Outside Boston "You look just like your father." A man reaches out and pats the top of my head; the gesture accompanies the words, a disembodied hand parting the curtains of air. The words are spoken to please my father, of course, who stands alongside me, a firm hand on my shoulder to emphasize possession, but I don’t know what it feels like to feel proud is this it? I don’t feel I’ve done anything to deserve the compliment.
Now hes going to say something, but no ones listening. Now hes going to get dressed, whatever he wore the night before. Now hes going to sit on a chair in the living room and tie his shoes. Now hes going to walk towards me, with his eyes on the pavement, as if he didnt see me.
Natalie calls out of the blue while I’m standing on the sidewalk outside the Museum of Modern Art. I’m going to be in the city for a week, she says, starting next Tuesday. Can we see each other?
I’d been with Natalie for two years and never slept with anyone else. That’s not true, of course, there’s always an exception. I try to put it out of my mind, to forget it ever happened. I’m not afraid to look in the mirror and ask the hard questions. I can’t pretend something didn’t happen, when I know it did. I can lie under oath, if that’s what it takes. But I can’t hide the truth from myself.
“The one thing to remember about Melville is that he wrote Moby Dick when he was thirty years old. Thirty.” I hold up a battered paperback copy. The same copy I read in high school.
So we meet on the subway and go for coffee in a place on Macdougal Street, right around the corner from the West 4th Street subway stop on 6th Avenue. Caffe Reggio, it’s been there forever, from the time Macdougal was the center of the universe, when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Mimi and Richard Farina and Phil Ochs used to perform free in all the nightclubs and coffeehouses, like The Gaslight, The Fat Black Pussycat and the Cafe Wha.
She had been teaching for twenty years and in all that time she had only slept with one student, a young woman named Arlette. It was during the time in her life that she referred to as the worst time when talking with friends.
As it turns out, Im not happy with the view, which looks straight down into the parking lot below, not to mention the smell of the dumpster every time I open the window (I like to sleep with the window open, no matter how cold), so I ask the man at the front desk, Ralph, so the name tag on the front of his shirt informs me, whether there are any other rooms available.
Its important to let the grass grow a little while longer. Its not necessary to cut the grasslet it grow for a few more days. You can wait until its up to your waist, then you can cut it.
Now he’s going to say something, but no one’s listening. Now he’s going to get dressed, whatever he wore the night before. Now he’s going to sit on a chair in the living room and tie his shoes.
He assumed he was doing her a favor by telling her what he was feeling. He assumed that honesty in any form was a virtue and that there was no point in keeping secrets from the person you lived with, pretending you felt one way when the opposite was true.
The train was delayed, but when it finally entered the station, and after I found a seat near a window and hoisted my suitcase onto the rack, I noticed that the woman sitting across the aisle was a person I had known in high school.
We didn’t live together, except for the time in Provincetown, where we go for weeks at a time, starting right after Christmas when no one is around. Time slows down when the world is void of people and when you go outside all you see is the ocean, the shells and pebbles embedded in the sand shifting under your feet, the cold sky overhead and the whitecaps pummeling the shore.
“You need a therapist,” Desiree says, when I tell her about Robert, and of course she’s right, now more than ever. I went to my first therapist when I was a junior at NYU. My father had stage-3 lung cancer and I took the bus to Lenox every weekend; he and my mother had separated years before but were living in the same town, maybe a mile apart.
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.
There was the moment just before we were about to leave the cafe, when it felt like we’d been together for hours, though no more than forty-five minutes had elapsed since the time we walked up the steps of the subway on West Fourth Street, and then around the corner to the Caffe Reggio on Macdougal.
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.
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.
They were driving south on Route 13 through Maryland and Virginia when a blond shirtless young man appeared with his thumb in the air on the side of the road. Elizabeth guided the car onto a strip of gravel fifty yards ahead of where he was standing, rested her arms on the steering wheel, and stared at his figure in the rearview mirror.
I get up just like everyone else and I eat a day-old donut and drink a cup of coffee. You can buy two day-old donuts on the corner for fifteen cents. Were talking March 1971, if you want to know exactly. Im living on Oak Street, in San Francisco, right across from The Panhandle, a half-block from Golden Gate Park.
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. Its 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. Thats how long it took for people to take him seriously.
Now he closes the door of his study and says “I have a lot of work to do” and I sit on the couch in the living room with a book open and try to concentrate.
It started when I met Robert on the subway. Our life took place mostly indoors, occasionally in restaurants, especially in the beginning.
I don’t have to be anywhere, but I wake up early, 6:35. Some mornings I set the alarm for seven but wake up at five and play over all the things I’ve ever done wrong, every conversation where I might have said something (inadvertently or on purpose) to hurt another person’s feelings.
She had the feeling someone was watching them from a distance, from the roof of one of the buildings bordering the ocean, but no one was there. She turned her head, she looked behind her, she stared at the ocean where there was a single boat on the horizon. No one.
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.
A few minutes out of Penn Station, I took a book out of my shoulder-bag, a dog-eared paperback copy of The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which I’d first read as an undergraduate. Someone told me Lessing was dying, and I remembered all the days and nights of my first year in New York, lying in bed with a gin and tonic and a cigarette in the small suite of dorm rooms I shared with two other students, a long scarf wrapped like a cobra around my neck, shoulders and arms.
Self-criticism by Lewis Warsh Winter 2003 I shouted & said things I didn’t mean. I lied to people I loved. I didn’t pay taxes for 20 years. I told my mother that my problems were all her fault.
You remove the blinders for a moment & see the light/& then it’s gone…
Lewis Warsh (19442020) 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.