So we meet on the subway and go for coffee in a place on Macdougal Street, right around the corner from the West 4th Street subway stop on 6th Avenue. Caffe Reggio, it’s been there forever, from the time Macdougal was the center of the universe, when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Mimi and Richard Farina and Phil Ochs used to perform free in all the nightclubs and coffeehouses, like The Gaslight, The Fat Black Pussycat and the Cafe Wha. Now Macdougal is just a grizzly strip of bars, cheap restaurants, falafel stands—it’s been this way for decades—but Caffe Reggio or “the” Reggio, as it’s called, like an outpost in the Sahara, is the same as ever, same as it ever was, and that’s where we go after meeting on the subway for the first time. Our hands don’t touch as we walk, trance-like, from subway to cafe, both of us smoking, but I’m aware of his body, your body, its strengths and weaknesses, only a few inches away on the narrow sidewalk. We separate so someone can pass between us and then we come closer, our shoulders brushing, to let a woman with a stroller and a dog walk by, and I think the woman pushing the stroller is someone I knew in high school, Deb Martin, one of Marco’s girlfriends before we became a couple, and it’s amazing how at any given moment you can be in two or three different places in your head without anyone knowing except yourself, and that thinking of Deb Martin and the night she showed up at my house crying, looking for Marco, because someone on the basketball team had raped her, more than one guy, and here she is on Macdougal Street years later (or someone who looks just like her) with her baby and her dachshund, except maybe it isn’t even her.
You, on the other hand, remind me of an old-time movie actor, but I can’t remember his name. Victor Mature? Cornel Wilde? Not a big star but a character actor. You already have a few gray hairs, a tint of gray in your sideburns, maybe a haircut will make you look younger, I’m tempted to say, but I don’t. For all I know, you might be sensitive about your age, not something you can tell after meeting a person for the first time. You don’t look like William Dafoe, one of my favorite actors, especially for his roles in “Wild At Heart” and “Light Sleeper,” but you’re possibly the same height, same age, with a stillness around you as you walk and smoke, a cross between a choir boy and a serial killer, so tense, every muscle, I’m never not aware of you as we navigate the stream of people coming in our direction, until finally we reach the Reggio, you hold the door open, and we go in.
It was a place to observe other people and overhear their conversations. Hard to hear one another over the music coming from a speaker almost directly above our heads. We sat on either side of an old wrought-iron table, a relic from the court of the Medici’s. Mostly tourists and students, a few locals. I watched you eye the waitress as she squeezed between tables. You could see down the front of her blouse (a black lace bra—I could see it too) as she leaned forward to take our order, and the three young guys in baseball caps at the next table were eyeing her as well. The top buttons of her blouse were open.
“A double espresso,” you said.
“And for you?” Her accent was heavy with the prom- ise of something in the future no one knew about, and I couldn’t help admiring her as well, more covertly than the man sitting opposite me could ever do, this “you” I had just met—the fragile bones in her neck, the silver stud in her left ear.
“A cappuccino, thanks.”
First you pick me up on the subway, then you flirt with the waitress, her wide eyes brimming with char- coal, narrow hips, thinner than I am, younger than I am by at least a decade. I can see into my own future, if only an hour or two later, what happens if I let you walk me home, across town to 9th Street near Avenue C, my messy apartment, or if we take a five-minute cab ride, no time to wait, we even mess around a little in the back seat, no point in being coy or play games or act hard to get, not now, and then I invite you in, or you invite yourself in, it was a fait accompli that all this would happen, I’m leaning back against the kitchen table, your fingers inside me, from the moment we began talking about our books, Van Gogh and Faulkner, in the subway, I knew this would happen.
There’s always a first time to meet someone, almost every “first” meeting is an accidental one. The subway, this collection of random faces and bodies, everyone isolated and intertwined simultaneously, is the perfect place. No eye contact on the subway, except if the train stalls between stations for an elongated period. Then people who share the same feelings of frustration and impatience, and even fear, erupt into small talk, or start cursing out loud. They actually remove the plugs from their ears and wake up from the melodramas of their own lives and realize they exist in the present, locked in a box inside a tunnel under a river. People begin to perform, act out of character. You can’t always make your way to a different subway car if you feel threatened. If someone crosses a line or invades your space. What’s in that package, anyway? A complete stranger might seek the comfort of someone’s eyes and begin a conversation just to ease the tension. (Once, in an airplane, as we passed through a storm, I grabbed the hand of the person sitting next to me, a total stranger. “That’s OK,” she said, “I’m right here.”) Then a voice on the intercom apologizes for the delay. “Police action at the Times square station”—which could mean anything. A body on the tracks. Cops in gas masks. Bomb-sniffing dogs.
Or, in an alternative scenario to going home together, we decide to press pause on our immediate future, and all it might bring, and exchange phone numbers, make a plan to see each other at a later date. Leave the Reggio and shake hands? It’s too much of a coincidence that neither of us are involved with another person who might be waiting for us at home, that we’re both so available we can do anything we want in the moment. We can extend the moment or cut it short. It was nice talking to you, one might say, putting an end to it all. Let’s see each other again. No matter what happens, it’s not going to end now. I notice a callous on the middle finger of your left hand. We weren’t going to say goodbye and never see one another again, that’s for sure. I can feel your knees brushing my thigh under the table. The Reggio is packed with people in intimate discussions with no room to breathe, while the waiters and waitresses, all carrying trays in one hand, at the height of their shoulders, as if they were circus performers, a daredevil act considering the density of bodies, all the voices and the music, the soundtrack to one of the spaghetti westerns, maybe “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” for a moment I can’t remember the composer’s name, and then I do, but I ask you anyway, and of course you say, without skipping a beat:
“Ennio Morricone? Is this a test?”
Now I know your name is Robert and you know mine.
“That’s a beautiful name,” you say, when I tell you. We can talk about the books we were reading on the subway. We can talk about Freud.
“I used to be in therapy,” you say, “but no longer.” And I say: “I stopped about a year ago myself.”
I was still seeing Natalie, of course, in those days, not long ago, but she’s in Provincetown, and it would be a month before she returned to New York. It was her first night in the city, a few weeks after Robert and I met on the subway, and I told her about him. I was supposed to go back to Provincetown with her but now it was out of the question. I didn’t mention Robert’s name and she didn’t ask. I told her I’d met someone, “a man,” and that’s all I had to say. No argument, no discussion, no tears. The same thing had happened with another girlfriend before she met me. She dressed, like a robot, without even looking at me, and dropped her set of keys on the kitchen counter. The keys I had given her to my apartment not long after we first met. I had nothing to say on my behalf except to apologize, which—as we all know—is a gesture after the fact, (if you’re going to apologize for doing something, why do it?), since of course I had made a conscious decision to sleep with Robert (it didn’t just “happen” and he didn’t kidnap me and lock me in his basement), and she knew it. I didn’t say that I regretted doing it and that it wouldn’t happen again. I knew Natalie well enough to know she wasn’t going to stay around and listen to the details. If you do something you know is going to hurt someone else, and you still do it, then apologies are worthless. A pointless conversation, trying to convince someone to do one thing, or another, to stay or to go. And I’m not certain I wanted her to stay. There’s no telling what might have happened if I hadn’t met Robert on the subway. I was looking for a way out of my relationship with Natalie and didn’t know it. If not Robert, maybe someone else. Or, on the other hand, if I hadn’t told Natalie I was seeing Robert, I could have continued going from one bed to another. It’s possible to live a double life, people do it all the time. Natalie spends most of her time in Provincetown, while I’m in the city, and who knows what she does when we’re apart. When we walk down Commercial Street, the main drag, people I don’t know say hello to her, sometimes she even stops and talks to them and introduces me, mostly women who live there year round. And who knows what Robert is up to when he’s away at conferences. He meets people everywhere—in restaurants, waiting on line at the post office, and on the subway. That’s where we met—it’s still hard to believe. At some point, I would tell each of them about the other. I’ve never been good at lying about anything. I hate being lied to, it makes me want to throw up, and I’m better off telling Natalie the truth, since she would find out eventually. Lying is a way of deferring the consequences to a later date. It’s the way of the coward. Eventually, it all blows up in your face, and leaves a permanent scar on the other person, not a literal scar, necessarily, but something even worse. It’s like the earth opens up beneath your feet and you realize this person you thought you knew is someone else entirely. You know she’s lying, but it’s easier not to confront her. If you do, the relationship will end. There are some people who stay in relationships no matter what, even willing to endure physical abuse. The end of a relationship is like watching someone die. Two people, really, you and the other person. The pain of ending is worse than enduring the deception. The person you love most on the planet is no longer in your life. You’ll get over it, of course you will. If you’re lucky, you’ll move on, you’ll meet someone new. Sometimes you never meet anyone. But maybe being alone is better than being with someone who’s lying to you every time he or she leaves the house. There’s no going back.
It was just a year ago I made a choice between Robert and Natalie. I decided to be up front with Natalie and she walked out the door. Who could blame her? She wasn’t going to make a scene, or throw things, or tell me I was a creepy person, that I better get my shit together before it’s too late. Tears were running down both sides of her face. She turned away so I couldn’t see them. If I told her I was sleeping with another woman, it might have been different—it might have been worse. I’ll never know. I wrote her an email telling her I was sorry, and that was the truth, and she wrote back a few days later, describing the sunlight on the water outside the window of her house in Provincetown, our house, or so I thought, which wasn’t true. And then I sent an email in response and never heard from her again until a few weeks ago when she called and we met for lunch at Mumbles.
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.