you can. You just can’t bring yourself to accept the implications. Put yourself in the position of a woman of your own age and experience. Think yourself into that role. Now, what is it that you desire?”

“A woman’s body.”


“But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Oh, but it makes perfect sense. A woman’s body is the universal object — please forgive the term in this context — universal object of desire. Of all desire, male and female. Our accumulated data leaves no room for doubt about that. While the majority of our customers are men, we have had enough female souls avail of our services to have reached a high degree of confidence about that conclusion.”

“A high degree of confidence?” I shook my head, though not with enough force to dislodge the idea.

“Virtual certainty. The secret to understanding desire is to grasp the fact that it’s not symmetrical. Things in nature rarely are and, when we speak of human beings, desire is the most natural thing in the world. When it comes to sexual desire, men desire women’s bodies — and so do women.”

“That’s absurd. Nobody would ever have sex and the race would never have evolved.”

“So, according to you, men’s bodies are the objects of women’s desire?”

“They must be. We wouldn’t exist otherwise.”

“Women have sex with men, and become pregnant and have children, for all sorts of reasons. Quite often, I’m sorry to say, it’s because the men, who are stronger on average, simply don’t give them the choice. The sad truth about our species is that rape played a significant part in its evolution. But even without rape, there’s a variety of reasons why a woman might have — and does have — sex with a man: for example, in exchange for security or shelter, food or prestige, status or respectability, and, of course, in order to have children. You’ve known this as long as you’ve known about sex, but you won’t look at it directly.”

“I know that these reasons have always operated, but they’re not the only ones …”

“There’s never any shortage of reasons. There are even, occasionally, some new ones.”

“And all of this has something to do with your work here? With the fantasy you created for me?”

“Indeed it does. We’re in a position to offer you an opportunity. An opportunity which, because of the fantasy you asked us to enact for you, we have reason to believe you might welcome.” He paused, as if waiting for me to react. I’m not sure whether or not I did. “In the fantasy, were you a man or a woman?”

“A man. I had a penis. I remember …”

“The whole time? There wasn’t a point when you became a woman?”

“No … not that I was aware of.”

“Suppose I were to tell you that there was a moment — you’ll recognize the moment I mean — when your consciousness became female?”

“I’d say I was intrigued but not convinced. The fantasy, the ‘enactment’ as you put it, was presumably taking place in my brain. A male brain. How can you be sure — more to the point, how can I be sure — that — you know — that I was experiencing — I mean, after all, it was an induced fantasy, an illusion. It wasn’t real.”

“It felt real.”

“You’re missing the point. It felt real to me. How can I know whether the real experience — if such a thing were possible — would feel the same?”

“You know the answer to that. It’s obvious. You can’t, of course. What you feel and perceive — the way your consciousness processes your sensory inputs — is really what you feel and perceive. To that extent, and only to that extent, it’s real. But it doesn’t bear any necessary correspondence to anything external, to the object of your perception.”

“I don’t agree. I mean, I don’t agree that it doesn’t bear any correspondence to, if you like, the thing itself. If there weren’t some element of similarity, however distorted, our perceptions, our senses, would be of no use to us in navigating the world. So, even if our senses never present us with a true and accurate picture of the thing itself, we naturally want them to deviate as little as possible from an idealized, hypothetical, accurate picture. If you see what I mean.”

“Philosophy gives me a headache. And epistemology makes my brain overheat. If you see steam coming out of my ears, that will be entirely your fault.” He took a deep breath and sat back from his desk. “Let’s approach this from a different angle. I’m here to offer you a chance of redemption.”

“Redemption?! From my sins, presumably.”

“You may choose to look at it like that. From male behaviour. Do you mind if I recap? Men desire women’s bodies. Women also desire women’s bodies. However, the survival of your species requires that men and women have sex with each other. To bring this about, men rely on force, coercion, bargaining and a variety of other behaviour of various degrees of reprehensibility.”

“It’s not all reprehensible. There’s, well … there’s seduction …”

“Ah, seduction! I remember, many years ago, I and my then fiancée attended a performance of Don Giovanni. I never liked Mozart, even before that night. After the opera, we went for dinner, over which my intended treated me to an eloquent and cogently argued disquisition on seduction. The gist of it was that seduction is the genteel or civilized counterpart to rape. Each involves an attempt to overcome the will of its object. The effect on me was profound. It would be fair to say that the most disturbing and formative experience of my life was a conversation over dinner! I still vividly remember the sensation of exhilaration — recognition — combined with the deepest dismay. Every fibre of my being objected furiously to the argument, while at the same time, every one of those same fibres knew that it was incontrovertibly right. We didn’t marry in the end. I believe that, over dinner, she talked herself out of it.”

“I’m sorry.”

Jennings shrugged. “Life is full of opportunities for regrets. When you think about it, every opportunity is an opportunity for regret, including the one I was in the process of offering you.”

I nodded, hoping he’d take it as encouragement to get on with it.

“People — men — who come in to us with a fantasy like yours often want the fantasy to be made permanent. They want to experience existence as a woman for the rest of their lives.”

“As a woman? You’ll forgive me, but that doesn’t sound very enticing. The only person who can live ‘as a woman’ is someone who isn’t one. An actual woman would just live, not ‘as’ anything. So, to live as a woman would be to live a constant reminder that one is not a woman. I can’t see the attraction in that.”

“Are you sure? Think back to last night. You weren’t conscious of dancing ‘as a woman’, were you? Perhaps your childhood resignation to the fact that you’d never have a female body was premature.”

“You mean, you can make it possible for me to live in a permanent fantasy?”

“Why not? You’d be surprised how many people do. Elon Musk thinks that there’s a high probability that we’re all already part of a computer simulation — ”

“So I should swap a high probability for an absolute certainty? I don’t — ”

“You wouldn’t have to be certain. We can program your consciousness — ”


“And what about the asymmetry of desire? If you believe what I’ve told you — and you obviously do to some extent, at least — you’ll never again be able to have sex with a clear conscience.”

“I’m not sure I could have anyway; or that I ever have. I think I can work my way around that obstacle.” I considered for a moment. “Desire isn’t the only reason people have sex — ”

“Obviously not. That’s my point.”

“I mean, not the only reason they might want to have sex. Pleasure has no necessary connection to desire.”

Jennings smiled. “That’s a tenable argument. Probably the best you’re likely to find. Then we won’t be seeing you again.”

“No. But thank you. My satisfaction with your service remains high. I might even recommend it to a friend or colleague.”

“We’d be most grateful, of course. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“One thing, perhaps. The dress?”

Jennings smiled.

“… was part of the simulation, of course. But it was modelled, naturally, on one which really exists in the physical world. We can tell you where to buy one exactly like it.”