I was thirty-two when I met Natalie. My twenties are mostly a blank. More one night stands than I can count. Books. Papers. Long nights in my room smoking cigarettes and reading till my eyes dimmed. Some nights I smoked a joint to put me to sleep. I was thirty-four when I met Robert on the subway. At that age, Melville had already written Typee, Omoo, Mardi, and, of course, Moby Dick. It’s possibly the greatest tragedy of American literature that he did all this work and no one cared. A few people cared, but not many. Thirty years after he died. That’s how long it took for people to take him seriously.
They called it the Melville Revival, back in the 1920s. For my last two summers in high school I worked as a tour guide at Arrowhead, the house outside Pittsfield, on Holmes Road, where Melville and his family lived for twenty years before moving to Manhattan. This is where he wrote Moby Dick, with the view of Mount Greylock in the distance. This is what he saw from his window. That’s what I’d say to the busloads of tourists who arrived in the Berkshires every summer, most of them barely awake and yawning. The hills look like bodies, I would say—like the body of a woman. Or a whale.
“Have you all read Moby Dick? Even if you haven’t, I bet most of you know what it’s about.”
That’s what I used to say. Five times a day, six days a week, for two consecutive summers.
That’s where Marco and I went to have sex. I had the keys to Arrowhead and we liked to go there late at night. We parked in the back, down a narrow incline between two trees, so no one driving by could see the car, Marco’s ratty second hand Honda. He would sit in Melville’s chair, at his writing desk, and I would climb on top of him in the dark. Our only light was a pocket flashlight with a tiny beam which we followed up the staircase, passed the fireplace in the living room with the words “I and my Chimney” carved into the stone. It’s what we wanted to do. It was what I lived for, all during my senior year. I knelt in front of him and tugged his pants from around his ankles. We looked out the window, under the light of a full moon, and saw what Melville saw when he sat here late at night and wrote his books about the South Seas. All the naked Polynesian women who boarded the ship and made love to the sailors. Melville was tempted to stay on the island forever, and why not? I could feel Marco coming in my mouth and then a few minutes later he was inside me again. By the third time he was moving on top of me in slow motion. We could go on forever, the slower the better. He put his hand in my mouth so I wouldn’t cry out.
There was always the fear someone was lurking outside. They’d see us come in the back way and get suspicious. I could lose my job, we could be arrested for trespassing. There would be a scandal, no doubt. The furtiveness of it all only added to the excitement. I took off my underpants in the car before we went in. I had the feeling I was becoming a better lover; initially, Marco was the more experienced, but as time went by it was I who was leading him, who wanted to go further. I liked to whisper things in the dark when he was inside me. I wanted him to bite into the side of my neck. He began to move very slowly, almost imperceptibly, just the tip, the edge, then all the way. He was my first lover and I had no one to measure him by. Some of the girls at school liked to talk about sex, compare notes, but I held back, as if I didn’t know anything. Everyone knew Marco and I were a couple and I realized he could be with anyone he wanted. It made me feel I had something special to give, though I’m not sure what. It only made me want to give more. Before we were together he had fucked a few of the girls in our class. I asked him what they were like and he said “nothing to write home about.” I wondered if he was comparing me to them, whether he was satisfied with our sex life, which seemed non-stop, whenever we were together, in the front seat of his car, up against a tree, it didn’t matter where. Sometimes we took chances and didn’t use a condom but we weren’t that stupid and I became an expert at rolling it on in record time. I wondered if there were things we didn’t know about. I meant to go to the library and find a copy of The Joy of Sex, but I never did, not realizing there was a copy on the shelf in the living room of my mother’s house. I tried to imagine what it might be like with two men at the same time, maybe Marco and one of his friends, but the idea seemed like it was happening to someone else on another planet. Sometimes, back in his room, we watched a porno movie, thinking it would heighten some aspect of our lovemaking, but the people were obviously going through the motions. And we weren’t. The camera focused on their body parts; I wanted to see their faces. Possibly being with a man and a woman at the same time would whet my appetite. Whet, wet, I was always soaking, just thinking about it, and on the nights we didn’t spend together I’d go to my room and do it alone, remembering the time Marco and I had sex in the shower during a party. My ass was sore from the last time but I let him do it anyway. (“You can do whatever you want,” I told him, not even sure what I meant.) I worried about getting a disease, or that he would, or I might get pregnant, but nothing happened. I felt like I could touch the ceiling with my fingers. Poor Melville. He sat at this desk until his head burst into tiny pieces. He did as much as anyone could in a few years of his life. No one gives a shit about anything. I sat on the toilet in Marco’s basement and he stood over me and I can hardly say what happened next.
We knew it was going to end. All our senior year I was applying to out of town colleges. Marco wasn’t going anywhere. He would work as a bus boy at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge while taking night classes at Berkshire Community. There was a gulf between us, all the things we couldn’t talk about. We tried to be brave. We tried to make up for a future we knew was never going to happen.
His father had Alzheimer's and was in a wheelchair most of the time. There was a fancy nursing home down the road in Lenox but Marco’s family couldn’t afford it. They were poor people living in a wealthy town. My own family was somewhere in between. My father taught history at Pittsfield High School. He had a million books about the Third Reich in the bookcase in his study. I liked to go into the study, when he wasn’t around, open a book at random and look at pictures of Hitler. I wondered what Hitler looked like naked. I had seen my father naked more than once. I was twelve when he moved out. I had seen pictures of men and women in the porno magazines that the kids at school had passed around. He moved across town, less than a mile away, to be with his girlfriend, whose name my mother forbid me to mention. Until one day she no longer cared.
I did well in high school. I didn’t slack off senior year like most of the other kids. I had a good level of concentration. I was comfortable in my own skin, especially after Marco entered my life. It was definitely a comfort zone, being together, in his basement after school, sleeping over at his house on weekends, sex in Melville’s room, all of the above, and more. Most of my high school friends devoted too many minutes every day to obsessing about their every imperfection. Some of them had weight problems, eating disorders. None of them were virgins, but sex was still a mystery, an exotic flavor they had barely tasted. I had been that way before Marco entered my line of vision and being with him made me feel superior to the other girls when they talked about what they had done. Supercilious, that’s how I felt, like they didn’t know anything. Some of the girls had older lovers, friends of brothers who had gone off to college, and that was a little different. You learn things as you get older, that’s for sure, and I was learning on the job, so to speak, that was part of the adventure. There was always another level on the intensity scale. Some of the girls cut themselves to mask psychic wounds. Maybe people start wars because there isn’t enough love to go around. How could people be so alone, my mother, included, without going crazy?
I lived in anticipation—the next time I saw Marco, and the next—and that made me very efficient about everything else. I didn’t want to be with Marco and have to worry about things I hadn’t done. I wanted to be there totally, all the sweat glands, every feverish cell in my brain. I told him where to touch me—all the parts of my body were in play. His previous girlfriends had spread their legs, he had come inside them, and that was it. He had an idea there was something missing and wanted to learn, though all I really knew was from touching myself. It excited him, I think, giving me pleasure. My orgasms were continuous, with almost no time in between.
I was the salutatorian in our senior class, meaning I came in second to Lily Liang, the Chinese girl who moved to town when Marco and I were sophomores. It was no secret that Lily and Marco had slept together. They had both been virgins at the time. I wanted to ask him, “What was she like?” but I didn’t really want to know. I was jealous of her, and the mystique around her, the aura of invulnerability, if that’s what you call it, as she walked down the hallway between classes, her waist-length black hair tied in a French braid. Her tiny ass. I had fantasies, I must admit, of slipping my tongue between her legs. She was every teacher’s pet, she knew the answer to everything, she had studied English in Shanghai and her parents had a lot of money but no one really knew what her father did. Importing and exporting. It sounded kind of shady. She was hard to hate, because she didn’t really care what anyone thought about her. She was going to Princeton to study biology.
Marco and I had no illusions about carrying on a long distance relationship till death do us part. He had slept with more girls than we could count on the fingers of two hands. The same fingers he put inside me. He liked to pry me open, a little bit at a time. We always wondered if anyone could hear us. On the floor of Melville’s office, in the basement of Marco’s house. Sometimes in my room when my mother was at work. He had fucked Lily Liang, the valedictorian, and then moved on to me, the salutatorian, as if he was slumming. According to the internet, today, fifteen years later, she has a job doing research for a pharmaceutical company in Teaneck, New Jersey. There’s more than one Lily Liang out there, but I’m sure it’s her. There’s her picture on the company webpage, still looking like a teenager. She liked to walk around school in a short skirt and pigtails. She’d sit in the front row of all her classes, her legs slightly apart. I heard that her father was in jail for tax evasion. That must have been hard on her. Whenever I’d go home from college, I’d hear all the town gossip. Marco, last I heard, was living in a town north of San Francisco, with his wife and two children. A third child died, and both of his parents are dead as well. Another couple, with young children, are living in his old house. I walk past it sometimes, a dead zone filled with ghosts, cigarette smoke, used condoms, sweat. We sprayed peach-scented air freshener into the four corners before we left. Marco liked early punk, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, Talking Heads. I liked Mozart. It didn’t matter. The music made a low scratchy hum in the back of my brain as I lit a candle and climbed on top of him.
Marco drove me into the city. He rented a van and we loaded it with cartons of books, CDs, a lamp, my electric typewriter. I was still a few years away from buying my first computer. Phillipa, my roommate in the dorm, had a word processor—the first one I’d seen. I swore to myself I’d never get one. There was a futon on the floor, a desk that had seen better days, and a mahogany bureau with a broken handle on the bottom drawer. There was plaster peeling from the ceiling and a window facing the other side of another building, perfect for spying on people late at night. I had never been in New York for more than a few days and only one time without one of my parents. I had taken out as many loans as possible to make this happen. Obviously, I needed some new things, especially a new bed. Marco eyed everything suspiciously. He had barely spoken on the four-hour drive into the city. I knew what he was thinking. I was abandoning him, leaving him behind. Even if that’s not what I was doing, that’s what it felt like. He felt sad; I felt guilty. Selfish. I was entering a new reality, with new people, all the senior boys foaming at the mouth at the thought of the new freshman girls.
Philippa was in the dorm room, arranging her stuff, when we showed up in the van. She offered to help us carry my boxes two flights to the third floor. I noticed the way her breasts seemed to jut out in Marco’s direction as she leaned forward to shake his hand. Her stringy brown shoulder-length hair smelled like chamomile and it occurred to me that Marco would have no problem finding a new girlfriend after I was gone. Here was Philippa, practically offering up her body at a moment’s notice. I wondered if she had washed her hair because she knew I was coming with Marco. I had told her on the phone, the night before, that I was driving into the city with my boyfriend, but he wasn’t sleeping over. I still considered Marco my boyfriend, in the present tense. I experienced a moment of clairvoyance, as the future without Marco unfolded in front of me, all the young women of the world kneeling at his feet. He would torture them just like he tortured me when I wanted him to go faster and he would move even more slowly. I observed Phillipa looking at Marco’s ass as he lifted the boxes from the back of the van. Her teeth were whiter than mine and she wore black ballet slippers on her tiny feet and a gauzy black skirt that swayed around her knees. It was like she had dressed up to meet Marco, her nipples like smudges poking through her sleeveless blouse. Her breasts were larger than mine, by a lot. Marco, to his credit, barely looked in her direction. We had made love the night before, but only because I insisted. He acted like he just wanted to get it over and done. Then he turned his back to me and fell asleep. “It’s really over,” he was making this clear, without saying anything. “You’re going to meet someone else. By this time next week I’ll be a distant memory.” Of course he didn’t say this, but I could read his mind, as he hauled the boxes up the stairs, two at a time, lowered them to the floor of my room, and turned around, without a word, and went downstairs for more.
Why was I obsessing about Phillipa? Maybe this is what went on in the big city. So many people, so many possibilities. She walked ahead of us up the stairs so Marco could see up her skirt, if he wanted to. I wondered what her boyfriends were like and what it would be like to wake up with a strange guy drinking coffee at the tiny formica kitchen table, looking me over, my breasts hanging out of the top of my nightgown as if I was ready for anything. Every person was a possible lover, every other person a threat. You had to hold your lover by the leash, tightly, and never let go.
There was something else happening to me that I had a hard time talking about with Marco. I wasn’t interested in finding a new boyfriend. Or anyone. At least, that wasn’t my primary concern. Alongside all the sex during my senior year in high school I had become addicted to the rush that accompanied learning anything new. Assimilating new facts, new ideas, was like ingesting a controlled substance. One day an enterprising pharmaceutical company would make it available over the counter. I could feel my whole body shifting, every time it happened, all the components in my brain adjusting to accommodate a new bit of knowledge, and how that changes everything, so what I thought I knew was just one layer, and there was always something new to uncover, a connection between two things, or two people, or two books, that no one had seen before, another angle of incidence, a bayou hidden away in the depths of the woods, a secret tributary. That was the nature of addiction; I could actually feel myself changing, like stepping off a sidewalk into the unknown. I liked books, I still like books better than machines. It was 1997 and I was looking forward to long hours in the NYU library, not to mention the reading room at the New York Public Library, the 42nd Street branch, with the lions out front. I’d seen pictures but I’d never been inside.
The hardest thing I did in my short life was say goodbye to Marco. On the drive down I had a daydream the dorm room would be empty and we could make love one more time. I wanted to ask Marco what he was thinking, try to get him to talk, but I knew all the answers to all the questions, and I didn’t want him to hate me. He knew, better than I, the significance of what I was doing. He once asked me, as we walked up the steps to Melville’s room, whether I thought he’d be the only person I’d ever fuck. That’s how he said it. Can I imagine doing this with anyone else?
“I’ll never fuck anyone but you,” I said, incredible as it seems. And I meant it. The words were written in stone.
Nothing would ever be the same. I no longer had the keys to Melville’s house. We no longer lived fifteen minutes walking distance from each other. There was the dilapidated house he lived in with his mother and disabled father. He would drive back up the Taconic Parkway, and that’s where he’d be. Sometimes we’d sneak into the basement, avoiding the first floor bedroom where Marco’s father spent most of his time. Ruth, Marco’s mother, was at work. Marco would go into the house and tell Marina, the Russian nurse, that he was home, just so she wouldn’t get scared if she heard strange moaning sounds coming from the basement. I would undress and get under the sheets. My favorite songs that year were Sonic Youth’s “Superstar” and Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” I had a Sonic Youth poster on the wall of my bedroom. I even made a trip to see them in Boston.
But now it’s all over. I stood on the sidewalk outside the dorm on 3rd Street, my new home, and watched the van until it turned the corner. Marco had no interest going for coffee or staying in the city any longer than necessary, and neither of us wanted a long goodbye.
“Call me when you get back,” I said, “just so I know you’re home safely.” But he never did.
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.