The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

All Issues
FEB 2015 Issue

from Delusions of Being Observed

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. Now he’s going to walk towards me, with his eyes on the pavement, as if he didn’t see me. Now he’s whispering in my ear, but I don’t want to listen. Now he’s holding my sweaty hand as we climb the steps to his fifth floor apartment. (There’s an elevator, but he insists on walking.) Now I tell him he’s hurting me but he doesn’t stop. Now he sits in his chair and leans forward and touches his toes. Now his head is on the pillow, but his eyes are wide open. (I could walk across town to my own apartment, or take a taxi, since it’s after midnight, but I don’t. Instead, I open a book and begin reading, until he’s ready to turn off the lights.) Now he’s talking to himself in his sleep (and this time I’m listening). Now he’s drinking a Campari, with ice, and it’s the middle of winter, a layer of snow on the ground (3-6 inches). Now he takes my arm as we walk home, back to his apartment, which I don’t think of as home, but where we spend most of our time, the streets covered with a layer of ice, and I catch him as he’s about to fall. Now he’s in bed with the flu, his doughy face, his long chin, his receding hairline, and I’m comforting him because he can’t sleep. Now he’s in the hospital talking to me on the phone in a constricted voice that sounds like it’s coming from the depths of a cave as a nurse from Barbados named Georgette takes his blood pressure. Now he’s sitting across the room listening to Karen Carpenter sing “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

Now he’s complaining about his mother, Bertha, age ninety, suffering from dementia, in Brooklyn. She’s still living at home, the same two-bedroom rent-stabilized garden apartment in Park Slope where Robert was living before he left for college in Berkeley, when his father was alive and his younger sister Francine was in high-school, but with round-the-clock care, since a few months ago she fell in the middle of the night and bruised her hip. Somehow she managed to crawl into the bedroom and call her daughter on her land-line (it’s no use trying to convince her to get a cellphone), the same phone Robert used thirty years before to call his high-school girlfriends. It was then that Robert decided, along with his sister, who I’ve never met, to hire home care attendants to stay with his mother twenty-four hours a day, which they do, taking turns sleeping on the bed in Francine’s old room, but it’s Francine who organizes the schedules of the three women (Pina, Yolanda, Annette) who prepare meals (which she barely eats) and keep track of her meds, along with myriad other tasks, including taking her to the bathroom, literally waiting on her hand and foot, while Robert visits every two weeks for a few hours and sends Francine a check every month to cover expenses and assuage his guilt. Now he’s going to the movies alone, or so he says, on one of the nights we don’t spend together. Now he’s talking on the phone to a stranger, a person he met at the movies. Now he’s waiting on line at the post office, talking to the person in front of him, a young Chinese woman with a French braid hanging mid-way down her back. Now he’s having coffee with the Chinese woman, who’s wearing white shorts and black tights and a short-sleeve blouse with a pattern that resembles hundreds of mint postage stamps from different countries stitched together, in an outdoor restaurant across from the post office. Now he writes his phone number with a black marker on a napkin and hands it to the young woman (“Why,” she asks, in broken English, her slate gray eyes staring suspiciously at the stranger across the table, “why do you want to see me? For what reason?”) Now I understand how he meets people at random, and this is how we met as well, so I shouldn’t be surprised or jealous, and who knows who might be sleeping in his bed when I’m not here.

Now he’s standing on the downtown 42nd Street subway platform waiting for the B train, staring at his feet. Now he leans over the edge of the platform and watches a rat fight its way out of a paper bag. Now he looks into the tunnel, as if he was staring into the abyss, for a sign that the train is going to arrive, but all he sees are flickering lights, yellow then red, and a man in an orange vest walking down the center of the tracks. He imagines the sound of the brakes as the train comes to a shuddering stop and the passengers cursing as they fall against one another in the dark. Now a woman’s voice on the intercom announces that the B train has been delayed because of police action at the 59th Street station and for a moment he remembers the chase scene from The French Connection with Gene Hackman as a rogue cop, an important movie from his childhood, or so he says, which we watched together a few weeks ago in his living room, drinking beer and passing a joint back and forth, even though I have to teach at nine the next morning, an American literature survey course for undergraduates beginning with “Self-Reliance” by Emerson and ending with The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and the last thing I want to do is wake up with a hangover. Now he stares at the woman on the platform in front of him, bobbing her head in time to the music on her iPod, her eyes closed, oblivious, not even aware that he’s standing a few feet away, staring at her legs. He imagines the police, guns drawn, chasing a man through the tunnel, while the helicopters hover overhead, and the rats in the tunnel scurry out of sight. His shoes and socks are wet from walking aimlessly in the rain. His hair is wet and his shirt, with the threadbare collar, which he insists on wearing, is matted to his skin. Now he’s staring at me across the aisle on the subway—his gaze makes me uncomfortable. This is how we met, on the B train, heading downtown. I cross my legs and pretend I’m reading but whenever I look up there he is, his eyes focused on the title of the book (Dear Theo, the letters of Vincent van Gogh to his brother) in my hands. Now he starts a conversation with me across the aisle (I wish I could see the title of the book he’s reading, but I can’t) and I turn away. It’s not the first time, I must admit, that someone tried to pick me up on the subway. Now I say, in response, because I’m just like him: Where did you get your ring? A black onyx stone his Chinese girlfriend bought for him as a birthday gift long ago. Now I say: this is my stop—as the train pulls into the West Fourth Street station—and he says: I’m going to get off too. For a moment I think he’s going to take my hand as we walk up the steps. For a moment our hands brush against one another, but I pull away. There are people coming down the steps, all in a rush, so we walk single file. Some women hold their skirts agains their legs when they walk up steps in public places, but I don’t. If he wants to look up my skirt—that’s his problem.

Now he hangs up the phone and starts weeping, for no apparent reason. (“What is it?” I ask, sitting up in bed, but he refuses to tell me.) Now he looks at his watch in the middle of a conversation as if he’s bored. Now he lights a cigarette, an American Spirit Yellow, takes a few puffs, coughs, stubs it out on the side of an ashtray. (Ten minutes later, he lights it again.) Now the ashes fall from his cigarette onto the front of his shirt, but he doesn’t notice. Now he opens a book of Heidegger’s letters to Hannah Arendt and says: “Listen to this.” Now he interrupts me mid-sentence and says he has to go back to his apartment and get to work. When I ask him what he’s thinking about, he says “Heidegger—I’m working on a book about Heidegger,” as if this is the most normal thing in the world, and I think to myself: I don’t know anything. Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi? Now we stand on the street corner outside my building on East Ninth Street and I say: “Do you want to come in?” Now his phone rings in the middle of the night and when I ask him who called he says: “My mother.”

Now he says that where he went last night and what he was doing and who he was with is no one’s business. He offers these words as a kind of ultimatum—this is the way it is, for now and all time, like it or not. The implication is that he’s free to do whatever he wants and I have to be available whenever he wants. Now he acts like he’s doing me a big favor by sleeping with me, but the opposite might also be true, maybe I’m doing him a favor. Now he says—it’s not great (meaning sex)—unless the feeling is mutual—I mean the desire, he says—meaning if one person desires the other person more—it doesn’t work. Now he claims that Henry Green is a better writer than Graham Greene but I’ve never heard of him, Henry, and he makes me think I’m stupid, and maybe I am for spending the night with him. (The fact that I have a PhD in American literature, and a full-time teaching job, doesn’t count.) Then he asks, out of the blue, what music do you like? Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke? “Listen to this,” he says, and puts on a record of Chet Baker singing “Moonlight in Vermont.” He has hundreds of records, a whole bookcase of vinyl. “Look at this,” he says, showing me a photo of Chet Baker as a young man. “Wasn’t he beautiful?”

Now he’s walking with a limp because of something that happened to him as a child. “I fell off my bike,” he said, “and broke my ankle.” Now he’s standing under a canopy in the rain. Now he’s waiting for someone under the marquee of a movie theater but she never arrives, or she arrives late, and he’s already gone. “This is the story of my life,” he says, shaking his head, “waiting for someone who never shows up, who never intended to show up, who forgot she made plans to meet me—this is what happens to me all the time.” (Why tell me this?) Now he walks home alone in the rain chilled to the bone and gets into bed. He has a gaunt look, like a homeless person panhandling on the subway, the bones of his face visible beneath his skin. A homeless veteran limping to a shelter in the rain. He could have bought an umbrella almost anywhere but he chose to risk getting pneumonia instead. Now he’s lighting one cigarette with the tip of another. The smoke seeps into every object in my apartment, even if I open the window, and sometimes I even take a puff or bum a cigarette and smoke it down to the filter, remembering all the cigarettes I shared with my boyfriend Marco in high school. (A cigarette after sex in his parents’ basement where we went after school maybe two or three times a week.) Now he shows me a photograph of himself, age fifteen, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. (“I used to smoke Camels—unfiltered.”) Now he asks someone he never met before if he can buy her a drink, a Nordic-looking young woman waiting on line in front of him at Whole Foods, and she says “no” and turns away. Now he buys a train ticket to Philadelphia and returns the same night. He’s on a panel at Temple University, something to do with Martin Heidegger. Whenever there’s a Heidegger conference they invite him to speak. Everyone on the train from Philadelphia is asleep except him. Now the woman sitting next to him rests her head on his shoulder without realizing what she’s doing. Her gold-hoop earrings, her stiff colorless hair, her rose-scented perfume, the island of freckles on the side of her neck. Now he says: “Do you want to share a cab?” as they exit Penn Station, and when the cab stops at her apartment she says, “Do you want to come in?” Now he says “I’m going to take a bath” but he doesn’t. He just stares at the TV screen and puffs on his cigarette like a zombie. Now he drums on his knee in time to the theme from “Law and Order.” Now he gets off the plane in Shanghai and she’s waiting for him with her brother, the Chinese woman he first met in the post office. You can meet someone any time, anywhere, and your whole life will be different. At any moment, your life in the present can come to a halt and a new life can begin.

Now he tells me about the trip to China with his girlfriend and I nod my head as if I’m interested but I’m really thinking about the seminar (Melville and Poe) that I must teach the next day and when he shows me a photo of his ex, with her French braid and wide open smile, I say “how beautiful” but I couldn’t care less.

Now he lifts his leg over the side of the tub. Now he walks into the living room naked while I’m trying to read and gets angry when I don’t look up. Now he hangs up on me when I tell him I can’t come over, that I’m busy, that I’m being observed in a few days by the Chair of the English Department and that I have to prepare my class on Melville. I’m asking the graduate students to read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I’ve read a million times, but which I want to reread, or at least skim, before the class. It’s a week after the presidential election, three weeks after Hurricane Sandy flooded lower Manhattan and knocked out the power grids in both of the neighborhoods where we live. His block, in Chelsea, suffered less damage than mine, on 9th Street near Avenue C, which was completely flooded, so I stayed at his place for five consecutive nights, the longest amount of time we’ve been together. It was during this time I realized the relationship was a big mistake. He rarely refers to anything I’m doing. If I tell him how I spent my day, I can sense he’s thinking about something else, or someone else, I’ll never know. Sometimes, anticipating a response, I press a pause button, but he doesn’t take the cue and ask me something in relation to what I said. He acts like the story is over when I was just getting started. I tell him I have to prepare for class, that I’m being observed, but it doesn’t register at first, even though he’s been around academia most of his life and knows exactly what I’m talking about. He did his undergraduate work in Berkeley and his graduate work in philosophy at Columbia, and then he taught as a guest lecturer at schools up and down the east coast, Emory University in Atlanta, Bates College in Maine and at the University of Maine in Orono, a semester at Yale, Stony Brook on Long Island, Haverford in Pennsylvania (which is where he met his first wife, Cody Walker, the crime novelist who taught at nearby Bryn Mawr), among others. He knows the trials people go through to get tenure, including serving on university-wide committees. No doubt, as I’m worrying about the observation, he is thinking about Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt and the book he’s writing about their relationship, when Martin was a 35-year-old professor and Hannah an 18-year-old student. The affair between a young Jewish girl and a future Nazi—what more can anybody want? Now he’s saying that he’s going to the gym, but he could be going anywhere. I have the feeling he’s lying about everything, just for the sake of lying, and I’m tempted to follow him when he leaves the house, and see where he’s heading. But do I really want to know? Maybe it’s time to question what I’m doing in this relationship, which has gone on for over a year, and whether I made the right decision by leaving my girlfriend Natalie for him.

Now he’s looking in his pocket for loose change to give to the person on the subway, a young light-skinned African-American man who says he needs money to feed his family, and who croons a few bars of “Summertime” (“And the living is easy”) to the blankfaced unsmiling half-asleep and mostly despondent melange of late-night passengers, most of whom avoid eye contact with him and with each other as the train stalls between stations and I think this is where we met, sitting across from one another in a subway, almost a year ago, and an hour or two later we were in bed in my apartment on East Ninth street, and it’s hard not to wonder as the train lurches forward and then stops again whether it’s all been a big mistake, whether I might be better off cutting my losses and moving on, and whether I should take up Natalie’s offer to visit her in Provincetown this winter, she says we owe it to one another to “try again” but I’m not sure what she means or whether she’s leading me down yet another dead end, she knows how much I love it there, our little corner of the universe, and I’m sure she can tell, even on the phone, that I’m not happy, though she doesn’t ask me whether I’m still seeing “that man, “ as she refers to him, since my decision to sleep with a man was the reason we broke up. Now he stands on line at Penn Station to purchase a ticket to Providence where he’s giving a lecture on Heidegger at Brown University. Now he calls a car to take him to Newark Airport at 6 a.m. so he can board a plane to San Francisco to be on a panel at Berkeley, his old alma mater. Now he takes half an Ambien (10 mg) and falls asleep in five minutes.

Now he tells me about his college girlfriend, Margie Rappaport, the night he went to her dorm. The night they made love on the grass beside the football field. It could have happened yesterday. Now he remembers the afternoon he lost his virginity in the Bronx, in an apartment not far from the Botanical Gardens. Now he tells me more than I want to know and I want to tell him to shut up but he doesn’t. I know he expects me to tell him everything I’ve done, as well, every boy I kissed in high school—but I won’t tell him anything, I avoid the subject, the last thing I want to talk about is my relationship with Marco, my high school boyfriend, much less tell him anything about Natalie, or any of the women or men I slept with during the first year I came to New York, when I would go out late at night and pick up strangers in bars, when I realized that my relationship with Marco was over and that nothing, nothing, nothing was going to replace it, that there was no one out there at all, and it seemed possible to juxtapose Marco’s body on the body of some stranger, that for an hour or two I could pretend we were still together. It’s one of the problems in this relationship: I just can’t be open about the most important things. I feel like I have to censor every second thought before I say it. The question I started asking myself is why I just don’t end it. What’s the nature of our attachment? He comes and goes as he pleases and I don’t know whether he’s sleeping with anyone else. We’re both too lazy to put an end to it all, to write the letter or make the phone call or send the e-mail saying that it’s over. There are some nice moments, I must admit. Sex, there’s still sex, some version of it, but not every night. We used to make love as soon as I walked through the door of his apartment, but not any more. Sometimes he makes me laugh. Less so than in the beginning. My closest friends, Desiree and Ruth, the two people I confide in, think I’m making a mistake. I introduced them to Robert one night at Phebe’s, the old-time restaurant on the Bowery where he likes to go, and the next day they both called me, first Ruth, then Desiree, and I could tell they were both puzzled about Robert, who had spent more time at another table where he saw some old friends than talking with us, though the whole point of the evening was to introduce him to my friends, and I could tell they were both having a hard time not being blunt about what they really thought (I can only imagine what they said to one another). (“Have you ever been pregnant?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, “I was pregnant. Twice. Yes, I had an abortion. Twice.”) Now the ball is in the air and he runs backwards with his arm extended and just as he crashes into the fence the ball drops out of his glove. (“We lost the championship because of me. If I had caught that ball—I was twelve years old—my whole life might have been different.”) Now he reads about the chaos of the Id in an essay by Freud—(New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). Now he reads about Heidegger, and all the letters he wrote to Hannah Arendt, when she was his 18-year-old student at Marburg in 1925.

Now he turns on the television and watches the 11 o’clock news. We’re in the living room of my 1-bedroom apartment on East 9th Street. It used to be a dangerous street, but now the entire neighborhood is filled with wealthy people, and all the boutiques and health-food emporiums to accommodate them. Now I hand him a glass of Dewar’s on the rocks, his drink of choice, and we hear on the news that a man walked into a pharmacy in upstate New York and murdered four people, including the pharmacist, and a seventeen-year-old high school girl who worked behind the counter. Now he turns off the television and tells me about the town in upstate New York where he used to spend the summers with his parents when he was a kid. It’s fifty-two miles from Utica, he says, twenty-seven miles from Booneville. Now he tells me about the Booneville Fair where he and his family used to go when he was a child and the two-headed cow and the ferris wheel that broke down when he was suspended with his sister Francine at the highest point and how they huddled in a corner of the little car while day turned to night and the temperature dropped thirty degrees. How everyone cheered when the wheel finally began to spin and they descended in slow motion with the stars and the moon almost full over the hills in the distance. How his mother Bertha enveloped him in the folds of her coat and how he can still smell the alcohol on her breath and her lilac-scented perfume. He tells me about the restaurant where he used to eat with his family, The Knotty Pine, and how some day we should rent a car and drive up there or take a train to Utica and he’ll show me everything (as if I had nothing better to do), the hill where he rode on a bike with no brakes and broke his ankle and chipped a tooth. (His parents had to take him to a dentist in Utica.) He tells me everything that ever happened to him and he repeats it all again and I try to pretend I’m interested but I’m already half-asleep. I’m thinking of the class in a few days, how the Chair of the English Department, Ray DeForest, is going to observe me. I’m thinking of Natalie, and the house in Provincetown where we used to go in the winter when the town was empty. We were together two years and we were not in touch at all until about three months ago when she sent me an e-mail, totally unexpected, since our relationship ended awkwardly, to say the least, and of course I wrote back, she’s someone I think about every day, and since then we’ve been in constant contact, mostly trading gossip about people we both know, never once referring to the past or the reason we broke up. The last time she wrote to tell me she was coming to New York from Provincetown where she lives all year round and did I want to meet for coffee? A beer? We haven’t seen each other in a year, not since the morning I told her about him and she walked out of my apartment. And of course—I said yes—hoping it would be a day when he was away, so I wouldn’t have to lie to him. But why do I care? That’s the question I can’t answer.


Lewis Warsh

LEWIS WARSH's most recent books are Alien Abduction (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015), One Foot Out the Door: Collected Stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) and A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010). He is editor and publisher of United Artists Books and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Long Island University (Brooklyn). Out of the Question: Selected Poems 1963-2003 is forthcoming from Station Hill Press in Fall 2017.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

All Issues