Most mornings I’m awake at seven, whether I’m sleeping over at Robert’s apartment or not. Sometimes we make love in the morning; more often, as time passes, when we go to sleep, we’re too exhausted to do anything except roll into one another’s arms, or turn on our sides, away from one another, without even saying good night. Some nights I stay up late and prepare for my classes in the living room. I always bring my laptop when I stay over at his place. I keep a notebook where I write down ideas about the books I’m reading, or things I want to write about, in some distant future when I have all my time to myself, an unexpected train of thought that takes me down a dark alley in a city where I’ve never been, not even in my dreams. When I was an undergraduate, I frequently stayed up all night, sitting at my desk, and rarely fell asleep before the first light of dawn. “How many dawns...,” Hart Crane wrote, the opening lines of his masterpiece, “The Bridge,” which I think about every time I take the train from Manhattan to Brooklyn. How many mornings did I watch the sun come up over the East River, the projects on Avenue D?
My first year in New York I lived in the dorms at NYU, but after that I always had my own apartment. At first I shared it with roommates. Then I moved to a smaller place and lived by myself. The same place I live now.
I spent endless mornings on the roof of my building, with my roommates, Nora and Louisa, they were also students at NYU. Nora was a psychology major; Louisa was studying art history. Sometimes they had boyfriends sleep over; sometimes they slept together. They had known each other for a few years before I entered the picture. They needed someone to rent a room in their apartment on 3rd Street between Avenues B and C. The rent was $1500 a month, divided by three, utilities not included, almost reasonable at the time. It was fall 1998, a lifetime ago, or so it seems, before 9/11, before George W. Bush, before the invasion of Iraq. In mid-August of 1997, the year I graduated high school, I rented a mini-van and drove down from the Berkshires. Marco, my high school boyfriend, helped me pack the van, and rode with me into the city. I tried to pretend the move to New York wasn’t going to change anything about our relationship, but he wasn’t buying it.
“You can visit me on weekends,” I said. “We can take turns. You can come down one weekend, I can visit you the next.”
Not a workable plan, and we both knew it. Who was I kidding?
The city made Marco feel defensive. He was a short, wiry guy, with a two-day stubble, who wore jeans and plaid shirts, sometimes T-shirts pulled tight across his chest. I liked to bury my face in the hair on his chest. He never wore anything else, except at graduation when (at his mother’s insistence) he wore a jacket and a striped tie and a white shirt with the top button open. It was almost a hundred degrees on graduation day. He had beautiful eyes.
The air was clogged with all the foul odors that had accumulated over the centuries. I could hear a foghorn in the distance. Marco tried to act casual; in two weeks, I assured him, the shortest of time, I would take the bus back to the Berkshires, where our families lived, where we had gone to high school. We became lovers early in our senior year. He was my first boyfriend, though I’d been tempted before. Marco confessed that he once got drunk at a party and had sex with Sonia Cooke, a tall blonde with legs that went on forever. Even I had a fantasy about having sex with Sonia Cooke. She was a senior who liked to seduce the younger boys, thirteen and fourteen, the freshmen and sophomores, all the baby-faced virgins. “They’ll always remember me,” she liked to say. “I was their first.”
Instead of being jealous, I envied Marco for getting that close to her.
Time was against us. The likelihood of spending your life with someone you met in high school was practically nil. It happens, I know, but not often. It had been stupid of us to fall in love so early. My parents didn’t approve of our relationship so I’d sleep over at his house on weekends. They couldn’t say anything as long as it wasn’t happening under their own roof. That was their decision. Marco’s parents didn’t care; I think they liked having me around. Some days we had sex after school in the basement; then, when his mother came home from work, I stayed for dinner. His father spent most of his time in his bedroom. Sometimes Marco and I sat on the side of his bed playing gin rummy or Scrabble in the fading autumn light until he dozed off. His mother, Ruth, was amazed that anyone wanted to spend so much time with her son.
“You really like him?” she asked me, in semi-confidence, as she poured herself a glass of Pinot Grigio (“would you like some?”) in the late evening, after dinner, while Marco was out wheeling his father around the block. She tilted the wine box over the rim of an old jam jar and handed it to me.
Delores was a problem. She had lived in the Berkshires all her life. She had gone to Hollywood, briefly, because a friend of a friend had offered her an audition for a movie, but it didn’t work out, an old story, and she ended up in bed with the director, anyway, and then with an agent, who was married to someone else. It made you want to cry. There was no way of hanging onto your beauty in the back of a bar with another out of work actor or actress but that’s what she did almost every night and it didn’t matter if she didn’t know the name of the person sleeping beside her. She began taking pills as a form of survival; some of the pills made it seem like time was passing quickly, as if she was on an express train hurtling into the night, from one city to the next. Another pill slowed everything down, like she was sitting in the back of a taxi in rush hour traffic at a red light, with the meter running, and it didn’t matter whether the light ever turned green while the cab inched forward into the fog. A combination of pills and she could stay awake for days at a time. It didn’t matter whether she ate or not. Didn’t matter about the men who knelt over her in the dark. Who bit into her skin. Who hissed in her ear. Who poured the dregs of Love Potion #9 over her breasts. Her story was not an unfamiliar one. Girl from small town comes to big city—“seeking fame and fortune.” She had become a cliché no one cared about because they had heard it all before. Beauty fades. Shakespeare says it best in The Sonnets. And that was her problem. One of them, anyway. She had to look in the mirror each day. There was no way of denying that she was becoming another person, remote from herself, and that she no longer knew, or understood, the person looking back at her, not to mention the person lying in bed across the room, with the windows open and the frayed curtains billowing upwards and the two glasses on the bureau and the bucket of melted ice from the night before.
Back home, after two years on the West Coast, she married Anthony, Marco’s father, a gambler, an alcoholic, a dope dealer, a chain smoker, a mistake in the eyes of everyone except Ruth Rigemente, shortened to del Rio, as she sat in the casting director’s office and crossed her legs.
Anthony Randazzo had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995, when Marco was a junior in high school. He was the reason Marco was reluctant to leave town. There was no money to hire round-the-clock nurses and he didn’t trust his mother, who was too consumed by her fantasy life, all the things that never happened, to pay close attention to her husband’s needs. And he needed a lot. The pills he took made him horny and he would catch my scent as soon as I entered his room.
“Sit here,” he said, putting his hand on my bare knee. I swatted it away and moved a few inches along the side of the bed until I was out of reach.
Marco and I had serious talks about our families. We created a little cocoon-world for ourselves, a tent under the blankets where we could touch each other in the time lapse between dusk and dawn. I liked to lick the sweat off his shoulder and move my mouth down his chest. I could see his ribs under his skin and a scar on his right shoulder where he fell out of a second story window when he was twelve after he had been caught smoking dope at a party. The parents of the person giving the party came home early and he was trying to escape for fear they would inform his own parents, and there was no denying the smell of dope in the air as his arm and shoulder hit the ground and he felt all the bones loose and floating beneath his skin. I liked to drive around naked in the front seat of his car just to prove I could do it. We parked near Lake Buel, not far from Great Barrington, and I would open his pants while the frogs chirped nearby and someone across the lake set off a firecracker that exploded as he came inside me. There was a night when I knelt on the sand and he did something he never did before that became the thing we liked to do all the time until I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t go to the bathroom, could barely sit in a chair without feeling him inside me. There was everyone else on the planet—including our parents and closest friends—and then there was us. There were all the people we saw on TV who looked like Martians. I wondered if Marco talked to his friends about everything we did together, whether he bragged to them about all the hours we spent having sex, and in every position, or whether he protected me, my so-called reputation, as if that mattered to anyone. Everyone talked about everyone else, non-stop, just like they do in academia, which sometimes resembles a small town, a small circle of people who gossip and vie for power, where people make mistakes and are never forgiven. There was a rumor that Ms. Carson, the high school librarian, and the French teacher, Monsieur Lavallee, were having an affair. One night Marco and I waited outside Monsieur L’s house, just to see what happened. We didn’t have to wait long before Ms. Carson’s late model Honda pulled into the driveway. We knelt outside the living room window watching them undress. They didn’t turn off the lights or close the blinds. They couldn’t even wait to remove their clothing and go upstairs to the bedroom. Seeing them fucking on the living room rug was not as interesting as we thought it would be. Why watch other people when you can do it yourself?
Of course, seeing them through the window only made us want to do it more. Pornography has never interested me; looking and touching were worlds apart. Marco confessed that he used to jerk off to pictures of naked women in magazines. His father had whole archives of back issues of Playboy and Hustler in the basement. Getting moldy by the minute. But his father would never look at them again, for any purpose. Marco and I felt older than we were, like we could do anything we wanted as long as we stayed together. There was a velvet curtain hanging between us and the rest of the world that protected us from all the sadness and depression we saw everywhere. Our parents, friends, teachers—no one was immune.
On weekend nights, we’d fall asleep at two or three in the morning, and then wake up at the first light and start all over again. All I have to do is climb on top of him and all he has to do is pry me open. It seems like it isn’t enough, like there’s never enough, like there has to be more that we can do. First thing in the morning we reach for each other. We had liberated all the points of contact between our bodies and there was no turning back. All I have to do is reach out and put him inside me. There were things we wanted to do together, places to go. It was a big experiment, with love at the center. And trust. Everything we tried was new. We invented new positions, as if we were on a mission to experience everything. We knew the chances of being together forever were less than zero and that it was important to do as much as possible in the time that remained. We put a mirror at the foot of the bed. That was one of my favorite things. I was on my knees, staring into my own face, my breasts, only a few inches away. All I had to do was say “Yes” or “please” and he would probe me, then enter me, and I would move back against him, then close my eyes the moment the pain became too intense, gasping as if I had asthma and needed an inhaler to get through the day, but it was only him, jarring me into the wakefulness of what it felt like to be alive.
Marco was staying behind in Massachusetts. I was leaving. You could say it differently, but it would amount to the same thing. We had seen each other every day for most of the last year. He was planning to take classes at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, so he could live at home and take care of his father, who couldn’t even recognize Marco when he brought him coffee in the morning, and his alcoholic mother, in denial of everything, who couldn’t take care of her husband alone (though she insisted otherwise).
“You don’t have to stay here with me,” she would tell him. “Go to New York with your girlfriend.”
She didn’t try to hide the sarcasm, the bitterness of someone who had taken one wrong turn after another, and who had no one to blame but herself. She knew I was leaving and could barely look at me, in the waning days of summer, when I entered the kitchen in my flimsy nightgown after spending the night in Marco’s room, my bony arms protruding through the sleeves, and she emerged fully dressed from the alcove where she lay awake half the night. Without makeup, Delores looked older than her forty-eight years. Much older. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The deep pockets beneath her eyes, the sunken cheekbones, the gray streaks in her hair. Marco showed me photos of her when she was eighteen. She had won some kind of beauty contest at a local fair and there she was in her black and white striped one-piece bathing suit, on a makeshift stage, receiving her award from a middle-aged man in a fedora. Anthony slept in an adjoining bedroom downstairs, but with the door locked from the outside so he couldn’t wander around in the dark. The greatest fear was that he’d fall and shatter his wrist or shoulder. What I loved about Marco, of course, was his willingness to take responsibility for both of his parents at a time when he should have been creating a life of his own. We talked about it endlessly. He encouraged me to leave; at the same time, he couldn’t hide his real feelings. And it was just as bad for me. I wanted to leave; I wanted to stay just to be with him. We were convinced we would never find anyone else; that we had reached a high point, and from here it was all downhill. I said, trying to find the right words, “We can put it on hold,” meaning our relationship, and he just shook his head. He didn’t want to talk about the future. We knew there was a good chance we would grow up and become strangers.
I had to get away from my parents. I tried not to think of Marco’s future. After his father died, then what? His mother could live on for decades and drag him down with her. I couldn’t imagine him walking out on her. He was frightened of losing me; at the same time, he knew he had to let me go. He had done poorly in high school and had few options when it came to college. Doing what he wanted was on the back burner. He acted vague, and dubious, about what that might be. He had doubts about his ability to do anything. He played bass guitar but was he good enough to be in a band? He liked writing poetry, which I encouraged. He had a poem in the high school literary magazine dedicated to me. I still have it. He wrote songs to me, rhyming, in one of them, “muff,” “puff,” and “bluff.” Marco didn’t like to procrastinate. He was interested in the vita activa, a term used by Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Condition, which I read as an undergraduate, years before I met Robert. I could see Marco living in New York, a union rep, perhaps, a man with a beard and thick leathery skin. I liked to imagine what he looked like in the future, his chin jutting out in defiance as he moved among the passive and mostly weak denizens of this planet, urging them on to better things.
The Rail is proudly serializing Delusions of Being Observed by Lewis Warsh from the Oct ’16 issue through the Winter of ’18. Please join us every month for a new installment.