Dear Robert, I’m sorry to be communicating with you in this way instead of talking to you in person or even on the phone, but I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, our relationship, which has lasted for more than a year. As you know. Sometimes it feels much longer—whole decades—and sometimes the shortest of intervals have passed since that fateful day we met on the B train. To be honest, I think back fondly on the day we first met, (you were reading The Wild Palms, I was reading Van Gogh’s letters to his brother), and the first days we were together, without regret about anything. I don’t like to feel regret, as I’ve often told you. Realizing I can’t talk to you honestly face to face is part of the reason I’m writing you at all. It’s part of the problem. I can talk to you about some things but never about the really important things. I’ve deleted whole segments of my life from our conversations. I’ve been a mostly passive participant in our life, and now I’m trying to speak up and say some of the things I meant to say but didn’t, even though it’s now beside the point. I’ve wanted you to like me, at least in the beginning, and I’ve wanted you to be happy, and still do. What I say doesn’t really make a difference, and never will.
Dear Robert, I hate doing this but I think we should take some time off from one another. I’ve decided to spend Christmas with an old friend in Provincetown. Not someone I’ve ever mentioned to you—she lives there all year round. I used to visit her before we met. I’ve been thinking about all this—and you—for a long time, and I’m beginning to feel helpless (hopeless) about everything, especially whatever the future holds in store. I need more time alone, need to rethink whether I want to be a teacher the rest of my life (my observation, by the way, was mostly positive, despite my anxieties about it all, which I’m not sure you were aware of—I don’t say this with hostility, but feeling ignored by you, whether it’s true or not, is part of the problem). It’s like we’re talking two different languages sometimes. People change, you’ve changed over the last year, I’ve changed as well. I need to know what I expect from a relationship, from you, if our relationship were to continue, which, I must say, I don’t think is going to happen. Sorry for being blunt, but I feel like I’ve kept my lips sealed for too long. It’s my fault, really. I should just tell you everything I want to say and if you get angry or react badly or ignore me or change the conversation then at least I’ll have the knowledge that if nothing else I tried. But something early on in our life together made me think that talking about my past, for instance, and all the things I’d like to do in the future, would be a big mistake. I have a lot of insecurities, and self-doubt, and I need someone around who’s encouraging me—not every second, but when I need it most. This seems like the least anyone can do for anyone else. Your concerns, on the other hand—your mother, your book about Heidegger and Arendt—all your needs—take center stage. I know about all the girlfriends in your past. You’ve shown me pictures of them, in fact, and I even met some of them, including your ex-wife, if you remember, at your mother’s funeral. But you’ve never gone with me on any of my visits to see my mother in Lenox. You’ve met no one in my life. It’s been a year, doesn’t that seem odd? We never talk about the future—whether we’re going to eventually live together, or whether we’re just going to keep things the way they are, sleeping together two or three nights a week. We have an arrangement, if that’s what it is, seeing each other when it’s convenient for both of us. But sometimes, when you want to see me, it isn’t convenient for me at all. Yet I do it to make you happy. I think of a relationship, I must admit, as two people trying to make each other happy. What’s the point otherwise? I can always feel you on the verge of getting angry—I can tell—if I don’t conform to your schedule, if I can’t come to your apartment when you want me to, even if I have a lot of preparation for school the night before. Even when I told you I was being observed in my class by the chair of the English Department, and how important that was for tenure, which is something you must already know, I felt you weren’t listening. I’ve tried, without much luck, to talk to you about all my concerns, even at the risk of sounding totally neurotic, especially my life as a teacher, the downside of academia, and the alternatives, whatever they are, and how I want to be a writer myself, not just someone who thinks about other people’s writing, but after awhile I just gave up. You dismiss the idea that anything I do is important, or worthy of talking about. At least that’s how I feel—whether you intend it or not. Sometimes people aren’t aware of how they’re being perceived by others, and get all defensive if someone responds negatively to what they do. It makes me angry—even if I don’t say anything—especially when I don’t say anything—and I don’t like being angry.
I feel a little angry now, but I’m trying to get over it. Meeting someone on the subway—that doesn’t happen every day. My friends didn’t believe me when I told them. It seems a little risky. I can understand meeting people in a bookstore or a museum, but the subway is so random. And there we were. I want to feel angry but I know a lot of positive things happened along the way. If not, why would we have bothered for so long? A year is not a negligible period of time. There was something in the air that made us want to keep going, even if we were at odds about where we were heading. Most of the time I felt we weren’t going anywhere. That we were just treading water, both of us too lazy to clearly see what was wrong. Sometimes I felt we weren’t so far off in terms of what we wanted. Other times it felt we were inhabiting different galaxies, with different atmospheres and eco-systems. Regardless, I’m trying not to feel angry, or resentful. My tendency is to go over things in my head ad infinitum. I think you know this about me already. I like to mull things over until the truth is revealed. Until I understand something I didn’t before. Something hidden I didn’t know about. I hope some day we can sit down and have a coffee with each other and maybe even be friends. I’m not sure this is what you want to hear, or whether you were expecting this to happen. We never made any plans for the holidays. Nothing. This is our second Christmas. Nothing. So I’m going away. I need a break from the city before I start school again. Provincetown is empty this time of year. I’ve been there before in winter, but I never told you. I wish you luck with your book. Please finish it. You’ve been procrastinating too long. Maybe if I’m out of your life it will be easier. Just finish it, dear Robert, and move on.
She looked beautiful, I must admit, against the cold backdrop of winter sunlight and an empty blue sky, maybe a few white puffs floating out into the stratosphere, leaning against her second-hand silver Mercedes with the dented fender, a cigarette between the fingers of her leather gloves. I could almost anticipate the taste of tobacco on her lips when we kissed. Strange to anticipate a moment—this scene, in particular—and then actually be there, as if I’d been rehearsing for months, and now I was walking onto a stage, or the set of a movie, existing simply in present time and there was no turning back. You can make things happen, I realize, rather than just imagine them, or wait for someone else to make a move. All you have to do is write a letter or make a call to set the wheels in motion.
The train station is located on top of a hill in downtown Providence, with the modest skyline just below. There’s always a line of cabs waiting outside the station when a train is due to arrive. I saw Natalie before she saw me. I was walking towards the door of the terminal, wheeling my suitcase behind me, moving from the shadows into the light, the crusty remains of last week’s storm piled along the curb. She was wearing a red down jacket, work boots, a green nylon bag covered with sequins over one shoulder, her face flushed from the cold. How long had she been waiting? Her hair was too blonde, almost white, and the breeze swept it like a burqa around the sides of her face, her pointy cheekbones, the hollows in her neck. She took off her beret and as she pushed her hair back from her forehead the memories of all the days and nights we ever spent together seemed to be embodied inside that single gesture, all the afternoons on the beach in winter with the wind blowing the cold spray into our faces as we walked along the edge of the ocean at Race Point. There was only so much one can do in Provincetown in winter. You could stay indoors by the fire and drink hot cider or wine or smoke dope and listen to music and read one thriller after another or the collected works of Tolstoy or Turgenev late into the night. You could walk into town in the cold, almost a mile, along the beach where the windchill factor was many degrees below zero, and then return to the world of fireplaces and baseboard heating and winter light, the hot shower, and then the aftermath on the couch with my head buried between her thighs, another glass of wine before slipping beneath the comforter. She cried a little after we made love, and then fall asleep in my arms. She slept with her hand between my legs, but after she dozed off I squirmed away. She liked to sleep with the lights on as I stared at the ceiling, thinking back on everything that had ever happened to me and how I had become this person, and was it me or someone else who was lying in this king-sized bed in this house at the edge of the world, all the paintings and drawings which Natalie’s parents had accumulated on the walls of all the rooms, and which Natalie had inherited, along with the house, it was all hers. Then we would pick up in the morning where we left off the night before. I wasn’t the first lover she had brought back to the house. Sometimes she talked about them, what had gone wrong with her past relationships, and how being with me was different.
She showed me her old photo albums. “That’s Mary,” she said, pointing to a very tall, slim, Nordic-looking girl in a one-piece bathing suit standing on the edge of a swimming pool, with the mountains in the distance. “She’s the one who threw me down a flight of stairs.”
Natalie was letting her hair grow long again, like when we first met. Sometimes I reached across the table or the bed and pushed the hair out of her eyes in the middle of a conversation so I could see the small white specks in her pupils. It was one way to measure how many prescription drugs she was consuming on any given day. Oxycodone, xanax, percodan, paxil. She hid them away in a drawer somewhere. I had other ways of knowing, the sudden mood-shifts, the irritability, the silences. Sometimes she couldn’t have an orgasm and it was all my fault, I wasn’t touching her in the right way or didn’t really love her. A shadow passed over her face, almost without warning. I never knew when I might say the wrong thing, and she never let it go, once it happened, whatever she thought I meant was the truth even if I meant something else, even if I insisted she wouldn’t let me off the hook, she was defensive about everything, beyond criticism, it was her house after all, her bed, and she would never let me forget it. Sometimes it took me awhile to have an orgasm as well and when that happened she said I was getting tired of her, that I wasn’t really a serious lesbian, for instance, and this was long before I even told her I was seeing Robert, it was an ongoing component of all our conversations. She wanted to know what I was thinking when we were making love, was I fantasizing about someone else, and sometimes she would just pass out on the couch and I would have to carry her from the living room to the bed and once I poured ice water over her head because I thought she stopped breathing. Her hair was always hiding her face like a mask and I wanted to see her eyes and hold her face in my hands and actually look inside her and find something I didn’t know, but she wouldn’t let me get that close, so she always wormed her way out of my grasp as if I was hurting her. The moment of observing her outside the train terminal—it was just a glimpse—was as close to clarity as I’d ever get. It’s easy to love someone from a distance, to admire the perfectly balanced synchronicity of light and shadow, the ultimate sign of endearment. For a second it seemed like everything was right in the world. And then it was over.
For the two years we were together she was never not preoccupied with the length of her hair, and her looks in general. It was something she talked about incessantly, and once in the middle of a fight I called her “vain” and “narcissistic” and she told me I was an “ungrateful whore” (did she really say that?) and slammed the door of my apartment on the way out. More than once, after one of our arguments, I thought it was all over, and there was something dazzling about coming back together, and the sense of relief as if the whole world had suddenly reawakened. It was spring and the ice had melted on the pond. Corny, yes, but there was a kind of violent underside to it all, and once she slapped my face and told me to go fuck myself and gathered all the possessions she had left in my apartment in a shopping bag and slammed the door. When we talked about the way she looked I realized she didn’t see what I was seeing and it was up to me to reassure her by saying “You look terrific!” about every five minutes. “Your hair really looks beautiful.” Anything. It’s like the song by The Velvet Underground, with Nico, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” That’s what I felt like, half-reflection, half-shadow, a constant enabler, frightened of telling the truth, of setting a spark that would engulf our immediate surroundings and the outlying areas, leaving devastation, as they say, in its wake. There were always sirens in the distance coming our way. Sometimes it was a false alarm and she would step back from the brink of whatever she was feeling and either burst into laughter or tears and in five minutes we would be huddled together with her fingers inside me and her other hand clamped over my mouth so I wouldn’t wake the neighbors. Or I would bring her a drink, or roll a joint, or suggest a movie—or all these things, just to distract her in some way.
I saw other women looking at her when we were on the street or in a restaurant and of course there were men who eyed her from across the room at a party or when we were sitting together on the subway. Eventually I became annoyed at how much emphasis she put on her appearance, as if that was the sum total of everything and nothing else mattered. In one breath she professed indifference about what other people thought about her, but sometimes nothing seemed more important. She was tired of the unwanted attention, or so she said, about the come ons from men who assumed (in all arrogance) she might be interested in them. She worried about giving mixed signals, or any signals at all. Maybe it’s best to send a definitive signal to the rest of the world about what you like—who you like—men or women. Maybe not. Maybe you like both. There’s too much pressure to define who you are, in those terms, as if the whole world hinged on sexual preference, on making a choice. Robert, for instance, said that he was attracted to me immediately, but it was the book I was reading, Van Gogh’s letters, that caught his eye. It was the combination of the way I looked and the book and then it was the book he was reading that caught my attention, and then I looked at him. And then we caught ourselves looking and that’s how it began. I wasn’t thinking, he said, not at first, that we would get off the subway together, and that an hour or two later we’d be in bed. It wasn’t on my mind until it was actually happening and then I realized, he told me, a few weeks later, when we already had a small history to reflect on, that I wanted it to happen. I wanted to go have coffee with you and then walk across town together. Whatever plans I had for the day, or for my life in general, evaporated in a moment, as if nothing else was important. And what else did you want? Just sex, for a few hours, with a stranger, no strings attached?
Robert wasn’t the first man who tried to pick me up during the two years Natalie and I were together. In retrospect, I should have told him about Natalie up front. What was I trying to hide? But of course, sitting in The Reggio with him, sipping the foam from the top of my cappuccino, I knew we were going to go home together, right then, that we would walk together across town back to my apartment, I would ask him if he wanted to come upstairs, and of course he would say yes. So why would I tell him I’d been sleeping with a woman for the last two years? Who knows if he would even care. Eventually not telling him became an issue. But in the hours after we met on the subway? There was no point.
Natalie and I had long talks, arguments really, about the pros and cons of loving men and women both. She felt it was important to make a commitment, to yourself and others, and that I was copping out by not choosing. That’s what she had done and what she wanted from me. She identified as a lesbian when she was in high school, but still went through the motions of going on dates with guys, having sex with them in the backseat of cars, because that’s what they wanted. Her father was Hispanic, her mother was Manhattan-born Jewish. They met in a painting class at the Provincetown Art Center. They both showed their work in galleries in New York and Boston. The house overlooking the ocean had belonged to Natalie’s grandparents, on her mother’s side, and it was worth millions.
In the weeks after we first met, I tried to tell her everything, about Marco, especially, and the year after I first came to New York, all the men I met in bars late at night. It made me depressed to think my relationship with Marco, half a lifetime ago, was the high point of my experience. All the one night stands didn’t count for much, really. I was often too drunk to remember what happened when I woke up the next morning and in most cases the guy was already gone. A roll-your-own cigarette after sex and then out the door. I didn’t really mind. It was worse when someone actually slept over and I woke up and there was this stranger who maybe wanted to have sex again. Or talk about something: his bad marriage, estrangement from his children, even his mother. All the things he wanted to do and didn’t. He would never do them, but it was someone else’s fault, the whole world conspiring against him.
Natalie couldn’t believe she was my first real girlfriend. She thought it was just an act, like I was experimenting, and she was the guinea pig, so to speak, that I’d get tired of it all soon enough and go back to my evil ways. “I could be anyone,” she liked to taunt me. We had arguments that lasted for days, long silences, followed by weeks of calm. She had dental problems, bad gums, a chronic ache in her right shoulder. She put off going to the dentist until it was too late. She made fun of me for getting my teeth cleaned three times a year. She liked her pain-killers most of all, whether she needed them or not. A doctor in Wellfleet, a friend of the family, wrote her scripts whenever she asked. She knew they were addictive, but didn’t care. They also made her paranoid. She heard something in my tone and pounced on it angrily as if she had to defend herself from all the wolves lurking in the forest, but it was only her own heart beating twice as fast, and I began to rehearse the words before I said them for fear she might mis-interpret them and start breaking things. It was a lose-lose situation, and I tried to pretend that it all wasn’t happening. Alcohol and drugs never interested me much, but I drank more than I ever did when we were together, just to keep her company, and to act like we had something in common. My only bad habit, one might say, was picking up strangers, and meeting Robert, on the subway, was like a return to the past, a response, perhaps, to everything that was going wrong with Natalie. It was like a minor chord, relatively speaking, in the big symphony which included everything else, and which was always playing in the background, life in the big city, all the random encounters whenever I dared to step outside my door. I was amazed, after meeting Robert, how receptive I felt when one day segued into the next and he was still there, sometimes in my apartment, although more often I was at his. I was able to delude myself into thinking it might last a long time despite the early warning signals which I chose to ignore. Still, all the years before Natalie, before Robert, whenever the dark clouds passed overhead, I was never tempted to medicate myself or block out the pain. I preferred taking action, even if it meant making another mistake and getting into more trouble than it was ever worth. That’s why I didn’t slam the door in Ray DeForest’s face when he showed up at my apartment uninvited one night, even if I knew going to bed with him was going to have consequences, and that chances were high I’d regret it later. Hard to deny pleasure, of any kind, when it comes knocking.
Natalie was preoccupied with her appearance. The way men of all ages came on to her, morning, noon and night. She was preoccupied by her pill intake. I knew there was more to her than all this, that she expressed curiosity about everything, and everything I was learning and doing, that she admitted ignorance, she wasn’t a faker, and that she herself was reading all the time. She deferred to me about literature, I valued her opinions about art. She studied art history at Bryn Mawr, but it had taken her awhile to graduate. She lived for months at a time in Barcelona, and then Katmandu. She followed a much older woman half-way around the world only to see their relationship go up in smoke. Then she went back to school, taking night classes, until she was done. She minored in psychology with the thought of becoming a therapist and to this day she talked about returning to school and getting an MSW so she could actually practice. I even told her I would help with the application to grad school, that the school where I taught had an excellent psychology program. You could even get a PhD if you were really ambitious, but Natalie could never get beyond the initial staging ground. She inherited enough money not to have to work; not now, or ever, and that dulled the incentive to sit in a classroom year after year, and write a thesis, a dissertation, on what—she didn’t know.
What she liked best: sitting at the living room window, overlooking the ocean, with a sketchpad on her knees. She drew mostly with pencil, forced me to pose (sometimes naked) for hours, made collages on posterboards which she framed and hung on the living room wall and above our bed. They were not very good—the portrait a vague likeness, at best—but I humored her, and encouraged her, since there was no reason not to. She had no ambitionsof making a career out of her art; it was just for pleasure.
I could always tell about the pills. Our last months together she was taking them all day, going back for more when the first pill began to wear off, and the more you took the higher the dose, one pill doesn’t do the trick, maybe two or three, or in combination with other pills, and she liked to drink coffee from the moment she woke up until after midnight when she started drinking bourbon and water. The pills made her world sharper, so she said, and without them everything was a blur. Who cared whether her emotions spiraled out of control, whether she shouted at me—or sounded annoyed—for no reason, how she apologized afterwards when I refused to talk to her, or make love, promising to cut down, or (when she was desperate) that she would stop entirely, change her life, her habits, enter re-hab if I thought it was necessary, anything I wanted.
“But you have to want to,” I said, not exactly words of wisdom. Pills brought her to a new, harsh level of insincerity, and forced me to retreat for fear of saying something I didn’t mean. Sometimes I felt all her beauty going to waste, that she was losing track of her own life, the way everything unfolds, moment to moment. She would get stuck in a thought, and there was no one way to compromise her desire for one thing and her longing for something else, whatever she couldn’t have, a person just out of reach, for instance, who didn’t care about her money, her house in Provincetown, her pill habit, her dope stash, her sexual prowess. Through it all, she had no trouble deceiving herself, and assumed she was right about everything. Sometimes she erupted when we were making love, blaming me for everything. The last thing she wanted to hear about was how she looked from a distance, or even close up, by someone who didn’t know her well. I had to parse my thoughts for fear of saying the wrong thing. It began to feel like we were just killing time. We were together because we didn’t want to be alone. And that’s when I first met Robert on the train.
Natalie’s father had taught a painting class at the Provincetown Arts Center. Her mother, Sandra, who was still alive, and lived in Boston, was also a painter, but not many people in the art world were interested in her work. She had lived inside her husband’s shadow, but not out of choice, and the marriage fell apart when he began sleeping with his students. She was playing a role that was almost a cliché. Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo, had played that role as well. Natalie was trying to catalog her mother’s work, some of it in the basement of the house in Provincetown, some of it in a storage unit in Brooklyn. There was a gallery in Provincetown that sometimes included her mother’s work in group shows, and there was a gallery owner in Boston who had been her mother’s lover, though he was at least twenty years younger, who promised her a solo show but dragged his feet when the moment arrived. It required more effort than Natalie could summon to make anything happen, and she didn’t possess the stamina to spend hours at her computer writing emails of inquiry to gallery owners, dealers and art critics, as well as her mother’s old friends. At one point she hired an assistant to do all the work, an undergrad art history major named Betsy, and I offered to help as well. Her mother was in a nursing home in Wood’s Hole, on the other side of the Cape, and I met her only once at the house in Provincetown. She eyed me coldly, as if all I wanted from her daughter was the money she would inherit some day, a gold digger in disguise, the wrong sex, useless, an academic with intellectual pretensions, someone who thought she knew more than her, and when Natalie went to the bathroom, leaving us in awkward purgatory for a few minutes, she began to cry, heaving forward on the edge of her chair as if she was going to plunge forward and tackle me on the carpet.
“Don’t you want to have a child?” she asked, as if the whole world depended on my answer. She coughed nervously, rolling her eyes like a shell-shocked veteran, and wiped the tears from her bloated face with a paper-towel. I could hear the wind chimes on the front porch as the light slipped away. My heart was beating and my blood was coursing through my veins. There was no other sound.