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Writers & Lovers (Page 11)

Oscar is waiting at the gate of the arboretum with an unhappy basset hound. The dog reminds me of a toy I had when I was a kid, a plastic dog on a string whose ears went up and down when I dragged him behind me.

I ride past him to a street sign that I can lock my bike to.

‘Is that you?’ Oscar says. He doesn’t look happy about it.

‘It’s me.’ I unwind the lock slowly. I’m not sure I want to be here.

I feel him standing behind me. ‘You have hair,’ he says. ‘It was sort of up before.’

‘Restaurant policy.’ I shove the two ends of the coil together and flip around the numbers. ‘You have a dog.’

‘That’s Bob. Bob the dog.’

I don’t know what to do once my bike is locked, so I squat down and stroke the head of his dog. It’s a little greasy. He presses his head up against my hand like a cat.

‘We don’t have a great relationship. I’ll be honest about that,’ he says.

‘Wanna go romp around, Bob the dog?’

‘Bob does not romp.’

‘What does Bob do?’

‘He malingers.’

I straighten up and run through the entrance pillars and spin around. ‘C’mere, Bob!’ Bob turns his head but keeps his body firmly facing the street. I get on my haunches again and pound the paved path. ‘C’mon, boy!’ The dog clenches his nails more firmly into the sidewalk.

Oscar is studying me. He’s making decisions already. I can feel this. Between our call and today he talked himself out of me, and now he is coming back around. I squat there and think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up in a terrible tangle that’s hard to unravel.

Bob bolts toward me. Oscar, holding the other end of the leash, gets yanked along. I let Bob snuffle in my ear. I stand, and we start walking.

‘So,’ Oscar says.

‘So.’ I look at him. He’s not a tall man, and our gaze is nearly level. I’m not used to that.

‘Here we are.’ His eyes are even lighter today, with dark rims. ‘Walking Bob.’

The dog is on the scent of something now, head sunk between his shoulder blades, nose skimming a quarter inch above the asphalt. Oscar examines me as we walk. He’s much looser than he was with the kids or at the signing table. He’s looking at me with mirth, as if I’m already saying something funny, as if we have a history of little jokes between us.

‘Just so you know, I’m a bit scared of trees,’ he says.

There are trees everywhere. It’s an arboretum. They all have small brass name tags nailed into them. We’re in the maple grove: Korean maple, fullmoon maple, painted maple. ‘Is this some kind of exposure therapy?’

‘It’s the holes in the trees, mostly. One time when I was a kid I was sitting on the limb of an oak and I see this hole and I peer in and next thing I know I’m on the ground. Just bam. I peer in’—he makes his face like Jasper’s—‘and then I’m staring straight up at the sky and my mother is screaming from the house. She’s not running toward me or anything. She’s just screaming.’

‘What happened?’

‘An owl sank his beak into my forehead.’ He stops to show me. There’s a deep divot just below his hairline.

‘Jesus.’

He smiles when I touch it.

We start walking again.

‘Casey what?’ he says.

‘Peabody.’

‘Ah. Very quaint,’ he says. ‘Very Mayflower. Peabody. It’s one of those names that happens at the front of your mouth. Peabody.’ He says it fast, exaggerating the popping sounds. ‘As opposed to Kolton, which happens all in the back.’

I say both names and laugh. He’s right.

He tells me he and his sons have a running list of place names like that, words that pop from your lips. He says some of them: Pepperell, Biddeford, Mattapoisett, Cinnabon.

‘Surely you don’t let them eat Cinnabons.’

‘What do you mean?’

I imitate his growl: ‘No chocolate! As you put three packs of sugar in your coffee.’

He laughs. ‘Who are you? Where did you come from?’

‘You’ve seen me before. Or I’ve seen you.’

‘Where?’

‘At your book party. On Avon Hill.’

‘This summer?’

I nod.

‘You weren’t there.’

‘I was.’

‘I would have noticed, believe me.’

‘I was there. Fancy house. Mansard roof. You were in the dining room, signing books.’

‘Did Iris cater that party?’

‘I wasn’t working. I was with my friend Muriel.’

‘Muriel. Muriel Becker?’

I nod.

‘She’s a friend of yours?’

‘Basically my only friend here. Aside from Harry.’

‘Harry from the phone?’

‘Uh-huh.’

He squints. ‘You and Muriel are friends. Yeah, okay, I can see that. She’s a good writer.’

‘I know.’

He stops walking. ‘Are you a writer?’

I suspected this might throw him off. ‘I’m a waitress.’

‘You’re a writer.’ He’s really not pleased by this. He tips his head back. ‘First woman who doesn’t make my skin crawl and she’s a writer.’

‘Guess you have a problem with that.’

‘I don’t date writers.’

‘Who says this is a date?’

‘This is a date. This is my first date in a very long time. Please don’t say it’s not a date.’

Bob chooses this moment to put his hind legs though his front legs and produce a soft tan coil of poop at the base of a Japanese lilac. Oscar pulls out a plastic bag from his pocket. He sticks his hand in it, grabs the pile, turns the bag inside out, and knots it twice. He crosses the path to toss it in a trash can and comes back. ‘Is that why you’re here? Is that why you were all flirty at the restaurant with me?’

‘Flirty? With you? With the grumpy dad who can’t make eye contact?’

He smirks very slightly.

‘I liked your boys, not you. I wouldn’t say I was flirting with them, but their concern for you touched me. John was trying so hard to make it a special day.’

He nods. An off-leash dalmatian runs up to Bob’s bum and sniffs and prances off. Oscar wipes his nose with the back of his hand. ‘You know then, about their mom.’

‘I was trying to make a rough day easier.’

‘And that’s why you said yes to mini golf, because of them?’

‘Them, and your note. With all the cross outs.’

‘That guy was standing over my shoulder, reading every word. I couldn’t think.’ He wipes his nose again.

‘You’re a bit rusty.’

‘I know.’ He tries to reach out to me with both arms but Bob resists. He lets go of the leash and the dog stops and sits on his haunches, watching us. Oscar rests his forearms on my shoulders as if he’s done it many times before. ‘You heard the part about not making my skin crawl, right?’

‘I’ve only dated other writers.’ I hook my fingers around his upper arms. He’s strong, compact. Our hips are aligned. ‘It’s never worked out.’

‘So I’m just the next in line.’

‘A long line.’

Some kind of hawk drops from the top of a tree toward us and Oscar flinches. The hawk glides up to another high branch.

‘You are twitchy around trees.’

‘Can I please kiss you before they all attack?’

I nod.

He kisses me, pulls back, and kisses me again. No tongue. ‘I’ve never asked a waitress out before.’ Another chaste kiss. ‘That’s not how I operate.’ His lips are softer than they look.

‘How do you operate?’

‘I was married for eleven years. All my skills are obsolete.’

He picks up Bob’s leash, and we start walking again. We turn up the Conifer Path, a narrow, empty lane. I ask how she died. He says cancer and tells me that afterward he was angry for three years. He says there was nothing else. No love, no sadness. Just the anger like a big red alarm going off all day for three years. I tell him my mother died in February. I try to think of how to describe it to him, but nothing comes out. He apologizes for not knowing how that feels, to lose a mother. He says that one of the hardest things has been his boys at ages two and five having to go through something he hasn’t. ‘When my mother dies, they’ll be comforting me,’ he says.

We go up a hill and down another path and loop back around to the lilacs.

Oscar stops. ‘Here is where we had our first fight.’ He marks an X with his shoe. He backs up several yards. ‘And here’—he marks another X—‘is where we made up.’ He walks back to me and takes my hand. ‘In the spring when all these lilacs bloom it is magnificent. We’ll come back then.’

On my machine:

‘Hey, Casey. How are you? I just got back into town. Just a few minutes ago. Uh. I didn’t really plan out a message. I was just hoping to talk to you. And see you. Go on that date. I’m at the same place, 867-8021. I hope things are good with you. I, well. Catch you later.’

I play it again. The rumbling and the little laugh like a hiccough in the middle of saying he didn’t plan out the message. I play it once more and hit Erase.

I go in the next week for the cauterization. The doctor and nurse show me a drawing of a cervix on a poster on the wall. It looks like a pink cigarette. The lower end is the opening where a baby would come out. They’re planning to light that part on fire.

You have no nerve endings on your cervix, they explain, so you don’t need to use a local anesthetic. But there is an awful snapping sound, and soon the room is filled with a smell you want to unsmell immediately and can’t. This is their job, I think, smelling burnt cervix.

I meet Muriel at Bartley’s after.

‘It sounded like a bug zapper. And it stank. Like they were burning hair and leather shoes and salmon roe all together.’

Muriel looks down at her burger. ‘You have to stop.’

‘I did remember to tell him about my periods and the pain and he said I might be a “candidate” for endometriosis. It affects fertility he said. No treatment, no cure. Which means now I can be terrified equally of getting pregnant and not ever getting pregnant.’ I eat a fry. I can’t eat my burger. ‘How’s the writing?’

She shook her head. ‘I can’t get that damn war to end. Every day I sit down and try to end it and I can’t.’

‘It’s a big war. Two fronts. Not a small task.’

‘I think I’m nervous about that scene.’

‘You mean the lake scene?’

‘Yeah.’ Muriel got the idea for the lake scene before anything else. All the other ideas grew around it. ‘I’m getting all wobbly about it.’

‘You just need to write it out and get it over with.’

‘I don’t know why I feel this way. It’s like performance anxiety or something. What if I can’t get it up?’

‘Your readers will just spoon you and tell you it doesn’t matter in the least and that it happens to everyone.’

‘It’s the whole reason for the book, this scene.’

‘No, it’s not. Maybe it once was, but it’s not anymore. You have to let that go. It isn’t a short story with its one perfect culmination. It’s messy.’

‘Yeah, I know. A novel is a long story with something wrong with it,’ she quotes. It’s a line that gets passed around and attributed to a variety of writers.

‘Just get them down to the lake, and they’ll do what they need to do.’

We always sound confident when we’re talking about the other person’s book.

The small publishing company she works for is sending her to Rome to a conference. For a while she went back and forth about asking Christian to come with her. She says she finally asked him.

‘He said no. He told me on our first date he’d always wanted to go to Italy, and then he says no without even thinking about it.’

‘Why?’ I don’t like the idea of Muriel leaving the country. My stomach gets cold and hollow. People die when they go on trips.

‘He said Italy was for romance, for pleasure, not for some corporate retreat. I told him there was nothing corporate about it. It’s a series of literary roundtables. He said he didn’t want to tag along on my work trip. I told him he was being sexist and rigid.’

‘He wants it to be special. He travels for work all the time.’ Christian is an embedded firmware engineer. I don’t know what that means, but he’s often away for a part of each week.

‘To Detroit and Dallas–Fort Worth.’ She waves her hand. ‘It’s okay. It just makes it clear. I want someone who’s supportive and spontaneous, someone who would leap at a chance like that. That’s not him, so now I know. How’s the rewrite going?’

I’ve been printing the novel out and going through it, trying to pretend I’m someone else, someone who’s just come across it in a bookstore. I make notes all over the manuscript, type the changes into the computer, and print it out again. ‘I’m not sure I can really see it anymore.’

‘Give it to me.’

‘Not yet.’

‘Casey, just let me read it.’

I want to. I want her to read it. But she has stacks of manuscripts all over her apartment not just from work but from every writer she knows asking for her opinion, and she’s too nice to say no.

‘You’ve got to get another set of eyes on it, Case. I’m going to be insulted if you don’t show it to me soon.’

‘Okay.’

‘When?’

‘In a week or two.’

‘Date?’

‘September twenty-fifth.’ It sounds like a long time away.

‘Next Saturday. Okay.’

The twenty-fifth is next Saturday?

We walk back to her place. I tell her a few more details about my date with Oscar that I forgot at lunch. The gouge in his forehead and the X-marks-the-spot moment.

‘It’s freaky,’ she says. ‘It’s like you’re talking about a totally different person than the one on Wednesday nights.’

We go into a shop she loves. The owner is tall like Muriel and all the clothes in there look good on tall women. The dresses are over a hundred dollars, the shirts, even the soft T-shirts, are over fifty. I can’t afford a pair of socks at a place like this. The only nice clothes I have came from my mother. Muriel, flicking through the hangers on the rack, reminds me of my mother. I haven’t seen the similarity before. I don’t know how Muriel affords clothing like this or her pretty one-bedroom in Porter Square. I don’t know how everyone else is getting by, paying their bills and sleeping through the night.

She doesn’t try anything on and when we’re back on the street, she says, ‘Have you read his books yet?’

‘Not yet.’

‘How can you not have read them?’

‘It will mess with me. It’ll sway me one way or the other. It always does.’

‘But it’s important information.’

‘Is it? It’s so easy to get the guy and the writing confused.’ If Oscar made clay pots I wouldn’t care. I could look at his pots and love them or hate them and it would have no bearing on how I felt about him. I wish I could feel as neutral about writing as I do about clay pots.

‘Don’t you want to at least read the sex scenes?’

‘No!’

‘He likes to write about sex.’

‘Stop.’

‘Can I just tell you this one thing about his sex scenes?’

I can tell she’s been saving this for a while. ‘No. Okay. One thing.’

‘He always uses the word “sour.” ’

‘Sour?’

‘It’s just something I’ve noticed. Usually pertaining to the woman: sour breath, sour skin. Something is always sour. It’s like a tic he has.’

She is laughing hard at the expression on my face.

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