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Writers & Lovers (Page 21)

‘It’s a bit late to be playing hard to get, don’t you think?’ Oscar says.

‘I got fired.’

‘Fantastic!’

‘Not for me.’

‘You can do better than that job.’

‘Like what?’

‘Anything. Work in an office. Something with normal hours.’

‘But I want the normal hours for writing.’

‘I have a little job for you.’

‘What?’

‘It’s your fault. They like you too much.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘So I have to go to Provo next weekend and I thought my mother had it on her calendar but she didn’t and she’s going to Lennox on some girls’ weekend. And she won’t cancel. I tried to tell her she was no longer a girl by the most generous standards and most of her friends are so butch they should call it a men’s weekend and she did not think that was funny and hung up on me, and when I tried to call Brenda, you know, down the street, the boys started whining about how all she cooks is shepherd’s pie and she sticks toilet paper up her nose and it comes out bloody and they asked for you. They asked me to ask you to come stay for the weekend. I told them you were working and it was impossible, but now maybe it’s not.’

‘How much do you pay Brenda?’

He laughs until he realizes I’m serious. ‘Two hundred a day.’

‘Okay. I’ll do it.’

Oscar leaves me a check and a note on his fridge.

This is just to say

You can eat all the plums

And all the grapes

And the bananas.

But don’t eat all the kiwis

Or Jasper will weep.

And don’t leave Sunday

Or ever.

I walk down the street to the bus stop. All the other women there are nannies. John comes off the bus quickly, but Jasper moves slowly. The girl behind him looks ready to give him a shove. They’re shy on the way home. I ask them about school, and I get one-word answers. Jasper asks three times when Papa is coming home.

‘What time Sunday night at seven?’ he says, blinking heavily.

John laughs. ‘Here come the waterworks.’

Everyone needs heavy snacks. I bring out all the fruit and set two kiwis cut in half with a spoon in front of Jasper. Oscar prepared plastic containers of cheese, celery, and carrots for this time of day, but I see bacon in a drawer in the fridge and remember what I used to make after school. I cook up the bacon, slather some saltines with mayonnaise and pile each one with chopped onion, bacon, and cheddar and put them under the broiler. They come out perfectly. We devour them. I’m back in sixth grade, eating them. I make more. We devour them, too.

‘Papa says mayonnaise clogs up your arteries,’ Jasper says.

‘And bacon,’ John says. ‘And cheese.’

‘We’re young. We don’t have to worry about that yet.’ Do parents these days really make kids worry about their arteries?

‘Papa is so old!’ John says.

‘Well, he’s not old, but he’s not the perfect machines that we are.’ I pop another cholesterol bomb in my mouth.

‘He’s not going to die though,’ Jasper says. ‘He promised.’

‘He can’t promise. No one knows when they’re going to die,’ John says.

‘He promised. And a promise is a promise.’

‘But—’

‘How about I teach you a game called Spit?’ I say.

Oscar said that they had to take a bath each night. I’m not sure what to do. I can’t leave a five-year-old and a seven-year-old in a bathtub alone, but I doubt they’ll be comfortable with me in the room. I dread it and extend dinner and cards and a game of Sorry! out as far as I can to avoid bedtime. But John looks at the clock and says it’s bath time. And Jasper says, ‘I call the surfboard!’ and runs toward the stairs and Jasper chases him and by the time I get up there the water is running and both boys are naked at the toilet, sword fighting with their streams of pee. I duck out, but John calls me back and asks me to get the bath toys down, pointing to a high shelf with his free hand.

I sit on the floor next to the tub and man the submarine. Jasper has the spy on the surfboard and John has the Special Op parachuter. We play till the pads of our fingers are blue and shriveled.

When I say it’s time to get out, Jasper says he needs a shampoo.

‘Papa just washed it last night.’

‘It got dirty again.’

John shakes his head. ‘He always wants a shampoo.’

Jasper hands me the baby shampoo. Nothing about it has changed. The golden color. The red teardrop that says ‘no more tears.’ The smell. Unlike so much, it is exactly the same as when my mother used it on me. They dunk their heads wet, and I lather them up. I shape Jasper’s foamy hair into dog ears, flat and flopped over, and John’s longer hair into straight-up antennae. They giggle at each other, and I allow them to stand up carefully, one at a time, to look at themselves in the mirror above the sink. I hold on to their waists as my mother held on to mine. They come slowly back down, and I make new shapes. I breathe in the smell.

After I get them out and dry them off, they put on their pj’s. John’s are plain navy with white cuffs that don’t reach his wrists or ankles, and Jasper’s are faded red-and-green plaid, hand-me-downs from John. They show me their rooms.

‘John’s is bigger, but mine is cozier,’ Jasper says, leading the way.

‘That’s what we tell him when he complains.’

‘Mine is big in con set. See?’

‘Concept,’ John says.

‘It’s the whole universe.’ He spreads his arms out. It’s definitely a space-themed room, with the planets from our solar system hanging in one corner and the sun in another, a poster of Apollo 17, and a glow-in-the-dark night sky on the ceiling. There’s a twin bed in the corner, and the rest of the floor is covered with an enormous Lego space station.

‘How do you get from the door into bed?’

‘I tiptoe, like this.’ And he picks his way, nearly en pointe, across without disturbing one thing.

John’s room is neat and spare.

‘I don’t like things on the wall. They can catch fire.’

Anything can catch fire. Being around kids means thinking a whole lot of things you can’t say.

He sees my eye land on a shelf of framed photographs. We move toward them together.

There she is. Sonya. Pixie cut, round brown eyes, Jasper’s mischievous smile. I realize I had an image of her as willowy and bohemian and dreamy looking, but she is compact and purposeful. No nonsense my mother would say. Beside her—at the top of a mountain, on their leather sofa, at the alter—Oscar looks tall. She seems active and zestful, the way people who die young always do, as if they were given an extra dose of energy and passion for life, as if they knew they had less time to spend it. Or maybe it’s just the way we see their photos afterward, when any life we still find in them feels exaggerated.

‘That’s our mom.’

‘She looks really kind.’

‘She was.’

I don’t know how these small bodies have sustained the loss of her, how they make it through to the end of each day.

‘I lost my mom, too. Last winter.’

‘Was she old?’

‘No. She was fifty-eight. But she wasn’t as young as yours.’

‘She was thirty-seven.’

‘We saw her. When she was dead,’ Jasper says. ‘She looked like a piece of driftwood.’

‘Papa told you to stop saying that.’

‘Well she did,’ Jasper says. ‘John has a journal!’ He bolts across the room, claws around under the bed, and brings back a fat notebook.

‘No.’ John grabs it from him.

‘Just the funny page.’ Jasper finds a page close to the beginning with big words in black magic marker: I HAIT POPA over and over. And at the bottom: JASPR IS A POOPSY POO.

We all laugh.

‘What did you mean?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t remember.’ He is still laughing hard. He takes the book from Jasper and starts flipping through the pages.

‘Have you been keeping that a long time?’

‘Since I was four.’

He’s probably written a hundred pages. The writing starts off big and wild, mostly in thick pens, and then gets smaller and thinner. The most recent entries are meticulous and tiny.

‘You’re a writer like your dad.’

He shakes his head. ‘I just like to record things. So I don’t forget.’

I feel the photographs beside us, a family frozen in motion.

Below the photos are books. We look through them, and Jasper pulls out his favorites, which we narrow down from a huge stack to a smaller stack. John just wants Robinson Crusoe, which they are nearly halfway through.

‘Can we read in Papa’s bed? There’s more room.’

But when we get settled there, they press up so close on either side of me that we didn’t need the extra space. The smell of the baby shampoo comes up from their hair and my fingers as I turn the pages.

After the books, they are tired and go to their own beds. I ask if anyone would like me to sing a song, and they say no, but as I’m leaving Jasper’s room he says he’s changed his mind. I sing ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and then John calls across the hallway saying he changed his mind, too. I tell him about the Kroks and sing him ‘Blue Angel’ and ‘Loch Lomond.’

I go back to Oscar’s bed. He hasn’t changed the sheets and the pillows smell like him, his skin and his shaving cream. I think about his wife and her bright face. If my lump turns out to be deadly cancer, I don’t think anyone will look at photos of me later and think I had an extra dose of anything. I fall asleep around four and Jasper comes in before five. He knocks his body against the bed until I wake up, and he stands there until I pull back the covers for him to crawl in. He’s wide awake. He tells me about a boy named Edwin in his class.

‘He’s a hitting and punching guy,’ he says.

‘And what do you do?’

‘I karate chop him. In my magination. In true life I go to the other side of the room.’

‘That seems like a good strategy.’

We talk about popsicles and our favorite flavors and all the places he’s swum in his life and a rock John jumped off of somewhere in a place that began with an m where there were kittens under a porch. He’s taken my hand and holds it like a map, with two hands in front of his face, spreading out the fingers then pushing them together.

‘I don’t remember my mama,’ he says.

‘You were only two, right?’ I can’t bear to say when she died.

‘Uh-huh. I don’t know if she was like you or completely different. If she was like Aunt Sue or completely different. Who was she like?’

‘She was probably like you.’

‘Me?’

‘She was probably curious and smart and silly in the best way.’

He brings my fingers up to his mouth and bounces them absently against his lips.

‘When my mother died, I sort of felt her inside me sometimes,’ I say. ‘Like I’d swallowed her.’

He laughs. ‘Swallowed her.’

‘I still have moments when I feel that, when it feels like she’s inside me, and there’s no difference between us or that the difference doesn’t matter.’

He’s listening, bouncing my fingers still. He doesn’t say anything.

‘I think it is all that love. All that love has to go somewhere.’

He gnaws a little on my pinky. He nods slowly. ‘I think she loved me,’ he whispers to my knuckles.

‘She did,’ I say. ‘And still does. Very, very much. And that love will always, always be inside you.’

Time is mercurial when you’re with children. A whole morning making pancakes and playing freeze tag goes by in a minute, whereas waiting for Jasper to tie his shoes or catch up on his bike is endless. They bring me to their favorite playgrounds: the one with the tunnel slide, the one with high swings, the one with the rock-climbing wall. We eat quesadillas at the taqueria on Bow Street and banana cupcakes at the café next door. On the way home we pick up Mrs. Doubtfire at Blockbuster, and I make mac and cheese without a vegetable side and we eat it on the couch, which Oscar doesn’t allow. Jasper crawls into my bed at three that morning and falls asleep quickly this time and I don’t think I will but his breathing and his small hot feet against my shins lull me back. On Sunday it’s the aquarium, the grocery store, baking cookies, and playing cards. For dinner they help me make a lasagna for Oscar’s return. His flight lands at 6:14. We pull the lasagna out at quarter past and stare at it, the cheese still bubbling at the sides. We’re hungry. We play ping-pong in the garage to distract ourselves, but the boys fight about who will play on my side so I cut that short and suggest I read them another chapter of Robinson Crusoe. They settle in on either side of me again. Maybe it’s not too soon. Maybe this is where I belong. I think this might be where I belong.

We’re right at the part where Crusoe finds a human footprint on his island when Oscar opens the door. I’m relieved. I didn’t want to have to explain the cannibals to them. The boys spring from the couch and run to him.

‘You weren’t in the driveway!’ He lifts them up easily, one on each hip.

‘We didn’t see the lights,’ John says.

‘I flashed them.’

Oscar told me once that the only good thing about these trips is flashing his headlights as he pulls in and watching the boys run past the windows and out the door to the driveway, their little bodies bright and glowing against the asphalt. But I have forgotten that. He sees Robinson Crusoe in my hand. ‘You’ve been reading it without me?’

‘We can read it over,’ John says. ‘We didn’t understand it all. We can start where we left off on Thursday.’

Oscar puts them down and takes off his coat and hangs it in the closet. He rests a palm on each of their heads. ‘What else did I miss?’

They shout out our activities and he nods, bent down toward them. He hasn’t looked at me yet.

‘How’d it go?’ I say when I can’t bear it any longer.

He doesn’t look up. ‘Good.’

‘We made lasagna, Papa! A real lasagna.’

The boys drag him to the counter to look.

We set the table with plates John had chosen from a high shelf. Jasper drew designs on the paper napkins. We didn’t have flowers so we made a Lego centerpiece.

‘Can we eat now?’ John asks me.

‘Sure,’ Oscar says.

I sit with them. My body is going haywire. I perch at the edge of my chair. I keep rehearsing words, explanations of why I have to leave, but I don’t say them out loud.

Maybe he met someone in Provo. Maybe he just got some clarity. Maybe the whole weekend, while I was falling in love with his kids, falling in love with this whole life, he was changing his mind.

The boys recount, blow by blow, our two days together. He listens, bent over the lasagna, nodding. None of it pleases him. That’s clear. And they are working so hard to please him, working so hard to be interesting and amusing, to say something he will like. Muriel has said that sometimes she gets to the workshop and he’s just absent. But this is more than absence. This is willful, strategic withdrawal. It seems cruel to inflict it on children.

I get through the meal. I clear the plates. I stand at the sink, my back to the table. I know I should stay, help with the dishes, wait for the boys to go to bed, and talk to him. But I can’t. I have to leave. I go upstairs and put my clothes and toilet kit back in my bag and come down again.

‘You’re leaving?’ Jasper says.

I squat down and give him a hug. I grab John’s arm and pull him in. ‘I had so much fun with you two this weekend.’

‘Bye-bye, poppet,’ Jasper says. It was from Mrs. Doubtfire.

I give Oscar a little wave and turn away.

My bike’s in the garage, and when I wheel it out he’s waiting for me.

‘Where are you going?’ He grabs my handlebars and puts the front wheel between his legs so he’s facing me and very close. ‘Please don’t leave mad. I’m sorry. Whatever I’ve done I’m sorry.’

‘Whatever you’ve done?’

‘Being remote, cold, whatever.’ He says it like it’s an old and tired accusation, like we’ve been here many times before, in this boring cliché of an argument. ‘I get jealous. I always have. When Sonya was dying, I knew everyone wished it were me.’

‘Of course they didn’t.’

‘Of course they did. She was their mother. I was the dispensable one, the jerk who was always trying to get more time alone with his work. But there was this moment toward the end when I was hugging them on this terrible chair in her hospital room and I felt them turn fully toward me, like they knew it was over and it was just the three of us. It was awful and terrifying and heartbreaking, but it was exhilarating, too. I finally had their full attention.’ He reaches out for my hand. I give it to him, and he pulls me in. He slides inside my shirt and puts his finger in my belly button. ‘I like having people’s full attention.’ He kisses me. He circles my bare waist with his hands. ‘So, I had some free time in Provo and I went to the library and happened to read an excellent story in the Kenyon Review.’

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘I wrote that a long time ago.’ I wrote it when my mother was alive.

‘I had no idea you were so good.’ He shakes me.

‘Back in the eighties.’

Inside the house the boys have put the movie on again.

‘We watched Mrs. Doubtfire.’

‘PG-13 Mrs. Doubtfire?’

‘They may have some questions.’

When we stop kissing, he puts my helmet on my head and fastens it under my chin, threading his fingers between my skin and the plastic so it doesn’t pinch me.

‘Give them a hug for me.’

‘You already did.’

‘Give them another.’

He waits for me to explain, but I can’t. I’m not sure what I mean, either.

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