We didn’t live together, except for the time in Provincetown, where we go for weeks at a time, starting right after Christmas when no one is around. Time slows down when the world is void of people and when you go outside all you see is the ocean, the shells and pebbles embedded in the sand shifting under your feet, the cold sky overhead and the whitecaps pummeling the shore. We like to stand right at the edge with the tide coming in and feel the spray on our faces. All the private condos and motels are shuttered for winter. I’ve never been to Provincetown in summer, but I’ve heard stories, it’s like a circus, 24/7. We like to drive out to Race Point and park in the empty lot, big enough for a few hundred cars, and walk the beach with our arms around each other until our faces are raw from the cold. The birds on the beach remind me of the birds in Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Going down to the beach in Long Island and observing the he-bird crying to his lost lover (the she-bird who abandoned him) was his first experience of empathy—the beginning of his life as a poet. The bird takes center stage, like an opera singer, and the words of his aria melt into the night.
I had never lived so close to the ocean. Most of the restaurants were closed for the winter, except for Napi’s, where we went on New Years Day, hoping to get a table near the fireplace, and where the waiters and the owner of the restaurant, Napi himself, knew Natalie by her first name, since her grandmother and mother and her whole family had been coming to Provincetown since the 1960s. I could sit at a desk and hear nothing but the brittle sound of the wind battering the roof of the porch, all the cranes and egrets flying into the sun. I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation. I was writing about Melville, his love for men, his marriage to Elizabeth Shaw, what was going on in his mind after he became discouraged as a writer, his relationship to Hawthorne, what it felt like to be queer in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century. I was interested in Melville’s life, as much as the work, how he didn’t die young but some part of him died by the time he was forty. Melville was my first love, I’d spent half my life thinking about him, I grew up in his shadow, so to speak, within walking distance of the Curtis Hotel in the center of Lenox where Melville took Hawthorne for a celebratory lunch when The Scarlet Letter was published. But I was past the point where writing a dissertation was anything more than a chore, all the notes I’d taken over the last decade, all the footnotes, all the secondary sources, all the quotes, one sentence after another. I was trying to pretend it meant something more than a ticket to a job, and by then I already had a job, they had hired me ABD which means I better have the dissertation done before I’m up for tenure. By the time I met Robert it was already done. ABD means All But Dissertation, if you don’t know, and sometimes people never finish, people I knew from graduate school got bogged down, stuck in the middle, and sabotaged their careers as academics before they even began. Jobs were scarce, and I was one of the lucky ones. Here I am in downtown Brooklyn, the center of the world. I wanted to finish my dissertation so I could write something else. I wanted to write my own stories; I was finished writing about other people. I had written stories in high school but had burned them all once I came to New York, though I think my high school boyfriend Marco probably has copies, if he bothered to save them. Poor Melville. Poor Bartleby. Poor everyone. There was no way to express his love for Hawthorne, or any other man. I wanted to say something about what happened on the whaling boats and on all those long voyages to the South Pacific when he was cooped up for months on end with the other sailors. And I wanted to say something about what happens when you feel ambivalent about your sexuality, when everything you want is just out of reach. I feel that same ambivalence most of the time. I projected myself on Melville a bit too much. That’s what my thesis advisor said. He thought I was emphasizing the life instead of the texts, and maybe I was, but so much has already been written about all the books, and less so—despite the numerous biographies—about this part of his life. Writing about Melville was a way of avoiding my own problems. Most of the time all the pieces of my life blended together in a way that made sense, but sometimes one thing overshadowed the rest. Natalie accused me of neglecting her while I was finishing my thesis and teaching. Why didn’t I finish the fucking thing? It all felt fragile, this world I made for myself. I wanted some answers but they never came.
With Robert, I need a private detective, an expert in palmistry, to elucidate his mood swings, his need to turn every moment into a potential minefield. Sometimes I hesitate before saying what I’m thinking; I parse my words so they won’t be misunderstood. All my friends think I’m making a mistake, there’s no way our relationship will go beyond a certain point, though Robert—on the rare occasions we talk about the future—says we should take it all for granted, enjoy it while it’s happening, one night at a time, the future will take care of itself, he trots out all the clichés as if I was born yesterday, everything I want to hear but don’t really believe, and what keeps me awake is the puzzle of it all, the question mark at the end of every sentence, the way the perspective keeps changing, so things which appear closer are really farther away, while the next day everything seems to be happening in another galaxy that has nothing to do with us, and all I know is that each time we’re together I hope something will be different, and sometimes it is and I walk away thinking there’s possibility after all, I’m not just kidding myself, like everyone thinks, and then the next time I see him it’s as if we’re back at the beginning, with the same problems as before, square one. We never leave square one.
Part of me actually enjoys the time we spend together (even the confrontations which never get resolved) but sometimes all the rest of it doesn’t make sense. And it occurs to me I’m better off alone, that the mold in the walls and windowsills of his apartment are making me sick, that I could go out with whomever I wanted. I’ve always been a problem-solver, the person everyone turns to for advice about their relationships, even my parents and their impossible marriage which seemed only to have highs and lows, and where the lows finally won out, so one day I return home from school and there’s my mother sitting alone at the dining room table drinking a Jack Daniels with ice at four PM, a box of tissues to the right of the glass, in the big house we live in just outside the center of Lenox, the town in Western Massachusetts where I was born and where I lived until I was seventeen and moved to New York to study American literature at New York University. I sometimes long for the moment when I sat at the desk in Natalie’s house in Provincetown and contemplated every moment of my life with razor-like clarity, wiping the cobwebs from my eyelids, shedding the blinders—my reflection staring back at me like a stranger from another world. People have the right to lie to themselves, if that’s what they want. You can make up a million stories about why life turned out so badly. You can blame your next door neighbor who spied on you at night when you were getting undressed, your mother who told you you were stupid and wouldn’t amount to anything, the bully who forced you to fork over all the money in your pocket, including your bus fare, so you had to walk home, the father who rarely talked to you, the writing teacher who told you your best story needed the most work, and why not write about something other than yourself for a change? That’s what he said, Mr. Luria, my high school English teacher, as we sat in the little cubicle he called “my office.” Do you think your problems are the most important thing in the world? He was accusing me, without saying it, of being a narcissist, and he was more than half-right, and part of me wanted to put my hand on his knee just to see what would happen. I stared out the window at the storm raging over the ocean. We were at the outer edge, as far as you can go. When the fucking Mayflower showed up, spotting dry land, after two miserable months on the ocean—this is what they saw.
It’s just me, thinking aloud, at a desk in someone else’s house. I know that my presence here is contingent on being Natalie’s girlfriend, her lover. That’s why I’m here. Regardless, I feel like I’ve found my place, and the rest of the world, and all the people in it, all the people who cast their eyes downward when we pass them holding hands on the busy street, who avoid eye contact with us on the subway, can evaporate for all I care. There’s too much sadness out there to deal with, and I’m just this one person. “When Melville was thirty-two,” I say out loud, to no one, “he had already written Moby Dick. He sat at a desk in a house in the country, not far from where I was born, and wrote it, sentence after sentence, and no one cared.”
Now I can feel his hand between my legs and I’m still asleep and it’s morning and I can see him hovering over me in the light coming in through the lace curtains and a mourning dove is singing plaintively on the window ledge just like always. “What time is it?” I say, and he says, “I can’t sleep.” Now he tells me a dream about his mother and I can hear him weeping in the dark. In a few hours I’ll be standing in front of a classroom talking about Melville while the chairman of the English Department, Ray DeForest, my former lover (if you can call someone you had sex with once—twice—a former anything) observes me from a corner of the room. I can see him scribbling on his yellow legal pad. What could he be writing? Robert is on top of me and in a few minutes it’s over and maybe I’ll be able to go back to sleep. I was up till one in the morning reading my notes about “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the story by Melville which I’ve taught more times than I can remember. So why am I worrying?
Now we sit opposite one another in a restaurant called Mumbles on East 17th Street. Our table is near the window, a few steps below street level, and I can see the legs of all the people walking by, but not their faces, and Natalie says: “Why don’t you look at me?” and I say, “it’s hard for me, this is difficult,” and she says, “you don’t look happy,” and then she says she heard about my new boyfriend from some of our mutual acquaintances and I look at her as if to say, “So?,” meaning what did they say about him, did they say he’s an asshole? Why can’t you tell me?
And then she says, “no, they didn’t say he was an asshole, maybe one of them did, Desiree, she was the one who said it, but the others, what they said, almost in the same words, was that he didn’t show any interest in them, acted like he had something more important on his mind, kept looking at his watch, no eye contact, like he was just there to please you, to meet your friends because you wanted him to, that was the only reason, even when they asked him about himself and the book he was writing, like he couldn’t care less.”
And I said: “Sometimes it’s hard to know what he’s thinking, that’s true, and there are a million things I can’t talk about with him, but there are other things”—and for a moment I can’t think what they are, the things about him I like—“so I’m trying to be patient and figure it all out, and I have this job, meanwhile, that’s just getting more and more demanding, soon I’m up for tenure, and there’s something about academia I hate, everything people say about it is true, the pettiness, the insincerity, but I love the students—so it’s another kind of love/hate conflict, like with him, like with everything.”
“Except us,” Natalie says, out of the blue.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean with me,” she says, “it’s just love. It’s all about you.”
And I remember lying in bed with her, in my apartment on East 9th Street, pillows propped against wooden headboard, and saying to her, as the early morning light flooded the room, that I had made a decision to sleep with men as well as women. I said it quickly, “something I want to tell you,” in the name of honesty, as far as you can go and still sound believable, not telling her that Robert and I had already met, on the subway of all places, but even before that happened the idea of being with men was never not on my mind. It was as close to the truth as I could go. She turned away from me, as if she was protecting herself from my words, like thorns from a cactus that burrow into the skin, and I realized there had been no warning, no build up, no sense that something was wrong, it was like a doctor telling you of a terminal illness just when you thought life was great and you couldn’t feel better. She drew the sheet around her bare shoulders as if she was cold. A rooster was crowing on a nearby roof and the mourning doves had congregated on the fire escape to eat the seeds Natalie left out over night, and the couple in the apartment above, Ralph and Deena, were playing music, as they always did, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet. I sometimes had coffee with Deena and she told me more than I wanted to know about her relationship with Ralph. Sometimes in the morning I could hear them fighting. Other nights I could hear sex, and no doubt they could hear us as well. Sometimes they played music to drown out the noise—but their bed needed new boxsprings and the sound vibrated from floor to ceiling. Deena said it almost didn’t matter whether they were fucking or fighting, it all amounted to the same thing. They threw things at each other when they were fighting. She showed me the bruises on her arms and shoulders. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t want to inflict physical pain on anyone. Although sometimes emotional pain can’t be avoided.
As soon as I began talking with Natalie about men I knew I was making a mistake. I knew she knew I had already slept with someone—I wouldn’t be talking about it if it hadn’t already happened. Robert and I had gone back to my place after we met on the subway. Right here, in this bed. I hadn’t told anyone. Robert didn’t know about Natalie. If I had been smart, maybe I should have waited a day or two after first meeting Robert, and then going out with him, at least once, before going to bed. We got off at the West Fourth Street subway stop and walked across town to my apartment. First we had coffee at Caffe Reggio on Macdougal Street. Then we walked, sometimes in silence, through Washington Square Park, and then through Tompkins Square Park. It was only when we reached my building that I asked him whether he wanted to come up. We had known each other for an hour or two, maybe that’s all the time you need. I used to go to bars and meet people and go home with them after a brief conversation, mostly during my first year or two in New York when I missed Marco, my high school boyfriend, who was back in Lenox.
At least that was my excuse.
Sometimes a little dishonesty goes a long way. But in this case, sleeping with a man wasn’t something I was contemplating, it was actually happening, and the last thing I wanted to do was lie to Natalie. It was a year ago this fall and I was teaching more than I wanted and serving on useless departmental and school-wide committees so I’d have something to show my tenure committee when my time came up, and no doubt this would be the first and only breeze of the day—barely lifting the pale white curtains over my bedroom window. I remember how she rolled over onto her side and got out of bed, packed her things (without looking at me, without saying a word) and walked out the door. We had planned to go to breakfast before she went back to the apartment she was subletting in Greenpoint, the top floor of someone’s house, and then tomorrow she was going to Provincetown for a month, and I was going to join her over winter break, just like I had done the year before. But what I said changed everything. The idea that I was still interested in men made her literally sick (or so she told me later) and angry, and the reason she left so abruptly was she didn’t want to start shouting at me, didn’t want to call me a hypocrite, which of course I was, and even worse. There was nothing I could say to stop her from leaving. I knew that immediately. There was too much at stake, for both of us, and when she finally wrote me, a few days later, after she returned to Provincetown and was sitting at the desk in the living room where I worked when I was there, looking out at the ocean, I could tell she was feeling conciliatory, that she was leaving the door open for me to change my mind. She had acted too abruptly, but that’s the way she did everything, what she was feeling in the moment took precedence over anything else. I’m the opposite, which is maybe why we get along, or did. I tend to wait until I’ve considered all points of view, playing a particular scene over in my head, rehearsing in my mind what I’ll say, frightened I might say something that will be misunderstood, or misconstrued, not trusting the sound of my voice, it’s so difficult to convey what one is feeling (about anything) to another person, hopeless, really, in the long run, and sometimes all you have to do is utter a few simple words and all the years you spent together can go up in smoke.
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.