HOLY CITYby Lewis Warsh
She had been teaching for twenty years and in all that time she had only slept with one student, a young woman named Arlette. It was during the time in her life that she referred to as “the worst time” when talking with friends. Between marriages, she was living alone in an apartment in Brooklyn, a ramshackle neighborhood near the Gowanus Canal. The smell of the water from the canal pervaded her small railroad apartment, combining with the smells of her two cats. “It was my most reclusive period,” she once told me, apropos of nothing. It was the apartment where Arlette came to see her after school.
Carla taught French in a private high school in Brooklyn Heights. Her first novel, published when she was fifty, is dedicated “to A.” By the time the book came out she and Arlette were no longer in touch. There was a rumor that Arlette was married and living in Detroit. After the book was published, Carla was tempted to send a copy to Arlette, with the secret hope that it would inspire her to visit her again, like in the old days. Carla herself had remarried and was living with her husband on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had never met her husband who was in his early sixties and worked as an executive in a bank near Wall Street. If Arlette ever came to town she and Carla could always meet for an afternoon in a hotel. That’s what she would say when we went out drinking together.
The novel was about an older teacher who falls in love with a student. It was more than a thinly disguised recounting of her relationship with Arlette. She had written it in a moment of deep despair, not long after she married Seth, her new husband, in an attempt to recapture that moment in her life when everything seemed bathed in starlight, when she could name all the planets and the stars and the constellations, when it seemed like all the stars, moons and planets were perfectly aligned, that for the first time in her life she was getting what she really wanted. It wasn’t easy to stand in front of a classroom, day after day, and deny your desire for the bodies of the young women and men staring up at you. They gave you the impression, approaching your desk after class or visiting you unexpectedly in your office, that they would do anything you wanted—all you had to do was ask. In the book, Carla changed Arlette’s name to Simone. She was no longer teaching so she wasn’t frightened of people’s responses to a book about a teacher who seduces a student. She wasn’t frightened that anyone would think she was writing from her own experience.
What Carla implies in her book was that the student had seduced her. It was the young girl, only fifteen, her hair tied back in a French braid, who invited herself over to her teacher’s apartment after school, who asked for a glass of Merlot and drank it down in one long gulp and then asked for another, who lay on her bed with her pleated skirt bunched up around her waist, who sucked on Carla’s fingers, each one, and then placed Carla’s hand between her legs.
“At any moment,” Carla said, “I could have told her to go home.” She paused to look at herself in the mirror behind the bar where we had gone for a drink to celebrate the publication of her book. “But I didn’t.”
It was hard for me not to feel empathetic with her. Hard not to identify. It’s no accident that Carla and I are friends. There was a time, soon after we first met, where it seemed we might become lovers as well. It’s hard to become lovers with a person with whom you’ve been friends a long time. Both of us knew that if we became lovers it might end badly and we would stop being friends. Neither of us wanted to take the risk of losing what we had. We depended on one another—for something, possibly, that no one else in our lives could give.
I had been teaching in a small college in Brooklyn for about ten years when it happened. The class in twentieth century European literature ended at 8:40 at night and Laura—that wasn’t her name—came to my office afterwards. There was no one in the building except for the janitorial staff and a few security guards. We weren’t supposed to smoke but I opened the window of my office and we lit up. She came to my office ostensibly to go over one of her papers. She wanted to improve her writing, how could I help her? How could I not? We sat side by side in my office while I pointed out her grammatical mistakes. Sometimes she lost control of her sentences, inserted commas instead of periods, forgot to create paragraphs. I told her that she was writing too fast, that she should try to be more methodical about her work. It went on like that for awhile, with her coming to my office after class. We sat very close together and occasionally she put her hand on my arm to get my attention, to interrupt me. I had the tendency to just go on, as if I were still lecturing in front of the classroom.
It wasn’t long before we began sending e-mails to one another. Again, it was she who initiated the correspondence. There was a misunderstanding about one of the writing assignments, at least that was the pretext. I had told the class to write a paper applying the quote from Plato, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” to the works of European literature we had read that semester: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy, Metamorphosis by Kafka, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, “The Dead” by James Joyce and “To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing. I had planned to include Camus’s The Stranger but we had run out of time. The question involved the word “unexamined” — she wasn’t sure what that meant.
My wife had gone to the Berkshires to visit her brother for the weekend so for the moment, as I read Laura’s e-mail, I had the illusion I was free. It was a taste of what it would be like, I realized, if my marriage ever ended. As in the case of Carla and Arlette, it was Laura who invited me over to her apartment. I know that this is no excuse, that no one will believe me if I say that nothing would have happened if she hadn’t called me and invited me over, but I’m saying it anyway. It was my job to shift gears no matter what the student wanted. There has to be something wrong with a student to invite her teacher to her house.
She lived in the depths of Brooklyn, some neighborhood where I’d never been. As soon as she invited me over I realized that it was what I had wanted all along and I wasn’t afraid of anything. It occurred to me for a moment that I was misreading the situation and that she just wanted me to come to her apartment so I could help her with one of her papers. But hadn’t we already kissed in the office after class? She had stretched out on my desk and let me touch her breasts. I’m the older, mature person and I should probably have backed away. I often had fantasies about sleeping with one of my students but I never propositioned anyone. As soon as she invited me over I knew I would go. I would go even if my wife was in town. Lie to her, say anything. I knew that I was risking a lot: my job, my marriage. No one would believe me if I said that she had invited me over, that there was no coercion on my part, but who would care?
Her name was Laura. Of course, that’s not her real name. She had been in one of my classes and then she dropped out and instead of failing her I gave her an incomplete. She came back a semester later and began making up the work she had missed. This involved coming to my office, not only at night but in the middle of the day when other students and teachers were around. She would come to my office in between classes. One of my colleagues—someone I confided in, who I thought was my friend—told me I was taking a big chance, that if anyone found out I’d be fired on the spot, but at the moment it seemed worth the risk. The time I spent with Laura, in my office and the few times we met in her apartment, gave my life meaning.
“All I care about is this,” Laura once said, in my office, pressing my hand between her legs. She didn’t seem to care about what might happen if we were caught. She didn’t seem to realize that my job might be in jeopardy. I had the feeling she was telling all her friends that she was having sex with her former teacher. I began thinking that the students I passed in the hallway were laughing at me behind my back. Pointing a finger in my direction when they thought I wasn’t looking.
Even so, my relationship with Laura ended after a few months. She left the city for the summer and met someone else, someone closer to her own age, and in the fall she dropped out of school again. For awhile, after she dropped out, we continued to talk on the phone, maybe once every two weeks. Then I left town for awhile and that was that. The idea that we might never see one another made me sad for awhile and more than one night I spent lying awake remembering her body. I was thirty years older than she was but she never once referred to our age difference when we were together. If she didn’t care about it why should I?
I began to fantasize about what might happen if I was living alone. It’s typical of people who are married for many years to forget what being alone is really about. How hard it is, especially after you’ve lived with someone a long time. If I lived alone Laura could visit me any time. (What I forgot, of course, was that if I was available Laura wouldn’t be interested; marriage created the context where desire could take place. Once I was free that desire would no longer exist.) My wife and I had been married fifteen years and we had sex maybe twice a month. The absence of sex didn’t seem important to our relationship. Something else was more important but I couldn’t really define what that was. We had many interests in common and we never argued about petty things. I imagined renting a one-bedroom apartment, hopefully with a garden, in one of the neighborhoods on the outskirts of Brooklyn, or possibly even in Queens, where I didn’t know anyone, and that after some time had passed Laura could move in with me. I knew that as long as I stayed married nothing would ever change. I was fifty years old and if anything was ever going to change it had to be now. I lay awake, my wife sleeping beside me, and reviewed the contours of Laura’s body, the way she sat on my lap in my office with her shirt unbuttoned, the way she unfastened my belt. Once, in her apartment, she asked me to hit her on the back with my belt, and when I refused to do it she got angry. Not long afterwards she went away.
Carla told me that she and Arlette used to lie in bed in the afternoon, with the windows closed so you couldn’t smell the dead bodies in the Gowanus Canal, and that Arlette would tell her stories about all her lovers, most of them classmates who Carla also knew, but some older men as well, fathers of her friends. She had lost her virginity when she was twelve with her older sister’s boyfriend who had come to her parents apartment thinking her sister was home. At least that’s what he said. Later, when they were in bed together, he confessed that he knew her sister Samantha wasn’t going to be home, that he had come to see her, Arlette, but that he was too shy to make the first move. It was only when they were in bed together that he felt he could be honest with her.
It was after they had sex for the first time that Arlette realized her older sister and her boyfriend Tony had never made love before, even though they’d been going out together for almost a year. She realized, when she first let him in and they sat together on the living room sofa, that Tony had really come to the apartment to see Arlette, that was the truth, but now that they were together he was frightened to touch her.
It was Arlette who said: “I had a dream about you the other night,” and when Tony said, “What happened in the dream?” Arlette started laughing. One of them had to say something to break the ice. It was Arlette who took Tony’s hand and lead him down the hallway to the bedroom at the end of the apartment. She was twelve but looked older when she wore make up and she had been experimenting with her sister’s eye shadow when the doorbell rang and there was Tony, too nervous to say what he wanted. For a moment Arlette had the feeling that Tony wasn’t even going to enter the apartment. “Is Samantha home?” he asked, and when it was obvious that she wasn’t home (he knew she wouldn’t be home), he started walking away.
“You can wait for her if you like,” Arlette said.
She had been aware of Tony’s interest in her for awhile. Whenever he came to the apartment to pick up Samantha he stared longingly in her direction. Arlette was aware that men on the street were watching her as she walked by. She could sense Tony’s gaze following her whenever she left the room. Whenever she took the subway she was aware that men were staring. What she wanted most was to have sex with someone she didn’t know. To meet someone on the subway and go home with that person. A room with a mattress on the floor, lights out, the tip of a cigarette glowing in the dark—two strangers.
“You’re the first woman I’ve ever slept with,” she told Carla.
The sun was going down over Brooklyn, it was almost winter, and she had to be home for dinner. Usually, Carla called a car service to take Arlette home to the apartment in Brooklyn Heights where she lived with her parents. Her older sister, Samantha, was away at college. Apparently Samantha never forgave Arlette for sleeping with Tony. She had found out about it by reading Arlette’s journal. They had never been very close before this happened so it didn’t seem like a major loss. Nothing to lose when there was nothing there to begin with. Arlette hadn’t told anyone, except for her closest friend Kristin, that she was sleeping with Carla.
It was Arlette who had made the first move. There was a book in French that she wanted to borrow from her teacher. That was the excuse. Arlette waited outside the school and they drove to Carla’s apartment, with the smell of the murky water. There was a rumor that there were dead bodies at the bottom of the canal. That Mafioso hit men dropped the bodies of their victims in the canal. Dumped them there in the middle of the night. The water had a green film covering the surface that reflected nothing.
She was lying on Carla’s bed, drinking wine, listening to a record of Edith Piaf. It was during a time when Carla thought she would never sleep with anyone again, man or woman. She was between marriages, but still recovering from the hurt of the marriage that had ended. She never dreamed that she would fall in love with one of her students. And a girl, no less. She had fooled around with girls in college, but nothing serious. She had married a few months after graduating college and it had lasted twenty five years. She had a child, a girl, older than Arlette, who was studying art history at Brown. Presently, she was in Italy for her junior year. She was in Florence, living with an Italian family. Maybe it was because her daughter Melissa was so far away that she craved the company of the younger girl.
That’s what Carla talks about in her novel, the reasons she didn’t tell the girl to leave. That she was lonely for her daughter. It was raining out and they were listening to the music and drinking wine when Arlette reached for her hand and took each of Carla’s fingers into her mouth one at a time. You could see the Gowanus Canal from her fourth story window, the lights of the boats in the distant harbor, the housing projects in Red Hook. From the roof of her building you could see The Statue of Liberty. The younger woman reached out and touched the older woman’s hair, tugged at it gently. It was early autumn and they spent the winter together in bed, the older woman and the younger girl, two or three afternoons a week. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was something.
Warsh is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and autobiography.