The train was delayed, but when it finally entered the station, and after I found a seat near a window and hoisted my suitcase onto the rack, I noticed that the woman sitting across the aisle was a person I had known in high school. We had even gone out a few times, and she had let me kiss her good night on the steps of the house where she lived with her parents. I remember the smell of jasmine when I went to bite the flesh on the side of her neck, and the way she started wheezing as a sign of contentment, like a distant siren in the night. So I dozed off, planning to talk to her when I woke up, but when I opened my eyes she was gone, along with my suitcase. In her place, there was an elderly German, Herr Schwager, who told me he was a doctor, a neurologist to be exact, and that he was going to a conference at the Waldorf in New York. He told me that he and his wife had recently separated after being married for thirty years. “I’ve met someone new,” he said. “How can I resist?” I wanted to ask him how his wife felt about all this, but another part of me wanted to congratulate him on his good fortune. He was the type of person who followed his tangents into dark alleyways, so there was no coming back to the initial topic. It was like listening to water running from a rusty faucet. It was like opening a well that had dried up years before or a mine that had been boarded up since the turn of the last century. Once he started talking he didn’t stop. The phrase “bottomless pit” comes to mind.
It seemed like she was everywhere, everywhere I looked. I had taken a train five-hundred miles to meet her in the lobby of a hotel, but she never appeared. And now she was on the train, she was waiting in the station when the train pulled in, she was standing outside my apartment building when I got out of the cab, she was even waiting in the kitchen of my apartment, wearing just an apron. I could smell the bacon from the other end of the hall. “Why don’t you take off your shoes, dinner will be ready in a minute, did you have a nice day?” She sounded preprogrammed, like a TV commentator, and I almost expected her to recite the five-day forecast, what to expect in the days ahead. I could smell the jasmine, and then I could hear her voice from the distant past: “You can leave marks on my neck,” she was saying, “I don’t care.” We were on the steps of her house, the private home where she lived with her parents. Our kisses seemed to last forever. I sometimes think her name is Jasmine, but obviously I’m confusing her with someone else. Whenever I smell jasmine, drink jasmine tea, I think of her. So that when she contacted me recently, and told me her address, and that I should visit her if I was ever traveling through town, I jumped at the chance. Coincidentally, I had a conference later that month in the midwestern city where she lived. She called back immediately and said how excited she was about seeing me again.
The first time I went to a therapist, I was forty years old. My wife and I were breaking up—it was her idea, though we both agreed that living together had become intolerable. I’m the type of person who likes to keep things going past the time they should end. I’ve done this with other relationships as well, but the stakes were much higher with my wife. We had a daughter who was only eight when we broke up. I moved from our apartment in Manhattan to an apartment in Brooklyn, and my daughter spent half the week with me. But I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t sleep, for one thing, and eventually my doctor wrote me a prescription for valium, which was still in fashion in those days. Sometimes, I would return home from my job at two in the afternoon—I was a professor in the same college that I teach in today—and get into bed. I wouldn’t just take a nap, but I’d take off all my clothing and disappear under the blankets and sheets. It was on one of the days when my daughter was sleeping over at her mother’s, and I didn’t have anything to do. I had spent the last eight years involved in some form of daily childcare, and I couldn’t get used to not having somewhere to go, someone to pick up. You’re free, I said to myself, and I knew I should take advantage of this time—go the movies in mid-afternoon, something I liked to do when I was in college, or to a museum—but I couldn’t.
So I decided to go to a therapist. Her name was Mrs. Z. I couldn’t pay much money. I think she was on a list of therapists who saw patients on a sliding scale, and that someone probably recommended her. Her office was in a brownstone in the East 70s, near Central Park. I thought that going to a woman doctor was probably a good idea.
I’ve always had a better rapport with women than with men, but for some reason I felt inhibited around her. It suddenly occurred to me that one might actually be smarter than one’s therapist. I wanted to talk about sex, for instance, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about how angry I became sometimes, and how I wanted to be more in control of the way I expressed my feelings. Especially my anger. She seemed to think that expressing anger was a good thing. There was something about the way I expressed anger—I tried to explain this to her, but she didn’t get it—that made the whole situation a lot worse. Once I arrived for an appointment, at the scheduled time, sat in the waiting room for half an hour, but Mrs. Z never showed up. This was before the days of cellphones and e-mails. So I left. A week later, I saw her at our scheduled time, and she asked me how I felt when I was waiting for her to come, when I realized that she wasn’t going to come. I told her that I assumed she had a good reason for not showing up—that some emergency had prevented her from coming or that she was stuck in traffic. You didn’t feel angry at me? she wanted to know. She didn’t understand why I didn’t come into the office absolutely furious. On the contrary, I was absolutely not furious. But part of me was beginning to feel furious at the idea that she was testing me. It occurred to me that she wanted to see if I’d feel angry. A few weeks later, when I told her about some fight I had with my wife, that was a kind of repetition of a fight that I’d talked about before, she looked at me and said: “You want to make me cry, don’t you?” I had no idea what she meant—the last thing I wanted to do was make her cry. A few weeks later, I canceled my next appointment and stopped seeing her.
There are three or four women sitting alone at separate tables when I enter the hotel bar. They all look up at me, as if on cue. I wonder if they are planted there by the owners of the hotel to pick up men like myself—single, traveling alone, bored, disappointed. All of the above or none of the above—after awhile, it doesn’t matter. One of the women, in a short pink dress, sits down beside me and orders a daiquiri. The waiter, whose name is Alfredo, winks at me, and points to the glass on the tablecloth in front of me. “Can I bring you another?” The woman introduces herself, her name is Phaedra, and she comes from Crete, a place I’ve never been. After fifteen minutes, it seems we have almost nothing in common, but it doesn’t deter us from returning to my room. “Can I run a bath?” Give it time, be patient, and something happens that you don’t expect. I knelt at the side of the tub and massaged her stomach with an old cloth, just as one of my aunts, Frieda—my mother’s sister—used to do when I slept over at her house. She would come into the bathroom and kneel at the foot of my tub. At first I was embarrassed. I was ten years old, but I had an erection almost non-stop. “Does this feel good?” she said. She had taken my penis between her hands and in a few moments the semen began to spurt on her face. In a similar manner, I leaned over the tub and caressed Phaedra’s breasts. She took my hand and placed it between her legs. One night, when I slept over at my aunt’s house, she came into my room as I was going to bed. “Are you awake?” she asked. She was wearing a long white nightgown which she lifted over her shoulders. Then she took my whole hand and placed it inside her, one finger at a time. So it seems that Phaedra and Frieda were the same person, or that they became confused in my mind, as I rubbed the woman’s shoulders with a towel and watched as she lifted her arms, piled her hair on top of her head, and held it in place like a turban. I led her to the window of the bedroom, where all the lights of the city were blinking in the distance like Chinese lanterns, like fire flies, like SOS signals, like the tips of a million cigarettes, at the darkest hour of the night, on the shortest day of the year, in the beginning of yet another century of recorded time, vanishing forever.
I’m waiting on the corner of Houston and Crosby, in Manhattan, for my high school girlfriend to show up. She called me on my cellphone only a half hour before to tell me that she’s going to be a few minutes late. I stare at the billboard sign above Houston Street. A young man with no shirt is lying on top of a woman who appears not to be wearing any clothing at all. The man is wearing jeans. The sign is an advertisement for jeans. You can see the woman’s face, the tops of her breasts, and her long legs.
“Is that you?” I said. She leaned forward and kissed me on one cheek, and then another, and then she took my arm. “I know a restaurant,” she said, “it isn’t far.” We tried to remember the last time we saw each other. I said, “The times I remember most are the sleigh rides,” and she laughed. We were both living in the Bronx at the time, within walking distance, and one night, in the dead of winter, we went sledding on the hills behind the house where she lived with her parents. She only had one sled. I was on bottom, she was on top. We held on for dear life. The sparks were flying from the blades. We couldn’t stop laughing. There was no traffic, of course. Afterwards we walked back up the hill, and she made hot chocolate, and I stretched out on the couch with my head in her lap. It was not the last time we saw each other, but definitely the most vivid, more so even than the afternoons we spent in her house, when she would let me open her blouse and touch her breasts. “We have to make up for lost time,” she said, as she lifted her glass of white wine in the form of a toast—to ourselves, our glittering past, all the moments leading up to this one.
“We were children then,” she said, shaking her head. I didn’t want to ask her what she had been doing since we last saw each other, graduation day twenty years ago, but of course that was what I wanted most to ask, what I wanted her to tell me, everything she had done, every person she had slept with, it could go on forever, or at least all night, and I would reciprocate by telling her everything that had happened to me, and it would end up resembling a long novel, one soliloquy after another, before we passed out in the hotel room where she was staying, both of us lying on top of the bed with our clothing on. We would have to wait till the next morning to summon the energy to be lovers once again. We could order room service, including a whole pot of coffee for each of us, and stay in bed all day, watching the local news reports, and exclaiming over and over again, until our voices became hoarse, how weird it was to see one another again.
Later, we would make an appearance at a private party (to which neither of us had been invited) in the Hollywood Hills. The host and hostess eye us warily across the swimming pool as we stuff our pockets with hors d’oeuvres and meat sandwiches, and I can see a security guard in a blue blazer heading in our direction. By then, my mind has wandered from the past to the future and then back into the past again before alighting like a fly on the present moment—your face, every pore in your skin, every scar, every abrasion. All I want to do is take off my clothes and dive into the pool where a young woman in a turquoise bathing suit, who reminds me of my first wife, is standing on her toes batting a beach ball into the air.
LEWIS WARSH is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and autobiography, most recently A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010) and Inseparable: Poems 1995-2005 (Granary, 2008). He is editor and publisher of United Artists Books and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Long Island University in Brooklyn.