inSerial: part eight
Delusions of Being Observed
Now he closes the door of his study and says “I have a lot of work to do” and I sit on the couch in the living room with a book open and try to concentrate. I’m being observed the next day by Ray DeForest in my Melville-Poe graduate seminar but the class doesn’t begin till four in the afternoon so I don’t have to get up early, I can go back to my place and change before I go to school, I can go home now, if I want, but part of me also wants company, even though being with Robert is the next best thing to being alone. He holds out the promise of company, but only on his terms. Sometimes I venture into his study, when he’s trying to work, and put my arms around him. He’s easily distracted, that’s for sure. He likes it when I initiate intimacy, if that’s what you call it. I think he had a hard time meeting women when he was younger, and despite his bravado he still has a hard time. The reason he keeps going on about the Chinese woman whom he met in the post office, when they were waiting on line, is that things like that almost never happen. Not to him, anyway. He assumes, of course, that I meet people on the subway all the time, that it’s easier for me. He couldn’t believe that I invited him back to my apartment. We walked from the subway to Cafe Reggio on MacDougal Street, and then across 8th, past Cooper Union, which was under construction, past the St. Mark’s Bookstore, on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue, which was on the verge of going out of business. We talked about teaching, about growing up in Brooklyn, about life in a small town in Western Massachusetts (where he’d been, more than once, with his first wife, to see a dance concert at Jacob’s Pillow), how Manhattan has changed over the last decade, but mostly we just walked in silence, the sleeve of my dress brushing against the sleeve of his shirt, navigating the crowds of tourists and drug dealers, veterans down on their luck with their cardboard signs asking for money, old hippies with gray dreadlocks, unwed mothers, men holding hands, people with money to spare and those with nothing, frat boys in frayed cut-offs, stockbrokers in silk ties, a girl with a Mohawk, a guy with white hair who looked like he had been stuck by lightning. But mostly, it didn’t matter whether we talked at all.
I’ve been observed in class before but it's still nerve-wracking and who knows what the person observing you is thinking, if he or she is in a bad mood or holds a grudge against you for some infraction you can’t remember, and of course, since Ray DeForest and I were lovers for a brief moment when I was first hired, anything can happen. One night is all we had and that was only possible because his wife was out of town, and he stayed over at my apartment, we actually turned off all the lights and went to sleep as if we had been married for ten years, setting the alarm so he could be home before dawn just in case his wife called on their landline to check up on him. The next day when he called to ask when we were going to meet again (“I can’t stop thinking about you”) I told him I'd made a mistake, I didn't want to have an affair with a married man, that it was fun while it lasted. Did I really say that? I even lied and told him that “when I was younger” I had an affair with one of my teachers in graduate school and it had ended badly and one thing I wanted to do as I proceeded through life was learn from my mistakes. Why didn’t you think about this before you invited me to your apartment? I held the phone away from my ear so I didn’t have to listen. It was pointless to remind him that he invited himself—had called from the corner and asked if he could stop by. Of course I could have told him I was busy, and yes, I take responsibility for my actions, but he didn’t want to hear any of it. The thought that I didn’t have tenure, and he did, meant he had some power over me—the power, if he felt like it, to sway the opinions of some of our other colleagues, the weak-minded among them, any of whom might some day serve on my tenure committee, in my favor or otherwise.
“Shit like this happens all the time,” he said, “and no one ever cares.”
It took me a minute to realize what he was talking about. He tossed off the names of current colleagues who had brief affairs, as if he were a writer for one of those tabloids you buy at the checkout counter, the ones that document every moment in the lives of people like Brad Pitt (could that be his real name?) and Jennifer Lopez (“Jenny from the block”). We’re all adults, he said. And he was probably right, at least on some level. This is what happens when groups of people co-exist in the same work place for a long period of time. No doubt there have been studies, documentaries, interviews, especially in environments where drinking is involved, end of semester parties, holiday parties, graduation parties, dinners with visiting writers. He was missing the point, but I didn’t say anything. If you don’t have tenure, how can you be sure? Academia was all about hierarchy and rank, just like the Army. There were the full-time tenured professors, and there were the adjuncts, a world apart. The adjuncts didn’t know whether they had a job from one semester to the next. They were paid by the class; if enrollment was down they were out of luck. Then there were the full-time faculty who had tenure, like Ray DeForest, and the full-time who didn’t, like myself. Tenure meant a promotion from assistant professor to associate. Then, a few years later, you could apply for full professor. I knew teachers who had tenure who didn’t apply for full professor because they never published anything. You have to publish a few books, a few articles, if you want to be promoted to full professor. There isn’t a big pay hike between associate and full, but there is some kind of prestige involved, at least in someone’s eyes. A lot of my friends with PhD’s were still “on the market,” as they say, and some of them secretly hated me, I realized, for finding a job. Brooklyn was practically the center of the universe. The city had just built a new stadium, the Barclay Center, to rival Madison Square Garden, on Flatbush Avenue, across the street from the Atlantic Avenue LIRR train station. Private homes and stores were destroyed in the process and there had been much protest in the neighborhood against the real estate moguls who made this happen. The school where I worked was only a few blocks away.
I didn’t realize I was in a vulnerable position until it was already happening. If Ray DeForest invited himself over to my apartment, I can say “yes” or “no,” though why I did say “yes,” when he called me out of the blue, is a mystery, even to me. It isn’t the first time I’ve gone against my better judgment, just out of curiosity, to see what might happen if I went down one path, and not another. On the night we spent together, after we fucked the first time, he told me that during his first years as a teacher, even before he had tenure, he had slept with numerous students. None of them had ever complained about his behavior, and in almost every instance he had been the person who ended it. For him, he confessed, it was all about sex, and I assumed that included me as well. But for the students it meant something different. It was special. Some of the young women were in search of a father figure, who was also a mentor, and looked to him to fulfill a fantasy of what it might be like to be intimate with an older person. Most often he had affairs with students who had been in his class the previous semester, and who might show up at his office under the pretext of asking for a letter of recommendation, or advice about graduate school. “Why don’t you stop by my office after class?” It was before he was married and sometimes the students came to his apartment, often late at night, and stayed for a few hours. Many of them lived in dorms, or shared apartments with roommates. He would call them up and they would drop everything and come over. Many of the students were living away from home for the first time and taking risks was part of the experience of growing up, especially if you were coming to New York from some small town in the middle of nowhere.
All the students talked about the teachers, as much as the teachers talked about one another among themselves. If you were a student, and you were sleeping with a teacher, there was no way you weren’t going to talk about it with your friends—other students, who would then talk about it with others, and it was just a matter of time before people began whispering behind your back—“That’s him! That’s the one!”—as you walked down the hallway from class to office, or anywhere. People began tittering when they saw you coming. You began hiding out in your office with the lights off so no one would bother you.
There was a student, Ray DeForest said, who stood outside his apartment building (by then he was married), staring up at his windows, until late at night, with the hope of catching a glimpse of him behind the curtains, and who slipped a note under the door of his office threatening suicide if he didn’t meet with her.
“I could have said no,” Ray Deforest said, “but I never did.”
We were lying in the dark smoking, I was leaning against a pillow and he was lying on his side, when I realized he was expecting us to have sex a second time, that he wasn’t going home, that he was planning to sleep over, whether I wanted him to or not, me and my colleague Ray who had invited himself over for a drink. He had been in my neighborhood with some friends, they had gone home, he remembered that I lived nearby. That was his story, anyway, unlikely as it sounds. I must admit he was more handsome in the dim glow of my bedside lamp than in the fluorescent glare of the hallways at school, which is where we encountered each other most often.
Somewhere a metronome was swinging in the back of a cave, ringing in the new year and saying good riddance to the old, the sands of time were slowly sifting through my fingers and at any moment I could lose my balance and slip over the edge without knowing why my life had led me to this odd point, this precipice, where the sound of the voice in my head echoed along the walls of a canyon, and I was no one, a stranger to myself, unrecognizable, anonymous, furtive. I wondered what his wife was like, how often they made love, what she would do if she knew he seduced his students, whether she had lovers of her own. He turned on his side and began to slide in and out in slow motion, as if we were actors in a sex scene and the cameras were rolling, and finally he just climbed on top of me, hoisted my legs on his shoulders, and hammered away. I closed my eyes and thought about Marco, my high school boyfriend, but just for a second.
“That was great,” I said, once I was free to roll over and close my eyes, uncertain what the next day was going to bring, what new surprise. His hands were at his sides and he was perfectly still and for a moment I couldn’t tell whether he was dead or alive, or dozing off, and then I heard the sound of his breathing, a low sigh. It was already four-thirty. I pinched his shoulder, and he swiped at my hand as if stung by a wasp or bitten by a red ant, a common household pest, mosquito or tsetse fly. It was just a matter of minutes before he swung his legs over the side of his bed, like a wind-up toy that needed a new battery, and in the first light began to get dressed. I pretended I was half-asleep so we didn’t have to talk, though having a serious discussion about how to proceed with the rest of our lives, and whether this meant anything, didn’t seem to be on his agenda either, at least not at this moment. He leaned over the bed, kissed me on the forehead, and let himself out.
I wasn’t surprised when he called me the next night, at about the same time, and asked if he could come over again. This time I apologized for leading him down a blind alley. It was all very nice, I reassured him, but it wasn’t going to happen again. I wished he would cut his losses like any sane person and remember what a good time we had without feeling greedy or like he had to reduce me to some submissive state where it was I who was pursuing him, calling him at all hours of the day and night and begging him to come over, before he lost interest. But as soon as I said, “no, maybe we shouldn’t do this again,” I could hear dead silence at the other end of the line, until he finally hung up on me without saying anything.
The phone rang every day for the next few weeks. My landline, which I prefer to my cell, is the number I give out to people. If you want to reach me, leave a message. The phone’s connected to an answering machine. I said “hello” into the receiver and no one answered. I waited for maybe thirty seconds. Once I answered the phone, just as I was getting ready for bed, rubbing coconut oil into my thighs, and there was a woman’s voice on the other end.
“If you don’t stay away from him,” she said, “I’ll kill you.”
The message on the machine, when she bothered to leave a message, was the same, but different.
“If you don’t keep your hands off him, I’ll cut out your heart.”
There was a rumor that Ray DeForest's wife was one of his former students and she was jealous of every woman he talked to. She knew he was around students all day. If it happened once, it can happen again. All the teachers in the department gossip about everyone else. I can only imagine what they say about me. The moment you turn your back someone stabs you in the neck with a rusty switchblade.
All this happened before I started seeing Natalie. It was during a time when I wasn’t seeing anyone. Natalie and I were together for two years. Then I met Robert on the subway. Robert Bannister. He had the same last name as the British track star who was the first person to run the mile in under four minutes. Robert's father was a Brit, as well, but he and his American wife moved to Brooklyn before Robert was born. Roger Bannister, the track star, was a distant cousin. There were listings on the internet for all the articles Robert had written and what people had to say about him. There was a picture of Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher, and Hannah Arendt, the young student he had seduced. There were pictures of Robert’s first wife, Lisa Walker, the detective novelist, as well, but I’d already seen pictures of her on the jackets of her many books.
I had just been hired as a full-time tenure track professor. I spent almost all the hours of the day preparing for classes and writing articles about Poe and Melville for various academic journals no one but a few like-minded people would ever read. Possibly one of my articles would be footnoted in an article by someone else in an equally obscure journal or in an overpriced book published by a university press, a hardcover edition without a dust jacket. I also had to serve on academic committees—service to the university was one of the components, along with publishing and teaching, that determined whether or not you were going to get tenure. I was on something called “the scholastic standing committee.” It met once a semester to review transcripts of students who were on the verge of flunking out. One of the deans, Jason Carruth, presided over the committee, which consisted of faculty from different departments. Like me, they were trying to accumulate credits to list on their resume under “Service.” We sat around a long table with a stack of transcripts in front of us—these were the borderline students—and discussed each of them, one by one. The transcripts were studded with F’s and I’s (Incompletes). Why did these students persist? Every semester they registered for classes and every semester they dropped out or failed. Almost everyone on the committee voted to expel the majority of the students but it always made me uneasy to act in such a punitive way about someone I didn’t know personally and I found myself studying the transcripts for a ray of hope, a reason to offer the person a second or third chance. Dean Carruth gave me a cold stare over the top of his bifocals as if I was crazy or blind and the rest of the committee scowled at me whenever I said anything in the student’s favor. Why was I wasting their time? Everyone wanted to get it over and done as quickly as possible, but there was always one person, on every committee, who prolonged the discussion long past the point where it meant anything, usually just to hear themselves talk. And now I was that person, but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t like having the power to determine another person’s fate even though the students brought this on theselves by failing classes or never attending. I’d had such students in my own classes, I knew what they were like. They came in late, if they came at all, and never said anything. They never did the reading. Sometimes they walked out of the classroom and returned twenty minutes later. They sat in the back row and texted under their desks, thinking I didn’t see or daring me to say something. The class was an hour and fifteen minutes; for many of them, that was too long, by far, not to consult their phones. They never handed in any of the assignments on time; they copied whole sentences and paragraphs from the internet and inserted them into their papers. Some of their papers were a collage of phrases and sentences from the internet. They put a lot of time into doing this, changing a word here or there so it was harder to find the source. They assumed I was too busy to check on them, or I didn’t care. And when the semester was over they expected a good grade. They didn’t expect to fail, but they also wanted more than a D. A D was a passing grade; it meant they didn’t have to repeat the class.
I could go on forever about this. It just gets worse.
And now Ray DeForest, a specialist in the 19th century British novel, with a sub-speciality in 20th century French cinema, was the chair of the department, with the power to ask anyone on the faculty to observe me; instead, he was doing it himself. There was always the possibility, if he wrote a negative observation, discussing at length my flaws as a teacher, and I’m sure I have many, that I could go to the dean and tell him we had once been lovers and by writing a negative observation Ray DeForest was taking revenge on me for breaking it off. But I was the one who had the most to lose, and what did sleeping with a colleague say about me (in the Dean’s eyes), someone who already had tenure, while I was just a lowly assistant professor. No doubt the Dean, part of the same old boys network as Ray DeForest, would assume I had naively seduced him under the misguided impression it would help my career. What I didn’t realize was after we slept together Ray DeForest's wife would call me every day for a month and threaten to “take a knife to my jugular” or “splatter my brains on the sidewalk” (these are her exact words) if I didn’t stop seeing her husband. It had simply happened one night when she was out of town, and once again (I must confess) in my office after a faculty meeting.
It was my first semester. I had only been teaching a few weeks. He called me one night, “I’m right downstairs,” and I invited him in. He called the next day, and the day after, wanting to come over again.
“I’m not going to take no for an answer,” he said. “Didn’t you have a good time?”
We could have dinner first, he said. Japanese, Italian. Whatever you like. Japanese is better. I’m on a diet. My wife won’t be back until Sunday. She’s visiting her sister in San Francisco. (Like I cared?) The clock was ticking.
I said “no,” again, a little more firmly.
There was a silence, maybe five seconds, and then he said “Go fuck yourself,” and hung up. I knew it wasn’t over and there were going to be consequences. There always are.
What was I thinking?
And now I was in my office. He had slept over on Thursday; now it was Tuesday. He had called me on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the phone rang three times and each time the person hung up. I’m talking about the landline here. I only use my cell in an emergency. If I’m running late, if the person I’m going to meet is delayed. Then I answer it. If I’m not at home, you can try me on the cell. That’s what Natalie does; the cell rings, and there she is.
Dead silence at the other end. I say, “Hello,” wait a few seconds, then nothing.
The faculty meeting was in the lounge adjacent to the English Department. I barely knew everyone’s first names—my twenty-five colleagues in the English Department, the biggest department in the University. Ray was not the chair of the department; he was voted in the following year. He sat opposite me and smiled during the whole meeting. We had a secret, he and I, that set us apart from everyone else. He thinks he knows me. For one night, out of all the nights up ahead, I let him into my world. That’s all I did. That’s all anyone wants. You have to be careful, and I haven’t been very careful in my life, as much as I try. My best intentions evaporate like a puff of smoke into thin air. You can’t say “no” to everything; on the contrary. Just say “yes” and see what happens.
I was slowly taking the measure of the people around me. My colleagues. I realize I should get to know their names, their specialties, all the books and articles they’ve written. I could just file this information in the back of my brain, and then forget it. I was “the new hire,” the last one in the water, the bottom of the totem pole. No doubt, as time passed, I would get to know them better. One day five of them would serve on a committee to determine whether I get tenure. Some of them had been teaching here for thirty years. Not a bad deal—a job in the heart of New York City. Imagine the alternatives. Life in a small midwestern college town perhaps. Nothing wrong with that. I’d grown up in a small town. I wanted to get out of there soon as possible, even if it meant leaving Marco behind. My mother is still there and I take the bus up to see her maybe once every two months. She lives in the same house, at the end of a cul-de-sac, a ten minute walk from the center of town. There’s my room, not quite as I left it, where Marco and I made love after school. All the books I left behind. The old elm outside the window. Raking the leaves into brown paper bags with my father on Sunday morning.
I could sense my colleagues at the faculty meeting giving me the once over. Checking me out, but trying not to be too obvious. Or ignoring me completely. Not even saying hello. There seemed to be an equal number of men and women. At least two women named Margaret. Two black men, one Asian woman (a Taiwanese). The Asian lady stared at me for the entire meeting. There was one Hispanic woman, two queer white women, there were women with children, one (obviously) queer man, and then all the straight men, like Ray DeForest. I was wearing a black knee-length skirt, patterned stockings, a red woolen sweater with black dots. It was mid-November, there was a chill in the air though the sun was still high above the billboards on Flatbush Avenue advertising the Barclay Center under construction a few blocks away. I was facing the windows of the lounge and I could see a heaviness in the sky, as if it was pressing closer to the earth every minute. Or possibly the earth was moving closer to the sun? Something was happening to the planet and it was hard to understand why more people didn’t care. The people responsible for spewing pollutants into the atmosphere, for instance. No one calculated the long term effect of anything. I was more and more convinced that life on earth was going to end some day, and with it all of history, all of culture, all the things that were so important to everyone, all the paintings by Picasso and de Kooning that were auctioned for tens of millions of dollars at Sotheby’s and Christie’s every year, all of it would just vanish. Meanwhile, every person went about their business as if his or her own personal life was the thing that mattered most, including myself. Everyone has priorities, and some of them include other people, but most of the humans in the world, at any given moment, were concerned one hundred percent with their own well being. There were millions of hungry ghosts out there, and maybe I was one of them. There were things I wanted as well. I wanted a companion, that’s for sure. It would be a few years later, and after many false starts with people I met in bars and parties, before I encountered Natalie, something I could never predict would happen. And who knew that I’d meet Robert on the subway—the most random of events. Robert was finishing his book on Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt—at least that’s what he told me—and we only saw one another two or three times a week. Natalie had invited me to visit her in Provincetown over Christmas, to spend the holidays with her, through New Years, to try again, and I was about to say yes.
But now I was back in the lounge, at the faculty meeting, November 2007, though it feels like yesterday, my first semester as a bona fide tenure track college teacher. I was excited inside, but tried not to show it. Benefits, I had health benefits, that made a big difference. My eyes played off the faces in front of me and then wandered out the window like a convict looking for an escape route, the easiest way out. It was hard to pay attention to the well-intentioned self-important voices droning on about the need for new technology in the classroom or a change in the curriculum. (“Should we take a vote?” “All in favor raise your hand.”) No one looked at anyone too closely. Yet everyone was perceiving one another in a way that no one else would ever know about. They were all thinking their private thoughts about this new person—Greta Robbins, 19th century American literature specialist, just what we need. There was more than one American lit specialist in the department already. Hiring me had caused resentment among more than one of my future colleagues. There were only so many courses you could teach in the same subject.
The Taiwanese woman was wearing tight leopard-skin slacks; more appropriate for the bar of an airport hotel than a faculty meeting. She looked like a sparrow with cropped black hair and bright eyes. She laughed nervously every time she said anything. Don’t take me too seriously, I’m just rattling on, as always. I’m a foreigner, remember? My English is terrible. Second language. I play by my own rules. I can say anything. I don’t care if you think I’m stupid. You think all Asian women are stupid, don’t you?
The non-tenured faculty were supposed to speak at these meetings. At least that’s what Ray DeForest told me. We were supposed to impress everyone with our commitment. Act as if we were engaged and up to date on all the issues in the department, which included how to recruit more students into the impractical English major, how to make the courses more “sexy,” a word that’s used often, as if there was a common denominator about what made something sexy, or not. At the same time, we—the untenured among us—can’t come on too strong. There are invisible lines we can’t cross, or we can, at the risk of sounding arrogant, or overly aggressive, or power hungry, or misguided, or all of the above.
I was back in my office. I had left the door open and Ray DeForest came in without knocking and closed it behind him. I was finished for the day and I was just trying to organize my papers. We had spent Thursday night together. He had called me from the street. His wife was going to be gone all week. Now it was Tuesday. He came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders—I was sitting at my desk—and kissed me on the side of the neck. I could hear the voices of my colleagues in the hallway. He didn’t seem to care. The cameras were rolling again. I should have said “stop.” I should have reported him to the Provost at that moment instead of returning his kiss. I’d met people at bars and gone home with them. I’ve had sex with people I never saw again. I met Robert Bannister on the subway, for god’s sake. But this was different. He leaned me backwards over my desk and lifted my skirt. There was no time for foreplay. He clamped his hand over my mouth so no one would hear me. Bit the side of my breast. It lasted maybe fifteen minutes.
“I’ll call you tonight,” he said, and then he was gone.
My skirt billowed over my knees. I felt a little sore and wondered if his teethmarks on my neck were visible. The plaintive melody of an old country song, “Walking After Midnight,” was playing in my head on a late night radio or a jukebox in an empty bar on the outskirts of town. I told him about his wife’s threats, a few days later, and all the anonymous calls where she hung up when she heard my voice, and he cleared his throat and said he would talk to her, but the messages kept happening for almost a month, and by then Ray DeForest had lost interest in me. He barely nodded as we passed in the hallway.
And now, four years later, he was going to observe me in my class.
I’d checked out most of the publications of my colleagues and I wasn’t overly impressed. Ray DeForest had published a book about new-wave French cinema of the 1960s with essays on Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette. I loved the movies from that time as well. The opening scene of Hiroshima Mon Amour and the closing scene of Breathless. The music at the end of 400 Blows, slower and slower, as the young boy runs down the beach. And then suddenly he turns to the camera and the movie ends. I was an undergrad at New York University when I first saw these movies. Ray had also published a few articles in conventional academic journals, and that was it. The bar wasn’t very high. Most literature teachers are frustrated writers, myself included, and rather than teaching Herman Melville or Edgar Allen Poe, I wanted to be them. I didn’t want to become cynical and remote, like most of my colleagues, who either wished they were writers, or that they taught at a more prestigious school. My dissertation on Melville was going to be published by the University of Wisconsin Press and I promised myself I would spend the next summer writing a novel. Even Robert thought it was a good idea. Even he realized there was a difference between the writer and the person who was writing about the writer. There had to be a difference. I was still young enough to shift gears. In fact, I could do both; I could write fiction and I could continue doing my scholarly work, whatever that might be. It was possible to burn your candle at both ends, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in one of her most famous poems, which no one reads anymore. Poor Edna. If necessary, I would wake up every morning at five a.m. and write for a few hours, before going to teach class, and I could even have a family, if that’s what I wanted, with someone who would respect my need to be alone. I don’t know whether this person is a man or a woman. Sometimes, in my fantasy, I return home from teaching and my husband is in the kitchen, an apron tied around his waist, preparing dinner. In another fantasy, I’m walking through Central Park, holding hands with a young child. My partner, who gave birth to the child, is walking a few feet behind us, for no particular reason. Maybe she likes to take her time and look at the birds and the trees and all the buildings along the park where all the wealthy people live, people who can afford a view of the park from the windows of their vast apartments. We don’t know the identity of the father—all we know is his profile, which the sperm bank provides. It’s too complicated to follow this fantasy to the end, to fast forward into some imaginary future where the child was grown up and had left home and my partner and I were once again alone in a house in the country. The only thing I knew was that I was alive at this moment, and that at some point I would no longer be alive, and every moment counted.
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.