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Writers & Lovers (Page 15)

I cross the dining room to bring water to a couple at table 6. It’s like a dream, the way they transform from sloped strangers, a man with a crackled bald spot and a woman in a gold jacket, into my father and stepmother.

‘Look at you,’ my father says. He places his napkin back on the table and rises. The old coach, brittle now, the same grimace, as if I’ve just overshot a hole. We hug loosely.

‘Don’t get him all wet,’ Ann says, because I’ve got the water jug in my hand.

‘I won’t.’

He seems smaller, his hug without much muscle.

I bend down to kiss her. She always smells the same, metallic. ‘What are you doing here?’

They never leave the Cape in the summer.

‘We talked to Caleb last night and he filled us in on you and we thought we’d drive up and say hello,’ Ann says.

‘I’m working till three, but maybe I can get out early.’

They look at each other. ‘We have to get ahead of the traffic,’ my father says. ‘We’re just here for lunch.’

‘We wanted to get a glimpse of you. It’s been a while.’ She pauses. ‘And a lot has happened.’ It’s a risk, alluding to my mother in front of my father.

Ann sent one condolence letter to me and Caleb and signed it for both of them. My father probably doesn’t know this.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen them. Three years, maybe. They look older, like something is gently tugging them to the floor. I wonder if my father knows how much hair is missing at the back of his head.

Behind them Fabiana seats me a four, so I take their drink order and get away.

‘It’s very fishy,’ I tell Harry in the wait station.

He’s peering at them. ‘She’s a shiny little object, isn’t she?’

‘Why are they here?’ I want to call Caleb, but it’s long distance and I have too many tables. ‘What did he tell them?’

‘Maybe he told them the truth. That you miss your mom. That you need some cash.’

I laugh. ‘They would never be here if he’d told them either of those things.’

I pour my father a cup of coffee and bring it to him. Ann doesn’t drink beverages. She won’t even sip her water. She’ll order the house salad and nibble on the carrot shavings. My father will order the double sirloin cheeseburger, remove the meat from the bun, and soak each patty and hand-cut fry in ketchup. I know this, but I let them tell me their order anyway.

‘Aren’t you going to write that down?’ he says.

‘I got it.’

I feel them watch me with my other tables. At one of them is a Harvard history professor I’ve waited on before. He’s brought his wife and their two granddaughters, and when I set down his enormous sundae he shrinks in his seat and pretends not to be able to reach it with his spoon and I laugh with the little girls. I feel my father’s glare. He used to get so jealous of other men: certain golf pros, Tara’s father, my favorite high school English teacher.

I ran into him in the Madrid airport a few years ago, that teacher, Mr. Tuck. He introduced me to Faulkner, to Caddy and Benjy and Quentin, in ninth grade. I wrote my first short story for him in tenth. We spent an hour and a half together at an airport bar. He was catching a flight to Portugal to visit his son who was studying there. I was moving to Barcelona. I told him I’d gone to grad school in creative writing because of him, that I was writing a novel. He said he’d stopped reading fiction. It wasn’t any good anymore he said. He asked about my father. I didn’t know what he knew. I said he was fine, retired, living in Florida, summers on the Cape. After his third beer he wanted me to know it wasn’t him who turned my father in. He’d heard about it, the spying, he called it, but he wasn’t the rat.

‘Can’t you talk to us a bit?’ Ann says when I bring their food.

‘A little.’ I look around for Marcus. I’m not going to tell them I’m on probation. ‘I’ve got four other tables. I guess they’re okay for now.’

I wait for them to talk if they want to talk. They don’t, so I ask how their summer is going.

‘Good,’ my father says to the center of his rare burger. ‘Very good.’

‘You’d think they’d give you a more colorful uniform,’ Ann says.

‘You like being a waitress?’ my father says. ‘Is that what all those degrees were for?’

‘I do like the pink,’ Ann says, smoothing out the top tablecloth. ‘It’s a pretty shade.’

‘You think you’re making more than Patty Sheehan or Annika Sörenstam? Did you know that the median income for a female professional golfer is over a hundred thousand dollars?’

‘Robbie.’

‘Five-time Rolex Junior All-American, AJGA Player of the Year, winner of eleven national—’

‘I was never going to—’

‘Yes, you were,’ he says, beginning to stand up before he realizes where he is. ‘You don’t know anything because you gave up.’ That narrow face, those yellow-green eyes. He looks just the same now, all the extra years shaved off.

‘Robbie,’ Ann says more sharply.

‘You probably couldn’t even par one hole now.’ ‘Maybe not.’

‘You think that’s funny? Funny to waste what you had? End up in a place like this?’

Iris wasn’t really on his side, with its gold-leaf sconces and French doors and mahogany sideboards.

‘Rob,’ Ann says again, signaling something more overtly now. But my father is breathing heavily and shoveling chunks of burger into his mouth.

She sighs and takes my hand. ‘Pretty ring.’

I look down. My mother’s hand. My mother’s ring. She strokes the sapphire on my finger. This is what they’ve come for.

The professor is signaling for the check. I pull my hand out of Ann’s.

‘They want the ring,’ I tell Harry as I run the professor’s card through.

‘Your mother’s ring? That’s cheeky.’ He’s nabbed a duck confit and I get a fork and take a few bites. The tender meat dissolves in my mouth.

I tell Harry about my father and the storage closet and how the athletic director had not wanted to believe me when I told him about the peepholes.

‘Oh Casey.’ He looked around the corner. ‘That slumpy man out there?’

‘Ann has no idea. It was all hushed up. They even threw him a little retirement party with cake.’

I bring my father the check. No coffee refill or dessert menus or squares of chocolate.

‘Let Ann try it on,’ he says.

I shake my head.

‘Let your stepmother try on my mother’s ring.’

‘I haven’t taken it off since she died.’ I didn’t know that was true before I said it. I’m standing just far enough away so neither of them can reach me without a wild lunge.

‘How did you get it?’

‘She left it to me.’

‘Probably all she had in the world to give you, the way she lived. Casey,’ he says, trying to sound tender. ‘She left us.’

‘I know, Dad.’

‘Ann came and saved us. She took us in. And when I lost my job—’ His voice cracks. ‘I’ve never had much to offer her.’

Ann lifts her purse up on her lap. I look at her hands, big stones on nearly every finger from her ex. She pulls out her checkbook. ‘How much?’ Her first husband was a Du Pont.

‘No.’

‘C’mon,’ my father says. ‘Just tell us your price.’

I tap their bill on the tray. ‘Twenty-nine seventy-five. Have a good drive home.’

Instead of just leaving cash on the table they give it to Fabiana on their way out. There’s a brief exchange, I can’t tell about what, and they’re gone.

Fabiana brings me the tip on a tray. Less than 10 percent. She stabs a piece of the duck with my fork. ‘How do you know those people anyway?’

I thought once the book was out of my hands the bees would fly off and I could relax. But they are worse. All night I lie in the dark on my futon while they writhe beneath my skin. I try to soothe myself with thoughts of agents reading my manuscript, but my feelings about the novel start to shift. Soon any thought of it scalds me with shame. Six years and this is what I have to show for myself? I try to hold the whole thing in my head again and I can’t. I think about the first few pages and panic blooms in my chest and spreads like fire to my extremities. I watch the clock run through its numbers until it is light.

During the day I miss working on it. I’ve lost access to a world where my mother is a little girl reading in a window or twirling in fast circles on the street, her braids raised high off her back. Outside of those pages she is dead. There seems no end to the procession of things that make my mother feel more dead.

The gynecologist has ordered a mammogram. He said my breasts were difficult to examine manually because they were fibrous. It makes me feel like a cereal.

The technician is rough. She shoves and tugs my right boob into place on the glass plate and brings the other plate down with the touch of a button and just when it is as tight and squished as I can bear, she lowers it more. Sometimes she has to lift it back up a bit and cram my flesh in deeper. She should be a potter or a chef. Her hands are strong and certain. She reminds me of the line cooks stuffing potatoes.

When she’s doing the final position, she asks me to draw my shoulder back, and when I can’t seem to do it to her liking she draws it back herself. ‘Good,’ she says but keeps her fingers under my armpit. She wiggles them a bit. ‘Huh,’ she says.

‘What?’

She wiggles some more. ‘You had this checked?’

‘What?’

She takes her fingers out, and I put mine in. ‘I don’t feel anything.’ I wonder if she’s one of those people who convinces other people they’re sick—Munchausen by proxy. It makes sense that she would be attracted to a medical career.

‘Here.’ She places my fingers right in the socket and moves them over a hard—there’s no other word for it—lump. My fingers spring away from it, denial at the muscular level. I feel the other armpit. I feel and feel. You just want to be symmetrical. A pair of lumps seems far more desirable. Nothing. She feels there, too.

‘Mention it to your doctor.’

‘Could we take a few images of it right now, just to save time.’

She laughs as if this is a preposterous idea. ‘No.’

I call my primary care office about the lump and they ask me when that afternoon I can come in.

I get a different doctor. A woman. She wears gray felt clogs and a barrette on each side of her head. She makes me feel like we’re in sixth grade and pretending she’s a doctor and I’m a patient with a lump under my arm. She has no quick explanation. She asks if I’ve switched deodorants, soaps, or perfumes recently. I haven’t. She suggests I stop using all products, just in case. And come back in a week.

‘I will be very smelly by then,’ I say. She says I can wash my hair but only with shampoo I’ve used before and only leaning way back in the shower, careful not to let the suds get under my arm. And no conditioner. ‘Smelly and frizzy,’ I say.

After a week, the lump is the same size and sore from how much I’ve been fingering it. The doctor says that I should continue with the anti-hygiene program. And, she adds, as if it’s an afterthought, I should see an oncologist. She puts this on my chart, and when I check out I’m told Donna will call me within forty-eight hours with the date and time of the oncology appointment. She does. My appointment with Dr. Oncologist is seven weeks away. I call his office and beg for something sooner but the receptionist snaps and tells me I’m a lucky young lady to have gotten that date. Someone canceled. They’re booking into late spring now.

‘Because cancer can wait,’ I say. ‘Cancer doesn’t grow and spread and kill people.’

She hangs up on me. I hope she doesn’t delete my name from her calendar.

I try to write something new. It’s bad and I stop after a few sentences. Even though I didn’t feel it at the time, I got into a rhythm with the old novel. I knew those characters and how to write them. I heard their voices and I saw their gestures and anything else feels fake and stiff. I ache for them, people I also once felt were stiff and fake, but who now seem like the only people I could ever write about.

‘So,’ Oscar says. ‘I think you should come to the house for supper Sunday night.’

‘Whoa.’

‘I know.’

I’m on the kitchen line. Thomas is cranking Nirvana, and I have to plug my other ear.

‘You still there?’

‘In shock.’

‘It’s a school night, so we’ll eat at six sharp. How do you feel about chicken sticks and cucumber slices?’

‘Love them.’ My heart is whomping. Chicken sticks and cucumber slices. I didn’t realize I’d been waiting for this invitation all along.

I go back to rolling silver in the dining room with Tony and Dana and Harry. We’re at one of the round tables, and Craig has mixed up a pitcher of sangria. Angus from the kitchen has joined us, already in street clothes. Fabiana and the new waiter, James, is there, too. He’s Scottish, somber, silent as the grave. Harry is smitten.

‘That one of your lovas?’ Tony says. I made the mistake of telling him about my dilemma one slow night last week.

‘Which one?’ Harry says.

‘Oscar. He wants me to have dinner with his kids.’

‘Kids? No.’ Craig says. ‘Dump that dude.’

‘Torn between two lovers,’ Dana is singing.

‘What’re they like?’ Angus says. ‘We’ll help you decide right now.’

‘Who says I’m deciding?’ I do need to choose, though. I’ve reached the elimination round. ‘So one is my age and quirky and we talk about death a lot. The morning of our first date he left town for three weeks but he came back and I get physically disoriented after kissing him. I’m always surprised when he calls because I assume he’s going to bail.’ No one said anything, so I go on. ‘And the other one is like a herd dog. He calls between dates and leaves me funny messages when I’m at work and doesn’t hide how he feels about me. He’s older and has two kids and can be pretty adorable.’

They look as stumped as I am.

‘The second one’s Oscar Kolton, the writer, isn’t it?’ Craig says. ‘I saw him ogling you that day.’

‘Just pick the one you like to fuck,’ James says, the first words he’s ever said to me.

‘She hasn’t fucked either of them,’ Harry says, which isn’t his to tell, but I know he can’t resist talking to James about fucking.

‘Well, there’s your problem,’ James says.

‘There’s a big difference between love and sex,’ Craig says.

‘Pay attention to what they say, not what they do,’ Yasmin says.

Angus laughs. ‘Don’t pay any attention at all to what we say!’

‘You don’t always want what you need,’ Dana says.

‘It’s always a choice between fireworks and coffee in bed,’ Fabiana says. ‘It always is.’

‘You lot are useless,’ Harry says. ‘I’m with James.’ He looks up from folding a napkin, but James is watching Angus drain his sangria.

Craig mixes up another pitcher. ‘Imagine you have a roommate who is really hot and awesome,’ he says to me. ‘Which of your guys wouldn’t sleep with her?’

‘Imagine you have a kid that spikes a fever of a hundred and five,’ Fabiana says. ‘Which one won’t freak out?’

‘Or imagine you have a kid and the kid is possessed and starts spewing blood all over the walls.’ Angus says.

‘Or you’re climbing Everest and your kid is buried in an avalanche on the Kangshung Face,’ James says. ‘Which one rips off his clothes to make a new baby with you?’

‘Listen, Casey Kasem,’ Dana says, tossing her last roll-up onto the pile. ‘You spend enough time at the racetrack, you know your horse, okay? You always know your horse.’

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