The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

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APR 2018 Issue

inSerial: part seventeen
Delusions of Being Observed

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. Falling back to sleep isn’t an option. I don’t even try. Or I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. If I lie perfectly still maybe sleep will happen by osmosis. I used to be able to will myself to sleep by letting my mind go blank, but that’s hard to sustain for more than a few minutes.

If you try too hard to do something (and this is true for everything) you’ll never get what you want. If you try to force something it will just break down right in front of you and then you might have to spend the rest of your life putting the pieces back together. It’s a law of the universe most people prefer to ignore. War is just one example of a circumstance where everyone loses, maybe the ultimate way of diminishing the possibilities of what life can be, and then there are all the mini-wars that go on between people, and then there are the wars that go on inside your head. I lie awake and beat myself up, the warring factions: myself v. me, or someone like me, who pretends she’s angry and tries to fight back. The voice in my head is loud and clear. Strident and a bit shrill. I’m shouting at Robert, at Natalie, at my mother. Part of the problem with Robert is that I try to keep my anger under wraps. I don’t fight back because I know he wants me to—it’s the way he engages with everyone, creating distance, filling in the gaps where not enough turmoil is happening. He likes to create conflict for its own sake just to see if there’s a way of resolving a problem that doesn’t really exist. Like making snow during a warm winter and the slopes are empty. Otherwise, the people who depend on steady accumulation for their livelihood will go out of business. You turn on the snow-making machines to create a diversion. Robert, Natalie, my mother. They are the beneficiaries of my angst.

It’s not hard to invent reasons to get down on yourself, if that’s what you want to do. All I have to do—it’s too easy—is push a button and it all starts, the little diatribes that go on inside, repeating themselves, like a bad sitcom. Diatribes targeted at myself, at others. Sometimes I switch channels and think of happier times: Autumn in the Berkshires, Marco and I walking home from school, senior year, kicking the wine-colored leaves out in front of us as we step off the curb. Taking our time as the light fades over the tops of the small hills. It’s pathetic that I have to go so far back to find a moment of peacefulness, but it always works. Maybe it’s the time I felt most alive. There was a song going on in my head non-stop, not something mournful, like one of Schubert’s sad lieder set to a poem by Goethe, but more upbeat like a concerto by Mozart, for flute or clarinet, agile and secular and down to earth all at the same time. Like all the birds had come to rest on the same branch and were singing in unison. All the little sparrows and doves. We open up the couch in the basement of Marco’s house. I put my arms through the sleeves of my sweater and reach behind me and unfasten my bra. His father’s doing physical therapy; his parents are in the hospital in Pittsfield for the day. We can fuck anywhere, any time. And we do.

Sometimes I get out of bed at five in the morning and sit at the small round table in the kitchen alcove and read over student papers and drink coffee or study the windows of the building across the street and think of some moment ahead when things will be better. One by one the lights come on and I can see the solitary shadows of my neighbors moving on the shade, all the people I don’t know. More than once I’ve seen two men making love in the early morning light with the curtains open. It’s as possible to imagine the future as it might be to replay the past. I’m only thirty-five, I tell myself, and there’s still a lot to do.

And there he is, ghost-like, asleep, his head on the pillow I had to take down from the shelf in the closet when we arrived home (as a person who sleeps alone, I have no use for more than one pillow, except to prop myself up when I read), just a naked body under the blankets. The first person I’ve slept with since the night with Natalie in Provincetown over a year ago and that doesn’t really count since she wasn’t even in bed when I woke up, and we were both too furious with one another to make love the night before. “I’ve gone for a long walk,” she wrote. She left the note on her side of the bed so I was sure to find it. I could almost hear the conciliatory tone in her voice, as if she was still hoping we could repair the damage from the night before, but I know she doesn’t mean it. “Be back later.” And that was that.

I called a taxi, packed my things, and rode back to the train station in Providence.

It’s seven in the morning and I’m not going to wake him. I can see the ladder of bones down his spine and the knot of flesh just above his ass and the scar on his shoulders. A knife-wound, he said, the night before, when I touched it. The skin on his back is mottled in places, small inflamed areas, islands, clusters of broken skin. The scar from the knife dates back to high-school, a fight over a girl. I encountered the scar as he was moving on top of me in the dark and when I touched the indentation in his skin I felt his whole body shudder for a micro-second. Not a recent wound, but still sensitive. I’d forgotten that a body in bed beside you was all about living in the present. I didn’t want to look beyond the next few hours when he might be here, or not, and I’d wake again the next morning, and the morning after, and no one would be there. I’m not thinking about Robert or Natalie or my mother or even Marco. It’s like giving up the ghost inside, a perfect storm where no one cares whether you go down with the ship or plunge into the wall of foam, the vortex of words, incomplete sentences, the accumulation of everything you never said, all the unspoken truths, some of them lies you want to believe, even if no one else does, even if you know you’re kidding yourself. A year doesn’t sound like a long time not to be with anyone but it can feel long if you add up the numbers of days and nights and all the feelings of longing and sleeplessness that accompanies an extended period of solitude, even a self-imposed solitude. I know it’s all for the best, and being with this person is my reward. A live body, lying on the side of the bed I shared with Natalie, and sometimes with Robert, though he preferred sleeping at his apartment, and countless others before them whose names I can’t remember. All I have to do is get back into bed, put my hand on his shoulder and press the length of my whole body against him from behind. Turn him on his back and put his cock in my mouth and climb on top of him before he’s even fully awake. There’s no space between thought and action and as soon as it occurs to me I reach out and take his cock in my hand. I remember the first time I touched a boy’s cock, my cousin Eddie, down in the basement, always in the basement, while our parents were upstairs. He was fourteen with a mop of yellow hair that hung over his forehead. His skin smelled like vinegar. I was twelve with a ponytail and he showed me how to move my hand. Then it all spurted out on me, on my face, on the front of my blouse, and he turned his head away and moaned into the pillow. It never occurred to either of us that he could make me feel something similar. All he had to do was put his hand between my legs, but he didn’t. The next time we met he wanted me to put his cock in my mouth but I was too scared.

It was three in the morning when I finally fell asleep and now it’s seven and the building is quiet. We can start the day where we left off the night before. The only sound is a truck on the street at the stoplight, 9th Street and Avenue C, and a far-off radio playing a song from another place and time.

“Turn Turn Turn,” by the Byrds.

It’s been more than a year since I wrote to Robert telling him it was over. It was important to put it into words, even if our relationship had ended, in effect, a few months before. It had ended, one might say, before it even started, though I remember in the early days I held out some hope. What was I thinking? The letter was the official ending, and he never wrote back, and I haven’t seen him since.

More than a year since I took the train up to Provincetown and Natalie was standing in the sunlight outside the station. Waiting, like a kidnapper, a thief, to take me back to her lair in Provincetown, and torture me, which is what she did, as soon as I walked in the door. Just a matter of hours—minutes—before it all fell apart. All the expectations. Who was I kidding? The moment I saw her standing outside the station in her red beret I knew it was all a mistake. Some little kernel inside me that harbored the truth began opening as the light poured in. You can only kid yourself for so long. It’s not hard to forget why something ended the way it did. You can’t reclaim the past and expect it to be different, just because you want it to be. Sometimes you have to fall on your face and hands before you learn your lesson.

The taxi from Provincetown to Providence took two hours. The driver, a young Egyptian man, told me his life story along the way, but it was just a flurry of words. It was obvious from the first word onwards that he had come a long way in life while I was taking a few steps forward and then a few steps back and never getting anywhere, not really. All I can do is hold my breath as we drive past New Bedford—an all-night Dunkin’ Donuts sign blinking on the horizon—and I say a little prayer for Herman M. for the last time.

And then I’m on the train heading home, and no one is sitting next to me, and no one is waiting for me when I step off the train at Penn Station, and no one is in my apartment to greet me when I turn the key.

Saturday, March 1. I take the F train to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Rene Magritte show. Wait on the ticket line ten minutes only to realize the show closed a week ago. I stand in the crowded lobby, scolding myself for my absentmindedness, my general dereliction of duty in the name of being alive. It’s not the first time I put off doing something until it was no longer possible. I’ve become a time-waster, a procrastinator—all the characteristics I complain about in others. Foolish to live in the dirt of New York City if you’re going to sequester yourself in your apartment and never go out. The fact that I’ve already lived here half my life is no excuse. A small town girl who came to the big city and never left. I’ve been to the museum dozens of times over the years. Natalie had a membership and we often went together so I could get in for almost nothing. The admission has gone up to $25. I turn away from the cashier, shaking my head.

It’s easy to take things for granted in New York, to put off till tomorrow what you thought you might do today, and then tomorrow passes and you lose track of something you had wanted to do, but you can’t remember what, and now there’s something else even more urgent, and you only have time to do one thing and not another, so you end up doing nothing. I like going to museums and galleries and listening to music and going to the ballet. I’ve travelled on the L train to Bushwick where there are new galleries opening every week and on the Lower East Side, within walking distance from where I live, Delancey Street, Orchard, Ludlow, and further south into Chinatown. When I first moved to the city that neighborhood was off limits, especially at night. Now, like the Meatpacking District, it’s one of the fancier neighborhoods in the city. I’d been in New York five years before I went to a concert at Lincoln Center and now I go all the time. (The fountain outside the Metropolitan Opera is a good place to meet people—even better than the garden at MOMA.) I like going to dance concerts. There’s a space in Long Island City called The Chocolate Factory where I see dance and theater and then there’s St. Mark’s Church, on 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, also within walking distance, where I go to dance performances and poetry readings. I once considered taking a poetry workshop at The Poetry Project, located at St. Mark’s Church, but I never did. I can’t tell you how often I thought of Marco, and how much he’d like it here. He was the one who wrote poetry all during high school. Often, after we made love in his basement, he read me his latest poems. I would read poems to him by someone else. I was interested in W.H. Auden, who I later learned lived not far from me, in the East Village, and especially a poem called “September 1, 1939,” which he wrote on the day that Germany invaded Poland, and which became well known for its sense of immediacy and urgency after 9/11. It seemed to strike a chord in my young brain as well. I was also interested in Wallace Stevens, who lived at the same time as Auden, but who almost never talked directly about his personal life in his poems. You had to peel off layers to get the sense that anyone was there at all. I’m not sure when Marco stopped writing poetry but I do remember when I visited over Christmas after I first went to New York and left Marco behind he told me he hadn’t written anything since I was gone. It was the last time we made love, that first winter after I started college, not on the floor of Melville’s room (I no longer had the key to his old house), but back in his damp basement, his father—in the advanced stages of Alzheimer—shouting out to him from his wheelchair in the room above. The chill in the basement had never bothered me before, but now I felt it in all the crevices in my bones, the back of my shoulders especially as Marco came inside me for the last time. Then we lay under the blanket smoking our last cigarettes together. That’s when he said he had given up writing poetry. I think he said it because he knew it would make me sad. I asked him to read a new poem and he shook his head.

There’s a restaurant on Avenue C with a garden where I like to sit at a table in warm weather and read and drink a double espresso, and then another. A place to meet people, I’m sure, though I keep my eyes to myself most of the time. It’s easy to look up and see someone looking at you and smile back as if the whole point of going to the cafe was to meet someone. And of course, it could happen at any moment. Yet no one approaches my table and asks if they can join me. The people who come here know better, for some reason, which is why I like it. I feel safe. Everyone is talking in a different language and everyone sitting alone is reading a book or working on their lap tops. No one is sitting alone staring into space.

An airplane breaks the misty silence as it crosses the cloud line leaving a trail of blue vapor above the trees. And someone plays bongos at an upstairs window and sings the chorus from “Day-O,” the old Harry Belafonte number my parents liked to play when I was a kid.

You can spend most of your time in doors, as well, if that’s what you want to do. You can make an appearance out in the world, but only when you feel like it. At a party, or a gallery opening, or simply a trip to the corner store. You can imagine that everyone is observing your every move. All your neighbors. People nod to you and greet you by your first name. Everyone is asking about you. “I haven’t seen her in awhile,” they might be saying to one another. “Where have you been hiding yourself?” It’s easy to forget that New York is a place where no one particularly cares what you do or don’t do, at least not for very long, as long as you’re not disturbing the peace, or leaving a trail of blood in your wake. It’s easy to feel indifference in the face of the constant bombardment of things to do and people passing you on the street. And everyone looks like someone you knew in a past life. And at any moment you might see someone you knew in high school. Or someone, from a more recent part of your life, with whom you spent a night, the most casual of encounters. A shadow crosses your path. “Don’t I know you?” And of course, you do. It all comes back.

Different from small town life where you can nod good morning to the same people every day, on the same street corner, in the same booth at the same greasy spoon, where the same waitress takes your order. But there’s also a lot of passion smoldering under the surface, and part of me wanted that back, but on my own terms for a change, whether in a town or in a city, it no longer mattered.

(Was I really so delusional? Don’t I know myself better by now? Did I really think it was going to work out with Natalie? Who was this guy I met on the subway and why did I think it was going to last more than one night? More than a day? A few hours? Who am I kidding? Why do I prefer anonymity to intimacy? That’s not true. I want intimacy, but I choose people who are as challenged by it as I am The Chair of the English Department? Why did I let him into my bed? Just because he showed up at my door one night? What’s the matter with me?)

If it was a choice between staying home and going out, I opted for the world I could control, my little corner of the universe on 9th Street and Avenue C. There was the bed where Natalie slept on the night I told her about Robert and she walked out the door. And before them nameless others—I’ve inhabited this apartment for more than a decade—underage people I should never have let in, people starved for a few hours of company, just like me. And some scrambled eggs, on the side, as well. A warm body, willing to do anything. Some of them, the older ones, were married; there were women at home waiting up for them. An hour between the sheets went a long way to cut through the tedium of married life, or so they thought. There was always the possibility I might be the gateway drug to something stronger, a life-changer, and that for once all the right pieces would fall into place. Rarely did anyone say: Here’s my phone number, let’s do this again. People went to bars for one reason. We were all on the same wave-length. All you had to do was reach out, in the literal sense, put your hand on the sleeve of someone’s jacket or touch someone’s knee beneath the table (and make it seem like an accident), or (if you were standing up at the bar, talking to a total stranger who offered to buy you a drink of your choice, which just might be Dewar’s on the rocks) lean forward so for a moment your breaths mingled (surreptitiously or out in the open, what did it matter?) in the air between you. A prelude to a kiss, and everything that followed.

No one—no one—(shall I say it agin?)—without exception—had shared my bed, if that’s the best way to say it, for more than a year. It had been that long since I broke up with Robert, since the disaster in Provincetown with Natalie, when for a moment I thought she was going to strangle me in my sleep. I had been tempted to get out of bed in the middle of night and call a taxi to take me anywhere, even to a motel on the edge of town, though most were shuttered for the winter, but I didn’t. I even closed my eyes and managed to nod out for a few hours and when I woke up it was dawn and she was no longer there.

I’d read about something—a movie, a show in a museum, a concert—in The New York Times or in The New Yorker—and I’d add it to a list of “things to do.” I received announcements via email as well. My students encouraged me to join Facebook, but I refused. It felt like a potential waste of time, one more distraction I didn’t need. I tried to keep a list for everything, in the same way Anna Wolf, the heroine of Doris Lessing’s novel, The Golden Notebook, kept separate notebooks for every aspect of her life: the political, the personal, the past, the present. Each of the notebooks has a different color. Until finally she meets someone who actually writes in her notebook. They share the same notebook. That’s the golden one. Anais Nin liked to share her diary with her lovers as well. She liked to read her diary to her lover every night. I wished I could be as obsessive as Lessing and Nin. Focus all my attention on one thing and wake an hour early so I’d have time to devote myself to something I wanted to do. I wanted to make something out of nothing—isn’t that the whole point of life? Some mornings I feel a surge of energy and self-assurance and I can see how it’s possible to write a whole book simply from my imagination; but the feeling, alas, doesn’t last. It all flows away even before it begins. There’s a cigarette burning in the ashtray, my reflection in the window. Easier to fade into the stillness (and chaos) of my mind than try to translate it all into words. Possibly, when I went out looking for people on the subway or in a bar, I was looking for a catalyst, a new element that would cast everything that had come before in a new light. So when I thought about Robert or Natalie, or even Marco, I could see it all from a different angle or point of view. All I can do is build a wall to protect myself against the moment when the armies of the night attack unexpectedly. They always do, at least in my dreams.

The odds were against me, but I kept on trying.

I wanted to do everything, go everywhere. It was a healthy feeling, if a little frustrating, since I barely left the house except to go to school, Tuesday and Thursday, and then a third day if there was a faculty meeting or an event where my presence was required. I was still up for tenure, though all my colleagues assured me it was “in the bag.” Some time in the spring, during the winter that would never end, I’d hear definitely. I’d already applied for a sabbatical for the following year which meant, if everything worked out, I’d be off from mid-May 2014 to September 2015. Enough time to write a book, if only I had a clue.

I had a good appetite, but almost no will power. I wouldn’t die of starvation if I didn’t see the Magritte show, so it was easy to neglect it until the last moment, or until it was too late. The only thing I had to do was teach my classes, and make myself presentable so I could stand in front of a classroom and not feel like a fool. The students didn’t care how drunk I’d been the night before or who I was sleeping with, though I’m sure they would be interested if I wanted to tell them. I had to pay attention to what I was wearing. I had to check myself in the mirror before leaving the house. I walked through Tompkins Square Park to the R train on 8th Street and Broadway, and a half-hour later I was there, at the corner of DeKalb and Flatbush in Downtown Brooklyn. I said hello to the security guard (first name David, I once heard) and passed through the gates. The cherry tree was in bloom in front of the Humanities Building, where I had an office, a safe haven, in the midst of an otherwise alien world. It was the place where I had conferences with my students during office hours. Some of the students showed up without making an appointment to confide a grievance about my class or one of my colleagues, or just to talk about their personal lives. The graduate students wanted friendship, a feeling of comaraderie, which I tried to provide, in small doses, as I sat in my office and read papers about Whitman, Poe, Emerson, Dickinson and Melville, the usual suspects, and drank weak coffee from a styrofoam cup. Ray DeForest still smiled at me like an idiot when we passed in the hall, a smile which indicated he knew something about me no one else knew, as if I was Hester Prynne and he was Arthur Dimsdale and we both shared a secret. We could become the pariahs of the English Department if anyone found out we’d been lovers. He was the adulterer, I was the misguided ingenue who went along for the ride. The woman’s version, in most cultures, is always wrong. She can be gang-raped and it’s still her fault. Ray DeForest never called me up or came to my office and I couldn’t imagine him showing up at my doorstep as he did five years ago as if it was the most normal thing in the world and there was no question I would let him in and fix him a drink. “No ice,” he said. It was just a simple gin and tonic and I made one for myself. We sat on the living room couch, like old friends, and that was it, except of course there was more, the story overlapped with other stories, and when I woke up the next morning he was sleeping in my bed.

Preparing for class didn’t take me long these days; if anything, I was over-prepared. I’d been teaching the same classes for six years. I could recite whole chunks of The Scarlet Letter or “Song of Myself” or “Bartleby the Scriviner” by heart. The rest of the week I sat in my apartment and stared into space. I made plans with friends to go for dinner but cancelled at the last minute. Sometimes I walked through Tompkins Square Park in the early evening, ignoring the stares of the people on the benches. I could feel their eyes on me as I approached. The denizens of the park had changed since I first moved to the neighborhood. The anarchist crew had diminished as a presence, there were fewer dope dealers, and even the most dissolute among them were more clean cut. At some other point in time I might have stared back with the hope of initiating some kind of interaction that might lead to something else. Now I walked with my eyes on the broken cobblestones. On warm days I thought of going to the park to read but when I arrived I kept on walking. Sitting on a bench meant someone might sit down beside me and start a conversation and that was a possibility I wanted to avoid. The temptation was too great. It was hard not to feel desire for everyone I saw, including all the students in my classes, as they leaned over my desk after class, or visited me in my office, but if I was going to survive I needed to create distance, to protect myself. I had already made a big mistake by sleeping with the chair of the department; the last thing I needed was to get involved with one of my students.

My intelligence, for once, was stronger than my hunger. I was trying to define my life differently, or re-define it, if only as an experiment, to see what might happen if I deprived myself of what I wanted most. I tried to remember what it felt like when I first came to New York, and every day, every street, every store window, was a new adventure. One Sunday morning I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I made love to a stranger on the roof of my building on the 4th of July with the fireworks like a shower of sparks lighting up the sky over the East River. He reminded me, for a moment, of Marco, but of course he was someone else. I took the F train to Brooklyn and got off anywhere just to walk around an unfamiliar neighborhood in the middle of the day. I went to the Bronx Zoo. I went to the Ramble in Central Park. I arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before it opened and waited on the steps looking down at Fifth Avenue and the windows of the old apartment buildings across the street. Who could afford to live in such places? I went to all the buildings where Melville lived. I ate in a restaurant on Gansevoort Street and tried to imagine what Melville thought about all day as he sat at his desk in the Customs House. I heard someone following me down a street in the East Village in the middle of night. All the women in my classes at school talked about being assaulted or raped. Either it had happened to them or to someone they knew. In those days I could go out all day and stay up all night studying if necessary and even now I don’t need much sleep, maybe three or four hours. I wrote a list of “things to do” but the pad on which I wrote the list disappeared under piles of books and papers. None of it meant anything. I wasn’t even sure whether I liked Magritte’s paintings. That’s why I wanted to see the show. But in reality, I hated the crowded museum, where everyone was talking in a foreign language, where people stood in front of the art work listening to a voice on a tape telling them what to feel. I was still a bit of a tourist myself, though I’d been living in New York almost half my life. I turned away from it all. I would take a brisk walk home from the museum to make up for my mistake. And that’s when I saw him. He was coming in and I was leaving.


Lewis Warsh

Lewis Warsh (1944–2020) 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.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues