Now he says he’s almost finished with his book about Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, but I don’t know whether to believe him. He seems to be drinking more, a combination of wine, beer and bourbon passing out on the couch before we even get into bed. And that’s just the time we spend together: who knows what he does when I’m not around. Once he fell asleep when we were watching the eleven o’clock news (it was the week before Hurricane Sandy) and I had to wake him and practically carry him into the bedroom and take off his clothes. It made me feel I’d gone from being his lover to being his nurse. It was a wake-up call, confirming everything I’d been feeling without realizing it. This is the future if we stay together. It’s only been a year since we met on the subway, but everything is different. (“It’s our one-year anniversary,” I say, and offer to take him out to dinner, “somewhere special,” but he never even looks up from his book, it’s beneath him to consider “anniversaries” as if they meant something, all the sentimental bourgeoise customs which he’s spent his whole life trying to avoid, but sometimes I think he’s just being lazy, it’s too much trouble to even pretend one thing is more important than something else, and I wonder if I disappeared from his life how long it would take him to find someone new, how long before he struck up a conversation with a stranger, just like he did with me—he should be so lucky.) Once I woke up at three in the morning and he was sitting naked on the couch in the living room smoking a joint, listening to Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto in the dark. Some time during the year we’ve been together he stopped caring about the way he looks. He’s on extended leave from his teaching job so he doesn’t have to appear in public except when he travels to a distant city and delivers a lecture on Heidegger and Arendt. Otherwise, he never has to go anywhere, each day is the same, he can spend the afternoon at his desk or wander the streets, sit in an out-door cafe near his apartment and stare at the passersby, or strike up a conversation with the waitress, her hoop earrings, her orange taffeta skirt. The tattoo of a hawk or an eagle adorning her wrist.
The deadline for turning in his book has come and gone and he’s worried if he doesn’t finish it soon he’s going to have to forfeit part of his advance. There’s the fine print in his contract he never bothered to read. He likes to pretend none of this means anything, and talks a lot about never teaching again, not if he can help it, and possibly his book on Heidegger and Arendt will become a best-seller and he’ll be able to live on the royalties. He’s always inventing something to worry about. His hair is falling out, he has a cold sore in the corner of his mouth, cramps in his legs from bad circulation when he rolls over in the middle of night. His sister Francine calls and asks him for a favor but he doesn’t tell me what. Every time he gets off the phone he shakes his head in disbelief (“What the fuck do they want from me?”) He wakes me when he can’t sleep to tell me his dreams and then I can’t go back to sleep and stare at the ceiling for a long time and try not to think about my observation, only a few weeks away, and whether I really want to devote my life to academia, now until forever, even though I love teaching, I still get a rush of excitement mixed with anxiety when I cross the threshold of the classroom and the students look up at me (though most of them are staring at their phones, and aren’t even aware than I’m there, or that class is about to begin). A tenured professor with a pension—I should be happy at the prospect. A year-long sabbatical every six years. I want to do something else that doesn’t involve teaching, but I’m not sure what. And then I think about Natalie, who emails me every day from Provincetown, and the calm afternoons we spent watching the snow fall over the ocean, and all the seabirds at the water’s edge, the wind chimes all morning and night, the way her eyes changed from blue-green to yellow-brown as the light disappeared from the sky, her dark red lipstick, the way she removed the ribbon from her high blonde ponytail and her hair toppled over her naked back. It’s the only place, when I’m there, with her, that I feel like doing my own writing. The person who wrote poetry in high school and read the poems to her lover on the floor of Melville’s house. The person who burned all her stories during her sophomore year in college. For a few moments, staring out at the snow from the desk in Natalie’s living room, the flakes falling like glitter on a frozen parade, I can remember the person I used to be, ferocious, insatiable, ready for anything, and everyone else feels like a person in disguise going through the motions.
And then I think about the hurricane that’s coming our way.
And then about Marco, in a town north of San Francisco with wife and three children, who I haven’t seen in ten years.
And Melville, living out a life of anonymity on the streets of New York City, walking from his apartment at 104 E. 26th Street to his office on Gansevoort Street. No longer even writing poems but sometimes secretly writing something, a fragment, a journal entry, the odds and ends of a story he would never finish. He had turned into someone unimaginable as well. How many years after he died before someone discovered the manuscript of Billy Budd? It had been sitting there, in a box on his desk, all that time. I had seen the actual box in the archives of The Pittsfield Atheneum, not far from Arrowhead, Melville’s house on Holmes Road, a place I knew intimately. I’ll go back there some day.
Long gone were the days when Robert and I made love as soon as I walked in the door of his apartment. We stand in the alcove near the front door kissing and I open his belt and yank his pants down over his knees. Sometimes I kneel at his feet and lower his pants down over his ankles then toss them aside. Then I lift my skirt, and climb on top of him. All the immeasurable feelings of desire that had built up over the days or hours since we last saw one another overflowed in those first few minutes of being together behind a locked door. It sometimes felt like the main purpose in life was to preserve this feeling, to never let it go. I didn’t like to think it was impossible to sustain, but I knew it was just a matter of time before my little dream dissolved around me, and desire became something that fluctuated depending on the mood, the weather, the time of day. That we would never feel exactly the same thing at the same time as we did now. It was like the ultimate moment, the feeling everyone wants. The tongue, the whole mouth, the teeth gnawing into the skin.
Long gone are the days when I would think about him when we weren’t together, when I would replay in my mind all the important moments, from the first time we met on the subway and the first night he slept over at my apartment, walking me home after that coffee at The Reggio and then following me up the staircase, our first kiss on the landing, and what it felt like to wake up and see this stranger sleeping beside me. It’s been months since he slept over. He says it’s more “convenient” for us to meet at his place, since it means he doesn’t even have to get dressed if he doesn’t want to. Long gone the evenings I made dinner for him and he would arrive with a bottle of good Bordeaux but first we made love and it would be my turn to sit in the chair in the kitchen with my legs on his shoulders while he knelt on the floor with his head between my thighs. We would eat by candlelight, Satie’s piano études in the background. Now, instead of going out to restaurants we order take-out. There’s a good natural food restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, Village Natural. Sometimes a pizza from Giovanni’s on Tenth. We sit in front of the TV and watch the news while we eat. Long gone are the days we showered together or had sex in the first light of dawn, rolling into each others arms while we were still half-asleep.
I offer to read his book and give him feedback but he just shrugs and says he’d like to read parts of it aloud to me, if that’s all right, but only when it’s ready. All he thinks anyone cares about is the sex between Heidegger and Arendt; that he actually knows what went on between them when they were together behind the locked door of his office at the University of Freiburg or when he visited Hannah in her room with the slanted ceiling and a candle on the bedside table. That he’d uncovered a secret file of documents describing everything that happened, down to the last kiss, while all he’s done is read secondary sources, and added his own imaginary version, closer to fiction than the truth. I can imagine him flying from one airport to another, sipping bourbon through a straw, ogling the flight attendants, striking up a conversation with the woman sitting beside him, exchanging email addresses with the hope that their paths will miraculously cross again. I imagine the young graduate assistant, eyes puffy from lack of sleep, who meets him at the airport and drives him to the hotel. “If you need anything while you’re here”—she tears a page from her spiral notebook and writes her name and number—“I’m the person to call.”
He turns off the TV and rolls over onto his side of the bed. There’s a party happening in the apartment upstairs, the ceiling is trembling, the bass throbbing in my brain, people stomping their feet in time to an old disco record. It occurs to me I could get dressed and return to my apartment and try to prepare for my class tomorrow—on the nights I stay over we sometimes go out for breakfast, though less frequently than we did did in the early days—but instead I go to the living room, light a cigarette in the dark, and remember the night Marco and I went swimming naked in Laurel Lake outside Lee, one town over from Lenox. Sometimes you have to retreat into the past as a way of defending yourself from the present. An avenue of escape to a moment where you felt real, where you weren’t questioning what you were doing or where you were. I want everything to be real with Robert but know I’m expecting too much. Or am I?
All I have to do is walk out the door.
Every action can be broken down into a series of smaller actions. Every action is a kind of event. The butter melting on the bread. It’s happening right now. You can see it happening, but you have to look closely. If you pause for a moment and turn off your mind and look at one thing for awhile then you see the small changes that occur. The way you stand on the shore and watch the sun sink over the horizon. It’s good to do this with drink in hand, a mai tai or a pina colada. You take a sip, stare at the round ball of fire, so close, so far, all the other people standing on the shore, just like you, all of them on vacation, some of them surrounded by small children, the different layers of color, bands of red, pink, yellow, a surfer riding the last wave back to shore. Robert and I made tentative plans to visit Maui, a place he’d been to with his ex-wife (the mystery writer Cody Walker who I met at his mother’s funeral) but it never happened. I can make a long list of all the things we said we might do during the time we were together, which, in retrospect, doesn’t seem like much time at all. I keep going back to the moment when we first set eyes on one another in the subway, whoever I was at that moment, confused, awkward, regretful, fearless—all these things and more—and how, after coffee, he walked me across town in the rain, it had started raining just as we left Caffe Reggio on Macdougal Street, and then came upstairs. I would meet people this way when I was younger, when I first came to New York, and I missed my boyfriend Marco, who was still living in Lenox. Sometimes I would get out of bed at two in the morning and go down to a bar and find someone. It could by anyone. And now it was half a lifetime later, it was the middle of night, and all I could think about was the upcoming observation in my American literature seminar which had been postponed because of the hurricane. I had sex with the person who was observing me, Ray DeForest, who was now the chair of the English Department. We only slept together once, in the bed in my apartment, and then fooled around a few days later in my office, and that was it. He wanted to continue, but I put an end to it before it became more serious, not realizing he was already serious, already talking about getting a divorce from his wife. Talking about having children, assuming this was what I wanted as well. No matter how careful I am, I still make some mistakes. I’ve made some bad choices. It’s important to take a few risks—at least that’s what I tell myself—even if you make a mistake. Even if you make all the same mistakes over again.
And now I had to add Robert to the list of mistakes, though I don’t like to use that word. Natalie was writing me every day and I made the decision to spend the winter break in Provincetown. I had already told her—she would meet me in her car at the Providence train station—but I didn’t have the nerve to tell Robert. It wasn’t his business whether I was seeing Natalie or not. I felt inhibited around him. Not the person I want to live with the rest of my life, if that’s what I’m looking for. I’m content being alone—I have to admit that. I’m my own best company, sometimes, and it’s hard to measure the relief I feel when I close the door of my apartment behind me. I still have the bewildering thought of writing a book of stories or a novel of my own. I know my main talent is writing about what others have done but I still hold out some meager hope there’s a creative gene lying dormant and I have a story to tell someone might want to read. It has to do with Marco, if nothing else, on the floor of Melville’s room. At least that’s a place to start, a point of departure. I can play that movie in my head, time after time. Mount Greylock looming in the moonlight at the window above Melville’s desk. That was something.
And after the observation was over, after Ray DeForest came to my graduate seminar on Melville and Poe, and there were only a few weeks left in the semester, I knew it was just a matter of time before I ended it all, told Robert it was over and that I never wanted to see him again, just so he didn’t harbor any illusions. Just a matter of time before I boarded the train to Providence, before Natalie met me at the station and we drove into the cold bleak late afternoon sunlight back to her house overlooking the ocean, back to her room, and into her bed.
I was on the subway returning home from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinking about Natalie, and feeling drowsy from the motion of the subway car as it moved from station to station, like I couldn’t keep my eyes focused on the words in the book open on my knees. I’d been up late the night before, then I taught a class in the morning, and then I took the subway uptown to the overheated museum, something I did frequently when I first came to New York, but less and less as I become a jaded New Yorker, too lazy to take a subway ride uptown on a midweek afternoon. Natalie had called earlier that morning from Provincetown and left a message and I was looking forward to talking to her later that night. We had been together for two years, the longest I’ve been with anyone. There were parts of my life that seemed to be moving forward in a way I could easily understand and there were other parts that were invisible to the naked eye and made me wonder about myself and whether I had reached any better understanding of why I did or didn’t do anything and whether the warring factions inside me had called a truce, at least for awhile. It was the way I used to feel when I woke up in a strange apartment and didn’t know the name of the person sleeping beside me. For a long time, when I first came to New York, I would meet people at bars, guys mostly, I would see someone sitting alone, pockmarked face and nicotine stains on his fingers, and I’d start a conversation, knowing I’d have to take the initiative if I wanted something to happen, and that meant drinking even more than usual, like I was a gift-wrapped present, and it was up to them, whoever it was in the dim overhead light, to untie the ribbon and look inside. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” one of them said. One of the few who promised to “get in touch” but never did.
Here I am, a Wednesday afternoon, warm for late October, with rain in the air, viewing a show of Paul Klee’s small drawings and water colors and collages in a corner of the museum. I loved his etchings, how he let his child-self take over while his conscious mind was also at work. It was a small show and there was no one else there so I could stand in front of each of the drawings without feeling rushed. I had once met someone in the museum and we went out a few times, but not today.
If you were making a movie of the moment Robert and I met on the subway, you could focus the camera on both of our faces, one at a time, as we start talking to one another across the aisle. At first I act like I’m just taking a few seconds away from my book to acknowledge his presence, but then I realize something else is happening, and the armor surrounding my body slips away like a veil. It’s a familiar feeling, like I’m suddenly naked, open to anything that might happen. I fold the book face down on my lap and there he is, looking up from his own book, and smiling.
Amber eyes. Fingernails bitten to the quick. Ears like small jug handles. Tobacco stained teeth. Gaunt. Florid complexion. Square-shouldered. Eyes hooded and cloudy. Tiny blue veins in his nose. A stubborn chin.
It’s like his voice, from across the aisle, stirs me out of my lethargy. The subway car is almost empty. There’s an old Chinese woman with a shopping bag sitting to his left and a young Arab man listening to music on his Ipod. It’s just a matter of time before we climb the steps out of the West Fourth Street subway station, near the basketball courts, into an early autumn day on 6th Avenue. He might have said, “Shall I walk you home?,” but he didn’t. He didn’t even ask for my address. We could have parted ways right there before anything else happened. There’s a moment when you realize that everything you did that day is leading up to this moment which might change your life forever if you let it. There’s always a first time for anything. You never know. I’m not a cynical person, that’s for sure. I don’t feel bitter about my life, though not much has happened. Sometimes it seems like a lot to me. I haven’t traveled much, that’s one thing. I don’t like traveling alone. The guy on the subway asks if I want to have coffee at Caffe Reggio around the corner. Then he can walk me home, if I like. Part of me wants to forego the coffee and go straight home. Why put it off? We could even take a cab. But he seems to want to talk about something first, so we go for coffee in the crowded cafe, the waitress with too much eye make up and the tattoo of a rose on her arm, and then we walk home to my apartment on East 9th. It’s a long walk and it starts raining along the way, but not heavily. I no longer live in that apartment. My life is different now. Then we go to bed and doze off and make love a second time and then he leaves. It’s close to midnight when he walks out the door. I let him make the choice between staying the night and leaving. A few days later we see each other again, this time at his place. We need time to digest what happened. A few emails in between but no conversation. It takes me about twenty-four hours to forget what his voice sounds like and even his face begins to fade into the distant landscape like a cowboy riding out into the sunset, one last time. For a moment, as he walks out the door that first night, I have a premonition we might never see each other again, and I’m only half-surprised when he sends me an email the next morning, and we make a date for dinner at a restaurant near his house, right across town. Most of the time, for that whole year, we sleep over at his place, two or three or times a week. We never discuss the possibility of living together, not even in jest. Think of all the money we would save on rent if we share an apartment. Share, he would say, like roommates? But we never have that conversation. Sometimes, when I visit him, he stays in his room and works on his book about Heidegger and Arendt, while I grade student papers at the kitchen table. In the beginning, we couldn’t take our hands off each other. I ring the downstairs buzzer and he lets me in. I don’t have a set of keys, either to the downstairs door or the door to his apartment. Sometimes I walk up the five flights; more often, I take the elevator. We were together almost a year. He never offered to give me a key.
A few weeks after I met Robert on the subway, I told Natalie what had happened. I didn’t want to live a double life that involved lying to everyone, including myself. I was tired of secrets. I never told anyone I had slept with Ray DeForest. I no longer went to bars late at night looking for people who would leave as soon as we fucked. As soon as it was over. I didn’t really mind. You have to pay some dues in this life, and each person sets his or her own limit. Sometimes your credit rating goes down if you push too hard. Most of the time I was glad the person was leaving. He was returning home to his wife, no doubt, with a secret of his own.
It’s early December. The semester will be over in a few days.
“Professor Robbins,” the observation begins, “devoted her class to a discussion of ‘Bartleby the Scriviner’ by Herman Melville.”
Ray DeForest puts a copy of the written observation in my mailbox. He’s supposed to consult me before he adds it to my file.
“There were twelve students in the seminar and all of them were involved in class discussion. All of them had obviously read the text and were eager to share their responses. Professor Robbins has implanted in them the idea of ‘close reading’ and sometimes they spent too much time on small details when they could have been looking at the larger picture. From the syllabus, it’s clear that Professor Robbins has provided enough background material to understand Melville’s world at the time he wrote ‘Bartleby,’ and about Melville’s life in general, his relationship to Hawthorne and Poe. There was much discussion about the plight of the artist and how no one cared about Melville’s writing at the time of his death.
“Professor Robbins does a good job involving all the students in class discussion. And the students seemed to be genuinely engaged and interested in what she has to say. She is well-organized, well-prepared, and certainly well-versed in her subject matter. If she tends to go off on tangents, she is also skillful in making out of the box connections, especially when considering the relevance of a work like ‘Bartleby’ to the politics of the present. All in all, this was a successful class, and Professor Robbins is both thoughtful and thought-provoking in her approach to teaching. She is a definite asset to our department.”
I tried to pretend I was too busy with end of semester work to talk to anyone at school. I turned off my cell for hours at a time. The only person I talked to was Natalie. We were making plans. December 15 was our date to meet in Providence. By then I would finish reading all the last minute student work.
The heat came on in my apartment and the rush of warm air made me dizzy as the temperature outside dropped below freezing. Every night on the news there were scenes of post-hurricane destruction up and down the Jersey shore and Far Rockaway and all the streets and stores on Avenue C had been flooded as well and there was a constant stream of garbage trucks coming to haul away the debris and unhappy looking people congregating outside their storefronts.
“I think we should take some time off from one another,” I wrote in my notebook, not trusting myself to just write an email to Robert saying I didn’t want to see him again, which was only partially true. Part of me was genuinely concerned about his well-being, but more like a daughter to a father than between lovers. The person I met a year ago on the subway was a distant memory. I’ve tried to convince myself that I’ve grown up during the last year and getting back with Natalie isn’t a step in the wrong direction. A step backwards, perhaps. But I have nothing to lose.
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.
Lewis Warsh (1944–2020) was a poet, fiction writer, editor, publisher, and teacher. He authored over 35 books of poetry, fiction, and autobiography, and his book of poems Elixir, completed in 2020, & from which these poems are selected, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse.