“Is this seat taken?”
A few minutes out of Penn Station, I took a book out of my shoulder-bag, a dog-eared paperback copy of The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which I’d first read as an undergraduate. Someone told me Lessing was dying, and I remembered all the days and nights of my first year in New York, lying in bed with a gin and tonic and a cigarette in the small suite of dorm rooms I shared with two other students, a long scarf wrapped like a cobra around my neck, shoulders and arms. The boiler was broken and the radiator was cold, and I could write my name with my fingertips in the frost on the window like I used to do as a child. I remember all the winters in the country when the sky began to darken at three-thirty every day and all the weekends when it was too cold to go anywhere and the roads were icy and there were no visitors for days, just me and my parents who rarely spoke to one another or to me. Maybe my reading habit began during those endless winters. The librarian in Lenox, Katie Flume, the first woman I ever kissed, had recommended The Golden Notebook during my senior year in high school, but I didn’t read it until a year later in New York. I kept thinking that it must be dated by now—all the questions of women’s dependency on men, the disillusionment with Communism. The book begins in 1957, not long after Stalin died. It was all about self-doubt, a story inside a story with no end in sight. If there was a phrase to capture the essence of the book it might be Jean Paul-Sartre’s famous remark: “Hell is other people.” I could say the same thing about my own life as well. Everyone I’ve ever met, from start to finish, Robert, Natalie, even the unmentionable Ray DeForest, who was like the gatekeeper to hell itself. Even Marco wasn’t immune, though worthy of a room of his own, a dark light out of the past growing dimmer, but never fading away.
I was at the window seat watching the landscape of deserted factories and the crust of snow melting on the sides of the bare trees. He was very tall and slender, with watery eyes, a short badly trimmed beard, and a clueless expression, as if he had been left out in the cold as a child and had been permanently traumatized. He was too handsome for his own good, but at least he was polite. I could lie to him and say the seat was occupied. His parents had taught him some manners, but not many. His hair was black, and cut short—I guessed Italian, and was right.
He took off his black winter coat, but kept his brown and gold striped scarf dangling around his neck.
“I almost didn’t make it,” he said, as he sat down.
Midwest, maybe Minnesota, or Michigan.
He smiled at me, half-sad, half-relieved that I wasn’t going to turn away angrily. He wanted me to feel sorry for him: what if he had missed his train? He wanted me to be instantly engaged with everything he was doing. It wasn’t like he cared about me—I was the only person around. There was some hidden joy lurking behind the mask he presented to the world, but the sadness showed through. It was the impression he wanted to make, for reasons unknown, only to surprise you later, as so many people do, who turn out to be different from who we imagine. You can usually tell what a person’s feeling by watching their eyes. He was trying to hide behind a forced smile, but couldn’t. It was hard work, as if he was suddenly standing in the glare of the sun after twenty years behind bars. He slumped in his seat, and looked smaller than he was, his knees jammed against the seat in front. There was more leg room on the Acela express than the regular train, that’s why you were paying more, but it was never enough.
“It’s just a matter of time,” I said to myself, but I’m not sure for what.
He unzipped his canvas shoulder bag and took out a book. I thought, at first, it might be laptop, I would have voted on that, or a smart phone, since we weren’t in a quiet car and there were people chattering around us on their phones. This meant we could talk aloud to one another, if we wanted, in real time, and I wondered if that would happen, or whether we’d immerse ourselves in our books or just stare out the window in silence. Or into space. It used to happen all the time, you would sit next to someone on a train, or an airplane, and tell your life story to a stranger, whoever was beside you. It was a way of passing time but it was also a way of creating the illusion of intimacy, at least for a few hours, give the impression that you actually cared. The chance of meeting someone in this way was less than zero, one might think, though it had happened to Robert and I. We’re not the best advertisement for random encounters. I’ve been on trains where I caught the eye of someone passing in the aisle and wished that person was sitting next to me instead. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, and the train isn’t full, you can ride alone, and not worry about making forced conversation with a stranger. Now most people ignore one another, on airplanes, on trains, just like they do on the subway. Though there are still some people out there, and maybe I’m one of them, who look forward to the chance of passing time with someone they’ll never see again.
When Nicky sat down—it was just a matter of time before we told each other our names—I was trying to concentrate on my book, not think about Robert, who responded to my break-up email with “if that’s what you want.” He didn’t address any of my concerns, but it wasn’t like I had left room for bargaining. I had the feeling, as I was writing the letter, and then reading it over afterwards, that he probably felt the same way. An email can act like a closed door if you let it. You don’t have to answer—sometimes it’s just too much trouble. I presented the end of our relationship as a given—there was no turning back. It wasn’t necessary to talk about what went wrong, since we weren’t trying to fix anything. Possibly he was contemplating breaking off with me and was relieved I had done it first, without losing face, or caring very deeply. The level of hurt was minimal, at best. It takes a little work to write a letter like that, but it’s kind of the coward’s way out, instead of talking on the phone, or in person. I didn’t feel particularly proud of myself for the things I was writing.
I had to pee and wondered if I should do it before he made himself comfortable.
“No problem,” he said, and uncoiled from his seat. I could smell the tobacco on his shirt as I brushed against him and smiled in lieu of saying “thank you.”
But of course it was a mistake. I didn’t have to pee at all. I was already beginning to feel something I shouldn’t, though I’m not sure who’s the judge, who’s on trial, who’s the defendant, would you raise your right hand? Whether I’m my own best judge, or prison warden, whether I’ll keep making the same mistakes or learn from my experience. That’s one reason people go to jail: to ponder their crimes, so it will never happen again. To learn a lesson, supposedly, but who are they kidding?
I caught a glimpse of the cover of his book, Sentimental Education, by Flaubert, one of the greatest novels ever, and it was hard not to think of the way Robert and I met, also on a train, and the book he was reading, another great novel, The Wild Palms by Faulkner (it was Faulkner who once described women as “human spittoons”), and suddenly I felt split between the past I had left behind and the future up ahead, and then there was this moment, this new person, this completely other person, sitting next to me, asking me about myself, a Yale grad student in 19th century American literature of all things, and what he would do after he finished his PhD, this Italian boy from Indianapolis, a place I’ve never been, and which he describes in detail, as we sit, arm to arm, staring straight ahead, how he made his escape from a small town in the midwest, first to the University of Chicago, as an undergrad, and then Yale, where he’d been the last five years.
“I’ve read that—more than once,” he said, pointing to The Golden Notebook.
We could talk about anything we wanted. There was a time constraint—he was getting off at New Haven. We had an hour to say everything.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-six. And you?
“How old do I look?”
“I might be. Let me ask you something”
“I can’t wait.”
“Who’s your favorite writer?”
“Is this a test?”
“A lot depends on it, yes. It’s the most important question, don’t you think?”
“There could be something more important.”
“Whitman would be numero uno for me. I don’t read him so much, but I like the idea that he existed.”
“I’m a Melville person, myself.”
“They’re almost the same. Different, of course, but they make sense as a duo. Their time line is linked.”
“Opposite types, don’t you think?”
“It took the world a long time to figure them out.”
“Is that who you’re writing about at school—Whitman?”
“We’re both 19th century types, you and I.”
“I like European writing as well. Do you think I’m crazy? I just want to read books. I don’t even care about analyzing them, or talking about them. I like thinking about them, at least while I’m reading, and directly after. I compose sentences in my head when I’m reading and sometimes I write them down. I have a journal where I keep notes about everything I’m reading. Everything I do. It’s mostly the pleasure of actually reading the book I like best. I can sit in one place for hours at a time. I unplug everything so no one can reach me, even in an emergency. I’m going to get my PhD and I’m going to teach because I need the money and the health insurance. But all I care about is the book itself. It’s like being in a dream that you can enter any time you want: word, phrase, sentence, paragraph. Someone else’s dream. It’s like music—like what happens to most people when they listen to music happens to me. That’s what I’m doing when I read. I’m listening.”
Marco was more than a vague memory out of the distant past. What happened between us was real, continued to be real, a lasting impression, even though we hadn’t seen one another in ten years. In comparison, everyone else I met left a vague outline in my heart—just a trace. Everything I’ve done since I moved to New York has been an attempt to duplicate the vividness of that reality, though after awhile I stopped trying. I ended my relationship with Robert, only to realize, in the aftermath, that I’d never really been totally present in the first place. Maybe part of me. How many times did I sigh inwardly as I walked through the door of his apartment? Sex with a stranger for a single night was more my style. At least I could feel my pulse for a few minutes. I recognized my own brand of cynicism, the idea that something is doomed to failure even before it begins, and with that in mind I approach people with a measure of hope, they’re just like people with wounds of their own, damaged souls, cliché-ridden, pathetic, sometimes androgynous, flawed, fucked up, in denial, careless with their own bodies, abrasive, bad-tempered, submissive. The list could go on, like a catalog in a poem by Whitman, and I had to acknowledge my flaws as well, alongside everything else, but that doesn’t make things better. Or worse.
With every passing day, the traces of everyone I ever knew became fainter, all the old scars. Something had happened, but it was just a fact in my chronology, for instance, that I came to New York when I did, I went to school for more years than one can imagine, and that today I teach in Brooklyn. I have a birthday, a name. It doesn’t matter where I met someone—it could happen anywhere.
I was only thirty-five. I still had some time. Nick was twenty-six. I wondered if I looked like an “older woman” in his eyes. We made eye contact when we talked. I watched the way his mouth moved, the small vectors of moist skin. He even touched my arm once with his fingertips for emphasis. I can’t remember the words but the touch of his fingers lingered long after. For a moment, even though I liked hearing his voice, I wanted to turn off the sound and memorize the contours of his face, without touching. The artifice of pretending you were someone other than who you are faded away, as if there had never been any distinction. “This is me,” he seemed to be saying, “why should I hide anything?” The people in the seats in front of us were talking on their phones. I could hear every word. Compared to them, Nick and I were practically whispering. We were trying, in our small way, to be considerate of the people around us. We were riding through the northern edge of the New England corridor, with its bleak never-ending sameness, the frayed world where I grew up, the poetry of emptiness and defeat. Marco had really escaped, and I had tried too. He sent me photos of his wife. He didn’t mention her, except in passing. “I’d love you to meet Lynda some day.” I stared at the word “Lynda” until the letters began to elevate from the paper. It existed in its own category: Lynda, Marco’s wife. It was imprinted across the skyline in bright neon colors. Another word embedded in my brain forever. Marco had escaped from this world, he had escaped from me as well, he was over it all, whatever happened that year when we were young, half a life-time ago. For me, it was like a trauma that wouldn’t go away. It was the gold standard of my connections with other people on this planet, and no one else came close.
“Don’t say anything,” I wanted to whisper to Nick. The sound of his voice was giving me a headache, but I couldn’t tell whether he was talking just to fill up the space between us, or because he wanted to get to know me, though of course I could be anyone, though how many people on the train were reading The Golden Notebook, just the way no one on the subway, on the faithful day I sat down across from Robert, was reading Van Gogh’s letters to his brother or William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms.
Unlike the conversation with Nick, which was non-stop, though he did most of the talking, there were long silent pauses in the car with Natalie. She met me at the train station in Providence and we crossed the state line into Massachusetts, through Fall River and New Bedford, the old whaling villages where Melville boarded a ship for Tahiti when he was twenty-one, not realizing it would be four years before he ever saw his family again. He was trying to escape something without realizing what he was doing, or why. On the surface, it was all about the adventure, and the escape. I had the theory that Melville was a special kind of claustrophobe, and that being alive—just being on this planet—was too constraining for him. Yet he was compelled (some might say “forced”) to adhere to the conventions of life, including a marriage to Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, who didn’t care about his writing. Maybe she did at first; but then Moby Dick, when it was published in 1851, was hardly a success, and she lost interest in what her husband was doing, all the unprofitable hours he spent alone in the room adjacent to their bedroom, with the view of Mount Greylock, the room where Marco and I fucked every chance we could when I was the tour guide at Arrowhead. Moby Dick sold less copies than Mardi, Omoo and Typee, the straight-forward accounts of his South Sea adventures.. The books that followed Moby Dick were allegories of all the neglect he experienced at the hands of the literary and publishing world, and the lack of support within his own family. Reading Pierre, for the critics who bothered to read it, was like eating a plate of bitter herbs. But shipping out from New Bedford was the experience that changed his life. All the early novels—and then later, “Benito Cereno” and “Billy Budd”—were based on his experiences in open water.
It was a two hour drive between Providence and Provincetown; we passed an old caboose that had been converted into a diner, where we had eaten lunch a few years back and which was now boarded up. There were the cigarettes I lit for her, and for myself; though it was ten degrees outside, wind chill factor below zero, I rolled down the window an inch to let the smoke out. The wind sounded like a buzz saw in a horror movie, or that drill used by that old Nazi in Marathon Man (one of Robert’s favorite movies) to extract Dustin Hoffman’s teeth. It was one of my favorites as well, but Natalie hated it. The sky was getting dark along the edges—the shortest days of the year were here—and the inside of the car was awash with a feeling of foreboding.
“Are you glad to be here?” she asked, finally.
“You know I am.”
“I’ve missed you more than I can say. It’s been intolerable, really.”
The trees along the road were fringed with lace, a thin veneer of snow and ice on every branch. We drove passed the deserted intersections with familiar names. Brewster, Truro, Wellfleet. Provincetown 7 miles. You are now entering Provincetown. I wondered if Hannah Arendt ever came to Cape Cod, maybe to visit her friend, Mary McCarthy. My mind was zooming sideways, going off on tangents, frightened of centering on the moment. There was only static on the radio. I turned it off and lit another cigarette. “Me too,” Natalie said, the first words in half an hour, though maybe it only felt that long. We sank even further into the stupor of smoke and silence. All the motels were closed and most of the restaurants. The off-season feeling of emptiness, like we were the last people in the world, which used to feel romantic all the times we came here before, offering its own kind of glow, now reflected feelings of recrimination, desolation, loss. This highway was always packed, bumper to bumper, during the summer. A few package stores were still open. There was always someone, somewhere, who needed a drink on a cold night.
“We should get some wine,” I said, tentatively, as if I was stepping gingerly into arctic air.
“We have plenty at home, let me tell you. I stocked up on everything.”
It was dark before we reached Provincetown and turned off the highway before it ended and drove down Commercial Street where there were a handful of stores still open, the entrances ringed with Christmas ornaments, wreaths and bulbs, determined-looking Santas pulled along by trains of reindeer. There was snow in the air, we had arrived just in time, and it was just a matter of moments—or so I imagined—before we were lying under the covers in the big bedroom upstairs. Or something. It was a picture to look forward to. I wanted to look forward to something, but I wasn’t sure what, and for a moment, as she turned into the driveway of her house on the ocean’s edge, I realized that Natalie was a total stranger, not someone I knew or would ever know again.
And I didn’t want to be there.
Eggs. That was good enough for dinner. Food was never a priority in the world of Natalie Ceseras. It sounded like a made-up name. Scrambled eggs, with onions, and toast. A little butter on your toast? Some jam? The quiet was interrupted by the sound of utensils scraping plates. Any sound was better than this nothing, which was mostly anger, bubbling just below the surface. Here’s the jam. Here’s the butter. The knife. Shall I make some coffee? Fine. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. Now it was unfolding in front of me in real time.
Greta Robbins. Natalie Ceseras. Robert Bannister.
“No one calls me Bob,” he once told her, “except people who don’t know me.”
She was happy with the name “Greta.” It had been her great-grandmother’s name, back in the old country, though she wasn’t sure which country, Austria, Hungary, the old Czechoslovakia. Nice to be from Prague, to be part of a lineage of Nazi resisters. Her mother’s cousins had harbored Jews during the war. Greta quizzed her mother about her genealogy, thinking it might be an ongoing topic, since they had almost nothing else to talk about, but she would begin to nod off as soon as her mother began her dissertation-like reworking of the past as she knew it. Something in her mother’s tone induced a muffling of the senses, like all the air had gone out of the room and the walls were closing in. Lisbeth, the name her mother had been given at birth, though everyone except her ex-husband, Greta’s father, called her Lis, had been a history teacher in the Lenox high school, the same school Greta had attended, and was used to rambling on endlessly whether anyone was paying attention or not. It was up to them, the students, the melange of blank faces arrayed in front of her, to listen; she wasn’t in the entertainment business, something Greta had heard her say more than once. Greta was always reminded of her mother’s advice when she stood in front of a class. She could hear herself droning on, her words evaporating into thin air. Do the opposite of whatever my mother did, she said to herself, taking her own council. Not only in terms of teaching, but life itself.
It was tricky, this desire to leave everything behind. You can never start over again with the same person, as if nothing had happened. Her presence in this house, with Natalie, marked the beginning of chapter two, and all Greta wanted was to go back to page one with someone else, mainly herself. It was pointless to do almost anything, much less try to work out a life with another person, if she didn’t know what she wanted. A recipe for chaos, if nothing else, and the clock was ticking down.
There was no music playing in the background. Greta remembers, from the old days, just a year ago, there had always been music, a lonely violin sonata by Beethoven with piano accompaniment, the soundtrack from The Harder They Come, Elvis Costello, Elliot Carter’s string quartet #2. But tonight there was only the cold night air battering the glass. The living room windows looking out at the edge of nowhere.
That’s where I am, Greta thought, taking comfort in the realization. At least she knew something about herself that was true. It was a place to start from.
“How’s your boyfriend?”
It was all she had to say. Like she had been waiting since we met at the station in Providence to ask me this question. Like the fuse on a timer about to detonate on a crowded train.
All the times we talked on the phone in the last year. The afternoon we met for coffee at Mumbles. Never once did she refer to “my boyfriend.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” I said. Part of me was already out the door.
“So you don’t want to talk about it?”
“What do you want me to say? Be specific.”
“Are you still together?”
“I’m here. We’re together—you and I—at least for the moment. Remember we talked on the phone and I reserved a seat on the train and you drove two hours to meet me at the station and then we drove back two hours and now we’re here. I, consciously, willingly, made the decision to come here. To be with you.”
“So talking about your boyfriend is off limits.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
I felt like crying. I became aware of the weight of my cellphone in my shirt pocket and that I would need the number for the closest car service to get me out of here.
“I saw him,” she said. “The old guy—your boyfriend. I saw you together.”
“I was in that Japanese restaurant on 13th Street. Across from the Yoga place. You didn’t see me. I was with Tobey Maitland. Remember her? I could see you both. He was facing me. Of course he didn’t recognize me, he doesn’t know me. I thought you would turn around but you didn’t. And Tobey didn’t see you either. And then you left first—you and your boyfriend. Hard to imagine you in bed together. I just couldn’t. I lost my appetite right then, I must say. It was just as well that we didn’t meet, face to face. Tobey hates you, as you know. She had a fit when I told her you were coming here.”
“When was she here last?”
Tobey had been Natalie’s lover before me.
“About a week ago. Just for a few days.”
Tobey Maitland—the great performance artist and poet who was still in love with Natalie, who blamed me for everything that had gone wrong between them. I had been “the other woman” for awhile, while Natalie went from Tobey’s bed to mine, before she finally decided on me. A big mistake. Once Tobey was waiting outside my building on 9th Street and followed me for a few blocks. I knew who she was and she knew that I knew, but it didn’t matter. Every time I turned around there she was, like in a bad spy movie, lurking in the shadows.
“She hates you.” Natalie laughs, as if it’s all a big joke. She lights another smoke while the food turns cold on her plate. “She hates everybody, really, so don’t take it personally. But especially you.”