Herman Melville and I started talking online almost a year ago.
I sent Herman Melville an email with the subject line “I love you” with a screenshot of him as my desktop picture attached. Herman Melville replied “I love you too. Sent from my iPhone.”
I was in high school then, and our burgeoning interactions were the highlight of the gossip in most of my classes. My friends had read many of his and his roommate’s articles, as well as seen their documentaries. They were incredibly invested in the interactions between Herman Melville and myself. Things evolved from our first, minimal interactions with frequent texting and phone calls. We even video chatted once. I went to college in Portland but had friends on the east coast. I made plans to spend New Year’s with my friends in New York City, where Herman Melville lived. Because of how much we had interacted I felt comfortable asking Herman Melville if I could stay with him for a week. He said yes.
I spent the first five days at a friend’s apartment just south of Herman Melville’s. Herman Melville was spending Christmas with his family in another state. When he got back to the city he gave me the defining “come over” text I had been waiting months for.
I took the G train to Herman Melville’s apartment. I had to lug a large black suitcase through 20-degree weather, multiple metal turnstiles, and frequent catcalls. I reached Herman Melville’s apartment and he buzzed me up. Once I reached the fourth floor I called him and then texted him I was “already lost” and “how do I work this thing.” He didn’t respond but several seconds later popped his head out the door and we both said “hi.”
I entered Herman Melville’s apartment, set my things down and sat on one of the two couches. I looked at him and smiled. I had seen the apartment in pictures and it felt “unreal” sitting on his couch, in his apartment, looking at his face. I felt excited and afraid. We made small talk. It was difficult. He ordered us pizzas and we spent the night watching episodes of Intervention projected on a wall. We stayed on our respective couches, drinking vodka. I learned several days later that he disliked drinking alcohol and felt almost flattered that he endured several teacups of vodka. He only had three cups in his house, two of which were mugs belonging to his near-constantly absent roommate. The night I met him was the night I first tried cocaine. I didn’t like cocaine but for the remainder of my trip I couldn’t stop asking for it. I developed what could be described as a “penchant” for it.
In addition to vodka Herman Melville and I took a capsule of 1-ethynyl-1-cyclohexanol, a vaguely effective analog of alcohol. Herman Melville told me that a Supreme Court Justice or maybe a mayor had been addicted to it. This was the first “zany drug” that Herman Melville and I took together. The second was Ambien, later, as the night neared morning. Somehow we both ended up in his bedroom, a small cave constructed of plywood. It felt cozy. I volunteered to sleep on one of the couches, “testing the waters.” He said I didn’t need to. We both got ready for bed. By the time I returned I was feeling the effects of the Ambien, heavily.
I got under the rust-colored paisley duvet and put my face close to his. I felt afraid, mostly because I had never been that close to him. If I had thought about it too much I would start to panic. Herman Melville’s face seemed too big. “Are all faces this big,” I thought. The Ambien made me think he was a robot and that his face was bleeding. His eyes, nose, and mouth had become separate entities that I struggled to put together while he kissed me. We had sex that I later described to my friend as “nightmarish”, but that, in the moment wasn’t unremarkable or bad.
What ended up being two weeks with Herman Melville has become a blur to me, even though I’m writing this only a week after. We had a routine of waking up anywhere from one to three in the afternoon, getting breakfast, usually at some place “just around the corner,” a phrase Herman Melville used to describe any restaurant, bodega, or market within five-to-six blocks. He called me pet names. I have never gotten used to pet names. “My sweet,” “my little corgi,” and “my Philip Seymour Hoffman.” This was before Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Herman Melville told me one morning that I looked like Philip Seymour Hoffman and for multiple days I told him “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” but one night while brushing my teeth, drunk, I realized he was right. He told me I looked like a combination of all his past girlfriends. We had sex almost every morning, once or twice during the day, twice at night.
The first morning we woke up together, Herman Melville traced his fingers on my skin, telling me he liked that I didn’t have any tattoos. We watched the music video for Ke$ha’s song “Timber (ft. Pitbull)” repeatedly in bed. Herman Melville is eight years older than me. The entire time I stayed with him Herman Melville didn’t change his outfit once. Years from now it wouldn’t surprise me to find out he had become a hoarder. He frequently ordered personal pizzas and neglected to throw out the boxes. They lay stacked in a pile near the door. It was fun and terrifying to learn so many details about Herman Melville. He let me in and allowed me to learn.
Herman Melville didn’t drink coffee or smoke cigarettes. I made frequent trips to the roof of his apartment or walked around the block to do either or both when I felt “static” and would leave when we had disagreements. On New Years Eve there was a poetry reading involving several of my friends that Herman Melville had agreed to accompany me to. As it got nearer the time of the reading it seemed his workload had increased to the point that he wouldn’t join me. I felt upset and said mean things to him in a loud voice then silently grabbed my coat and left. It was snowing outside. I stomped toward the J train. As I was waiting for the signal to change at an intersection I heard a Taylor Swift song Herman Melville and I had listened to together just before the argument playing from inside a bodega. At the same time Herman Melville texted me saying he had finished working and could meet me on the platform of the J train if I hadn’t already boarded. I felt elated. I told him to come as fast as he could. The station for the J train was open air. I stood in near-blizzard weather, anticipating Herman Melville in his navy peacoat moving through the turnstile onto the subway platform.
We missed the first train and realized we would be very late for the poetry reading. My normal reaction to this situation would be to feel anxious, but instead I sat side by side with Herman Melville on the J train, feeling content. When we reached the reading we learned that none of the readers had arrived on time.
We had another disagreement my last night there. The details are fuzzy to me now, but I remember walking in the rain to go to a diner. At the diner I refused to eat anything and cried in front of the waitress for what was probably a trivial reason. At Herman Melville’s apartment I apologized repeatedly for acting like a child while simultaneously eating the leftovers of the breakfast burrito he had ordered. It was about four in the morning. That night he shaved his face and lay next to me in bed. I had fallen asleep but Herman Melville woke me climbing over my body sprawled on the mattress. He pressed his cold, bony body against mine. His shaven face seemed alien and unnerving, reminiscent of the first night, when we had Ambien sex. I ignored this feeling and we spooned until we fell asleep.
The next morning I woke before Herman Melville, walked to a nearby bodega and bought us both kombucha, then prepared for my flight. It was difficult to wake him. My car had arrived and I was ready to leave. I leaned over and kissed him. He touched my cheek and said something sweet I’ve now forgotten. I left the kombucha on his nightstand and walked out of the apartment.
Two weeks can feel like an eternity sometimes.
- Hannah Van Arsdale