She had the feeling someone was watching them from a distance, from the roof of one of the buildings bordering the ocean, but no one was there. She turned her head, she looked behind her, she stared at the ocean where there was a single boat on the horizon. No one.
They came out of the subway. There was a pink flame of light above the water and some guys carrying a boombox along the boardwalk like it was 1975 and Disco was king and nothing had changed between now and then, or ever would, everyone moving to the same funky beat. There were some old Russians in wheelchairs or walkers and their Haitian nurses chatting in Creole. A man in a fur hat and a muffler though it was seventy degrees. The sweat trickling down the side of his neck.
Almost all the stores along the boardwalk were shuttered. Maybe one souvenir shop with miniature replicas of The Empire State Building or The Brooklyn Bridge. A vintage postcard of Manhattan with the World Trade Center looming in the distance. They had decided to come out here on a whim. She had been to Coney Island a few times when she first came to the city. It had taken her awhile to get the nerve to ride the subway out here alone, as much as she wanted to be near the ocean. The best thing about living in New York was when you wanted something it was right there. Even a yearning for the ocean. It took about forty-five minutes from Lower Manhattan. It was like two worlds colliding, the world of skyscrapers and the world of the ocean, the shadowy bottom where no one goes.
The other woman had never been there. It seemed like someone was watching them, observing them from a distance behind a tree or a pillar. The other woman took Greta’s hand. She looked younger, the ocean breeze drew the smoke away from her cigarette. Even Greta smoked a little now that they were together. It had not been long, but her sense of time was askew. She hadn’t been with anyone for awhile, and here she was. She wrote notes to the other woman in her head when they weren’t together. Neither of them sent text messages or used cell phones except in an emergency, which was something they had in common. The only thing that counted was when they were together face to face. When they were drinking coffee in bed. There was never a moment when she could sit back and pretend that nothing unusual was happening. She wanted the heat, night and day. Everything else paled in comparison.
Ava was a recent hire in the English Department. She had also graduated from NYU. Greta never thought about it much. Not at first, when they met, even though they knew some of the same teachers. She had been too preoccupied with Robert, with Natalie, with getting tenure. She wasn’t on the hiring committee that had chosen Ava Sarasin over three hundred other applicants. Suddenly there she was, sitting opposite Greta at a faculty meeting, trying not to look bored. The chair of the English Department, no longer Ray DeForest, introduced her to the faculty: Ava Sarasin, American lit specialist. Not 19th century, like Greta, but more contemporary, from WW I to the present. They were on a committee together to promote the English major (“the numbers,” as they say, “were dwindling”). Suddenly they were sending each other emails. They were in each other’s offices all the time. One time the younger woman closed the door of Greta’s office behind her. She stepped inside. Greta could smell lemon in her hair. It was late evening and everyone had gone home.
The other woman played soccer in high school. Feel the muscles in my thighs. She was almost six feet tall. Greta felt like she was moving closer to some place in her mind she had known about all her life. It was always out there, like a mirage, but when she reached out it was gone. The princess at the end of the dock. The woman with red hair everyone wanted. The woman sunbathing on the ledge. Lying on her stomach. Untying the straps of her suit so her back was bare. Untouchable, at first. So beautiful you had to look away.
They had some things in common. She had a ring on every finger. A black onyx stone that looked like a third eye. She liked to drink wine and walk around naked. An army brat, she grew up in Indianapolis, in St. Louis, then in Detroit. Her parents separated then came back together, and then her mother died in an accident when her boat tipped over.
Ava stood at the door to Greta’s office: Are you busy?
Let’s get out of here, she said.
They walked across the street for coffee. Sat in a booth, waiting out the moment. Whole sentences weren’t necessary, especially when they were in bed. She had made a bargain with herself. Pressed pause, once again, after her weekend with Nick. No more assignations with random strangers, even if you knew them in another life. That was the rule. It was over a year ago. Greta met Nick outside the museum. One minute he was there, a wisp of smoke, and the next minute it was over.
She and Marco were writing to each other. Sometimes two emails a day. There might be a happy ending, if only she could be sure.
There was a gap between who she had been and who she had become. For a long time there was just the abyss of becoming. Sometimes it takes forever, even longer than you think.
He was coming towards her on the street. The Chinese woman was on his arm. Greta couldn’t tell whether it was his old girlfriend, or someone new. She saw his eyes flicker in disbelief as she entered his line of vision, then look away. He was pretending he hadn’t seen her, but she couldn’t let the moment go.
“Robert,” she said. And he looked up, frightened, not knowing whether she had been stalking him or whether it was just an accident they were meeting here on the crowded street outside Bed, Bath and Beyond, not far from where he lived.
His book about Heidegger and Arendt had finally been published. She had meant to congratulate him. She saw an announcement for his reading at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, but she didn’t go.
It was nice to forget them. She said goodbye to them in her head. Natalie, Robert, all the others. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name. Ray DeForest, recently divorced. His wife had gone insane, and who wouldn’t? A diminished version of himself was still teaching in the English Department. Ray had put on weight and his hair was falling out. Every word was false. He was like a spin-off of the person he used to be, but no one cared. No one listened. She could still hear his voice, but it was getting fainter every day. A test of her reality, and her sanity, to remember the night he slept over.
She could remember the person she had been. Important to go over it and see what had gone wrong. At some point it would stop. It was a help to be in touch with Marco. The photos he sent her of his wife and children. He had a beard, but she could see the shadings in his face she remembered when they were younger. She had stood under the tree during the storm. She had been hit by lightning and her hair turned white. That’s what it felt like, on the floor of Melville’s room, night after night. It was the part of her no one could touch.
Otherwise, there was just a lot of detritus rattling around in her brain.
She could write it all down, of course, but it would take some time.
Go slowly, Ava said, but just do it. Write a little bit each day.
She kissed the younger woman on the boardwalk, not caring whether anyone was watching.
It didn’t matter whether anyone saw them or not.
Time to remove the shackles. She had done it on her own. There was a moment when she said “therapy” to herself and dialed the number of her old doctor. But then she hung up. “Shackles”—a word that Blake liked to use. “Manacles.” That was it. The manacles people create for themselves. For their minds.
Everyone said she looked different. They were living together now. A few people knew at school, but not everyone. Word spread quickly. No doubt Ray DeForest had found out. Possibly he would sit on Ava’s tenure committee further down the road and vote against her out of spite. It hardly mattered.
Ava was not that young—maybe a five year difference. But she was smarter, in her way. She knew how to get things done. She already had a contract for her book about Ezra Pound. She had been to all of Pound’s old haunts, especially Rimini, where there was a church with sculptures by Duccio. She had spent a summer in Rimini, walking among the stones. Now she and Greta were planning to go together next summer. They were learning Italian together. Ava was teaching her everything she knew.
Ezra Pound. Wasn’t he a fascist?
At least, at the end of his life, he realized where he had gone wrong. Ava showed her the interview with Allen Ginsberg where Pound confessed his mistakes.
She bought a copy of Robert’s book. She had slipped away from his apartment one morning, never to return. She had left a few things behind, a few books, some clothes. A sweater for him to remember her if he cared. He never made an attempt to return anything, or get in touch. His book was shorter than she imagined. There wasn’t that much sex—as if that’s all anyone wanted. It’s impossible to re-create what sex is like between two people you don’t know, much less your best friends, or your parents. It’s hard to imagine anyone you know having sex with anyone else. There’s a definitive version of what happened no one knows about except you and the other person. All you know is they keep coming back for more. There he was in her little room, night after night, bent almost in half because the ceiling was so low. And there was Hannah, the young Jewish student who had come to study with him, lighting a candle. She liked to see the expression on his face when they made love. The wild look in his eyes.