Nerve by Liz Moore

The first time I met the writer was in 1986. He was at the height of his fame. He was standing in the living room of an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, running a finger over the spines of the many books on the shelf before him. He was moving his lips silently, as if counting, or praying, or practicing the names of friends.

 

His back was to the room and to the party it contained. Behind him small groups of men and women approached and then retreated, in waves, as though the floor of the place tipped gently in his direction, as if he were emitting some subtle magnetic force. Nobody spoke to him, but laughter became louder in his vicinity, conversations more fervent, perhaps in the hope that he would turn and interject. He never did. He picked out book after book, looking through some, replacing some unopened. Steadily he worked his way down the wall of shelves.

 

I had known in advance that he'd be there. The party’s hostess—who was herself a writer, of what were then called potboilers—was my employer. I was there to work that night. I had graduated from Hunter College in June, and a day later had received a telephone call from an English professor who knew of a position I might be interested in. I helped the hostess with her research and her correspondence and her social life.  She frequently accused me of shyness and often told me I had to learn to be meaner. When she was feeling playful she deliberately assigned me tasks that called for meanness, like debt collection from her delinquent nephew and the delivery, to a delusional fan, of orders to stop contacting her. The hostess was from Louisville and drank bourbon.  She had red hair that she pinned to the top of her head like a Gibson Girl. Her husband worked in Manhattan and served on the board of several of Brooklyn's cultural and civic organizations. The couple was new to Brooklyn, and their newness showed: the framed antique print of the Bridge in the bathroom, the amiable coasters depicting Steeplechase, the Funny Place, in 1932.

I'd helped to plan the party that evening, to hire the caterers, to mail the invitations from a list that my employer had given me. Upon seeing, in the middle of this list, the writer's name and address, I had felt a sense of the world closing in around me. Every prior moment in my life, I thought, must have been leading unstoppably toward this one. Secretly, in tiny letters, I had written his information on a scrap of paper and tucked it into my pocket. I had read everything he'd ever published. I spoke about his books as if they were old friends, savored them, wept over them, worshipped them, looked upon them, in fact, as integral parts of my own identity; I defined various acquaintances by which of the writer's characters they reminded me of; I mimicked his style in my short stories; I wrote poems dedicated to him; I believed in my heart that I loved him; I believed it. I was twenty-one years old.

 

The writer was halfway down the wall of books now and I told myself that if by nine o'clock I hadn't met him, I would approach him, introduce myself, and execute my mission, which was to give to him the envelope I was smuggling in the pocket of my dress. It contained a story I had written, had spent perhaps a hundred hours writing, and had typed the most recent version of on my mother’s Selectric, the one she had been lent for work. On the last page I’d included my own name and address and my telephone number, burying my face in my hands after I’d done it in disbelief at my own brass. Now the envelope felt unnaturally heavy in my right pocket, and unnaturally warm, as if it were sending little sparks down my leg. From time to time I patted it to be sure it was still there.

As the designated time approached I spotted a little nook, just wide enough to accommodate my shoulders, between two standing bookcases near the one he was browsing. And so, commanding myself not to think too hard, I walked toward him and tucked myself into this nook, facing the room. He was moving in my direction; soon we would be facing one another. Peripherally I saw him look up from his book at me. I stared very straight ahead, and then down at the clipboard I was holding in my hot and clumsy hands. I tended to it, smoothing its pages, leaving little ramblings with my pen. Apollo. Jell-O. Socks. Collapse. I leaned back into the wall behind me.

 

Hello, said the writer, when he reached me. He looked bemused.

 

I took in a breath and held it. And then I trained upon him the gaze that I had only recently discovered in my arsenal of theretofore unremarkable charms: a sort of heavy-lidded, pursed-lipped gaze that nearly always beckoned its subject toward me. Lately it had been occurring to me that I could, if I wanted to, be thought beautiful— I had spent most of my terrible adolescence afflicted with a much more severe version of the shyness that the hostess deplored in me, living inside of books, wearing ill-fitting, outdated clothes from older cousins—and the power my new skill afforded me was a frightening, electric thing. I kept it turned off most of the time. Turning it on too brightly felt like driving a car without a license.

 

The writer was shorter than I was by three inches. His head was large, round, and noble. He was forty-nine years old. His birthday was May 31. He kept black Labrador retrievers and he had a summer home in Maine. He came from a family of wealthy New Englanders who had made their fortune in clocks. His wife, who was absent that evening, was a dancer. There had been two before her. He had four children. His mother was living and his father was dead.

 

Not talking, said the writer, and I realized that I had never replied to his greeting.

 

I am, I said. I can.

 

Are you working? asked the writer.

 

I wanted very badly to say no but I couldn’t muster the courage to lie. I nodded.

 

For Laurel? he said, and I nodded again. He laughed softly, a low rattle.

 

I had known to expect the growl of his voice. A month before, he had been interviewed by Merv Griffin and I'd stayed up to watch, giddy, with my mother. That was the first time I'd heard him speak. He had gotten into a debate with a lady novelist and Merv had said Fellas, please, which had made the audience laugh in shocked delight. To call a lady a fella.

What are you drinking, asked the writer.

 

Nothing, I said, and looked down at my hands, and the clipboard they were holding, as if to show him.

 

What'll you have, I mean.

 

I asked for a Tom Collins and the writer told me to wait right where I was, and to hold this book, too.

 

I let out a stalled breath and clutched the clipboard and the book to my chest. A great sense of happiness and purpose made its way from my center out into my limbs; it was pride, I decided, that I was feeling. I was proud of myself for being brave. I watched the writer head in the direction of the bar, shoulders forward, head down, a small determined bulldozer, and sank back against the wall, feeling the reassuring embrace of the bookcases on either side of me. When I looked around the room at the other guests, I found that many of them were looking back at me. I directed my attention once again to the obsolete guest list on my clipboard, and upon it wrote the writer's name, over and over again, a sort of a spell or incantation. Hello, I wrote. Argentina. Robert Redford. Robert Prestininzi (my tall and affable boyfriend at the time, who was unsuspecting of the act of betrayal I was planning in my heart). San Francisco, California.  Frisco.

 

It was then that the hostess found me.

 

My darling, she said. I need you to do me a favor.

 

And she took me by the arm—I put down the book that the writer had handed me, noting first that it was Faulkner—and escorted me into her kitchen, where the caterers were putting things away.

 

Just make sure no one breaks anything, said the hostess, loud enough so everyone could hear. All the workers looked at first her and then me with scorn. She left as hastily as she had entered, and I leaned against a counter, forlorn, and touched the envelope in my pocket, and told myself I'd ruined the only chance I had to make an impression upon the writer I loved best in the world. Perhaps, I thought, my soul mate.

 

I admired the hostess the way I admired all women who made me feel slightly inept: all successful and harried and hardworking women who never seemed to make a mistake, who felt confident in their criticism of others. I had had professors like her; I had had other bosses. But no one as glamorous. I had chosen the outfit I was wearing that evening because I thought it looked like something she would wear. It was a purple low-waisted dress that I had bought with my mother at Macy's, and high heels. The skirt of the dress had pockets, and a little crinoline beneath it, and it floated away from my hips before stopping just above my knees. Earlier, in Bay Ridge, I had put on this dress and fantasized about the hostess complimenting me. But when I arrived I found she was wearing blue jeans and a beautiful emerald blouse that brought out the color of her hair, and I felt overdressed and novice and wrong.

 

When she treated me as a friend, when she gossiped with me or asked for my advice, I was desperate to respond correctly. Occasionally I succeeded.  Other times she looked at me, puzzled, and told me I was funny. She had one son, a five-year-old named Maximilian whom I was sometimes in charge of watching and who had been sent, for the evening, to his friend's house. I liked him—he was Max for short—but my ineptness grew around him; I had no confidence in my ability to feed him properly, to choose the right jacket for him, to discipline him when necessary and let him off when not. Often my employer would come into the room as I stood watching him do something he was not supposed to do—turn on the television, climb up on a chair—and swiftly carry out the sort of justice that I was dallying over, and then tell me that I couldn't be afraid to punish him when he was asking for it. Other times she would burst into laughter at his antics and sweep him into her arms and say, Oh let him, let him—he's terrible!

 

She had read several of my stories and had dismissed most of them outright. One of them she tapped for a while, thoughtfully, with her pencil, before handing it back to me silently, shaking her head. The next day I worked up the courage to ask her for more information and she said to me, Darling, it’s your endings—you have no idea how to end a thing properly. And she held forth for an hour on what I should change.

 

I couldn't imagine what it would be like to feel so assured in all of my judgments, but it was her assurance that I admired most. Still, I was afraid of her, and because she had commanded me to I stayed in the kitchen until eleven o'clock in the evening, until the caterers had finished packing their things away and were standing in a bored little group, waiting to be paid. Only then, having said exactly nothing to anyone the entire time I was in the kitchen, did I decide that it would be all right to rejoin the party.

 

I picked up the clipboard that had been my companion that night—it gave me a sense of purpose and therefore some nerve—and opened the swinging door just enough to allow myself through it. I scanned the party for the hostess and saw the back of her as she led a little group into another room. And then I looked for my writer. I had convinced myself, over the course of the last two hours, that he would certainly be gone when I emerged—but then I saw him, almost exactly as I had left him, still browsing the books on the wall, still quite alone. I returned to my nook.

 

The writer smiled at me. He looked different than he had before, as if warmer in temperature.

 

There you are, said the writer. I didn't know where you'd gotten to.

 

Your Collins has melted, he said, pointing to a yellowy drink on one of the shelves. It had formed a puddle on the Coney Island coaster beneath it.

 

Next to it were two low glasses full of an amber liquid that I tentatively identified as whiskey, bourbon, or scotch. None of the literature about the writer that I had come across had named his favorite drink, none of the magazine articles or encyclopedia entries. I would have remembered it. He picked up one of the glasses and took a deep sip from it, grimacing upon its completion the way I'd seen other people's fathers do. It occurred to me that he might be drunk already: certainly there was a smell around him that I associated with drunkenness, and the slowness of his motions was, perhaps, not deliberate.

I thought I should speak to him but the only subject that occurred to me was his books, and I knew somehow that to bring them up would be a mistake. I realized then that prior to that evening I should certainly have dreamed up some topics of conversation, but I suppose I had thought that I would know instantly what to say and do—for I had always felt, deeply, that we were kindred.

 

What's it like working for Laurel, said the writer, finally.

 

Terrific, I said. I'm learning a lot.

 

No you're not, said the writer. You're lying. I can tell.

 

How? I asked him, and he put one finger on my left cheekbone, just below my eye.

 

Down and to the left, he said, and he swallowed the rest of his drink in one motion.

 

She's tough, isn't she, said the writer.

 

I nodded. I looked over my shoulder to make sure I wasn't being framed.

 

Does she bully you?

 

A little bit, I said. I usually don't do things right the first time, though.

 

At this the writer laughed much louder and longer than I expected.

 

You need a shot of confidence, he said.

 

And just then a waiter walked by carrying lovely-looking cocktails with sprigs of mint in them, and the waiter took two off of his tray.

 

Good timing, he said, and handed me one.

 

I thanked him. I wasn't finished with my Tom Collins yet but I took a sip.

 

Anyway, it's all right, said the writer. I'm scared of her too.

 

What's your name, he asked me, and I told him.

 

That's a terrible name, he said. Who gave it to you?

 

My father. After his father, I said.

 

But you're a girl, said the writer.

 

He picked up the second drink from the shelf beside him and dipped his index finger into it, stirring the ice cubes, licking the finger afterward.

 

He gazed at me as if in thought, and then said, Aren't you going to ask my name?

 

And I told him I knew it.

 

Do you like my books, said the writer.

 

I nodded.

 

What else would you say, I guess, said the writer.

 

I do like them, I said. I love them.

 

You want to be a writer.

 

I nodded again.

 

Are you any good? he asked me, but continued before I could answer.

 

Have you always wanted to meet me? Did you come here tonight so you could meet me? he asked.

 

I paused. I thought it would please him if I told him yes, but something made me shake my head in response. No, I said. I'm working here tonight.

 

For Laurel, the writer said again, and again he laughed, and again.

In one of his stories, a favorite of mine at the time, an old man goes on vacation with his young wife. The wife is beautiful and vain. All week she ignores him and rejects his advances. On their last night, she suggests they go to the hotel's bar. She puts on a seductive dress and does her hair nicely. She holds the old man's hand as they walk downstairs. The old man is excited: finally, he thinks, some kindness. But after a few drinks she looks at him. I want to show you something, she says. What? asks the old man. She won't tell him. Instead she stands up and instructs him to walk several paces behind her as she crosses the crowded bar. Count the number of men who try to talk to me, she says.

Just count.

 

After the writer got us another round of drinks, a friend of his approached us. He wanted an introduction.

 

This is—said the writer, and before he could finish I supplied my own name, afraid that he had forgotten it.

 

Her father named her, said the writer.

 

Funny, said his friend.

 

Both of their faces were pink and hot looking and they jostled against one another as they spoke, elbowing and shouldering one another, beaming into each other's faces with the sort of good-natured aggression that I now associate with successful men.

 

I was through with the mint drink and onto my second Tom Collins—I wasn't entirely certain I was supposed to be drinking at all, so in between furtive sips I put it on the bookshelf, away from me—and found that I was quite drunk. Still, when a man came around bearing a tray of port, the writer took three and gave one to me.

 

I'd never had port before and it tasted sweet as juice. I looked at the writer and his friend and decided that the writer was very attractive. I was young enough, then, to see middle-aged men as old, and to me the writer looked ancient: his hair, though plentiful, was largely gray, and his face was brown and lined and hard. It was clear he hadn't shaved in more than a day, and his whiskers were white stippling on his chin. I told myself he looked Irish, because of his Irish last name, and I told myself he looked aristocratic. I knew it was possible for older men to be attractive—my mother thought many of them were, and told me—but until I met the writer I'd never met one I could imagine touching. But I could have touched him. More than that I imagined it would make him happy to touch me, and the thought was exciting. There was a presence about him that brought me toward him, that made me want to give him anything he asked for.

 

I paused for a moment and commanded myself to take it all in—look at yourself in your dress, I told myself, and look at the men you are standing next to, one of whom you may in fact be in love with, may have been in love with for years—look at him admiring you, for that is certainly admiration in his eyes—

 

She wants to be a writer.

 

Is she any good?

 

I'm excellent—excellent—

 

and look at your feet in your shoes, and the glass of port in one hand, and the clipboard in the other—put down the clipboard there on the shelf; you don't need it now—and look at him loosen his tie—

 

Who told you you were excellent?

 

My teachers. They all did.

 

Teachers are idiots and geeks. I'll tell you if you're excellent or not.

 

All right, tell me—

 

and look at him attending to you. Attending to you.

 

Do you think you're a better writer than me? the writer asked me.

 

No, I said.

 

That's not the right answer, said the writer. Confidence. You must always think you're the best.

 

I’d been keeping my right hand in its pocket, pinching the envelope between my fingers, and it was at this moment that I felt both drunk enough and happy enough to produce it.

 

So I did.

 

What’s this, said the writer, and I put the envelope into his hands, sealing them over it, marveling again at my nerve. He looked at it. I didn’t tell him what was inside.

 

OK, I said. I think I'm a better writer than you.

 

There's only one way to settle this, said the writer.

           

He wanted to box me. He tucked my envelope into the back of his pants, under his belt. Then he pulled me out of my nook and put his hand on my waist and walked me into the center of the room—I contorted my hips and spine to be his height; I squatted—and, to my extreme horror, found the host. My boss's husband.

 

Jim, said the writer, She's going to box me.

 

No, I said.

 

Ah, but she'll kill you, said my boss's husband. Look at the reach on her.

 

The writer stood back as if assessing me.

 

Get your gloves, Jim, said the writer.

 

Many of the men and women in the room had paused in the middle of their conversations and turned in our direction. No, no, I was saying softly, shaking my head, a little smile on my face to show I was in on the joke.

 

When the host returned to the living room he was carrying two sets of boxing gloves in his arms. One pair was red as an apple and one was black and rough-looking, frayed at the wrists.

 

You can choose first, said the writer. He was putting on a show. He was raising his voice so that people around him could hear.

 

What's the quarrel over? asked a man nearby, feigning concern.

 

She says she's a better writer than I am, said the writer.

 

I bet she is, too, said the man, and his wife shrieked once, which was her laugh.

 

I wasn't quite sure what else to do so I chose the new red gloves and I let the writer have the old ones.

 

Wrong! said the writer. Always take the practice gloves, he said, and he put his beefy hand into a black glove and turned to my boss's husband for help with the ties.

 

I stood there grinning. There was nothing else to do. The writer, once his hands were in his gloves, tapped them together and shifted his weight from foot to foot. All the guests in the room had stopped what they were doing and gathered around us in a ring.

 

What's the holdup, said the writer. Aren't you game?

 

I cradled the red gloves in my arms like twins. I couldn't be sure about the proper thing to do. I felt certain that this was a joke, a game, but I was not certain how to win or lose it. If I declined, I would be thought boring; if I accepted, I'd be a fool for thinking he was serious. Tentatively, I put my hand into one of the gloves (it was enormous, and shockingly heavy), which elicited a cheer from the crowd. All of my movements had been slowed by the gin and mint and the port, and I fumbled with the laces until my boss's husband helped me fasten it tightly, and then helped me with the other.

 

Then I had boxing gloves on, and I let them fall to my sides like weights, and I left them there.

 

Put up your dukes, said the writer.

 

To my right, a woman was shaking her head slowly, side-to-side, side-to-side, and covering her mouth with one hand.

 

The writer touched me on one shoulder with a glove, and then sheltered his face with both of them. He was still bouncing gently on his toes. I was standing motionless, as if sodden, as if planted. I had a sudden vision of swinging at him hard as I could, letting loose, abruptly, with my right glove. I saw this happening clearly: saw him caught off-guard; saw him lifted into the air and knocked backward, into the gathering crowd; saw drinks tumbling out of hands, red wine on the carpet. It would be funny, almost, I thought. The surprise of it. I felt my right arm tighten in anticipation the way it had once before, when I was twelve, when I witnessed a dog being kicked by a terrible boy from my school.

 

Is it a forfeit? asked the writer.

 

He turned to the crowd for help, and then back to me, a look of bright vigor on his face, his mouth open as if to speak.

 

But then he stopped, looking past me, his jaw frozen in place.

 

I suppose I knew who it was before I turned around, but I pivoted anyway, trying to be graceful. There was the hostess, watching us, her red hair coming loose from its crown-like style.

 

Hi, Laurel, said the writer, but there was guilt in his voice, not lightness.

 

The hostess said nothing. She was looking at me, not him. I was tall but she was taller, and there was something very beautiful and strange about her in her anger, a fragile sort of anger that made her look more alive than usual. She was taking quick shallow breaths.

 

Then she smiled and took a step forward as if she might touch my face. She looked closely at me.

 

She's drunk, she said, still looking at me.

 

She turned to the crowd. She's drunk, she said to them.

 

My darling, she said, What on earth are you doing?

 

I'm boxing, I said, realizing as soon as I said it that it was a laugh line. The crowd, accordingly, laughed.

 

The hostess looked for a moment as if she might cry. One line appeared between her perfect eyebrows, and then just as soon it was gone.

 

I'm sorry, Laurel, I said.

 

I looked down at my gloves. It was only then that I realized that I could not get them off by myself. I put my hands behind my back, as if to make her forget.

 

How old are you, darling? asked the hostess. Are you old enough to be drinking?

 

I nodded.

 

She's a baby, said the hostess. Don't mind her, she's just a baby. Boxing! Of all the things in the world, she said, and turned around quickly, and walked through the swinging door and into the kitchen. The writer was the only one to follow her.

 

Not knowing what else to do, wishing fervently to disappear, I found the nook that I had claimed earlier in the evening and tucked myself back into it. I leaned against the wall, trying to look casual in my apple-red boxing gloves. I bit at the laces of one of them but the knot was too tight, and I felt silly gnawing so intently. I crossed my arms. I would have left the party altogether but I could not open doors.

 

In the end, her husband was the one who helped me. I was trapped in the gloves for an absurdly long time: after the crowd dispersed, after the point of looking like a casual observer. By the time the host found me I was close to tears and sniffling hard. I was a terrible crier in those days. He was handsome in the same way the hostess was: tall and Southern-looking, well dressed in his light summer suit.

 

You're stuck, he said.

 

I nodded.

 

He wordlessly uncrossed my arms, and, holding my forearm gently, undid my left glove. Then he held it in place while I pulled my hand out, and waited while I undid the other.

There, he said, and carried the gloves into his bedroom, and did not reemerge.

Nearly everyone had left. Several stragglers, obscenely drunk, stood leaning against walls and each other. I felt very sorry for myself. I loved my job, I decided, and I loved my employer too, and I had ruined it all—ruined everything. I thought about whether to find the hostess before I left, but I felt certain I would be fired on the spot, and I felt too shaken to be scolded then and there. I walked to the front door, opened it, and left.

When I reached the opposite sidewalk I turned and faced the building once again. It was very dark outside and I could see clearly into their bright third-floor apartment. One of the windows exposed the kitchen, and through it I saw the writer and the hostess silhouetted in an embrace. She, in profile, pressed her hands to her face and wept, her lovely shoulders vibrating with sobs; he stood behind her and held her, as if in consolation, or in shame.

Weeks passed. I didn’t return to work. At first I told myself that I was just waiting to let things settle, that I would telephone my employer soon. But I found that after all she was correct about me: I was too easily afraid. I was afraid of her voice on the other end, berating me again, or, worse, telling me that she really had nothing to say. I picked up and replaced the telephone receiver several times a day. I missed her son Max, who, I imagined rather vainly, must be asking daily where I had gone. I cried frequently. I broke up with Robert Prestininzi, who took the news with a sort of puzzled disappointment, and asked me was there anything he could do to change my mind. My mother, alarmed, began calling me on her lunch breaks to make sure I’d gotten out of bed.

 

I didn’t write. I had written daily, feverishly, prior to the party; I had used every moment of anticipation as fuel for work. But now I didn’t like to open my journal or to sit down to type, for when I did, I found that only mawkishness and self-pity ensued, the sort of hysterical prose that filled all of my teenage journals, and that I’d tried very hard in recent years to overcome.

 

By October I began looking for other work. I answered classified ads for secretaries and assistants and went on a series of interviews in Bay Ridge that never resulted in an offer, perhaps due to my visible lack of enthusiasm. I was too embarrassed to use any of my connections at Hunter, for I felt that if I did I would have to explain why I was no longer employed. My mother finally pled my case with her own boss, who brought me in as a typist at minimum wage.

 

One evening in November, I went to bed early and lay awake, looking at the ceiling. I was thinking of a particular teacher I’d had as a girl, the first of my many heroes, who told me that what it took to be a writer was a brave and ready heart. I had loved him and had written his name over and over again in the first journal I ever kept. I pictured him now and imagined calling him up and unburdening myself to him, telling him where writing had gotten my thus far in life. Nowhere, is what I would tell him.

 

After an hour I heard the telephone ring. My mother answered and, down the hall, I heard her say, No. No, she’s asleep. That’s all right. May I take a message?

 

A moment later I heard her quick footsteps, and then she came into my room, her hair in orange curlers, clutching her bathrobe at her waist.

 

She was wide eyed when she told me who it was. She whispered his name as if afraid that he would hear.

 

I had told her nothing about the party except that it had gone badly and that I wasn’t sure if I was fired. I hadn’t told her that he would be there, nor that he was there, nor that I had spoken to him. I’d been superstitious beforehand and ashamed after the fact. To my mother, therefore, it was a miracle that the writer was calling me at home—some sort of divine intervention.

 

Is it a joke or is it real? Should I tell him you’re here? whispered my mother, pointing back at her room, where the telephone was.

 

I’ll tell him, I said. I got out of bed. My mother followed me and stood in the doorway of her bedroom, her arms crossed, shaking her head slightly in happy disbelief.

I didn’t have any time to be nervous, and I felt in fact that I had grown braver over the last two months—I’d disappointed myself so badly that there wasn’t much else to be afraid of.

I put the phone to my ear and listened for a moment before saying anything. I could hear the writer breathing on the other end, a brief clearing of his throat, a dog barking twice in the background. I could hear the ticking of the clock on my mother’s bedside table.

 

Hello, I said, finally, and the writer said how sorry he was to be calling so late, and to have woken me up. How stupid I am, said the writer.

 

I said nothing. I was waiting.

 

You’ll never guess what I found in the pocket of some pants I never wear, said the writer.

 

What, I said.

 

A handkerchief, said the writer. Behind that, your story.

 

It took me a long time to remember who you were, said the writer.

 

It was really very good, said the writer.

 

Except for where it was bad, said the writer.

 

I’d like to meet with you to discuss it, said the writer.

 

Are you there, said the writer.

 

When the conversation ended I continued to hold the telephone to my ear. I had my back to my mother, who was beside herself with the particular brand of joy a mother must feel when she is convinced that her directionless child is about to tack one way or the other.

Are you still talking to him? she whispered, and I ignored her, cradling the telephone, listening to my own breathing in the receiver.

 

He was going to Florida for a long weekend, so we made a date to meet the following week at a fancy restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn, a restaurant that my mother had been to once as a girl and that now occupied a central place in her catalog of memories as one of the very most elegant places she had ever been. When I told her where I was meeting him she gasped.

 

What will you wear, she lamented.

 

I spent the weekend writing for the first time since the party. I began a new short story, different in style from any other I had written, and finished it by Sunday night. On Monday, at work, I typed it up furtively, in between assignments.

 

The evening of my meeting with the writer, I left the house before my mother could comment on my outfit and arrived in Downtown Brooklyn before I thought the writer would be there. We were meeting at eight-thirty, which was later than I’d ever had dinner in my life. I wanted to beat him to the restaurant so that I could arrange myself carefully at the table. I had brought my newest story, and I’d tucked it into my own copy of the Faulkner book he’d taken off the shelf at the party, two months before. I was planning to be casually reading it when he walked in. But I found, when I got there, that he was even earlier than I: I stopped when I saw him through the large front windows of the place, sitting at a table, in profile to me. It was dark outside already and bright in the restaurant, so perhaps he couldn’t see me on the street—but I saw him.

 

There he was: a jig in his foot, swiping his chin with his whole hand every so often, wearing a brown corduroy blazer, small as I remembered, smaller. He was watching the door for me. He leaned back in his chair and then forward. I watched him. A waitress walked past and he followed her with his eyes. A woman received shocking news from her companion and her hands went into the air in surprise, and stayed there, as if she were surrendering. The writer flagged the waitress down and ordered something from her, a drink, a whiskey. Again he leaned forward and back. He checked his watch. When the waitress brought his drink he sipped too hard and coughed and spilled, sending a small shower down the front of himself, then dabbing at his shirt with a cloth napkin.

It was a cold November and I hadn’t dressed enough. I put my arms around myself but found I couldn’t move—I was entranced. The writer reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and removed a stack of papers, folded into a small thick square. It was my story. I was sure of it.  He unfolded it and smoothed it with a fist. A bus went by behind me. From down the block came the sounds of a shouted argument I couldn’t understand.

If I had arrived before he did, I would have met him a second time. I would have been reading when he walked in. We would have had dinner. I don’t know the rest.

Instead I left him there, which was a cruelty, but I was young and felt it was my right. He was too much a person, sitting there in his corduroy coat—too fragile—early for dinner, spilling and softly cursing, smoothing my story with the hand that had once gone into the glove that had once tapped me, hard, on the shoulder. I am ashamed to say I relished leaving him.

 

My employer’s apartment was a ten-minute walk away. I trotted there quickly and carelessly, once barely missing a car, once bumping hard into a man in a suit leaving Borough Hall late. My breath came out in short white clouds before me.

That night her block was empty. I walked to the spot on the sidewalk, across the street from her building, where I had stood months before, watching her through the window as she wept in the arms of the writer. I closed my eyes before I looked up to the third floor, imagining that I would see her family framed there like a painting, restored to its proper order: my employer and her husband and her son. But when I opened them I found I could see nothing. No one was home. No light was on.

 

I stood there for ten minutes and then twenty, an absurdly long time in the cold, watching her window like a jilted lover or a passionate swain. I was waiting to see what would happen next. At last, at last, I decided that at the count of five I would turn and walk to the subway. Before I did I swore my allegiance to the writer Laurel Hughes, who, as it turned out—as I told myself ardently, greenly—was the true object of my admiration. It was she, after all, who taught me how to finish a story.

Liz Moore is the author of the novels The Words of Every Song and Heft. A winner of the 2014 Rome Prize in Literature, she is a professor at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, where she lives. Her next novel, The Unseen World, will be published in June, 2016, by W.W. Norton.

 

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