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Writers & Lovers (Page 7)

The rest of the week goes badly. My writing flounders. Every sentence feels flat, every detail fake. I go for long runs along the river, to Watertown, to Newton, ten miles, twelve miles, which help, but after a few hours the bees start crawling again. I scroll the 206 pages I have on the computer and skim the new pages I have in my notebook since Red Barn. I can’t find one moment, one sentence, that’s any good. Even the scenes I’ve clung to when all else seems lost—those first pages I wrote in Pennsylvania and the chapter I wrote in Albuquerque that poured out of me like a visitation—have dimmed. It all looks like a long stream of words, like someone with a disease that involves delusions has written them. I am wasting my life. I am wasting my life. It pounds like a heartbeat. For three days straight it rains, and the potting shed starts to smell like compost. I arrive at Iris soaked through and barely dry off before I have to ride back home. I try to fold my white shirt carefully into my knapsack but it wrinkles, and Marcus scolds me for it. Each way I pass the Sunoco station on Memorial Drive, the ugly marigolds in their concrete bed, and hot tears mix with the rain. The date at the end of the week with Silas, for which I have swapped a lucrative Friday night for a Monday lunch, fills me with dread. But when I am not paying attention, I remember his voice on the phone and his chipped tooth, and a ripple of something that might be anticipation passes through.

Harry and I have two doubles together, Tuesday and Thursday. I’m not an efficient waitress when Harry is working — we get lost in conversation and cajole the sous chefs into making us BLTs or crab cakes and smoke cigarettes with Alejandro out on the fire escape and are never around when Marcus is looking for us—but I am a cheerier waitress. Harry’s charm rubs off on me. My service is worse, but my tips are always better.

‘He’s not panna cotta, is he?’ he says on Thursday lunch over vichyssoise and iced coffees in the wait station while Marcus interviews someone in the office.

Harry asked me to dinner after the first shift we worked together. He was handsome and hilarious, with a sexy British accent and a flawlessly hetero shield. He told me he’d been born in Lahore, but moved when he was three to London.

‘Northeast London?’ I asked, because he sounded exactly like a friend I’d had in Paris from there.

‘Yeah, Redbridge. Who are you, Henry Higgins?’

He said he became English at age nine when he switched schools and changed his name from Haroon to Harry. ‘My skin magically lightened. It was quite a trick. After that I was just one of the lads.’

Over dessert I planned to tell him about Luke, tell him that I wasn’t ready to date yet. But when the panna cotta arrived he mentioned an ex, named Albert. I was floored. Later we called it the panna cotta revelation.

‘Who?’ I say now.

‘This Silas fellow.’

‘Shit, I hope not. You can have him if he is.’

‘A writer? No thanks.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t want someone who’s all up in here all the time.’ He waves his fingers around his glossy black hair. ‘I like a thruster. Writers aren’t thrusters. Not the good ones. And I couldn’t be with a bad writer. God, that would be awful.’ Ooful is how he says it. He goes off to drop a check at his deuce. ‘Plus,’ he says when he comes back, ‘I want to be the wordsmith. I like to dominate, verbally. Your three-top wants hot tea. Tell them it’s ninety degrees outside and their lips are going to melt like wax.’

Marcus comes out of the office while I’m dropping the tea and Harry’s taking an order and finds our bowls of vichyssoise. ‘I’m not ever scheduling you two together again.’ He always says that. It makes us feel about six years old. We make faces at each other behind his back.

When I get home that night, late—there was an anniversary party for sixty-one in the downstairs dining room — Silas is on my machine.

‘Casey, I’m sorry. I had to leave town. For a while. I’m not sure how long.’ His mouth is really close to the receiver, cars whipping by behind him. ‘I’m sorry to miss our date tomorrow. I really am. It’s the one thing that. I don’t know. I barely know you. But. I had to. I had to go. Anyway, I’ll call you when I get back. Don’t. Well, I can’t really. Take care of yourself.’ There was a pause and then, ‘Shit,’ and the receiver crashed into the cradle.

‘Another fucking flake,’ I say to Muriel. ‘Could be a family emergency or something.’

‘It wasn’t. He was like, uh, had to leave town, uh, for a while. No idea how long.’

She looks at me doubtfully.

‘I’d like to meet a guy who wants what he says he wants. No more “I’m just moving slowly” or “I just need to go away for a really vague amount of time.” Jesus.’

‘Don’t write Silas off.’

‘I’m totally writing him off.’

‘I’m going to show you a story he wrote.’

‘Don’t. I do not want to see it.’

Muriel says she doesn’t want my Friday night off to go to waste, and she invites some people over to her place for dinner.

Harry swaps a shift with Yasmin and comes with me. He flirts madly with all the straight guys. He’s gone off gay men, he says. It went badly in Provincetown with the new busboy. Muriel serves Moroccan chicken, couscous, and sangria. She’s spread a batik cloth over her couch.

‘Very multicultural bohème,’ Harry says.

Most of Muriel’s friends are writers, real writers, not like my old friends who got over it like the flu. She’s put the food buffet style on her desk, which she covered with a sari and pulled out from the wall. I fill my plate next to a guy who calls himself Jimbo and had a novel published last year. Motorcycle Mama. It received mixed reviews, Muriel told me, but he got a six-figure contract for the next one anyway.

‘Beware the murky bowl of unidentifiable forcemeats,’ Jimbo says, nudging my shoulder with his. I can tell he doesn’t know if we’ve met—or slept together—before. We haven’t done either, and I ignore him. ‘Rudy,’ he says with unnecessary volume in my ear to a guy on my other side. ‘This looks like what we used to get at the A.D. on Pepe’s night off.’ In case there are people who don’t know he went to Harvard. He moves on bellowing through the room.

The only other person there who has published a book is Eva Park. Her short story collection was gorgeous, got a ton of attention last year, and won the PEN/Hemingway. She’s perched uneasily on a short stool listening to two of Muriel’s colleagues explain to her why her book is a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. I met Eva six years ago, when she was working on the collection. They aren’t stories, she told me, they’re hard little polyps I’m trying to remove from my brain. She was sort of ablaze with a lot of nervous energy then. All the stuffing seems to have gone out of her since. She looks embarrassed, sitting on that stool, to be who she is now. She seems pained by all the compliments Muriel’s colleagues are giving her. Success rests more easily on men. Across the room, Jimbo holds up a bottle and hollers that the Grey Goose has flown.

Muriel calls me over and makes me squeeze on the couch between her and her grad school friend George, who turned up unexpectedly that afternoon, which apparently he does from time to time. She’s told me about him. He’s unhappy and lives in North Carolina. We’re pressed together on the couch and have to lean away from each other to be in focus. He has a smooth plump face and gold-rimmed glasses. Big round eyes through the lenses.

Harry is on the other side of Muriel, and they have enhanced the intensity of their conversation to force George and me to talk to each other. I already know part of his story. He and his wife arrived in Ann Arbor together for grad school. He was in the fiction program with Muriel, and his wife was in nonfiction. During their second year there she started getting migraines and was sent to a specialist. At her third appointment, the doctor locked the door and they had sex. On the examining table with the crinkly paper. The doctor remained standing the whole time. I shouldn’t know these details, but I do. They’re all writers in the chain—his wife, George, and Muriel—so the particulars didn’t get lost. Now the wife is migraine-free and living with the doctor, and George is heartbroken and teaching freshman comp at UNC–Greensboro.

‘Muriel says your novel’s about Cuba,’ George says.

It occurs to me that the chain goes both ways, that he may know all about Luke, that those juicy Red Barn tidbits haven’t gotten lost, either.

‘It’s not really about Cuba. It’s just set there.’

‘Why?’

‘My mother lived there when she was a girl. Her parents were American, but after the war her father set up a medical practice in Santiago de Cuba. There was this moment when she was seventeen and had to decide whether to run away with her boyfriend and join the rebels in the mountains, or leave Cuba with her parents. In the book I have her choose love.’

‘And the revolution.’

‘Yeah.’ Love and the revolution. I push some chicken around on my paper plate. I need to change the subject. Talking about my book makes me feel flayed alive. ‘John Updike came into the restaurant where I work a few weeks ago, and while I was putting down his salad the woman next to him told him how much she loved The Centaur, and he shook his head and said he only wrote it because he didn’t have any other ideas at the time. That’s kind of the way I feel.’ Love and the Revolution. I don’t hate it.

‘Did you tell Updike you were a writer?’

‘No.’ I laugh. ‘God no.’ But when that woman who loved The Centaur dropped her fork and I bent down to get it, I touched one of the leather tassels of his loafer, for a bit of luck. ‘What are you working on right now?’

‘Oh.’ He looks down at his fingers, which are wringing the neck of his napkin. ‘I’m a little stuck.’

‘On what?’

‘A story.’

‘What’s it about?’

The question clearly pains him as well. ‘A sort of art heist in the Golden Horde in 1389.’

I want him to be joking, but he is not.

‘Wow. How long have you been working on it?’

‘Three years.’

‘Three years?’ I don’t mean for it to come out like that. ‘It must be more of a novella by now.’

‘It’s eleven and a half pages.’

This is a detail Muriel hasn’t shared, more peculiar and intimate and, to me anyway, more horrendous than his wife’s infidelity. I don’t know what to say.

‘Are you waiting tables tomorrow night?’ he says.

‘Yeah.’

‘The next night?’

‘Yup. Most nights. Why?’

‘I’m trying to ask you out.’

But I can’t go out with a guy who’s written eleven and half pages in three years. That kind of thing is contagious.

August arrives and Iris becomes a wedding factory: rehearsal dinners, receptions, and an occasional small ceremony on the deck. For these events the restaurant is closed to the public, and we pass around oysters, crab toasts, stuffed figs, and risotto balls along with flutes of champagne on special silver trays. When we finally get the guests seated, we slide salads then entrées then desserts in front of them. We water and wine them. There are long periods of time when we line the wall and watch the wedding party, each with our own particular cynicism.

Our waitstaff isn’t young. We’re mostly in our late twenties and thirties and however old Mary Hand is. Only Victor Silva is married. Dana thinks all the bridesmaids are snots and tends to pick fights with them. Harry believes every groom is closeted and hitting on him. Mary Hand hangs out with musicians in the corner, making sure they get a full meal and all the drinks they want. I always say the couple is too young. They never seem to know each other very well. They look at each other warily.

Not one of the events in August makes me feel like getting married is a good idea. It was nothing I ever aspired to, anyway. My parents were married twenty-three years and never made it look appealing.

‘I liked her hair,’ my father told me once when I tried to find out why he cut in line at a golf club on Cape Cod to meet my mother. She was staying with a friend from junior college, and he was in a tournament. He’d been on the minor league tours for nearly a decade, he told her, and if he didn’t qualify for the PGA that year, he was going to quit. My mother asked what he’d do then. ‘Marry you,’ he said.

My mother told me he wooed her with wanderlust. He could teach golf anywhere. He was a better teacher than player, he confessed to her. They could spend a year or two in the south of France, Greece, Morocco. Head over to Asia. There was a lot of interest in golf in Japan, he said. After that maybe Cuba would have opened up again. Maybe he could bring her back there to live, he told her. She quit college to marry him, but he surprised her after the honeymoon by buying a house north of Boston. He got a job at the high school, and they never left. Instead of love and the revolution, instead of traveling the world, she became a radical in our conservative town, distributing flyers and hiring vans to go to protests against discrimination, Vietnam, and nuclear power. Sometimes she and Caleb were the only people in those vans.

She started going to St. Mary’s to help her stay married, to remember loyalty, to understand the will of God. But what she found after six months at church was Javier Paniagua. He was the new cantor, twenty-six to my mother’s thirty-seven. He played folk songs on the guitar and supervised the playground after mass. I remember his first day, when I was eleven, because I was allowed to play outside longer after Sunday school. Normally my mother called to me from the edge of the parking lot, and I went to her immediately. She was tense and impatient back then and would grit her teeth and try to yank my arm off if I kept her waiting. But that day she crossed the patch of dead grass and sank her heels in the wood chips to ask him about a song he’d played. She told him she’d known that song as a girl in Cuba, and this caught his interest.

At first my father was amused by my mother’s churchgoing. He liked it better than the protesting. He even went to mass with us on Christmas and Easter. After a few years, though, he grew annoyed. He called the church St. Fairy’s and made fun of Father Ted, a flushed man in his fifties who looked like Captain Stubing on The Love Boat. Father Ted wets the bed, he’d say, trying to get me to laugh. He never understood the real threat was the curly-haired kid with the guitar.

Javier was at St. Mary’s for nearly five years—I don’t know what he did on the days that weren’t Sunday or when their affair began—until he was diagnosed with cancer, the same leukemia that had already taken two pilots he’d dropped chemicals with over South Vietnam. When treatment in Boston failed, my mother drove him to his family in Phoenix and stayed until they buried him a year and a half later.

My mother came back in the late spring of my sophomore year of high school. She rented a small house on the outskirts of town. My father and I had moved in with a woman named Ann by then, and they didn’t object when I went to live at my mother’s. She wasn’t familiar at first. She wore blue jeans and beaded belts and cried a lot.

But she made efforts with me. I’d put up a photo of Lady Di on my wall and when Prince Charles married her that June, she woke me up at six in the morning with raspberry scones and a pot of English breakfast tea. We watched the carriage make its way through London, and she seemed excited, but once they reached the cathedral and the cameras zoomed in on their faces, my mother’s mood changed. She’s terrified, she said. And look at him, so cold. That poor girl. That poor girl, she said over and over. My mother was the same age as Diana when she married my father. Nineteen. Never put yourself in that situation, she said to me. Never ever, she said as Diana walked slowly up the stairs with the long train behind her. Marriage is the polar opposite of a fairy tale, my mother said.

I went back to bed before they’d said their vows.

At Iris, leaning over to refill a glass or relight a candle, I eavesdrop on the wedding guests.

‘She was always in love with the roommate.’

‘He got her to add two zeros to the prenup.’

‘Is it so hard to find a goddamn Catholic in this town?’

‘She said he was like a Cossack in bed.’

‘A what?’

‘You know, like super rigid. Like a doll that doesn’t bend.’

And the toasts reveal everything: the rancor between the two families, the promiscuity, the unrequited loves, the bad behavior, the last-minute confessions—all delivered in drunken tangents that end with saccharine platitudes. The rites of marriage are an expensive and dreary business. The only thing that can cut through my skepticism is if the mother of the bride stands up. No matter what she says, no matter how poorly expressed, no matter how icy or bland or clichéd, I cry. Harry holds my hand.

August is endless.

My old friends are getting married, too. The invitations catch up with me eventually, forwarded from Oregon or Spain or Albuquerque.

Unfortunately, sometimes these invitations arrive before the wedding has taken place.

I check the regret box on the small return card and write an apology without an excuse. I do not mention my debt or my work commitments to the weddings of strangers or my bewilderment at why they would participate in a hollow, misogynistic ritual that will only end in misery.

It’s easy when it’s just a box to check. It’s harder when they track you down by phone. Tara from middle school calls and puts me on the spot. She wants me to be her maid of honor. In November. In Italy. She knows my situation. I’m not sure why she’s going through the motions of asking.

‘I know what you’re going to say,’ she says. ‘But it’s going to be easy for you. I got a huge discount on the dresses so they’re only three hundred. And they’re classic—a soft lilac—you can cut it off and wear it all the time. And we got a super deal on a villa outside of Rome. It’s magnificent. Meals included. Only four hundred a night when it’s normally like eight. And we bundled the plane tickets—business class. If you get them by the end of the week, it’ll only be seven fifty.’ She’s acting like she’s not talking about dollars but something much easier to come by like hairs on my head, like I can just pluck them off and hand them to her.

‘You have no idea how out of the realm that is for me.’

‘I need you there. You have to be there. This isn’t a choice, Casey.’ The squeak in her voice reminds me of how she used to wheedle her mother until she got what she wanted. ‘You go to your best friend’s wedding.’

Best friend? She’s a good friend. She’s an old friend. Just the smell of her parents’ living room would bring back three years of my life, but that was many lives ago.

‘I would give anything to be there in that beautiful place watching you marry the man of your dreams.’ Brian, an oaf with the energy of a hibernating bear. ‘But I don’t have eighteen hundred and fifty dollars. I don’t even have a hundred and fifty dollars.’

‘Well, I can’t pay your way. We’re already giving a free ride to my sisters.’

‘That’s not what I was angling for. I would never accept that.’

‘You have a job. We played phone tag for two weeks because of all the shifts you’re working. What else are you going to spend this money on? This is one of those selfish decisions you are going regret the rest of your life. We need to be there for each other. You need to make this happen against all odds and obstacles. You put it on a credit card, and you come to my wedding.’

‘I’ve maxed everything out. I can’t accrue more debt. I can barely meet the minimums.’

‘Jeez, Casey. At some point, don’t you think you have to grow up? You can’t expect to be given a pass forever. It’s time to be an adult. You can’t live in your made-up worlds all your life. People get real jobs that make real money so that they can be a real friend at their best friend’s wedding. I flew from my vacation in Bermuda to Arizona for your mother’s funeral. And it wasn’t cheap, buying it three days before.’

The underside of my arms begin to burn.

‘Did your mother have any idea how much trouble you were in?’

If she hadn’t said this, it might have been okay.

‘Did you pay for that ticket, Tara?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Did you, yourself, pay for the ticket from Bermuda to Phoenix?’

Silence.

‘And if we took away Brian’s salary at Schwab and your dad’s little allowance, how much money would you have working part-time at that nonprofit? Would you be able to afford Bermuda or your two-bedroom in SoHo? Are you more of an adult because two men are giving you the illusion of self-sufficiency?’

She hangs up on me.

I am hemorrhaging friends with these weddings. Muriel and Harry are nearly all I have left.

On the last day of August I go to work in the morning and the waiters are all gathered around the bar. I think I’ve missed a meeting but it’s just Mia reading something out loud: ‘The Mercedes limo slammed into a wall in the Alma tunnel, on the right bank of the Seine under the Place de l’Alma, the police said.’ I wedge my way in-between Mary Hand and Victor Silva to see what she’s reading from. ‘Shocked eyewitnesses reported that the car was full of blood.’

The front page of the Boston Globe is spread out on the counter with an enormous photo of a mangled black car. The headline above: DIANA IS DEAD.

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