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Writers & Lovers (Page 12)

Oscar meets me after my Friday night shift. His mother is spending the night so he can sneak out of the house when I’m free. She made a carrot cake for dessert, and he brings a big slice. We share it as we walk down Mass. Ave. It’s delicious. When we’re done and he balls the cellophane in his pocket, he takes my hand. He has a plump, warm hand.

‘My mother is very nervous about this. She thinks you’re going to break my heart.’ He laughs like it’s an absurd idea and kisses me. I smile while we’re kissing, thinking about telling Muriel later that we both tasted sour because of the lemon in the frosting, and he feels me smile and smiles wider.

I like kissing Oscar. He breaks it up with things that come into his head, a student he had with twelve fingers, Jasper biting him hard on the thigh during John’s T-ball game that afternoon. There isn’t that feeling you get with some guys, like they’re barreling toward one place and one place only and seeing how fast they can get there without complication or too much conversation.

We have beers at the Cellar, and he walks me back to my bike outside Iris where he parked his car. He leans me against the passenger door, his hands on my hips.

‘These,’ he says. ‘These are real baby-making hips.’

I laugh. I’m actually pretty narrow in the hip. I’ve often wondered how a whole baby would come through.

We kiss for a long time, and I feel him nestle in along the hollow between a baby-making hip and my pelvic bone. It fits nicely there.

‘Mmm,’ he says. ‘Snug.’

I tell Harry about the date at lunch the next day.

‘Good heavens,’ he says. ‘Is that what it’s like with writers? The word “snug” and you’re mad in love?’

‘I’m not mad in love.’

‘The man is in his forties with two bloody children.’

Later when we’re in the weeds and I’m frantically replenishing the tea box for a six-top of librarians, he says, ‘Move your baby makers, sweetheart. I need a steak knife.’

And when it’s over he tells me there’s a cute guy in the hallway who wants to see me.

‘See? He’s adorable, right?’

‘I don’t think this is your daddy complex.’

‘He looks a lot younger than forty-five. And fuck you. It’s not a daddy complex.’

I make him check my teeth for poppy seeds and go to the door.

It’s not Oscar. It’s Silas. The sight of him gives me a jolt. He looks younger, leaner. He’s wearing a black leather jacket, an old one, with deep creases and corroded zippers on the pockets.

‘Sorry to pull you out of work. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.’

‘It’s fine.’ I wave toward my tables through the door. ‘Most of the checks are down. How are you? How was your trip?’ I’m trying to calculate how long since he’s been back. Two weeks probably. He left me a couple of messages then gave up. I’m done with guys like this, on and off, here then gone. I’ve learned my lesson.

‘Good. Good.’ There’s a stack of business cards on the hostess stand and he flicks them with his thumb. Fftht. Fftht. He looks up. ‘I’m sorry I broke our date. I just wanted to tell you that in person. I understand why you’d be mad or—’ Fftht.

Marcus’s door is open, and I know he’s listening to every word.

‘You don’t have to explain.’

‘I want to,’ he says, more loudly than he meant to. ‘Sorry. It’s just. Sometimes in the past year or so this feeling would come over me, kind of like a rash, you know? I needed to be in motion. And this time I had the opportunity to really go and I felt like I had to take it even though I really did want to go out with you. Really. A lot. I just wanted to explain that. I thought it would be a better date with you if I’d gotten that feeling out of my system.’

‘I get it. I really do. Thanks for telling me.’ I try to make it sound final, like that’s the end of it and the chance for that date has passed. I try to start moving back into the dining room but my body doesn’t budge.

‘Any glimpses of the sublime out there?’ I hear myself say.

‘One or two.’ He grins.

I forgot about the chip in his tooth.

Shit.

‘The sublime always tracks you down eventually.’

He nods. My tables all have probably put down their credit cards by now. He’ll go down the stairs soon and out onto the street and this makes my stomach feel hollow, even though it’s stuffed with Helene’s poppy seed cake.

‘So, what do you think?’ he says.

‘Maybe we should go to the museum.’

‘Saturday?’

Fabiana comes out and reclaims her hostess stand. Silas lets go of the little stack of cards.

‘Saturday’s good. But I work at three.’

‘I’ll pick you up at ten thirty.’

He goes down the stairs like a boy, fast and all in one motion, one loud rumble. The door at the bottom slams shut.

My tables glare at me when I go back into the dining room. I don’t make eye contact and head straight to the wait station.

‘Please tell me you did not let that one go,’ Harry says.

‘I did not.’

‘Oh, you are a minx in a stained apron,’ he says and hands me the two credit card receipts he ran for me.

Early Saturday morning I print out my draft for Muriel. I can’t bear to look at any of the words as they come out of the machine. I don’t know what it says. I don’t know what the book is about. I see the name Clara and my stomach sinks. Did I really name a main character Clara? After fifty pages my room gets humid and smells like the copy shop I used to work at in college, moist paper and toner and electricity. The pile in the printer’s basket grows too high and pages begin to slip off and I take the first part of the book and align the edges and put it facedown on my desk. I do this five times until the printer spits out the last page and cuts off abruptly. I feel like it should break into song. I flip over the stack, and there it is. I put it in an old Kinko’s box, write Muriel’s name on top, and shove it in my backpack before I start marking up the pages again.

I ride over to her apartment and drop the box on the mail table in the foyer of her building. On my way home I imagine her telling me she didn’t get it and then seeing it published a year from now by one of the other tenants in her building—probably the guy who works at the tropical fish store and denied using her fabric softener—and having to sue him with proof of all the pages I have in notebooks and on my computer. Open-and-shut case, my lawyer would say. But I wouldn’t be able to pay a lawyer, so I’d have to represent myself. Or I’d call my friend Sylvie in Virginia who was an intellectual property lawyer. She’d studied art history and drama and I saw her in Three Sisters and Arcadia and both times she completely transformed herself. I didn’t recognize her as my friend Sylvie when she was onstage. I think of her in her office in Alexandria, playing the role of a lawyer for so many hours a day. I think of all the people playing roles, getting further and further away from themselves, from what moves them, what stirs them all up inside. And I think of my novel on Muriel’s mail table and I hope that tropical fish guy will leave it alone.

When I get back, the room still smells of printing and I have my first wave of fear about it being read. Silas is coming in twenty minutes, so I don’t have time to wallow in it. I jump in the shower and when I get out my nose is still red from the chilly ride to Cambridge. I put on too much blush to compensate and find a clean shirt I’m pretty sure I didn’t wear to the party where I met Silas. Oscar’s party. But he wasn’t Oscar then. He was the author signing books I couldn’t afford in the other room.

Silas has a lime-green Le Car with a rusted hole that goes clean through the passenger door. On the inside it’s sealed with duct tape.

‘It’s my sister’s car. An old boyfriend of hers gored it.’

‘With what?’

He goes around to his side and gets in. ‘A harpoon. He collected sea weapons. Look, it went all the way through here.’ He touches the edge of my seat and I move my leg to reveal a rip in the fabric.

I’m wearing a skirt so my leg is bare and his fingers so close cause a small commotion in my nethersphere.

Bottles and trash in the back roll around as he shifts gears. The car smells like dirty socks and reminds me of Caleb’s room growing up. He’s wearing the same leather jacket, and it creaks when he moves his arm to the gearshift and back to the steering wheel. I don’t know what we’ll say to each other. I feel confused by the sock smell and wanting his fingers back near my leg again.

When we speed up, the duct tape starts flapping.

‘It was like watching a Viking,’ Silas says. It takes me a second, but I realize he’s still talking about the hole. ‘He had this flaming hair and huge arms. It took a couple of tries.’

‘Was your sister in it?’

‘No, no. She was out with someone else that night. That was the problem.’

We drive along the fens of the Fenway, thick and green, a low stone bridge over the Muddy River, willows dripping into the water. Boston is bright and bejeweled this morning, and my body feels buoyant, having given Muriel my book. I feel like taking off my shoes and sticking my feet out the window. Even if she eviscerates it, it’s movement. Forward motion. I decide not to tell Silas I’ve finished it. I don’t want to sound braggy.

‘What’ve you been up to?’

I scan my life since he left town: Bad moles. Burnt cervix. Oscar. ‘I finished my novel.’ It’s all I got.

‘You finished it?’ He whips around and stares at me until I point to the road.

‘It’s still a mess.’

‘You finished your first novel. You wrote a whole damn novel.’ He pounds his palms on the steering wheel and stares at me.

I point to the road again. ‘I gave it to Muriel to read.’

‘She’s a good reader.’

‘Yeah. That’s what I’m scared of.’

‘Man, Casey. That’s an accomplishment.’ He seems genuinely happy for me. You can’t always count on a guy for that.

At the museum he buys us tickets and we fold the metal tabs of our pins over our shirt collars. I haven’t been to the MFA since I’ve been back East.

We go up the wide marble staircase.

‘My mother used to bring me here when I was little. She’d let me borrow a hard leather purse from her closet, and I’d wear it the way she wore hers.’ I tuck a pretend purse under my arm.

‘What did you look like?’

‘Puffy pigtails. Big front teeth,’ I say. ‘And she’d let me buy three postcards in the gift shop, and they’d knock around in the big empty purse on the way to the car.’ We reach the top of the stairs. ‘I wish I could remember what we said to each other.’

‘It’s weird, isn’t it? My sister and I drove cross country once. She got all these books on tape, big books like War and Peace and stuff. But we started talking and never listened to them. It was kind of a joke we had, that when we ran out of things to say we’d listen. We just kept talking, though. And now I can’t remember what we said.’

The air between us crackles, as it does when you speak of your beloved dead. But it’s hard to know what to say next.

We wander through Art of the Ancient World, past a Babylonian lion, Etruscan urns, an enameled Nubian bracelet, body parts from Greek statues: a sandaled foot, a muscular male bum with one thigh. It’s good to see art, to remember what a natural human impulse it has always been. We move into Art of Europe, the haloes and angels, the sacred birth and bloody murder of one man over and over, a whole continent possessed by one story for centuries.

‘There are a lot of holes in the plot,’ I say when we stand in front of a Fra Angelico. ‘If Jesus was so celebrated when he was born, why are there only stories of him as a baby and a man about to die? Why don’t you ever see him as an eight-year-old?’

‘Or as a teenager. With acne, rolling his eyes at everything Mary and Joseph say.’

Sometimes I go the opposite way around the room, so we can observe some things separately. Sometimes we lose each other and catch up a room or two later.

We drift over to Art of the Americas and come to a stop at Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Three of the girls look directly at us. The eldest one can’t be bothered. She almost looks like she’s dozing, her back against the six-foot vase. The next eldest stands erect and uncomfortable beside her, the third off to the left near an unseen window, and the youngest on the floor with a porcelain doll and a skeptical stare.

‘Do you think these kids had to pose in those positions day after day?’ I say.

‘They look unhappy.’

‘Yeah, and not just from posing in weird positions. Like they’re trying to put a good face on it, but you can tell they’re not going to play some really fun game after.’

‘Is there one you identify with?’

I study the four girls. ‘I suppose I identify with her.’ I point to the second daughter, tense, drained of color. ‘But I’d like to be her, the one standing in all the light.’

‘She’s the focus, isn’t she? Even though she’s all the way over here.’

We lean in at the same time to examine her. She’s exquisite, her white pinafore catching every particle of light.

‘She knows it’s about her, and she’s not sure she wants it to be,’ I say. Our shoulders aren’t touching but the creak of his leather jacket is loud in my ear. I can smell his skin. ‘But there’s something brewing in her.’

‘Look at her left foot. She’s about to take a step.’

‘If I could write something as good as right there, right where that belt cinches her pinafore.’ It’s hard to pull my eyes from it. I don’t know why it’s so moving to me, and I could never explain. There’s a madness to beauty when you stumble on it like that.

After The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, I go in the same direction as Silas around the rooms. We stand in front of Van Gogh’s Houses at Auvers then Matisse’s Vase of Flowers for a long time without saying anything. After the vivid chaos of the Van Gogh, where nothing is muted, nothing is blended, and the world seems to be separating into fragments before his eyes, Matisse’s vase of white flowers beside a window by the sea is serene and buoyant, as if everything can float if you let it.

On the stairs down to the café, Silas says, ‘I like coming here. It stirs me up and calms me down in all the right ways.’

He orders coffee and I order tea and we sit on modern plastic chairs in an open atrium. I feel light and elated from the art, and the worry about Muriel reading my novel is gone.

On the way back we’re quieter. He’s more comfortable with silence than most people. In the pauses I think about confessing that somehow I ended up going on two dates with Oscar Kolton. But it’s presuming too much too soon, like he would care. This is the guy who started driving thousands of miles west on the morning of our first date.

When we pull into the driveway I hear the dog barking at the car. Adam is away for the weekend, and I’m responsible for him. ‘Do you want to meet Adam’s Dog? We could take him for a walk.’

‘Adam’s Dog.’ He laughs. ‘I promised my roommate he could have the car about an hour ago. I’d like to, though. Another time.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’ I get out quickly, before he thinks I’m waiting for something more. But after he’s gone I wish I’d been a little slower.

I put my key in the lock. I’m in the mood to call my mother, that happy, shift in the wind mood. I calculate the time in Phoenix. Nearly noon. Perfect. The bolt retracts, and I remember she died.

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