Writers & Lovers (Page 14)

I’m sitting with Muriel at her table by the window. She’s made us tea in cobalt mugs. It’s a chilly morning, and heat hisses out of the cast-iron radiator behind me. She’s in sweats and a ponytail, glasses instead of contacts. I don’t get to see her like this very often. This long table is where she writes. It’s impossible not to feel that I could write better with just a little more space and light. I wish my own room of my own wasn’t so claustrophobic.

My manuscript is in a pile between us. The first page has two checkmarks in the margin. Beside the stack are four or five pages of her notes.

‘I don’t know if I ever told you this,’ Muriel says, ‘but when I read something good my ankles get prickly. It’s been happening since I was nine and I read Elizabeth Bowen by mistake when The Last September got shelved in the kids’ section of our library.’

I’m nervous. I know she said she liked it, but I also know that all those notes are not praise.

‘I’m sorry it took me two weeks. I started to think, what if I hate it? I got scared it might turn out like it did with Jack.’ Jack is a colleague who stopped speaking to her after she gave him feedback on his memoir. ‘Two nights ago I dug in, and it was such incredible relief. My ankles were going crazy.’ She pulls the pile closer and pushes her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose. ‘Kay Boyle said once that a good story is both an allegory and a slice of life. Most writers are good at one, not the other. But you are doing both so beautifully here.’ She strokes the top page. She starts flipping through the manuscript to show me the parts she loved best. Her checkmarks are everywhere. My body is flooded with sweet relief. My heart slows to enjoy it. She has marked all my favorite parts, the ones that came so easily and the ones I struggled so hard with. She says Clara is so particular, but she’s also the embodiment of women undone by the history of men. She goes off on a riff about the male hegemony within Clara’s family. She gives me credit for all kinds of things I hadn’t been thinking about in any sort of ideological way.

When she begins showing me the spots that need to be cut or expanded, characters who need more attention, I start taking notes. She points out the places where I have described a character’s emotion instead of the reaction to the emotion. ‘Don’t tell us the girl is sad. Tell us she can’t feel her fingers. Emotions are physical.’ She has put an X through several pages about the Battle of La Plata, which had taken me weeks of research.

‘And,’ she says, ‘you have to write that rape scene.’


‘You have to.’

‘I can’t. I don’t want to.’

‘It shouldn’t happen offstage like that.’

I shake my head. ‘I tried. It didn’t work.’

‘Try again. You can’t follow her so carefully for most of the book, then just turn away. Is it because of your father?’

‘It’s not the same. He didn’t rape anyone.’

‘He got off on watching.’

I nod. My face slowly reddens.

‘Use those feelings,’ she says. ‘Use all of them.’

When I get back to the potting shed I sit with the stack of papers she gave me. I write down some ideas in my notebook, then turn to a fresh page and stare at it for a long time.

You don’t realize how much effort you’ve put into covering things up until you try to dig them out.

The leather couch was cool on my cheek. You feel like a furnace, I remembered my mother saying once when I went to her in the middle of the night and she ran a washcloth under cold water and laid it on my forehead. I missed her then, in a way I didn’t let myself miss her anymore. I think I cried a little. It was too loud to sleep, people going in and out of the locker rooms, pushing hard on the metal door to the gym. And those noises—whispers, scuffling—from closer by. I thought they were in my head.

I write it all out in my notebook: the fever, the couch, the boys in their basketball shorts. The sickening sound of my father buckling his belt as he came out last from the closet.

The next morning I read though her notes and flip through all the pages of the manuscript again—Muriel’s comments and checkmarks, sometimes four on one page. She understood it. She got it. Even if no one else ever does, Muriel did.

I bake a small banana cake in my toaster oven and drop it off for her before work.

Each morning that week I take Adam’s dog to the park as soon as I get up. His name is Oafie, Adam finally told me. The cooler air makes my mind feel sharp and purposeful. In the park, Oafie lumbers around with wiry Fifi and miniature Hugo and I chatter with the owners and none of it derails me. I’m back at my desk by six thirty and know what I have to do. It’s nothing like facing the blank page. I have something whole to work with now.

Oscar goes away for readings in the Midwest, and Silas comes by at the end of a dinner shift with baklava and a bottle of wine. We walk to the river.

Third date, I want to say, but I can’t with Silas. Our dates are not self-conscious like that. We don’t acknowledge that they’re happening or say what they mean. It all feels a bit haphazard and weightless, and to call attention to this might let out too much of the air.

He’s wearing a thick, Irish knit sweater with holes in the sleeves. He spreads out a blanket, the fleece one from his bed, on the grass. I sit cross-legged on top of it and he lies back, tilted up on his elbows, smiling as I tell him about Muriel’s critique and my recent mornings of focus and clarity.

‘Muriel is ruthless,’ he says. ‘It must be really good.’

‘It’s still a mess. Maybe a more manageable mess now with her notes in the margins helping me through. I always think of that Eliot poem, about the vision and the reality.’

‘ “Between the idea and the reality/Between the motion and the act/Falls the Shadow,” ’ he says.

‘Listen to your stentorian teacher voice. I do feel like I’m shrinking the Shadow a bit.’

‘Eliot would say that was not possible.’ He finishes his baklava and wipes his hands on his jeans.

‘Well fuck him. I am.’ I finish mine and wipe my hands on his jeans, too, lower down, near the knee.

He laughs. He turns on his side toward me.

‘How do you teach high school? I don’t think I could ever go back there.’ The desire to press up against him is on a short loop in my head. His curls are looser now, in the dry fall air. One hangs over an eyebrow.

He starts to answer but there’s a sudden clamor downriver. The geese.

We listen to their barking and wailing.

‘I love those geese.’

‘Should we check them out?’

‘Sure,’ I say, but really I want to lie down beside him. I just don’t have the guts.

We walk in the dark toward the sounds. I tell him about my bike rides home along this path and the night I sang ‘Loch Lomond’ to the geese. I tell him how I felt my mother right there beside me, or inside me, and he says he knows that feeling. He says he had it a few times when he drove out west.

‘Is that where she died, Crested Butte?’

He looks surprised.

‘You sent me a postcard from there.’

He nods. ‘Yeah. I didn’t feel her there. She was long gone.’

‘What’d you do?’

‘I wrote some bad poetry in a tent, visited a friend in Boulder and my aunt in Duluth, and came back.’

We’re walking close and bump against each other. Another person might have just taken his hand and said, Are you ever going to kiss me? But I’m not that person. It always takes me by surprise when someone wants to kiss me, even if they’ve met me at midnight with wine and a blanket. People change their mind. Between the idea and the reality falls the Shadow.

We walk up the footbridge and lean over the wall to watch the commotion. There aren’t many geese, seven or eight, but they’re keyed up, whacking each other with their wings, lunging at each other’s necks.

‘What are they fighting over?’

‘Maybe they’re arguing about when to take off for winter,’ he says.

‘I don’t want them to go.’ It strikes me as a terribly sad thing.

‘They’ll come back.’ He nudges me with his arm and leaves it there.

We watch them for a while. Out of the corner of my eye I watch Silas, too, his long body curved over the stone wall. I can feel the heat of him through his sweater, the smell of him coming out at the neck.

He straightens up and pushes off the wall then bends back down and kisses me, as if on a dare. Neither of us pull away. I press against him and he slides his hands around to my back and his fingers trace the knobs on my spine all the way up. I feel him, every bit of him, and it’s not nearly enough. We take a few steps and kiss again, harder, longer, against the parapet.

‘God, I have been waiting to do this a long time,’ he says into my ear. Our bodies are moving against each other at just the right angles, and I can’t reply in words.

We hold hands on the way back, but it feels like we’re still kissing. My whole body responds to his hand in mine.

He puts my bike in the back of his car and drives me across the river. He says he has to chaperone a ninth-grade field trip to Gettysburg next week, and he’ll call me when he gets back.

He parks on my street and we make out some more. No talking. No pecks. The kisses are long and intimate, like we’re telling each other everything that needs to be said this way.

When I get out of the car I’m so horny I can barely walk up the driveway.

Usually a man in my life slows my work down, but it turns out two men give me fresh energy for the revision. The emotions get heightened. I give the reader more pleasure. In the margins Muriel has written, ‘Linger here’ or ‘Let us feel this,’ and I try to stay and feel the moment and my understanding of it expands. Small unexpected things begin to thrum across the whole book. I feel like a conductor, finally able to hear all the instruments at once. I think back on all the rooms in all the cities and towns where I wrote the pieces of this book, all the doubt and days of failure but also that knot of stubbornness that’s still inside me.

I save the rape scene for last. It was supposed to happen on a beach but I change it to a storage room at the bank where she works, and after that it comes out of me in one sitting. I see it, hear it, taste it. It pulses out like a song that’s been stuck in the back of my mind. When it’s done I’m haunted by what I wrote for a few days, skittish on my bike going home at night.

I stand in line at the post office, two stacks of six boxes at my feet. Inside each box is a copy of the book and a cover letter to an agent. Muriel told me the names of a few of them, and the rest I found in a reference book on contemporary authors at the library. I discreetly kiss my fingers and touch each box. When the line moves I push the boxes forward with my foot. I take a breath, and it becomes so deep I realize I haven’t taken one for a while.

The guy behind me is reading the addresses on the top boxes. He’s wearing a camel hair overcoat and looks like a Salinger character, the boy who meets Franny at the train station in New Haven. He sees ‘Literary Agency’ and ‘New York, NY.’

‘That the Great Amer—’

‘Yup. That’s exactly what it is,’ I say.

Behind the counter a stout woman is working around her breasts, which rest on the counter, in the way of everything she does. She puts my boxes one at a time on the scale. She’ll be the last person to touch them before they go out, and I need her to wish them well.

‘I’ve been working on this book for six years,’ I say quietly.

‘Huh,’ she says, punching in numbers.

Her indifference feels like a terrible omen. I don’t know how to get her on my side. ‘It takes place in Cuba.’


She drops them in three unceremonious batches into what looks like a big laundry bin behind her.

I pay in cash, mostly ones: $96.44. ‘Thank you very much.’

She hands me the long receipt her machine has spat out. ‘Let’s hope your next six years are a little more exciting, sweetie pie.’