Writers & Lovers (Page 8)

The hardest thing about writing is getting in every day, breaking through the membrane. The second-hardest thing is getting out. Sometimes I sink down too deep and come up too fast. Afterward I feel wide open and skinless. The whole world feels moist and pliable. When I get up from the desk I straighten the edges of everything. The rug needs to be perfectly aligned with the floorboards. My toothbrush needs to be perpendicular to the edge of the shelf. Clothing cannot be left inside out. My mother’s sapphire needs to be centered on my finger.

When I was fifteen, my father’s girlfriend, Ann, had my sweaters dry-cleaned. My mother used to wash them in Woolite and lay them on a towel to dry, but she was in Phoenix with Javi by then, and my father and I were living at Ann’s and she would gather up my sweaters while I was at school. They’d come back a few days later on hangers covered in paper, sheathed in long plastic bags, which she hung on my closet door. I didn’t like the shape of these bags, the swollen tops with the sweaters beneath and then the empty length of sheer plastic, dangling like the lower region of a jellyfish. I was scared of those bags. I’d get the sweaters out of them and tie tight knots along the length of each one and shove them to the bottom of my wastebasket. I was scared I’d try to suffocate myself in my sleep.

I didn’t want to die. I wasn’t happy, living in Ann’s big house without Caleb, who was in college and never called, but I wasn’t sad. I barely had any emotions at all. But at night I terrified myself with this fear that somewhere inside me someone wanted to die.

When my mother came back from Arizona, she asked if I wanted to talk to someone, a professional, she said. I don’t know why she said this, what precipitated it, but it scared me, the idea that this professional might go in and find that other person inside me, the person who was feeling all the things I did not let myself feel. My mother had returned brokenhearted and in the middle of divorce litigation with my father. I heard terrible noises through her bathroom door, sounds I couldn’t connect to my mother. She was grieving, but I didn’t understand what that felt like then. I told her she was the one who should see a shrink, not me.

In college one of my best friends was a psych major and practiced on me with the Minnesota personality test. She showed me the bar graph of my results. All the bars were in the medium size, normal range except two, which were much taller. One was for a category called Defensiveness to the Test. The other was for schizophrenia. I wondered if that tall schizophrenia bar had anything to do with why I tied those dry-cleaning bags in knots before bed that year my mother was gone, my suspicion that there was someone else inside me. I hadn’t had that fear again, and I don’t think I’ve ever exhibited any signs of that illness, but I did start writing fiction the year my mother was gone and maybe that’s where I channeled my schizophrenic potential.

During the time my mother was out West, I did some of the same sort of rearranging of objects that I do now after writing sometimes. I always had to put on my right shoe, then the left. I could never leave a shirt inside out. If I followed the rules, my mother would definitely come back from Phoenix. And here I am, making rules again, even though nothing I do now will ever, ever bring her back.

When I was visiting her a few years ago she hugged me and said, ‘Tomorrow after you leave I will stand here at this window and remember that yesterday you were right here with me.’

And now she’s dead and I have that feeling all the time, no matter where I stand.

Adam comes by with my mail. He sees me at my desk in the window, so I have to open the door. He hands me a postcard and four envelopes from debt collectors, stamped with bright red threats.

‘I feel like I’m harboring a fugitive in here,’ he says. ‘How do you sleep at night?’

‘I don’t much.’

I can tell he doesn’t believe me. He thinks of me as young and somehow protected by my youth.

Adam points to the EdFund envelope. ‘Those guys are awful. They get sued left and right for unlawful practices.’

I need to get back to my desk.

‘Didn’t you get a full ride at Duke? Weren’t you ranked one or two in the country at some point?’

‘When I was fourteen,’ I say.

‘But isn’t golf one of those sports where if you’re good you only get better?’

‘Not if you sell your clubs.’

He thinks if he’s silent I’ll say more.

‘Well,’ he says finally. ‘There’s a lot to be said for being unencumbered.’ He looks greedily around at the nothing of my life. ‘It’s the scent of freedom in here, Casey. You won’t be able to smell it till you’ve lost it.’

Actually I could smell it. It was the scent of black mold and gasoline that came in from the garage.

I toss out the envelopes and sit back at my desk with the postcard. One side is a photograph of spiked snow-covered mountains in the background, lower, rounder brown mountains below, and a bright green pasture with wildflowers and a grazing cow. WELCOME TO CRESTED BUTTE, it says at the bottom. Crested Butte?

On the other side, in small ballpoint scrawl:

For a while now I’ve needed to get in my car and drive west. I’ve needed to see mountains and the sky. I hope I can explain it to you better when I get back. The man who sold me this postcard kept a dog behind the counter, and I thought of Adam’s Dog and my only regret about leaving is not going on that date with you.

I drop it in the bin on top of the past-due notices.

That week I make a few trips to the public library to research Cuba. Each time I end up in the biography stacks, reading about writers and their dead mothers.

George Eliot’s mother died of breast cancer when she was sixteen. ‘Mother died,’ are her only preserved words on the subject. She had been called home from boarding school when her mother got sick, and after her death Eliot lost all hope of further education. She became her father’s partner in work and home, traveling with him on trips to Coventry, mending his clothes, and reading him Walter Scott in the evening.

  1. H. Lawrence told a girl who loved him that he would never love her back because he loved his mother ‘like a lover.’ He was twenty-five when a tumor was discovered in his mother’s abdomen. Lawrence stayed at her bedside for the final three weeks, reading and painting and working on what would become the novel Sons and Lovers. During that time a galley of his first novel, The White Peacock, arrived at the house. His mother looked at the cover, the title page, and then at him. He felt her doubt of his talents. Her pain worsened and he witnessed her increasing agony. He begged the doctor to give her an overdose of morphia to set her free, but the doctor refused. Lawrence did it himself. He wrote later, ‘From the death of my mother, the world began to dissolve around me, beautiful, iridescent, but passing away substanceless. Till I almost dissolved away myself, and was very ill, when I was twenty-six. Then slowly the world came back: or I myself returned: but to another world.’

As a child Edith Wharton had been scolded by her mother for wanting to be alone to make things up, and forbidden to read novels until after marriage. When her mother died, she sent her husband to the funeral. She stayed home to write. She was thirty-nine, and she published her first novel the following year.

Marcel Proust was thirty-four when his mother died. Apart from a year of military service, he had lived with her his whole life. After she was gone he went to a clinic outside Paris for nervous disorders where he was forbidden to write. He considered suicide but believed it would be killing his mother again if he destroyed his own memory of her. When he left the clinic he began to write a critical essay about the writer Sainte-Beuve, fueled by an imaginary conversation with his mother. In the piece he reaches back to memories of his childhood, to saying goodnight to his mother, and it becomes the beginning of Swann’s Way.

‘Hold yourself straight, my Little Goat,’ were Julia Stephen’s last words to her daughter, thirteen-year-old Virginia. Woolf’s mother lay dead in bed for several days after that and when Virginia was led in to kiss her for the last time, her mother was no longer on her side but on her back, in the middle of her pillows. Her cheek was like cold iron, and granulated, Virginia wrote later. A few days later she went to Paddington to meet her brother’s train. It was sunset and the glass dome of the station was lit up a blazing red. After her mother died, her perceptions were more intense, she wrote later, ‘as if a burning glass had been laid over what was shaded and dormant.’ That summer she had her first breakdown. It lasted two years.

I’m delivering two blackened bluefish and a Turkish roast pigeon to table 13. They’re arguing about Ronald Reagan’s legacy, and the woman says he was a Howdy Doody manqué, which I think is a good line, but the two men don’t hear it. I slide the pigeon into place and a creepy sound comes from every direction in the room, like an alien invasion.


A lean boy in a tux and floppy red hair comes running into the center of the dining room and people flinch and gasp and the redhead flings out his arms.

‘Here’s my story, sad but true,’ he croons. ‘About a girl that I once knew.’

Along the perimeter of the room other boys in tuxes are still ooooing. When the song changes tempo, they switch to ‘hey, heys’ and ‘bop, bops’ and ‘whoa oh, oh, ohs’ and start closing in on the lead in the middle and the dining room erupts in applause that reaches a crescendo when they all come together in a perfectly formed circle and flash their fake fifties smiles.

The Kroks are back in town.

I fire my six-top on the computer in the wait station. Dana brushes past me, kicks through the kitchen door with a stack of cleared plates.

‘Anyone got a gun with twelve bullets?’ she says to the line cooks before the door swings shut.

The Kroks sing ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘In the Mood’ and ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ For ‘Earth Angel’ they grab an older woman and put her on the floppy-haired boy’s knee while the rest encircle her with adoring looks. Then they fling her back where she came from in one motion on the last note of the song. They put their heads down as if in prayer and back away slowly from the smallest of them all, a curly-haired cherub who steps forward, opens his mouth, pauses, and begins singing.

‘By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes. Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond’ slow and smooth, in a high quavering voice. I’m carrying a pot de crème to my deuce but am no longer moving. It feels like everyone in the dining room has stopped breathing. Even Dana behind the bar now stops stirring the whiskey she’s poured into her coffee.

The rest of the Kroks come in at the chorus: ‘You take the high road and I’ll take the low road’ but quietly, a mere rumble to the boy’s high bright reed. The boy sings three more verses and the last chorus himself.

For me and my true love will never meet again

By the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

When he stops the silence is long and complete. Then, a torrent of applause. The Kroks know this is their showstopper. They wave goodbye and jog out the door.

The dining room remains quiet. I carry my dessert the rest of the way, and my two ladies at 9 are patting their eyes. After I put down the plate and two spoons, I wipe mine, too. Five minutes later the diners have rebounded with more volume and demands than before.

I can’t seem to recover. The sound keeps playing in my head. I try to hide in the walk-in but the line cooks have begun their breakdown and keep coming in. I spend the rest of the shift, when I’m not serving, crouched on the floor beside the linen cabinet near the wait station, pretending to straighten the piles of tablecloths and napkins.

When it’s finally over and I get out of the building, I unlock my bike but don’t get on it. I don’t want to get home too soon. I don’t want to lie in bed churned up like this. I walk my bike to the river.

The students are returning. For the past two days the streets have been clogged with double-parked station wagons piled high with plastic milk crates and comforters. Now they walk in packs in the center of the road, yell to other packs at doorways of bars. Music spills from open dorm windows. The path along the river is busy, too, full of freshmen with nowhere to go yet. I move slowly, my bike wheels ticking.

I pass runners, walkers, and bikers. Two dudes with headbands throw a Frisbee low across the grass. A group of girls lies on the ground and looks up at the moon, which is nearly full. I used to have this path all to myself at this time of night. I’m already nostalgic for summer.

And I’ll be in Scotland before ye.

A woman runs by me, sweatshirt hood up, fists clenched. We catch eyes just before she passes. Help, we seem to be saying to each other.

After the footbridge, the people thin out. I look for the clusters of geese, but they’re gone. Have they started south already?

I find them just before the next bridge, a wide roiling mass of them, snorting and snuffling like pigs. They’re down the embankment in the weeds at the river’s edge. Some are half in the water, wings slapping the surface. Others are pecking the ground. I move closer and a few heads lift, hoping for food. I don’t have anything for them, but it’s the perfect place to sing loudly about bonnie banks and bonnie braes, whatever a brae is, and I do. More heads lift. My mother told me once that I had a beautiful voice. I was singing along with Olivia Newton-John in the car, and I had been trying to get her to say that. I wasn’t just absentmindedly singing. I’d been going for the compliment. My voice is nothing special, but when your mother tells you something about yourself, even if you’ve coaxed it out of her, it’s hard not to always believe it.

I sing to the geese. And I feel her. It’s different from remembering her or yearning for her. I feel her near me. I don’t know if she is the geese or the river or the sky or the moon. I don’t know if she is outside of me or inside of me, but she is here. I feel her love for me. I feel my love reach her. A brief, easy exchange.

I finish the song and push my bike back up the embankment. A few geese watch, their heads above the rest. Their necks look navy in the moonlight, their chinstraps pale blue.