I’d been with Natalie for two years and never slept with anyone else. That’s not true, of course, there’s always an exception. I try to put it out of my mind, to forget it ever happened. I’m not afraid to look in the mirror and ask the hard questions. I can’t pretend something didn’t happen, when I know it did. I can lie under oath, if that’s what it takes. But I can’t hide the truth from myself.
He called me up, he came over, he spent the night.
I could have said “no” at any point, but I didn’t. Though, in my defense, I didn’t realize we weren’t going for a drink. That was just a pretense to invite himself over. We would go out to some bar together, or so I thought. I would show him the neighborhood. He was my new colleague. I had just been hired. Maybe we should get to know one another better.
No one warned me about him. I knew he was married.
Before meeting Natalie, I had been on my own for years. I preferred my own company, and the people I read about in books. The endless biographies, where I learned more than I wanted to know, every infidelity, every false promise. I’d forgotten what people were like once you closed the book you were reading and began to look around. It was different when you looked at people close up for a long period of time. Anything can happen when two people are alone in a room with the curtains drawn. Anything can happen when you close the door and turn off the lights.
Ray DeForest’s wife called, a few days after her husband spent the night in my apartment, and said she would kill me if I ever slept with her husband again, that I better get a gun and protect myself. “I’m watching you,” she said, trying to sound menacing, like she was out of control and might do anything. I didn’t know what she looked like, but I began seeing her everywhere, or someone who could be her, lurking outside my building. Just the thought that this jealous wife was out there plotting her revenge sapped my concentration. It was like a permanent head cold, the sound of her voice in my ear.
Once I thought I was being followed. I turned around and there she was, and then a few minutes later she was there again, this person I didn’t know staring at her reflection in a store window, or pretending to, playing with the ends of her scraggly hair, like a character in a spy movie, “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which Natalie and I had seen together one night in Provincetown. Instead of blaming her husband, or herself, she was pointing a finger at me. And it’s true, it was all my fault. I’d been mixed up with a married guy when I was in graduate school and had survived the consequences; after that was over I kept my distance from everyone. Maybe five years before I let anyone come close, even for a night. Not until I met Natalie, and began to feel I could talk to someone again. It surprised me at first that it would be a woman—but I never questioned what I was feeling, or cared what anyone thought. I had spent a good part of the last decade hiding behind my books, writing chapters for a dissertation few people would ever read. It was like I had fallen asleep on the ocean floor, and now I was resurfacing, floating towards the light, through the layers of seaweed, ripping the barnacles from my skin.
“You can have him,” I wanted to say to Ray DeForest’s wife. “He’s all yours.”
She was a small wispy lady in velvet pants and a cableknit sweater. Her head was the size of an acorn, and she looked like a child, until you saw her up close, her cracked lips, her purple eye shadow, the dirt under her fingernails.
“You can have him.”
And then it was Ray DeForest who came to my office a few days later and put his hands on my shoulders as if I was his personal property. I had given him permission once. There was no reason we couldn’t do this again.
“When am I going to see you?”
That was three years ago, during my first semester. What did I know?
And now this person whose wife called to threaten me, who had hung up on me furious because I wouldn’t sleep with him again, or have sex with him in my office, this same person was now the Chair of the English Department and was going to observe me in my American literature class. It was supposed to happen the week before the election, Obama and Romney, but then Hurricane Sandy intervened and we postponed it till mid-November. I actually went to Ray Deforest’s office to confirm the date.
He looks up from the mess of papers on his desk. His eyes are red-rimmed, as if he had been awake all night crying, and I can see the veins in his nose, just a few tiny threads, the weatherbeaten face of someone who had slept on the tundra. His skin was colorless. His fingernails bitten to the quick. There was a rumor he kept a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer, that he took shots between classes, that the students complained he had alcohol on his breath. I could believe it. There was a rumor that Ray DeForest suffered from prostate problems. That he was getting a divorce (finally). His wife used to show up at the Christmas party in a short leather skirt and flirt with the male students. All these things were going on in his sad life and he was still elected Chair of the department, if only because no one else wanted to do it. There was a rumor that one of the graduate students, Melanie, was doing most of the shit work, which doesn’t surprise me either.
“Don’t tell anyone I told you, but...”
Every other sentence begins with these words.
There were fourteen graduate students in the Melville-Poe seminar. We all sat around a long table in a windowless room. It was the first graduate class I’d ever taught. Grad classes were the most coveted of all the English classes and usually went to the teachers with seniority. Occasionally they (the tenured faculty, who controlled the schedule) tossed a bone to one of the new hires. Melville and Poe—that was my specialty, and most of the American literature people on the faculty were getting old and didn’t want to bother preparing a course they hadn’t taught in years. Most of the lit electives took on a whole period of time, like “the 19th century Gothic novel” or “The Romantics,” or “The Harlem Renaissance.” The students were required to read a book every week which meant class discussions were superficial at best. Two or three hours was barely enough time to crack the surface. Not talking about anything in great depth meant the teachers didn’t have to dig too deeply. Some of them liked to read old lectures and rely on old notes. I’d encountered a few of those teachers when I was in grad school. My goal was to do the exact opposite. It was rare to teach a class that concentrated on one writer. My initial proposal was to teach one book, Moby Dick, but it was turned down. Melville-Poe cast the net a bit wider, for their tastes at any rate. It was anyone’s guess when I would have this chance again, so I decided to go along with whatever they wanted. I was beginning to wonder whether Natalie was right. Her father had been an academic, in the art history department at Smith, and maybe she knew something I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t want to spend my entire adult life lying awake at night worrying about being observed (by an ex-lover, no less), while the rest of the world went up in smoke.
There’s something to be said for teaching the same texts, semester after semester, telling the same jokes. I could see myself in the future, a person with tenure, with no ambition except to write a few articles no one ever reads. Undergrad lit courses, which I’d been teaching, along with composition classes, were less challenging; non-English majors, mostly, which meant less responsibility. I sensed the feeling of torpor as soon as I walked into the room and wrote my name on the blackboard; could feel the minutes ticking away, one at a time, as if the clock was beating inside my chest. You can dismember the body and bury it under the floorboards but the sound of the heart beating will give you away every time. It was my job to inject a little excitement into the room. There are teachers who like to say they—we—aren’t here to entertain the students, but I think they’re wrong. I want to entertain. I like it when the students laugh at my jokes.
I always sit in a chair in front of my desk, never behind it. Most often, I stand for the entire class, prowling around the room. It’s a challenge to remember everyone’s name. I ask them to sit in the same general area every time—this, I say, makes it easier for me to get to know them. It seems to surprise them that I even care. Read each assignment, please, and come to class prepared. The ideal class is everyone talking at the same time. People arguing passionately, as some of them do when we read Poe’s story “William Wilson.” But it’s always the same people. Maybe five or six students, if I’m lucky, have their hands raised each time. They carry the discussion for the others who sit back and stare into space, counting the dust motes in the air, waiting until they can make their escape. I try to get everyone involved but I know from past experience this is impossible. My eyes dart around the room in search of the people hiding in the back. Marta, Martina, Marina, Miguel. Say something. Anything at all.
The graduate course required the most work, but I was glad to do it. There was always a chance I could fail the test—being observed, in a sense, was like taking a test—but I had a good feeling about the students, they would come through for me. It would take only a few unkind words by Ray DeForest to push my career into a downward spiral. A negative observation is like a permanent black mark. You could probably bribe someone to have it removed from your dossier—no doubt, such things happen. A bad observation would be just punishment, in Ray DeForest’s mind, for not continuing as his lover and office sex partner. To not be on call whenever he was bored or drunk marking papers or whatever else he had to do as department chair. He could put a couch in his office, but there wasn’t enough room. There’s no way we could go on indefinitely, which is what he proposed, without anyone finding out—and perhaps the whole point of having an affair with your colleague is for everyone to know. It had to end some time, and no doubt on a sour note, as many affairs do, with one person wanting to continue and the other person wanting it to end, and he would have held something against me, no matter what happened. And there was his wife and her threats against my life which he seemed to downgrade to non-urgent status. I had been stupid to let it happen, I have only myself to blame, but I can pat myself on the back, lightly, for ending it as quickly as I did. I still thought I saw his wife lurking around the entrance to my building. Whenever the landline rings in my apartment, which happens rarely these days, it’s like a siren in the middle of the night, and I stare at it with dread. I can hear her breathing heavily at the other end of the line. She doesn’t have to say anything. I know it’s her.
They were all there when I walked into the room, sitting around the long table, everyone except Sarah Thorne, who always came a few minutes late. Most of them were getting their MA in literature, but there were a few MFA creative writing students as well. The lit students and the creative writing students didn’t seem to like each other much. I tried to ignore the dynamics, though they were hard to avoid. Gulay Hakim, who looked like a Turkish princess, was the center of attention, and there were at least two students, Tony Infante and Joey Savaglio, who were competing for her favors. There was a first semester student, Mike Gans, who went off on long tangents about Poe and Baudelaire (he spoke perfect French). Lisa Owen, Amyre Williams, Nell Loomis, Wendi Rooker, Tim Arnett and Christine McCormick. Some of them were older students, who took one course a semester, and had been in the graduate program for half a decade, or more. Some of them dropped out for a few years and then came back. Some of them liked to talk more than others; it was my job to get them all involved, to keep them interested.
Occasionally, during my office hours, one of them comes to chat, or complain, or actually discuss the texts we’re reading, or tries to impress me with a theory about Hawthorne’s relationship to Melville, because they know that’s what interests me. Some of them come to talk about their personal lives, which I don’t mind at all, since the one-on-one conversations in my office alter the dynamic of the classroom, and the students feel more comfortable with me afterwards, like I’m not going to bite their heads off, or embarrass them, if they say the wrong thing. I want to be liked—an asset, I must say, if you want to be a teacher, though I’m sure that many of my colleagues feel the exact opposite, and couldn’t care less what the students think about them.
I knew, as soon as I started teaching, that I didn’t want a quiet classroom, that I preferred a world where everyone was jabbering at the same time. I get tired of hearing my own voice. A quiet classroom could easily translate into indifference. There are some teachers who don’t even let their students go to the bathroom. In some classes the students are too frightened to ask questions. It’s all about the teachers, the needy teachers, who exploit the time in the class to get the attention they don’t get elsewhere.
I arrive a few minutes late to make sure everyone is there.
“We have a guest today,” I say. “Professor DeForest of the English Department. I’m sure some of you know him. He’s here to observe us—or me—so let’s be on our best behavior.”
Laughter, just a trickle. I had warned them the week before that this was going to happen, though it means a lot more to me than it does to them. And they know it’s important to me. So they either score a few points by talking a lot and showing interest and making it easy for me to get through the next two and a half hours (Ray DeForest already informed me, in a terse email, that he doesn’t intend to stay the whole time) or they can sit there as if they were in a stupor and stare at me as if I was in outer space when I call on them to talk. How well I can motivate my students is part of the observation.
There are no windows in the room. I take a swig from my bottle of Evian, and begin.
Hannah was sitting with him in his office after class. They were facing each other, knees practically touching. It was she who made the first move. She took his hand in her own, the palm of one hand resting on the top of his hand, the palm of her other hand pressing the bottom of his hand from below. She had sandwiched his hand between hers. Then she lifted his hand to her lips and took each finger into her mouth, one at a time. She closed her eyes and suddenly opened them and looked at him. She wanted a sign from him—as if he was a school crossing guard—can I go on? Do you want me to stop? Something. He looked old, suddenly, and she could see the tufts of hair in the corners of his lips, where he had forgotten to shave. She could see the seeds of despair floating in his eyes. His receding hairline, just like her father. His fingers smelled of tobacco, the kind he stuffed in the bowl of his pipe when he was writing. What was she doing? She leaned forward in her chair. It was like they were moving together in slow motion, first the hands, now the knees. If it was up to him, nothing would ever happen, but once she gave him permission there was no turning back. His desire was locked away somewhere, in protective custody. All she needed was the secret key. She tried to imagine him having sex with his wife, who had ignored her, at a recent party in their house, as soon as she discovered Hannah was Jewish. His wife was jealous of his students; no doubt this had happened before. She let his hand fall and it rested on her thigh, on the top of her long dress. Then she opened her blouse and took his hand and placed it on her bare skin. The top of her breast. It was late morning and there were people outside the office, other students, colleagues, janitors—it could be anyone. It wasn’t appropriate for a teacher to close the door of his office when he was meeting with a student. She hoped he had remembered to turn the lock. Otherwise, anyone could walk in without knocking. She had never wanted anything so much—just being alone with this person. She would lie awake thinking about him, this had never happened before. Possibly with a classmate in oberschule whom she had loved from a distance. All that seemed like a long time ago. She didn’t know what to do or say to make him move towards her and finally he was on his knees, alongside her chair, and he had placed his mouth on her breast. At first he tried to take her whole breast into her mouth, but now he was just concentrating on the nipple. She put her hand on the back of his head and pressed it forward. “You can bite me, if you like,” she wanted to say, but didn’t. She wanted to say—“You can do whatever you want,” as a way of giving him permission, just in case he felt guilty. If you give someone total permission—what would happen? Her brain was empty space—no thoughts at all. Her brain had nothing to do with this. The words were coming from somewhere else.
Now he says that he’s almost finished with the book about Arendt and Heidegger, but I don’t know whether to believe him. Part of me doesn’t care. I offer to read it and give him feedback but he shrugs and says he’d like to read parts of it aloud to me, in preparation for one of his upcoming lectures—at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, followed by a panel on Heidegger at the University of Montana in Missoula. I can imagine him flying from one airport to another, chatting up the flight attendants and the girl in the denim skirt with a nose-ring who sits at the window seat reading Walden and the woman from Anchorage, Alaska who shares his table in the restaurant where he gets coffee. The school always sends someone to pick him up at the airport, usually one of the graduate assistants, almost always a woman. He sits up front with her as they drive into the sunset. He’s adept at making small talk with people he meets for the first time. He likes to strike up conversations with strangers, even when I’m around. The woman who picks him up at the airport drives him to the Best Western and gives him her phone number.
“If you need anything while you’re here—I’m the person to call, 24/7.” It’s hard to imagine what happens next. Same scenario, different city.
We sit in bed and watch the debate between Obama and Romney.
“He’s going to win,” he says, shaking his head. “That lying motherfucker is going to win.”
It’s possible to go through the motions, to act like you’re interested in something while thinking of something else. Even sex. Often, with Robert, I’m just waiting for it to be over. My curiosity about Ray DeForest evaporated as soon as we began fucking. This happens all the time with people I hardly know. It’s good to be drunk when you get into bed with a stranger. At some moment (it doesn’t take long) reality sinks in, and a voice in your head alerts itself to the pointlessness of what you’re doing. Every experience contains an element of pointlessness, some more than others. It’s your life, after all, and you’re responsible for the things you choose to do, or not do. It dawned on me, very quickly, with Ray DeForest, that I was making a mistake, and it reminded me of similar occasions, an afternoon with Winston Lamb, my critical theory professor in graduate school, in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, and how I realized as he locked the door and put his hands on my shoulders and began unzipping my dress, that I had made a wrong turn, that I would be the one who would suffer the consequences, if there were any, and that what I was doing wasn’t the answer to anything I really needed in my life, but just a repeat performance, an appendage to longing, so to speak. On my worst days, I think my relationship with Robert is like that in its entirety, not just the sex part, but all the things he does and says, all the nights I lie awake wondering what I’m doing in his apartment. I listen to the Disco from the people who live upstairs and the feet dancing in time to the music. At least they’re having fun.
Flashes of the real: walking with Natalie on the beach at Race Point in Provincetown. I know I’m there when I’m there. And other times as well. Everything else pales in comparison. All I can feel is his scratchy beard on the inside of my thigh. Once we made love in the front seat of a car we had rented to drive out to Montauk. We were in a parking lot near the ocean, with the lighthouse nearby, and my head was jammed against the door handle as he climbed on top of me but he didn’t seem to care, even when I said “stop, you’re hurting me.” He just kept going.
I went to the bathroom before class and locked myself in a stall. I didn’t have to pee but I thought I was going to throw up. I was wearing a pale blue Oxford shirt and a long black skirt. I’d lost some weight in the last year. My legs were too thin. I looked scrawny. I was imprisoned in this body and couldn’t escape. The beginning of a double chin? No, I was just imagining it.
I called Robert and told him I wanted to stay over at my own place, “to prepare” for the observation, and he wasn’t happy.
“I thought we were going out,” he said, and for a moment I thought he was going to hang up on me.
I don’t know why I was going through the motions. I told Natalie that Robert and I barely saw each other, though I made it clear we hadn’t broken up in any official way, and she decided, for reasons of her own, not to insist I elaborate, or talk about it at all. I had learned from my experience a year before when I first told her I was sleeping with a man, or wanted to. A few white lies weren’t going to hurt this time around.
They were all there. I could hear the din of voices from down the hall. And there was my colleague sitting in a corner with a yellow legal size note pad on his lap. He had a pen in his hand and he was making small circles in a corner of the page to pass the time. Our eyes glanced off one another as I entered the classroom and the door swung shut behind me.
Our eyes glanced off one another.
That’s one way of saying it.
The students never stopped talking and for a moment I felt invisible.
“We have a visitor today,” I said, taking my place at the end of the table farthest from the door. “Professor DeForest. Some of you might know him, I’m sure. He’s observing us today, so let’s do a good job.”
“Joey’s going to be late,” Lisa said, and I wondered if something was brewing between them, and how in grad school everyone falls in and out of love with everyone else, including the teachers.
There was more than one suicide attempt, a lot of pressure to keep up with the readings, all the worry about getting a job afterwards and the inescapable fact that there were fewer English majors than ever, fewer English department jobs were being advertised, there had to be more point to all of this. How easy it is to forget one’s initial love of reading late at night when everyone in your house was asleep. Reading on the porch in the rain, if you were lucky enough to have a porch, or under a tree, if you have a yard.
And finally, as I opened my grading book, a three-section spiral notebook you can buy in any stationary store, with little pockets before each section where I can put the syllabus for the class, the roster of students, and other random pieces of paper I would otherwise misplace during the course of a semester, and began taking attendance, which I did by simply surveying the room and realizing everyone was there. Quiet at last.
And there was Ray DeForest, smiling up at me from his little corner, the inconspicuous space he had created for himself. It was hard not to superimpose the image of him as he came inside me—his eyes squeezed tight and his whole face contorted as if he had put his finger in the socket by mistake and the way he collapsed on top of me, breathing heavily, and kept breathing, his whole body pressing me deeper into the mattress, which already had a little valley in the center, so for a moment I thought he was going to have a heart attack—with the anonymous person sitting in the corner.
There was a lamp on the table beside my bed.
He said: “Should I turn out the light?” I said: “No”
I wanted to see him close up. The first man I’d been with in a while. Natalie and I had been together for a year and then there were the five years before that when I was completely on my own, when I walked away from every possibility, from every chance encounter, from all the dark strangers and shady characters I encountered when I stepped outside. Some days, fueling my body on black coffee, I wouldn’t leave the apartment at all.
I was already trying to imagine what Natalie was doing at that very moment, probably wide awake, and bundled up with a drink and a cigarette, on the balcony of her house in Provincetown, overlooking the ocean, watching the moon and picking out the clusters of stars, unable to sleep, wanting to call me but frightened she might wake me up, or I was with someone else.
“I need to sleep,” I said, a few minutes later, turning over on my side, as Ray DeForest began touching me again, ready to go again, like a fifteen year old, not caring whether I was interested, pressing against me and adjusting my legs so he could enter me from the side. I was just a piece of property, as far as he was concerned, the new hire. I wondered if he was planning to tell any of our colleagues what we had done. Brag a little bit—wasn’t that the whole point?
“She’ll fuck anyone,” I can hear him say. “All you have to do is ask.”
And it’s true all he had to do was call me up and come over on the premise that we were going out for a drink.
I should have known better.
Or maybe the whole point of sleeping with me was to make his wife jealous. He wanted her to find out—this whole scene had happened before. Had he left my phone number in a conspicuous place.? He knew she would call me. She would stand in front of my building and follow me to the subway. None of this had anything to do with me.
And now it was his turn to wield his power over me again. To undress me with his eyes as I turned to the class.
“Today we’re going to talk about ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener,’” I said. “Let’s open our books.”
The Rail is proudly serializing Delusions of Being Observed by Lewis Warsh from the Oct ’16 issue through the Winter of ’18. Please join us every month for a new installment.