Writers & Lovers (Page 5)

I have one writer friend left who’s still writing. Muriel’s been working on a novel set during World War II for as long as I’ve known her. We met here in Cambridge six years ago, in line for the bathroom at the Plough and Stars, and hung out for a while before we both moved away for grad school. We crossed paths once at Bread Loaf, but I would never have known she was back here if I hadn’t overheard one of my customers at Iris talking about her niece Muriel, who was writing a book set in a Jewish internment camp in Oswego, New York. I was refilling their waters and said, Muriel Becker? I got her number from her aunt.

The day after Walden, Muriel takes me to a launch party of a writer she knows. I ride to her place in Porter Square, and we walk up Avon Hill. The houses get fancier the higher we climb, grand Victorians with wide front porches and turrets.

‘I’m spatchcocking my novel,’ she says.

I have no idea what she’s talking about. I often don’t.

‘It’s what my grandmother did to a chicken when she wanted it to roast faster. Basically you cut out the backbone and sort of compress all the pieces in a pan.’ She’s had a good writing day. I can tell by the way her long arms are flying all around. I have not. I’ve been stuck on the same scene for a week. I can’t get my characters down the stairs.

I’ve already told her on the phone about Luke’s visit, but we have to go over it again. I have to reenact on the sidewalk the way he bit my knee. I have to say in a lugubrious voice, ‘I’m just moving so slowly.’ I have to holler the word ‘gristle’ up the street. But my chest is still burning.

‘I’m usually better at protecting myself from this kind of thing.’

‘From heartbreak?’

‘Yeah.’ My throat is closing. ‘I can usually get out of the way before it hits me straight on.’

‘That’s not really heartbreak then, is it?’

The road and the houses with their big backyards grow blurry. ‘He just blasted me apart. I don’t even know where to find the bolts and screws. I always thought that if ever there came a time when I didn’t hold anything back and just laid my heart on the table—’ I have to squeak out the rest. ‘Which I did. I did that this time. And it still wasn’t enough.’

She wraps an arm around me and pulls me in tight. ‘I know how you feel. You know I do. It’s good to get whacked open at least once, though,’ she says. ‘You can’t really love from inside a big thick shell.’

She turns onto a small lane lined with cars. The party is at the end on the left, a massive house: bow windows, three stories, mansard roof. The doorway is jammed. We stand on the threshold, unable to enter. The other guests are mostly older by twenty or thirty years, the women in stockings and heels, the men in sports jackets. The air smells like a cocktail party from the seventies, aftershave and martini onions.

The party is for a writer who leads a fiction workshop at his house near the Square on Wednesday nights. Muriel’s been urging me to join it, but the idea of showing anyone any part of my novel is too painful to consider right now. I can’t look back at it. I have to keep moving forward. She insists I won’t have to show my work, that I can just check out the scene there, meet some other people who don’t make you feel crazy for all your life choices. The writer had been a professor at BU until three years ago when his wife died, and he left teaching to write full-time and be home for his kids. But he’d missed teaching and started the workshop. He doesn’t teach exactly, Muriel says. He has people read their work aloud, but he rarely speaks when they’re done. They’ve come to understand that if he likes what he’s hearing, his hands will move to his knees. And if he doesn’t, his arms remain crossed over his chest. And if he really loves it, his fingers will be laced together in his lap by the end.

Muriel brought me to two other literary events earlier this summer: a reading in someone’s basement apartment almost as small as the potting shed during which people read out of notebooks in the dark in quavering voices, and the release of a poetry chapbook called Shit and Fuck at a convenience store in Central Square. So this is definitely a step up. We inch our way through the vestibule into a living room, which is slightly less jammed. It’s a big room, with floral sofas and end tables, furniture with brass-handled drawers, and large oil paintings, contemporary, abstract, the paint balled like nubs on an old sweater.

Muriel grabs my arm and pulls me through an archway into a smaller room lined with books. There’s a guy alone in there, looking at the shelves.

‘Hey there,’ she says, and I can tell she barely knows him because of the pause before they hug. Usually Muriel mauls people. ‘Our newest workshop victim.’

‘Silas,’ he says to me. He’s tall and bent like he’s loping, even though he’s standing still.

‘Casey.’ I put out my hand.

He shifts a book from one hand to the other to shake it. His eyes are dark brown and hooded.

Muriel points to the book. ‘You got a copy already?’

‘I kinda had to. I was one of the first to arrive and he was sitting at the dining room table with a huge stack of books next to him.’ He shows it to us. ‘He didn’t know who I was. From last week. I said my name, but he didn’t get it quite right.’ He flips to the title page.

Carry on, Alice, it says above the signature.

We laugh.

Two women are waving from the far side of the other room, trying to squeeze their way toward us. Muriel sees them and presses back into the crowd to meet them halfway.

I take the book from Silas’s hand. My calves tingle like they do when I’m in a bookstore or stationery shop. It’s a beautiful cover, abstract, navy blue with ivory streaks of light. The paper is rough, old-fashioned, like heavy typewriter paper. Thunder Road it’s called. By Oscar Kolton. I haven’t read him. Paco had one of his books I think, and I didn’t much like the writers Paco did, men who wrote tender, poetic sentences that tried to hide the narcissism and misogyny of their stories.

I hold the book and imagine I’ve written it, imagine I’m holding my own book.

‘You think he knows the title’s already been used?’ I say, hoping Silas hasn’t seen my hunger.

‘Maybe you should go tell him.’

‘Set it to music, dude,’ I pretend to call toward the dining room. ‘It’ll be a hit.’

We read the blurb on the front: ‘Kolton has always delivered truth and beauty in spades, but here he gives us glimpses of the sublime.’

‘I wouldn’t mind a few glimpses of the sublime,’ Silas says.

I flip to the back flap to see what Oscar Kolton looks like. Silas studies the photo with me. It was taken from the side, one of his shoulders in the foreground, elbow to knee, bicep flexed. He’s bearing down on the lens with a menacing look. The contrast between black and white is so extreme his face looks carved out like an Ansel Adams rock face and the backlighting has turned his pupils to pinpricks.

‘Why do men always want to look like that in their author photos?’

‘My deep thoughts hurt me,’ Silas says in a scratchy voice.

‘Exactly. Or’—I try to mimic him—‘I might have to murder you if you don’t read this.’

He laughs.

‘Whereas with women’—I take a book off the shelf by a writer I admire—‘they have to be pleasing.’ The photo backs up my argument perfectly. She has a big apologetic smile on her face. I bounce the photo in front of Silas. ‘Please like me. Even though I’m an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person.’

We pull a few more from the bookcase, and they all support my gender theory.

‘So how would you pose?’ Silas says.

I sneer and flip him two birds.

He laughs again. He has a chipped front tooth, a clean diagonal cut off one corner.

Muriel is bringing her friends toward us.

‘Did you read last Wednesday, to the group?’ I say.

‘I did.’

‘What’d he do with his hands?’

‘It was bad I think. Behind his back.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘No one could tell me. They hadn’t seen it before.’ He flashes his tooth again. He doesn’t seem to care much about Oscar’s verdict. ‘So what are you working on?’

‘I’m a waitress.’

He squints. ‘What are you writing?’

‘A novel.’


‘I’ve been working on it for six years and still don’t have a full draft or a title. So maybe not so impressive. Are you going back next week?’

‘I don’t know. It might be too religious for me. A lot of verbal genuflecting.’

‘Really?’ Muriel hasn’t depicted it this way.

Silas hesitates. ‘It’s not really a free and open exchange of ideas. People just take down everything he says.’ He hunches over and pretends to scribble in a tiny notebook. ‘And, like, it was this small thing, but at one point he said that every line of dialogue had to have at least two ulterior motives, and I said what if the character just wants to know what time it is. People gasped. And then silence. I like a little more debate. Or maybe I just don’t like a lot of rules.’

Muriel and her friends are hovering behind him. Silas shifts slightly, putting a bit more of his back to them. I don’t think it’s deliberate. ‘You haven’t ever gone to it?’

‘No, I work nights.’

He looked at me like he knew that wasn’t the whole truth and started to say something, but Muriel broke in.

‘Look, real people from the real world.’ she says.

She introduces us. One is an infectious disease doctor specializing in AIDS research, and the other heads up a nonprofit in Jamaica Plain. They wear makeup and bracelets and dresses that don’t come from the T.J. Maxx in Fresh Pond. They have crossed the room for Silas, and they pepper him with questions. I drift out of the conversation, out of the room.

I don’t have the money for a copy of Thunder Road, but I follow the line from the entryway through the living room and into the dining room. I veer into the kitchen and peer at the writer through the window in the swinging door. His back is to me, and a small stooped woman is leaning over the table toward him, clutching the book he’s just signed to her chest. She’s still talking when he reaches for the book of the woman behind her. I can only see the back of him, the rim of a blue tie showing beneath his collar and a shoulder blade jutting up through the white dress shirt as he signs his name. I can’t see if his face is as chiseled and pissed off as in the photograph.

All the surfaces in the kitchen are covered with baking sheets and trays of hors d’oeuvres. Every few minutes a server comes in for a refill. It feels strange not to be the one wearing a bun and apron.

‘Prosciutto-wrapped fig?’ she asks, face full of overlapping freckles.

‘Oh, thanks so much,’ I say, trying to convey my bond with her. I take a fig from the tray and a napkin from her other hand. It bugs me when people don’t take the napkin, too. ‘Thanks, it looks yummy.’ But she’s moved on to a group by the breakfast nook.

When I get back to the library, Silas is gone, the women from the real world are gone, and Muriel’s in an argument about Cormac McCarthy with three men in moustaches.

The asphalt is purple in the dusk. We walk in the middle of the road down the hill. The sun has sunk but its heat hangs in the air. My ears ring from all the voices at the party. We talk about a book called Troubles that I read and passed along to her. She loved it as much as I did, and we go through the scenes we liked best. It’s a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone. The short biography on the back page said that the writer, J. G. Farrell, died while angling, swept out to sea by a rogue wave.

‘Do you think that’s an Irish euphemism for suicide?’ I say.

‘Maybe. You go out to see a man about a dog. And if he’s not there you get swept away by a rogue wave.’

We both love Irish literature. We have a pact we’ll go to Dublin together when we have money.

I tell her Silas said that Wednesday nights felt cultish.

She considers that. ‘Well, a lot of people there want to be Oscar, and a number of others want to sleep with him. Maybe that is like a cult.’

‘And where do you fall on that spectrum?’

‘To be him. Definitely.’

‘Do people sleep with him?’

‘No. He wrote this essay for Granta last winter about his dead wife and how he can’t think about other women and it got some people all hot and bothered.’

We hug goodbye outside her apartment building, talk for another half hour, and hug goodbye again.

The streets are quiet on the way home, the river flat and glossy. The sky is the darkest blue it gets just before turning black. I’m halfway across the BU Bridge before I realize I’m finishing that scene in my head. They’re talking and I can hear them and they’re finally going down the stairs.