Writers & Lovers (Page 22)
Muriel tells me she gave my number to her sister who has a friend who teaches at a school that has just fired their English teacher.
‘High schools give me the creeps.’
‘It’s a cool place. Something like eighty percent of the students receive financial aid. Not your typical private school. The whole summer off to write.’
I figure I won’t ever hear from them, but the next day I get a call from the head of the English department, Manolo Parker. He asks me to come in for an interview in three days, on the ninth of November, the day before my appointment with the oncologist.
Muriel lends me clothes, makeup, and her car for the interview. That morning I lie in bed feeling my lump. I can’t tell if it’s grown. The interview terrifies me nearly as much as the oncologist. I spend a half hour trying to fix my face, hide the deep gray-blue welts under my eyes with concealer, make my cheeks plump and rosy with blush, my eyes wider and more awake looking with an eye pencil. But my hands shake and the lines are crooked and there’s no disguising all the fear.
I allow time for rush hour, and I need it. Traffic crawls out of the city, light by light. Driving is a luxury I’ve forgotten. There’s heat, for one thing, and a radio. A guy is singing about taking his girlfriend to have an abortion. He calls her a brick that’s drowning him slowly. He says this over and over. I have a moment at a long light when I partially nod off, and when I jerk back awake I think for a few seconds I’m pregnant, and then I realize it’s not me, just the girl in the song, and it’s a relief. I get disproportionately sad for the girl whose asshole ex-boyfriend wrote this song calling her a brick and is making money on those words now. I pass through stone pillars and up a long, wooded drive and park in the faculty parking lot.
There’s a path from this lot up a steep hill to the school. Down below are fields marked out by white lines, goals at each end, and benches along the sides. It could be my high school. There’s a guy on a tractor mowing. It could be my father. I can’t work here. All the smells are the same.
The entrance is all glass, freshly renovated. Manolo meets me at the door.
His handshake is strong, not dialed back for a woman. He leads me down a glimmering hallway.
‘I thought you should see how we start the day,’ he says, holding open the auditorium door for a stream of students and their enormous backpacks. He greets them all by name. ‘Ciao, Stephen. You liking Sula any better today, Marika? Becca, Jep, top of the morning to you.’ They like him and his attentions. Becca points at me. ‘You interviewing today?’ I nod and she gives me a thumbs-up and keeps moving. Manolo leads me a few rows down, and we sit in plush fold-down seats with other teachers. He introduces me to the ones nearby, and a few others turn around and wave. They all seem to know why I’m here.
It’s loud. The whole school is here, seventh through twelfth Manolo tells me. He gives me a quick history of the school: founded by three local suffragettes, all girls until ’72, defunct from ’76 to ’78, rose from the ashes with the help of an anonymous donor whose only stipulation was that admission be need-blind.
The room quiets down. A gaunt woman with straight, gray hair to her shoulders has climbed up the steps to the stage and is standing at a podium in front of the closed curtain.
‘Head of school,’ Manolo whispers to me. ‘Aisha Jain.’
‘What I thought was love in me,’ she says, ‘I find a thousand instances as fear.’ She looks up and around and back down. ‘Of the tree’s shadow winding around the chair, a distant music of frozen birds rattling in the—’
A hand shoots up in the audience, and she stops, points to it. ‘David.’
‘Amiri Baraka, also known as LeRoi Jones. I can’t remember the title.’
Another hand down in front. She nods. ‘Claire.’
‘Good job, both of you. Bon appétit.’
‘They get a free treat at the snack bar for getting it right,’ Manolo tells me.
‘Enjoy your education today,’ she says and walks off the stage and takes a seat off to the side.
Students, lined up on the stairs, come onstage one by one to make announcements: photography field trip, green sneaker found on the roof (a large boy in back lumbers down the aisle to the base of the stage to retrieve it to much cheering), POC meeting after school here in the auditorium, Debate Club in 202, Gay-Straight Alliance in the library. When the announcements are over, the lights go down and the whole school starts screaming and stomping their feet as if we were at Fenway and the Sox had just put it over the wall. The curtain opens on two men with guitars, a woman on drums, and another woman with a sax at the mic.
‘Mama,’ she starts singing, low and slow, over the noise from the audience. It’s ‘Misguided Angel’ by the Cowboy Junkies. A song Paco and I danced to in his kitchen in Central Square.
Manolo leans over. ‘Math department band.’ There’s a makeshift piece of cardboard stuck on the front of the drum set that says: THE COSIGNS.
Next they play ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ and end with ‘Try a Little Tenderness.’ They’re good. And they’re having a blast. The whole school rises in a standing O, and we filter out of the room.
Manolo has a huge smile on his face. Everyone does, including me.
‘Wow,’ I say. ‘What a way to start the day.’
We’re walking more slowly than the rest, who are rushing past us to class.
‘Aisha told me once that the number-one quality she looks for in a candidate when hiring is happiness. I thought it was cheesy when I first heard it, but you can tell. This is a pretty happy place.’
We go back through the glass entrance area and down a wide hallway, bright with sun pouring through a line of high windows. Honestly, I don’t remember windows in my high school. Every memory is cast in dim tube lighting. Was anyone happy there?
Manolo points through an open office door and says that’s Aisha’s office, and we’ll go in there in a bit. I follow him to his office, which he shares with another colleague who’s in class. We chat in the middle of the room in matching chairs that spin before we cross the hall to my interview. He asks me what I read when I was in high school, and I tell him that I was assigned the standard fare of The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, Updike and Cheever stories, tales of boys being disillusioned by humanity, but on the side my mother was supplying me with Wharton and Didion and Morrison. I see a copy of Macbeth on a desk and tell him about this article I read recently about how Lady Macbeth has all the qualities of the tragic hero, but no one teaches it that way. He asks me if I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, which his seniors are reading, and I say I have and he asks me what I thought about it and I say I couldn’t get past the writing to enjoy the story, that he seemed to be alternating between imitating Hemingway and imitating Faulkner. He looks disappointed, then a bell rings and he says he has to get to class. He grabs his book bag and says it was great to meet me and shakes my hand again, just as hard. He shows me to Aisha’s office, and I realize that that was my interview with him. I thought we were just chatting, waiting for the real interview in Aisha’s office to begin.
There’s a receptionist at a desk in a small waiting area. She gets up and shows me in. Up close Aisha isn’t as severe. She smiles easily and takes off her shoes as soon as she sits back down. She folds one leg under her. We’re in green wing chairs near the window.
‘What is amusing you?’
‘Oh.’ I can’t think of anything to say but the truth. ‘I was just thinking about this book that has a wing chair in it.’ I touch the hard green wing by my head.
‘Woodcutters. By Thomas Bernhard.’
‘Austrian. Most of it takes place in this wing chair in Vienna.’
‘The book takes place in a chair?’
‘The narrator has gone to what he calls an artistic dinner at the house of old friends who disillusioned him when he was younger. He hasn’t seen them in thirty years, and he sits in this chair by the door and ruminates about them and their artistic dinners. There are no chapters or paragraphs. It’s just his thoughts, which are punctuated by the phrase ‘as I sat in my wing chair.’ It’s a refrain. ‘As I sat in my wing chair.’ Many times a page. He’s there because a mutual friend committed suicide and they’ve just been to her funeral and it’s really a book about art and becoming an artist and all the ways it ruins people, actually.’
‘How did it ruin her, the friend who committed suicide?’
I like the way she seems truly interested in this fictional world, as if it matters, as if she has all the time for it before she starts grilling me about my teaching background. ‘According to the narrator, she started out as an actress and a dancer, but she met a tapestry artist and married him and channeled all her dreams of artistic greatness and international fame into him, he who would never have pursued it without her driving him on. And she succeeded. As he became more and more renowned, she became more and more miserable, and yet he was actually her work of art, so she kept having to work at it, and eventually she self-destructs. At least that’s what I think it’s about, as I sit in my wing chair.’
She has been smiling the whole time, which makes it hard to stop talking. And talking about characters in books is exciting and soothing to me at the same time.
‘Have you always been such an enthusiastic reader?’
‘Not really. I liked reading, but I was picky about books. I think the enthusiasm came when I started writing. Then I understood how hard it is to re-create in words what you see and feel in your head. That’s what I love about Bernhard in the book. He manages to simulate consciousness, and it’s contagious because while you’re reading it rubs off on you and your mind starts working like that for a while. I love that. That reverberation for me is what is most important about literature. Not themes or symbols or the rest of that crap they teach in high school.’
She laughs hard.
Honestly, I forgot briefly why we were having this conversation.
‘How would you do it differently in your English class?’
I think about this. ‘I would want kids to talk and write about how the book makes them feel, what it reminded them of, if it changed their thoughts about anything. I’d have them keep a journal and have them freewrite after they read each assignment. What did this make you think about? That’s what I’d want to know. I think you could get some really original ideas that way, not the old regurgitated ones like man versus nature. Just shoot me if I ever assign anyone an essay about man versus nature. Questions like that are designed to pull you completely out of the story. Why would you want to pull kids out of the story? You want to push them further in, so they can feel everything the author tried so hard to create for them.’
‘But don’t you think there are larger issues the author is trying to explore?’
‘Yes, but they shouldn’t be given primacy over or even separated from the experience of the story itself. An author is trying to give you an immersive adventure.’ I throw out my hands, and I think this startles her.
She shifts away from me. ‘The only trouble with your pedagogy is that our students have to sit for the SAT and the AP, and they would have to have some familiarity with those literary devices.’
I nod. ‘Of course.’
It’s over, I think in my wing chair.
On my way out I smell lunch. If it had gone better they might have invited me to stay and eat. It smells good. Eggplant Parmesan and cheesecake. I saw it written on the chalkboard outside the cafeteria. I wouldn’t have turned down a free lunch.
Outside three girls are leaning up against the building in wool sweaters, faces to the weak November sun. A copy of A Farewell to Arms is facedown on the flagstones beside one of them. Imagine forcing girls to read about the fake and obsequious and self-immolating Catherine Barkley. ‘There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.’ The only Hemingway I’d ever assign is The Sun Also Rises and only really for that passage when he goes into the church and prays for everybody and himself twice and wishes he felt religious and comes out into the hot sun on the steps of the cathedral with his fingers and thumb still damp and he feels them dry in the sun. I love that part so much.
I walk down the hill to Muriel’s car. But it doesn’t feel good anymore. I miss my bike. I’m not sure I can drive. I feel encased. I roll down all the windows. The driveway is shorter than I remember. I pull out onto the main road. I didn’t know you could blow an interview by feeling too at ease. I didn’t know that was a danger. I didn’t talk about any of the things Muriel coached me on, the curriculum I developed in Spain and the undergrad classes I taught at grad school and then in Albuquerque. Instead I went off on that riff about Bernhard, and I remember as I get on the highway that it’s not ‘in my wing chair’ but ‘in the wing chair.’ ‘As I sat in the wing chair’ is the refrain in Woodcutters, and I am awash in shame for having gotten it wrong. Plus she only hires happy people, so cross me off that list. I think of my conversation with Manolo about All the Pretty Horses, and it’s clear now that he loved the book and I insulted it. I drive on the highway and absorb, one by one, all the ways the morning went wrong. Your pedagogy. She was humoring me. Then I remember the oncologist appointment tomorrow, and maybe none of it will matter because even if I get the job I’ll just be the teacher who has cancer and dies.
I drop the car off at Muriel’s and slip the keys through her mail slot. I have to walk through the Square and back across the river, which is fine. I have nothing but time now. In the Square I stop at Au Bon Pain. I’m hungry, and they have a chicken pesto sandwich for $2.95 that I like and is filling. In line I’m a little out of it. I keep remembering and forgetting the name of the sandwich I’m going to order. Sometimes Tony and Dana get food here, and I worry I’ll see them, but it’s too early. If they’re working lunch today, they’ll still be in the middle of the rush.
‘Hey.’ A tug on my jacket sleeve. A familiar rumble. ‘Casey.’
It’s Silas, in his motorcycle jacket.
Everything in me goes berserk at once. My face flames and my lips quiver, so I stretch them into a wide smile.
‘Hey.’ I give him a belated jerky hug. The jacket creaks and the kiss on the bridge comes back to me and my stomach pitches. He smells like his car. I hold on to him a bit too long.
‘Are you ordering?’ I ask, though I can see he has an Au Bon Pain coffee cup in his hand.
‘No. Well, maybe I’ll get something to eat.’
We stand in line together and I remember my order and he adds a turkey melt and pays for it fast, before I can get my money out of the purse I borrowed from Muriel.
We take our food to a table near the window. I can’t eat. I take two bites and can’t swallow them. When he slides out to get mustard, I spit it all in my napkin.
I shake my head.
‘What’s going on? You look sort of . . . drawn.’
It’s a kind way of putting it.
I tell him I got fired, and he’s so sympathetic about it that I tell him about the lump and the bees and the no sleeping and the revision I can’t write. I tell him about the interview and the math band and how I’d blown it by feeling too comfortable and how bizarre it was that I actually wanted to stay for lunch. I don’t tell him about reading his story because it would mean telling him about being at Oscar’s, but I want to. He is listening so carefully, nodding and fiddling with his coffee cup lid. He hasn’t eaten much of his sandwich, either. He gathers up all our trash and throws it out and when he comes back I assume he’s going to say he has to go, but he sits back down with both hands on the table now, close to mine.
‘Remember when I asked you out then left town? It was because everything felt like it was coming loose and I’d have to get up and walk around the city at two in the morning. I couldn’t stop walking. I felt like if I stopped walking I’d die. All last summer I kept packing my bags and not leaving. Then I met you, and I knew I couldn’t go out with you until I felt more normal. So I finally took off.’
‘I don’t have a Crested Butte.’
‘You have something.’
‘It’s more like an abyss.’
‘Something you need to get to.’
‘Yeah. The rest of my life. It feels like the way is blocked.’
He smiles and takes a breath. ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita—’ he stops and laughs at my expression. ‘My accent is really bad.’
‘It’s atrocious. But go on.’
‘Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura che la diritta via era smarrita. I took a Dante class in college, and we had the choice of reciting five pages in English or one page in bad Italian.’
‘It’s a beautiful first line.’
‘I think of it a lot more than I ever thought I would.’
‘I’ve really lost my cammin.’
‘We all lose our cammin.’
‘It’s so physical. It feels like my body is rejecting me.’
He nods like he really knows what I mean. ‘Have you tried, you know, concentrating on the top of your head then your forehead then—’
‘It just makes it worse. The only thing that helps is clenching.’
I lift up my arm and squeeze my right fist. I count to ten and release it. I raise my left fist and squeeze and he copies me. I release and he releases. We do many muscles this way, arms, stomach, legs, feet. The last thing I show him are the face muscles, squeezing everything tight shut then opening our eyes and mouth wide. We look like crazed demons guarding a temple.
Afterward things feel smoother.
‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘I feel like I’m floating.’
We go outside. There are a few games going on at the chess tables.
‘Hey,’ Silas says, touching my jacket, ‘Let’s play.’
The guy at the last table is alone, waiting for a player. Silas asks him if we can play just ourselves and hands him ten bucks and the guy takes off. Silas lets me have the guy’s seat, which is still warm and faces out to the rest of the courtyard and down Mass. Ave. toward Central Square. He takes the chair opposite. I haven’t played in a long time. My father taught me on a small travel board with a magnetic bottom. We’d play on airplanes. This one is inlaid, black and tan, in the stone table. The pieces are marble, black and ivory.
‘Ok, you’re Adolf Anderssen and I’m Lionel Kieseritzky,’ he says, straightening his knights. ‘It’s London, eighteen fiftyone. Bishop’s Gambit. White opens.’ He points to my pawn above the king and I move it up two squares and he nods. He moves his opposite pawn to face mine directly. ‘I have this book about famous chess matches, and sometimes I play them.’ He looks up at me. ‘My version of clenching. Escaping into someone else’s mind for a little while.’ He taps the pawn above my king’s bishop and I move it up one and he shakes his head and I move it up another, putting it directly and unnecessarily at risk from the only pawn he’s moved.
‘Why would I do that?’
‘It’s a risk.’ He takes my pawn. ‘But I think it gives you more control of the center of the board.’
I don’t see why I have more control, having voluntarily lost a chess piece. He has me move a bishop, then he slides his queen across the board and says, ‘Check.’
‘Damn.’ I move my king to the right, and he nods. ‘Now I can’t castle.’
I get two of his pawns, and he gets my bishop and another pawn. We are reckless, Anderssen and I. When cornered, we go on the offense, sacrificing needlessly.
‘The funny thing about this game—it’s called the Immortal Game—is that they played it on a sofa during a break in a really intense seven-week world tournament. This was just a casual game, a game to relax between matches.’
‘Maybe it’s relaxing for you. But I’m getting crushed.’
He takes my rook, and his queen is poised to get my other rook and then my king. Instead of defending them, he has me move a dinky pawn one square in the middle of the board, threatening no one.
‘Brilliant,’ Silas says. And he takes my other rook with his queen. ‘Check.’
I move my king up a square. It’s all over. He’s got his bishop and his queen after me, and I’ve got no one. But instead of going after my king he brings out a knight from the back row.
I study the board. I see why he feels threatened. I move my knight and take his pawn. ‘Check.’
‘Yes! That’s what he did.’ He slides his king over one.
And then I see it. I see it so clearly. I move my queen forward three squares. ‘Check.’
He takes my queen with his knight. I move my bishop diagonally one. His king is pinned. Either way he goes, one of my knights will get him.
‘Checkmate,’ I yell at him. ‘Checkmate!’
Silas whoops and raises both hands for me slap.
‘How did that happen?’ I look at all the pieces I lost at the side of the table, two pawns, two rooks, a bishop, and a queen. ‘How did he do that?’
‘He didn’t need them. He just had the guts to keep fighting.’
‘I do feel kind of immortal now.’
He laughs. He looks happy and doesn’t try to hide it.
I walk him to his car on Oxford Street. His school has early release on Wednesdays, but he has to tutor a kid at two and he’s late. We walk close, my shoulder brushing against his upper arm like it did on the river that night.
‘When I moved that pawn and you said brilliant, I didn’t get it. But that pawn blocked your queen from coming back and saving you.’
‘Yup,’ he says, but he seems to be thinking of something else, too.
We reach his Le Car. I touch the hole in the passenger door. ‘What happened, on our last date? Why didn’t you kiss me?’ It feels like liquid nitrogen coming out of me.
He’s surprised by the bald question but not resistant to it. Something in his body relaxes. He leans against his car, props his heels against the curb. ‘I felt like something was off that night. There’d been this ease between us, at least I thought so, and it was gone. You seemed sort of out of reach. I was still pretty sick, so I figured maybe it was me.’ He’s watching his shoe scrape the granite edge. ‘I was going to bring it up the next time I saw you, but then I was at Oscar’s and I heard his kid talking about the drawings on the fridge. He said one of them was Casey, his father’s girlfriend. I called you a few times to see if that was true, and when you didn’t call back I figured I had my answer.’ He looks up and it feels like we’re touching.
You know your horse, I hear Dana say.
My body starts clenching involuntarily, and I hope he can’t see this.
‘I get it,’ he says. ‘He’s the full package. Three books, great house, cute kids.’ He kicks the curb. ‘He does have a bum knee, though.’
‘Really?’ I say, though I want to say other things.
‘When he’s been sitting for a while, yeah.’ He pushes himself off the car and bends his legs a little and comes up. ‘My knees are excellent.’ He gets his keys out of his pocket and goes around to the driver’s side and looks over the car’s roof at me. ‘FYI.’ He starts the car and rolls down the windows. ‘Good luck tomorrow.’
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
‘At the doctor’s,’ he says.
He puts it into first. I remember the night when Lou Reed was singing and how horny his hand shifting gears made me.
‘Can we do something sometime?’ I say, desperate at the sound of the revving engine.
‘No.’ He eases the clutch. ‘I can’t get all tangled in your ropes.’
It sounds like something Star of Ashtabula would say.
He lurches into traffic and dips under the bridge, and it takes me a long time to walk away from that spot on Oxford Street.