As it turns out, I’m not happy with the view, which looks straight down into the parking lot below, not to mention the smell of the dumpster every time I open the window (I like to sleep with the window open, no matter how cold), so I ask the man at the front desk, Ralph, so the name tag on the front of his shirt informs me, whether there are any other rooms available. It seems to take an interminable period of time, during which Ralph combs the spread sheets in front of him, and then consults his computer, just to make sure he doesn’t give me a room that someone else has reserved.
“Yes, there is,” he says, “I’ll have Bertha make your bed immediately.”
Bertha, it turns out, is a small pouty red-headed lady from Eastern Europe—tiny waist, high cheekbones, thirty-five at the oldest. I always like thin women, my wife was anemic and had to take massive doses of iron pills every four hours, so I make a point of keeping my distance. I don’t want her to get the wrong idea, or maybe I do? People tend to mis-interpret the body language of people they don’t know, not to mention actual conversations in which people say things they don’t really mean, in a tone of voice that conveys the opposite of what they mean, so sometimes it’s best to keep one’s mouth shut in the presence of strangers. But as a person travelling on my own, it was just such a random encounter, like the one I was having with Bertha, that I imagined before boarding the plane. I had the fantasy that at every step along the way a stranger would rub her body against me. Anything could happen, for instance, flying over the Atlantic in the middle of the night, but the girl sitting beside me was young enough to be my grand-daughter, and fell asleep almost immediately. I once had sex on an airplane with a Rumanian woman named Gina, an all night flight from New York to Seoul, but that’s a different story. I lean back against the window of my new room, which faces the front of the hotel, whistling an aria from La Traviata, while Bertha folds back the sheets.
“Can barely speak English,” she says, when—feeling desperate, middle-aged, and alone—I try to engage her in conversation.
Happily, it’s a room where smoking is allowed, so I open the window, twenty stories above the Rue Magadalene, and stare at the window of the building across the narrow street, where a woman and a man are standing, leaning forward out the window, almost dangerously so, the man behind the woman, his hands on her bare breasts. Her shoulders are bare as well, and it looks, for the moment, as their bodies rock back and forth, that they’re having sex out in the open, in broad daylight, for everyone to see, though at twenty stories above the street it’s unlikely that anyone is watching them but me. The woman has short curly black hair and the man is wearing a wide brimmed hat, not quite as big as a sombrero, but almost, and he has the biggest moustache I’ve ever seen, curling at both ends. His eyes are closed and the woman is making small sounds, like a hungry terrier, and the man is grunting each time he moves forward as if it was all too much work and he’d rather be anywhere else, though that couldn’t possibly be true.
It’s just a matter of time before I turn away from them—it’s boring, beyond belief, to watch other people having sex, though I’m sure some people disagree—and stare at the room, as if it was a kind of prison where I would spend the rest of my days, the painting of a beach on the wall above my king-sized bed, a sailboat on the horizon, a young blonde girl with a pensive look sitting alone beside a rock that juts out into the bay, all of it enclosed in an ugly metal frame, and I wondered if I had made a mistake by boarding a plane and coming to a city where I didn’t know a single person, though I’ve met a few, Ralph, at the main desk, and Bertha, with her wild red hair, among them. And no doubt I’ll meet others, if that’s what I want. People seem to like me, I make a good first impression, especially on women, though I have a number of men friends, as well, people I’ve known for years. I find it easier to be with women, as lovers, and especially as friends. I’ve only had one sexual encounter in my life with a man. I’ve never fantasized about having sex with a man. Men are impossible to love—you can’t talk about love with a man, not as a friend. With women everything is clear. There’s either one thing or another. It has to do with love, sometimes, and sex, most often. And then there’s a third thing, which is impossible to figure out. With men, it’s hit or miss. You never know whether the person (man) is interested in what you’re saying, or even listening. It’s hard to communicate who you are to another person and it’s even harder if you’re on the other end, listening to what someone else thinks is important. We all have to think that what we do is important, closing our eyes to the reality that no one really cares.
I was like that for awhile. “Who cares?” I responded, as an answer to almost any question. Then I changed directions, turned my life around, so to speak. I met someone, we fell in love, and then I met someone else. And it was the “someone else” who made the difference. I thought I was in love with the first person, but with the second person it really happened. I could actually compare one with the other and see how, in one case, I’d been kidding myself, and in the second case something real was occuring, something I’d read about in books, something other people had told me about, something I never thought would happen to me. It was no fun saying goodbye to the first person, who I thought I was in love with, and who said she was in love with me, as well, and who I had known in this way for over six months. I couldn’t, of course, tell her how I’d felt one thing for her, and something else for someone else, and how it was possible to measure the difference, as if on a scale, from one to ten. And I never thought my life with the second person would ever end, but here I am, in this strange city, on a bed with a woman named Bertha, my head in a vise between her legs, her red hair going up in flames.
All you have to do is open the door and step outside. It’s strange that you have a choice, whether to do this or not, and that necessity rarely beckons you anywhere but your own room. Flirtation with some inner being, who changes continuously, as the day lengthens, is often enough to keep you occupied, as much as the breeze coming through the open window ruffles your hair and sends the lace curtains into a small frenzy. You can flail about at will, or occupy yourself with old photographs, or let your thoughts mingle with the words in a book, something Melville wrote on a bad day, perhaps. You can imagine Melville, in middle-age, sitting at a desk in the Customs House in Lower Manhattan, not far from where you live, and where there’s a street named Gansevoort, leading down to the river, and you can only consider the consequences of not doing what you want at any given moment. Still, something tempts you to put your hand on the doorknob, and open it, walk down five flights of stairs, or take an elevator into the street. You like to sing to yourself as you walk, to deflect the bombardment of faces with the words of a song, as simple as “Dancing In the Dark,” or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but you keep moving, even when the light is red and a car seems to be approaching rapidly across the intersection. Gravity is no small achievement, or so they say, what holds you and everyone else to the sidewalk under your feet, and all the senses have a purpose, as well, and sometimes two or three senses are in play at the same time, for instance touching and smelling often go hand in hand. Perhaps you will meet someone you know, or haven’t seen in awhile. You can pick that person out of a crowd, you can recognize her anywhere, she hasn’t changed much, and nor have you, or so she says, as she leans forward for a kiss, first one cheek, then the other. Anything can happen when you walk outside, you can be innocently thinking one thing one moment and then suddenly two worlds collide, your world and someone else’s, or you can trip on the sidewalk or someone on a bycycle can run you over. Some stores, I notice, have closed— “Thanks to all customers,” a sign on the window reads, “it was a pleasure to serve the community for thirty years.” And you are part of the community, though rarely seen. Young children don’t rush up to you as if you were their uncle. And you don’t own a dog, so complete strangers don’t feel compelled to ask you questions relating to pedigrees and breeding. The man selling sausages doesn’t wave to you as you walk by. You don’t genuflect, or kneel down, when you pass a church, and there are many of them, religious institutions of different denominations, and you never cease to wonder that religion is a living reality for millions of people you don’t know. Billions perhaps—not everyone, but a lot. It’s your lot to simply be who you are. Cordonned off. Surrounded by bodies of water. Only reachable by boat. Not available. No one home. Do not disturb. All of the above.
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. Mimeo Mimeo #7 (fall 2012) features his poems, stories and collages