This attic is one of 21 paper backgrounds Sheila Heti discovered in a 1940s-era paper-doll set for Freudian analysts. On top are three paper dolls chosen at random. George, a gay man who used to have a secret relationship, was asked what he sees when he looks at this scene.

George is a gay man of 32 whose professional life is just adequate enough to support him. He works in electronics. His most significant romantic relationship was with a beautiful man named Lee, but that relationship was a secret. It went on for six years, during which time Lee had a boyfriend named Albert. Lee and Albert lived together (and had been together four years already when George and Lee's relationship started). The three took vacations together, celebrated the holidays with elaborate dinners, were inseparable as a threesome. Often George slept over, and he and Lee would have sex downstairs while the oblivious Albert would be fast asleep upstairs. Several years after Lee committed suicide, George confessed to Albert about their affair. George and Albert are now close friends. They travel together and have dinner most nights. One wonders if they are in love with each other, somehow. Both have been single since Lee's death. It's difficult for an outsider to understand the nature of their friendship. Why isn't Albert more upset at George? How could George have been so deceitful for so long? One thing is clear: They both thought Lee was the greatest man in the world.

What do you see when you look at this picture, George?

Her face [the woman in the middle] is really overpowering, so I can't not make it the central part of the story. She's really angry because her daughter has found a new lover, who appears to be an older black man, in their attic. It appears that he's been living up there for a while, and she knows him quite well now.

Who knows him quite well? The girl or the mother?

The girl! And the mother is, like, so angry at what's happened. Her face is like—that tells the whole story right there.

You think the girl is having sex with the man?

Yeah, I think they know each other intimately.

How did the man get up there?

Mmm... he found a way in, you know, like any creature that needs shelter.

And the mother suddenly discovered them fooling around?

Yeah, and the mother only sees the potentially bad effects of having such a weird relationship, 'cause the girl's so young and he's so old. But they're happy with each other. They've benefited from their diverse backgrounds.

It's been a healthy relationship?

In some ways, I think. Now that the mother has discovered them, it's not going to end nicely. I think what's going to happen now is the girl's going to get beaten and he's going to get arrested by the police.

Would it have been better for them if their affair had continued without the mother interrupting?

I mean, you can't live in an attic, so...

But is it good for them that the relationship is coming to an end?

Well... maybe the real world had no place for this couple.


Who is the black man? Who is the mother? And who is the girl? It seems clear that the black man is George, who "found a way in, you know, like any creature that needs shelter." George found a way into a relationship he admired and envied. "Like any creature that needs shelter," there is a vulnerability to George. One admires him for this vulnerability. Yet it is also off-putting.

If George is the black man (whose "oldness" may be a stand-in for George's physical homeliness), the beautiful Lee is the young girl who "has found a new lover," one who has evidently "been living there for a while," perhaps as long as six years.

One might therefore deduce that Albert is the mother, but Albert broke nothing up. I am the only person, apart from Albert and George and Lee, who knows the story of what happened (being an outsider to their social circle, I'm a safe person to confess to). Therefore, the mother may be me—the enquirer, the outsider who breaks up the naturalness of their arrangement with disapproval she cannot hide. Being told the story over an intimate dinner with Albert and George, I tried not to be critical, but I certainly felt "angry with what happened," because I care about Albert a lot. It would not be surprising if George thought I was judging him, sensing my feelings, which I must have revealed unwittingly. As he said of the mother, "Her face is like—that tells the whole story right there."

I am a monogamous, straight woman and I was raised in a conventional, middle-class home. I am (perhaps in reality—certainly in George's imagination) the one who "only sees the potentially bad effects of having such a weird relationship." Perhaps I represent mainstream attitudes; my morals are symbolic of a type of policing that might have George "arrested by the police."

Anything hidden, any variation from the norm—like the secret affair between George and Lee—will eventually be uncovered in the light of day. As George put it, "You can't live in an attic." On some level, he accepts the social censure surrounding his dishonesty—the mother's, my own, society's. He doesn't fight back. Neither does the girl or the old man. The mother "only sees the potentially bad effects of having such a weird relationship" in breaking the relationship up. Unfortunately, like George, most of us in our hearts accept the world's condemnation of the traits we see in ourselves and the behaviors we enact that, though they might make us privately "happy" and we may have even "benefited" from, look "potentially bad."

In spite of what comes through in my editing of the interview, George had a very difficult time providing a narration for this scene. He kept protesting that he had no imagination. Although there was truth in this, I encouraged him to keep speaking. His narrative of this scene and his narrative of others, however, were all a little boring. George was right—his imagination is underdeveloped, limited.

Perhaps that's because he so deeply respects law and order. Law and order are, for him, "a central part of the story." If George didn't feel so much respect for order, he might have revealed the affair to Albert during the six years it was ongoing. Or he might have encouraged Lee to be more open about what they were doing, rather than agreeing to keep their love a secret and protect the status quo.

George is a conservative person at heart, resigned and acquiescing in the face of the limitations of society as he sees them. "The real world had no place for this couple," he is absolutely sure. recommended

Sheila Heti is the author of several hard-to-categorize books, including the novel How Should a Person Be?

Don't miss the rest of this series, including "What Do You See When You Look at This Bedroom?" "What Do You See When You Look at This Bridge?" and "What Do You See When You Look at This Square?"