Now your cell phone rings and you sit upright in the dark (it’s 2:43 A.M.) and your sister Francine (I can hear her crying at the other end, even though I’m half-asleep) informs you that your mother died fifteen minutes before (“it’s over”) after being sick for two years, she just stopped breathing. Once she began taking morphine we knew the end was near.
“She never woke up,” Francine says. “She took her meds, just like always, and I turned out the light. I said ‘Good night,’ but she didn’t respond. She used to say ‘Good night,’ or make a joke about it and say ‘What’s good about it?’ but this time she didn’t say anything. I looked in on her fifteen minutes later and I could hear her breathing. Wheezing through her nose, like a train whistle. That was another one of her jokes. ‘Where’s the train going tonight?’ she liked to say. But tonight she didn’t respond at all. It was like another layer was stripped away. I kept the door open so the light in the hallway would spill over her bed. She didn’t like to sleep in total darkness, like I do. It frightened her, the way it used to frighten you when you were a child. And that was it.”
I turn on the reading lamp on my side of the bed and you stare at your phone as the numbness Emily Dickinson describes in her poem “I Heard A Fly Buzz” spreads like hemlock through your bones and arteries, and I want to say something other than “I’m sorry,” but I’m not sure what you want to hear. I want to put my arms around you, but we’re both naked, and I’m not sure that’s the appropriate thing to do, so I reach out and put the palm of my hand on your upper arm. I encircle your arm with my fingers and squeeze, but you don’t move, or acknowledge that I’m there. You seem to be meditating on some point in space a few inches in front of you, but I can’t be sure what you’re thinking about, now more than ever. I take your hand with the hope that it might give you some comfort to know someone else is there (“someone” meaning me, the person you’ve been sleeping with for the last year), even though I sometimes have the feeling you wish I were someone else, the girl you fell in love with in high school, perhaps, and whom you haven’t seen in thirty years, or even the Japanese waitress with braces, who can’t be older than nineteen, in the restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where we had dinner earlier in the evening.
Now I put my hand on your forehead as if you were a child (I can hear my mother’s voice, like a scratchy record from long ago, “I’m going to take your temperature,” whenever I return home from school with a fever, the house smells like my step-father’s cigars and left-over chicken, and I lie in bed with a cold compress on my forehead and listen to Madonna sing “Like A Virgin” and imagine I’m dancing in a circle with Erica Lund, the German girl who just transferred to our school). Now I take your cold hand between my own, your nails need to be trimmed, and rest my head on your naked shoulder. I kiss the side of your neck, the stubble on your chin. Now I say, as you begin to get dressed, “Shall I come with you?,” even though I have to teach my undergrad American literature class in the morning. I had planned to wake up early and reread the stories by Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “William Wilson,” and make a list of questions to present to the class, even though I’ve taught these stories before. I can open with a lecture on the American Renaissance, how Poe fits in with Melville and Hawthorne, but how he’s different from them as well, different from anyone who came before him, and after that I can talk about how he was kicked out of West Point for drinking and gambling, how his so-called guardian, William Allen, refused to support him or pay his debts, how eventually he married his 13-year old cousin Virginia and they went to live in the Bronx where she died a few years later of tuberculosis. I want to talk about the similarities between Poe and Baudelaire, which means also talking about Baudelaire’s history, and what all these nineteenth century writers meant to the writers of the twentieth century. And by this time, the class—which meets twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes each—will be half-over. The students are bored, inattentive, and probably haven’t read the work—even these stories, each a few pages long, are too much for them. All they’re thinking about are the text messages they have to answer.
This is what I was thinking before I fell asleep a few hours ago. You’re already asleep, with your back to me, but I can hear your breath coming in small gasps and I wonder if you’ll ever stop smoking, whether you’ll get emphysema like my father who always coughed for a long time after getting into bed. I can hear him from my room down the hall in the house in Lenox where I grew up. Whenever I go to the bathroom late at night I can hear my parents talking behind the bedroom wall, though most often I can just hear my father coughing. Maybe you’ll live as long as Heidegger, who actually out-lived Hannah Arendt by a few months, even though she was nineteen years younger. One might say she was old enough to know what she was doing, that she had a lot of nerve going to her teacher’s office and inviting him to her room late at night. No doubt, before the phone call from your sister, you were dreaming about Hannah and Martin, across the years. According to your agent, there was some rumor you might be sued by Arendt’s estate, and maybe it would be better if you changed their names. A radical idea. It makes you unhappy just to think about it. You’ve devoted so much time to imagining what happens when Heidegger comes to the room where Hannah is living, not far from the campus in Marburg where she was the student and he was the famous professor. She was sitting on the side of her bed. Sometimes he told her he was coming over but never did. She sat for hours staring at the light of the candle. She put her finger in the center of the flame for a few seconds, just to see what it felt like. It was hard for him to get away. She had to accept the fact that he was married, he had children, his wife was a Nazi. She was wearing a long nightgown, down to her ankles. She could hear the branches of the nearby sycamore scrape against the window of her room. She could see a flash of lightning in the distance. Of course, he wasn’t going to come. Her feet were bare. It was almost midnight. Just as soon as she had given up hope, he was there, knocking on the door. “It’s me,” he said, “open up.” You had spent so much time concentrating on this moment, what happened next, how she lifted the nightgown above her head, in slow motion, and stood naked in front of him. In front of you—it was confusing. What were you thinking? You could change the names, as your agent advised, and everyone would still know that your characters were based on Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. Even your editor, Mya Byou, had called you a few days before to say she agreed with your agent and that you should “think it over.” Just to avoid trouble. Just to be safe. The last thing you wanted was a long dispute with Hannah Arendt’s estate that might delay publication of the book, even though a little controversy wouldn’t hurt. Everyone wants to read the sex scenes between Heidegger and Arendt. And now you feel both your editor and agent are conspiring against you. That the book is meaningless unless Arendt and Heidegger’s names are spelled out in bright neon for the world to see.
Now you bend forward at the waist and touch the floor with the palms of your hands like you do every morning. Where did I put my pants you want to know (you always toss your clothing onto the floor when you get into bed). It’s a rhetorical question, as my mother used to say. It’s rare that you sleep over at my apartment, but here you are, tonight of all nights. Sometimes I light a candle, just like Hannah, and wait for you to come. Sometimes you call and say you’re running late, whatever that means, and sometimes you cancel at the last minute. You sit in the straight back chair in the kitchen and I climb on top of you. Sometimes, when I sleep over at your apartment, you stay up late reading or watching television in your tiny study while I lie awake in the dark with my eyes wide open, thinking of Marco and Natalie, until I can’t bear it a moment longer.
Suddenly I’m fully awake. I heat water for coffee. The plants hanging in the living room need to be watered. I hear a dog barking in the apartment above and I think of my old cat, Jesse, who died shortly before I met you. I returned home one morning, after sleeping over at Natalie’s, and she was dead on the living room floor. A convulsion, the doctor said. Natalie was allergic to cats which was one of the reasons she rarely slept at my place, but after Jesse died she stayed over more frequently, even though she still complained about the cat hair, the smell, why didn’t I clean up before she came over? She always wanted to argue about something. I can hear Jesse meowing from the kitchen, but it’s only her ghost. I’m wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the Montauk Lighthouse on the front (you gave it to me as a gift not long after we first met). Now I bring you a cup of coffee with 2% reduced fat milk, since you’re ostensibly trying to lose weight, no sugar, and you say: “When my father died it was really quick, no one expected it, he was out jogging one morning and just came home and collapsed.”
Now you bend down to tie your shoes, now you stub your half-smoked cigarette against the side of the ashtray, now you go to the bathroom and splash cold water on your face, and decide not to shave. Now you tilt the mug to your lips and wince. The coffee is too hot or too strong or not strong enough. Now you stare at your reflection in the full-length mirror on the door of the closet as if you were someone you didn’t know, a ghost of your former self, a passing stranger, and in fact that’s who you are, a different person every day, a silhouette on the shade, an orphan in the storm, a face in the crowd, everyone and no one at the same time. Now I offer to make you something to eat but you shake your head.
“I was fifteen when he died,” you say, referring once again to your father, “but now that I’m older it should be easier. I’ve had more time with her. I didn’t know what to feel then. I held it all in, whatever I was feeling. I didn’t talk to anyone.”
Now you say that you always feel guilty about not doing more for your mother, especially during the last year of her life, that you wish you had found the time to see her more frequently, which is easy to say in retrospect, since you’ve been on sabbatical ever since I’ve known you and you could have easily traveled from Manhattan to Brooklyn to visit her more than once every two weeks. Easy to say, since you didn’t feel particularly close to her, since she didn’t encourage you when you said you wanted to study philosophy and literature. That she felt abandoned by you, her only son, when you decided to go to college in California, though you felt abandoned by her long before. She never approved of your first wife, Cody Walker, and for a long time you blamed your mother for the failure of your marriage (refusing, as always, to blame yourself for anything), if only she had been more forthcoming, more welcoming (Cody’s own mother had died when she was ten), and how after a while your wife found one excuse after another not to visit with your mother at her summer house in Montauk, the house where you used to go as a child. You would take the Long Island Railroad by yourself to the house at the tip of Long Island. It was where your parents spent the summers until your father died. It was where your mother had an affair with Willem de Kooning (while your father was still alive). The sand dunes out the window, the photo albums, the afternoons making love on the floor of de Kooning’s studio (less than an hour’s drive), the letters from de Kooning’s biographers asking for interviews, the drawings that he gave her (she’s sitting naked on a stool with her legs apart, her hair down to her waist) and which she refused to sell—and finally the apartment in Park Slope where one day she’ll die in her sleep.
Now you show me the photograph taken on the steps of your mother’s house in Long Island—Bertha, as a young woman, with Willem de Kooning’s arm around her waist. There you are, in the photo, your mother’s hand on your shoulder. She has very black silky hair, silver hoop earrings. She’s wearing a skirt down to her ankles and a transparent blouse, without a bra, so you can see the shapes of her breasts and the outlines of her nipples. Someone has to stay with her two children, Robert and Francine, when she goes to see de Kooning. Most of the time they have sex on the floor of his studio. Her husband was working in the city during the week. You can imagine them having sex on the beach as well. It’s rare that she can go see him late at night, but it happens, they make it happen. She looks bigger than life, like she’s about to explode from the photograph. A single cloud with a dark center looming in a corner of the sky. They’re standing on the beach. De Kooning looks unhappy. He doesn’t want to leave any traces behind. He knows that some day someone he doesn’t know is going to find this photograph. Perhaps this is the last time he will see her again, but maybe not.
Now you wonder about your sister, who wanted to be an actress, who performed in Off-Off-Broadway productions of Three Sisters, Our Town, and Under Milk Wood, but became discouraged by the competitiveness of the theater world, and how anyone would do anything to get a part in a play, and how finally the stress of auditioning proved too much for her, especially when she felt she was a better actress than the person who was given the part, which was almost all the time, and who eventually became an English teacher at a private high school in Brooklyn Heights, who also doubled as the head of the drama club, which involved directing the school play, one year The Man Who Came to Dinner, the next year As You Like It or even Rent. At least the head of the school and the parents of the students, mostly affluent corporate types, afforded her some of the respect she felt she deserved, and which she had never received anywhere else, not from her parents, and never from her brother. You wonder if she hates you for not spending more time with your mother in the years before she died, and with good reason.
Now you comb your hair in the bathroom mirror. At least you’re not growing bald like most people you know.
“I’ll call you later,” you say, one foot out the door.
I want to say, “I’ll be happy to come with you,” but I don’t.
Now we’re sitting in the backseat of a taxi crossing the Manhattan Bridge at 3 AM to your mother’s apartment on President Street in Park Slope. On one side the tip of Manhattan, where the new Freedom Tower is going up to replace the World Trade Center, and on the other side the long column of glass and brick that lines the East River, a ribbon of yellow light all the way up to the Bronx, the borough where Edgar Allen Poe lived for a few years in a little house in a park near the intersection of the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road, the lights of the tugboats and barges trailing off the water’s surface, a pale white moon hovering over the Navy yard in Brooklyn. While on the other side of the river the Citibank building in Long Island City looms over all the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, like a lighthouse, so all you have to do is look up and you know where you are. The water is shimmering. All the bodies, lost in dreamland, in all the apartments, alone, with someone, unable to sleep, curled in a fetal position, people clutching one another for solace or love or turned away from one another (“I sleep better on my side”) in the dark. Sleep is sometimes more important than love. Sometimes letting someone else sleep is the ultimate sign of love. (At the last minute, your hand on the doorknob, you relented: “Please come with me,” you said, in a voice I had never heard before: vulnerable, needy, pathetic, almost human.)
Francine bends towards me, turning the black cardboard pages of an ancient photo album, you and your sister and your parents on one of the numerous road trips from New York to California with side trips to The Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. There you are, standing beside your father, a cigar clenched in his hand. Francine and I sit side by side on the living room couch while you sit in the bedroom with your mother (aren’t you glad I came?) saying whatever you might say to a parent who just died. Or nothing. Francine is wearing a blue t-shirt turned inside out and a long madras skirt. Her gray hair smells like vinegar. The apartment is chilly, as night turns to day, and Francine doesn’t offer me anything to drink, not even a cup of tea, and why should she—her mother just died, I should be offering to bring her something. I should have brought flowers but it was the middle of night and nothing was open and I didn’t think about it until this moment when it suddenly occurs to me I have a twelve o’clock class. And I feel like I made a big mistake coming to your mother’s apartment, a place I visited only once when she was alive. I’ve never taken you to any of my old haunts, any place out of my past that’s important to me. I’ve never introduced you to my mother. As a consequence, this feels off kilter, we don’t even live together, you and I, we haven’t made any long term commitment to be together, we just exist one day at a time, as they say, as if we were recovering addicts who require all the patience and discipline in the world just to move forward inch by inch into a future we know nothing about. We never say what people say to one another when they feel like they want to spend the rest of their life together. “I love you” might be a starting point, but we haven’t approached that, not even close. There can be other things people say as well, terms of endearment that go a long way to ward off self-doubt and uncertainty, and you must admit there’s more than a shred of ambivalence in our relationship, initially from your end and now from mine, and that despite all this here I am in the middle of night with your sister and your mother, who just died, and a day later I’m standing next to you, slightly off to one side, in the cemetery in New Jersey (where one day you’ll be buried if you want—there’s enough room in the family plot), listening to a rabbi make a speech over your mother’s grave, a rabbi who never knew your mother but who could cobble together the facts of her life (which you told him, over the phone) into a eulogy and make it sound real.
Now, among the faces in the small crowd at the cemetery, there are some of your old girlfriends (you must have called them when I was teaching), who approach you after the rabbi finishes his speech and encircle your waist with their arms for a split second and press their cheeks against the collar of your jacket and tell you how much they liked your mother, how generous she was to them, so far away and long ago, but you don’t introduce me to any of them, you don’t say “I’d like you to meet my wife,” since I’m not your wife, I’m just this person you sleep with two or three nights a week, sometimes more often, sometimes less (and sometimes, if I may point out once again, we don’t even have sex when we’re together, I go to sleep before you and then I get out of bed while you’re sleeping, we don’t even have coffee together, or—heaven forbid—take a shower together as we used to do, not a chance). You don’t even introduce me to your first wife, Cody Walker, the author of Whiteness Intangible, a novel about a mother and daughter who live in a trailer park in upstate New York, and all the men in their lives who they sleep with for money. The mother and daughter sleep with the same men. I thought she wrote mystery novels, but her new book, according to the reviews, is “a welcome departure” from her best-selling detective series. I didn’t read the book but stood in a bookstore and flipped through it and inspected the jacket copy. A departure into what? She’s a narrow-waisted blonde with a dead look in her eyes, a gap between her front teeth, an apologetic smile, more vulnerable than I thought after looking at her photograph on the back cover of her book and hearing all the stories about her from you, the infidelities and lies, “the five wasted years,” all the plans you had made, the false promises. She embraces you for longer than the others and I think she’s whispering something in your ear but I don’t hear what she’s saying and for some reason as she walks by she touches my arm with her fingertips, the only person there who even acknowledges that I exist. Your mother had three sisters and one brother and all your cousins are at the funeral, people you don’t like, or so you told me on the taxi ride back to Manhattan the morning Bertha died, people you see only at funerals, and each of them, in turn, in an orgy of condolences, come up to shake your hand or offer their cheek or embrace you. Now I’m sitting in the back seat of a limousine, looking out the window, you in the middle and Francine on the other side, as if I’m actually a bona fide family member, riding down the Palisades Parkway to the George Washington Bridge. Now we’re gliding into the sunlight on the West Side Highway, heading south, my window half-open so I don’t have to breathe the air freshener or listen to the smooth jazz coming over the speakers in the back when my cell phone rings and I look at the number and it’s Natalie, she just arrived in the city, but of course I don’t answer and you shoot me a dirty look as if to say how could you (meaning “me”) be so stupid, so disrespectful, even though you rarely saw your mother in the last year of her life and the question of whether she was living or dead never seemed to make a difference until now. And now that she’s gone you suddenly realize how much she meant to you, and maybe you’re also realizing, if only temporarily, the importance of having a family in general, not for everyone but for most people, especially since you’re at the age—beyond the age—when many people you know are having children of their own, and what have you got to show for your life—just your latest girlfriend, one more girlfriend on a list that stretches from here to eternity and back. It’s your habit to blame every bad thing that ever happened to you on others; though sometimes, to your credit, you go to the opposite extreme, and take the blame for everything. If only you had done one thing, or acted one way, and not another, all the turmoil you might have avoided if only you’d been smarter. It’s important to learn how to diffuse situations before they erupt like volcanoes spewing lava and ash over a whole population, forcing people to vacate their makeshift houses in the foothills and take shelter in the high school gym. Important to understand the part you play in every situation and not pretend you didn’t see it coming, the storm clouds on the horizon, that you should have bought the car in for a tune-up or taken your umbrella when you knew there was a 70% chance of rain and the brakes don’t work as you round the curve and a two-ton semi is barreling down on you.
Then we go back to your apartment on West 16th Street, the limo will take Francine back to her apartment in Brooklyn, and I’m lying in your bed again while you take off your suit and fold your pants neatly over a hanger, and I think this is one of the longest periods of time we’ve ever spent together and I want to say “How are you feeling?” but I don’t and I realize I have to call Natalie back but instead I suggest we take a shower together like in the old days. It’s been a long day, I try to sound innocent about it all, I say: let me make you a drink and (when you don’t respond) I go into the kitchen, two glasses with ice, Smirnoff for me, Dewar’s for you, then I ask you to unzip my dress which crumples around me on the floor, it’s a day and a night since your sister called to say your mother died in her sleep and it’s early October, almost eighty degrees, one of the hottest days on record, a few weeks before Hurricane Sandy, and I take your hand and lead you like a supplicant to the bathroom where I turn on the shower and slip out of my bra and step out of my underpants while you unzip your trousers and balance yourself against the sink lifting one leg at a time and then hanging them on the hook on the back of the bathroom door, and by this time I’m already in the shower with the water pouring over my face and my hair streaming down my back and I take a bar of soap and tell you to turn around and I rub the soap into your shoulder blades and your ass and then I reach around and take your cock between my hands but you say “No” and push my hand aside, “No,” you say, “I can’t do it now,” and I say, “let me try,” it’s been about thirty-six hours since your mother died and we drove over the Manhattan Bridge to her apartment in Brooklyn in the middle of the night, and today we went to the funeral in the cemetery in New Jersey, which only reinforced my intention to be cremated, the idea of being buried in the ground terrifies me, more so than death itself, and I think of the time Natalie and I were making love and she asked me to slap her across the face and I did and she said “harder” but I couldn’t do it and she looked unhappy, and I wonder when she and I are going to see one another, whether we’re going to have sex together, or even touch one another, if that’s something we still feel after all this time, and I know she’s probably been with a hundred other women since our relationship ended, I don’t know for sure but that’s what I think, and then I turn you around and kneel in the shower and take your cock in my mouth with the water pouring over my face and arms and breasts and move my hand back and forth along the base until I can feel your fingers on the top of my head, and I move my tongue, and then my hand again, and tilt my face into the spray until I think I’m going to drown or go blind.
Now you put on a CD of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit,” a live recording from the 1950s at Carnegie Hall. Now you come back to life, but slowly, as I bring you coffee in bed—this is the day after your mother’s funeral and a week before I’m going to be observed by Ray DeForest in my American literature seminar, and I think (since you and I are spending so much time together) it might be a good moment to actually talk about my own life for a change, all the things I want, or don’t want, all my anxieties and fears, how a bad observation or even a negative comment can screw up your entire career, assuming this is the career you’ve chosen, that my fate will be decided by a group of people I barely know, people who smile at me one day and pretend they don’t know me the next, and after they write up their assessment they send my file to a campus-wide committee made up of faculty from different departments, and after that, if I receive positive letters from both of these committees, my file goes on to the Dean and from the Dean to the Vice President. I can’t tell you that I once had sex with the person observing me, even if it’s from a time before we met, I’ve never told anyone, not my oldest friends, Desiree, Wanda and Georgia, who tell me I’m crazy to continue our relationship. I’ve never told anyone about the night Ray DeForest came to my apartment when his wife was out of town or the time we had sex in my office after a faculty meeting, or how his wife called me every day for a month threatening to kill me if I didn’t keep my hands off her husband, and how Ray DeForest, now the chair of the English Department, called me as well and said he wanted to see me again, that his wife had been addicted to cocaine and had gone to rehab and since she came out was jealous of every woman he talked to, that he wanted a divorce so he could spend more time with me, that he couldn’t stop thinking about me, that it wouldn’t be the first time two people on the same faculty fell in love, even though one of them was married, it happens all the time, and when I paused for a minute (in love?) I could hear him breathing heavily at the other end and I told him that no I didn’t want to see him again, I didn’t want to have an affair with a married man, much less someone I worked with—this was after the night he spent in my apartment and the half-hour or so we spent in my office—he paused once, as if he was turning over every letter of every word I’d just said, backwards, forwards, upside down, but this time I couldn’t hear him breathing, just dead silence, as if he had a heart attack, until finally he said—like he was a different person entirely, Jeckel, Hyde, you name it—that I should never have slept with him if I wasn’t interested in having a relationship and that he didn’t realize I was such a baby (so immature!) and as far as he was concerned I could go fuck myself and hung up. That was a few years ago, my first semester as “a new hire,” though it seems like yesterday, he was the only other person I had sex with for the two years Natalie and I were together, and I’ve had little contact with him since, we’ve never been alone once, and I never dreamed he would one day become the chair of the English department, nor that he would be the person to observe me in my American literature seminar (he could have asked another colleague to do it), knowing I’m up for tenure and that a good observation (or a negative one) can determine my career, that if he wanted to he could fuck up my life totally, get revenge on me for not consenting to have sex with him on a regular basis, in my office, in his office, in a shabby hotel room in the late afternoon, with a window looking out onto an alley, the smell of the dumpster wafting up from below, another couple fucking in the room upstairs, and I wouldn’t be able to say anything.
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.
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.