Writers & Lovers (Page 3)
My mother died six weeks before I went to Red Barn. I called to ask if I could change the dates, if I could come in the fall or next winter. The man who answered gave me his deepest sympathies but told me I’d been offered the longest artist’s residency they had. Eight weeks. April 23 to June 17. The Red Barn calendar, he said, was inalterable.
A long silence spread between us.
‘Are you calling to forfeit your spot?’ he asked.
The last time I’d used the word ‘forfeit’ must have been at recess in fourth grade. If you show your teeth or tongue, you must pay a forfeit.
‘No, I don’t want to forfeit.’
I flew from Bend to Boston and took a bus to Burrillville, Rhode Island. Early spring. New England. I stepped off the bus and smelled my childhood, smelled the thawing earth in our yard and the daffodils at the end of the driveway. I was given a dorm room to sleep in and a cabin to work in, and when I stood on the porch of my cabin the first morning I remembered my mother’s fawn-colored jacket with the white wool cuffs and collar and the smell of her wintergreen Life Savers in the left zip pocket. I heard her say my name, my old name, Camila, that only she called me. I felt the slippery seat in her blue Mustang, cold through my tights.
At Red Barn, my mother was both dead and resurrected.
In the dining room hung a framed letter from Somerset Maugham, who’d been one of the early fellows there.
‘Red Barn is a place out of time,’ he’d written in the letter.
Luke was tall and scrawny, like one of my brother’s goofy friends from middle school. Before he was anything else, he was familiar.
It started the fourth night I was there. One of the fellows was showing her film in the art shed. I’d gotten there too late for a seat and stood in back. Luke came in a few minutes later. Onscreen, a power tool was drilling a screw into a raw egg. In very slow motion.
‘What’d I miss?’ he said in a fake whisper. ‘What’d I miss?’
He slipped in behind me. I’d been seated at his table once for dinner—there was a new seating chart for dinner every night—and passed him in the hallways of the farmhouse a few times. I hadn’t thought much. I wasn’t registering other people well at that point. Nor was I writing. I had eight weeks to devote to my novel, but I couldn’t focus. The cabin I’d been given had a funny smell. My heart beat too fast and under my skin it felt mealy, like an old apple. I wanted to sleep, but I was scared of dreaming. In my dreams my mother was never herself. Something was always off. She was too pale or too bloated or wearing heavy velvet clothing. She was weak, she was failing, she was fading from view. I was often trying to persuade her to stay alive, long soliloquies about what she needed to do differently. I woke up exhausted. Animals rustled outside my window.
When Luke stood behind me, I became animal myself: alert, cautious, curious. More people came in and he was pushed in closer and there were long moments when my shoulder blades rested against his chest. I felt him breathing in and out, felt his breath in my hair. I’m not sure what happened in the movie after the nail went through the egg.
When it was over, I staggered out of the room and onto the porch. It was still light out. The sky was violet, the trees dark blue. The frogs had started up in the pond across the road, louder and louder the closer you listened. I stood against the railing while behind me people creaked into the old rocking chairs and passed out beers and raised their bottles to the filmmaker, who was giggling psychopathically, the way you do when you’ve exposed yourself through art.
Luke came up beside me. We looked out at the fields. The back of his hand brushed up against the back of mine and stayed there.
‘Wanna go somewhere?’ His eyes were washed out, pale as dawn.
We got in his truck and headed for Pawtucket because we saw a sign and liked saying the name, dragging out the ‘Paw’ and clipping off the ‘tucket,’ over and over. Pawwwww-tckt. It was on the border of Massachusetts, where we’d both grown up, an hour apart. He lived in New York now. In Harlem. He asked where I lived.
‘Oh, I have this little cabin in Burrillville, Rhode Island.’
‘I’ve still got seven weeks to come up with a plan.’
‘You could always move in with Duffy,’ he said.
Duffy was six foot six, the director’s grown son, who dropped our sandwiches off on our porches at noontime. He tied love notes around heart-shape rocks and left them in women’s lunch baskets.
There was a gazebo on the town green in Pawtucket. I had a deck of cards in my backpack, and we sat up there cross-legged and played Spit in the dark. It got heated and we shouted at each other and a cop came up the stairs. His flashlight lit up the piles of cards spread out between us, and he chuckled.
He’d never heard of Spit so we showed him how to play, and he said he’d have to teach his grandson. He took care of his grandson on Thursday nights, he told us.
He had a bad hip and moved slowly back to his cruiser.
‘Not much happening in Pawwwwww-tckt,’ I said.
‘Just a small dustup down at the gazebo.’
On the way back to Red Barn we called out all the funny names of Massachusetts towns we could remember.
We spoke in the accent we’d both lost long ago.
He drove with his left hand on the wheel and his right tucked under my arm, his fingers curving slowly around the outline of my breast.
It was strong, whatever was between us, thick, like the wet air and the smell of every green thing ready to bloom. Maybe it was just spring. Maybe that’s all it was. We took our lunch baskets and ate ham sandwiches by the pond near our cabins. We walked into a cluster of cattails, some of their pods new and green and some, maybe left over from fall, long and brown and tall as us. Luke called them bulrushes and yanked me close. We both tasted of mayonnaise. Our heads knocked against the brown pods. The sun felt warm for the first time.
‘You kissed me in the bulrushes,’ I said.
He pointed to a pair of swollen eyes floating just above the water’s surface. ‘While the bullfrogs looked on, misunderstanding everything,’ he said and pulled me down to the ground.
I told him the things that were coming back to me about my mother when I was little: her lemon smell and her gardening gloves with the rubber bumps and her small square toes that cracked when she walked barefoot. Her tortoiseshell headbands that were salty at the tips if you sucked on them.
‘I can feel her. I can feel her right here.’
He kissed where I was touching, just below my collarbone, in that place where all my feelings got caught.
I believed she’d sent him to me, a gift to help me through.
We ran to the lake, swam across it, ran back to the dorm and took a bath together in the tub with the clawed feet and two taps and a rubber plug on a chain. Water sloshed all over the wood floor. We lay damp on his bed laughing, our chests pumping at the same time, knocking together, making us laugh even harder. When I looked at him I hid nothing.
I understood then how guarded I’d been before with men, how little of me I’d let them see.
He was married once, he said. They’d lost a child, he said later. It was a long time ago. He didn’t say more.
I couldn’t sleep beside him. It was too strong. I wanted him too much. It never went away. And I needed sleep to write. I wasn’t getting much done. During the day I mooned at my window, waiting for his steps on my porch.
Pull yourself together and do your work, I could hear my mother chide me. But I was too far gone to listen.
Luke was writing. He wrote five poems that first week, eleven the next.
‘I wrote a poem about bees.’
‘I hate bees.’
‘It just came out of me whole this morning.’ His face was lit up. He lay down on the cot in my cabin. ‘How can you hate bees?’
‘I don’t like the hive concept, the way the drones are crawling all over each other, programmed to serve the queen. I don’t like the gooey larvae or the idea of royal jelly or the way they swarm. It’s one of my biggest fears, being covered in bees.’
He was impressed by my quick list of grievances. ‘But they are also life giving. They impregnate flowers, and they give us our food supply. They work as a collective. Plus they are responsible for the line: “And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” ’
‘What is a glade anyway? Is it a stand of trees or the open space between them?’
‘A glade is a glade.’ He spread his arms out, as if a glade were appearing before us.
‘God, you poets are full of shit. You have no idea what half the words you worship mean.’
He caught my arm. ‘Get your bee-loud glade over here,’ he said, and I slid on top of him.
He wrote eight more bee poems then took me to the Berkshires in his truck to see his friend Matt, who kept hives. It was the first hot day in May, and we stopped for mocha frappes and found a seventies station that played songs like ‘Run Joey Run’ and ‘Wildfire’ and ‘I’m Not in Love.’ We knew all the words and belted them out the open windows. When ‘I’m Not in Love’ came on, with that line about how he keeps her picture ‘upon’ the wall because of a stain that’s lyin’ there, we were laughing too hard to sing along. I peed a little and had to change my underwear at a rest stop, and he called me Betsy Wetsy the rest of the trip.
We arrived in the late afternoon. From what Luke had told me about Matt, I was picturing a guy in a shack with piles of garbage in the back, but he lived in a bright red house with window boxes full of flowers. His wife, Jen, came out first, and she and Luke bear hugged, swaying with exaggeration and affection.
‘Caliope was so angry when I told her you were coming,’ she said. ‘She’s at sleepaway camp for three nights.’
‘A big three-night camp?’ Luke said.
‘It’s an experiment. She said you could sleep in her tree house, which is not an invitation she extends very often.’
Luke nodded and there was a sudden silence, broken by Matt when he came out holding a small boy, who sat erect and vigilant on his father’s arm. I didn’t know many couples. My friends seemed to get married and disappear. Or maybe I disappeared. Nia and Abby had stayed in touch until they had babies. I’d tried to see Abby in Boston before taking a bus to Rhode Island, but she never returned my call. I had the gift I’d bought for the baby in my suitcase at Red Barn. When people have babies they stop calling you back.
We went inside and they fixed us drinks—cranberry juice and seltzer—and the boy, who’d just learned to walk a few weeks ago, staggered around the black-and-white tile floor. When he made his way to me he held up a knitted brown goat with tiny white horns. I squatted down to have a look, and he squeaked in surprise. Instead of backing up he put his face unnaturally close to mine.
‘Well hello, little fellow,’ I said.
I touched the goat’s soft horns: one, two. He did the same. He smelled faintly of poop and Desenex. I was surprised how quickly that word ‘Desenex’ came to me. How did I even know it?
One, two on the horns. Three on his nose.
He opened his mouth—a dark toothless cavern—and after a few seconds a loud cackle came out.
I imitated him—the open mouth, the delay, the laugh—and he took it as an invitation to sit on my lap, which, because I was squatting, had to be created quickly. We dropped down onto the floor at the same time.
Jen shot me a grateful smile. She was talking to Matt and Luke about their plans for creating a neighborhood CSA and protesting against the Starbucks that had bought out the local doughnut shop.
Matt took us out back to see the bees. They didn’t have a yard. They had meadows and woods beyond the meadows. We followed a path that had been cut through the long grass and wildflowers to the white boxes of bees. Matt picked up a can and stuffed it with a burlap cloth and lit the cloth on fire and pumped air into it from a bellows on the side, and smoke started coming out of the nose at the top of the can. He lifted up the lid of a white box and set the smoker nearby then pulled up one of the trays of combs. It was covered in layers and layers of bees, and they clung on as he raised it high, every bee moving on top of other bees. As he continued to hold it up, the whole mass of them began to change shape and sag with gravity, some dribbling off like drops of liquid back into the box. It was revolting. I had to work hard to not imagine a sudden swarm.
Luke was mesmerized. I didn’t understand what the bees meant to him. The grass we were standing in was itchy and I just wanted Matt to lower the lid so I could go back into the kitchen and sit back down on the floor with their squeaky little boy, but we stayed out there a long time, going from box to box, though they were all the same, always a huge churning drooping clump of bees.
Dinner was to be an herb pasta and salad. Jen brought in basil, rosemary, sage, red lettuce, and a bowlful of misshapen tomatoes from their greenhouse. Matt, Luke, and I were put to chopping, and the kitchen smelled like we were still outside. They were the kind of people who were only inside when they had to be. We ate on the back patio at a table that Matt had made from an old door. Luke sat beside me, but not close to me, on a long bench.
The three of them spoke of people they’d known when they all lived in a house on the Cape in their twenties. Matt and Jen had disguised it well when we’d arrived, but I understood now that despite several phone calls over the course of the last month Luke had not told them about me or that I was coming along on this visit. They asked me a few questions, and I kept my answers short. I could tell they weren’t trying to retain the information. I knew that I would remember them and their child and their bright-red house and their boxes of bees and that they wouldn’t recall anything of me. They were kind people doing their best to be welcoming, but they did not want me there and I did not know why.
The baby got passed around. He nursed and reclined in his mother’s arms. He sat for a while upright in his father’s lap, and every time Matt laughed he would look straight up at his father’s chin and laugh, too. Matt passed him to Luke, and they got quiet. They didn’t know if I knew that he’d had a child. Luke held him up to his face, and the boy plucked at his glasses until he noticed me beside Luke and lunged at me with both arms. I caught him and we all laughed and Luke looked relieved.
He got strangely buoyant then and told a story about how when he was four he walked a mile to the penny candy store naked. The police brought him back home. I could tell Matt and Jen had heard the story before but laughed as if they hadn’t.
After another long hour around a fire pit, Luke and I walked in the dark to the treehouse. I wanted to talk about the weirdness of dinner, but once we were alone in the meadow I didn’t care about words. I needed to touch him, press against him and relieve my heaviness, my swollen ache for him. Lightning bugs flashed everywhere, for hundreds of feet in every direction. We kissed hungrily and pulled apart our clothes and pushed hard against each other in the thick spring grass. Everything else vanished into my desire for him.
We lay there a long time afterward, and the lightning bugs came closer and closer and flashed so near we could have touched them.
‘I think for the rest of my life lightning bugs will make me horny,’ I said.
He gave a half laugh, but he was gone somewhere else by then.
There was only one thin mattress and one pillow in the treehouse. He moved the flashlight around the room, and it lit up a box of Legos and a couple of board games and two dolls in chairs having a tea party. Luke got under the blankets and I curled up close, but even his skin felt plastic and closed off.
He reached up to touch the corner of a drawing stuck on the wall with a thumbtack. It was hard to tell what it was, a house or a dog. ‘Our daughters were nearly the same age,’ he said. ‘Caliope is seven weeks older than Charlotte.’
‘How old was she when she—’ I didn’t know if he was a person who said died or passed or was taken. ‘When you lost her.’
‘Four months and twelve days.’
He let me hold him, but he was rigid in my arms all night.
He was gone when I woke up. In the house Jen told me he’d helped Matt move a few of the hives, then gone to the hardware store. Jen left her boy with me while she took a shower. Luke and Matt came back and ate egg sandwiches outside. By the time we got in the car to leave I was shaking with hunger and confusion.
I made him stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts before the highway. We drove an hour after that, barely speaking. Then he said, ‘What if,’ and stopped.
‘What if what?’ I forced myself to ask. I knew it wasn’t a good ‘what if.’
‘It’s not reliable.’
‘All this.’ He waved his hand back and forth over the gearshift. ‘Between us.’
‘Not meaningful. Not good.’
‘I think it’s pretty good,’ I said, playing dumb.
‘What if it’s the Devil?’
It was like something very loud had started blaring in my ears.
By the time we got back to the Barn he had decided we shouldn’t touch each other. It was too confusing, he said. It was too much. It was too unbalanced. There was a disconnect between our souls and our bodies, he said.
I skipped dinner and stayed in my cabin. I lit a fire and stared at it. He found me there. He was inside me before the screen door had stopped shaking.
We lay on the old rug sweating, all the tension and misery of the day washed away. I felt loose and weightless. We looked at the signatures on the wall of all the writers and artists who had stayed in my cabin.
‘They all definitely wrote more in here than I have,’ I said. ‘But I think I’m in the running for the most orgasms.’
Caleb called me on one of the phone cabinets outside the dining room. He said his friend Adam had a place I could rent cheap in Brookline. I said I might move to New York, and I told him everything, even the part about the Devil, which I’d planned to leave out.
‘Stay away from him, Casey. Write your book.’ He sounded like my mother. He never had before.
I wondered if I did, too. ‘Do I sound like Mom to you?’
‘No, you do not sound like Mom. You sound like a fool who is sabotaging an amazing opportunity. Get ahold of yourself.’
I worked on the same chapter the whole time I was there. Two months. Twelve pages. While poetry poured out of Luke. Poems about lightning bugs, bullfrogs, and, finally, a dead child. The one about the bullfrogs he taped to the seat of my banana bike. The one about the dead child he read to me early one morning, then shook in my arms for an hour afterward. I never showed him any of my novel.
His last week there he gave a reading in the library. He was nervous walking over. He gripped the pages and told me they were all for me, about me, because of me. But when he was at the podium and I was in the first row, he never looked at me. When he read a poem about eating a peach on an overturned rowboat, the peach I’d brought, the rowboat where we’d sat together, he said it was for his mother, who loved peaches. He read the poem about the dead child, and everyone wept.
He got a standing ovation, the only one I’d seen there. People leapt to their feet without thinking about it. Women flocked around him afterward, women who’d arrived in my month and women just arriving and discovering him.
On his last night, we took a walk down a road lit blue by the moon. A cow in a field lumbered beside us, the wire fence invisible. We turned down the dirt road to the lake and dropped our clothes in the grass and swam in silence toward the middle. The frogs, which had stopped their singing, resumed full throttle. We came together, cool and rubbery, and we sank as we kissed. We lay on our backs and the moon had a thick milky caul around it. It blotted out all the stars nearby. The water dripped from our raised arms back into the lake. He said we’d have to find a way into each other’s lives. He did not say how.
The next day he got in his truck and rolled down the window. He put his palm flat to his chest. ‘You’re deep in here,’ he said, and drove away.
The number he gave me rang and rang. No person. No machine. I had a week left at Red Barn, and I tried that number from the wooden phone cabinet before every meal. On my last night there I sat next to a painter. She’d arrived a few days before Luke left, and he’d introduced me. He knew her in New York. Her eyes were kind. She passed me the mashed potatoes. She said, ‘You know he’s still married, right?’