I Am No One, page 1
I Am No One
For AEV & GLF
At the time of my return to New York earlier this year I had been living in Oxford for more than a decade. Having failed to get tenure at Columbia I believed Britain might offer a way to restart my career, though I always planned to move back to America, imagining I would stay abroad for a few years at most. In the interim, however, America has changed so radically—by coincidence I left just after the attacks on New York—that I find myself feeling no less alienated now than I did during those long years in Britain.
Although I acquired British citizenship and owned a house in East Oxford on the rather optimistically named Divinity Road, which becomes gradually more affluent as it rises to the crest of a hill, Britain has no narrative of immigrant assimilation, so for my British colleagues and friends and students, it mattered little that I was legally one of them. First and last, I was and would always be an American. Perhaps if one comes at a younger age total acculturation is possible, but as a man in his forties my habits were too firmly in place to undergo whatever changes might have allowed me to become British in anything other than law.
When I was fresh out of my doctorate at Princeton, New York University was not one of the places I would have chosen to work, but I was thrilled when NYU’s History Department approached me to apply for a professorship and even happier when I was offered the position, assured at last that my years away from home were finished. It is surprising how much displacement can alter the mind, and while I went to Britain entirely of my own accord, I became restive after the first few years and increasingly resentful that I was being denied—it seemed to me then—access to a fully American life. I blamed my former colleagues at Columbia and whatever machinations had led to my not being awarded tenure and having thus to begin afresh as a rather lowly sounding Fellow and University Lecturer at one of Oxford’s older Colleges, which, though founded in the fifteenth century, does not attract the brightest students or have the largest endowment.
Nonetheless, I came to see it as a comfortable place to be, despite the workload being substantially greater than at a comparable American institution since Oxford has continued to teach students individually or in small groups, and there is an ever-expandable duty of pastoral care unlike anything in American academia. I became accustomed to the College chef sending me lunch in my rooms if he was not too busy, often including some tidbit (or as the British say, titbit) from the previous night’s High Table dinner. There were excellent wines in the College cellars and life ticked on as it had for centuries, with few changes other than the admission of women, which some dons in my time still regarded as an ill-thought-out modernization that had, they insisted, altered the character of Oxford irremediably.
I was lucky with the property market and before returning to New York this past July sold the house on Divinity Road for a staggering million dollars’ profit, which I invested in a house and some land overlooking the Hudson River a couple hours north of the city, while taking up NYU’s generously subsidized housing in the Silver Towers on Houston Street. Beautiful this apartment is not, but it is a five-minute walk to Bobst Library and I have relished being back in a city that feels global in a way Oxford certainly did not despite the great number of international students and scholars hustling around its quadrangles.
Coming home, of course, meant knowing that I would see my daughter more than once or twice a year, as was our custom during my time in Britain. My loss of tenure coincided with the breakdown of my marriage, though the two were unrelated and no one was really at fault. Nonetheless, it had felt at the time as if there were doubly good reason to seek new opportunities, not only because my career in American academia was finished, so far as I could tell, but because my marriage was also over.
A few weeks ago, just months into my first semester back in New York, I had a meeting scheduled with a doctoral student to whose committee I had been assigned. Life in Oxford has produced a kind of informality in my relations with students, graduate students in particular, and so I proposed meeting Rachel at a café on the Saturday afternoon before Thanksgiving. It was one of a series of Italian-themed places on MacDougal Street that claimed a lineage longer than seemed likely, but I enjoyed its cheap coffees and the variety of authentic pastries for sale in the glass display case. It helped soften some of the culture shock I have been feeling on my return to America, allowing me to believe for a moment that those markers of European life towards which I have grown fond remain accessible even on this side of the Atlantic. Accordingly I made Caffè Paradiso a regular stop in my weekly life, as it provided the kind of quiet and spacious venue where friends and students could be met and conversation lingered over without the sense that a waiter or waitress was going to rush us out the door. It has more atmosphere and élan than any of the chain coffee shops and less hectic bustle than the faux-artisanal places so packed that one has to compete for a table and then feel the pressure of other guests helicoptering with eyes peeled for the first movements building to a departure. Caffè Paradiso is not chic or hip but it has understated style and that, I suspect, is what has kept it in business for so many years—either that or it’s a front for money laundering, which is always a possibility in this town.
Rachel was usually prompt in our communications and we had met once before, in September, for what in Oxford I would have called a supervision but which now was perhaps better called a meeting or, if that felt too businesslike, then simply coffee. In the intervening two months I had heard little from Rachel until she sent me a completed draft of a chapter. This work, on the organizational history of the Ministry for State Security in the German Democratic Republic, was very assured. I had only a few suggestions for how she might fine-tune her methodological framework but wrote to say I thought it would be productive to meet again before the holidays.
Since I am always early wherever I go I had brought a book with me, though I did not expect Rachel to keep me waiting. She gave the impression in our first meeting and in all our subsequent communications of being a young woman of exceptional meticulousness and punctuality, even punctiliousness. Several days prior to our previous meeting she had written to confirm the time and place before I had done so and when I arrived for that appointment, in the coffee shop near the southeastern corner of Washington Square, she was already waiting for me.
On this second meeting, just a few weeks ago, I ordered an Americano, took a table near the window, and opened my book. I cannot now remember what the book was, it might have been Paul Virilio’s Open Sky, or something of that sort, but I soon found that I had read ten pages and when I looked at my watch it was nearly a quarter past four, fifteen minutes after the appointed time of the meeting. I took out my phone, an antiquated black plastic wedge unable to send or receive emails, but at least, I thought, I could send Rachel a text message, as I sometimes did to my daughter if I was arranging to meet her and got stuck in traffic. When I scrolled through my list of contacts I was surprised to discover that Rachel’s name was not among them, although I was certain I had entered her details when we met in September.
Another ten minutes passed and I took out my phone again, checked to be sure I had not overlooked her number, perhaps it was filed under last name instead of first,
I had been nursing the coffee and now decided there was no point in waiting longer so I raised the cup to my mouth and in so doing caught the gaze of a young man, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, sitting at a table across from me. I cannot say how long he had been sitting there, whether he had already been present when I walked in or if he had arrived after me, but he nodded or perhaps did not nod but made some acknowledgment or greeting and then began speaking in a way so casually familiar that I was taken off guard. This is not something that tends to happen in Britain, where suspicion of strangers is so deeply ingrained in the national psyche, perhaps from the years of the IRA threat, or even more distantly, from the suspicion of German spies during the Second World War, that strangers often do not even make eye contact let alone speak with one another, unless they are from elsewhere, and then, by happy chance, it becomes possible to bond with someone in a public place, both shaking your heads over the confounding maze of London’s transportation network or the cost of living or the difficulty inherent in walking down the street because whatever laws of left-side walking that might once have been in force have been confused by London’s transformation into an international microstate, and though distant enough from the capital, Oxford is a satellite of this phenomenon, its Englishness gradually giving way to a cosmopolitanism that moves with brutal transformative force. Perhaps the day will soon come when strangers in Britain talk to each other in ways that will feel normal rather than extraordinary.
But here, in New York, on a cold day in November, there was a stranger engaging me in conversation, and because of my habituation to an English attitude of reticence it seemed so astonishing that at first I did not believe he could possibly be speaking to me.
I did a double take, looking round the room. ‘You talking to me?’
‘You talking to me? That’s funny,’ he laughed, ‘like De Niro, right? You talkin’ to me?’
‘Yeah, I suppose so.’
‘So? Stood up?’
‘No. It’s not like that. I was waiting for a student.’
‘Male or female?’
Again, I surveyed the room. The café was not very full and there was something sufficiently strange in the young man’s tone that I was unsure whether it was safe to continue the conversation and thought of ending it right there by excusing myself. If I had any common sense remaining, that is precisely what I should have done, given what has come to pass, but clearly, in retrospect, I had taken leave of my senses, or perhaps, I think now, taken leave of my British senses and allowed the American ones to seize control.
Once more I looked around, this time to be sure there was no one I knew within earshot.
‘That means no. You sound British.’
‘I lived there for more than a decade. To the British I always sounded American.’
‘Well, you sound British to me. Anyone else tell you that?’
‘A number of people. Americans tend not to have a good ear. They think that British actor, what’s his name, who plays a doctor on TV, they think he does a faultless American accent. He doesn’t. It sounds like an accent that was cooked up in a laboratory rather than grown from seed, as it were.’
‘See, that’s what I mean. Americans would never say as it were. You totally sound British. That’s awesome.’
‘Thank you, I guess.’
‘So she’s not pretty, the student who stood you up?’
‘She’s attractive enough, but that’s not the point. She’s an excellent student.’
‘But a flake.’
‘No, not a flake. It’s just not like her.’
‘Then call her.’
‘I don’t have her number. Thought I did . . .’
‘Listen, I’m not that old.’
‘You could be my granddad.’
‘I’m not even fifty-five.’
‘Okay, calm down, I’m just messing with you. What do you teach?’
‘Modern History and Politics, and a senior seminar on Film.’
‘Are you a student?’
‘Nope. Not anymore.’
‘You know what I do. Don’t you want to tell me what you do?’
‘Just another corporate shill.’
And that, as far as I remember it, was the end of the conversation. He struck me as not much younger or older than my daughter, with sandy hair and a pale complexion that made him look like a corn-fed Midwesterner, the kind of face that hosts the slightly haunted-looking eyes of poverty from a few generations back—not his parents or grandparents necessarily, but one or more of the great-grandparents, I suspected, had not eaten well for much of his or her life and somehow that hunger had taken hold of their genes and been passed down to the kid who struck up a conversation with me in an Italian café in Greenwich Village at the end of last month. It was a face that reminded me of the portraits by Mike Disfarmer, those sepia photographs of ordinary Arkansas folk, too tanned, most of them lean and a little hungry or hunted looking, as though in hunting to put meat on the table they had at some moment in the chase realized they were themselves being tracked by an unseen predator.
The meeting was not in itself unsettling, although this young man was the sort of person who left me glancing over my shoulder as I walked back to my building in the afternoon dark, and then as I stood in the lighted window overlooking Houston Street—or, rather, staring at my own reflection as I was thinking about the passing traffic outside—it occurred to me just how visible I was, only a few floors up from street level, the blinds open and me standing there, listening to Miles Davis and drinking a glass of scotch because it was, after all, already half past five in the afternoon and it was November and dark and I felt alone, in fact quite lonely, and realizing that the reason I had not ended the conversation immediately, even when it took its stranger turns, was because I had not yet managed to reconnect with my old friends in this city, had in fact allowed those friendships to slide during my years in Oxford, so that now I no longer feel able to phone up the people who were once my intimates and ask them if we could meet for a coffee as easily as I proposed such meetings with my students, female or not, pretty or otherwise. I decided I should invite a small group of colleagues for dinner, then remembered the reason I was feeling unsettled in the first place, and the fact that I had briefly forgotten why I was unsettled compounded my sense of unease. I opened my laptop and there, right at the top of the sent messages in my email, was a message to Rachel that I had apparently written that afternoon, at just past 2pm, so only a few hours earlier, in which I asked her if we might reschedule our meeting until Monday at 4pm in my office because another commitment had unexpectedly arisen and I could not, I was terribly sorry, find a way to get out of it, and would she please forgive me. And there was her reply, which I had apparently read, assuring me it was no problem whatsoever and Monday at 4pm in my office suited her perfectly.
Now, I had no memory of writing the message, or of having read her reply, and while it is true that I was having my first drink before 6pm, it was definitely my first of the day. Moreover, I had not had a drink all week, though one might think that because I have to mention such a thing perhaps I have had a problem in the past, which is not the case either, unlike a great many of my former colleagues at Oxford, a majority of whom I would guess were functional—and some not remotely functional—alcoholics of the ki
‘Fine, Dad, a little crazed, to be honest. We have a dinner tonight.’
‘Yes, but I can’t—I mean, I shouldn’t really say.’
‘Am I untrustworthy?’
‘No, of course not, it’s just, phone lines these days, you never know. Maybe I’m being paranoid. But how are you?’
‘Okay. Something—it’s . . . nothing really. I just wanted to hear your voice.’
‘Come tonight if you like. I could use another person. And it would be good to see you.’
I could not tell whether it was a genuine invitation or if my daughter was simply throwing pity on me, but I made a brief show of protest before accepting. The thought of spending the night alone in that apartment in the Village, or even taking myself out to eat and then going off to see some deeply earnest Iranian or Turkish or even French film at the Angelika or walking an hour up to Central Park just to feel the sensation of moving among other people, to imagine I was not alone in the world, failed and a failure because I had to throw myself into the company of strangers to create the illusion of connection, was more than I could stomach. Such perambulations, all the attempts at distracting myself from my loneliness, only made the sense of isolation worse.