“You need a therapist,” Desiree says, when I tell her about Robert, and of course she’s right, now more than ever. I went to my first therapist when I was a junior at NYU. My father had stage-3 lung cancer and I took the bus to Lenox every weekend; he and my mother had separated years before but were living in the same town, maybe a mile apart. He had moved in with his girlfriend Serena (she had been his girlfriend, or so my mother told me, when my parents were still together) so I spent my weekend cycling back and forth between the two houses. Sometimes I walked, but not often. Even more painful, or heartbreaking, was to see Marco, still living with his parents, a new girlfriend and a baby, all of them in the same house together, while he worked two jobs and attended Berkshire Community at night.
I found a therapist at school, a man, let’s call him Edgar.
There were extensive counseling services provided to the students, there had been two suicides the year before, and many undocumented attempts. I knew about this just by talking to the other students. Many of the undergrads were living in New York for the first time and didn’t know anyone. No doubt, I should have gone to a woman therapist, but this is how it happened, once a week, for two years, until finally my father died. I liked seeing the expression on Edgar’s face—watery blue eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles, a deep acne scar on his right cheek, wrinkles of disapproval furrowing his narrow forehead—when I told him about encountering people in bars, for instance, and going home with them.
“I try not to hurt anyone,” I told him, this was my guiding principle; but that didn’t necessarily include myself. I guess that’s why my friends were worried, and why Edgar became impatient with me, as I repeated the same scenarios, week after week.
“Then what are you doing here? You don’t seem to have any problem with your behavior.”
My what? I never used the word “problem” to describe the way I navigated my life. For years, after I graduated NYU, no one touched me. I kept my own company, with my books and my cigarettes. I knew I could walk out the front door and meet someone, somewhere, if that’s what I wanted. That part of life was fluid and undemanding; it was almost too easy. Robert and I met on the subway and then he walked me back to my apartment. And then what? We’ve been together for a year, but now I have to decide. Go back to Natalie, or be alone.
I began wearing lipstick to my twice-a-week sessions with Edgar, just to see if he would notice, but he did his best to keep his eyes on the middle ground between us, neutral territory, an occasional flicker of recognition. He had listened to similar stories, no doubt, by other young women. He had perfected the art of not looking. The issue of whether I was trying to seduce him never came up, though in a sense that was the whole conversation. What was I doing there, anyway?
In the taxi home from your mother’s apartment, after she died, you took my hand and held it tightly as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge (I wanted to say “you’re hurting me” but I didn’t), huddled in the back, no traffic at 4 a.m., just the glitter of moonlight on water, and then afterwards, back in your apartment, I could hear you crying in the bathroom. Later that night, or early that morning, you actually turned on your side and pressed your head against my breasts and moaned like some wounded animal who had lost its mate, an injured seal washed up on a deserted beach, perhaps, and I held you until you fell asleep. Most of the time it feels like you’re standing in front of a camera, reciting a script you memorized the night before. But now all you want to do is lie there in the dark, clinging to me for dear life.
I won’t push you away. I’ve never pushed you away, even when you come to bed late and I’m already asleep. And that says something about me I don’t want to think about.
I want to think about Marco, really, and the summer before I left for New York, when I was working as a tour guide at Arrowhead, the house in the Berkshires where Melville wrote Moby Dick, and how Marco and I used to sneak into the house late at night (I had the keys) and have sex on the floor of Melville’s study—there was the desk where he wrote all the books no one cared about during his lifetime, with the view of Mount Greylock out the window, and the rug (not the original, or so I heard, but a facsimile of the one that had been in the room when he was alive) where Marco and I made love, night after night.
Now you’re flying to Ann Arbor to be on a panel about Martin Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher who couldn’t get a teaching job after World War II. And who would hire him? The only person who still believed in him was Hannah Arendt. After all these years. When he was a professor at Freiburg University, in the 1930s, he persecuted all his colleagues who weren’t Nazis. He petitioned to get all the Jewish professors fired. He began each class with the Nazi salute. It’s hard to imagine the eighteen-year-old Hannah embracing the thirty-five year old Nazi in her garret on a side street not far from the university. No one knew they were lovers—not his colleagues, not the other students. No one knows the exact play-by-play of another person’s life, even people living together for half a century. No one knows what goes on behind the bedroom wall. You can read all the letters and journals a person wrote during their lifetime. Virginia Woolf, for instance—every word is out there. Yet something is missing. The nature of her relationship with her husband, Leonard, for instance. There are so many biographies, so many studies of her work; the same with Melville, who was a difficult husband, especially once he and his family moved to New York, and he succumbed to the pressures of making a living, and stopped writing, except for his long unreadable book-length poem Clarel, and Billy Budd, which he wrote at the end of his life, and it wasn’t published until after he died. Whole industries are built around certain writers, Melville and Woolf among them. My thesis advisors in graduate school warned me against writing about Melville—one more book about Melville—but I persisted nonetheless. It was personal. I’d fucked on the bed adjoining the office where he wrote Moby Dick. I’d fucked on the floor of his office in the middle of the night. Some day I’ll read everything again. Pierre, I need to read Pierre one more time. Melville was mostly burned out as a writer by the time he was thirty-five; that’s my age, and I feel like I’m just starting.
No one knows that I’m going to meet Natalie at Mumbles this afternoon, a bar on 17th Street and 3rd Avenue. To what purpose? It all feels hopeless sometimes. I take a shower and remember the fateful morning we woke in my apartment and I told her about Robert. I didn’t mention his name. I didn’t tell her that we had slept together, but that I wanted to. It was the end of everything. Maybe I should have kept it to myself, but I didn’t want to lie. I’ve told so many lies in my life I want to be truthful with at least one person. But you end up paying the consequences. You pay and you pay and you pay. She turned into a stranger, in a matter of seconds. Turned her back to me and left the apartment without saying goodbye.
That was a year ago.
I step out of the shower and there’s a message from Robert on the answering machine. He’s at JFK. He sounds annoyed, or baffled, that I’m not there when he wants me, that I’m not waiting by the phone for him to call. When I tell Desiree what he’s like she looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. It was Desiree who told Natalie that “my new boyfriend” was “an asshole.” I listen to the message and then erase it. His plane will be in the sky by the time I walk uptown to meet Natalie at Mumbles, the same restaurant we met at the last time she was in town. We didn’t see each other, speak or write, for eight months. She made contact at the end of June and we met for an awkward coffee. She kept looking at her watch as if she had to be somewhere else. And now it’s October, a few weeks before the election, Obama v. Romney. It’s comforting to know that Robert isn’t in the city and I’m tempted to call Natalie and tell her to meet me at my apartment, instead, the scene of the crime, as a way of making amends for something that never should have happened. I think of the tattoo of a rose on her upper right arm. I think of the small nodule, the size of a pebble, under her skin at the base of her spine. I think of the time she put her hand under my skirt as we sat in the dark at Lincoln Center listening to the New York Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Seventh.
Now I’m sitting on the side of my bed listening to Erik Satie’s piano pieces. For a moment I close my eyes and feel the stillness in the air. I can hear a siren in the distance and feel a breeze through the window that opens onto the fire escape. Once I woke in the middle of night and there was a man on the fire escape, trying to pry open the window. He disappeared as soon as I turned on the light. The music fades into the background, one note at a time. Satie wrote this music a hundred years ago, in Paris, and here I am listening to it in New York City, 2012. Some things endure. It’s hard to know what will last, but some things do. Poor Melville. A professor at Columbia University discovered the manuscript of Billy Budd in a box, thirty-three years after Melville died. I once saw that box in the library in Pittsfield, Ma., the Berkshire Athenaeum, not far from Arrowhead, the house where Melville lived.
It’s hard to superimpose the past on the present. Just a year ago Natalie and I were waking up together, in the same bed where I’m lying now. She was turned towards me, naked, her head on the pillow. No doubt the same birds singing on the ledge this morning were singing then. She used to buy a bag of birdseed before she came over. The first thing she did in the morning was feed the birds.
I was leaning back on a pillow smoking. We sat that way for a long time. I had just met Robert a few weeks before, on the subway of all places. No one believes me when I tell this story. It wasn’t something I was expecting to happen. That’s the best way. You don’t know what’s going to happen until you turn the corner. Something you didn’t know about is going to be there, if you’re lucky. Robert and I were sitting across from one another on the B train heading downtown. It’s important not to avert your eyes when someone is looking at you over the top of their book. Nothing will ever happen if you stare at the pavement as you walk down the street. In the city, it’s important to look at the people as they walk by. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to stare at someone too closely, especially on the subway.
“I like that book,” I said, across the aisle.
An old Chinese woman with a shopping bag looked up at me. Then she looked at you, and back to me.
The Wild Palms by Faulkner. I hadn’t read it since college.
It’s hard to convey to someone else the nature of your own experience, especially after the fact, what it feels like to be you. Hard to defend yourself—that’s the last thing you want to do. I want to say: we met on the subway, I hardly know him, but that would only make things worse. She was heading back to Provincetown later that day. I was supposed to visit her at the end of the week. She had enough money to live in her family’s house near the ocean without working for the rest of her life. She was willing to support me, if that’s what I wanted. Did I really want to teach all my life? All I did was complain about my job and how teaching left me no time to write. I could hear an invisible clock ticking in my chest as she shifted away from me, gathered her clothing from the floor, and disappeared behind the bathroom door. She walked on her toes as if the floor was covered with shards of glass. One wrong step and the glass would cut into her feet. She walked with her shoulders hunched as if she was going to be attacked from behind. The self-protective instinct that keeps us alive. How thin she is, I thought, how fragile. She sat on the side of the bed buttoning her mustard-colored blouse. I remember the day she bought it in a vintage clothing store on St. Mark’s Place. I put out my cigarette and immediately wanted another. I wanted to turn back the fucking clock to yesterday, when we walked around the reservoir in Central Park and had dinner at Angelica’s on East 12th Street. But today was going to be different.
She was crying. Lying on the floor with her head on the bed and the birds singing on the windowsill. They were waiting to be fed. She was sitting in a chair facing the bed, not looking at me, tying her Hightops, narrow-eyed, ghostly, concentrating on doing one thing and then another. It’s the same chair where Robert sits in the morning when he stays over and sips his coffee. Sometimes he gets back into bed and we drink coffee together. Sometimes other things happen. Often he wakes up early and leaves while I’m still asleep.
“I’m sorry I told you,” I said, but I don’t know whether she heard. She had a set of keys. They were on a silver keychain in the shape of a lobster that she tossed onto the kitchen counter. My words followed her out the door.
My first year at NYU I lived in the dorms. I had a roommate named Philippa, a psychology major from Tucson. We met the day Marco drove me into the city. That was 1995, a lifetime ago, the days before cell phones and email, when my attention span was limitless, when I used to sit for hours with a book on my lap, until late at night, and I could speed up or slow down whenever I wanted, and the pages made shadows on one another as I read in the dim light above my bed, so far removed from the world I didn’t even notice the light of day coming up over the rooftops. I could sit at my desk for hours, in front of my electric typewriter. I could type eighty words a minute and never make a mistake. I would rip the page from the typewriter and then rewrite it, draft after draft, until it was as close to the way I wanted. Not perfect. There was no such thing. I was my own worst critic, judge, reader, editor.
I had saved money, all the jobs I worked during the summer and winter, tour guide in Melville’s house, clerk in local hardware store, waitress at Friendly’s, babysitter for the Leone’s, the Thatcher’s, the Cone’s. And my aunt Ellie died, my mother’s sister, and left me a small fund. Most of the girls at school came from big cities. I was from a small town in Western Massachusetts, a place they had never been. Some of them had heard of Tanglewood, the summer concert series in Lenox, but only vaguely. Why should they?
Phillipa and I each had our separate space. We shared kitchen and bath. Sometimes her boyfriend Dan slept over. And then once some other guy was there when I woke up, a guy named Jamey. What happened to Dan? Phillipa shrugged, and laughed it off. She had lived a sheltered life back in Tucson and was trying to make up for lost time. She offered to introduce me to some of Dan’s friends. Some nights I could hear Phillipa having sex behind the wall that separated our rooms. She knew I was lying in bed, a few inches away, but it didn’t inhibit her. She had dead white skin, a dark red tongue, and a sea green light in her eyes. I bit my lip and thought of Marco. The edges between my mind and body began to blur. I tried to stay in my head as much as possible, keep track of every thought, how one thought branched off and then folded back on itself, opening the door to another thought, how two things could be the same and different all in one moment, but sometimes my body took over, it was beyond simple desire but more like a longing for the person I had been when I was with Marco—it already seemed like years ago—and I would go out into the world hunting for someone to touch, who would touch me, if only for a few hours. It was dangerous out there in the big city, but I made my way, racing across the avenue against the light, the heat pouring out of me. There was nowhere to hide; once I went to the movies in the afternoon, the Angelika on Houston Street, and a man sat down next to me in the empty theater. Things like that happened all the time.
I liked walking around half-naked in front of Phillipa’s boyfriends. It pissed her off, but she didn’t really mind. One night, after we were both up late studying, she knocked on my door to bum a smoke but I could tell she wanted something else.
Some days, too restless to work, I would walk to the East River. There was the Navy Yard and the factories on the other side, the sprawl of everything that was right and wrong with the world. Soon all the tenements from the turn of the last century would be gone as well. Little do I know a decade later I’d be teaching in Brooklyn, not far from the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Flatbush Avenue, a full-time tenure track job with benefits, while so many of my friends are scrambling as adjuncts. This is why the observation is so important: I want to keep this job. I have to stop beating myself up for letting Ray DeForest in the door. If the observation goes badly, if I don’t get tenure, I’m already thinking about plan B and how everything leading up to this moment—meeting Robert on the subway, going to Provincetown with Natalie, having sex with Marco on the floor of Melville’s study—could be a blessing in disguise.
I can only hope.
The Rail is proudly serializing Delusions of Being Observed by Lewis Warsh from the Oct ’16 issue through the fall of ’17. Please join us every month for a new installment.