THE MERIT SYSTEMby Lewis Warsh
He assumed he was doing her a favor by telling her what he was feeling. He assumed that honesty in any form was a virtue and that there was no point in keeping secrets from the person you lived with, pretending you felt one way when the opposite was true. It was only later, when he left the apartment and walked across town to his brother’s apartment to spend the night, that he began feeling guilty about hurting her feelings. He realized that the only reason he had said what he did was to get back at her for something equally hideous that she had said to him a few weeks before. He knew that he didn’t want to go through life hurting people. What he had said to her, her reaction, the way he was feeling about it now, was familiar to him. He had played out this scenario years ago with other women. It never occurred to him that she might be relieved by what he had said, that she had sensed the depth of his enmity towards her for years (impossible to disguise when you live side by side), and that she was growing weary of living in the shadow of the illusion that they were going to spend the rest of their lives together.
No, on the contrary, she wasn’t suffering at all. The minute he walked out the door she put on her suede jacket and went downstairs to the bar across the street to be with her friends. “I shouldn’t have spoken to her like that,” he said to himself, replaying everything he had ever done in his life to hurt anyone. It’s possible that she was suffering over what he had said, but she wasn’t the type who was going to wallow in her unhappiness. Didn’t he know that about her? She wasn’t going to sit home alone and brood. If she was going to drink, which she did almost every night whether she was suffering or not, she would do it among friends. It proved how little he knew about her after ten years of living together to think that she was lying in bed at that moment suffering because of what he had said. That his words really had that kind of effect. He had spoken to her, he had told her what he was feeling, he had tried to be honest with her. There was no way what he was telling her couldn’t be hurting her in some way. He assumed, after all their years together, that he had the power to hurt her. He didn’t realize that in the course of their life together she had managed to insulate her real feelings for fear of getting hurt. The disguise she wore had become more comfortable, more fleece-like, than her own skin. After awhile she had forgotten what she had been trying to hide to begin with. It was only while he was telling her what he was feeling, that he had stopped loving her, that she remembered why she had armored herself in the first place. The look on her face, which he interpreted as a sign of suffering, was really the shock of remembering that this was the moment she had been preparing for, like the meaning of a moat around a castle isn’t clear until the castle is attacked. Her expression was also an acknowledgment of the fact that she had known for years that he no longer loved her, so it was no big deal for her to be hearing it now. His actions, over the last few years, had communicated his lack of love for her, so that hearing it all now was a redundancy, to say the least, like he was trying to underline something that was already written in boldfaced letters, large enough even a blind person could read them. It was like he was trying to rub it in, making it worse by talking about it, and it was all she could do to prevent herself from yawning. “I just want to be completely honest with you,” he repeated, and she nodded at him quickly, as if she understood everything, as if she agreed with him, as if she admired him for his truth-telling, as if she was about to get down on her knees and beg him to stay, as if she cared.
After he left, she brushed her blonde hair over her shoulders, staring at herself in the full-length mirror on the inside door of her closet. She had a sullen expression on her face, even when she smiled. She put on the suede jacket which she had recently stolen from A&S and walked to the restaurant-bar across the street. The bar was called Leon’s. It was always crowded. Her best friend Kathy worked there as a waitress. Other friends hung out there as well and she sat in a corner booth talking to them all, smoking and occasionally yawning because the conversation was dragging. She would wait till the bar closed and she was alone with her friend before she told her, almost as a joke, what Tom had said to her that night. She would present it almost as an afterthought, as if talking about it wasn’t important. She would describe how solemn he had been about it all. Her friend, the waitress, wore a tight black off-the-shoulder blouse and a short skirt. The owner of the bar, Leon, whom Nora had never met, had a reputation for sleeping with all the women he hired. Sleeping with Leon, at least once, was a condition of the job. He was in his late thirties, not particularly unattractive, and many of the women who applied for the job were desperate enough to go through the motions of having sex with him on the floor of his office if it meant that he would hire them. It didn’t take long, really, the sex part, five, ten minutes. And if it meant so much to him, as it seemed to, then there was nothing wrong with it. Their own reputations weren’t going to suffer because they’d slept with him to get the job. There was even something exciting about having sex on the rug in the office in the back of the bar. It didn’t mean undressing, either. All you had to do was close your eyes and pretend it wasn’t happening.
Kathy admitted that it was a form of prostitution to fuck someone in order to get something in return. It excited her while it was happening, but afterward she felt demeaned by it all. At least that’s what she told her friend Nora who lived across the street from the bar. She told Nora that while it was happening she wanted to kill him, get a gun and point it to the side of his head and pull the trigger. Yet the odd thing, at least it seemed odd to Nora, was that a week or two after Kathy began working at the bar she began going out with Leon after the bar closed. They would go to restaurants or dancing or to hear music at an after-hours club near the Holland Tunnel that Leon knew about. There was a rumor among the other waitresses that Leon had fallen in love with Kathy, that he was planning to leave his family so he and Kathy could get a loft together, that he was paying her double what he was paying them, that he had offered to pay the entire rent of her apartment in exchange for sleeping with him. Sometimes Leon and Kathy would go to her apartment after the bar closed, sniff heroin, and fall asleep. They fell asleep on the couch, with their clothing on, listening to a tape of Billie Holliday singing “God Bless the Child” or Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Then he would wake up, suddenly, in a daze, usually the light at the window was what got him up, and he would rush off to his wife and children. He would take a cab to his apartment on the Upper East Side where he lived with his family.
Nora had the feeling that her friend Kathy was falling in love with the owner of the bar. She was tempted to apply for a job there herself just to have the experience of turning him down when he propositioned her. She wondered whether she would have the strength. Kathy had told her that the day she applied for the job he had walked around from behind his desk and had stood behind her chair. He had placed his hands on her shoulders, lightly, talking all the time. He never stopped talking, massaging her back, he had a beautiful voice. He could seduce anyone with that voice. She could feel the tension easing from her neck and shoulders. Nora wondered how Kathy felt whenever a new waitress was hired. Did it make her jealous? The longest anyone ever worked at Leon’s was six months so he was always hiring new women, new girls. Nora couldn’t understand why none of the women who applied for work at the bar ever complained about Leon’s behavior. But who could they complain to? He never came out and said “If you want the job, you have to sleep with me—now,” but the message was implied. He wasn’t forcing you to do something you didn’t want to do. It was common knowledge that you had to have sex with him to get the job. You were free to walk out of his office at any time.
Nora wondered how many job applicants had turned down his offer. “I wanted to spit in his face,” Kathy told her. At this point she had been working in the bar for about a month. But if she feels this way, Nora thought, then why did she sleep with him again? “He’s not really a bad guy,” Kathy told her friend, unaware of the contradiction. “You should meet him.” She sat alone at the end of the bar counting receipts, waiting for Leon to emerge from his office. They returned to her apartment almost every night. She would put on a record by Dinah Washington that he liked a lot. Sometimes he complained of a headache and she brought him an aspirin and a glass of water. “He’s different from all the other men I’ve known,” she said to Nora. “Every night we’re together is different. Sometimes we just take off our clothes and sit on the couch without touching. Some nights we shoot up and fall asleep on the couch. Other times….” It was true, Nora thought, she’s in love with him, but she isn’t suffering.
Tom dialed her cellphone number, lying in bed in his brother’s apartment with the phone against his ear, counting the rings. Then he dialed the number in the apartment but she had disconnected both the phone and the answering machine as she sometimes did when they were making love. Her mother was sick, lived in another state, and she worried, when the phone rang late at night, that it was someone calling to tell her that her mother had died. A stranger’s voice, a doctor or nurse she had never seen. Her mother was seventy-five years old and lived in a nursing home in a small town near the ocean where she had many friends. Whenever Nora spoke to her mother she felt guilty for not giving her more attention, for not visiting more frequently. Her mother was always careful never to say anything to make her daughter feel guilty. She assumed that Nora had better things to do then devote her life to nursing a sick old woman. There was no reason for her to do it. Nora’s mother had lived a full life and wasn’t frightened of dying. She hated the pain that accompanied the disease, the loss of concentration and mobility, but she could still take pleasure in looking out the window at the ocean or listening to music, especially opera.
Nora visited her mother in North Carolina every three months and talked to her on the phone every week. It was a pleasure to visit her since it meant that Nora could spend a few days near the ocean as well. It was almost a vacation. One night, after a particularly grueling day with her mother in the nursing home, she went for a walk on the beach and met two men. She made love to both of them, willingly, desiring to give pleasure, the sound of the waves crashing against the shore in her ears. It was a way of wiping out all thoughts of illness and death, of transcending the inevitability of dying, at least for the moment. Anonymous sex is often more exciting than sex with someone you know. Nora knew that she wasn’t the only person who felt this way. She wished that the scene on the beach with the two young men would go on forever. She hadn’t gone to the beach with the thought of meeting someone. It had been her idea to make love, to fuck right there on the beach, not theirs. They would never have dared try anything if she hadn’t reassured them that she wasn’t planning to call the police afterwards and accuse them of raping her. That she wouldn’t lose her nerve once it began.
The doctor in the nursing home had told her that her mother had an infection on the heel of her right foot that was possibly life-threatening. In order to prevent the poison from spreading they would have to amputate her mother”s right leg. The doctor touched the place right below his own knee. “We’ll have to cut if off here if we want to save her.” Nora was an only child. Her father had died when she was fifteen (the day after she lost her virginity) and none of her mother’s brothers and sisters were still alive. The decision whether the doctor should amputate her mother’s leg was up to her. “If we don’t amputate,” the doctor said, looking out the window at the ocean, “she could die any time.’ Nora knew she would have to decide before she returned to the city. She called Tom, the man she’d been living with for the last ten years, but he wasn’t home. Tom and her mother had never gotten along and he never accompanied her when she made her trips to North Carolina. She heard his voice on the answering machine and hung up without leaving a message.
Nora assumed that Tom slept with other women when she went to North Carolina. It was the only time that they were really separate from one another. She couldn’t believe that he had remained faithful to her for the ten years they had been living together. Sometimes she asked him whether he ever felt like sleeping with someone else and he just shrugged. “Aren’t you tired of me yet?” she would ask, turning it into a joke. She stood on the boardwalk outside the motel near the ocean and called him on her cellphone, listening to the waves of static inside the receiver. Then she heard Tom’s voice asking to leave a message and she said: “It’s me, I’m still in North Carolina. I may have to stay longer than I planned.” Maybe she would call him back later? She went down to the beach, it was after midnight, and met the two men. They were walking in her direction. There was no way they were going to pass one another on the beach without talking. She could see the outline of their bodies in the sand. She had to convince them that there was nothing to be nervous about. It wasn’t the first time she had been with two men. One of the men seemed more willing to have sex than the other. They were both still in college. One of them entered her while the other looked on. One of them was strong, a weightlifter, maybe six and a half feet tall. Both of them had blonde, shaggy, shoulder-length hair, just like her. It was a clear night, filled with constellations, and the moon was almost full.
She assumed that Tom had gone to the bar across the street for some company. She didn’t blame him for feeling lonely when she was visiting her mother. Kathy, the waitress, had told her that the last time Nora had gone to visit her mother, Tom had come to the bar every night trying to convince her to go back with him to the apartment after work. It was on a night when the owner of the bar was sick, or so he said, home with his wife, and Kathy was angry at him. Obviously, no matter what he said, he had no intention of ever leaving his wife. Also, Leon had just hired a new waitress named Samantha and he was interested in her as well. For one thing, she was prettier and younger than Kathy, and seemed to be popular among the regular customers. So when Tom came into the bar that night when Nora was in North Carolina and Leon was at home with his wife she just shrugged her shoulders as if she were inwardly resigning herself to her own fate and leaned towards him so that her breasts were touching his arm and told him she would be happy to go with him to the apartment after she closed up. He waited on a stool at the end of the bar, nursing his drink. He helped her draw down the shutters over the windows of the bar. The apartment was a third floor walkup across the street. They sat on the futon in the living room, smoking, listening to music, nodding out a bit. Then Tom lifted her in his arms and carried her into the bedroom, to the bed which he and Nora had shared for ten years. They stayed in bed until three o’clock the next afternoon.
“Tom’s a wonderful lover,” Kathy told Nora when she returned from North Carolina. They were sitting together in a booth at the back of the bar. It was almost closing time and the owner, Leon, emerged from his office. “I want you to meet someone,” Kathy said. She kicked Nora’s leg under the table. Leon slid into the booth and kissed Kathy on the neck. “Stop it,” she said, playfully, but Leon didn’t stop. He squeezed Kathy’s breasts without looking at Nora. “Not here,” Kathy said. “Later.”
Nora walked across the street and climbed the steps to her apartment. She took off her clothes, slipped her nightgown over her head, drank a small tumbler of peach nectar and brushed the tartar from her gums. When she got into bed, Tom woke up briefly and she draped her arm around his waist, resting her chin against his naked shoulder. “I was dreaming about you,” he said, without opening his eyes.
Lewis Warsh’s most recent books are The Origin of the World, Ted’s Favorite Skirt, and Touch of the Whip. He is co-editor of The Angel Hair Anthology, editor and publisher of United Artists Books, and Associate Professor in the English Department at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
Warsh is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and autobiography.