Writers & Lovers (Page 10)

On my third birthday my father gave me a set of plastic clubs in a plaid golf bag. There was a cup you had to hit the ball into and my father put it on the rug a few feet away and showed me how to swing and I swung and it went in. My father says I didn’t open any of my other presents, that I played with that set till bedtime. My mother says my father forced me to play with that set until bedtime. By the time I was fully conscious, my life outside of school was golf—at four I was playing in local eight and unders, and by six we were traveling to national tournaments. Like many parents, my father wanted to give me what he didn’t get, then he wanted me to get what he couldn’t reach.

Caleb says he was never resentful of all the time my father spent on me. He says before I came along my father was always dragging him to the driving range. He does a good imitation of our father’s face when Caleb once missed the ball seventeen times in a row. It was pure relief when I took his place and excelled. Those were good years, he says. Until my father’s friend Stu recommended an all-boys boarding school in Virginia for Caleb, to bring out the man in him. My mother fought the idea, but Caleb left when I was eight.

I used to think it was my golf that made my parents unhappy, that it was the source of their resentment. My mother said he was hijacking my childhood with his own obsession; my father said she was afraid of my success because it didn’t fit into her proletariat fantasy of raising revolutionaries.

We were in Florida for the Palm Beach Junior Invitational when my mother packed her things and drove away with Javier. I hadn’t played particularly well, but one of my biggest competitors got a stomach flu and the other was spooked by an alligator in the waters of the seventh hole and I’d won. On the plane home my father got me laughing so hard when he held up the safety instructions to his face and imitated the alligator’s eyes rising out of the water. My mother had left on a few lights, so we didn’t get it at first. It wasn’t until we heard the message on our answering machine, the old kind with a miniature cassette tape inside it. My father swiped at her voice and the machine went flying against the wall before she’d finished speaking. The next day I went back to hear the rest but the Play button wouldn’t stay down.

Later my mother said it wasn’t falling in love with Javier that broke them apart. She said that those last few years with him were the easiest, actually. Javi made her happy, and it infected every part of her life, even her marriage. It was when he started to die that it became impossible. She couldn’t share her despair with my father as she had shared her happiness.

There were a few weeks of casseroles and lasagnas in our fridge, men in our living room pouring him drinks. When that ended, he fell apart a little, weeping over the TV dinners I’d heated up. I was in ninth grade then, my first year at the high school where he worked. He taught two math classes and coached, depending on the season, boys’ football, basketball, and baseball. The golf with me was after school sports and on weekends. With my mother gone, he added more practice and tournament hours to my schedule, and we started to visit colleges, too, that year, so I could meet with coaches and play a few rounds with the team. Sometimes I could hear him talking to a coach, telling him the whole story of his wife running away with a dying priest, though Javi was just an agnostic folk singer. But it made my father’s story better. I feared he was ruining my chances with his sob story, but by the fall of sophomore year, I’d been promised a full ride at Duke.

That year some of his varsity players started coming over to the house at night, seniors and juniors who intimidated me. My father gave them beers and they watched sports on TV and from my room I heard the rise and fall of their cheers and groans. At school I would occasionally go down to my father’s office in the basement and do my homework on his couch during a free period, but now they were hanging out there, that posse of them with their deep voices and sardonic jokes. Other times, times I knew he wasn’t teaching or coaching, his office door would be locked, which he’d never done before, no sound within. Sometimes at the golf course after school he was absentminded and lethargic, losing count of my strokes or dragging behind when he used to rush ahead, and I wondered if he was getting high with those boys at school.

A few weeks before my mother came back East, I went down to my father’s office one afternoon when I wasn’t feeling well. I’d gotten out of basketball practice and needed a place to lie down. His door was shut but not locked. It was dim, and I did not turn on the lights. I lay on the couch, sank into the seam. It was too loud to sleep. The girls’ locker room was next door—the varsity was going out and the JV and thirds were coming back in—and there was a lot of yelling and splashing and slamming of metal doors. I assumed my father was already in the gym with his team. There were voices nearby, low laughter. After a few minutes I heard the door of the storage closet behind the couch open. Three boys went straight out the office door, already dressed for practice. My father came out last. He cleared his throat, buckled his belt, and left the room. They all moved quickly. They didn’t see me. I heard them walk down the hallway and push through the heavy door into the gym. I got up and went into the closet. There were pinpricks of light on the far side. Several holes had been drilled in the wall, small openings, each with an excellent view of the girls.

After my mother returned I never spent another night at my father’s house. I showed the athletic director the holes in the wall of the locker room, and that spring my father announced his early retirement. I stopped playing in tournaments, but Duke kept their word and I enrolled there, though I lost the scholarship when I quit the team after the first week. I knew my father wouldn’t help out with the tuition if I wasn’t playing golf, so I got a job at a barbeque restaurant and took out the first of many loans that have created the compounding debt that trails me now. But I never could go back to golf. Just holding a club made me feel ill.

In the mail I receive a Cambridge Pilgrim insurance card. It has a big black Pilgrim hat with a white buckle for its logo. I draw a picture of it and send it to Caleb. He lived in Boston for a few years after college and thought it was funny how much mileage local businesses get out of the Pilgrims, those skinflint killjoys. Below the drawing I write: ‘Soon I’m going to be as healthy as a Pilgrim! Average lifespan: thirty-four years.’

I’m proud of this card, though, and relieved that I can now afford to get a few things checked out. I have a mole that’s changed hue and my period is a lot heavier and more painful than it used to be. I haven’t seen a doctor in five years, since grad school when I last had coverage.

They make me see a GP first, to get the referrals.

Everything is pointy. When he looks in my eyes he says my eyeballs are pointy. And when he looks in my ears he says the bend in my ear canal is pointy.

‘I feel like a badly drawn cartoon,’ I tell Harry afterward.

Next is the dermatologist who has skin the color of quartz, without a freckle or a mole. I don’t understand how he has led such a sunless life. This makes me ashamed of my skin, which I burned and blistered religiously in the summers of high school, convinced that a tan would get me a boyfriend in the fall, which it never did. Golf didn’t help, either, all that time beneath a strong sun in Georgia or California in sleeveless shirts and no visor. I hated visors.

I thought I could just show him the mole on my arm, but he has me lie on my stomach beneath a series of hot bright lamps. He lifts the blue johnnie to my neck. He does not conceal his disapproval. He huffs and clucks and tsks. He picks at something on my shoulder blade and brings his magnifying cylinder down on it. He pokes at it again and moves on, down my back and legs, picking and scraping all the way. He has me roll over. He uncovers me again. It goes on for a long time, his examination of the front side. He puts his tool on my forehead, temple, chest, arms. He zooms right in on the weird mole and spends a while with it, then moves to my stomach and leg, taking great interest in my calves and even a big toe.

He gives me a lecture about SPFs and how I could never go out in the sun unprotected again. He tells me I should have listened to my mother when I was younger. I don’t tell him that my mother taught me everything I knew about frying my skin with baby oil and tinfoil reflection.

He says he needs to biopsy three moles and steps into the hallway to signal to his assistant.

‘Today?’ I ask when he comes back in.

But he is already laying scalpels on a tray.

I leave the office with three gouges, stitched up with stiff black wire. He’ll have the results by Friday, he tells me.

At the gynecologist, lying on the table is painful because two of the gouges are on my back. The doctor was listed on the printout as Fran Hubert, who I assumed would be a woman, but it was a typo. His name is Frank. Unsurprisingly, the Pilgrims don’t have many female doctors to choose from.

The doctor inserts the speculum slathered with a cold gel. He has a shiny bald head with big discolored moles that Dr. Dermatologist would not believe.

‘So, you’re a writer.’ He widens the speculum by turning some knob and it feels like a sudden period cramp. He peers in. I feel like a car being jacked up for a tire change. ‘What’ve you published?’

‘Nothing really. A short story in a small magazine a few years ago.’

He’s not really listening. He unwraps a long Q-tip and inserts it. ‘You have a pointy cervix.’

Fucking Pilgrims.

He pulls the Q-tip out and puts it in a plastic tube. ‘So, you gonna write the Great American Novel?’

I’m tired of that question. ‘You gonna cure ovarian cancer?’

He pulls the speculum out of me, and my insides deflate.

He sits back in his round swivel chair and looks me in the eye for the first time. ‘Touché.’

He tells me I’ll get the result of the pap in a few days. I forget to mention the heavy menstrual bleeding and the pain.

After dinner setup at Iris, Tony calls in an order to China Dragon, and Harry and I go to get it. They’re playing Duran Duran while we wait at the register and we do a little dancing and he spins me around and I wince and tell him about the wounds on my shoulder, my back, my leg.

‘You poor love,’ he says and gives me a gentle hug.

We belt out ‘My Name Is Rio’ on the way back, and when we get to the top of the stairs Marcus hands me a note that says: ‘Oscar called.’ No number. I’ve left his note back at home.

‘Did he say he’d call again?’


I head into the dining room, and Marcus calls me back. For some reason I think he’s going to tell me something more about Oscar, what he said or maybe what he’s like, tell me to stay away or go for it. Instead he says, ‘Whatever is going on under there needs to be covered up. It’s disgusting. You are officially on probation for grooming.’

In the wait station Harry has a look and explains that the Vaseline I have to put on my gouges has made greasy blotches on the back of my shirt through which you can see two bloody wounds and their black stitches. The dermatologist told me I could not cover them with Band-Aids, so we rig up a napkin under my shirt with some staples and eat our Chinese out on the deck. It’s only four thirty and the sun is high and warm, but you can tell it’s weakening, pulling away from us. We used to have to find shade out here at this hour.

Thomas opens the French doors. ‘Casey, line two.’

Harry trills, and Tony says, ‘What?’ And Harry says, ‘She’s got a man chasing her.’ And I say, ‘No, I don’t,’ and try to slow down my steps to the door. And Tony says, ‘I bet she has a hundred men chasing her.’ He’s a different guy without Dana around.

I pick up the phone at the bar.

It’s Dr. Dermatologist. Two of the three moles are precancerous. The other is a squamous cell carcinoma, and while he’s gotten all of it, it would be best to come in for some further scraping just to be sure. This was the kind of skin cancer, he says, that he usually finds on much older people. He repeats that I cannot expose my skin to the sun without protection again. He says, ‘I know you are drunk on youth and immortality, but this is how you die.’

I tell Harry, and he gives me another careful hug. And later an old man at Harry’s corner deuce complains about his breezy manner and Harry tells him he is just drunk on youth and immortality. The man reports this to Marcus on the way out, and now Harry is on probation, too.

The next day I decide to call Oscar. I work a double and carry his letter with his number around in my apron, but I never get up the nerve during lunch to do it. During my break I go to Bob Slate’s for a ream of printer paper—I’d typed the last chapter into the computer that morning and was ready to print out the whole thing—and when I get back Marcus tells me Oscar called.

Harry comes in for the dinner shift and tosses out my coffee and gets Craig to pour me a glass of red wine. ‘You drink this, then you call.’ But alcohol doesn’t have that effect on me. It makes me tired then sad then puking.

While I’m drinking, the phone rings. If you are listening for it, the phone is always ringing at Iris. People call day and night for reservations. Sometimes they’re looking for a table for that night. Sometimes it’s for a year from now. People are crazy in their planning. How do they know where they will be living next year or if they will even be alive? I’m too superstitious to make plans like that. I’ve never owned a planner or datebook. I keep everything in my head.

‘Marky Marcus at eleven o’clock,’ Harry says.

I slide the glass behind the computer.

‘Casey. Phone. Again.’

I take it on the pastry phone. There’s just Helene there, spooning mousse into adorable pots.

My heart gallops. The wine hasn’t helped.

It’s Dr. Gynecologist, who explains that I have severe dysplasia on my cervix and that I have to come in for some scraping of the area. He says his nurse will call in the morning with an appointment time.

I go back to the wait station. ‘What’s with all the scraping?’

‘If you weren’t so pointy,’ Harry says.

‘I feel like a block of cheese.’ I pick up the water jug to bring it to the table Fabiana is seating me. ‘Health insurance sucks.’

After that I never have a moment to call Oscar until it’s way too late to call a man with two small children.

I get home near midnight, exhausted, skin humming. I take off my work clothes, shower, reapply the Vaseline to my mole holes. The black wires make them look like spiders. My phone rings. I’m out of doctors.

‘Someone named Harry with a smooth and flirty accent gave me your home number,’ he says. ‘And he insisted it wasn’t too late to call. And’—he says when I don’t say anything because my throat is burning at what a good friend Harry is to me—‘he seemed to know something about me, which I took to be a good sign. You there?’

‘I’m here,’ I say, pulling it together.

‘Good. My mother has told me that I mustn’t go chumming for women with my children and it’s too soon for mini golf. I’m sure this comes as a huge disappointment.’

I’m surprised that it does.

‘So I thought perhaps we might take a grown-up walk in the arboretum on Saturday. You are a grown-up, right? I mean, you just look youngish. You’re not in high school or anything.’

‘Would college be a deal breaker?’

Silence. ‘Yes. Yes it would.’

‘I’m thirty-one.’

‘Thank God.’ He sounds truly relieved.

‘How old are you?’

Another pause. ‘Forty-five.’

Older than I thought.

‘Is that a deal breaker?’ he says.

‘Depends on the deal.’