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Last week I went to a going-away party for Dr. Lo, a scientist from Taiwan who's been visiting our lab for the past year. All of us adore Dr. Lo. He always smiles when he sees you, always makes a cheerful remark, always asks your opinion about some wild new idea he has. He cooks the best Chinese food I've ever tasted and knows all the best places to get the perfect ingredients. Plus, he loves to sing a cappella and actually manages to do it quite well. There's just something endearing about a short, pudgy Asian dude who's a brilliant scientist but is nonetheless willing to hop up on stage and do Billy Joel as good or better than Billy does it himself. So I was sad to see him go, but happy to shake his hand and tell him how much I'd enjoyed working with him.

To my annoyance, I ended up having to walk to the party with Carrie. I've worked with her for almost six years now, and every day she shows up to work in her uniform: a slinky dress, fashionable two-inch heels, and badly dyed blonde hair nailed into place with hairspray. As we walk down the hall to the meeting room, she starts up her usual act. She grabs my arm and presses her body against me. She tells me I'm looking sexy and stylish in my black shirt and jeans. She teases me about my open relationship with my close friend Meredith and jokingly asks me if we're looking for a third. She does all this even though she's been married for at least three years now.

I know why, of course. Once upon a time, Carrie turned heads everywhere she went. Guys would reschedule their entire day just to chat her up, and they'd rake their eyes over her body again and again. When I first met her, I did too: she'd stride into the room and I'd feel my brain shut off as that dumb horny smile oozed its way onto my face. But that was long ago, and so on some level she wants to know if I still think she's beautiful even though her ass has nearly doubled in size since I first met her.

I never quite know what to do about this. On the one hand, I find myself unwilling to play the role of pig just to prop up some poor woman's fragile ego. On the other hand, I pity her. So when she bends way over to "fix her shoe," revealing perfectly browned breasts squeezed into a satiny push-up bra, I go ahead and look, long enough for her to notice. It seems to be expected of me.

Over the years I've seen just about every part of Carrie that there is to see--everything, I think, except for the undersides of her breasts, a few centimeters of her bottom, and her genitals themselves. As for the latter, I can easily imagine what it's like down there: neatly trimmed hair, carefully exfoliated skin, maybe even a stale odor of the body wash that she uses to hide her natural scent. Whatever.

Anyway, as we turn the corner, Carrie's hanging on to me like some sort of depraved maniac. But when we enter the room, she sets me free and prances over to Dr. Lo, throwing her arms around him and drawing him into a powerful hug. Now I said Dr. Lo was friendly, but I also said he wasn't stupid, and he probably knows what's going on here. Besides, he loves his wife, and I doubt he feels any attraction to someone like Carrie. And in fact he's not paying much attention to her: he politely detaches himself with a few courteous comments, then plops himself on the floor, takes his wife's hand, and bops a balloon towards his three-year-old son. Carrie moves to sit down next to him, and I get ready to run interference--he shouldn't have to put up with her, not on his last day here. Then Hazel my boss does it for me, and instead I make my way over to the buffet.

As I finish loading my plate, I catch a glimpse of Sarah, who's sitting alone on a sofa in the corner of the room. Sarah's a lab tech who deals with lots of messy stuff, so she always wears her scrubs: loose-fitting blue pants and a blue V-neck top with a plain white T-shirt underneath. She keeps her blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail so it doesn't fall in her face. She doesn't bother with makeup or nail polish or manicures--Carrie once asked her why and she answered that there was no point, really, when you're sitting in a lab dealing with chemicals all day.

The scrubs look a bit like pajamas, so Sarah usually looks comfortable and cuddly, like a sleepy girl just about to shut her door, put out the lights, and tuck herself into bed. As she turns to gaze out the windows, her top pulls tight against her body, revealing the soft gentle curve of her breast. I force myself to look away and hastily sit down, moving my plate on my lap to hide my reaction.

Her pager goes off and she slips it out of its case, then heads out of the room to make a call. As she moves to replace the pager, her T-shirt slips out of her bottoms, revealing the pale skin of her waist right where it flares out to form her hips.

I'd very much like to follow her. I'd catch up to her and take her by the hand, and we'd gaze at each other until I was sure she understood. Then we'd head down the hall to the big dark closet where they store the old couches and chairs. We'd push the door closed and lock it behind us, and I'd shove a chair against it for good measure. I'd raise my hand to her head, slowly, and pull out her hair tie, setting her hair free to fall around her face. Then we'd move closer, and I'd bow my head to kiss her on the lips. As our kisses grew more passionate, I'd let my hands explore her body, searching for the curves I know she has but rarely get to see. After a time she'd allow me the honor of undressing her, and I'd gaze at the soft creamy lines of her body, a treasure she grants to a precious few. Then she'd undress me and press her bare skin against mine, hard, surprising me with her passion the way the shy ones sometimes do. I'd move my hand lower and lower, ever so slowly, slipping my fingers into her tangle of soft blonde curls. She'd bite her lip, caught between a need to hold back and a need to let go. When I finally brought her over the edge, she wouldn't scream, she wouldn't cry out my name, she wouldn't screw up her face into a convoluted facial expression that she practiced in front of a mirror. She'd just tremble in my arms as her breath shuddered out of her, and maybe she'd shed a few tears. Maybe we'd even spend the night there, with her body in my arms and her scent on my fingertips, and we'd quietly laugh in the morning.

But none of that can happen. Instead she comes back into the room, and Dr. Lo springs up to greet her, introducing his wife and son. He tries some new joke on her and she dissolves into laughter, then slips away to refill her drink.

She sits down next to me and I start teasing her a little, telling her that Dr. Lo has a crush on her. She rolls her eyes and chucks me on the shoulder; I yelp in mock pain and chuck her back. We share a smile.

That's all we have and all we'll ever have. She's going to go on and make a career filled with useful work and important accomplishments. She'll marry a nice guy and maybe have a few great kids. She'll keep a certain beauty for the rest of her life, even when she's old and wrinkled and gray--the sort of beauty that's bestowed by living a life of quiet satisfaction. Meanwhile, I'll turn from a young pervert into an old pervert.

But I can still be near her, at least for a little while. And so when Dr. Lo calls us over to to sing one last long, I trail along behind her and stand next to her. As his song comes to an end, and he starts shaking hands for his final goodbyes, Sarah cries a bit, so I quietly hand her a tissue. She turns away to wipe her eyes, and I see her pause, turn farther for a moment, then face forward again with her lips pressed into a thin pale line. I turn around myself, wondering what she saw.

In the far corner, amidst the cold pizza and warm punch and limp balloons, Carrie stands with her back to us all, staring at her faint gray reflection in the grimy window pane. As I watch, she draws a compact from her little leather purse, loads the applicator with dark eyeshadow. She replaces it in the purse and pulls out lipstick, smearing it onto her lips. When she bares her teeth to check for stains, I quickly turn away.

Dr. Lo is gone. I try to catch up with Sarah, but stop when I hear her say that she's leaving early, heading to the airport to pick up a friend. So I gather my plate and my cup and my napkin, toss them in the trash bin, and leave the room, heading back to the lab alone.

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