One of them swept me off my feet and then tormented me with angry outbursts often set off by trifles, like if I changed the setting on my car’s heater while driving him somewhere. He was a famous novelist with a belly and beard, and everywhere we went people took me aside to tell me how fortunate I was to have been chosen by him, how profound our conversations must be, how passionate our love. All these things were partly true. He wrote transparently about courting me in a story that got published in a popular magazine—a circumstance I found both flattering and mortifying—and sometimes gave his characters traits similar to mine that he considered endearing, such as my tendency to obsess over the diet of my cocker spaniel, who was sickly. I fell asleep while he was making love to me late one night, and he became so violently enraged a neighbor called the police.
One of them was in a band. He was a painter, really, but not at the moment, because he’d been working full-time for a religious organization, the sort that goes door-to-door, but actually he was taking a break from this to do something in corporate development. He talked very fast and was devoted to his cat, which he had named Weltanschauung. We met for coffee and talked about books. He had written a pornographic novel, and later I found some of his smutty prose on the Internet. He listened intently when I was speaking, and said that even if I never loved him, meeting me was the best thing that had happened to him all year; then he asked if he could touch my hair. He had a rare heart condition that might at any moment kill him: His heart sometimes stopped beating, and it took a defibrillator to get it going again. This frightening fact was revealed so casually I was filled with admiration and briefly willing to forgive the gesture with which he ran his palm from the crown of my head to my shoulder-blades, a sort of taking possession. I went to hear his band play their Indie rock in a cramped little club in Williamsburg, a place with real sand on the floor and drinks in bottles or plastic cups and the smell of cigarette butts. He played keyboards in a reassuring way, like he knew just what he was doing, but secretly he resented the bandleader, who wrote song after song about adolescent despair. My new friend had been meaning to leave the band for several years, but hadn’t gotten around to it.
One of them was an important man in his field and several years older than he’d suggested he was before I agreed to meet him. He brought samples of his work to show me, pictures of outdoor sculptures involving landscape elements—the landscape was the sculpture, but not the way it had been put there by nature: Things had been added, subtracted or rearranged. We talked for quite some time about the Spiral Jetty in Utah; one of my students had recently lent me a book on the subject. Robert Smithson, the artist who dreamed up this jetty and caused it to be built, truckload after truckload of little rocks tumbled into the water of a lake to form a spiral shape, had intended it to be submerged most of the time, barely visible through the waters of this lake nestled in the Utah countryside. But now, thanks to global warming, the lake was drying up and the jetty was no longer so much a jetty as just a pile of rocks on the shore of a rapidly shrinking lake. The important man spoke passionately about this jetty and the effect it had on him when he first traveled to Utah to see it. After a while, I realized it had been over half an hour since I had uttered a single word, though I agreed with the important man that the jetty was still of interest despite Robert Smithson’s failure to foresee the effects of global warming on his project.
Once I accepted a date with a physicist, or rather someone who was studying to become one at what he described as “one of our foremost research facilities,” which I took to mean that he had already begun to unlock the secrets of the universe. But we didn’t talk about that, we talked about music, about all the concerts he’d been to in the past year and the ones he thought he might like to take me to, if I would like that, of course: to see him again. He was Austrian and had an interesting way of speaking, very precise; we met at a coffee shop that had mainly older women in it eating fancy cakes. I thought he looked a little like Ludwig Wittgenstein with his angular face and close-set eyes, but I didn’t say so, I wanted him to like me, or at least like me enough to consider taking me to one of these interesting concerts. One of them had been held in a church lit only by candles, it was a memorial. When I asked if he had siblings, he told me that his twin sister had died in a tragic accident when they were children, and it had taken him many adult years to come to terms with her loss. He asked me questions about everyone in my family, even one of my cousins I happened to mention in passing, a woman I’d idolized as a child for running away from her middle-class upbringing to live on a commune with other political activists. When we parted, we agreed that we should definitely make plans to go to a concert together in the very near future, and that was the last time I saw him.
At a party I went to, a man—a friend of a friend of the woman who had brought me—was looking at me with kind eyes. He had been ill, he said, and wasn’t quite himself yet, in fact his wife had left him recently and he really wasn’t himself at all, she had taken some things across state lines that belonged to both of them and he didn’t know if he’d ever see her again, he was feeling a little dizzy still, from the medication. He liked that curvy criss-cross thing I had been doing with my arms while I was dancing, he enjoyed watching that. Later he drove me home, and we had many long late-night telephone conversations, though in fact we never met again.
First he said he was unmarried. Then he said his girlfriend and he had an open relationship. Then he said that he and his long-term partner had had an open relationship years before, because of a longstanding previous affair of his that had gone on for decades and was strictly part-time but could not be ended, not with a history like that, but then one day this longstanding lover of his did leave him, and after this a certain ambiguity in the openness of the relationship had arisen. Then he said he’d had an open relationship before he and his partner had conceived their first child, and since the birth of their son and then the daughter that followed he had dreamed of the day when she, upon whom he was now financially dependent, would once more be as amenable to the idea of openness as she had been years earlier, when they both were younger. His penis was alabaster white, it looked like a creature that had lived underwater all its life.
One of them had been fired, ten years before, from the institution at which I was an assistant professor, and he still felt bitter. How strange, I thought, that this person has allowed his bitterness—after all, the job was just a job, just work—to fester within him so long and become so powerful that he is unable to stop himself, all these many years later, from inflicting this bitterness on me, a woman he is presumably hoping to impress. When I met him for lunch at a pizza joint, he had a dogged look about him; the circles under his eyes were like bruises, and when he sat he hunched his shoulders in a way that looked so uncomfortable I kept suppressing the desire to tell him to sit up straight. I remembered him later when I, too, lost my job at the institution where I had been teaching, where this man I never saw again had been teaching before me, and like him was filled with bitterness.
“Seriously,” one of them said to me, “do you really mean to tell me you believe in Big Government?” He was over forty-five, but he worked out a lot, at least three times a week, a schedule and routine he described to me in painstaking detail: which weight-training machines he used, which were dangerous for his knees, and which might put his back out, though he was quite strong and lithe. He told me the sorts of foods he liked to eat to keep his body nice and trim the way he liked it, but I couldn’t tell you what they were, because I was thinking about the fact that I’d left a brand new Webster’s Unabridged costing one hundred dollars on the back seat of my car, which was parked around the corner on Leonard Street, little more than a deserted alleyway at this hour; was it safe? I do remember the man’s profession, though: He was in advertising. He reminded me of one of my former students, a boy whose way of dressing made me think of Brideshead Revisited and who always asked for just a bit more help with his homework than was truly appropriate. I remember wondering whether my indignation at this student’s sense of entitlement was based more on his behavior or my general distrust of people born into comfort. At one point, the ad exec asked me to take off my glasses so he could see what I looked like without them. “Do you only ever date women under 40?” I asked him. He shrugged apologetically and said, “Women my age don’t look so good.”
One of them got up after the first three minutes of our date to tell me how angry he was that I was looking at him in such a critical way and asking such critical questions. Even after I said goodbye to him and that I was sorry for having wasted his time as well as my own by agreeing to meet him, he still followed me down the block haranguing me so violently that passers-by were flashing me do-you-need-help glances right in the middle of Union Square. I was walking as fast as I could to get away from him, but the new heels I’d put on for the occasion, to make me look three inches taller, had rubbed the skin from my toes; every step was excruciating. Finally a taxi appeared like a vision of Heaven, and I escaped into it.
Two of them were stutterers. A third stuttered with his entire head, that is to say, at first I thought he was trying to keep an eye on something visible just over my right shoulder in the coffee shop where I’d come to meet him, but then I realized this was some sort of involuntary muscle twitch. It was very distracting, I kept losing what he was saying to me mid-sentence, even though the things he was saying were interesting. He taught at a nearby university and knew a lot about politics, and while he was telling me about a series of demonstrations he had been attending, demonstrations organized by a group of his students, I kept glancing back over my shoulder to see what he was looking at, and then reminding myself not to keep glancing back over my shoulder. I supposed this was one of those things that got worse when a person was nervous, and what better way to be nervous than to go on a blind date, agree to meet a perfect stranger on the off-chance that this stranger will prove unexpectedly to be one of the most important people in your life. He was handsome, with one of those broad smiles I always think of when I hear the word “disarming,” and when we took a little walk around the neighborhood he stopped doing that twitchy thing with his head. It occurs to me I could have just asked him what it was. Surely he got asked about it constantly and was used to explaining whatever physical condition it was in a calm, off-hand way that would make the woman he was talking to stop thinking about the movements of his head and jerking her own head around to look at whatever he was looking at behind her. Probably if I had asked him such a question, he would have launched with relief into his standard explanation, it would have broken the ice that kept our conversation largely superficial, we would have become friends, and he would have proven to be a brilliant lover, and marriage-minded at that, but I didn’t, and so he didn’t, and so nothing of the sort occurred, and in fact I never saw him again.
For a while I was going to see a therapist once a week, and he used to talk to me about my belief that it was important for me to act in certain ways in certain situations so as to prompt others to act in certain ways in response to the ways I was acting. “Do you really think you are so powerful?” he said.
One was blind. We met at a dinner party hosted by a colleague of mine at the university, and then he invited me to tea at his apartment whose cramped living room was piled with thick, bulky tomes printed in Braille. He had so much furniture placed so closely together I had to slip my body sideways between the stacks of books on the coffee and end tables to reach the sofa, which was velvet and such a striking shade of peacock blue I asked him who had picked it out for him; “a friend,” he replied and blushed. There was a vase of pink lilies beside the door, their overripe scent obvious even from across the room. I cannot remember now what this man did for a living, but when he was younger he had traveled to Africa as a missionary and worked with blind children there, some of whom, he said, still wrote him letters. After I had been in his apartment for an hour, the sun went down, and the room where we were sitting quickly became so dark I was sure I would knock things over if I attempted to move from my seat. I was struck by how frightening I found it suddenly to be sitting in a stranger’s living room in the dark, but I was also embarrassed to admit how insecure it made me feel to be unable to see. For a moment I even wondered whether he had lamps in the apartment at all. When at last I brought myself to ask if he minded turning on a light, he checked his watch and then burst into laughter at my having spent so long pretending everything was fine while I was sitting in the dark.
One day my therapist remarked on how often I seemed to mention all the men who “didn’t work out,” who rejected or abandoned me. The therapist was a man with a gray, heavy-jowled face whose disapproval I feared but in fact rarely received. Certainly I had happy stories as well, but they had made, it seemed, a less durable impression on my consciousness. The bland balm of contentment was no match for the sting of loss. He challenged me to tell him a happy story, so I did:
One of them romanced me on a sailboat. It was the most glorious outing and led to many weeks of warm and sensual friendship. This was a man I’d known in a casual way for months, having met him while we were both graduate students working as temps for the same agency. In a casual way, he invited me and the man with whom I was newly and passionately in love to come sailing on the Hudson for the weekend, along with him and his girlfriend, an actress. I had met this girlfriend before, on an evening when many friends of theirs had gathered at a bar to mark an occasion I can no longer remember. That evening, the girlfriend was engaged in a mock squabble, a sort of rehearsal for a scene in some upcoming performance with her best friend, a blond actress who was quite beautiful and was getting most of the attention. As part of this squabble, the two of them were smiling insults at one another, and at one point the beautiful friend opened her perfect teeth and said “Cin-cin-na-ti,” apparently a terminal insult. But this isn’t the implausible part of the story. The implausible part is that the man I was in love with suddenly announced, on the eve of our sailing trip, that he had just realized he wasn’t in love with me, and when I arrived alone at the boat dock, feeling as if all the vital energy had been wrung from my limbs, my casual friend was standing there with tears running down his face, also freshly abandoned.
One of them I’d known as long as I could remember, longer even. Our parents said we took a shine to one another as toddlers and would walk around holding hands and prattling in a language puzzling to anyone over the age of three. Then we moved away and lived in different countries for many years, each forgetting about the existence of the other and developing new tastes, talents and circles of acquaintances until one day we met unexpectedly at a party in England and for a while experienced true love.
I was in Europe as an exchange student when he came and sat down at my outdoor table on a terrace overlooking the foreign city. “Wait, don’t sit down!” I said, because a sparrow was standing on the far end of the table, and I was feeding it crumbs from my supper, a slice of cheese pie called Käsewähe. Feeding birds is an ordinary thing, but I felt that this particular bird trusted me, that I was somehow nurturing it by sharing my meal, and the stranger standing beside me was about to spoil everything. He sat down anyhow. He was a professor of mathematics in this foreign city. He was young. “I’m married,” he said, “but my wife is in Japan.” Later I walked all over the city with him and when by chance we reached the building where he lived, he invited me up for a glass of milk.
One I never dated, I rarely even talked to him, but we stared at each other for several years from different corners of different classrooms, and after I had lost interest in him, he sent me a passionate letter by campus mail in which he wrote, among other things, about The Brothers Karamazov.
Once a teacher I’d been in love with, who taught at a school I no longer attended, suddenly was standing there in the fluorescent hallway of my new school, smiling at me. “I’m here to talk to a colleague’s students,” he said as I stared in disbelief over my armful of textbooks. Huge jolts of electricity were shooting through my body in joyous panic. I wonder whether I am too old now to experience a feeling like that ever again. Then he said goodbye to me, and I turned the corner, walked a few steps and fell down a flight of stairs.
When I was assigned to his class, one of the older kids, the brother of a friend of mine, took me aside to warn me: “Be careful, he likes little girls.” This teacher was the most powerful person I’d ever seen; he had a way of looking at you as if he were looking right through you. To class he wore jeans and little Indian sandals that were only a toe-loop and a simple leather strap across the top of the foot, and when he read poetry aloud he did something with his voice that made the words pierce all the way inside your body. I loved him at once. When he propped a foot up on one of the low desks to lecture us, I saw how thin and muscular his thighs were. He said he had once been on a baseball team, as a pitcher, until in the end all that pitching had injured his back. I would smell a beautiful dark-brown odor, like old woolen coats, whenever he crouched down with his head close to mine to look at what I was writing. I wrote as beautifully as I could for him. Those weeks were all about waiting for something to happen. Some days I would have to wait at the school for my mother to finish work, and sometimes he would stay too, and talk to me, sitting crosslegged like me atop a school desk. One day, while my class was on a field trip to a museum, visiting a special exhibition on surrealist art, he walked up to me with the words “Hello there, rascal,” and for the tiniest fraction of a second put his hand on the nape of my neck. And that sensation, the warmth spreading from the touch of his hand there, has remained with me ever since.
The award-winning translator Susan Bernofsky is completing a biography of Robert Walser.