Writers & Lovers (Page 1)

I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.

Adam, my landlord, watches me walk his dog. He leans against his Benz in a suit and sparkling shoes as I come back up the driveway. He’s needy in the morning. Everyone is, I suppose. He enjoys his contrast to me in my sweats and untamed hair.

When the dog and I are closer he says, ‘You’re up early.’

I’m always up early. ‘So are you.’

‘Meeting with the judge at the courthouse at seven sharp.’

Admire me. Admire me. Admire judge and courthouse and seven sharp.

‘Somebody’s gotta do it.’ I don’t like myself around Adam. I don’t think he wants me to. I let the dog yank me a few steps past him toward a squirrel squeezing through some slats at the side of his big house.

‘So,’ he says, unwilling to let me get too far away. ‘How’s the novel?’ He says it like I made the word up myself. He’s still leaning against his car and turning only his head in my direction, as if he likes his pose too much to undo it.

‘It’s all right.’ The bees in my chest stir. A few creep down the inside of my arm. One conversation can destroy my whole morning. ‘I’ve got to get back to it. Short day. Working a double.’

I pull the dog up Adam’s back porch, unhook the leash, nudge him through the door, and drop quickly back down the steps.

‘How many pages you got now?’

‘Couple of hundred, maybe.’ I don’t stop moving. I’m halfway to my room at the side of his garage.

‘You know,’ he says, pushing himself off his car, waiting for my full attention. ‘I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.’

I sit at my desk and stare at the sentences I wrote before walking the dog. I don’t remember them. I don’t remember putting them down. I’m so tired. I look at the green digits on the clock radio. Less than three hours before I have to dress for my lunch shift.

Adam went to college with my older brother, Caleb—in fact, I think Caleb was a little in love with him back then—and for this he gives me a break in the rent. He shaves off a bit more for walking his dog in the morning. The room used to be a potting shed and still has a loam and rotting leaves smell. There’s just enough space for a twin mattress, desk and chair, and hot plate, and toaster oven in the bathroom. I set the kettle back on the burner for another cup of black tea.

I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.

At nine thirty I get up from the chair and scrub at the sirloin and blackberry stains on my white pleated shirt, iron it dry on the desk, slip it on a hanger, and thread the hook of the hanger through the loop at the top of my backpack. I put on my black work pants and a T-shirt, pull my hair into a ponytail, and slide on the backpack.

I wheel my bike out of the garage backward. It barely fits because of all the crap Adam has in here: old strollers, high chairs, bouncy seats, mattresses, bureaus, skis, skateboards, beach chairs, tiki torches, foosball. His ex-wife’s red minivan takes up the rest of the space. She left it behind along with everything else except the kids when she moved to Hawaii last year.

‘A good car go to waste like that,’ the cleaning lady said one day when she was looking for a hose. Her name is Oli, she’s from Trinidad, and she saves things like the plastic scoops from laundry detergent boxes to send back home. That garage makes Oli crazy.

I ride down Carlton Street, run the red at Beacon, and head up to Comm. Ave. Traffic thunders past. I slide forward, off the bike seat, and wait with a growing pileup of students for the light to change. A few of them admire my ride. It’s an old banana bike I found at a dump in Rhode Island in May. Luke and I fixed it up, put on a new greased-up chain, tightened the brake cables, and shimmied the rusty seat shaft until it slid up to my height. The gearshift is built into the cross bar, which makes it feel more powerful than it is, as if there’s a secret engine somewhere. I like the whole motorcycle feel of it, with the raised vertical handlebars and the long, quilted seat and the tall bar in back I lean against while coasting. I didn’t have a banana bike as a kid, but my best friend did and we used to swap bikes for days at a time. These BU students, they’re too young to have ridden a banana bike. It’s strange, to not be the youngest kind of adult anymore. I’m thirty-one now, and my mother is dead.

The light changes, and I get back on the seat, cross the six lanes of Comm. Ave. and pump up and over the BU Bridge to the Cambridge side of the Charles River. Sometimes I don’t make it to the bridge before cracking. Sometimes it starts on the bridge. But today I’m okay. Today I’m holding it together. I glide down onto the sidewalk on the water side of Memorial Drive. It’s high summer, and the river seems tired. Along its banks a frothy white scum pushes against the reeds. It looks like the white gunk that collected in the corners of Paco’s mother’s mouth by the end of a long day of her incessant complaining in the kitchen. At least I don’t live there anymore. Even Adam’s potting shed is better than that apartment outside Barcelona. I cross at River Street and Western Ave. and veer off the concrete onto the dirt path that runs close to the river’s edge. I’m all right. I’m still all right, until I see the geese.

They’re in their spot near the base of the footbridge, twenty maybe thirty of them, fussing about, torquing their necks and thrusting their beaks into their own feathers or the feathers of others or at the few remaining tufts of grass in the dirt. Their sounds grow louder as I get closer, grunts and mutterings and indignant squawks. They’re used to interruptions on their path and move as little as possible to get out of my way, some pretending to nip at my ankles as I pedal through, a few letting their butt feathers swish through my spokes. Only the hysterical ones bolt for the water, shrieking as if under attack.

I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for. But right on the heels of that feeling, that suspicion that all is not yet lost, comes the urge to tell my mother, tell her that I am okay today, that I have felt something close to happiness, that I might still be capable of feeling happy. She will want to know that. But I can’t tell her. That’s the wall I always slam into on a good morning like this. My mother will be worrying about me, and I can’t tell her that I’m okay.

The geese don’t care that I’m crying again. They’re used to it. They chortle and squall and cover up the sounds I make. A runner approaches and veers up off the path, sensing I don’t see her. The geese thin out by the big boathouse. At the Larz Anderson Bridge, I turn right, up JFK toward Harvard Square.

It’s a purging of sorts, that ride, and usually lasts me a few hours.

Iris is on the third floor of a building owned by a Harvard social club, which began renting out the space a decade ago to pay off nearly a hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. There aren’t many students around in the summer, and they have a separate entrance on the other side of the big brick mansion, but I hear a few of them rehearsing sometimes. They have their own theater where they put on plays in which men dress up as women and their own a cappella group that flashes in and out of the building wearing tuxes day and night.

I lock my bike to the metal post of a parking sign and climb the granite steps and open the big door. Tony, one of the headwaiters, is already halfway up the first flight, his dry cleaning draped over his arm. He gets all the good shifts, so he can afford to have his uniform professionally cleaned. It’s a grand staircase, covered with a greasy beer-stained carpet that must have once been a plush crimson. I let Tony reach the top and circle around to the next set of stairs before I start up. I pass the portraits of the presidents who have been members of the club: Adams, Adams, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. The second flight is narrower. Tony is moving slowly, still only halfway up. I slow even more. The light from the top of the stairs disappears. Gory is coming down.

‘Tony, my man,’ he shouts. ‘How’s it hanging?’

‘Long, loose, and full of juice.’

Gory cackles. The staircase shakes as he comes toward me.

‘You’re late, girl.’

I’m not. It’s what he says to women instead of a greeting. I don’t think he knows my name.

I feel the stair I’m on sink when he passes me.

‘Busy night ahead. One eighty-eight on the books,’ he says over his shoulder. Does he think it’s the afternoon already? ‘And the on-call just called in sick.’

The on-call is Harry, my only friend at Iris. He isn’t sick, though. He’s on his way to Provincetown with the new busboy.

‘Strap on your long iron,’ he says.

‘Never leave home without it,’ I say.

Somehow in my interview he wheedled the golf stuff out of me. He plays croquet, it turned out. Not at garden parties but professionally, competitively. He’s supposedly one of the best croquet players in the country. He opened Iris after a big win.

Below me, he sniffs loudly three times, hacks it up, swallows, gasps, and goes out into the street with all the cash from last night in a pouch with CAMBRIDGE SAVINGS BANK in big letters. Someone has pressed a Post-it to his back that says: ‘Mug Me.’

‘Casey fucking Kasem,’ Dana says when I get to the top of the stairs. ‘No one’s fired you yet?’ She’s bent over Fabiana’s hostess podium, making the seating chart. It’s barely legible and guaranteed to be unfair.

I go down the hall to the bathroom and change into my white shirt and wrangle my hair into the required high tight bun. It makes my head hurt. When I come back, Dana and Tony are moving the tables around, putting the large parties in their sections, making sure everything is to their advantage, the big tables, the regulars, the restaurant’s investors who don’t pay but tip astronomically. I don’t know if they’re friends outside of the building, but they work every shift together like a pair of evil skaters, setting each other up for another dastardly deed, then preening around the room when it comes off. They definitely aren’t lovers. Dana doesn’t like to be touched—she practically broke the new busboy’s arm when she said she had a crick and he reached up to knead her neck with his thumb—and Tony never stops talking about his girlfriend, though he paws at all the male waiters through every shift. They have Gory and Marcus, the manager, completely snowed or at least compromised. Harry and I suspect it’s the drugs that come through Tony’s brother, a dealer who is in and out of jail and who Tony talks about only when he’s wasted, demanding vows of silence as if he’s never told you before. We call Dana and Tony the Twisted Sister and try to stay out of their path.

‘You’ve just taken two tables out of my section,’ Yasmin says.

‘We have two eight-tops,’ Tony says.

‘Well use your own bloody tables. These are mine, you fucks.’ Yasmin was born in Eritrea and raised in Delaware, but she’s read a lot of Martin Amis and Roddy Doyle. Unfortunately she doesn’t stand a chance against the Twisted Sister.

Before I can band with Yasmin, Dana points a finger at me. ‘Go get the flowers, Casey Kasem.’

She and Tony are the headwaiters. You have to do what they say.

Lunch is amateur hour. Lunch is for the new hires and the old workhorses working doubles, working as many hours as management will give them. I’ve waited tables since I was eighteen, so I went from new server to workhorse in six weeks. The money at lunch is crap compared to dinner unless you get a group of lawyers or biotech goons celebrating something with rounds of martinis that loosen the bills from their wallets. The dining room is filled with sunlight, which feels unnatural and changes all the colors. I prefer dusk and the windows slowly blackening, the soft orange light from the gilt sconces that masks the grease stains on the tablecloths and the calcium spots we might have missed on the wineglasses. At lunch we squint in the blue daylight. Customers ask for coffee as soon as they sit down. You can actually hear the music Mia, the lunch bartender, is playing. It’s usually Dave Matthews. Mia is obsessed with Dave Matthews. Gory is often sober and Marcus is mellow, doing whatever he does in his office and leaving us alone. Everything at lunch is backward.

But it’s fast. I get slammed with three deuces and a fivetop before the clock in Harvard Yard strikes noon. There isn’t time for thought. You are like a tennis ball knocked from the front of the house to the back over and over until your tables are gone and it’s over and you’re sitting at a calculator adding up your credit card gratuities and tipping out the bartender and the bussers. The door is locked again, Mia is blasting ‘Crash Into Me,’ and after all the tables are broken down, glasses polished, and silverware rolled for tomorrow’s lunch, you have an hour in the Square before you clock back in for dinner.

I go to my bank next to the Coop. There’s a line. Only one teller. LINCOLN LUGG, the brass plate reads. My stepbrothers used to call poop Lincoln Logs. The youngest one used to pull me into the bathroom to show me how long he could make them. Sometimes we all went in there to look. If I ever see a therapist to talk about my childhood and the therapist asks me to remember a happy moment with my father and Ann, I’ll talk about the time we all gathered round to gaze at one of Charlie’s abnormally large Lincoln Logs.

Lincoln Lugg doesn’t like my expression of amusement when I step up to the counter. Some people are like that. They think anyone’s amusement must be at their expense.

I put my wad of cash in front of him. He doesn’t like that, either. You’d think tellers could be happy for you, especially after you’d graduated to dinner shifts and doubles and had $661 to put in your account.

‘You can use the ATM for deposits, you know,’ he says, picking up the money by the tips of his fingers. He doesn’t enjoy touching money? Who doesn’t enjoy touching money?

‘I know, but it’s cash and I just—’

‘No one is going to steal the cash once it’s inside the machine.’

‘I just want to make sure it goes into my account and not someone else’s.’

‘We have a strictly regulated systemized protocol. And it’s all recorded on videotape. This, what you are doing right here, is much less secure.’

‘I’m just happy to be depositing this money. Please don’t rain on my picnic. This money is not even going to be able to take a short nap before it is sucked out by federal loan sharks, so just let me enjoy it, okay?’

Lincoln Lugg is counting my money with his lips and does not respond.

I’m in debt. I’m in so much debt that even if Marcus gave me every lunch and dinner shift he had, I could not get out from under it. My loans for college and grad school all went into default when I was in Spain, and when I came back I learned that the penalties, fees, and collection costs had nearly doubled the original amount I owed. All I can do now is manage it, pay the minimums until—and this is the thing—until what? Until when? There’s no answer. That’s part of my looming blank specter.

After my encounter with Lincoln Lugg, I weep on a bench outside the Unitarian church. I do it somewhat discreetly, without noise, but I can no longer stop tears from drizzling down my face when the mood strikes.

I walk to Salvatore’s Foreign Books on Mount Auburn Street. I worked there six years ago, in 1991. After Paris and before Pennsylvania and Albuquerque and Oregon and Spain and Rhode Island. Before Luke. Before my mother went to Chile with four friends and was the one who didn’t come back.

The store seems different. Cleaner. The stacks have been rearranged and they’ve put the register where Ancient Languages used to be, but it’s the same in back where Maria and I used to hang out. I was hired as Maria’s assistant in French literature. I’d just moved back from France that fall and had this idea that even though Maria was American we’d be speaking French the whole time, speaking about Proust and Céline and Duras, who was so popular then, but instead we spoke in English, mostly about sex, which I suppose was French in its way. All I remembered now from eight months of conversation with her is a dream she had about Kitty, her cat, going down on her. Her rough tongue felt so good, she’d said, but the cat kept getting distracted. She’d lick a bit then move on to her paw, and Maria woke herself up screaming, ‘Focus, Kitty, focus!’

But Maria isn’t in back. None of them are, not even Manfred the cynical East German who went into a rage when people asked for Günter Grass, because Günter Grass had been in strong opposition to reunification. We’ve all been replaced by children: a boy in a baseball cap and a girl with hair to her thighs. Because it’s Friday at three, they’re drinking beers, Heinekens, just like we used to do.