Writers & Lovers (Page 13)

Oscar calls me that afternoon at Iris during setup. ‘I’ve got my mother here on standby,’ he says. ‘She’s willing to give up her auxiliary meeting to help her smitten son.’ There’s a covered pause. ‘She wants me to tell you that it is not an auxiliary meeting. It’s a film group. Made up of very smart women with PhDs like herself she’ll have you know. Tomorrow night. Can you get free?’ He lowers his voice to an exaggerated whisper. ‘She thinks you’re too young for me.’ A howl in the background. ‘She says she did not say that.’

He has a mother, and I do not.

The calendar’s on the wall in front of me. Marcus just made the new schedule. I’m off tomorrow night. ‘Let me check.’

I cover the phone. I’m alone in the office so no one sees me. I stand there a long time. I can’t think. I want to go out with Silas one more time before I see Oscar again. I feel like there’s a misshapen ball in my lungs that isn’t leaving much room for air.

Marcus swoops in. ‘Get off my phone.’

I uncover the receiver. ‘Yeah. I’m free.’

On the way back to the kitchen I think about a scene in my book. Dana is telling me to help her set the twelve-top, but I go to the bar instead and write out a new idea on a cocktail napkin and shove it in my apron pocket. I have a whole stash of notes on napkins and dupes in my desk drawer for my next draft.

I can’t shake the anxiety that night. Usually I can run it off on the floor. On a busy night there’s no time for awareness of the mind or the body. There’s just extra vinaigrette to 21 and drinks to the deuce and two tables of entrées up at the same time. There are little jokes with Harry and Victor and Mary Hand as we collide at the computer or the food window. I can always lose myself in the rush. But that night I don’t. I stay apart. For the first time the stress of the job does not obliterate my awareness of the stress in my body. It enhances it.

When it’s over and we’re doing our totals, Harry pats my head. ‘What is going on in there?’

I can’t explain, so I say, ‘I feel like I should tell Oscar about Silas. I mean, he’s got kids.’

‘You’ve had a walk and a beer with him. I would be wary of the guy who locks in too soon. It’s a sort of premature commitulation.’ He laughs at his own joke then gets up to tip out the kitchen. He has a new crush on a surly line cook. I watch him push hopefully through the kitchen door. He can sound wise in love, but he’s bad at it, too.

I meet Oscar at a small restaurant called Arancia off Brattle Street. I didn’t want him to pick me up and see where I live. He’d want to come in and have a look around.

He’s talking to a couple outside on the sidewalk. He breaks away from them when he sees me coming.

He kisses me on the cheek. ‘Third date.’ He kisses me on the lips. ‘I have something for you. Shut your eyes.’

I feel something hard cover my head.

‘Perfect fit.’

I reach up. A bike helmet. I take it off. It’s silver and sleek and must have cost a lot.

‘Thank you. It’s lovely.’

He laughs. ‘I promise I will buy you something lovelier. But at least now I don’t have to worry about you cracking your head open.’ He slides his arm through mine, and we walk down the brick steps into the basement restaurant. It’s tiny. Eight tables. On the far wall a velvet curtain separates the dining room from the kitchen. The smells are Mediterranean: heated balsamic, shellfish, fig. I’m hungry. I hope he orders two courses. We wait at the door for someone to greet us.

‘Who were those people you were talking to?’

‘Tom and Phyllis McGrath. They were out for a stroll.’ He hesitates. ‘She was reading my book. Recognized the mug.’

‘That photo looks nothing like you.’ I harden my face and squint like a cowboy smoker.

‘That’s how I look.’ He tries to strike the pose.

‘You look nothing like you.’ There’s a woman at a three-top who’s watching him. He is good-looking, with those eyes and thick copper whorl of hair. I lower my voice. ‘Does that happen a lot, people recognizing you?’

‘Not enough,’ he laughs. ‘Around here occasionally. I mean right here. This block. Maybe the next. Go to Central Square and forget it.’

The hostess emerges through the velvet curtain and shows us to a table. It’s round, wood, no cloth, no flowers. Instead of a candle there is a small lamp with an old-fashioned chain. The setup and breakdown here must be so fast.

‘So, you’ve seen the photograph but haven’t read the book?’ Oscar says.

It catches me off guard. ‘I’ve been planning to get to the library.’

‘Oh, the library. That will boost my sales.’

A waiter appears, lifts our glasses away from the table to pour water into them, tells us the specials. He’s older than Oscar. He’s been doing this kind of work for decades, you can tell. He tells us the rack of lamb comes with yardlongs and a gentleman’s relish.

Oscar lifts his head. ‘Who’s writing this menu, Hugh Hefner?’

I cringe. This is not the kind of career waiter you want to mess with. But the guy cracks up. His laugh is loud and fills the small room. It takes him a while to compose himself. ‘No one has said anything all night. It was killing me.’

He leaves us to contemplate the menu. I see him go to the back and tell another waiter what Oscar said. At the table next to us an old man’s sweater slides from his chair to the floor and Oscar gets it for him and they have a small exchange about the bottle of wine on the man’s table, which was from Australia, where Oscar lived for a year it turns out.

The waiter comes back, and Oscar orders mussels for us to share and the sea bass. I order the grilled shrimp and the tagliatelle. I ask him to fire the shrimp app with the mains. He nods and leaves and Oscar says, ‘Listen to you, speaking the native language.’

I ask him about his boys.

He reaches for my hand and traces a finger along the inside of my wrist. ‘You have the softest, most velvety skin.’ After a while he says, ‘My boys are well. They know I am seeing you tonight. John can still get very frothed up about your mini golf boast.’

He’s not much of a drinker, and I like that. We each have a beer then switch to water. The mussels arrive, smelling of vermouth and shallots.

‘I saw your friend Muriel Wednesday.’

I’ve been avoiding the topic of the Wednesday night group. Silas might have been there, and that was strange. And just the word ‘Muriel’ made my stomach turn over.

‘What? Did you two have a falling out?’

‘I gave her my novel four days ago.’

‘You didn’t give it to me.’

‘After your freak-out in the arboretum? No, I did not.’

He laughs like he totally forgot about that. ‘I was a freak. I’m sorry. Have you heard anything from her?’

‘Nothing.’ A fresh round of anxiety floods in, the voltage amped up.

He nods, opens a mussel. ‘All these writers you’ve gone out with,’ he says. ‘Any of them famous?’

I shake my head. ‘Just you. In a two-block radius, at least.’

Our entrées arrive. The man at the next table gets up to leave with the rest of his companions and examines Oscar’s sea bass, whose head is lolling beyond the edge of the plate.

Oscar tips the fish’s eye up toward the man. ‘Irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through lenses of old scratched isinglass.’

‘Bishop,’ the man says. ‘The great master of disaster.’ He’s old enough to have been her contemporary.

‘Indeed’ says Oscar.

‘I hope you and your little girl have a lovely evening,’ he says and shuffles off to his friends, the women adjusting their silk scarves with gnarled fingers.

Oscar leans toward me. ‘Did he just say, “little girl”?’

‘I think so.’

‘My little girl?’

The waiter comes up and asks how everything is.

‘Well, my fish is dead,’ Oscar says. ‘And she is not my little girl.’

The waiter laughs. He seems to want to linger as I did at brunch that day. I ask for more Parmesan to get rid of him.

When we’ve finished, he takes our plates and brings us a chocolate torte and a mango sorbet. ‘Compliments of the chef. He’s an admirer of your work,’ he says to Oscar.

Oscar is pleased but not as surprised or flattered as I would have expected. ‘Many thanks,’ he says.

The desserts are good. Everything has been good, but nothing comes close to Thomas’s scallops or Helene’s banana bread pudding.

The check comes, and I don’t even pretend to reach for my bag. I don’t even have a bag. All I have is my helmet under the seat.

‘I’m not ready for you to ride off. Shall we stroll a bit?’

We walk up to the Common. Students are smoking on benches, knees up, bare feet. A few others toss a football in the dark. It’s still strange not to be one of them, not to be in school on a September night.

Outside the gates of a playground, he points to the place on the monkey bars where John had knocked heads with another kid and to the baby bucket swing Jasper wedged himself into last year and couldn’t get out of.

‘I could have written three more books for all the time I’ve put in right here,’ he says.

We pass beneath a maple that has already started to drop leaves. They crack beneath our feet and release the smell of fall. I used to have calluses from the monkey bars and the tricks I practiced for hours, showing off for my mother. She and Javi did a good job of pretending it was my skill on the monkey bars they were interested in.

On Chauncy Street I show him the place I had with Nia and Abby and Russell, and two doors down he points to a house that he says he and his wife rented for a year when they were first married. I don’t ask when, don’t want to know if we lived there at the same time. We pass Harvard’s married housing, and he says his parents lived there for his father’s senior year and tells a story about his mother nearly burning the place down by setting a dishcloth on fire and how she did the same thing recently in his house.

He stops in front of a house at the end of the block. The lights are on downstairs, blue flashes from a TV in the corner. ‘This is us.’

It’s a square, perfectly symmetrical colonial, four windows facing the street on the ground floor, four on the second, a pair of dormers on the third. Gray with white trim and black shutters. At the back of the short driveway stands a basketball hoop and backboard on a post with sandbags on top of the black base. Oscar’s life.

I look at him looking at it. I can’t tell what he’s feeling. He turns to me. ‘My mother is watching the news. She has a thing for Ted Koppel.’

Upstairs three windows are dark, one a dim green. A night-light, perhaps.

‘Do the boys sleep in the same room?’

‘When I’m not home. Jasper will slip into John’s bed. They both end up in my bed by dawn.’

It’s important to him, presenting this to me. I take his hand and he pulls me in and kisses me on the temple and we look through the windows again as if the house and everything inside it belongs to both of us.

I meet Silas at the movie theater on Church Street. We choose seats close to the front. He’s wearing a striped wool hat that he keeps on the whole movie, and our bodies never touch. I’ve never been more aware of not touching someone in my life. Two and a half Merchant Ivory hours of not touching. Afterward we go back to his apartment in North Cambridge. It’s three flights of linoleum stairs up. He jiggles the lock, and inside it smells like his car plus tobacco and bacon. I follow him down a hallway, past two closed doors. Behind the second door a guy fake orgasms in falsetto, long and loud.

Silas pounds on the wall. ‘You wish, Doug.’ He waits for me at the end. ‘Sorry about that.’

We go into the kitchen. He pulls two bottles of beer out of the fridge and opens them by hooking the cap beneath a drawer pull. The caps fall into his open hand, and he drops them into the trash. We sit at a sticky little table in the corner. The two chairs are close together, and he doesn’t move them apart. There’s a newspaper and a pen on the table. Someone has been doing the crossword. He picks up the pen and slides the paper closer, and I hope we don’t have to finish the crossword. I don’t like them. I don’t like any word puzzles or Scrabble or any of the other word games writers are supposed to like. But he flips the paper over to a photo of Ken Starr and gives him long hair that looks like eels, then puts the pen down abruptly.

We talk and tear the labels off our bottles. He asks what Muriel said about my book, and I have to say I haven’t heard from her. I think he can tell this makes me miserable, so he tells me that his roommate Doug is in love with a lesbian who sometimes spends the night but nothing happens and that Jim and Joan, his other roommates, have the master bedroom but have to put all of Joan’s stuff in the basement anytime Jim’s father, a Baptist minister, visits from Savannah.

‘What are your parents like?’ I ask.

He picks up the pen again. ‘Unhappy.’ He laughs. ‘I tried to say something else, but there’s no other word for it. They should have split up a long time ago. I think they were going to.’

‘Before your sister died?’

‘Yeah. And now they’re a hobbled mess.’ He draws a sort of hunched Quasimodo figure with two heads, a hump, and a bunch of clubbed feet. He hands me the pen. ‘What about your father? Are you close?’

My father isn’t second-date material. ‘We were once. But he’s not a nice man.’ I draw my father in profile, the thick brosse of white hair sticking straight up, the long straight nose with the tiny tip, the mouth wide open and yelling at me for being a quitter. Silas takes the pen and draws a bubble coming out of my father’s mouth and in it he writes: ‘I don’t want to be an asshole!’ I take the pen from him and make a bubble coming out of both Quasimodo heads and write: ‘We don’t know who we are now.’

He laughs through his nose and says, ‘That’s about right.’

We’re sitting so close and our arms are finally touching and I think he might lean over and kiss me, but he doesn’t.

On the way out he says he wants to get something, and he opens the door to his bedroom. The bed is unmade, a nubby fleece blanket and a pale-blue bottom sheet. A thin desk covered with papers and an office swivel chair. Stacks of books all around and a manual typewriter in the corner. I stand in the doorway. It smells like him. It’s a good smell. I could stand here a long time, but he grabs a book from a pile and shuts the door.

He hands it to me in the stairwell. ‘I saw this at Words-Worth.’ It’s an oversized paperback on Cuban poster art. I flip through it. There are photos from the late fifties to the eighties of posters pasted all over Havana. Political slogans in bright orange swirls, gardens of pop art flowers, a riff on Warhol’s soup can advertising a film festival.

‘Thank you so much.’ I look up. He’s halfway down the stairs.

He drives me across the river. The radio is playing Lou Reed. We don’t say much. Every time he puts his hand on the gearshift next to my leg my insides lurch a little.

He sings along with Lou about reaping what you sow.

In the driveway he puts the Le Car in neutral. ‘That was a good time,’ he says.

‘It was. Thanks.’ This time I give him a few seconds, and just when I turn to open the door I hear him move toward me, but it’s too late.

‘I’ll call you,’ he says. The door shuts.

I wave.

Gravel pops and scatters beneath his tires as he backs out.

On my machine Muriel is screaming: I LOVE IT. I LOVE IT SO MUCH.