The mind is a strange place. Recently I had a sex dream about movie director Peter Bogdanovich, and I don’t even have those kinds of feelings for Peter Bogdanovich, or at least I don’t think I do. Historian Robert Caro was also in the dream—the guy who’s writing the five-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (he’s actually already published four of the five volumes and they’re all wonderful, genre-defining, and widely praised)—although nothing happened with Robert Caro. The funny thing is that I kind of do have those feelings for Robert Caro. It might be the accent—mid-century New York, from a Yiddish-speaking household such that the ghost of that other language still shows through—and, gosh, he’s just so smart. And his mannerisms. Nothing gets me like delicate mannerisms. Once I fell in love with a Greek waiter over his mannerisms alone. They were like hand-spun cotton, both soft and precise, and my desire for him sprang entirely from the beauty of his gestures. I can’t accurately describe the way watching his hands move made me feel. All I can say is that chicken souvlaki will forever summon for me the quality of an erotic experience.
Both inside and outside dreams, there is an intrinsic soft-spokenness about Robert Caro. Every few seconds he sinks into a deep, long blink. Like he’s reaching for a thought and needs to go truly inside of himself to retrieve it. Sometimes he pairs one of these long blinks with a gentle intake of breath. And then he speaks. You should hear him say the word, “lost.” Downright irresistible. Whenever he says “find” or “awe” or “talking” or “thought,” I start to daydream about meeting him at a bar in 1965—back when he was starting work on his very first book—and dancing with him to Frank Sinatra’s version of “Nice ‘n’ Easy” and then, later, undressing him.
But it isn’t Caro that I get to touch in the dream.
I spend a long time trying to turn that first page into a story. In this story, I’m always trying to find Robert Caro or, rather, Dream Robert Caro who shares much, but not all, with the real man. I am not interested, after all, in the Robert Caro who alongside his wife Ina Caro has conducted untold hours of research and laid bare some of the most complex dynamics of American political power. I am interested in the paper cut
–out of him. And what fantasies I can pin onto his six-foot silhouette, onto his delicate shoulders, onto his hair, parted to the side.
The story resembles stories I have written before. It’s a story invested in memory that attempts to conflate a time with a place. There is a bar somewhere where it is always that dream night in 1965. A summer night, with the air heavy and dense, almost salty. Twenty-nine-year-old Robert Caro drinks a beer at the bar and waits. What he is waiting for, no one can say. And then I walk in. And Frank Sinatra plays. And dancing ensues.
The scene repeats a number of times and, although he always feels the same when I touch him—pleasantly warm under his cotton oxford shirt—the Sinatra song changes, altering the meaning of the encounter. We go from “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” that smooth ode to predictable endings, to “Where or When,” implying the knottiness of a history of heartbreak only maybe overcome. “It seems we stood and talked like this before / We looked at each other in the same way then / But I can’t remember where or when.” And yet, despite the heartbreak that colors everything, the wavering between remembering and forgetting implies a hopefulness, a carving of new ground. The forgetting willful, the remembering selective.
The song that floods the scene the third time: “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” A song of unashamed sorrow, the heartbreak complete and white-hot in the wake of an irreversible parting. “We’re drinkin’, my friend, to the end of a brief episode / So make it one for my baby and one more for the road.” When I first heard that song at about age 13, I misunderstood it entirely. I thought Frank wanted not two drinks for himself but one for himself and another one to leave atop the bar undrunk, saved for the one who was never to return. I always had the wrong idea.
The last time: “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” A big bucket of soupy despair, all grief and fresh pain. “In the wee small hours of the morning / That’s the time you miss him most of all.” And I look around to discover that Caro has left. Vanished, rather.
The dream, of course, happens in New York, where I once stood at the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia Streets and felt irrevocably alone. It was cold, windy, quiet. At least I remember it as quiet, although I was surrounded by people who must not have been quiet. Who must have been talking
, or filling the street with the sound of their living, their feet on the sidewalk, their arms whooshing back and forth. Meanwhile, I was just standing there, staring at the sign for Murray’s Cheese, the bright red lettering against the yellow background. This is Murray’s Cheese, Retail, Wholesale. Murray’s: We Know Cheese. And right there, only a few feet away from so many pounds of brie and gorgonzola and fontina and gouda and pecorino, I wondered or feared or alas discovered that I could love fully only in dreams. No need to get into the backstory. Just know that at that moment it felt like a certainty, a fate foretold.
Even now, years later, I fear the recrudescence of that feeling.
So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it is 1965 and that I walk into the bar and see Robert Caro. But Robert Caro doesn’t take off or vanish, and I don’t leave a second drink at the bar for someone who I know will never come back.
Instead, he stays. He doesn’t disappear at all. Not even a little bit. And we walk out of the bar and, by some miracle, we are standing in the warm, New York, 4 o’clock light.
We walk up Sixth Avenue in 1965 New York heading for a place at 259 West Forty-second Street, between Broadway and Eight (where The Delphi Restaurant once was). I see men wearing pinch front fedoras and a woman in a mauve silk shift dress softly sashed at the waist that I think she must have gotten at B. Altman’s, an old department store that is now a landmark building. We’re a few months away from the famous November blackout that left people stranded in train stations, and a whole twenty-five years removed from my own birth. Robert Caro doesn’t even know that he will work on The Years of Lyndon Johnson yet. How could he? In 1965, the years of Lyndon Johnson are yet to end. And I choose not to say anything. I don’t warn him that by the time he starts work on Johnson, Johnson will be dead.
What we talk about is the food. And we order so much of it. Fork-tender lamb, crisp spanakopita, warm pita dipped in olive oil. And this is where I fumble. Because I don’t know how to speak of what happens here. Of the sensation of having him before me, his mouth glistened with melted butter. My heart filled not with the feeling of touching him but with the feeling of having him within reach. I’m unsure of how to make a description of baklava held together by nuts and honey mean what I want it to mean.
What I can say is that when we leave, we feel soaked in honey and olive oil ourselves. And I start by holding his face, and I run my oily thumbs across his cheeks, and I slowly come closer.
Sara Brenes Akerman is a graduate student in English at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studies Shakespeare in performance. She is a collector of found photography, an amateur historian of daily life in New York City, and a San José, Costa Rica native. She holds an MFA in Fiction from NYU.