inSerial: parts one & two
by Lewis Warsh
Delusions of Being Observed
Now he’s going to say something, but no one’s listening. Now he’s going to get dressed, whatever he wore the night before. Now he’s going to sit on a chair in the living room and tie his shoes. Now he’s going to walk towards me, with his eyes on the pavement, as if he didn’t see me. Now he’s whispering in my ear, but I don’t want to listen. Now he’s holding my sweaty hand as we climb the steps to his fifth floor apartment. (There’s an elevator, but he insists on walking.) Now I tell him he’s hurting me but he doesn’t stop. Now he sits in his chair and leans forward and touches his toes. Now his head is on the pillow, but his eyes are wide open. (I could walk across town to my own apartment, or take a taxi, since it’s after midnight, but I don’t. Instead, I open a book and begin reading, until he’s ready to turn off the lights.) Now he’s talking to himself in his sleep (and this time I’m listening). Now he’s drinking a Campari, with ice, and it’s the middle of winter, a layer of snow on the ground (3-6 inches). Now he takes my arm as we walk home, back to his apartment, which I don’t think of as home, but where we spend most of our time, the streets covered with a layer of ice, and I brace him as he’s about to fall. Now he’s in bed with the flu, his doughy face, his long chin, his receding hairline, and I’m comforting him because he can’t sleep. Now he’s in the hospital talking to me on the phone in a constricted voice that sounds like it’s coming from the depths of a cave as a nurse from Barbados named Georgette takes his blood pressure. Now he’s sitting across the room listening to Karen Carpenter sing “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Now he’s complaining about his mother, Bertha, age ninety, suffering from dementia, in Brooklyn. She’s still living at home, the same two-bedroom rent-stabilized garden apartment in Park Slope where Robert was living before he left for college in Berkeley, when his father was alive and his younger sister Francine was in high-school, but with round-the-clock care, since a few months ago she fell in the middle of the night and bruised her hip. Somehow she managed to crawl into the bedroom and call her daughter on her landline (it’s no use trying to convince her to get a cellphone), the same phone Robert used thirty years before to call his high school girlfriends. It was then that Robert decided, along with his sister, who I’ve never met, to hire home care attendants to stay with his mother twenty-four hours a day, which they do, taking turns sleeping on the bed in Francine’s old room, but it’s Francine who organizes the schedules of the three women (Pina, Yolanda, Annette) who prepare meals (which she barely eats) and keep track of her meds, along with myriad other tasks, including taking her to the bathroom, literally waiting on her hand and foot, while Robert visits every two weeks for a few hours and sends Francine a check every month to cover expenses and assuage his guilt. Now he’s going to the movies alone, or so he says, on one of the nights we don’t spend together. Now he’s talking on the phone to a stranger, a person he met at the movies. Now he’s waiting on line at the post office, talking to the person in front of him, a young Chinese woman with a French braid hanging midway down her back. Now he’s having coffee with the Chinese woman, who’s wearing white shorts and black tights and a short-sleeve blouse with a pattern that resembles hundreds of mint postage stamps from different countries stitched together, in an outdoor restaurant across from the post office. Now he writes his phone number with a black marker on a napkin and hands it to the young woman (“Why,” she asks, in broken English, her slate gray eyes staring suspiciously at the stranger across the table, “why do you want to see me? For what reason?”) Now I understand how he meets people at random, and this is how we met as well, so I shouldn’t be surprised or jealous, and who knows who might be sleeping in his bed when I’m not here.
Now he’s standing on the downtown 42nd Street subway platform waiting for the B train, staring at his feet. Now he leans over the edge of the platform and watches a rat fight its way out of a paper bag. Now he looks into the tunnel, as if he was staring into the abyss, for a sign that the train is going to arrive, but all he sees are flickering lights, yellow then red, and a man in an orange vest walking down the center of the tracks. He imagines the sound of the brakes as the train comes to a shuddering stop and the passengers cursing as they fall against one another in the dark. Now a woman’s voice on the intercom announces that the B train has been delayed because of police action at the 59th Street station and for a moment he remembers the chase scene from The French Connection with Gene Hackman as a rogue cop, an important movie from his childhood, or so he says, which we watched together a few weeks ago in his living room, drinking beer and passing a joint back and forth, even though I have to teach at nine the next morning, an American literature survey course for undergraduates beginning with “Self-Reliance” by Emerson and ending with The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and the last thing I want to do is wake up with a hangover. Now he stares at the woman on the platform in front of him, bobbing her head in time to the music on her iPod, her eyes closed, oblivious, not even aware that he’s standing a few feet away, staring at her legs. He imagines the police, guns drawn, chasing a man through the tunnel, while the helicopters hover overhead, and the rats in the tunnel scurry out of sight. His shoes and socks are wet from walking aimlessly in the rain. His hair is wet and his shirt, with the threadbare collar, which he insists on wearing, is matted to his skin. Now he’s staring at me across the aisle on the subway—his gaze makes me uncomfortable. This is how we met, on the B train, heading downtown. I cross my legs and pretend I’m reading but whenever I look up there he is, his eyes focused on the title of the book (Dear Theo, the letters of Vincent van Gogh to his brother) in my hands. Now he starts a conversation with me across the aisle (I wish I could see the title of the book he’s reading, but I can’t) and I turn away. It’s not the first time, I must admit, that someone tried to pick me up on the subway. Now I say, in response, because I’m just like him: Where did you get your ring? A black onyx stone his Chinese girlfriend bought for him as a birthday gift long ago. Now I say: this is my stop—as the train pulls into the West Fourth Street station—and he says: I’m going to get off too. For a moment I think he’s going to take my hand as we walk up the steps. For a moment our hands brush against one another, but I pull away. There are people coming down the steps, all in a rush, so we walk single file. Some women hold their skirts against their legs when they walk up steps in public places, but I don’t. If he wants to look up my skirt—that’s his problem.
Now he hangs up the phone and starts weeping, for no apparent reason. (“What is it?” I ask, sitting up in bed, but he refuses to tell me.) Now he looks at his watch in the middle of a conversation as if he’s bored. Now he lights a cigarette, an American Spirit Yellow, takes a few puffs, coughs, stubs it out on the side of an ashtray. (Ten minutes later, he lights it again.) Now the ashes fall from his cigarette onto the front of his shirt, but he doesn’t notice. Now he opens a book of Heidegger’s letters to Hannah Arendt and says: “Listen to this.” Now he interrupts me mid-sentence and says he has to go back to his apartment and get to work. When I ask him what he’s thinking about, he says “Heidegger—I’m working on a book about Heidegger,” as if this is the most normal thing in the world, and I think to myself: I don’t know anything. Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi? Now we stand on the street corner outside my building on East Ninth Street and I say: “Do you want to come in?” Now his phone rings in the middle of the night and when I ask him who called he says: “My mother.”
Now he says that where he went last night and what he was doing and who he was with is no one’s business. He offers these words as a kind of ultimatum—this is the way it is, for now and all time, like it or not. The implication is that he’s free to do whatever he wants and I have to be available whenever he wants. Now he acts like he’s doing me a big favor by sleeping with me, but the opposite might also be true, maybe I’m doing him a favor. Now he says—it’s not great (meaning sex)—unless the feeling is mutual—I mean the desire, he says—meaning if one person desires the other person more—it doesn’t work. Now he claims that Henry Green is a better writer than Graham Greene but I’ve never heard of him, Henry, and he makes me think I’m stupid, and maybe I am for spending the night with him. (The fact that I have a PhD in American literature, and a full-time teaching job, doesn’t count.) Then he asks, out of the blue, what music do you like? Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke? “Listen to this,” he says, and puts on a record of Chet Baker singing “Moonlight in Vermont.” He has hundreds of records, a whole bookcase of vinyl. “Look at this,” he says, showing me a photo of Chet Baker as a young man. “Wasn’t he beautiful?”
Now he’s walking with a limp because of something that happened to him as a child. “I fell off my bike,” he said, “and broke my ankle.” Now he’s standing under a canopy in the rain. Now he’s waiting for someone under the marquee of a movie theater but she never arrives, or she arrives late, and he’s already gone. “This is the story of my life,” he says, shaking his head, “waiting for someone who never shows up, who never intended to show up, who forgot she made plans to meet me—this is what happens to me all the time.” (Why tell me this?) Now he walks home alone in the rain chilled to the bone and gets into bed. He has a gaunt look, like a homeless person panhandling on the subway, the bones of his face visible beneath his skin. A homeless veteran limping to a shelter in the rain. He could have bought an umbrella almost anywhere but he chose to risk getting pneumonia instead. Now he’s lighting one cigarette with the tip of another. The smell seeps into every object in my apartment, even if I open the window, and sometimes I take a puff or bum a cigarette and smoke it down to the filter, remembering all the cigarettes I shared with my boyfriend Marco in high school. (A cigarette after sex in his parents’ basement where we went after school maybe two or three times a week.) Now he shows me a photograph of himself, age fifteen, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. (“I used to smoke Camels—unfiltered.”) Now he asks someone he never met before if he can buy her a drink, a Nordic-looking young woman waiting on line in front of him at Whole Foods, and she says “no” and turns away. Now he buys a train ticket to Philadelphia and returns the same night. He’s on a panel at Temple University, something to do with Martin Heidegger. Whenever there’s a Heidegger conference they invite him to speak. Everyone on the train from Philadelphia is asleep except him. Now the woman sitting next to him rests her head on his shoulder without realizing what she’s doing. Her gold-hoop earrings, her stiff colorless hair, her rose-scented perfume, the island of freckles on the side of her neck. Now he says: “Do you want to share a cab?” as they exit Penn Station, and when the cab stops at her apartment she says, “Do you want to come in?” Now he says “I’m going to take a bath” but he doesn’t. He just stares at the TV screen and puffs on his cigarette like a zombie. Now he drums on his knee in time to the theme from “Law and Order.” Now he gets off the plane in Shanghai and she’s waiting for him with her brother, the Chinese woman he first met in the post office. You can meet someone any time, anywhere, and your whole life will be different. At any moment, your life in the present can come to a halt and a new life can begin.
Now he tells me about the trip to China with his girlfriend and I nod my head as if I’m interested but I’m really thinking about the seminar (Melville and Poe) that I must teach the next day and when he shows me a photo of his ex, with her French braid and wide open smile, I say “how beautiful” but I couldn’t care less.
Now he lifts his leg over the side of the tub. Now he walks into the living room naked while I’m trying to read and gets angry when I don’t look up. Now he hangs up on me when I tell him I can’t come over, that I’m busy, that I’m being observed in a few days by the Chair of the English Department and that I have to prepare my class on Melville. I’m asking the graduate students to read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I’ve read a million times, but which I want to reread, or at least skim, before the class. It’s a week after the presidential election, three weeks after Hurricane Sandy flooded lower Manhattan and knocked out the power grids in both of the neighborhoods where we live. His block, in Chelsea, suffered less damage than mine, on 9th Street near Avenue C, which was completely flooded, so I stayed at his place for five consecutive nights, the longest amount of time we’ve been together. It was during this time I realized the relationship was a big mistake. He rarely refers to anything I’m doing. If I tell him how I spent my day, I can sense he’s thinking about something else, or someone else, I’ll never know. Sometimes, anticipating a response, I press a pause button, but he doesn’t take the cue and ask me something in relation to what I said. He acts like the story is over when I was just getting started. I tell him I have to prepare for class, that I’m being observed, but it doesn’t register at first, even though he’s been around academia most of his life and knows exactly what I’m talking about. He did his undergraduate work at Berkeley and his graduate work in philosophy at Columbia, and then he taught as a guest lecturer at schools up and down the east coast, Emory University in Atlanta, Bates College in Maine and at the University of Maine in Orono, a semester at Yale, Stony Brook on Long Island, Haverford in Pennsylvania (which is where he met his first wife, Cody Walker, the crime novelist who taught at nearby Bryn Mawr), among others. He knows the trials people go through to get tenure, including serving on university-wide committees. No doubt, as I’m worrying about the observation, he is thinking about Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt and the book he’s writing about their relationship, when Martin was a 35-year-old professor and Hannah an 18-year-old student. The affair between a young Jewish girl and a future Nazi—what more can anybody want? Now he’s saying that he’s going to the gym, but he could be going anywhere. I have the feeling he’s lying about everything, just for the sake of lying, and I’m tempted to follow him when he leaves the house, and see where he’s heading. But do I really want to know? Maybe it’s time to question what I’m doing in this relationship, which has gone on for over a year, and whether I made the right decision by leaving my girlfriend Natalie for him.
Now he’s looking in his pocket for loose change to give to the person on the subway, a young light-skinned African-American man who says he needs money to feed his family, and who croons a few bars of “Summertime” (“And the living is easy”) to the blank-faced unsmiling half-asleep and mostly despondent melange of late-night passengers, most of whom avoid eye contact with him and with each other as the train stalls between stations and I think this is where we met, sitting across from one another on a subway, almost a year ago, and an hour or two later we were in bed in my apartment on East Ninth street, and it’s hard not to wonder as the train lurches forward and then stops again whether it’s all been a big mistake, whether I might be better off cutting my losses and moving on, and whether I should take up Natalie’s offer to visit her in Provincetown this winter, she says we owe it to one another to “try again” but I’m not sure what she means or whether she’s leading me down yet another dead end, she knows how much I love it there, our little corner of the universe, and I’m sure she can tell, even on the phone, that I’m not happy, though she doesn’t ask me whether I’m still seeing “that man,” as she refers to him, since my decision to sleep with a man was the reason we broke up. Now he stands on line at Penn Station to purchase a ticket to Providence where he’s giving a lecture on Heidegger at Brown University. Now he calls a car to take him to Newark Airport at 6 a.m. so he can board a plane to San Francisco to be on a panel at Berkeley, his old alma mater. Now he takes half an Ambien (10 mg) and falls asleep in five minutes.
Now he tells me about his college girlfriend, Margie Rappaport, the night he went to her dorm. The night they made love on the grass beside the football field. It could have happened yesterday. Now he remembers the afternoon he lost his virginity in the Bronx, in an apartment not far from the Botanical Gardens. Now he tells me more than I want to know and I want to tell him to shut up but he doesn’t. I know he expects me to tell him everything I’ve done, as well, every boy I kissed in high school—but I won’t tell him anything, I avoid the subject, the last thing I want to talk about is my relationship with Marco, my high school boyfriend, much less tell him anything about Natalie, or any of the women or men I slept with during the first year I came to New York, when I would go out late at night and pick up strangers in bars, when I realized that my relationship with Marco was over and that nothing, nothing, nothing was going to replace it, that there was no one out there at all, and it seemed possible to juxtapose Marco’s body on the body of some stranger, that for an hour or two I could pretend we were still together. It’s one of the problems in this relationship: I just can’t be open about the most important things. I feel like I have to censor every second thought before I say it. The question I started asking myself is why I just don’t end it. What’s the nature of our attachment? He comes and goes as he pleases and I don’t know whether he’s sleeping with anyone else. We’re both too lazy to put an end to it all, to write the letter or make the phone call or send the email saying that it’s over. There are some nice moments, I must admit. Sex, there’s still sex, some version of it, but not every night. We used to make love as soon as I walked through the door of his apartment, but not any more. Sometimes he makes me laugh. Less so than in the beginning. My closest friends, Desiree and Ruth, the two people I confide in, think I’m making a mistake. I introduced them to Robert one night at Phebe’s, the restaurant on the Bowery where he likes to go, and the next day they both called me, first Ruth, then Desiree, and I could tell they were both puzzled about Robert, who had spent more time at another table where he saw some old friends than talking with us, though the whole point of the evening was to introduce him to my friends, and I could tell they were both having a hard time not being blunt about what they really thought (I can only imagine what they said to one another). (“Have you ever been pregnant?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, “I was pregnant. Twice. Yes, I had an abortion. Twice.”) Now the ball is in the air and he runs backwards with his arm extended and just as he crashes into the fence the ball drops out of his glove. (“We lost the championship because of me. If I had caught that ball—I was twelve years old—my whole life might have been different.”) Now he reads about the chaos of the Id in an essay by Freud—(New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). Now he reads about Heidegger, and all the letters he wrote to Hannah Arendt, when she was his 18-year-old student at Marburg in 1925.
Now he turns on the television and watches the 11 o’clock news. We’re in the living room of my 1-bedroom apartment on East 9th Street. It used to be a dangerous street, but now the entire neighborhood is filled with wealthy people, and all the boutiques and health-food emporiums to accommodate them. Now I hand him a glass of Dewar’s on the rocks, his drink of choice, and we hear on the news that a man walked into a pharmacy in upstate New York and murdered four people, including the pharmacist, and a seventeen-year-old high school girl who worked behind the counter. Now he turns off the television and tells me about the town in upstate New York where he used to spend the summers with his parents when he was a kid. It’s fifty-two miles from Utica, he says, twenty-seven miles from Booneville. Now he tells me about the Booneville Fair where he and his family used to go when he was a child and the two-headed cow and the ferris wheel that broke down when he was suspended with his sister Francine at the highest point and how they huddled in a corner of the little car while day turned to night and the temperature dropped thirty degrees. How everyone cheered when the wheel finally began to spin and they descended in slow motion with the stars and the moon almost full over the hills in the distance. How his mother Bertha enveloped him in the folds of her coat and how he can still smell the alcohol on her breath and her lilac-scented perfume. He tells me about the restaurant where he used to eat with his family, The Knotty Pine, and how some day we should rent a car and drive up there or take a train to Utica and he’ll show me everything (as if I had nothing better to do), the hill where he rode on a bike with no brakes and broke his ankle and chipped a tooth. (His parents had to take him to a dentist in Utica.) He tells me everything that ever happened to him and he repeats it all again and I try to pretend I’m interested but I’m already half-asleep. I’m thinking of the class in a few days, how the Chair of the English Department, Ray DeForest, is going to observe me. I’m thinking of Natalie, and the house in Provincetown where we used to go in the winter when the town was empty. We were together two years and we were not in touch at all until about three months ago when she sent me an email, totally unexpectedly, and of course I wrote back, she’s someone I think about every day, and since then we’ve been in constant contact, mostly trading gossip about people we both know, never once referring to the past or the reason we broke up. The last time she wrote to tell me she was coming to New York from Provincetown where she lives all year round and did I want to meet for coffee? A beer? We haven’t seen each other in a year, not since the morning I told her about Robert and she walked out of my apartment. And of course—I said yes—hoping it would be a day when he was away, so I wouldn’t have to lie to him. But why do I care? That’s the question I can’t answer.
Now he looks at me as if he never saw me before, as if we have no prior history, as if we haven’t been sharing the same bed for the last year, not every night but two or three nights a week when he isn’t traveling. (Sometimes he stays over at my apartment on East 9th Street; more frequently, I sleep at his place on West 16th, near the corner of 6th Avenue, even though his apartment is smaller than mine and I don’t have a place to work except at the small table with the formica top, while he works at a desk in the living room.) He looks at me as if we haven’t talked to each other every day for a whole year, sometimes more than once. Now he leans across the table and kisses me, first one cheek, then the other, as if we were old friends meeting after a long hiatus. Now he starts coughing and can’t stop and runs to the bathroom and spits in the sink. Now he sits down opposite me on the subway and opens a book, but I can tell he’s watching me, and at some point he’s going to look up from The Wild Palms, by Faulkner, a book I’ve read several times, and smile.
Now he doesn’t answer the phone when I call—first his landline, then his cell, which he claimed (later) he turned off when he went to his meeting of the Heidegger Society in a room at New York University. Now he tells me how Heidegger seduced Hannah Arendt when she was his student at the University of Marburg, she was eighteen and he was thirty-five, married with two children, how he wrote her letters asking to meet him after class, sometimes in the park where they talked (or rather he talked, and she listened), but more often in her room. (What happened in that room—this is the subject of his book—trying to re-create their relationship, as if it was too absurd to imagine they were actually lovers in any conventional way, that he visited her in her room and they undressed, just like everyone else, that they whispered things to each other in the dark, that he put his hands on her breasts, that he kissed her on the side of the neck, purring like a child, that she burst into tears when he came inside her.) Now he tells me, out of the blue, about the time he played forward on his high school basketball team, but I don’t believe him, he’s the least athletic man I’ve ever met, and he says, “you’re right, I was lying,” and I realize he lies about everything, including where he was the night before when I called him at midnight, first his cell, which he had shut off, and then his landline, where I left a message, that he was lying when he said he was at a meeting of Heidegger scholars, though it’s true he’s often on the phone with people all over the world who have the same interests, just the way I talk about my work on Melville and Poe with scholars at different universities and even with people who claim to be his (Melville’s) long lost relatives. Now I lie in bed and listen to him snore and think about Natalie, my old girlfriend, who called yesterday to say she was coming to New York, and try to imagine what she’s doing at that very moment. I can see her lying in her bed in Provincetown with the window open (she likes to sleep with the window open even in the dead of winter, and with a storm raging outside) and I wonder if she’s still seeing the woman she met not long after we broke up (it was she who broke up with me when I told her I was sleeping with Robert, though I knew beforehand it would jeopardize our relationship, and I was right, what did I expect, maybe it was stupid of me to say anything, I could have led a double life, some people even have two families in two different cities and they go from one to another, and sometimes it takes years before anyone has a clue). Now I think of Melville and the young women who boarded the boat in Tahiti, all the naked Polynesian women who danced naked for the sex-starved sailors, Melville included. I can see the expressions on the faces of the men on the boat as the women approached them, carrying baskets of fruit, as if they had stepped out of a dream, how each of the women extended her hand to one of the men and led them forward so they could embrace and have sex in front of everyone else, since who cared, it was the most natural thing in the world, and each of the sailors could then exchange partners with the other sailors, so it was possible to have sex with four or five of the native women in an hour, until the sun started to go down and it was time to eat.
Now he takes a taxi from the San Francisco airport to North Beach and checks into a hotel on Columbus Avenue and stands in front of the philosophy section at City Lights bookstore, but doesn’t buy anything. Instead, in the fiction section, he flips through a copy of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett which he hasn’t read in years. (We had recently seen the movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Peter Lorre on late night TV.) Now he goes to an outdoor cafe on Broadway, just down from his hotel, and drinks a cappuccino and eats a croissant. (A young black man in a denim jacket and an older white woman wearing an off the shoulder silk blouse are sitting at a nearby table—the woman has her hand on the man’s thigh and doesn’t stop talking, while the man stares distractedly out the window, nodding every few seconds, as if on the look out for someone else.) Now he’s listening to Marvin Gaye singing “Sexual Healing” on his phone, as if it means something. Now he’s listening to Chet Baker sing “Everything Happens to Me.” Now he says, “let’s meet on Saturday,” but when Saturday arrives he changes his mind and I no longer ask him for an explanation, as if he would ever tell me the truth, the less I know the better I feel, and all I do know as I lie awake beside him at two in the morning is that it can never work out between us in a million years, that it’s all been a big mistake, and that maybe I should get back with Natalie and try again. Now he asks the waitress—black lace gloves, strapless sandals, leopard skin slacks, frosted eye shadow—about directions to Berkeley, even though he lived in California before and certainly knows the answer, where he’s giving a lecture on Heidegger and Arendt that evening, and by the end of the conversation he’s written his cell number on a napkin and given it to her.
“You can call me,” he says, “any time.”
Now the wind off the Hudson is blowing through my brocade jacket as I go to meet him in a French restaurant on 9th Avenue, Le Grainne. Dark at 7 PM, the days getting shorter, whittling down to almost nothing, another endless winter. It’s only October, a few weeks before the election, and we watch the first Presidential debate, Obama v. Romney, and I can’t understand why Obama is so passive, as if lost in his own thought, distracted, not really there, missing in action, why he just stands there silently, almost deferential, while Romney invents a reality he thinks people will believe simply because he’s saying it. I hate the way Romney laughs when anyone around him tells the truth, as if the truth isn’t important, that it’s all just a big joke. I hate all the money he’s hiding. Lies are the truth because I say they are. Fifty is the new thirty. I don’t believe any of it. I imagine for a glimmer of a moment what it would be like if Romney won. To see his greedy eyes on the news every night. I remember thinking the same thing before W won, not once, but twice, that it was time to leave the country, like people did during the Vietnam War. If Romney loses he’ll just disappear into his moneyed existence as if it never really happened.
I berate myself for my own passivity; what do I do, if anything, to make a difference? All I want is the time to read books, take long walks, have sex with strangers I meet on the subway or in bars. That’s what my life was like when I first came to the city from the Berkshires, leaving my boyfriend Marco back in Lenox. I’d go out at night and find someone to sleep with. I was a freshman at NYU. I was living in the dorms and I would just wander the streets late at night, usually in the East Village, until someone approached me. And someone always did. I took the bus up to Lenox every other weekend to see Marco but it wasn’t the same. It would never be the same. Marco was hurt that I’d abandoned him, but happy for me as well. He knew moving to New York and going to school was the best thing I could do. He was secretly proud of me for all the books I read, all the hours I could sit in a chair with my head in a book, and everything I remembered about what I was reading. Marco hated small town life but his father was sick and he had nowhere else to go. He pushed his father in a wheelchair down the tree-lined streets while I walked by his side and afterwards, when his father was napping and his mother was at work, we went up to Marco’s room just like the old days, except we both knew it was over, that fucking like idiot savants was all we had left. He was thinking about the future, a world where I was no longer included. I told him about all my classes at NYU, but he didn’t say anything. He worked part-time in the local hardware store, he took care of his father. At some point he’d like to take classes at Berkshire Community College. That was it. What kind of classes? He shook his head. I couldn’t tell him what I liked most about New York was walking through Washington Square Park or sitting on one of the benches and watching everyone walk by and that the last time I was there an older black guy with white hair and beautiful blue eyes started talking to me. He asked if I liked jazz and we exchanged phone numbers. He said he would let me know the next time he was playing in New York. Alto sax. He must have been fifty, even older. I was eighteen. We would be perfect together. I realized I could go to the park every day and sit down on a bench and someone I didn’t know would sit down next to me and start talking. Just the same way, years later, Robert and I met on the B train heading downtown.
“I like your ring,” I said, across the aisle. And that was that.
Now he cancels his appointments so we can spend the day in bed. Now I call in sick and talk to the secretary of the English Department, a Brit named Helen who’s been there for twenty years, who yells at me whenever she thinks I’m making too many copies on the xerox machine, “you’re abusing your privilege,” she says, and I can hear the layers of cynicism in her voice, her hatred for the full-time faculty who only go to work twice a week, who complain when they have to come in an extra day for a faculty meeting, and I tell her I’m not feeling well, I have the flu, anything, that I want to cancel my class. “Could you please post a sign on the door of my classroom?” I ask, and she breathes heavily into the phone as if the idea of walking down a flight of stairs to tape a note on the door is not in her job description, that she’s too busy to accommodate the whims of twenty faculty members, and that’s just the full time people, what about the sixty adjuncts, and it’s just her, she’s all alone, she has to answer the fucking phone, I hate asking her to do anything. And it’s true that the faculty complains about having to show up for faculty meetings on days they’re not teaching, the long commute from wherever they live. They complain about the student papers. They blame the inability of the students to write in complete sentences on the incompetence of their high school teachers. The whole system is dysfunctional from top to bottom. Thinking too much about these things makes me want to escape my little world and return to a time not long ago where people actually touched one another, even strangers, who cares? That was my world when I first moved to New York. Just walking down a crowded street, like a character in a story by Poe, made me feel sane again. I’ve only been teaching four years and already I’m beginning to feel like I’m trapped in a web of pettiness and mediocrity, especially when I’m around the professors who already have tenure. I try to be nice to everyone, a good colleague, as much as possible. Five of my colleagues are going to be on a committee that will decide whether or not I get tenure and I don’t want to make any enemies. Though who knows what anyone is saying behind my back? I don’t think anyone dislikes me; at the same time, I don’t feel good vibes from any of them. If the committee recommends tenure then my dossier (containing all my observations, my publications, my updated resume) goes to the dean, who makes her own recommendation, and then it goes to the Vice President, Jed Clark, whom everyone calls Jed, and whom I’ve met only once.
“So you’re the new hire,” he says, shaking my hand. “Welcome aboard.”
Now he tells me he wants to be alone, he’ll call me later, and my first thought is he’s met someone else, a woman in a restaurant or at the post office or on the subway, just like he met me. Now I see him at his desk in the living room, staring into space, the hum of slow moving traffic in the street below, the people upstairs playing disco day and night (and sometimes late into the night, when they’re having a party, and we’re trying to sleep) vibrating through the walls and ceiling. Now I ask him what he’s reading and he says The Maltese Falcon, one of my favorite books, and he says that reading it makes him want to return to San Francisco, that he always associates Dashiell Hammett, the author of the book, with San Francisco, he even starts singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and I’m amazed he can carry a tune and that he knows all the words. Now we watch Dirty Harry, starring the young Clint Eastwood, because he wants to see San Francisco, where the movie takes place, because he’s thinking of moving there, as if I didn’t exist, assuming if he moves anywhere I’ll go with him, no matter what. Now he asks me, as a way of changing the conversation, whether I really want to live in New York forever, “this hell hole” as he calls it don’t you want to experience other places, and as we watch the movie (which begins with a sniper on the roof of a building in San Francisco shooting a woman in an outdoor swimming pool) he says, in a rare show of enthusiasm, “Look how beautiful it is there.” Now we meet for coffee, an outdoor table at the Orlin on St. Mark’s Place. The waiter, a tall gay man with a ponytail, says hello to him, like they’re old friends. Now I go to the St. Mark’s Bookstore to buy a copy of Being and Time, which I’ve never read, so I know what he talks about when he mentions Heidegger, though he’s more interested in Heidegger’s life than his ideas, what happened in the room between Martin and Hannah, as he calls them, like they were old friends, and how did it all unfold, he wants to make a movie, Anthony Hopkins as Heidegger, Kirsten Dunst can be Hannah, a terrible idea, Hannah’s Jewish, remember? And I also buy a copy of Hannah Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which I’ve never read, but which one of my colleagues in the English Department recommended as a good place to begin.
“If you were reading all of Hannah Arendt’s books,” she said, “that’s where I’d start.”
Now he tells me he has a daughter who was born when he was nineteen and whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Now I can smell the cigarettes on his breath when he tries to kiss me.
Now he tells me about all the crimes he committed when he was younger but how he never spent one night in jail. Now a Chinese woman walks towards us as we leave the movie theater and she doesn’t look happy when she sees him coming and for a moment I think she’s going to take a handgun out of her coat pocket and kill us both in cold blood on the sidewalk in front of the theater in broad daylight where there are hundreds of people waiting on line. Now he tells me, when we’re both home, standing at the window of his apartment on 16th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, where he’s been living for ten years, both of us looking at the windows of the building directly across the street where a woman and a man are kissing, that the publisher paid him a lot of money—“low six figures”—for his book detailing the love affair between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, which he’s still writing, even though the deadline to present the first draft to his editor, Mya Byou, has long passed, and if he doesn’t get it done soon, according to his editor, he’s going to have to forfeit the advance (“Don’t you want this book to come out?” she screams at him on the phone. “What do you need to get it done? I’ll do anything”). Now he tells me the Chinese woman he met in the post office, and with whom he traveled through China a few years before we met, was still furious with him because he fell in love with her sister, and her sister with him, a good reason to get angry as far as I’m concerned, even if the relation between him and the sister didn’t last for more than a few months. And this is the first time he’s seen his Chinese girlfriend, who’s probably in her late thirties but looks much younger, only a few years older than me (or so he says when we’re lying in bed, later that night, sharing a joint), this is the first time they’ve seen each other since the night, over a year ago, not long before he and I met on the subway, that she learned he was also involved with her sister, that they (he and the sister) talked on the phone frequently when she was in Beijing and he was in New York, and that they met for a week in Paris, we’ll always have Paris, where they spent most of the time in their room in the Hotel Stella on rue Monsieur de la Prince. They had met on the trip to China, he says, he and the sister, and then she moved to New York. And no one would be surprised if Shan hu Hou, his old girlfriend, took a gun out of her handbag and fired it at him and then, because she doesn’t know what she’s doing, because she’s temporarily insane, out of her mind with jealousy, she shoots me as well. Just like the man who entered the pharmacy in upstate New York a few days ago and killed four people, but in this case there’s nothing random about the killing, there’s an actual reason, jealousy and anger, she had been stalking him for weeks, waiting for the right moment.
But they just look at each other, as they pass, the slightest flicker of recognition, and she doesn’t look at me, not directly, but I can see the daggers of hate coming out of her eyes, arrows tainted with poison that kills on contact, the poison seeps under your skin almost instantaneously, and a minute after we pass her on the street, he stops in the middle of the crowded sidewalk on Seventh Avenue, fishes in his jacket pocket for a pack of cigarettes, leans forward and cups one hand around a match, while the world goes on around him, people come in and out of Pain Quotidien and Williams-Sonoma, and I can see his hands trembling as he lights one match after another and finally tosses the unlit cigarette onto the sidewalk in disgust and frustration. And all I can do is ask, in my simpleminded way, though I already know the answer: “Who was that?”
Now he wakes up in the middle of the night and goes to the bathroom. Now he falls asleep with a book on his knees, The Gay Science by Nietzsche. Now he suggests we rent a room for a night in The Chelsea Hotel, and when I ask him why, he says it’s more exciting to make love in a hotel room, that it’s boring to fall asleep in the same bed every night, though I try to explain that we only met a few months before, it isn’t as if we’ve been married for twenty years. Natalie always said that going on a trip and sleeping in a strange hotel room was exciting to her as well. Most people become confused by the routine of daily life; they equate it with boredom, all the repetitions, the prolonged silences. It’s not something I really know about so possibly I shouldn’t voice an opinion, but a life with one other person, stretching to infinity, seems like the ideal to me. The longest I’ve been with someone is two years—with Natalie, and we didn’t even live together.
Now he tells me about Heidegger, married with two children. Once, Hannah came over to his house, with some other students. Elfriede, Heidegger’s wife, was polite towards her until she discovered she was Jewish. She was jealous of all the young women in her husband’s classes. Hannah wasn’t the first student he seduced. They fawned over him, arriving early for class so they could sit in the front row and contort their bodies, without knowing what they were doing, in an attempt to attract his attention. People came to the University of Marburg just to study with Heidegger. He scheduled his classes for seven in the morning so only the most serious students would attend.
There’s her body on the bed in the room where she lives, with the slanted ceiling, kneeling in the dark.
“Come in,” she says.
And there he is, like a shy teenager, frightened of crossing the threshold. Just a few hours before he was lecturing in front of forty students—gesturing with his hands from behind a podium, rolling his eyes upwards as if he was communing with the gods—as if he was god himself—and here he is, in her tiny room in the attic of an old house where the floorboards are rotting and everyone can hear everything, undressing in the dark, biting into the flesh on the side of her neck like a vampire until she screams.
The Rail is proudly searlizing Delusions of Being Observed by Lewis Warsh from the Oct ’16 issue through the fall of ’17. Please join us every month for a new installment.
LEWIS WARSH's most recent books are Alien Abduction (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015), One Foot Out the Door: Collected Stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) and A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010). He is editor and publisher of United Artists Books and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Long Island University (Brooklyn).