Writers & Lovers (Page 2)

Gabriel comes out from storage with another round. He looks the same: silver curls, torso too long for his legs. I had a crush on him. He was so smart, loved his books, dealt with all the foreign publishers on the phone in their own language. He had a dark, dry humor. He’s handing out the bottles. He says something under his breath, and they all laugh. The girl with the hair is looking at him the way I used to.

I wasn’t broke when I worked at Salvatore’s. Or at least I didn’t think I was. My debts were much smaller and Sallie Mae and EdFund and Collection Technology and Citibank and Chase weren’t hassling me yet. I sublet a room in a house on Chauncy Street with friends, eighty dollars a month. We were all trying to be writers, with jobs that got us by. Nia and Abby were working on novels, I was writing stories, and Russell was a poet. Of all of us, I would have bet that Russell would stick with it the longest. Rigid and disciplined, he got up at four thirty every morning, wrote until seven, and ran five miles before he went to work at Widener Library. But he was the first to surrender and go to law school. He’s a tax attorney in Tampa now. Abby was next. Her aunt convinced her to take a realtor’s exam, just on a lark. Later she tried to tell me she was still using her imagination when she walked through the houses and invented a new life for her clients. I saw her last month outside an enormous house with white columns in Brookline. She was leaning into the driver’s window of a black SUV in the driveway and nodding profusely. Nia met a Milton scholar with excellent posture and a trust fund, who handed her novel back after reading fifteen pages, saying first-person female narratives grated on him. She chucked it in the dumpster, married him, and moved to Houston when he got a job at Rice.

I didn’t get it. I didn’t get any of them then. One by one they gave up, moved out, and got replaced by engineers from MIT. A guy with a ponytail and a Spanish accent came into Salvatore’s looking for Barthes’s Sur Racine. We spoke in French. He said he hated English. His French was better than mine—his father was from Algiers. He made me a Catalan fish stew in his room in Central Square. When he kissed me he smelled like Europe. His fellowship ended, and he went home to Barcelona. I went to an MFA program in Pennsylvania, and we wrote each other love letters until I started dating the funny guy in workshop who wrote gloomy two-page stories set in New Hampshire mill towns. After we broke up, I moved to Albuquerque for a while, then ended up in Bend, Oregon, with Caleb and his boyfriend, Phil. A letter from Paco found me there, and we resumed our correspondence. Enclosed in his fifth letter to me was a one-way ticket to Barcelona.

I poke around in the Ancient Greek section. That’s the next language I want to learn. Around the corner, in Italian, the only other customer sits cross-legged on the floor with a small boy, reading him Cuore. Her voice is low and beautiful. I started speaking a little Italian in Barcelona with my friend Giulia. I come to the long wall of French literature, divided by publishers: rows of red-on-ivory Gallimards, blue-on-white Éditions de Minuit, dime-store-like Livres de Poche, and then the extravagant Pléiades, set apart in their own glass case, leather bound with gold print and thin gold stripes: Balzac and Montaigne and Valéry, their spines glistening like jewels.

I shelved copies of all these books, cut open the boxes, stacked them on the metal storage racks in back, and brought them out a few at a time, usually arguing with Maria all the while, about À la recherche, which I adored and she said was as boring as Middlemarch. She had to give herself eighteen hand jobs, she told me, to get through Middlemarch the summer she was seventeen. That book made my nethersphere sore, she said.

I see a copy of Sur Racine, which we didn’t have the day Paco came looking for it. I had to special order it for him. I touch the bit of glue at the top of the spine. I don’t ever cry about Paco. Those two years with him rest lightly on me. We went from French to a sort of hybrid of the Catalan and Castilian that he taught me, and I wonder if that’s part of the reason I don’t miss him, that everything we ever said to each other was in languages I’m starting to forget. Maybe the thrill of the relationship was the languages, that everything was heightened for me because of it, more of a challenge, as I tried to maintain his belief in my facility with languages, my ability to absorb, mimic, morph. It was a trick no one expected of an American, the combination of a good ear, a good memory, and an understanding of the rules of grammar, so that I appeared more of a prodigy than I was. Every conversation was a chance to excel, to frolic, to amuse myself and to surprise him. And yet now I can’t remember what we said to each other. Conversations in foreign languages don’t linger in my head like they do in English. They don’t last. They remind me of the invisible-ink pen my mother sent me for Christmas when I was fifteen and she had gone, an irony that escaped her but not me.

I slip out before Gabriel recognizes me or one of his employees comes out from behind the reference desk to assault me with help.

I didn’t mean to move back to Massachusetts. I just had no other plan. I don’t like being reminded of those days on Chauncy, writing stories in my dormer window on the third floor, drinking Turkish coffee at Algiers, dancing at the Plough and Stars. Life was light and cheap, and if it wasn’t cheap I used a credit card. My loans got sold and sold again, and I paid the minimums and didn’t think about the ballooning balance. My mother had moved back to Phoenix by then, and she paid for my flights to see her twice a year. The rest of the time we talked on the phone, talked for hours sometimes. We’d pee and paint our nails and make food and brush our teeth. I always knew where she was in her little house by the noises in the background, the scrape of a hanger or the chime of a glass being put in the dishwasher. I’d tell her about people at the bookstore, and she’d tell me about people at her office in the state house in Phoenix—she was working for the governor then. I’d get her to retell some of her stories from Santiago de Cuba, where she grew up with her American-born, expat parents. Her father was a doctor, and her mother sang show tunes at a nightclub. Every now and then she’d ask if I had done my laundry or changed my sheets and I’d tell her to stop being maternal, it wasn’t in her nature, and we’d laugh because it was true and I had forgiven her for that. I look back on those days and it feels gluttonous, all that time and love and life ahead, no bees in my body and my mother on the other end of the line.

Up on the street the heat pools just above the hoods of the parked cars, making the brick buildings squiggly. The sidewalks are packed now, packed with out-of-towners creeping along with their crêpes and iced lattes, their children sucking down milkshakes and Mountain Dews. I walk in the street to avoid them and cross over to Dunster and back up to Iris.

I go up the stairs, past the presidents, directly to the bathroom even though I’m already wearing my uniform. It’s empty. I catch myself in the mirror over the sink. It’s tilted away from the wall for people in wheelchairs so that I’m at a slightly unfamiliar angle to myself. I look beat up, like someone who has gotten ill and aged a decade in a few months. I look into my eyes, but they aren’t really mine, not the eyes I used to have. They’re the eyes of someone very tired and very sad, and once I see them I feel even sadder and then I see that sadness, that compassion, for the sadness in my eyes, and I see the water rising in them. I’m both the sad person and the person wanting to comfort the sad person. And then I feel sad for that person who has so much compassion because she’s clearly been through the same thing, too. And the cycle keeps repeating. It’s like when you go into a dressing room with a three-paneled mirror and you line them up just right to see the long narrowing hallway of yourselves diminishing into infinity. It feels like that, like I’m sad for an infinite number of my selves.

I splash my face and pat it down with paper towels from the dispenser in case someone comes in, but as soon as I get it dry my face crumples up again. I put my hair back into the tight bun and leave the bathroom.

I’m late by the time I enter the dining room. The Twisted Sister is back in action.

Dana glares at me. ‘Deck. Candles.’

The deck, past the bar and through the French doors, is humid and smells of roses and lilies and the peppery nasturtiums the chefs use to garnish the plates. All the flower-pots are dripping dirty water and the floorboards around the edges are soaked. It smells like my mother’s garden on a rainy summer morning. Helene, the pastry chef, must have just watered. This rooftop oasis is her creation.

Mary Hand is in the far corner with a tray of tea lights, a water pitcher, and a trash can, knifing out the old wax from the night before.

‘The three and fourpence,’ Mary Hand says. She has her own vernacular. She’s been waiting tables at Iris longer than anyone else.

I sit down beside her. I pick up the rag on the tray and wipe out the insides of the glass holders she has voided, pour a few drops of water in each, and drop in a fresh tea light.

It’s hard to know how old Mary Hand is. She’s older than I am but by three years or twenty? She has straight brown hair without a fleck of gray, which she pulls back with a beige elastic, a long face, and a spindly neck. All of her is long and lean, more colt than workhorse. She’s the best waitress I’ve ever worked with, flat calm but fast and efficient. She knows your tables as well as she knows her own. She saves you when you forget to fire the entrées for the six-top or you leave your wine opener at home. At the height of the night, when everyone’s losing their shit, when your plates have been left so long under the heat lamp they’ve gotten too hot to carry even with a cloth and the sous chefs are slandering you and the customers are waiting for their apps, their checks, their water refills, their extra jus, Mary Hand will be speaking in a slow drawl. ‘Simple as toast and jam,’ she might say, loading up every one of your entrées along her long arms without flinching.

‘C’mon, little homunculus,’ Mary Hand coos at a burned-down tea light. No one ever calls her just Mary. She twists the knife and it comes out with a satisfying pop and a spray of wax water that hits us both, and we laugh.

The deck is pleasant like this, empty of customers, the sun behind the tall maples dappling the tables with light but not much heat, raised up high above the hot, loud chaos of Mass. Ave., Helene’s plants, hundreds of them, in boxes along the short stone walls and in planters on the ground and hanging from trellises, all flowering, the leaves dark green and healthy. The plants all seem satisfied, thriving, and it makes you feel that way, too, or at least that thriving is a possibility.

My mother had a green thumb. I want to tell Mary Hand this, but I haven’t mentioned my mother at the restaurant yet. I don’t want to be the girl whose mother just died. It’s bad enough that I’m the girl who’s just been dumped on her ass. I made the mistake of telling Dana about Luke during my first training shift.

‘Is it like this every year, so fecund?’

‘Mmmm hmmm,’ Mary Hand says. I can tell she likes the word ‘fecund.’ I knew she would. ‘She has a gift.’ She pronounces it gyift, very slowly. She means Helene. ‘A gyift for flora.’

‘How many years have you been here?’

‘Since about the Truman administration.’

She’s squirrely about the details of her life. No one knows where she lives or with whom. It’s just a question of how many cats, Harry says. But I’m not sure. The story is that she used to go out with David Byrne. Some say it was in high school in Baltimore; some said it was at RISD. Everyone says he broke her heart, that she never recovered. If the Talking Heads ever come on when the music is cranked before or after service, whoever’s closest to the stereo at the bar will switch stations fast.

‘How’d you get this job?’ she says. ‘You’re not one of Marcus’s usual hires.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You’re more like us, the old guard.’ She means people hired by the previous house manager. ‘Cerebral.’

‘I’m not sure about that.’

‘Well, you know what cerebral means, so case in point.’

Tony comes out on the deck to give us the breakdown. Only one large table out here, a party of ten for an anniversary. Mary Hand and I push two tables together, cover it in several cloths, lining up the points of the corners of the top layer with the straight hem of the bottom. We do the same to the rest of the smaller tables, then set them, shining the silver and polishing the glasses with small cloths as we go. We put a candle on each table and get the flowers I arranged for lunch out of the walk-in. The chef calls us all to the wait station where he tells us the specials, explaining each preparation and ingredient. The chefs I’ve worked with before were high strung and volatile, but Thomas is calm and kind. He never lets things in his kitchen get out of hand. He doesn’t have a temper or a vile mouth. He doesn’t hate women, not even waitresses. If I make a mistake, even on a busy night, he just nods and takes the plate and slides back what I need. He’s good, too. We’re always trying to get our hands on an extra carpaccio or seared scallops or Bolognese. The high shelves in the wait station are full of finagled food, pushed to the back where Marcus can’t see and eaten surreptitiously throughout the night. I have to eat at the restaurant—I can’t afford more than cereal or noodles at the grocery store—but even if I weren’t broke I would sneak that food.

Thirty minutes later every seat in my section is filled. Mary Hand and I fall into a groove. The French doors to the deck have to be kept closed because the AC is on in the dining room, and when our meals are up and loaded we hold the door for each other. She brings my drinks to one of my fours, and I deliver salmons to her deuce when she’s opening bottles of champagne for the rowdy ten.

I like going from the hot kitchen to the cool dining room to the humid deck. I like that Craig is working the bar because no matter how many orders he has, he always makes it to your tables to talk about the wines. And I like the mindless distractions, the way there is no room to remember anything about your life except that the osso bucco goes to the man in the bow tie and the lavender flan to the birthday girl in pink and the side cars to the student couple with the fake IDs. I like memorizing the orders—aren’t you going to write it down, the older men will say—punching them in on the computer in the wait station, collecting my food in the window, stabbing the dupes, serving on the left, clearing from the right. Dana and Tony are too busy with their big tables to insult anyone and after I bring out Dana’s salads while she’s taking an order, she garnishes my vongoles.

I have a table from Ecuador and speak to them in Spanish. They hear my accent and make me say a few sentences in Catalan. The feel of that language in my mouth brings back Paco, the good parts, the way his whole face crumpled when he laughed and how he let me fall asleep on his back. I tell them one of our dishwashers is from Guayaquil, and they want to meet him. I get Alejandro, and he ends up sitting and smoking with them, talking about politics and grinning madly, and I get a glimpse of who he is when he isn’t engulfed in spray and steam and food waste. But things pile up in the kitchen and eventually Marcus storms out to the deck and sends him back to his station.

The only conflict comes at the second seating when Fabiana puts a deuce that was supposed to be Dana’s in my section.

‘She just got the five,’ Dana says. ‘What the fuck?’

Fabiana comes all the way around the wait station, a place she avoids for its chaos and potential for stains. She wears silk wrap dresses and is the only woman allowed to keep her hair down. She is clean and showered and never smells of salad dressing.

‘They asked for her, Dana. You’re getting the seven at eight thirty.’

‘The fucking teachers from Wellesley? Oh thanks. I’ll probably get a fiver off their ice water and the side salad they split three ways.’

I lean past the tall shelving to peer through the doors to the deck. A tall woman and a balding man. ‘You can have them. I don’t even know who they are.’

Marcus is coming toward us from the bar.

‘Why are you still here?’ Fabiana snaps at me for his benefit. ‘Get out there, Casey.’

I think they’ve started sleeping together.

I go out to the deck.

‘Casey!’ They both get up and give me tight hugs. ‘You don’t recognize us,’ the woman says. The man looks on benevolently, red cheeked and mellow, a few cocktails already in him. She’s large, boobs angled like the prow of a boat, a short gold chain with a turquoise stone around her neck. It looks like something my mother would wear.

‘I’m sorry.’

The table behind them needs their check.

‘We used to work in Doug’s office. With your mom.’

It was her first job after she left my father, in a congressman’s office. The Doyles. That’s who they were. Liz and Pat. They hadn’t been married then.

‘She fixed us up, you know. She told Pat that I wanted him to ask me out. And she told me he was going to, even though he’d never said such a thing. The cheek! And here we are.’ She takes my hand. ‘We’re so sorry, Casey. We were devastated to hear. Just devastated. We were in Vero, or we would have been at the service.’

I nod. If I’d had some warning I might be able to handle it better, but this is a surprise attack. I nod again.

‘We wanted to write you, but we didn’t know where on the globe you were at that point. And then we ran into Ezra, who’d heard you were back here and at Iris!’ She puts a warm hand on my arm. ‘I’ve upset you.’

I shake my head, but my face betrays me and my eyebrows go all funny.

‘She gave me this necklace.’

Of course she did.

‘Excuse me,’ the man behind them says, waving his credit card.

I nod to him and to everyone who stops me on my way back to the wait station. I unroll a place setting from the lunch bin and put my face in the napkin as I print out the check.

‘Get a grip, will you,’ Dana says, but she puts the slip on a tray with chocolates and brings it out to my table for me.

I push through the swinging door into the kitchen. The cooks are busy, their backs to me and to the food that’s waiting for me under the heat lamp. I go into the walk-in. I stand in the dry cold, looking at the dairy shelves in back, the bricks of butter wrapped in wax paper and cartons of heavy cream. Cases of eggs. I breathe. I look down at my hand. Caleb let me have her ring. She wore it my whole life, a sapphire and two small diamonds. The sky and the stars we called it when I was little. Her friend Janet had thought to take it off her finger afterward. My hand looks like hers when I wear it. I can do this, I say to the glinting blue-black eye. And I go out to take the order of Liz and Pat Doyle.

When I bring their pinot grigios and their apps they’re still somber with me, but by the time their swordfish and risotto comes out Pat is talking animatedly, using words I don’t understand like equities and the Shiller PE, and by coffee they’re chuckling about someone named Marvin doing the hustle at their daughter’s wedding and have nearly forgotten they know me at all. They leave me their business cards, though, on the tray with their merchant receipt and cash tip. Sixteen percent. They both own their own businesses. Neither of them works in politics anymore.

Table by table, people vanish, leaving behind their soiled napkins and lipstick markings. The tablecloths are disheveled and crusted, wine bottles turned upside down in their watery holders, a sea of glasses and coffee cups and smeared dessert plates. Everything left for someone else to clean up. We work slowly now, getting the room and the deck back in order. Only Yasmin and Omar, who have dates waiting for them at the bar, are still moving quickly.

The last thing is drying glasses and rolling more silverware for lunch. Alejandro brings out the steaming green racks of glasses. At first they’re too hot to touch without a cloth. Omar and I do the roll-ups: napkin folded into a triangle, spoon on top of fork on top of knife laid alongside the long edge, two side points folded in then everything rolled to the pointed tip. Craig is laughing with Omar’s skinny date at the bar, so he’s rolling them faster and faster. We have to have a hundred of them in the bin before we can leave.

By the time I get on my bike, it’s nearly one in the morning. My body is depleted. The three miles to my potting shed feels far away.

The dark, the heat, the few people paired up on the sidewalks. The river and the moon’s quivering reflection. You taste like the moon, Luke said out in that field in the Berkshires. Fucking poet. On the path a few people are holding hands, drinking from bottles, lying in the grass because they can’t see all the green goose poop. He took me unawares. I didn’t have time to defend myself.

In the morning I ache for my mother. But late at night it is Luke I mourn for.

The BU Bridge is empty, silent. I arc up and over the water. There’s a tightness, a rasp in my breathing, but I do not cry. I sing ‘Psycho Killer’ in honor of Mary Hand. I reach Adam’s driveway, and I have not wept. This is a first. I roll my bike into the garage. This is a small victory.

Two past-due notices and a wedding invitation have been slipped under my door. A message is flashing on my machine. My blood leaps. Old reflex. It’s not him. It’s not him, I tell myself, but my heart slams anyway. I hit Play.

‘Hey.’ Pause. Long breath like a roll of thunder into the receiver.

It’s him.