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Writers & Lovers (Page 20)

When I walk the dog I’m aware now of the size of the three oak trees on the far side of the park. Their limbs are enormous, ribbed with muscles and veins, as alive as we are.

At Iris, a woman takes a bite of her BLT and sends it back. She says she doesn’t like the spicy mayonnaise. The kitchen makes another, with a milder aioli. I bring it out to her, and a few minutes later she asks me to bring some of the spicy mayonnaise back.

‘I thought I didn’t like it, but I did,’ she says.

Muriel returns from Rome and meets me for coffee before work. She laughs at how hard I hug her. She tells me that on the second day of her conference she came out of the hotel and saw Christian across the street under a jacaranda. I told you I’d only go to Italy for romance, he said and asked her if she would marry him.

Star would have liked that proposal.

I pore over the Globe classifieds for an apartment. I call about the smallest, cheapest ones, and they are already taken. Finally, I find one I can go and see. It’s in Cambridge. Inman Square. A basement studio in a yellow Victorian. The landlord is surprised by how captivated I am by it. I stand at the stove for a long time. A real gas stove. I turn on and off each gas burner. And the fridge is enormous. He laughs at my awe and says it’s standard size. The wall-to-wall carpet smells a bit, but nothing like my potting shed. Off the back, through sliding glass doors, is a private patio encircled by flower beds and a crab apple tree. It’s more than I can bear.

Probably because I’m so taken with his worst apartment, he asks if I want to see the two-bedroom he’s renovating upstairs. I follow him up three flights. As he unlocks the door he says he’s planning to renovate all four units. The basement will be last, he says, but he’ll get to it. He swings the door open. It’s all light and shiny wood floors. The kitchen gleams with new appliances. A bay window with a wide built-in seat looks down on the neighborhood. Big arms of a maple tree stretch out at eye level as if protecting the house. Beyond it you can see out across the tops of all the other trees and gray roofs. Something in my chest eases and aches at the same time.

‘They’re still working on the bathroom.’ He looks at his watch. ‘Of course they haven’t shown up yet.’

He shows me a big bedroom with the same polished floors and the attached bathroom where the floors are still plywood and the vanity is in a box. In the corner is a modern tub below a skylight. We go through to the second bedroom. There is a wall of bookshelves and a space between two long windows where a desk would go.

I go back to the window seat in the living area. I know he’ll make me leave soon.

‘What do you do?’ he asks.

I shake my head. ‘I don’t even make enough for the basement.’

‘I wasn’t asking for that. Just curious.’

I need him to know how pathetic I am. ‘I’m a writer.’

‘A writer. That’s cool. Tough, making a living in the arts.’ He turns toward the door, jangling the keys. ‘But worth a shot, right?’

Finally, I get fired from Iris. It’s the night before the Harvard-Yale game. We have 192 on the books and a line of walk-ins down the stairs. We open a half hour early. Harry, Dana, James, and I are upstairs. Tony and Victor are down. An hour in, Fabiana tells me Tony is swamped and I need to take a four down in the club bar. She’s already punched in the drink order with my number and when it’s ready I bring the drinks down and take their order. On my way to the computer upstairs, I see my two sixes have been seated.

I approach the closest one, and the man at the head of the table grips my waist. ‘Listen, sweetness.’ He squeezes. ‘Men of a certain age need cocktails of a certain proof within a certain amount of time.’

The three men give me very specific drink orders with the importance of doctors giving pre-op instruction. The women order glasses of house white. The man lets go of my waist.

The six beside them is a family that is ready to order everything and put a rush on it because they have to get to their daughter’s performance. She’s a flautist. At Harvard. The two younger daughters, not yet in college, roll their eyes. The mother sees them. ‘There are a lot of schools in this area,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to clarify.’

I’m interrupted three more times before I can get to the computer: another Coke, a cleaner fork, Worcestershire sauce. I punch in the drinks and the rush order and hear the kitchen calling my name for entrées on my deuce, two Radcliffe ladies who tell me they are celebrating fifty years of their Boston marriage.

In the kitchen, Clark is sucking down the beers and the swordfish steaks come back overcooked and the chicken bloody and he’s lashing out at every waiter who pushes through the door. By eight he’s lit into management, calling Marcus a cunt and Gory a sexless cow, and he’s scalded his right hand on the handle of pan that had been under a broiler. He’s like a bull at the end of a fight. Everything is flashing red. I stay far away.

And something’s wrong with the Kroks. They’re early and they’re not in their usual tuxes and they do things in reverse, start in the middle of the room and fan around it, singing a few songs I’ve never heard before, their voices loud and sloppy. But the diners don’t know the difference. They eat it up. At the end of their last song the singers take blue Yale caps out of their pockets and fix them on their heads. ‘Thank you,’ they shout. ‘We’re the Whiffenpoofs!’ The crowd loves the caper. They boo and clap at the same time. The Whiffenpoofs blow kisses. In the doorway are the stunned Kroks in tuxes, the wind finally out of their annoying sails.

I’m dropping desserts at the first six-top—the second has already left for the concert—when Clark comes tearing out into the dining room, hand packed with ice and bandaged with rags and duct tape. He grabs my arm and a small cylinder of hazelnut mousse goes flying to the carpet.

‘Marcus says there’s a five in the club bar that’s been here two hours. I have no dupe.’

At first my table thinks it’s another Yale prank and watch with amusement. When they understand his blood and rage are real, they bend their heads toward their plates. The man at the head reaches out for my hip again. ‘That’s no way to speak to this sweet young lady.’

I sidestep his grab, and I shove Clark’s arm off me. It smashes into his other, bandaged hand. He howls.

‘Get your fucking hands off me.’ My voice is very loud, much louder than I expect, louder than any Krok or Whiffenpoof. I move quickly through the silent dining room out to the fire escape.

My throat has seized up, and I’m sipping small bits of air. I have a lot of crying in me, but not a tear comes out. I’m just trying to breathe. It’s starting again, that need to somehow get out of my body. My heart is hammering so fast it feels like one long beat on the verge of bursting. Death, or something bigger and much less peaceful, feels so close, just over my shoulder.

‘Casey.’

It’s Marcus.

‘I know. I’m leaving,’ I manage.

‘Good,’ he says and goes back in.

I change in the bathroom and leave my filthy uniform on the floor of the stall. In the other stall are two little girls. I can see their white tights and black patent leather shoes. I wash my hands and do not look in the mirror, do not want to see who is in there. The girls are whispering, waiting for me to leave before they come out. I shut the door loudly when I go, so they know the coast is clear.

I go down the narrow stairs then the wider fancy stairs. The presidents watch me go. My chest feels like an old swollen piece of fruit about to split open with wet rot. I hear the little girls’ small voices. I want little girls. I haven’t gone back for the follow-up appointment Dr. Gynecologist suggested. Now I won’t have health insurance anymore. I don’t want to be infertile. I also don’t want to be pregnant. Fitzgerald said that the sign of genius is being able to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. But what if you hold two contradictory fears? Are you still some kind of a genius?

I unplug the phone when I get home so Oscar can’t call me and Harry can’t call me and Muriel can’t call me after Harry calls her. I can’t stay inside. I can’t stay still. But I’m scared to leave. I don’t want to walk down the driveway and out to the street. I’m scared I won’t come back. I’m scared I’ll burst or dissolve or veer straight into traffic. I’m scared of men at this time of night when I’m on foot, not on my bike. I’m scared of men in cars and men in doorways, men in groups and men alone. They are menacing. Men-acing. Men-dacious. Men-tal. I’m outside now. I’m circling the big tree. You hate men, Paco said once. Do I? I don’t like working for them. Marcus and Gory. Gabriel at Salvatore’s was an exception. My French teacher in eighth grade rubbed my neck during a makeup test, swaying hard against the back of my plastic chair. I actually thought he had an itch. And when I asked Mr. Tuck at the airport in Madrid why he hadn’t told someone about my father he said, I liked your dad but you know what happens to the messenger. I hate male cowardice and the way they always have each other’s backs. They have no control. They justify everything their dicks make them do. And they get away with it. Nearly every time. My father peered through a hole at girls, possibly at me, in our locker room. And when he got caught, he got a party and a cake.

I circle the yard. It’s noisy. The ground is covered with dry leaves. The tree is nearly bare. Adam doesn’t rake. He doesn’t garden. The raised beds are thick with dying weeds. My mother was in her yard every weekend. It was the only time I ever saw her in jeans. High-waisted ones, showing off her bum. She had a nice bum. It was high and pert, even into her fifties. I didn’t get that bum. All her neighbors had crushes on her, but she was done with men. They’d come by with cuttings and compost in the spring, bulbs in the fall. They’d linger, ask about her goliath tomatoes or her trumpet vines. ‘I think my husband was half in love with her,’ more than a few women told me at her funeral. But they were not threatened. They loved her, too. They told me stories about how she cared for them during a hip replacement, a car accident, a son’s suicide. How she slept on their couches and cooked meals and ran errands. How she fought the town on pesticides on school property and wrote letters to the editor about gay rights and racial justice. I kick through the leaves. Someone reminded me of her recently. I feel the memory, just out of reach, sweet, as if memory has flavors, a woman about her age. I can’t remember. My mother was a real person. I am not a real person. She had convictions and took action. She had purpose and belief. She helped others. I help no one. She helped found that donation organization. I couldn’t even write one thank-you letter for a refrigerator. All I want is to write fiction. I am a drain on the system, dragging around my debts and dreams. It’s all I’ve wanted. And now I’m not even able to do that. I haven’t been able to go near my book since I spoke to Jennifer Lin.

The crunching of leaves wakes up the dog, and he barks from the mudroom window. I crouch beside the tree trunk and stay still though everything inside me is churning. The ground beneath the leaves is warm, but the air is cold. Something flashes in front of me. It’s my breath. I can see my breath. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a place where I can see my breath. I am a child buttoned up in a wool coat and white mittens, driving with my mother, sliding on the blue leather of the passenger seat, toes like ice cubes, waiting for the heat to kick in on the way to school or church or the grocery store. Oafie stops barking to listen to the silence. He pushes off from the sill and goes back to bed.

I can’t go inside until I slow down. My heart and mind feel like they are in a race to the death. I watch my breath. I squeeze my muscles one by one. It’s Star of Ashtabula who reminds me of my mother.

I go inside and lie on my futon and wait to explode.

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