Writers & Lovers (Page 25)
I have a week to finish the revision for Jennifer and prep for my classes.
I get out my manuscript and start reading. I take notes. A few things she said come back, but when I push to remember more, I can’t. I start the rewrite anyway. I look up and it’s dark. I look up again and it’s past midnight.
I work like that for five days and nights. I eat spaghetti with red sauce and apples with peanut butter. I don’t even go out for a run. When people skulk around my window with the realtor I pull down the shade. I luxuriate in the time, the endless time. No doubles, no shifts at all. The Iris smell is gone permanently from my hair. My body still zings. But it isn’t all bad zinging. Some of it is good energy. Some of it is a strange excitement.
On Friday afternoon I stand in line at the post office.
‘Still at it,’ she says, punching in the numbers.
‘Well, can’t shoot you for trying.’
Over the weekend I reread Siddhartha and Their Eyes Were Watching God and make lesson plans. Muriel and I go to a consignment shop in Davis Square. If I had gone alone I would have found nothing, but she sets me up in a dressing room and brings me treasures: a gray cashmere sweater with buttons down the back, a knee-length suede skirt, black boots with a bright red zipper.
On Monday morning I wake up at five. I need to establish a routine right from the start: an hour and a half of writing every day before work. I sit at my desk and collect my notes—on dupes from Iris, in the backs of a few books, in a small pad I keep in my knapsack—about an idea I have for something new. At the back of a new notebook I make a rough timeline of what I have so far. I turn to the front of the notebook. I already know the first line.
My first class is juniors. They come in and slough off their heavy backpacks with a thud. I try to say hi to each one as they come in, as if it is normal for me to be teaching a high school class. I haven’t been around this age since I was this age. Just looking at their faces—the zitty one, the shiny one, the worried one, the pissed-off one—makes me grateful I’m not back there still. Before they came in, I was nervous, but now that I see them I just want to help them get through the day. I learn their names quickly—it’s a lot easier than memorizing apps and entrées for a six-top—and ask them to catch me up on their semester so far, what they liked and what they didn’t. I realize I’m sitting up on the left corner of the desk just like Mr. Tuck used to, and even though I’m still mad at him, I’m channeling him right now.
They’re halfway through Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I go back closer to the beginning and read them several pages out loud and end on the part about Nanny on her knees in the shack, praying about her mistakes. Afterward I ask them to write about a time they felt like that. They open their notebooks slowly. They’re wary, like when you try to feed a squirrel.
I call Muriel from my office on my free period. I spin in my chair and tell her about the beautiful paragraph a junior named Evelyn wrote about her little sister being born and all the compliments I’d gotten on the boots. Two teachers walk by talking about the New Deal. It’s lasagna for lunch and the smell travels the hallways.
After we hang up I feel good enough to imagine calling Silas at Trevor Hills where he works—I imagine him on break, too, in his office—but my heartbeat picks up and I need to be calm for my next class.
High school classes are short and fly by. I never get through half my lesson plan. After months of talking about lamb shank and lemon rind reductions, it’s a relief to talk about books.
At the end of each day that week I remember my own novel but with more curiosity and less panic. I wonder if Jennifer is reading it. I decide not to worry about not hearing from her until next month.
But she is on my machine when I get home from school Thursday afternoon. It’s a brief message, and she is talking very quickly. I have to play it a few times. The revision did the trick, she says. She’s going out with it.
I call Muriel and play it for her to make sure she is saying what I think she is saying.
Saturday night I meet her, Christian, Harry, and James at a Thai place in the Square. Muriel draws a picture of my book in hardcover on a napkin and has us all pile our hands on top of it.
‘On the count of three we are going to raise our hands high and let out a barbaric yawp.’
Everyone has their own version of what a barbaric yawp is, but our collective yawp is loud and the management comes over. Muriel shows him the napkin drawing and points to me and explains, and he comes back with a yellow cloth.
‘Yellow is our very lucky color in Thailand,’ he says.
We lift our plates and he spreads it out. I don’t think I ever did anything so kind for a customer at Iris.
Harry makes a toast and our glasses clink and it feels separate from me, the book, momentarily, like it’s on its own path.
The next week of school is shorter—only four days of teaching then the writing festival on Friday.
Monday, washing my hands in the faculty bathroom, I’m smiling. I don’t even know why. The gray bruises under my eyes are fading. My face is filling out. The food at the school is as good as it smells, and I eat a lot of it. It’s already a joke with my ninth graders, how much food I put on my tray at lunch.
Wednesday Jennifer calls in the late afternoon. I’m home from school, making some notes for the speech I have to give at the festival. She gives me names of the publishing houses she sent my book to. I write them all down, these names from the spines of the books I’ve been reading all my life. It doesn’t seem real that my novel has actually been delivered (by messenger, she tells me) to editors at these offices. My pulse is hammering and I worry that it won’t slow, but it does, like a normal heart.
‘I’ll check in with you when I hear something.’
I give her the number at school, and we hang up. Oafie has gotten out and is scratching at my door. I let him in.
‘That was my agent,’ I tell him. He sniffs under my desk and steps onto my futon, makes a few rotations on my comforter, and sinks down. I stroke his head. He has a new blue collar with pink letters on it. Ophelia, it says.
‘Ophelia?’ I say aloud and the dog lifts his head. Her head. Ophie. ‘All this time you’ve been a girl?’ She lays her big head back down on my thigh.
When I get to school on Friday, Manolo is out front waiting to greet the three visiting writers. I wait with him.
He looks down at the folded pages in my hand. ‘Nervous?’ he says.
‘I think you hired me just so you didn’t have to make this speech.’
The writers arrive all together in a beat-up Volkswagen. I recognize a great black cape coming up the path.
He envelops me in his cape for a hug. It smells like Iris — garlic and Pernod. I introduce him to Manolo, and Victor introduces us to the other two, a young man with a shaved head and packed arm muscles and a woman in her fifties with an Irish accent. We bring them inside to Aisha and all go to the library where there is coffee and pastries and a place for their coats, though the muscular playwright is only wearing a black T-shirt and Victor Silva has no plans to remove his cape.
The students start arriving, not just ours but buses from other schools. This is another thing I haven’t understood: students from five other schools have been invited. They swarm in and are directed to the gymnasium. When I get there with the writers, the bleachers are full, and the overflow of kids are sitting cross-legged on the basketball court in a wide ring around the podium in the middle. We have to step through them to get to it. The writers sit in the chairs beside the podium, and Manolo steps up to the mic and welcomes everyone. He introduces each writer with brief summaries of their careers. Victor Silva, it turns out, has published four books of poetry and a collection of personal essays. How did I not know this?
‘I’m going to turn it over now to the newest addition to our English department,’ he says and gives me an introduction, too. Somehow he has taken the information from my resume and made it sound good, my paltry publications and grad school prize.
There’s a bit of clapping, and I walk up to the podium. I see a few clusters of students I teach and many others I don’t know. Their faces are lifted up at me. I think of Holden Caulfield, wanting to catch children before they fall off the cliff, and I get it now. I take a long breath. A kid from eleventh grade gives a little whoop.
‘Thank you, Brad,’ I say into the mic. ‘Your grade just went way up.’
There are so many more people than I had imagined. But it can’t be that much harder than reciting the specials to an impatient ten-top at Iris. Plus, I want to tell these kids the things I’ve written down. My lips tremble and my voice hops around a bit, but I get it out.
I tell them the truth. I tell them I am thirty-one years old and seventy-three thousand dollars in debt. I tell them that since college I’ve moved eleven times, had seventeen jobs and several relationships that didn’t work out. I’ve been estranged from my father since twelfth grade, and earlier this year my mother died. My only sibling lives three thousand miles away. What I have had for the past six years, what has been constant and steady in my life is the novel I’ve been writing. This has been my home, the place I could always retreat to. The place I could sometimes even feel powerful, I tell them. The place where I am most myself. Maybe some of you, I tell them, have found this place already. Maybe some of you will find it years from now. My hope is that some of you will find it for the first time today by writing.
It’s disorienting, walking back to my seat. The room is loud with clapping. People are looking at me. And when I sit, the girl next to me says that was cool, and Manolo is still clapping at me from the podium. He repeats the workshop topics and the rooms they are in. He points to the table where there are extra program schedules and tells everyone to have an inspired day.
I go to Victor Silva’s workshop. It’s full of the students who are not put off by a waxed mustache and a black cape. He has us draw a floor plan of the first place we ever remember living. ‘The rooms, the closets, the hallway,’ he says as he draws one himself on the blackboard. He turns back to us and says, ‘Now add the significant details: the couch, the bourbon bottle, the slot between the wall and the fridge.’ He laughs. ‘You see? I’ve already told you my whole childhood in three details.’ He jogs to the left and writes in block letters:
NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS.
‘William Carlos Williams. Live by that, I tell you.’
Once we have our details—our white-hot places of experience he calls them—we have to choose one and write about it. ‘Not in sentences but in bursts of feelings—phrases, words, don’t worry how they relate just get them out. You are vomiting here.’
I circle my mother’s bathroom and start writing about it—the greasy face lotion, the dry shampoo spray, the heavy razor, the amber bottle of Chanel No. 5—and all the things that became mine the day she left.
‘Casey.’ The school’s receptionist, Lucille, is squatting beside my chair. ‘I’m sorry. She said it was urgent.’ She hands me a blue Post-it. ‘Jennifer,’ it says. ‘Line 2.’ I follow her out of the classroom to the office.
She shows me into the development office, which is glassed-in like Aisha’s but cluttered with stacks of brochures. I pick up the phone.
‘So Amy Drummond has offered thirty North American.’ Someone else has offered twenty, and someone else has come in-between with twenty-five for world. She goes on to mention other editors and subsidiary rights, but I’m still stuck back on her first sentence. And the word ‘offered.’
‘I’ve let the other houses know we’re receiving offers. Some of them had blown it off, and now they’re speed-reading.’ She guffaws. She is giddy, in her own way. ‘You there? Your book is going to be bound and sold, Camila. We’re in an auction. Start practicing your signature.’
‘Everything okay?’ Lucille says when I came out.
‘Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much.’ I love her and I love that office and I love that phone.
I float like a balloon back to the classroom. Everyone is writing. I mouth an apology to Victor Silva who raises his middle finger very slightly at me from his desk in front. I return to my mother’s bathroom, the Pantene shampoo, the green velour bathrobe she left behind and that I wore until my father told me not to.
Victor asks us to find the moments of heat in the writing we have done, has us circle and isolate those words, and with them we write a poem. We read them out loud. There’s one about an ashtray, a sequined dress, flour on a kitchen floor. Victor says something about each one. The feeling in the room is beautiful, wide open.
The hallway is crowded when we change to the next session. The boy ahead of me has on a green-and-white athletic jacket. TREVOR HILLS it says across his back.
In the workshop with the Irish essayist, I sit next to our librarian.
‘Trevor Hills? Are they here?’
‘With their teachers?’
‘Usually one or two come along from each school.’
My heart is pounding Silas, Silas, Silas.
The Irish essayist has us close our eyes and listen to the words she says without trying to control our thoughts.
I keep mine open a crack, to scan the packed room. He’s not here.
‘A rainy day,’ she says.
My mother and me running from the Mustang to the house.
‘The sound of a musical instrument.’
Caleb playing the guitar.
‘An act of love.’
My father cleaning my golf clubs in the kitchen sink.
She has us write about one of these moments that come up unbidden, unforced. I’m writing about the golf clubs when Lucille taps me on the shoulder.
‘Line 1’ it says on her blue Post-it.
On the way back to the office I find out she’s worked here fourteen years and her son is in my ninth-grade class.
Jennifer tells me about a new round of offers. ‘Let me ask you,’ she says. ‘Is there a line you want to cross? A number you need to get to? You mentioned you have some outstanding student loans.’ Did I? ‘Give me your wildest dream number.’
There is a calculator on the desk. I punch in a year’s rent for that top-floor apartment with the window seat and bookshelves and add my debt. I tell her the number. We are not even close.
I head back to the essay class, but the halls are packed and it’s over. The one I want to go to next is on the second floor. The stairwell is jammed, and I move up slowly.
‘I guess you didn’t bomb the interview after all.’
I look up. Silas is on the landing in a tie. People are pushing past us. I climb a few steps closer.
‘They’ll come to their senses soon,’ I say.
‘I liked what you said this morning,’ he says. ‘About writing. Good for them to hear those things.’
His fingers are on the railing a few inches above mine. My legs start to wobble. ‘Do you want to eat lunch with me?’ I say.
He looks like he’s going to say no. ‘I don’t have a lot of friends yet.’
He grimaces. ‘All right.’
‘I’ll wait for you at the big doors.’
He nods and drops past me.
Lunch is back in the gym, bag lunches at round tables. The room is thundering with talk. I stand in the doorway as kids stream past, waiting for Silas. But it’s Lucille who comes first.
‘I told her you were probably at lunch, but she said it was urgent.’
She’s irked, understandably, so I explain about the book and the agent on the way back to the office, and she gives me a hug and hurries me to the phone.
Three editors are still in the auction. Jennifer thinks I should talk to them. I try to tell her I’ll be free in an hour, but she says they’re in their offices now. They’ve canceled their lunch plans to talk to me.
I hang up and Lucille is through the glass, asking me with her arms what happened. ‘I have to talk to editors!’
She does a dance in her office chair, and I do one in mine.
I call each of them. I talk to the last one a long time. She has read it so carefully and has a good idea about adding a small bridge between the first and second parts. Like the ‘Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse, I say, and she says that’s what she was thinking of. It’s exhilarating, this conversation. But I miss lunch. I miss Silas.
The last session of the day has already begun. I peek in a few classrooms, but I can’t find him. In the muscular playwright’s class, they are already writing. He sees me and points to a chair down front and I have to take it.
‘Write down your biggest fear,’ he says quietly and hands me a slip of paper. On the other side of the room a student is already starting to collect the folded slips of paper in a wool hat.
We’re in one of the bigger classrooms with tall windows. On the sills there are a few books: Sula, Jane Eyre, The House on Mango Street. I have never let myself imagine my own book being published. When I was a kid I used to expect to win tournaments and often did, but I stopped having expectations about achieving anything long ago.
The wool hat comes closer. I hold my pencil over the blank strip of paper. The wool hat is in front of me. ‘I have no fears today,’ I scribble, fold it up and drop it in. I’m stunned by the truth of it.
The student hands the hat to the playwright, and he cinches the opening and shakes it up and down. I try to think how I can leave the room to find Silas. But I’m up front, and the playwright is only a few feet away, blocking my exit.
‘All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear. If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world. Fear holds us back every step of the way. A lot of studies say that despite all our fears in this country—death, war, guns, illness—our biggest fear is public speaking. What I am doing right now. And when people are asked to identify which kind of public speaking they are most afraid of, they check the improvisation box. So improvisation is the number-one fear in America. Forget a nuclear winter or an eight point nine earthquake or another Hitler. It’s improv. Which is funny, because aren’t we just improvising all day long? Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation? What are we so scared of?’
No. I will not be doing any improv. I put my pencil back in my bag and shift closer to the edge of my seat. As soon as he moves away I’ll escape.
‘You,’ he points to a girl two rows behind me. ‘You,’ he points to the boy at the end of my row. ‘And you.’ He points to me. ‘Stand up.’
He holds out the hat to the boy. ‘Pick a fear, any fear.’
The boy picks.
‘Show it to your partners, but do not say it out loud.’
He holds out the piece of paper, and we read: ‘I am scared of the blue giraffe.’
‘Okay,’ he says to the boy, ‘you possess this fear. It is overwhelming and relentless. And you,’ he says to the girl, ‘need to talk him out of it. In whatever way you can.’ He turns to me. ‘And you’—I have a bad feeling about this—‘are the fear itself. Start now.’
They both look at me. The blue giraffe. I stand up straighter and pull my shoulders down and start gnashing my jaw and ripping leaves off trees with sideways jerks of my head. I keep doing this as I get closer to the boy.
‘Talk to him,’ the playwright tells the girl.
‘You know this isn’t real,’ she says to the boy. ‘This is just something you made up a long time ago when you were a little boy and scared that night your parents were fighting, but she doesn’t exist and she’s not going to hurt you.’ She is good. But the more she tells him I don’t exist the more real I feel. The boy moves away from me, and I follow him to the blackboard, around the desk, and back closer to our seats. I stand up on my chair and bend over him and start making a loud and terrible sound, a combination of my father’s snoring and Clark’s awful heavy metal singing. The girl keeps talking, and I start howling as loud as I can to stop him from hearing her, tilting my long neck back to get the loudest sound and thrashing my head and people are laughing and also a little scared of me and I am scared of nothing.
In the hallway after the bell rings, you can tell who’s been in improv for an hour and a half. Our bodies are looser, and everything is funny. We’re all moving in the same direction: to the front doors where the buses are idling in the circle. Lucille appears beside me with a Post-it.
‘We crossed the line.’
I hug her hard and feel her laughing. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
Then I burrow into the crowd to find Silas.
Outside I spot three Trevor Hills jackets getting onto one bus. Through the tinted window I can see a figure standing with a clipboard counting boys. Not Silas.
Victor Silva swoops over. ‘I have something for you.’ He hands me two tickets. David Byrne at the Strand in Providence, Rhode Island. ‘Mary Hand gave me a bunch of them.’
‘You were fantastic today,’ I say.
‘I liked that line about your mother’s outline in the bathtub.’
‘See you in Rhode Island.’
The buses pull away. The circle empties. But down in the faculty parking lot something bright shimmers. Just a little green. A little green Le Car.
I run down the hill. His back is to me. I flail my arms. I howl his name. I am a fearless blue giraffe.
He turns and I am beside him. Despite my new long neck, he is still taller. And lovely, in his white shirt and loosened tie.
But he is withholding the chipped tooth.
‘I’m so sorry I missed lunch, Silas.’
He holds up his hand. ‘It’s fine. I know how it goes with you.’
‘No. No!’ I holler. ‘It doesn’t go like that with me! I wanted to have lunch with you. I did. So much. I needed to tell you things.’ My voice breaks. I swallow. I have to get it out. ‘First of all, your story about Star and the tree is very beautiful. I stole it from Oscar’s house, and I read it before bed most nights. I got my heart broken last spring, and I was scared of it happening again. I liked you so much, but you were risky. Oscar had this big hole that I thought maybe I could fill, but I kept thinking about kissing you. My whole body would go zing-zing-zing’—my hands run up and down my sides spastically—‘every time I thought about it. I broke up with him and I wanted to tell you that at lunch but I had to talk to these editors because we’re in an auction and we just crossed the line.’ I hold up the Post-it and start to cry. I start to sob, like a fearless blue giraffe.
He takes the Post-it. ‘Your book?’
‘Casey.’ I feel his hand on my hair. I step closer to him. Slowly his arms pull me in. ‘I’m so happy for you.’ He squeezes more sobbing out of me. He doesn’t let go.
‘Will you come see David Byrne with me?’
He laughs. ‘David Byrne?’ He pulls back to look at me. The beautiful sliced tooth.
I show him the tickets crushed in my hand.
‘Sure.’ He’s so close and not moving away. He unsticks some of my hair from my cheek and bends down to whisper, ‘I think your boss is coming down the hill.’
‘It’s okay.’ His face is still close. ‘I’ll just be the new teacher making out in the parking lot.’
And I kiss him. A long uninterrupted kiss that goes straight through my body, ringing it in the very best way.