It started when I met Robert on the subway. Our life took place mostly indoors, occasionally in restaurants, especially in the beginning. It was the period of time when getting tenure absorbed my waking hours, even when I wasn’t thinking about it. These were the months and weeks and days before the Obama-Romney election and Hurricane Sandy, when Avenue C was underwater. I spent most of my time in Robert’s apartment, even though he had no electricity and we had to walk up 6th Avenue, from 16th Street to 27th Street, where the stores were open, then carry everything home up five flights in the darkness. There was the observation, which I knew was going to go a long way in determining whether I was granted tenure or not. Possibly I gave it too much thought because I knew Ray DeForest was observing me, and all that meant, considering our past. I was still kicking myself for letting it happen, for letting him into my apartment, as if I didn’t know where it would all lead. For a long time afterwards he couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to see him again, why he couldn’t come over whenever he wanted, even though his wife was calling me up once or twice a day and leaving threatening messages on my answering machine, long after that one and only night we slept together, he sent me two or three emails every day for a few months afterwards, which I never answered in the hope he would eventually stop, and any word from me would be a sign of encouragement, even though I could always go public and incriminate him, especially if he voted against me when I was up for tenure. I was confused, on many different levels, I was answering to the fact that I let him into my apartment, that he didn’t kidnap me or lock me in his basement and strap me to a torture machine, he did nothing to coerce me, I had been a consenting adult, so to speak, of sound body and mind. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to teach there (or anywhere) forever, but I wanted to do things on my own terms which meant getting tenure. The economy was worse than ever; I knew people with doctorates who were teaching as adjuncts, with no health benefits, in a market where jobs were fewer and fewer people were being hired. There were two or three hundred applicants for every job and most of them didn’t even get to the interview stage (just “getting an interview” was a kind of success, one step up the ladder to nowhere). I tried to act like a “good colleague,” joining committees so I could list them on my vita. I’d already published a number of articles in academic journals and had sent chapters of my Melville book to various university publishers. All I knew was that they were being read by a jury of outside readers. “Fuck them,” I said to myself, at least once a day. It was something I imagine Melville said to himself repeatedly as he sat at his desk in the Custom House. He could be referring to anyone: his coworkers, his family, his publishers. Everybody.
Robert was working on his book about Heidegger and Arendt. I was preparing my classes. We didn’t spend every night together, but we talked every day. I was thirty-five. Robert was forty-five. But he seemed older, like he had slipped over the edge into another time zone, obstinate, craggy, slack-jawed, his spine beginning to curve from hours hunched over his desk. His eyes were puffy and red from lack of sleep. He had a negative opinion about everything. Judge, jury, prosecutor—all in the same package. He aimed for the jugular every time. Sex wasn’t irrelevant, at least not at the start, there was always the thought (like a cloud hanging over our heads) he would meet someone new, just the way he met me. His past was littered with random encounters, he liked to talk about them, as if he was taunting me, proud of his minor-league successes with women twenty years younger. The Chinese woman on line at the post office. That was the big one. He had photos of her in an album which I studied closely on one of the rare moments I was alone in his apartment, not that he kept the album hidden away. It was there on the shelf above his bed, our bed. A reminder that there was always someone waiting in the wings to take my place. There she was, in Central Park, with her hair down to her waist, wearing a short plaid skirt and white blouse, like a school-girl, closer to fifteen than thirty. You could detect the outline of her breasts beneath the blouse. There was something hypnotic about the photo and I could understand why Robert found her so attractive. All I know is that for a moment I wanted to climb into her arms then bury my head between her legs. Her expression registered total indifference, as if the meaninglessness of life had been made clear to her long ago. Now she could do anything, including sex with a foreign devil.
And there he was, only inches away, on the other side of the glass. There were people trying to get into the museum from his side, with people waiting behind me. I pushed the revolving door forward till I was out on the street. Then he came around full-circle and joined me.
It had just been an hour on the train to Providence, over a year ago. He was getting off at New Haven. A college boy reading Sentimental Education.
We exchanged email addresses on the train, just before he got off.
“If you’re ever in the city,” I had said, “call me up. We can go and have coffee.”
It was a way of saying goodbye, of keeping the door of the future open, at least a few inches. The first step on the ladder of wisdom. Anything can happen.
Did we exchange phone numbers as well? I can’t remember.
We were standing outside the museum. The camera was moving in closer all the time until there was nothing but sunlight on our faces.
“I’m just in town for a few days,” he said.
He didn’t say: “I’m getting married next week.” He didn’t say that his family, the family of the bride, all their various friends were converging on a town in Western Massachusetts where she was born.
Not far from where I was born.
He didn’t say anything. Not on the cab ride downtown from the museum to my apartment, and not during the night. It took him twenty-four hours, at least, before he mentioned it.
“I thought you’d be angry,” he said, when I smiled and wished him luck. He was sitting on the wooden chair in the kitchen and I climbed on top of him. I liked watching the creases in his face when he came inside me. His smell was everywhere, on my body, on the sheets. It took him a little longer each time. His eyes registered the after-shock, as if he was falling into the abyss. There were other times when I couldn’t see his face at all. We drank wine and drifted off to sleep and then returned to life and I climbed on top of him again. His wiry hair was shorter than when we’d met on the train—he didn’t want to look like a disheveled absent-minded scholar for the wedding. He would wear a disguise to hide the scruffiness and pretend the world was waiting for him with open arms. I could see him in the future: the receding hairline, the hollows beneath his eyes, the stains on the front of his sweater, the smell of nicotine on his fingers. He would turn into Robert’s double some day. His skin was the color of fine silt. A good Protestant. His wife was blonde—there were freckles on her neck. After he told me he was getting married—I didn’t tell him to leave—things got better. I rested my legs on his shoulders and felt the disc on his lower back. He came in my ass slowly, and then, as if nothing else mattered, I sat on the toilet and took him in my mouth while I peed. It didn’t matter. I was ruining him for the girl with the freckles who wouldn’t know about any of this. My heart was cordoned off, a blank space. His marriage would last a few years at best, but I wouldn’t be waiting for him. He had a mangy dog appeal like he’d been left out over night in the rain tied to a post. I sat in the chair and he crawled along the floor and I opened my legs. I didn’t want to leave teethmarks on his body but I couldn’t stop. He had a one inch scar above his right eye. I made some coffee and killed a roach in the kitchen. We did the Sunday Times crossword together, sitting naked on the couch. We listened to old songs on the radio The blonde girl with freckles went to Bryn Mawr and was studying Russian. I turned on the light on the side of the bed and his face turned green, the color of the bottom of the sea. I told him about my classes. I told him about Ray DeForest, how I had slept with him in the same bed. “Bad idea,” he said, shaking his head. I didn’t tell him about Robert, or Natalie. That part of my life wasn’t important. He was like an omen of what the future might be like if I let myself go. It made me happy that I was part of his memory bank, that twenty years from now he’d remember this moment. When he was pushing a stroller with his first kid around the block he would see someone in the park who reminded him of me. I would haunt him in his sleep. The woman on the train. He would think of me when he was making love to his wife. Going down on him in the shower with the water spraying in my face.
Robert and I both had the same habit of talking to strangers. But while I was trying to stop he was just getting started, taking it to a new level. There were some nights, when I slept at his apartment, that we didn’t make love. This had become a point of contention, one more thing we couldn’t talk about. I felt like we crossed the line into inattentiveness, or absence of passion, that made being together pointless. Our level of commitment existed in some gray area between zero and nowhere. There wasn’t enough of anything to hold our relationship together, and make up for the absence of desire. We weren’t friends who shared everything, who talked about anything, who confided in each other when things went sideways. And of course he had no clue about Natalie, which was like a big empty space in my heart. The more I kept quiet about her the more ominous and strange it began to feel, especially when she and I began talking on the phone every week, after not seeing each other for months, then every few days, as a prelude to seeing each other, which finally happened, not once, but a few times when Robert was out of town. So sex made a difference. It was like crossing the River Styx into a netherworld no one knew about. It was like the poem by Yeats about Leda getting ravaged by Zeus. It was like anything other than reality. He was half-there and during sex I sensed he was wandering off into his own world. His eyes were always open, trained on some point above my head. He liked it best when I was on top so he had less to do. It was all about him, just like always, from day one until now, only now I was more awake, less needy, or needy in a different way. I was tired of people who thought about themselves, 24/7. There had to be something more.
That’s when it started, a flicker of sunlight above the rooftops. The absence when he was lying beside me. No difference between being with him and being alone. At least when I was alone I knew where I was. I could identify myself. My hands were my hands. My breasts my breasts. With Robert, the picture was out of focus, the radio station wouldn’t come in. There was too much static. It sounded tinny, like the record was scratched. Robert had a big collection of vinyl, mostly jazz records he saved from when he was young, and he always cursed when the needle skipped. All you could do was lift the needle from the record and check for dust. That’s what I was doing with him. The needle was stuck in the groove playing the same note over and over.
I wanted to write about the moment in the subway when we first met. It was what I planned to do on my sabbatical: translate some part of my life into fiction. People stared at me oddly when I told them I met my boyfriend on the subway. I liked to tell them, just to see their reaction, but at some point I stopped caring. There’s no documentation, far as I know, abut the places where people meet for the first time, and the subway, if you think about it, is as good as anywhere. It seems like it should happen more often than it does. So many bodies in such close proximity. I wanted to write the story about Marco, as well, but I’d already started writing about that. It was my secret life, so to speak. Writing was a way of making it happen again. Of reliving it all. All my feelings of longing for the past were situated on the floor beneath Melville’s desk. It’s like a little scenario I play out in my head. My heart begins vibrating; I stop whatever I’m doing, and sit down. It’s like I’ve been searching for the Holy Grail, and here it is, a flicker of sunlight that grows brighter as time goes by.
Robert and I rarely talked about the future, or whether (eventually) we would move in together. The idea of having children never came up. I think I mentioned it once, in the most general sense, not long after we first met, and he just shrugged and said “I don’t think it’s in the cards. Not for me, anyway.” Not his exact words, but close. If it was going to happen, he reasoned, it would have already happened. At least he had the courtesy not to speak for both of us, since I don’t think he knew, at that point, or ever, whether I wanted a family or not. Like almost everything else, I created a fantasy about it all, and imagined myself sitting somewhere like the south of France, on a balcony with a baby in my arms. I was nursing the baby. There was the Mediterranean in the distance, a fishing boat on the horizon. Peace. Like I was some other person. A film actress performing the story of my life. Natalie Wood. The music of the spheres playing in my head.
I had a hard time imagining Robert as a father. He liked to smoke dope and cigarettes (a joint and a cigarette burning in the ashtray at the same time) and watch movies or random TV shows or baseball games (a sport Marco liked as well). He bought little baggies of weed from kids perched on their skateboards at the entrance to Union Square Park. And when he wasn’t doing these things he was writing his book. The year I knew him he had a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write his book about Heidegger and Arendt. In some corner of academia he was considered a rising star; he had started off at Brooklyn College, and then moved on to Columbia, with a few stops in between. He was hired by Columbia with tenure, so he never had to go through the process of being observed by his peers. He did the observing and he wrote the recommendations and he fucked his graduate assistants and lived the life of the perpetual student. After a few months, I caught on that his sense of responsibility to me was marginal at best, that he was also changing, right in front of me, and it wasn’t fun to watch. He was becoming careless, for one thing, too much of it had do with finishing his book, which should have been over and done long ago. He was procrastinating, buying time in exchange for something unknown, something different. It’s as if he was staring back at his life though the wrong end of a telescope. His life had come to a standstill; he wanted someone to wake him up. In all situations he had always taken the initiative. He wasn’t afraid to speak up and say what he felt. There I was on the subway. It was all happening in front of him, in mute tones, off-grays, like a 40’s movie. He was ready for anything.
He had written hundreds of articles and edited three anthologies, but he had never written a full-length book about any one subject. As much as he talked about Heidegger and Arendt, I sensed he was getting bored with it, much in the same way, after a few months, I began to feel he was getting bored with me, and that if I broke up with him, as I began planning to do during the week of Hurricane Sandy, he wouldn’t miss me either.
Natalie and I had more in common. She was only thirty, and had more time to enjoy her life. She knew how to relax. A lawyer who was handling her mother’s estate wired money into her bank account every month. It was more than enough to live on, at least for one person. And she could always sell work from her mother’s art collection; periodically, a dealer came to visit her and took something away. A small painting by Chaim Soutine, a drawing by Morris Graves. The collection was locked up in a vault in the dungeons of Chase Manhattan. If it was up to Natalie, during the two years we were together, we would spend every hour of the day in each other’s presence. She liked to have sex in the morning, when I was often in a rush to get to school or finish an article about Melville, and then she liked (also) to have sex at night when I was worried about getting enough sleep and had to wake up early in the morning. She had no schedule—every day was different. She had a bit more appetite for everything, since she had no pressure to ever be anywhere at a particular time, and this gave her the chance to enjoy life in the present, to make the moments last. More than once we argued about going out or staying home, and once when she wanted to have sex and I was too tired, it was two in the morning, she leapt out of bed with a dramatic flourish and went home to her own apartment, the floor of a house where she had grown up on Perry Street in the West Village, without saying a word. I used the excuse about not being able to go out because I was “reading student papers” once too often and she avoided me for a week—no calls, no email—as a kind of punishment. It made me feel I was turning into a boring academic, immersed in all the small details of school life and neglecting everything else, my own work, for instance, which I had put on the back burner for years but which was becoming less vague in my mind. I didn’t want to become an expert on books no one read, like a character in Middlemarch who liked to hear herself talk, who stood in front of a classroom and lectured for two hours at a stretch. I began to take out dusty tomes from the school library, no one had opened these books for years, the pages like dry skin, and I began to question everything I was doing. “Stay true to the dreams of youth,” Melville said. I’m sure he said it to himself, in all bitterness, staring back at his reflection in the window of his office at the Custom House. I kept the quote above my desk in my apartment and in my office at school. I thought, for the millionth time, about Melville at his job, and tried to imagine what it might be like to be the person who wrote Moby Dick and Pierre and all his books about the South Seas and then to give it all up. It was a little like dying when you were still alive. Resignation was like dying. All my worries about being observed in class made it hard to look in the mirror and think about the person staring back at me and the life up ahead. I always wondered, age twenty, what I’d be like at thirty-five, and here I was. Whenever I woke at dawn and observed Robert in his sleep, I saw yet another reflection of someone I didn’t know.
I remember the first time I went to the Museum of Modern Art. In those days you could sit in the sculpture garden and smoke, which is what I was doing, when someone started talking to me. He must have been sixty, at least, but he had the look of an old movie star, like Harrison Ford, and in fact that’s what he was, an actor, mostly in plays, also small roles on Law and Order, and of course what a pushover I was to go back to his place in the middle of the day and fuck on the living room floor and then watch the sun go down from a small balcony. Somewhere in Chelsea, not far from where Robert lived. He made drinks and we stood on the balcony, seventeen floors above the street, looking over the edge at the yellow cabs going by in the rain. I could see The Statue of Liberty in the distance. The blank space where the World Trade Center used to be.
LEWIS WARSH is the author of Out of the Question: Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Station Hill, 2017), Alien Abduction (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015), One Foot Out the Door: Collected Stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010), and Inseparable (Granary Books, 2008). He is editor and publisher of United Artists Books and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Long Island University (Brooklyn).