Writers & Lovers (Page 24)

We go in Adam’s car to Horseshoe. It’s a dismal day, a shredding wind, the water gunmetal gray and hard as stucco. There’s a photo somewhere of my mother and baby Caleb on this beach. She’s in a bikini, the bottoms big and square and rising up past her bellybutton. But she wasn’t a swimmer and wouldn’t want anything to do with this cold water now.

We walk against the wind on the firm sand to the shoreline. Caleb opens the cookie tin and takes a fistful of the silver rubble inside. The wind is coming too fast off the water for flinging, so he drops the coarse bits into a little wave that creeps up toward our shoes. I don’t allow myself to believe it’s her. I don’t allow myself to believe that my mother’s body—her hair, her smile, the two chords that made the sound of her voice, her heart, her good bum, her moisturized legs, her toes that tinkled when she walked — has been burned down to this rubble in my hand.

Still, I can’t do it. I can’t put these gray bits in water this cold on such a gloomy day.

‘You do half,’ I say to Caleb. ‘I’ll put the rest somewhere else.’

I stand near him while he does it. Adam hangs back behind us. A lone seagull, the only one in the sky, flies low along the beach, close to our heads, then out to sea again, tilting hard left, one wing tipped toward the water, like a plane doing a trick. It rises and levels off then drops down, skims the surface, trailing its feet through the water, then lifts up again, raising itself in great wing-driven pulses, up, up, up, then a long glide and a few flaps then a long glide—up, flap, glide, until it’s somehow no longer there at all.

I look around. I’ve been following the gull down the beach without knowing it. Caleb’s done and leaning against Adam on the dry, white sand.

We were somber in the car on the way up, the cookie tin on Caleb’s lap, but once back in the car, he tosses the remaining ashes from the front to the empty spot beside me in the back, cranks the radio, and starts teasing Adam about his driving.

We stop at the clam shack and eat at the window near the picnic tables that overlook the harbor where I sat with my mother the day she came back from Arizona and tried to explain, again, her year and a half of absence. I just nodded. I wish I had been awful to her that day. I wish I’d thrown my food and screamed vile things at her. I wish she’d dug all my feelings out of me. Maybe I’d be better at saying them now.

But Caleb has other memories. ‘Do you remember coming all the way here after Gus’s wedding?’

‘Yeah,’ Adam says. ‘I remember that guy with the goatee tried to make out with you when I was right there in the back seat.’

Caleb laughs. ‘He did more than that after you fell asleep.’

They’re leaning over a dessert menu, pressing against each other.

‘Can we go back now?’ I say.

Caleb stays for five days. Adam doesn’t go to work. I leave them alone. I drive my new car. I drive to Harry’s and to Muriel’s. I drive to the grocery store three blocks away. I answer ads in the Globe and get an interview at a school in New Hampshire. I drive up there, find the gothic, gloomy school, turn in the half-moon driveway, curve around the lawn and flagpole, pass the parking lot, and drive back home crying and clenching.

Phil leaves messages on my machine that Caleb doesn’t answer.

He has a flight out on Thursday, but he doesn’t get on it. He says Adam has tickets to a play and has asked him to stay.

That night I’m reading in bed, and I hear them come in the driveway and go inside Adam’s house. I don’t like what’s going on. I want to call Mom. She wouldn’t like it, either.

I go back to my book and try not to think of them.

I hear knocking and open my eyes. My light is still on, and my thumb is still inside the book, but I fell asleep. I fell asleep. I don’t even care that I’ve been woken up, because I fell asleep like I used to, for years and years, my thumb in a book.

I unlock the door. Caleb is still in his suit from the theater, but he seems smaller in it. I’ve never seen him look so small before. Nothing is right about his face, either.

‘Can I sleep here tonight, Case?’

He falls onto my bed, and I sit beside him.

‘What happened?’

He shakes his head. He takes a deep breath. ‘We consummated our flirtation.’ And then he curls up and covers his face and a terrible whine comes through his hands. I didn’t know how Caleb cries. I’ve never seen it before. It sounds physically painful for him. I rub his arm. I smooth his hair. The futon shakes beneath me.

‘It’s okay. It’ll be okay. Phil will understand.’ I don’t know if Phil will understand. But I don’t think he’ll be as surprised as Caleb might think.

‘I love him, Case. I think I’ve always, always loved him.’

‘Adam? Gross.’

He whines. ‘He shoved me off of him after.’ He barely gets this out before he lets loose with a wild moan. Oafie starts barking from Adam’s mudroom.

When the long jag is over, I pull his hands off his face. ‘Listen to me. He wanted it. He wanted you. This whole week all he’s done is talk about sex and the people you both fooled around with. He was working you all week. I saw it. He wanted you, then he wanted the satisfaction of pushing you away.’

‘It was so awful. The expression on his face.’

‘He’s never going to allow himself the option of you or any other guy. He’s not that brave. And I don’t think you’re in love with him. You just needed to play out an old attraction.’

He’s lying there with his eyes shut, but he’s listening.

‘Go home. Tell Phil everything. See where it goes from there. Maybe you’ll still want to leave him. Maybe you’ll look at that gorgeous dining room table he made you and you’ll think, “Is there anything sexier than an ophthalmologist who can make me a seven-foot table?” ’

In the morning I drive him to the airport. He flips down the visor and sees the red hollows under his eyes. ‘God, I look worse than you now,’ he says. He looks out the window at the morass of highway construction. ‘I hate Boston. Nothing but pain in Boston.’

At the terminal, he pulls his suitcase out of the back, and we stand close on the sidewalk.

‘You going to be okay?’ he says.

‘Yeah, and so are you. Call me when you get home.’

He nods. We hug each other tight.

I feel like my mother, and I feel like my mother is hugging me.

He walks to the revolving doors. He waves. The doors spin him away.

Caleb left me the name of a doctor who agreed to see me three times before my insurance ran out at the end of the month. His name is Malcolm Sitz, and his office is in Arlington on the third floor of a brick duplex. He can only meet at five thirty in the afternoon. We’ve just lost daylight savings so it’s already dark when I get there.

He’s a slender man with smooth skin and a silver bob. He has a moustache he likes to touch. From my seat, a pilled wool armchair facing his ergonomic recliner, I can look out the window and down into the house behind his small yard. It’s a contemporary house with walls of glass revealing a brightly lit kitchen. A girl of nine or ten is sitting at the table doing her homework.

He asks why I’m here, and I tell him about the buzzing under my skin, the ringing—

‘You have ringing in your ears?’

‘Not actual ringing. It’s like my whole body is a bell, like a huge bell in a tower that’s been struck and—’

He held up his hand. ‘Let’s skip the flowery descriptions. You’re anxious. Why? When’d it start?’

I tell him about Red Barn and Luke and the night I first felt it. I tell him about my mother dying and leaving Barcelona and moving East and Iris and the potting shed and the revisions and rejections and EdFund and all the debt collectors catching up with me. He listens, his fat pen with the jelly grip hovering over a yellow legal pad, but he doesn’t write anything.

‘Anything else?’

I tell him about Oscar. I tell him about Silas.

‘Did you ever hear the one about the donkey who starved to death between two stacks of hay,’ he says.

Fucking, fucking Pilgrims.

Down in the bright kitchen a man is chopping vegetables, and a woman is measuring out rice and water in a pot. The girl is still doing her homework. Her legs are swinging back and forth under her chair.

I start to cry.

Dr. Sitz seems to know exactly what I’m seeing even though he cannot see it from his chair. It almost feels staged. Cue the stable family.

At the start of the second appointment I begin by talking about my parents, and after a few minutes he waves his hand at me.

‘I don’t want to hear those old soggy stories. Tell me what you were thinking about on the way over here.’

I tell him I was thinking about all the people I’ve pitied and scorned for ‘selling out’ or ‘settling’ and how none of them are alone or broke or driving to a shrink’s office in Arlington.

‘You’re a gambler. You gambled. You bet the farm.’ ‘On this novel? That was a bad bet. I can’t even finish it.’

‘Not on the novel. Your success or failure is not based on what happens with that pile of papers. On yourself. On your fantasies. So what do you want now, at age thirty-one?’

‘I want to finish the book.’

He nods.

‘And start another one.’

He laughs. ‘You’re a very high roller.’

‘So what are you scared of?’ he asks me at our last appointment. ‘I mean really scared of.’

I try to think about it. ‘I’m scared that if I can’t even handle this right now, how will I be able to handle bigger things in the future?’

He nods. He scrapes his moustache against his thumbs. ‘Bigger things in the future. What’s bigger than this? Your mother dies suddenly. It echoes her previous abandonment of you thus making her death a double whammy. Your father proved to be incapable of being your father. You owe money to several large corporations who will squeeze you indefinitely. You spent six years writing a novel that may or may not get published. You got fired from your job. You say you want a family of your own but there doesn’t seem to be a man in your life, and you may have fertility problems. I don’t know, my friend. This is not nothing.’

Of all his strange responses, this is the one that helps me the most. This is not nothing.

Manolo calls and offers me the job. Two sections of ninth grade, two sections of juniors, and a creative writing elective starting next semester. Full-time salary, Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance. No more Pilgrims.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand?’

‘The interview with Aisha didn’t go well.’

He laughs. ‘Trust me. It went very well. She wouldn’t hear of anyone else after you came in.’

He asks me to come in that afternoon to fill out some paperwork and pick up the books I’ll be teaching, the school handbook, and the English department curriculum. He asks if I can start the next Monday.

‘Also, I don’t know if you saw the posters but we’re hosting a writing festival in two weeks. Would you be willing to make some introductory remarks? You’re the one in the department who can speak to a real commitment to the writing life. Aisha liked whatever it was you said about that.’

What had I said about that?

‘Sure,’ I say. ‘I can say something.’

There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose. I feel all that as I hold the phone and listen to Manolo talk about W-4s and the study hall schedule and my mailbox combination and faculty parking. For a moment all my bees have turned to honey.