There was the moment just before we were about to leave the cafe, when it felt like we’d been together for hours, though no more than forty-five minutes had elapsed since the time we walked up the steps of the subway on West Fourth Street, and then around the corner to the Caffe Reggio on Macdougal. Here we are, trying to block out everything else, our heads moving closer so we don’t have to shout, his eyes wandering the room in search of the waitress who eventually appears at our table with the check, which he insists on paying, over-tipping, I notice, though I think it’s more to impress her than me, “Light My Fire” by The Doors playing in the background, and it isn’t until we’re outside that he asks for my phone number, and gives me his own in exchange, both his cell and his land line, as well as his email address, and I wonder what I’ll say if he offers to walk me home, but he doesn’t, and it’s almost a week later before he arrives at the door of my apartment with a bottle of Chardonnay (“Is this OK?”). I’d been with Natalie for two years so it was awhile since I’d been around a man where there was the potential of some kind of romantic involvement, not to mention sex, and the voice of reason was cautioning me to move slowly. I keep forgetting about the brief interlude with Ray DeForest, of course, because I want to forget, especially the morning (a week after he and I spent the night together) I left my house and a woman I had never seen before, but who I soon realized was Ray DeForest’s wife, Esther, accosted me on the street and told me she was going to bash in my head with a sledge hammer if I didn’t stay away from her husband. It was mid-afternoon and there were other people around, including women with their children coming home from school, and children lined up at the ice cream truck near the corner, Mister Softee, and I don’t think Esther DeForest, if that's really her name, was carrying a hammer, but her presence outside my building was disconcerting nonetheless. She had been calling me every night on the phone, as well, leaving messages (“Fuck off, bitch!”), and worse things, which I didn’t erase, just in case something did happen I could use her messages as evidence. I told Ray and he said he would “Talk to her” but whatever he said just made things worse. He was always trying to find an excuse, some departmental business, to come into my office. He left notes in my mailbox asking me to meet him for lunch, but I never did. I never responded to his notes, emails, text messages. We taught our classes on the same days, but I went out of my way to avoid him. Sometimes it was impossible. He was privy to my schedule, as I was to his, and would show up unexpectedly at my office when he knew I was there. Or he’d stay on campus later than necessary with the hope our paths might cross. He always tried to get me alone in my office. His eyes were puffy and red as if he had been up all night fighting with his wife, or getting drunk, perhaps both. No doubt he and his wife were battling all morning, all week, maybe for the last eight years, which is how long they’d been married, and no doubt this little scene had happened before. She was jealous (or so he told me the night he slept in my apartment) of every woman he spoke to, every student, and with reason, since here he was, waking up in the bed of a colleague who was stupid enough to let him visit her in her apartment, who had the idea they would go out for dinner, or a drink, that’s what he proposed when he called and invited himself over. Did he really tell his wife, point blank, that he’d slept with me when she was in Seattle visiting her mother? It was hard to believe.
But of course, when Robert and I left Caffe Reggio, this isn’t what happened.
I lean on my elbow and stare at him. He’s lying on his back, in my bed, with his eyes closed.
I used to lie here, just like this, and watch Natalie as she slept.
There was something to think about, and then there was nothing. One body superimposed on another. I had made some rules for myself about going to bed with people I didn’t know and broke them. It didn’t work when I was younger, I said to myself, and it isn’t going to work now.
I think of the way Marco would nod out for a few minutes on the floor of Melville’s room after we made love in the middle of the night.
Past, present and future coming at me from every direction.
“Are you asleep?”
I don’t know this person. There’s the possibility, as there had been with others, that I would never see him again.
I want to prod him with my index finger, like a newborn, to make sure he’s alive.
He had been gentle with Greta, at least at first. She had let him make the first move, just to see how it happened. You can tell what someone is like by the way they move towards you. She had given him permission—“you can come up if you like”—a foregone conclusion when he suggested walking her home. She could have said “no” at that moment, but she didn’t. Of course she didn’t. The story would be different. He might have said something to her on the subway and she could have averted her eyes. He was just another creep. But that isn’t the way it happened. His knee pressed against her thigh as they sat at the small round table in the cafe and then they were out on the street. It was a given that he was going to follow her into the alcove of her building and wait until she found her keys. That he would follow her up the staircase and it would end like this. She said the words anyway—“you can come up”—just to put him at ease. He wasn’t acting nervous. He didn’t seem the type who would be unhappy if she rejected him, even after he had walked her home. It was hard to tell what he was like after only an hour. For all she knows, the person walking behind her up the steps to her apartment was really a cover for another person, whom she wouldn’t meet until they were actually in bed together. And even there, even at the most intimate moment, it was possible to hide yourself.
He didn’t check his cell-phone every five minutes, like some people. He wasn’t that type. Maybe he didn’t even have a phone? From the moment they stared at each other across the aisle, in the subway, he had given her the impression that he was available, not just at this moment, or that night, but indefinitely—as long as she wanted. That was the first impression, anyway. But an impression never lasts too long—for as long as it’s happening, maybe, like the wind in the trees.
His name was Robert (“can I call you Bob?”), that’s what he told her, but no last name. If they decided to never see one another again they didn’t want to know each other’s last names. It’s too easy to stalk a person if you know first and last names. Sometimes, she said her name was Laura or Sam (short for “Samantha”). That’s what she told men in bars during her first year in the city.
“Only people I don’t know call me Bob. The people who know me best call me Robert.”
“And I barely know you.”
“Call me what you like.”
He had been gentle, as if in slow motion, taking the initiative at each turn. Lifting her skirt and slipping her underpants down along her legs as she lay across the bed humming to herself. And then, without warning, he had all picked up speed. She wanted to say “slow down” but she bit into the side of his neck instead. There would be time for more of this, but after it was over he turned on his side and fell asleep. It didn’t take him long. At least he didn’t rush out the door as if someone was waiting for him at home. He was free to do whatever he pleased. That was a relief. She wanted another cigarette so she fished in his jacket pocket. There was a scrap of paper—Lily 917 856 2746. Someone else he met on the subway, perhaps. She pulled a t-shirt over her head and stood at the foot of the bed, watching.
He was older than she first guessed when she saw him in the subway. Close to fifty, a ballpark figure, at least. Or older.
There was a community garden across the street, right outside the bedroom window, and she could hear voices in Spanish and salsa music coming from the radio in the upstairs apartment, and if you listened closely you could hear a baby crying and the curtains billow into the room.
She didn’t know what he was thinking. This stranger in her bed. She was already worried about Natalie, and what she would say. There was no point hiding anything. Natalie would eventually find out, especially if she and Robert saw each other again. And Greta had no doubt that was going to happen.
He pressed against her from behind. She might have dozed off and there were his hands on her waist, between her legs. The room was dark—they could have been anywhere. Voices and music coming from outside, different languages competing with one another. They could be in a hotel room overlooking the ocean. They could be in a different city. Marrakech. San Remo. Ibizia.
I unbuttoned my blouse and turned back to the class.
On my t-shirt were the words: I PREFER NOT TO.
They were Bartleby’s words. The students went crazy. Even Ray DeForest—well, his version of crazy was to smile and shake his head, as if he couldn’t believe I had pulled such a stunt.
My arms were bare. It was a late Autumn day, two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, a week after the election.
There had been an article in The Times the day after the election describing Romney’s hotel room when he realized he had lost, and how his wife was sitting in the corner “sobbing quietly.”
I tried to conjure up some emotion for her, but I couldn’t.
I told the class I bought the t-shirt at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, the house where Melville wrote Moby Dick, and which was now a museum. I told them that I worked at Arrowhead as a tour guide for two summers when I was in high school. I had three t-shirts—gray, yellow, white—each saying the same thing.
I didn’t tell them I used to go to Melville’s house with my boyfriend in the middle of night. All eyes fixed on the words on the front of the shirt. Ray DeForest couldn’t stop looking, as if he had never seen a woman’s breasts before. Maybe he was reliving the moment in my bed when I thought he would leave and instead he turned on his side and quietly fell asleep. Maybe he was regretting everything he had ever said and done. Maybe he was thinking about all the women he had loved who had rejected him. He had a faraway look in his eyes as if he couldn’t believe the moments of his own life were passing, that one day he would no longer be alive and that he had wasted his life thinking about all the things he had never done. All the things he had done to hurt people would come back to haunt him in the afterlife. No, there was no afterlife, there was just this moment. This magic moment.
It’s not hard to teach “Bartleby.” I’ve done it at least once a year for as long as I’ve been teaching, either to undergraduates in my American literature survey class, or to the MFA and MA students, like I’m doing now. What it was like to be a clerk in a law office on Wall Street in the mid-19th century, the subject of “Bartleby,” had never been more meaningful for all its dark connotations and for the great divide between people who have money and those who didn’t. This is what happens in a capitalist world, Melville saw it almost before anyone, that we were becoming a society of Bartlebys, as if being a wage-earner at a job you hated was something to aspire to, and there was no way out. Earning money, in Melville’s time, was becoming the main experience in American life. You had to have a job if you wanted to survive, and that meant doing anything, including stabbing your best friend in the back, to get ahead. There used to be more neighborhoods in New York City where people could live cheaply. You can work part-time, go to the library for books—no need to buy anything. The Metropolitan Museum of Art isn’t going to turn you away if you don’t pay their “suggested donation.” You can take long walks through the city without spending any money. You can sit on a bench in Central Park and watch the squirrels run up one side of the tree and down the other. You can walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn. Someone on the boardwalk at Coney Island will ask you directions—a young woman from Germany—but she’s really just a person wandering the streets, like you. Accidental encounters take place every day—all you have to do is leave the house. You sit in a Russian Restaurant on the boardwalk near Manhattan Beach and the young woman from Germany buys you a coffee. It’s just a matter of time before you return to her hotel room. You know a few words in German: “hubsch” (pretty), “das Geld” (money), “Bis morgen” (until morning), “die Kunst” (art)—more than a few, really, enough to carry on a conversation. She whispers a few words in your ear you don’t understand. You watch her move across the room like a thirties film star, Carole Lombard or Jean Harlow, as she tosses her robe over the back of a chair. You dry her shoulders as she steps from the shower. She lights your cigarette and another one for herself, as she leans back against the pillows. You can see the outline of her body beneath the sheets. Anything can happen. Anything is better than going to a job you hate. This was Melville’s ultimate message. It was why his own life was so twisted—all the years in New York, after he’d written his greatest books, working behind a desk at the Custom’s House.
“I prefer not to,” Bartleby says, to his sympathetic employer, the man who’s telling us the story. That’s what the words mean: I prefer not to be alive. The story is a cry for reform, but the students in the class know that nothing can ever change. Most of them work at part-time jobs they hate to pay rent and tuition. The situation Melville is describing in “Bartleby” is getting worse, not better. The unemployed will do nearly anything for a paycheck. Suddenly, having a job, any job, feels like a privilege.
The students can relate to Bartleby. At least they try to. Some of them, I can tell, are in denial. This isn’t the way things happen. A boring job is fine as long as you’re making enough money. The key to teaching is to connect the past with the present. How something written hundreds of years ago is still relevant. If the students can’t relate, they lose interest. It always has to be about them. I explain that understanding the non-relatedness is also important, if that makes sense. There’s no reason the author should care about you. I could go on, and I do, in front of the classroom, fielding questions, going off on tangents, swinging my bare shoulders, mediating arguments when the discussion becomes heated, as it often does, always a good thing, trying to get the quiet ones involved.
Ray DeForest takes notes. That’s what he’s good for. It’s hard not to be aware of him invading my classroom, just like he invaded my house, and my level of hatred increases as the class goes on. Ten minutes before it ends, I see him gather his things into his black canvas shoulder bag, and motion to the door—a signal he’s leaving, that he has to leave early, a common practice (I’ve done it myself) when you observe a class, especially a grad class which lasts over two hours.
“Thanks for coming,” I say, and the students in the class turn towards him in unison.
“My pleasure,” he says, without glancing back, and the door closes behind him.
Lewis Warsh (1944–2020) was a poet, fiction writer, editor, publisher, and teacher. He authored over 35 books of poetry, fiction, and autobiography, and his book of poems Elixir, completed in 2020, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse.