Writers & Lovers (Page 6)

Last fall Muriel’s boyfriend told her he needed to be alone in a room with books. They’d been together nearly three years. He said that if they stayed together they’d just get married and reproduce, and he needed to write. So do I, Muriel told him. She didn’t give a fuck about marriage and kids. But he didn’t know anything, he said, though he had two graduate degrees. He needed to be alone in a room with books. He went to live on the third floor of his brother’s house in Maine. That was ten months ago. They hadn’t had contact since.

A week after the book party, Muriel goes to her niece’s bat mitzvah and meets a guy.

‘I liked him,’ she says. ‘Christian.’


‘My dad said, “Leave it to Muriel to find a man named Christian at a bat mitzvah.” ’

She’s a little giddy.

The next day David, the old boyfriend, calls her. They say women have intuition, but men can smell a competitor across state lines.

‘He wants to see me,’ she says. ‘He wants to go on a walk.’

‘Is he still in his room with books?’

‘I don’t know.’ She’s half laughing, half crying. ‘Christian was such a good guy. We were supposed to go out Thursday night. Oh, holy crap, I nearly forgot. That guy Silas asked me for your number.’

He calls me the next morning. I can’t remember what he looks like. Or I can’t match what I remember with the voice. It’s low and ragged, like a half-broken engine. An old-man voice. I’m not convinced it’s him.

He asks if I’d like to go to the Museum of Fine Arts on Friday night. ‘They stay open late. And we could get a bite to eat after.’

Bite to eat. It was something my mother would say. ‘Sure.’ I feel like laughing. I’m not exactly sure why, but I don’t want him to hear it.

‘You’re laughing.’

‘No, I’m not.’ I was. ‘I’m sorry. It’s my dog. He’s doing this thing with his ears.’

‘What’s his name?’

I don’t know the name of Adam’s dog, and he isn’t in the potting shed with me. Do I really not know the name of that dog? ‘Adam’s dog.’

‘Adam’s Dog is the name of your dog?’

‘It’s not really my dog. It’s Adam’s. My landlord. I take care of him sometimes. I don’t know his real name.’


I should never answer the phone in the morning. ‘I mean, I’m sure I knew it. I’m sure he told me. But I’ve forgotten it. I have to walk him every morning right in the middle of my writing time and I resent him so much I don’t even want to know his name and I only do it for the fifty bucks off my rent.’

‘And he’s not why you were laughing, either.’

‘No, I really don’t know why I was laughing.’


‘It’s just that I can’t quite match your voice to your body right now.’ I wince at the word ‘body.’ Why was I talking about his body? ‘And the expression ‘bite to eat’ reminds me of my mother.’ Do not tell him your mother is dead. He has called to ask you out on a date. Do not mention a dead mother.

‘Huh.’ It sounds like he was getting into a different position, reclining, smooshing a pillow under his head maybe. ‘Do you get along with her?’

‘Yes. Completely. Very simpatico.’ But I don’t want to pretend she is somewhere that she isn’t, like I did with the dog. ‘She died though, FYI.’ FYI?

‘Oh shit. I’m so sorry. When?’


He gets the whole thing out of me, all the bits I know about her trip to Chile. It still burns a bit, coming out. He listens. He breathes into the phone. I can tell he lost someone close somehow. You can feel that in people, an openness, or maybe it’s an opening that you’re talking into. With other people, people who haven’t been through something like that, you feel the solid wall. Your words go scattershot off of it.

I ask him, and he says his sister died, eight years ago.

‘I usually say it was a hiking accident,’ he says. ‘That she fell. But she was struck by lightning. People can get very caught up in that. The symbolism. Or the physical details. Either one. It bugs me.’

‘Where were you when you found out?’ I don’t know why, but I need to picture him at that moment. It’s such an awful moment. I heard over the phone at five in the morning in a tiny kitchen in Spain.

‘I was home, at my parents’ house. I was supposed to be on that trip but I’d gotten mono. That day was the first day I felt okay. I went to the mall to get a pair of sneakers, and when I came back my father told me to sit down. I said I didn’t want to sit down. I heard it all in his voice. I already knew. For so long I was so mad he made me sit down. Something like that rips you out of your life and you feel for a long time like you’re just hovering above it watching people scurry around and none of it makes sense and you’re just holding this box of sneakers—’ I hear a voice in the background, a woman. ‘Oh shit, Casey, I have to go. My class started twelve minutes ago.’

‘You’re in school?’

‘Teaching. Summer school. God, I’m sorry to hang up right now but that was the head of my department. Can I call you tonight?’

‘I’m working. I’ll see you at the museum on Friday.’ I don’t want to spend too much time on the phone, then have it be awkward in person like in that story ‘The Letter Writers’ about a man and a woman who fall in love through ten years of correspondence, and when they meet their bodies can’t catch up to their words.

We hang up. My room comes into focus again, my desk, my notebook. It’s still morning. The whole time we were on the phone I didn’t worry even once that it would ruin my writing time.

Muriel comes to the potting shed after her walk with David. I make tea and we sit on my futon.

‘I thought he’d be different, that he’d have some Jack Nicholson crazy in his eye. All this time, I was scared he’d be different. But he was just the same.’ Her voice breaks. ‘He was just the same. And I couldn’t touch him. He was unappealing to me. We started walking and he put his arm around me and I thought I’d get over it, that feeling, because it was exactly as I’d hoped. He wants me back. He made a terrible mistake, he said. And I just kept thinking, When can I get back in my car. I tried to hide it from him, but he saw and said I was cold, said my eyes were like a snake’s. Then he sort of broke down and said we’d had something so perfect, and he’d known it all along and the only reason he’d left was he knew it wouldn’t end. He’d panicked. Looking at the rest of his life scared him. But losing me, he said, was even scarier.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Fresh Pond. We went around and around. For hours. He was so dramatic, leaping around me, throwing out his arms. He actually hit a runner at one point. I kept asking him why he didn’t tell me all this before, and he said he didn’t know. He cried. I’ve never seen him cry before, not actual tears. It was awful. I couldn’t fake it, though. I couldn’t even tell him I’d think about it. It was over. It was so clear. And when he tried to kiss me, I shoved him away. My arms just pushed him away before I knew what I was doing. It was so physical, the repulsion. It felt biological. Like I knew I would never have children with this man. It was so awful and weird. I could see all the things I had loved about him, I could see them, but I didn’t love them anymore.’

She breaks down. She doubles over on my futon, and I hold on to her and rub her back and tell her it’s going to be all right, which is what she has been doing for me all summer long. I make more tea and cinnamon toast and we scoot back on the futon and lean against the wall, eating and sipping and looking out my one window at the driveway where Adam seems to be arguing with Oli the cleaning lady.

‘Did David write his book?’ I ask.

‘He didn’t even start it.’ She blows on her tea. ‘And I’ve written two hundred and sixty pages since he left.’

At lunch, Fabiana seats me two doctors in the corner. They’ve kept their big laminated name tags clipped to their shirt pockets. They’re both internists, their tags say, at Mass General. When I pour their water, they’re talking about a laparoscopic liver biopsy, and when I drop their sandwiches they’ve moved on to giardia.

If they hadn’t been talking medicine the whole meal, I wouldn’t have said anything. I don’t get up the nerve until I’m serving their espressos.

‘May I ask you a quick question?’

The one on the left busies himself with a sugar packet. He’s on to me. But the older one nods. ‘Be our guest.’

‘My mother went to Chile last winter. She flew from Phoenix to LA to Santiago. She had a cough left over from a cold but no fever. Apart from that, she was in full health. Fifty-eight years old. No medical issues.’ It comes out of me perfectly, like memorized lines. ‘They spend five days in the capital then fly to the Chiloé Archipelago where they visit a few islands, and on the island of Caucahué she wakes up feeling cold and short of breath. Her friends get her to a clinic there and they put her on oxygen and radio for an air ambulance and just before it comes she dies.’

Both doctors seem frozen. The younger one is still holding the sugar packet.

‘What do you think happened? The death certificate says cardiac arrest, but it wasn’t a heart attack. Why did her heart stop? Was it a pulmonary embolism? From the long plane flight? That’s what my brother’s boyfriend, Phil, thinks. But he’s an ophthalmologist.’

The two doctors look at each other, not in consultation but in alarm. How do we get out of here?

‘There was no autopsy?’ the younger one says, finally releasing the sugar into the demitasse.


‘I’m so sorry,’ the older one says. ‘It must have been a terrible shock.’

‘Without her history and a full report . . .’ the other one says and turns up his hands.

‘It was most likely an embolism.’

‘Could we get the check when you have a chance?’

They knock back their espressos while I print it out, put down two twenties, and bolt out of the dining room.

My mother’s friend Janet was with her at the clinic on the island. She wasn’t struggling, Janet told me. She wasn’t in pain. She was dozing. Sort of in and out. Then she sat up, said she had to make a phone call, lay back down again, and was dead. It was very peaceful, Janet told me. Such a pretty day.

I tried, in phone calls with Janet, to get more detail than pretty day and peaceful. I wanted everything, my mother’s exact words and the smell of the clinic and the color of the walls. Were children kicking a ball outside? Was she holding Janet’s hand? Who did she sit up to call? Was there any noise at all when her heart stopped? Why did it stop? I wanted to hear my mother tell it. She loved a story. She loved a mystery. She could make any little incident intriguing. In her version, the doctor would have a wandering eye and three chickens in the back named after Tolstoy characters. Janet would have a heat rash on her neck. I wanted her and no one else to tell me the story of how she died.

Her suitcase arrived at Caleb and Phil’s house three days after the funeral. Caleb and I opened it together. We lifted out her yellow rain slicker, her two cotton nightgowns, her one-piece bathing suit with the pink-and-white checks. We pressed our noses to every item, and every item smelled of her. We found gifts in a paper bag, a pair of beaded earrings and a man’s T-shirt. We knew they were for us. When the suitcase was empty I slid my hand into the interior elasticized pouches, certain there would be something in writing, a note or a sentence of goodbye, of premonition, in case of. There was nothing but two safety pins and a thin barrette.