Writers & Lovers (Page 19)
After eleven rejection letters comes a message on my phone from someone called Jennifer Lin. She says she’s Ellen Nelson’s assistant and leaves a number. Ellen Nelson is the agent of two of my favorite writers.
I call back the next morning before work.
‘I read Love and the Revolution over the weekend. I loved it.’
‘No, I really loved it. I think it’s extraordinary, Camila.’
Camila. I forgot I’d put my real name on the manuscript.
‘Thank you so much.’ But what does Ellen Nelson think? I’m impatient to know where we’re going. And I can’t be late for work.
‘So Ellie isn’t taking on new authors right now. I’d like to do this one myself. I’d like to represent you. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of interest, and I’ll just say up front that this would be my first book. I’ve been working for the Nelson Agency for three years and I’ve been waiting for the novel that would lift me a mile high and it’s yours.’
I have no idea what to ask, what to say. Why haven’t I prepared for this?
‘Have you already made a decision? Am I too late?’
‘No, I haven’t. Not yet.’
‘Phew,’ she laughs. ‘My palms are sweaty right now. Makes me wonder how people ever propose to each other. I have no track record,’ Jennifer goes on. ‘And I will completely understand if you are interested in a more trodden path. But you would be my only client.’ She laughs again. ‘I would give you all my attention and focus, which, if you talk to someone in my family, can be very intense. I work very hard. Ellie said she would be happy to give you a full and lengthy evaluation of me. Shall I put her on?’
There’s a click and another voice is talking, as if I’ve been patched in to a conversation late. ‘You might have someone lined up with big name authors and a fancy address, but I’m telling you, you want Jennifer steering your ship. No one else.’ She takes what sounds like three fast intakes of a cigarette and blows it out all over the receiver. ‘First of all, she hates everything. Everything. I had three debut bestsellers last year. She hated all three. Told me not to touch them. Your book—I haven’t read it yet—but your book must be something outstanding because this girl passes on everything. Second, she’s ambitious. She’ll work her fanny off for you. She’ll tell you exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. You probably have other options.’ She waits for me to confirm this, and when I say nothing she says, ‘You’re coy. Okay. I get it. However, I know this business, and I am giving you grade-A advice.’
I thank her and am relieved when she passes me back to Jennifer. Jennifer starts talking about the manuscript. I can barely take it in, her enthusiasm, her close reading, her kindness. Each time she brings up a scene I remember where I was when I wrote it—in the yellow kitchen in Albuquerque, in the bar below Paco’s mother’s apartment. She talks about the clever break in the narrative, the abrupt end of Clara’s childhood and, when it resumes, the subtle but clear shift in voice. That happened in Caleb and Phil’s guest room in Bend, in the weeks after my mother’s death and I couldn’t write at all, and when I started up again it had to be from a different place. Clara’s young voice was gone. She talks and all I see is what she cannot, these years of my life woven into the pages.
‘There are just a few things I wonder about,’ she says and lists a few elements of the book that she feels needs some attention. They make sense. She has identified things I didn’t even know were there and things I’d skirted past. She talks for a long time, and I’m looking at the clock and thinking about asking her if I can call her back after work, but I don’t want to interrupt her. I want to know where she’s going with all this. Will she represent me, and how exactly does that work?
She asks if I’d like to do a revision and send it back to her. She asks if I could do that in a month. ‘We’d want to get it to editors before the holidays. You can’t sell anything over the holidays.’
I agree to write a revision, and we hang up. It’s 11:34. The restaurant has just opened for lunch. I bolt out the door.
Marcus is so mad he almost sends me home, but a party of eight reporters from the Globe comes in without a reservation and no one else can take them. He tells me I’m now on double probation. He says I have one slim straw left. I don’t care. I have a fucking agent.
I find Harry in the kitchen picking up his turkey clubs. I tell him about Jennifer and he puts the clubs back down and hugs me hard. He whoops loudly and Tony tells him to shut his mouth. He doesn’t. He keeps yelping. I tell him what she said and how I have to do a revision, that she has all kinds of ideas.
I look at him. I can’t remember anything Jennifer said except for something about a transition in chapter 5.
‘Something about chapter five,’ I say.
‘You took notes, right?’
‘My heart was pounding and I was late for work and I didn’t know where we were going.’
He rubs my back. ‘You can call her back later.’
‘Yeah,’ I say, but I know I won’t.
I think when I get home and sit at my desk with the telephone pressed to my ear that I’ll remember what Jennifer said, but I don’t. It all made so much sense to me at the time. I remember the feeling I had, the thrill of it, but I don’t remember many of the words. We talked about the theme of possession, I think, that runs through the book, but I don’t know what she said. I remember nothing she wanted me to work on except the party scene in chapter 5. She thought it needed a few lines of transition from the scene before it. I think she said it could be a few pages longer, too.
I call Muriel. She’s packing for her conference in Rome. I barely get it out. She tells me to write down every word of the conversation I can remember no matter how disjointed. I do and call her back. She listens then speaks at length about the idea of possession in the novel and how the whole history of Cuba is enacted on Clara’s body. She tosses out a few more suggestions that had occurred to her since she read it. I don’t know if Jennifer said anything like this, but they are smart insights, and I write them all down.
I tell her to have a safe trip. I say this three or four times before we hang up.
Oscar says agents are full of it, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten what Jennifer said. ‘It was clearly unmemorable.’
We’re driving to Wellesley for his reading there. I’m wearing a skirt and a long strand of my mother’s beads. ‘It wasn’t. She’s smart and sharp, and I really liked her ideas.’
‘But not enough to remember them.’
‘I was late for work and hadn’t slept well and my brain is foggy these days.’
‘Listen to you, sounding like a menopausal old lady.’
We get to the bookstore a half hour before the reading. Oscar tells the girl at the register his name, and she doesn’t recognize it and doesn’t know about the reading. She points us to a woman in back, who flushes when she sees Oscar. She says it’s an honor to have him, and she takes us to an alcove where there are rows of seats for his reading and a table with stacks of his three books on it. Two people are sitting in the back row already, knitting. The bookstore owner says that the writer Vera Wilde is coming to the reading and to dinner afterward.
‘I hope that’s all right,’ she says.
‘It will be good to see her.’
‘Oh phew. She said you were old friends. We hosted her at the church last week.’ She shows us to a room in back full of boxes of books and a desk covered in paperwork. There are two plastic molded chairs in the middle. ‘You can put your stuff in here and just relax until seven. Can I get you a glass of water?’
‘No. I think we’ll have a walk,’ Oscar says and heads to the door.
I thank the woman and catch up with him on the street.
He points back to the bookstore. ‘Did you see that pathetic Xerox they taped to the door? Vera Wilde fills the church. I get six chairs and a music stand they nicked from high school band practice. Fuck.’
‘There were at least twenty chairs. Maybe thirty.’
‘I am forty-seven years old. I was supposed to be reading in auditoriums by now. Did you see the cover of the Book Review last week? That was my student. My students are blowing by me. I’m not doing this. I always think it will be okay, but it’s not okay.’
‘I thought you were forty-five.’
‘I know I have a better book inside me. I have something big inside me. I just. Ever since. Fuck.’ It almost seems like he’s going to punch the bricks of the gift shop beside us. Instead he lays his palms on the wall and lets out some jagged breaths.
Nearly every guy I’ve dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny and they were already behind schedule. An early moment of intimacy often involved a confession of this sort: a childhood vision, teacher’s prophesy, a genius IQ. At first, with my boyfriend in college, I believed it, too. Later, I thought I was just choosing delusional men. Now I understand it’s how boys are raised to think, how they are lured into adulthood. I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.
My father had this kind of drama in him, sudden surges of despair about his life and wasted chances and breaks he never got. It took me a while to understand that my wins on the golf course, no matter how hard he strived for them, only made him feel worse. I figured that an actually successful man like Oscar would have outgrown all that crap.
He straightens up and looks around for me. I’ve moved a few yards up the street.
‘Every now and then I have a small pity party.’ He wipes his face with his hands. ‘It’s over now.’ He swings an arm around me and we walk back toward the store.
They don’t have enough chairs in the end. The owner’s son is sent down to the basement for more but there are still people who have to stand against the shelves. I sit in the middle of the fourth row, next to a student who takes notes. The owner prepared a long and heartfelt introduction, about where she was when she read his first book and how overcome she was. She quotes passages from reviews, and she lists his awards and fellowships. She tells us a major motion picture is in the works for Thunder Road, which I didn’t know.
Oscar stands up and thanks her—Annie, he calls her now—and praises her ‘renowned collection’ and thanks her for the hyperbole. He thanks everyone for coming out on such a beautiful evening. He takes long pauses between his sentences, giving the audience the sense that he is bashful, that appearing in public is difficult for him, that he never expected to have to do this. When he reads, he puts the book on the metal stand and his hands deep in his pockets. He raises his shoulders and tips his head down so that his eyes come at us at a sheepish glance, almost as if he feels the words aren’t good enough to be read aloud. It’s a pretty adorable performance, if you hadn’t heard him moaning about not reading at the church.
In the middle of the reading, my heart starts beating way too fast. My hands and feet feel swollen, like my pulse is inflating them. There are three people to my left and four to my right and we are packed in so tight my knees are pressed against the back of the chair in front of me. Getting out will create an upheaval. And all I can think of is getting out. I’m like a bag of panic held in by a thin sac of skin. I clench and unclench discreetly in my metal chair that has come up from the basement.
When he’s done, people smash their hands together, and it sounds like an audience of hundreds. He steps away from the music stand and sits at the signing table. A line quickly forms, and people begin gushing one by one. He moves them along quickly, as he did on Avon Hill when he was a stranger to me.
I drift over to the wall of fiction. Annie does have a good collection. Many of my favorites are there: The Evening of the Holiday, Beloved, Independent People, Troubles, Housekeeping, Woodcutters. In college, my litmus test for a bookstore was Hamsun’s Hunger. It’s there, too. They calm me, all these names on spines. I feel such tenderness toward them. I brush my fingers across the row of Woolf novels. I don’t own many books anymore. I shipped my books to Spain but I couldn’t afford to send them back. They’re still at Paco’s. I doubt I’ll see them again.
There’s a woman hanging back from the table, watching Oscar with a small smile. When the last person in line moves away, her smile grows and changes her whole face.
‘Vera!’ Oscar stands up and comes around the table and hugs her tight and they’re laughing. She points to something on the cover of his book and they laugh harder. She’s around his age, in black jeans and pale leather boots, the posture of a dance teacher.
We walk to a bistro down the street. Oscar slips his arm through mine and slows us down a few steps behind Annie and Vera.
‘So,’ he says.
‘You were great. You’re a pro. You had them eating out of your hand.’
‘I want to have you eating out of my hand.’
‘What’s wrong? Are you nervous?’
The boys are sleeping at Oscar’s parents’ house. The plan is for me to stay overnight at his house.
‘I don’t really sleep.’
‘Good. I have no plans to sleep, either.’
‘No,’ I say, but Vera is holding the door of the bistro open for us, and I can’t explain.
We are put at a small round table, Oscar on my left and Vera on my right. Annie is across from me, but I don’t exist to her. She swivels back and forth from Oscar to Vera, pounding them with questions.
After a few rounds, Vera turns to me. ‘What are you interested in?’
I look at her blankly, and she laughs. ‘I’m just trying to subvert the where-do-you-live-what-do-you-do line of inquiry.’
‘Well, that’s refreshing. I am interested in—’ Feeling normal. Not having cancer. Getting out of debt. ‘Books, I guess.’
‘What do you read?’
‘I love Shirley Hazzard and—’
‘I love her.’ She glares at me.
‘She’s my personal god.’
‘I never meet people who have read her.’
‘They actually had The Evening of the Holiday back there at the store.’
‘Mine, too. The glove.’
‘The glove!’ She puts her hand on my arm.
We compare other writer loves, exchanging names and bouncing in agreement and writing down the few that don’t overlap.
When she asks me if I write, I nod apologetically. Another wannabe. She must be surrounded by them. But she seems pleased. She asks me what I’m working on and I tell her and she asks all sorts of questions about it and I wind up telling her about my mother and Cuba and the long list of questions I was keeping at the back of my notebook to ask her when she got back from Chile and how she died instead. She puts her hand back on my arm and says she’s so sorry and she means it. She’s one of the ones who knows. She says her mother died six years ago, also suddenly, also with no goodbye. ‘For years the only sentence I could write that meant anything to me was: “She slipped on the ice and died.” I don’t know how you finished that novel. Have you read it, Oscar?’
‘She won’t let me near it.’
Probably true. Though he’s never asked.
Our food comes, and Oscar asks Vera about New York and the friends they have in common and the editor they once shared until the editor tried to write his own book and had a full psychotic break.
Vera leaves before dessert. She’s driven more than an hour to Oscar’s reading and has to fly to London tomorrow for another leg of her tour.
‘I loved her,’ I tell Oscar on the way home.
‘You two really hit it off.’
‘She likes you.’
‘We’ve known each other a long time.’
‘She likes you likes you.’
He chuckles and does not deny it.
‘Have you guys ever—’
‘No,’ he smiles. ‘Not really.’ He feels me looking at him. ‘There was some kissing. Years ago. In our twenties.’ I picture him giving her his little pecks on a couch in the seventies. ‘She was too serious for me.’
‘Serious? What are you talking about? You two laughed for five minutes straight when you saw each other.’
‘No, she laughs, she’s fun, but you heard her. Like when she brought up that article on Edmund Wilson. She’s pretentious.’
‘She was curious what you thought about it.’
‘But the words she uses.’
‘You think she’s trying to impress people?’
‘No, I think she probably thinks that way.’
‘So, she’s being authentic. You have a problem with her authenticity?’
‘Look, she’s a good woman.’
‘A good woman?’
‘She’s rigid. Fixed in her ways. She’s like a confirmed old bachelor.’
‘She seemed loose and vibrant and happy to me. Why wouldn’t you want that?’
‘Are we really fighting about why I’m not with someone else?’
‘She’s your age, she’s beautiful, and she’s into you.’
‘It’s just that je ne sais quoi.’
But I know the quoi. She is reading in churches and auditoriums. She’s going to London tomorrow for a European leg of her book tour.
The house is dark. I’ve never been here when no one’s home. Oscar flips on the lights, and it all feels different, like they’ve painted the walls a cooler color. Even Bob has been taken away.
Oscar takes a glass from a shelf and fills it with water. ‘Want one?’
‘Look,’ he says. ‘You made it on the fridge.’
I go over to him. It’s a new drawing by ZAZ. A few black lines, a green squiggle, and a small brown tornado. Oscar points to the tornado. ‘That’s your hair. And that’s your body over here. And that is either a golf club or an asp. I’m not sure.’
‘Wow. This is a great honor.’
He puts down his water and kisses me. ‘Thanks for coming tonight.’ He kisses me again. ‘You made it so much nicer.’ Kiss. ‘Those things really knock it out of me.’ He rests his head on my shoulder heavily. ‘I’m beat. Let’s go up.’ He picks up his glass and moves to the stairs.
I stall, pretending to look at the drawing a little longer.
‘Can you hit the lights?’ he says, halfway up.
His bedroom is big, with a king-size bed. You can see that his wife initially designed the room, with a pretty painted mirror and white bureaus, but you can also see where time has crept in. There’s a cheap laminate desk in the corner with piles of paper and a cardboard box for dirty laundry.
He comes out of the bathroom in a T-shirt and boxer shorts. ‘Come here.’ His mouth is minty.
I’m used to boys. I’m used to their colt-like energy. I’m used to making out on sofas and peeling off our clothing bit by bit. I’m not used to a guy brushing his teeth before fooling around. I’m in my head, and my head is racing. I take off my skirt and sweater and get into bed with him. He slides an arm under me and pulls me against him. I thought maybe sleeping in someone else’s bed might be better, but it’s worse. I can feel the panic mounting.
His arm glides down my back, over my bum, and back up. ‘Mmm,’ he says. Our bodies are lying down alongside each other for the first time and it doesn’t feel as good as it does when we are standing up with more clothes on.
I don’t know what I want. It’s nothing like lying next to Luke or kissing Silas in his car. Fireworks or coffee in bed, I hear Fabiana saying.
‘Are you nervous?’ he says, grinning and kissing me. ‘We can take it slowly. This is nice just like this. This is what I want. And it’s been so long since I’ve wanted anything.’
His tongue is cold. He moves to one of my breasts. My mind is full of people in chairs at the bookstore and Vera Wilde leaning against the restaurant table. He slides his fingers into my underwear but they don’t go in the right places and he has a couple of sharp fingernails. I imagine him bringing Vera Wilde home and going down on her on the living room rug. It helps. I shift away from his fingers and press my butt against him and we find a rhythm and he is breathing hard at my neck and we move faster and he tenses and stops breathing and I feel the pulse against me through our underwear and when it’s over he says he feels like a teenager and laughs loudly in my ear.
He puts on a fresh pair of boxers and pulls me close. ‘“But O that I were young again/And held her in my arms,”’ he says in my ear. Three minutes later he’s asleep. I try to follow him there, try to imitate his long sleep breaths and trick my body into it, but I’m awake. I lie there a long time. After an hour or more I get up and go downstairs.
There are a few extra chairs pulled up around the coffee table from the workshop the night before. It’s clear where Oscar sits, in the walnut chair with the leather seat, pulled back from the others, a bit higher. I take the seat I would sit in if I were in the workshop, in the middle of the couch, protected by people on both sides.
I should have wanted to be him, not sleep with him. I don’t seem to want to do that either, though.
My body won’t stay seated so I walk around, past the front door, the closet, the bathroom, the TV nook, the fridge, the island, back around to the living area. There’s very little clutter. No photos. A bookshelf neatly organized by author. One copy of each of his own. I open the closet: parkas, boots, tennis rackets, a wiffleball bat. In the kitchen is another closet: broom, mop, bucket, slender vacuum cleaner, and a recycling bin. There, on top of a stack of papers, is a story called ‘Star of Ashtabula.’ It’s been typed on a manual typewriter so it has a faded, irregular look to it. Silas’s name and address are in the top left corner. I shut the door. I go sit on a chair near the window. I shuffle a deck of cards near the TV. I go back to the closet with the recycling bin.
It’s a clean copy. Oscar hasn’t made a mark. I bring it to the couch. Star is a woman trying to save an old tree from being chopped down in the town center. She goes door-to-door to a series of oddball neighbors, and when the men with a backhoe come there is a protest with all the people she has mustered, awkwardly holding hands around the big tree. It turns out Star’s ex-husband proposed to her under the tree, extemporaneously, with few words and no ring. She hadn’t liked the proposal at the time and made him do it again properly a week later by the lake with a diamond and a dozen roses, but it is the first proposal beneath the strong branches of that tree that she remembers and that moves her, years after they have divorced, at unexpected moments of the day.
I wonder how the discussion of the story went. Muriel is in Italy, so I have no mole. I wonder where Silas sat. I can imagine how people might talk about it, how it lacks narrative tension, how there are unnecessary adverbs in the tag lines, like ‘she said pleadingly,’ how we don’t find out if she saves the tree. It seems like it was written in a rush of feeling, as if the writer were determined to follow the emotion no matter how rough-hewn the prose. There is something raw and uneven about it that people would try to fix.
I get up and put it back on the pile. I look at the pictures in magazines on the couch. An hour later I return to the recycling bin and shove the story into my bag, deep down to the bottom. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read in weeks. I should save it for that reason alone.
After a few more hours I go upstairs and slip back into bed and wait for morning.