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Writers & Lovers (Page 23)

The next morning I walk to my appointment at Longwood. It’s not far. I walk slowly and people come from behind and pass me with their coffee cups and their medical thoughts. Others come toward me from the hospitals in rumpled scrubs and drained faces.

I think about that time in high school when I was scared of killing myself in my sleep and I wonder if there is some part of me now that wants to die, wants to hoist the white flag and admit defeat. What if my body is done trying to make things work? What if it doesn’t want what I want? I stop and stare at a strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, the slender trunk of a small bare tree. What if this is all the life I get?

Muriel and Harry are in the waiting room. I don’t know how they knew. I don’t remember telling either of them the name of the doctor. They have me squeeze between them on a fake leather loveseat. The people around us are sick. Hairless heads, oxygen tanks, a caved-in mouth. Muriel picks up a People magazine. There’s an article about Joni Mitchell and her reunion with the daughter she gave up for adoption in Canada in 1965. Muriel and I have been following this story, but Harry barely knows who she is. He’s never heard the song ‘Little Green,’ so we have to explain and sing parts of it for him, the part about icicles and birthday clothes and the part about having a happy ending. Muriel and I work ourselves into some tears about it, and Harry laughs at us.

‘Camila,’ a nurse says in a doorway.

Harry and Muriel are surprised when I stand up.

I sit on the edge of the examining table in the white johnnie with blue squares, ankles crossed, socks on, hands folded, begging for life. I’m aware of not having the strongest case. In the waiting room there was a woman with no eyebrows balancing a toddler on her knees and nursing a tiny baby tucked behind him. My disappearance from this earth won’t make much of a ripple. But I beg anyway.

Two quick raps and the doctor comes in. He’s very tall and very thin, a knife blade of intensity. He moves quickly, washing his hands and drying them as we speak, the knobs of his wrists raised and pointed like spurs. Where is the lump? How long? Is it sore? He lifts my right arm and feels around. He breathes through his sharp nose onto my shoulder.

‘Where is it?’ He’s in a hurry. People are waiting. People are dying.

I find it with my fingers quickly. ‘Here.’

I feel him find it. It’s sore because of how often I prod it. His fingers make a quick circle around it and pull away.

‘That’s a lymph node.’ He’s at the sink again, washing in quick jerks. ‘Regular size. Not much fat on you, so it’s easier to feel.’

‘But I can’t find it on the other side.’

He shrugs. Pulls two paper towels from the dispenser. Rolls them around in his palm and tosses them out. ‘Exit is to the left.’ He yanks open the door and slides through.

Muriel and Harry are startled I’m out so soon. I signal to them across the room and push through the door. Then another door. Down a hallway and more doors. I wait for them outside in the sun. I didn’t know it was sunny. Everything feels so much clearer, like I’ve gotten glasses. Above us is one thick square cloud that looks cut from marble. Traffic whips by.

‘It’s nothing,’ I tell them. ‘It’s normal.’

‘What?’ Muriel is laughing. I am whimpering. Harry is hugging us both, dipping us from side to side. ‘You little sod,’ he says. ‘You scared the daylights out of me.’

Oscar and Silas are on my machine when I get back. ‘Now I have to make all kinds of shapes out of their hair when I shampoo it,’ Oscar says. ‘And it adds an extra forty-five minutes to bath time, which was plenty long enough before. When can I see you?’

‘I’m sure it went okay, but let me know, all right?’ Silas says.

I call Silas back and get his machine. ‘It was nothing.’ I pause, hoping he’ll pick up even though I know he’s at work. ‘I’m fine.’ I hang up and call Caleb.

‘Oh. Oh. Thank the Lord. Thank the Lord.’ He’s imitating a televangelist. ‘Oh Puritan Pilgrim Plymouth Rock miracle!’

‘Praise be!’ I say, laughing, but I feel the truth of it. Praise be.

‘I’m coming back there. I decided that either way I should drive Mom’s car to you.’

‘I thought Ashley needed it.’

Ashley is Phil’s daughter. ‘Ashley is an asshole who can go fuck herself. I’m quoting Phil here. I get along with her fine.’

‘You’re going to drive across the country by yourself?’

‘I need some head-clearing me-time.’

This did not sound like Caleb.

‘Adam said I could stay in his guestroom.’

He’d already run this by Adam? ‘You’re really coming?’

‘I am.’

Four days later he’s at my door.

I haven’t seen him since the funeral. He looks different, taut. Hopped up, my mother might say. He reeks of Cheetos and maybe some Funyuns.

He doesn’t think I look so great, either. ‘You look like a rabid gerbil.’

‘I haven’t slept in so long.’

‘Oh sweetie.’ He hugs me hard. ‘It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.’

It’s so much easier to cry when there are arms around you.

‘Thirty years ago they would have said you were having a nervous breakdown and sent you to McLean’s. Remember Mrs. Wheelock?’

I don’t want to remember Mrs. Wheelock. I don’t want what was happening to me to be called a nervous breakdown, a label from my childhood that scared me even before I knew what it meant.

He asks about my health insurance. I remind him I’ve been fired, and he says I probably have Cobra. I have no idea what he’s talking about. He says I probably have full coverage at least until the end of the month and after that could pay to keep it going for longer. I tell him I’ve had enough doctors’ appointments for the next ten years, but he means for a shrink.

‘You probably have a certain number of visits per year. Maybe you could find someone who would be willing to schedule them all before the end of the month.’

‘A nice rule-breaking shrink.’

I offer him a shower, and he peeks in my bathroom and says he’ll be doing all his personal hygiene at the big house.

‘I brought you something,’ he says.

‘I know you did.’

Out the window is my mother’s car. It isn’t the blue Mustang of my childhood or the white Rabbit of my teens. It’s a black Ford I’ve only been in a few times. I’m relieved by how few memories I have of her in it.

But he reaches into a bag and hands me a round cookie tin.

‘Yum, five-day-old cookies,’ I say. ‘You shouldn’t have.’

‘It’s not cookies.’

I don’t open the tin. I just shake it. Things swish around inside. ‘We did this already. With Gil.’ This friend of his had come with us up Camelback Mountain to the same spot where my mother had spread Javier’s ashes sixteen years earlier, and we tossed into the wind the gray clumps of sand that were supposed to be my mother’s body. I was mad Gil was there. Caleb had let him take a scoop.

‘Not Gil. Giles. That was just half, remember? We agreed the rest should go in the Atlantic.’

I don’t remember. I don’t remember much about those days after she died.

‘I thought we could go up to Horseshoe tomorrow.’ Horseshoe Beach was where she always took us. ‘Adam may take the day off and come.’

I give him a look.

‘It’s not the same,’ he says. ‘He knew her really well. She loved Adam.’

‘Can’t we just do this alone?’

‘I think I need him there.’

‘Be careful, Caleb.’

‘That is not always my strength.’

I tell Caleb about the weekend with the kids and Oscar’s mood when he returned from Provo, but how he’s called me at least once a day since then.

‘Invite him to dinner so I can smell him out,’ he says. ‘I have good instincts.’

‘You have terrible instincts. He’ll just charm your pants off.’

‘Oh, I hope so!’

I smack him and pick up the phone.

We eat at Adam’s. When we arrive, he pours us glasses of wine and we sit on the stools while he stirs a thick risotto on the stove. Adam quickly figures out that Oscar is Oscar Kolton.

He stops stirring. ‘Holy shit. I am a big admirer of your work,’ he says confessionally, as if it should mean more coming from him than from the regular admirer.

Oscar gives him his grateful humility dip of the head.

Caleb raises his glass. ‘To Casey’s armpit, which has brought us all together.’

Oscar is confused.

‘I thought I had a lump. It was nothing,’ I tell him.

I can feel Caleb looking at me.

‘Why did you keep this little liaison a secret?’ Adam asks, making circles with his finger between me and Oscar.

‘It wasn’t a secret. Caleb knew.’

‘Caleb doesn’t read.’

‘I read your letters,’ Caleb says. ‘He writes long, gorgeous letters.’

‘And you never write back.’

‘I call. I’m good with the phone.’ He has a little smile that Adam turns away from.

Adam gives the big pot a few more stirs then plates the risotto. We carry our servings to the table. I take the chair next to Oscar, and he points across the table to the seat next to Adam.

‘Pairs part,’ Oscar says, as if he’s a dowager from another century.

Caleb takes my place and I go around the table and sit next to Adam. Oscar and Caleb start talking. Adam leans over and tells me about some lowball offers on his property. He says I have nothing to worry about yet.

‘Case’—Caleb taps his fork on my plate—‘you haven’t told him our father was a Peeping Tom?’ Our father is a party trick for Caleb. He has a whole routine of anecdotes he trots out.

I shut it down with a look, and he starts grilling Oscar about Thunder Road. Where and when is it set, who is the protagonist, what perspective is it told from? He’s never asked me any of these questions about my novel. I didn’t even know he knew about protagonists or perspective. Adam asks Oscar where he was when it all came to him. As if a whole novel comes to you in one great bolt of lightning instead of years of sustained concentration.

‘I was driving home from a dentist appointment,’ Oscar says. ‘And I saw it all.’

Jesus.

‘Fabulous,’ Adam says. ‘After the dentist no less.’

Oscar shrugs. Go figure. Genius will find you no matter where you are. He tells them about the new one he’s working on and how he’ll never make the deadline on his contract, that it’s going to take much longer than he anticipated.

‘Well,’ I say. ‘I find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.’

They look at me with some alarm. I didn’t mean it to come out with so much anger. I nudge Adam. ‘Remember? Saying that to me? In the driveway?’

He shakes his head. ‘Why would I ever say a thing like that?’

During dessert Oscar gets up to go to the bathroom. He sinks a bit with his first few steps across the room. The bum knee. I never noticed it before.

‘Will you come with us tomorrow?’ Caleb asks him when he comes back.

‘Where to?’

‘We’re going to spread my mother’s ashes,’ I say. It comes out slowly, like my mouth doesn’t want to make the words. ‘At a beach.’

Oscar shakes his head without looking at me. ‘Jasper has T-ball and John has a birthday party, so I can’t swing it.’ He holds up his wineglass. ‘Good Sancerre, Adam. Where’d you come by it?’

When we leave, Caleb gives Oscar a hug and Adam gives him his hand and says they should play some squash. Outside Oscar takes my arm and starts laughing. He’s in a good mood. He won them over. He will always win people over. It will always be the thing he has to do.

He kisses me in the patch of light from the living room windows. ‘I didn’t realize you were the Jasper of your family.’ Kiss. ‘The charming brat.’ Kiss. Kiss. ‘The littlest provocateur.’ All these small pecks interrupted by speech. They keep the flame low.

‘I don’t think we should do this anymore.’

‘Do what?’

‘Go out.’

He laughs and pulls me closer. ‘What are you talking about?’

I don’t normally have to break up with anyone. Usually they do it for me, or I leave the state or the country. I don’t have to spell it out very often.

‘Listen, Case.’ He’s never called me that until halfway through dinner tonight when he started copying Caleb. He steps us out of the window light, not wanting to be seen anymore. ‘I know you’re scared. It’s scary. But I love you and we are good together. I feel so good when I’m with you. God, I like myself when I’m with you.’

‘I’m not sure that’s being in love with me, Oscar. That’s being in love with you.’

‘Is there someone else?’ he says. I can tell he doesn’t think this is a possibility.

‘I think so.’

‘Is it him?’ He gestures toward the window.

‘Adam?’ Then I see that he’s joking.

‘Who is it?’

‘It’s not important who.’

‘It is important. Do I know him?’

‘No.’ But I’m a terrible liar. So I tell him.

‘That kid from my workshop? How old is he, fifteen?’

‘He’s my age.’

‘Your age? He might be your age, but he’s not in the same solar system, Casey. That guy lives on Jupiter.’

I don’t mention that Jupiter is actually in our solar system.

He says a few more insulting things about Silas and Silas’s writing, then he tries to tell me again why we should be together but with less conviction. It’s starting to sink in.

‘Well,’ he says, taking his keys out of his pocket. ‘Maybe I’ll make that deadline after all.’ He gives me one last peck. ‘Probably the youngest lips I’ll ever kiss again.’

I’ve forgotten what gets revealed right after you break up with someone.

‘I doubt that,’ I say.

He chuckles hopefully and walks down the driveway to his car.

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