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Writers & Lovers (Page 17)

Silas calls, and I meet him at a Korean place near MIT. He apologizes for not getting in touch sooner. He came back with a stomach bug the students were passing around on the trip he says and threw up for three days straight. He does look a little wan. He’s just shaved, and I can see the blue stubble beneath. Usually his skin is ruddy from afterschool coaching. He orders plain rice and steamed vegetables.

As he’s describing the eighteen hours each way in a bus and six nights in a Red Roof Inn policing thirty-seven teenagers with the seventy-eight-year-old librarian, I’m wondering how to tell him about Oscar. I want to know if it matters to him. It seems like the only way to find out his feelings for me. It was easier to imagine doing this when he wasn’t in the room, when he wasn’t leaning over a table on his elbows, twisting up a chopstick wrapper with fingers that are unexpectedly familiar.

He starts talking about the last Wednesday-night workshop he went to. ‘Muriel read this section of her novel, and I swear no one was breathing by the end. Not even Oscar.’ Every time he says Oscar’s name I feel an unpleasant zap.

‘You okay?’ he says.

‘Yeah. Just a bit tired. How’re your vegetables?’ I ask.

‘Good,’ he says, but he hasn’t eaten much, either.

After dinner we walk to the T stop. Neither of us suggests anything more to prolong the date. I follow him down the steps and through the turnstiles. I’m headed inbound and he’s going out. We stand where our sets of stairs break off to separate tracks. Here? This is where I tell him? This is where we talk? A group of teenagers rush by us, yelling at each other. A train rattles through a tunnel. I want him to kiss me. If I talk about Oscar, he won’t kiss me.

‘I better get this.’ He bats me lightly on the arm. ‘See you.’ He takes the stairs two at a time and makes it through the doors before they close.

I guess there was no need to say anything after all.

My first rejection letter arrives.

‘We don’t feel it’s the right fit for us,’ it says.

‘That agent didn’t read it,’ Muriel says. ‘His assistant or intern read it. That’s why it says “we” and not “I.”’ We’re at her apartment. She’s made me a lovely sandwich, but I can’t eat it. My appetite is dwindling, along with sleep. ‘When someone actually reads it, it will be a different story.’

I can’t speak, and she gets up and hugs me. ‘You are going to sell that fucker. I promise you.’

I need to sell it. I need more money. A guy named Derek Spike from EdFund has gotten my work number and spoken to Marcus about seizing a portion of my wages. Marcus hung up on him. ‘Those dicks. They made my sister’s life hell. I was smart not to go to college.’

I’m starting to think he was right.

Adam wants to increase my rent. We’re standing in the yard beneath the big maple, its last leaves dropping like rain. I ask if I could have until the new year at the old rate.

‘What makes you think you’ll be able to afford it then?’

‘I finished my novel.’

‘And?’

‘I sent it out to agents and if—’

He knocks his head back and laughs hard.

I call Caleb and rant. ‘Your friend lives in a fucking mansion and drives a fucking Mercedes-Benz, but he has to suddenly raise my rent?’

‘He has strains of his own, Case.’ He and Phil and Adam were in a different orbit, with their houses and their salaries. ‘Divorce is a financial apocalypse. Phil says he’s lucky it’s illegal for us to marry because I would have fleeced him by now. Probably true. Adam says he could get a lot more for that apartment.’

‘It’s a room, not an apartment. A moldy room.’ I’m touching the lump under my arm. I can’t tell if it’s getting bigger. It might be. If it’s cancer, I won’t have to pay anyone anything. I’ll move back in with Caleb and Phil, ruin their lives for a year or two, and die.

‘Still. It’s a tight market in Boston.’ When I don’t respond, he says, ‘You there?’

‘Just stroking my lump.’

‘Casey. Phil says it’s most likely nothing.’

Caleb must have called Adam, because he meets me at the door the next morning when I come in for the dog.

‘Could we talk?’ he says and points to the kitchen table. We sit. Oafie walks in circles around us, waiting for me to get free. I’m thinking he’s reconsidered the rent hike. Instead he tells me he’s decided to divide his property and sell the garage and the yard to the far side of it. He’s evicting me.

‘When?’

‘We’re going to list it in three weeks. You don’t have to clean or anything. Whoever buys it will tear it down. It’s the land they’ll be looking at.’

Silas leaves me a message, then another, and I don’t call back. I’ve made my choice. I’m done with the seesaw, the hot and cold, the guys who don’t know or can’t tell you what they want. I’m done with kissing that melts your bones followed by ten days of silence followed by a fucking pat on the arm at the T stop.

Oscar’s boys have a day off from school, and he invites me over for lunch. It smells delicious. He’s making grilled cheese sandwiches. The boys are drawing at the table.

I’ve spent the last few days reading Oscar’s books: his first novel, a collection of short stories, and Thunder Road, which is the story of a boy in the late fifties, losing his mother to cancer in the course of five days. It’s told from a many-years-hence perspective, when the boy is grown and has sons of his own. The sentences are pristine and careful. The arc of the story is clear and controlled, with a swell of emotion at the end that he’s withheld and we’ve been waiting for. There’s a sadness that surprises me, not in the plot, which of course is about loss, but a sadness within the prose separate from content that I find in all his work—in his first novel, which was billed as comic, and in all the short stories. It’s a sense of despair about writing itself, a sort of throwing up of hands, as if to say I’ll put this down on the page but it’s not what I really mean because what I really mean cannot be put into words. It creates a sort of drag on the narrative. I looked up some reviews on microfiche to see if anyone else has commented on it. They have not. The early reviews I read were all positive, young writer with great promise and a bold future sort of thing. And for Thunder Road they were glowing and grateful. At long last. Silent for nine years. The novel we’ve been waiting for.

‘I read Thunder Road.’

‘Really?’ He flips the sandwiches and puts down the spatula. ‘Heavens.’ He touches his wrist. ‘My pulse is starting to race.’

I’m not sure if he’s serious. Does he care what I think, or is he just pretending?

‘I loved it.’

‘Honestly?’ He does seem in earnest.

‘Yes, yes.’ I tell him all the scenes I admired and why, the small moments and gestures. He seems eager for this approval, and I exaggerate my initial responses. I don’t mention I read the earlier books as well, because I’m not sure I can keep up this level of enthusiasm that long.

He calls the boys and they come to the stove with plates and when he slides a sandwich onto John’s plate he says, ‘She liked my book.’ And when he slides one onto Jasper’s plate he says, ‘She liked my book.’ And when John asks if we can play cards at the table, he says, ‘Why not,’ and we eat and play and afterward at the sink when the boys are zooming their plastic planes around the woodstove, he pulls me close and tells me he loves me. I kiss him and our lips are slippery from the grilled cheese and the boys’ planes have stopped flying.

I tell Oscar about Adam selling the garage. We’re at the boys’ swim lesson in East Cambridge, watching them by the indoor pool on lawn chairs. The air is humid, rank with a chlorine and soggy human smell. My jeans are stuck to my legs.

‘Come live with us,’ he says.

The boys’ thin arms are thrashing toward the deep end. They’re learning the crawl. It’s hard to breath in the wet air. ‘I wasn’t—’

‘I know you weren’t. But why not?’

He doesn’t know how I live, how far I need to run, how much I owe, how little I sleep, or that I’ve now gotten rejection letters from three agents. I haven’t told him about the lump under my arm. He calls me his waif, his down-on-her-luck waitress, but he takes it all lightly. In fact, Holly Golightly is one of his names for me. If we lived together I would expose myself as the blighted Jean Rhys character I really am.

The next Saturday he and the boys pick me up to go apple picking. They know an orchard out in Sherborn where you get cider doughnuts afterward. I’m excited about it all week. We never did those kinds of things in my family. There were never outings. Oscar and his boys love an outing.

I prepared them for the size of my place, but they are still surprised when they come in.

‘It’s like Thumbelina’s house,’ Jasper says.

‘It’s smaller, and Casey is a regular-size girl,’ John says.

They jump on the futon, which is disappointingly unbouncy, examine my nibs and ink bottles on the window sill, and stick their heads in and out of the bathroom.

I think Oscar for once has no words at all.

‘The apples await,’ he says finally.

We head out to the car.

‘Back on your thrones,’ Oscar says and the boys strap themselves into their big car seats in back.

‘We think you should come live with us,’ John says.

‘Our beds are better.’ Jasper says, kicking the back of my seat.

‘Wow,’ I say. Oscar is smiling but looking at the road. ‘Wow.’ I turn to the boys behind me. They’re waiting for my answer. ‘That is such a kind offer.’

‘It would be free. We wouldn’t charge you a penny,’ John says.

‘I will have to think that over very carefully. Thank you.’

At the orchard we get a green cart and bags for our apples. The boys get in the cart and Oscar zigzags them down the paths between the rows of apple trees and when the cart goes up on two wheels they shriek. We follow signs for the apples with the weirdest names—Crow Egg and Winter Banana—and we lift the boys up to reach the higher branches. Our cart fills with bags full of apples. We sing ‘This Old Man’ and ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,’ which they have all sorts of newfangled verses for. Every fifteen minutes, either John or Jasper asks if I’ve thought carefully enough yet.

The boys play on a swing set while we stand in line for the doughnuts.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I had to run it by them.’

‘It’s so soon.’

‘You moved to Spain with Paco.’

‘I met Paco two and a half years before I moved in with him. This is just a few weeks.’

‘A few weeks? I met you in July, Casey.’

‘It didn’t get serious for a while.’ I think I was measuring from my last date with Silas.

‘It was always serious with me.’

‘With Paco it was just Paco. There were not two vulnerable little boys. What if it doesn’t work out? I don’t want them ever to be hurt again by anyone.’

‘Well that’s a bit unrealistic.’ He nuzzles his chin in the curve between my neck and shoulder. ‘Besides, we’re going to work out.’

They drop me off at Iris for my dinner shift.

‘Think about it.’ Jasper taps his head as they pull away. ‘Think!’

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