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’m waiting for Robert. I have a cold sore on the corner of my lip (whenever I feel stressed out, my body reacts), when my cell rings, it’s Natalie—we haven’t seen one another in almost a year. She’s going to stay at the George Washington Hotel, right across from Washington Square Park, a place I’ve walked by a million times on my way somewhere else. It’s where she always stays when she come to the city, a room with a window looking out over the park, and where we used to meet when we first began seeing one another. The first time we had sex—room 33. The people upstairs were also making love; we could hear the bed creaking late into the night.
We were together for two years. The longest I’ve been with anyone.
Natalie’s father was provost at Boston College. Her mother owned an art gallery on Newberry Street specializing in 19th century American art, the Hudson Valley School, Thomas Cole, Asher Durant, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt. There’s a painting by Bierstadt on the living room wall of Natalie’s house in Provincetown, a storm coming over the Rocky Mountains. (He must have painted hundreds of them.) Natalie grew up with maids, beautiful dreadlocked Caribbean women who wore spotless aprons and wielded vacuum cleaners, their short black skirts and white blouses, and who came when her mother called. There was a rumor that Natalie’s older brother Victor tried to have his way with more than one of them. (“Talk about privilege,” Natalie liked to say, “he never had a job in his life.”) He would come up behind the maids when they were washing dishes and act like it was his right to slip his hands beneath their skirts and blouses. No wonder so many of the girls, who were hired through an agency, didn’t last very long.
Natalie sometimes made me feel, because of her upbringing, that she was towering over me from some great height, though in actuality she was a few inches shorter. Like she was doing me a favor by even talking to me. It was one of our many problems during the two years we were together—an inability to talk about things like class, and why I didn’t take going out to expensive restaurants for granted, or buying jewelry, a jade necklace, a broach with my initials, earrings with turquoise settings, all the things she gave me which I never wear.
“Don’t hold it against me,” she said, more than once, “just because my family has money.”
Because they have more money than your parents, you loser—that’s what she really meant.
I can see her in the house in Provincetown—exactly where she’s calling from—the corner room facing the ocean where I liked to read when I visited her. We lived together in Provincetown in the dead of winter, often for weeks at a time, when the town was almost empty. As soon as school ended, and I posted my grades for the semester, we took the train from Penn Station to Providence, and rented a car.
She tells me what she’s seeing: the long-legged herons searching for food in the marsh beyond the front porch where she’s standing, smoking an American Spirit. Or sprawled in one of the black leather armchairs (“I’m going inside now”), remnants of the distant past when her grandmother Alison (her mother’s mother) lived with her partner, Clay, a much younger man who had also been her assistant, and who was the executor of her estate. There’s a portrait of Clay above the fireplace that her grandmother painted, high cheekbones, blonde tousled hair, the tendons in his long neck, his aloof stare, like a bird of prey, or a ferret. The air of someone who takes luxury for granted.
There’s a photo on the mantlepiece of Natalie as a child, holding her grandmother’s hand outside the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She’s wearing a short plaid dress, it must be summer, and there’s a crowd of people sitting on the steps in the background.
“It’s amazing here, totally fucking amazing, you know what it’s like.”
She coughs, holding the phone away, as if embarrassed to be caught smoking a cigarette, as she should be, all the nights she woke up coughing uncontrollably, her body shaking, running to the bathroom down the hall to spit a mouthful of phlegm into the sink, lighting a smoke first thing over coffee the next morning. I can hear the wind howling through the wires, calling my name, from her to me and then back again, while the tourists outside the museum envelop me in their myriad languages, some of which I even know, and I can see Robert approaching from Fifth Avenue, on the other side of the street, and I realize I’ve forgotten what it was like for another person to give you what you need, and then take it away, how much I depended on Natalie’s generosity for the two years we were together (“whatever I have is yours”), and how being with Robert makes me starved for the details of daily life, like an animal abandoned by its owner scouring the backyard for scraps. Natalie likes to talk about everything she’s doing, and reciprocates by asking questions and then responding to the answers. (I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be with someone who’s really paying attention.) She focuses on the threads, the tangents, the way one thought segues into another. She allows for distractions, interruptions. It’s a way of talking—not a competition—that I understand perfectly. Didn’t realize how much I missed being with her until this moment.
I can see her in her sailor pants and a beret. I can see her with her face covered with Noxzema. I can see her with blue lipstick and her crocodile belt and the long silver hoops in her ears. A string of amber beads that extends below her waist. I can see the purse with the mother-of-pearl handle. Too much black eye shadow, leg warmers, a long black and white striped dress with a wide collar and a matching black and white jacket, wraparound sunglasses, blue eyes shielded by tiny gold-rimmed glasses. Her maroon bathrobe with wide lapels. Her washed out capri jeans tied at the hips with a gauzy scarf. Her small angry eyes. Nicotine-stained teeth. Her sulky voice, that chipped tooth, western style leather belt, flat shoes. The sweater dress with an Aztec design she was wearing the night we first met. She pulled it over her head in the darkness of room 33. Her lace-up camisole top with eyelet ruffles. Her nosebleeds, her painted toenails, her motorcycle jacket, her red suspenders. Her madras bermudas. Her pleated knee skirt. Her bright red cardigan and checkered culottes. Her golf cap. Her baggy overcoat, the blue veins in her eyes, her stubborn chin. Her eczema when she’s stressed out, which was almost always. Her mousy brown hair.
She’s calling for a purpose—she wants to see me. No tears, no anger, no guilt-mongering, no drama. She’s being careful, at least for her, almost casual, as if we just talked a few days before, when in fact we’ve had no contact (no emails, no phone calls) for over a year. If she had called five minutes later, Robert would have been here, he always arrives a few minutes late and never apologizes, and I might not have answered. But I’m alone on the crowded sidewalk, alone in the crowd, there’s already a line outside the museum stretching towards 6th Avenue, and I can say “I’ll see you tomorrow” and really mean it—since it’s true, I want to see her again, I’m happy she called—without worrying that Robert will be jealous, or possessive, which I know, from the interminable stories he tells me about his old girlfriends (as if I’m interested), is part of his nature, his modus operandi, so to speak, what he likes to do, even though I’ve never given him a reason to be jealous. I haven’t slept with anyone, man, woman, either, or, in the year since we met. I’ll take a lie detector test if you don’t believe me. Natalie and I broke up as soon as I told her (as a kind of confession I felt I had to make, and which backfired, though it seemed important to be true to myself at the time) that I wanted to sleep with men. I didn’t tell her I had already met Robert, that we had spent a few nights together. I left that part out. To be honest, during the time Robert and I have been together, a year which feels like a decade, I’ve been tempted more than once to go off with someone else, especially when the intervals where nothing was working out between us were growing progressively longer, where we go out to restaurants and he flirts with the waitress as if I wasn’t there. (And if I wasn’t there, what would happen? He would ask for her phone number? He would meet her after work?)
My friends look at me strangely when I tell them Robert and I met on the subway. And I realize they don’t know me very well.
Sometimes I feel more like Robert’s therapist or friend, instead of his lover, the person he sleeps with three nights a week; but in fact, to be honest, I am none of the above.
There are people at school, I’m surrounded by people all the time, most of them younger (the students), but not by much, and then the English department faculty, my so-called colleagues, some twenty or thirty years older, some way past the age they should still be teaching, who have no business in the classroom, who sit behind a desk reading the same notes they’ve been reading for years, barely looking up at the students who aren’t even listening, who are texting their friends or checking their emails. The students don’t even bother concealing their phones, the way they do in classes where the teachers are younger and more alert, where the teachers even threaten to confiscate the phones if the students don’t put them away. I’ve threatened to do it myself. It’s easy to resist the temptation to get involved with one of my colleagues, despite what happened (at a weak moment) with Ray DeForest, now the head of the department and the person who is going to observe me in my classroom in early November. The observation had to be postponed because of Hurricane Sandy. Now it was going to happen after the election. He keeps changing the dates. He puts notes in my mailbox pushing the date back a week, then another week. School closed during the hurricane and everyone is busy catching up but he promises it will happen—it has to happen—by the end of the semester. He’s going to observe my Melville-Poe graduate seminar. I had to cut Benito Cereno from my syllabus because of the hurricane. Every untenured professor (I can apply for tenure next year) must be observed each semester, and the observations go into my permanent record. It’s what the tenure committee looks at when they decide my fate, and a bad observation will not work in my favor, to say the least.
As we wander through the museum, it’s the first week of the de Kooning retrospective, Robert asks me what I’m doing tomorrow, and I tell him I’m having lunch with an old friend. I can read his mind and know he’s wondering if I’m going to meet one of my old boyfriends, though I’ve had very few relationships with anyone, relatively speaking. I’ve slept with numerous men once or twice, whose names or faces I can barely remember. I can tell that Robert wants to know the name of the person I’m meeting, which I purposely choose not to disclose, acting mysterious for a change like he always does when he refers to someone in his life, past or present. Part of me is hesitant about bringing Natalie’s name into our conversation, into our life, into our bed, since almost a year has passed since Robert and I met on the subway and I’m still not comfortable telling him some of the most important things about me—that I’ve been involved with women, well, one woman, Natalie, that I slept with a few other women, mostly when I was an undergraduate, that Natalie and I were a couple for two years, that we never lived together but spent weeks together in her house in Provincetown, the house she inherited from her family, seeing no one, driving out to Race Point in her old Honda on the coldest days and walking the beach, standing on the edge of the ocean with our arms around each other and the icy spray in our faces. Then she took my hand and we turned around, with our back to the water, and went home. So I say, finally, as we walk back through the lobby of the museum and into the street, “her name is Natalie,” and Robert says, apropos nothing: “Do you want to go to Montauk next weekend?” as if the question of who I was seeing doesn’t matter at all. He doesn’t say: “Natalie? You’ve never mentioned her before.” He pretends he doesn’t care, and maybe he doesn’t. (If I was seeing a man, of course, it might be different.) We’ve never taken any trips together, not even for the weekend, though he’s traveled alone, of course, to San Francisco, Providence, Chicago (who can keep track of it all?) to give lectures on Heidegger and Arendt. Or so he says.
“All they care about,” referring to the people who come to his lectures, “is whether Heidegger and Arendt slept together. They seem to think I was in the room with them while it was happening, that I have a secret movie of them in bed together, but the movie is all in my head, I can see it as well as anyone, and that’s what I tell them, it’s like a porno movie starring the famous Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, who began each of his classes, starting in 1933, with a salute to Hitler, shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ multiple times and expecting all the students to follow, taking note of the students who barely go through the motions or the few brave enough not to lift their arms at all—and the young Jewish woman, Hannah, who was sitting on the edge of the bed in her tiny room with its narrow window and low ceiling, a room for a midget, really, the wobbly desk where she worked late into the night, waiting for him to come.”
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he says to Hannah when he finally arrives at her door, roughly kissing the side of her neck and pushing her back onto the bed—she can smell his bad breath—“I had to go home first. My son is sick.”
Now we go to the Japanese restaurant on Greenwich Avenue and I watch him stare at the waitress, just like he did the last time we were here. She greets us like we’re old friends, bowing at the waist, though she’s not wearing a kimono, just a white button-down shirt and jeans, she can’t be more than twenty and probably weighs less than a hundred pounds, I can almost see the curve of her tiny breasts beneath her blouse, she resembles the young women depicted in the sex ads in the back of the Village Voice and I wonder what she does after she leaves her job at the restaurant, whether she has a secret life visiting middle-aged men in their midtown hotel rooms. Then I realize she’s wearing braces on her teeth and I feel sad for her, remembering how much I hated them when I was a teenager, how I was certain no one would ever want to kiss me, how I tried to hide them like a fool behind my thin lips whenever I met someone for the first time, how I refused to speak, how I walked around for two years like a zombie. And suddenly I realize that I’m sick of it all, the way he acts around other people, as if I’m not even there. I don’t want to watch him flirt with the waitress, as if they were on a stage and I was in the audience, the restaurant filling up with mostly non-Asian couples, the waitress carrying a tray with the plates of sushi (California roll, spicy tuna) which we ordered, and another round of sake (we both stare at her as she walks away and I must admit I’m attracted to her as well).
Now he says “I know what you’re thinking” and I say “What?” and he tells me, but he’s only half-right, he’ll never understand the other things I’m thinking about, that I’m often thinking two things at the same time. How many times I’ve stood in front of a classroom and discussed the concept of negative capability which John Keats first wrote about in a letter to his brother Tom, how you can have two contrary thoughts simultaneously and not go crazy, that you can love and hate someone at the same time, and that’s just for starters. But of course he’s incapable of understanding; this person with his PhD in philosophy from Columbia has no interest in other people, why they act the way they do, or even himself, though he spent three years in analysis right after college, or so he says, with a “Dr. Burke,” or “Sandy,” as he refers to her, and with whom he’s still in touch. He has no interest in life itself, which is why he’s so amazed that Heidegger (whom he idolizes and identifies with in an inexplicable way) could possibly have sex with Hannah Arendt, he can’t understand they were just like everyone else, though wasn’t it Arendt who said that Heidegger wasn’t really a man, he was a philosopher? Which could mean almost anything. More cerebral than most people, no doubt, but even the most intellectual types are engaged in some kind of relationship with their bodies, though maybe not. Maybe they just cuddled together, Hannah and Martin, in her tiny room. Maybe he just massaged her back.
I’m tried of his indifference to the things that are important to me, how he always looks at his watch if I go on talking too long. I’m tired of the Chinese woman he met on line at the post office, this happened before we met, of course, but he doesn’t stop talking about it, how she was waiting for him when he stepped off the plane in Shanghai, the visits to Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall, and the Japanese waitress, whom he might or might not sleep with, though it’s hard to imagine it, with or without her braces, and everyone else, in every situation, on every street corner, every subway car, every classroom (he’s on sabbatical this year, lucky him, to work on his book about Heidegger and Arendt), and once he confessed he’d had an affair with a student, only one, he said (though I don’t believe him), I was forty, he said, she was nineteen, a young Jewish woman (as if that mattered?), a dance student, almost the same difference in age as Hannah and Martin. I’m sick of hearing the stories of his old relationships, he thinks he can tell me anything and it won’t upset me, while I tell him almost nothing. I’ve always taken the coward’s way out—if I think I’m going to hurt someone, or make someone angry, I just don’t say it. I can’t tell him, for instance, the most important thing about me, or one of the most important things, something you might want to know if you were in a relationship with me, how when I was thirty-two years old I fell in love with Natalie Caseras, that the only other time I’d slept with a woman was during college, just as an experiment, when I was undergrad at New York University, living in the dorm, and that the relationship with Natalie Caseras lasted two years, that it was probably the most important relationship of my life so far.
I didn’t sleep with a man for almost four years before I slept with Robert, except for Ray DeForest, my colleague, now the chair of the English Department at the school where I teach in downtown Brooklyn, and that happened only once. Maybe twice. I didn’t sleep with anyone, man, woman, for over a year before I met Natalie. Then there were the two years with Natalie. I’m not sure why I started thinking about men after being with Natalie all this time. I felt a lot of pressure from her, and her friends, to act like I had no interest in men. I know I don’t want to be put in a box with a label pinned to my shirt pocket saying I was one type of person or another. I want the freedom to change my mind. I don’t want to be defined by anyone but myself. It seems healthier to love both men and women, as opposed to one or the other. I’m not saying it’s easy, and I don’t blame Natalie, who had slept with men, or boys, from age fourteen, into her early twenties. It was only when she was a senior in college that things began to change. She had a literature teacher, 19th century American women writers, a lesbian, to whom she could say anything.
“And she never touched me,” Natalie said, when she was telling me the story. “That’s the amazing part. If she had tried, it would have ruined everything. At the same time, I might have done anything she wanted. I’m sure of it. She had no secret motivation, she wasn’t trying to seduce me. She didn’t invent some pretext to invite me back to her apartment after school. She didn’t try to get me drunk. She was there to listen to me talk about my inane problems. To give advice. There was no other reason. It gave me hope, I must admit. The world is full of vultures and parasites who just wait for the right moment to pluck out your eyeballs. The world is full of sycophants who flatter you with the hope you’ll love them in return. Shit,” she said, in the voice I loved, as she leaned towards me and I could smell the whiskey and the smoke, the voice that had won me over in the first place. “I just hate this fucking world from top to bottom. Everyone except you.”
The Rail is proudly searlizing 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.