“If you don’t like it, why did you order it?”
“Who said I didn’t like it?”
“You don’t like it. I’m looking right at you. I can tell.”
“If you don’t like, just say you don’t like it. Hell; I’ll eat it.”
“Listen, Jeremy. I ordered the Codfish, and I’ll eat the Codfish. They put some kind of sauce on it or something. Doesn’t taste like the way I’m used to.”
“What did you say?”
“I said their codfish doesn’t taste the way I expected. But it’s fine, baby. Jesus, I’m eating it.”
“Codfish? Baby, that’s not codfish, it’s catfish. You ordered the catfish, not the codfish. Listen. It’s an easy mistake. You want me to eat it?”
“Jesus, Jeremy. I’m eating it already. Will you let me alone?”
“Anyway, look. Look! Right here, on the menu, it says clear as day, codfish in wine sauce.”
“You just have to be right, don’t you?”
Jeremy looked away from Lucy, and out through the large rectangular windows to his left. The snow was coming down a little harder, and blowing in wide circles. “Listen,” he said after a while. “This is a stupid argument. Let’s get out of here. Mine isn’t that good either.”
“If you don’t like it, why did you order it?”
“Jesus, Lucy, let’s not start this again, okay?”
Lucy didn’t say anything.
Lucy looked away from the table and frowned.
“Fine.” Jeremy stood up, and his napkin tumbled from his lap onto the red tablecloth. He put down a credit card. “I’m going. Go ahead and pay with that. I’ll catch up with you back at the apartment.”
“Where are you going?”
“For a walk.”
“Jesus, Jeremy, what do you mean you’re going for a walk? It’s twenty degrees out there, and look at it. It’s snowing like crazy.”
“I like the snow.”
“No you don’t. You’ve never liked the snow.”
“I do now.”
Outside, the snow came down in wet drifts, and stuck against Jeremy’s coat. He walked all the way down Park Avenue from 62nd street to where Park met Union Square. By the time he got downtown he was warm, if wet, and he even felt happy; the little bit of wine he’d had with dinner made the streetlights glow warm with the shoplights. The feeling made him want another drink, a brandy or cognac, so he ducked into a café off 12th Street.
It was quiet and empty in the café. There were several marble tables spread around, orange lights decorating the walls, and a Bach fugue playing low in the background. Jeremy sat down, and when the waitress came to the table he ordered a snifter of Remy-Martin along with the day’s paper. He looked outside at the snow, and thought about Lucy.
“Here’s your paper, sir. I hope the Times is okay.”
“The Times is just fine, thanks,” Jeremy said, turning from the window, and looking at the waitress. She was tall, dark haired. She had green eyes, a kind of exotic look. She looked like she might be Mediterranean. “Any articles you recommend? I haven’t had a chance to look at the paper today.”
“Well, I don’t know what your interests are…”
Jeremy smiled at her, a warm, sly smile. “The same as yours,” he said.
The waitress laughed, and took the paper back. She opened it. “Well,” she said, “if you’re into books and all that-,”
“I’m a writer.”
“You’re a writer? Really?”
“Well, when you say it like that, you make me feel self-conscious about it.”
“You don’t write great literature?”
Jeremy laughed. “Sure I do! And you?”
“Well, I like to read.” She handed the paper back to Jeremy, opened to the book section. “There’s a great review of Kimble’s new novel.”
Jeremy winced a little. Fucking Kimble. “No kidding? What’s the review say?”
“Well if I told you, I’d spoil the fun of you reading it for yourself. Have you heard of him?”
Yeah, Jeremy had heard of Martin Kimble all right. He’d even met him one night, at a book release party for another author. Jeremy had always been sort of ambivalent about Kimble’s writing. Great character writer, but his plots felt contrived. Wasn’t that the problem with lots of literary fiction? How to write great characters, a gripping plot, and keep your book literary, for whatever that meant. At the book release party Kimble was wildly drunk, and Jeremy caught up to him in a staircase. Kimble was smoking a joint. When he brought up his concerns with Kimble that night in the stairwell, Kimble frowned a bloated, ugly frown. Kimble was a big man, with a fat frame, and a fat face to match. Balding brown splotches of hair on his head, and clear indications in the lines of his face that all the years of hard drinking had taken their toll. His eyes were sharp, but dead. The guy looked jaded. And then he frowned that bloated, ugly frown and his face went into all sorts of contortions, like he was working something out in his head.
“Aren’t you Jeremy Cole?”
“You’ve heard of me? You even recognize me? Well, shit. Wonders never cease!” Jeremy had intended this to be a friendly way of beginning shop talk with Kimble, but Kimble’s frown just deepened, and he said:
“My plots feel contrived?”
“I didn’t mean it like that; I was just asking -,”
“And this from a writer of Pulp Mysteries or whatever the hell you write?”
“Jesus, Mr. Kimble, I was just saying –,”
“You’re a fucking hack. And you’re telling me how to write literary fiction? Hey, I don’t judge you for what you do. Whatever sells your writing, I guess. But don’t come to me, a fucking Pulp writer, and tell me I can’t write a decent fucking plot. The audacity of you fucking people.”
And that was that. Kimble had sauntered off, throwing down the roach of his joint, and walked back out into the ballroom, leaving Jeremy standing there a little embarrassed, ashamed, and angry. He slipped out into the ballroom, grabbed his coat from the coat check desk, and hailed a cab on West Houston. When he got home, he told Lucy about it, and she said, “Well, you can see why he’d be upset.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” Jeremy told the waitress. “A good writer. Writes exceptional characters.”
“I think so too,” she said.
“Like I said, go on and read it.”
Jeremy looked down at the paper. He’d heard about Kimble’s new novel. He hadn’t read any reviews of it yet, and he certainly hadn’t read the book itself, or anything about it; he’d been ignoring the book. “Reaching the Ideal through the Vulgar” He looked up from the paper. The waitress was standing over him, bent slightly forward at the waist, eyes focused on the paper.
“You have read the article, haven’t you?” Jeremy asked her. “I don’t want to take your copy of the paper if you were reading it.”
“Oh, I’ve read it a bunch of times,” she said. “I think it’s fascinating.”
Jeremy looked back at the paper, and kept reading. He was skimming mostly. The first paragraph was a quick description of Kimble’s previous work, the second a three sentence summary of the book’s plot – just tell me if you think it’s good or not, Jeremy thought, impatient flying down the page. Nothing committal. The review seemed kind of mixed.
He’d read it a little later.
“Have you read the book?” he asked, looking back up at the waitress.
“Sure I have,” she said, and her voice changed perceptibly, like she was talking very low to someone very far away, and she lost focus of the paper and smiled. “I’ve read everything by Martin Kimble.”
“You must be quite a fan!”
“Well, naturally,” she said. “I’m his fiancé.”
When Jeremy returned to the apartment, slightly drunk, a little happy, a little melancholy, and with a definite lurch to his step, Lucy was still up. She was sitting in bed reading. He came into the bedroom, and she looked up with a weary displeased grimace. Jeremy said as jovially as he could, “What’cha reading?”
Lucy closed the book, and put it down. “Naturally, you’ve been out drinking.”
“Do you know,” said Jeremy, kicking off his shoes by the heels without untying them, “who I met tonight?”
“Jeremy, you haven’t been yourself lately. Do you even realize how rude it was to walk out on me at dinner tonight? How embarrassing in front of all those people. The waitress looked at me like I was breaking her heart. She gave me a ridiculous discount and everything, she felt so bad for me. And then that sympathetic look. Oh God, how humiliating, like the girl stuck in the bad relationship everyone has to feel sorry for. I can just hear her now to her friends! Oh this poor woman. She really needs to get some self-esteem and leave him. Ugh!”
“Who is ever themselves?” Jeremy mused, coming over and sitting next to Lucy on the bed. He brushed back her hair. “After all, I left you my American Express. It’s everywhere you want to be.”
Lucy smacked him with a pillow. “You’re lucky I didn’t just take that card and fly to the Bahamas or something.”
Jeremy laughed. “Besides, never mind waitresses. You can’t stay mad at me, can you? Listen, Lucy. You remember that night I met Martin Kimble.”
Lucy laughed a smack of a “Ha!” and said, “How can I forget? Your great humiliation!”
Jeremy frowned and straightened up. “Well, I met his fiancé tonight.”
“Oh, really?” said Lucy. “How does she look?”
“She’s pretty. Not much my type, but she’s pretty.”
“Prettier than me? He didn’t one up you there too, did he?”
Jeremy eyes went dark, and he muttered, “Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been drinking tonight.”
“What do you expect me to do when I’m sitting here all night wondering where you went? Where did you go?”
“I went to this café downtown. The waitress was all about Martin Kimble. In the end it turns out she’s his fiancé.”
“It really is. She’s a lot more pleasant than he is, I can tell you that. And his new book…”
Lucy laughed. “You mean, CUNT?”
Jeremy smiled back at her. “Yeah, CUNT. Actually the review in the Times seemed sort of mixed. They did say it’s his best work in a while.”
“They always say that. Personally, I can’t stand the title alone. Makes me not want to read it.”
“Well, I’m glad we’re finally back on the same side.”
“Who said I was on your side? It’s a nasty little title. I don’t know why men write books at all. Men are too crude, stupid and insensitive to write books. If only women wrote books, there would be a lot more quality literature out there. I’ll tell you that much.”
“So why don’t you write a book?”
“What do I know about writing a book? I’d have to study it and all that. Besides, words are so… so imprecise. I work with numbers; I’ll stick to numbers thank you very much. They have their own music.”
Lucy was a statistician. It was the best way to describe her. Jeremy met her six years before at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. He’d been in the café doing research on a crime novel, and he ended up staying there the whole day, from morning ‘til night. Right up by the giant bay windows, with the sun coming in on a cold November morning, made warmer with his coffee, the café and the sun covering him in a lazy blanket. It was something he did often while doing research for a new novel; he’d spend all day at the café, come home, look over his notes, and then spend the evening at home writing. In the morning the place was pretty empty and quiet, and this was the best time of day to be there. By noon, the daytime crowds and NYU students began to fill up the place; by late afternoon, the entire Barnes & Noble was loud and crowded, and there was no way to be left alone at his prized bay window table. Once all the tables were filled up, people would sit across from other patrons at the same table. Sometimes people would sit at the bay window table with him even if there were other open available tables in the café, but there was too much good research material to do the work anywhere else.
On this particular November day, Jeremy was taking a break from his research to read through the paper. It was around one in the afternoon, and there were surprisingly, a couple tables still open. The sun was starting to brighten through the large bay windows; usually it hit full force around 2 or 2:30 this time of year. He was in the middle of an article about a kid who had been shot the night before in Brooklyn when a young, slightly plump woman in a purple shirt sat down across from him. She had a light copper complexion; he thought she might be Hispanic, maybe Arabic. He screwed up his face, annoyed, and then scanned the café, confirming to himself that she’d sat down at his table when there were other open tables available.
“I hope you don’t mind if I sit down for a minute,” she said. “It’s just for a minute. I’m on my break from lunch, and I wanted to sit and read this article. I come here sometimes to do that.”
Jeremy shrugged and looked back down at his paper. The girl moved her plate in front of her, and picked up what looked like a turkey sandwich. She took a bite, took a drink of juice, and darted her eyes quickly up and then quickly down. She repeated this a couple times. After a number of times, Jeremy looked up at the jerk of her chin, and their eyes met. A long, awkward, annoyed moment passed, and then she said:
“Are you reading about the boy who got shot last night in Brooklyn?”
There was another long silence, and now the awkwardness of it was a tangible presence at the table, almost like another person. He continued reading, but every word stuck to the page, and lost its life. He couldn’t concentrate.
He looked back up at her. Her eyes hadn’t left his forehead. “Why? Did you know him?”
“No,” she said. “But I heard about him.” Pause. “Did you know that last year there were six hundred sixty four murders in New York City?”
“I did not.”
“Six hundred sixty four. Can you imagine that? That’s fifty-five point three three three three three three murders every month.”
“But -!” she said triumphantly, “compare that number to ten years earlier: Two thousand two hundred and forty-five murders. All in the one year! Unthinkable. Do you know how many murders that is a month?”
“No, not off the top of-,”
“That’s one hundred and eighty-seven murders every month. It’s like genocide!”
“It sounds like a lot.”
“Well, that’s the record. For all time. It never got worse than that, but still.”
“But still. Indeed.” Pause. “Isn’t all this just a little but morbid?”
The girl shrugged. “I’m not the one reading an article about a kid that got shot in Brooklyn.”
Jeremy laughed. “Is that how you always begin your conversations?”
“It’s an icebreaker.” Pause. “Of sorts.” Pause. “Hi. My name is Lucy.” She stuck out her hand. Jeremy looked at her, with her hand outstretched, and her smooth pretty face, hickory eyes, and cool smile. He liked her.
“Jeremy,” he said, taking her hand. “Jeremy Cole.”
“That’s what I thought.” She blushed. “I mean, that’s partly why I sat here, I hope you don’t mind. I thought you looked like him, but then celebrities never look like they do in their photographs.”
“Celebrities?” Jeremy smiled, and did a wide glance around the café. “Where? Who?”
“Oh, don’t be modest. I love your books.”
“To be honest, I didn’t know I had any other readers than me and my mother.”
Lucy laughed so suddenly that she hiccoughed on her juice. “Don’t be silly.”
“If you saw my sales…”
“I’d like to,” she said. “I mean, it’s not that I’m crazy; statistics. That’s what I do.”
“Crime statistics for the Bureau of Justice.”
“Now that could be interesting.”
“It is. It really is.”
“How did you get into that?”
“It’s a long story. I’ve always been fascinated by this stuff. By books like you write, too. All of it.”
“You work near here?”
“No kidding. Why don’t you let me buy you a drink after you get off work? You can tell me all about it.”
“You’ll still be here?”
Jeremy smiled at her. “Yeah. I’ll still be here. Meet me right back here. I’ll save your spot.”
“Well, you used to like my books,” Jeremy said. “Anyway, I’m sorry about tonight. I’m sorry I stormed out.”
“Here’s your card,” she said. She leaned over to the night table, and gave him his American Express card. “You’re a bastard thinking leaving that with me made everything all right.”
“Well, I didn’t think that. But you needed to pay for dinner, and money to get home, and listen: can’t I just say I’m sorry.”
“Yes; apology accepted.”
Jeremy paused. He didn’t know how to word the next question without it coming off as crass: “You didn’t make any extra purchases did you? Not that I care if you did, you know. Just to balance my books is all.”
“As a matter of fact, I did.” Pause. She smiled. “You don’t deserve one, but I bought you a gift.”
“Oh, Lucy. You shouldn’t have. After I behaved so badly. You didn’t need to do that.”
“Oh, yes I did.” She picked up the book she’d been reading from the other side of the bed. It was a brand new hardback copy of CUNT.
When Jeremy was thirty years old, he wrote a crime novel called Trumped. He’d written several long novels before that; literary novels, he supposed, but they felt stodgy to him. He let them sit. He spent the two years prior to writing Trumped depressed, unable to do much of anything. He flitted from one temp job to another. He wrote a couple short stories. He drank too much. On his thirtieth birthday, he decided to give up writing. It demanded too much of him, and besides, what was the point? Entertainment? His novels weren’t entertaining; not really; not like a good thriller. To enlighten and instruct? Why not just write essays? What was the point of writing fiction? A man who couldn’t talk straight wasn’t much of a man, anyway; if you had something to say, by God, say it. And then he’d find himself concocting plots to fit into ideas; it felt silly. There was no money to be made writing; it didn’t help him to meet people, oddly enough, it sort of had the opposite effect. Ultimately, the whole experience was a bloodletting. You spent time and energy writing, got giddy and lightheaded in the process, and when it was all over, you got nothing but a feeling of being tapped and drained of your physical and emotional resources.
But one night, coming home on the subway he overheard a couple kids on the train talking about the circumstances surrounding a murder. Each person was telling the story in a different kind of way – each of them jumping in over the other, and the story developed a kind of untellable layered mystery. So that when Jeremy got home that night, he sat down and started writing the story of a kid shot over a dice game in Brooklyn. It was told from multiple perspectives, but with a tight, fast, gripping pace. He finished the novel in three months easy, and at the end of those three months, he had Trumped. He sent it off to a publisher, and they accepted it right away.
Jeremy Cole had found his calling.
The next night Jeremy went back to the café where he’d met Kimble’s fiancé. It was cold, and yesterday’s heavy snow lay thick on the city in large black hills of ice and weeping white trees. He had his copy of CUNT with him. He tried to get out before Lucy came home from work, but she walked in just as he was throwing on his coat.
“Where are you going?”
Looking around, Jeremy grabbed Kimble’s book from the night table, and said, “I’m going to go start reading this thing. Figure I’ll duck in somewhere for a drink, and see if this guy’s all he thinks himself to be.”
“Will you be long?”
“That all depends on Kimble,” Jeremy said, smiling, and giving Lucy a light kiss. “I don’t know. You were reading it last night. What did you think?”
“You know my taste,” she said. “The guy bores me to death. I hate these pretentious literary authors.”
It was cold all right, but Jeremy found some warmth in those words of hers, as he walked the long way from the Upper East Side downtown through the slick slush of New York sidewalks. And the warmth and encouragement he got from those six simple words of hers – I hate these pretentious literary authors – made him feel guilty that he was going to see another girl.
Going to see another girl. Now that was an interesting way of thinking about it. Why, exactly was he going back to see this girl, whose name he didn’t even know, a girl engaged to a rival author who didn’t think of Jeremy Cole as anything but a hack pulp novelist, let alone a rival. What was it about her? Maybe that exotic, Mediterranean look. He’d always been attracted to dark exotic girls. It was the same thing with Lucy. There was something mysterious about an exotic looking girl, and smiling, there was nothing he liked more than a good mystery.
“You’re back,” said the waitress as he walked into the cozy little café.
Jeremy took off his coat and draped it over the chair. He flashed the book. “Figured I’d do a little reading.”
“Oh, no kidding!” she said. She took the book from him and turned it over in her hands a couple times. “You’re gonna love this thing, I promise.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You said you were a writer too, didn’t you?”
Jeremy forced a laugh. “Not great literature.”
“Well, have I heard of you?”
Jeremy hesitated. Had she? It was a good question. Kimble had heard of him. Certainly it was possible his fiancé had too. Especially since she was a reader. For the moment, he knew more about her than she knew about him, and that was an advantage. Giving away his name might change all that. Still…
The waitress paused, thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” She frowned. “I’m sorry. There are so many writers, and -,”
“Please, don’t apologize. Very few people have heard of me. I don’t take it personally at all.”
“Well, Mr. Jeremy Cole,” she said, holding out her hand. “My name is Maria.”
“Pleased to get to know you, Maria.”
“Likewise.” She handed the book back to Jeremy.
“Is this your favorite?”
“Of course. Everything new he does is my favorite. You know, they say a writer is only as good as his last book.”
“Is that what they say?”
“Are you working on anything now?” she asked.
This was a sore point for Jeremy. He hadn’t been at work on anything for a while. He’d hit a writers block that set in early the year before, and had lasted all the way through the year, dragged on through the holiday season, persisted through the new year, and left him here, in mid January, more than a year later, still with nothing to say. He’d tried everything he could think of to break the spell, but nothing worked: he read crime and pulp novels voraciously; he read the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Daily News, even the New York Press almost entirely, looking for ideas that might inspire him. Nothing. The problem was, as best he could assess it, the mystery had gone out of it. When he started writing Trumped, the act of writing had been as much a mystery as the story itself. Now everything seemed so easy, so technical, like a job you’re just by nature good at. He didn’t want to say formulaic. Forty-two years old, and he was finished! Dante started the Comedy at forty-two. What had he done, but write a handful of pulp novels, and find himself stuck dead in the Second Circle of Hell?
“Yes, actually I am.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Oh, well… you must know how writers are about works in progress.”
Maria smiled. “Yeah, yeah. Martin’s the same way. I never get to know anything about what he’s writing until he’s finished. Where do you write? At home?”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“Barnes & Noble. Union Square.”
“Well, that’s nice.”
“Where does Martin go to write?”
“He writes in his study.”
“Ah; lucky enough to have a study in New York City!”
“Why don’t you do your writing here?” asked Maria.
“And abandon the old B&N?”
“Every writer needs a change from time to time. You know, keep the inspiration fresh. When you need a break you can talk to me.”
“Well, maybe you have something there.” Pause. “I kind of like this place. It’s quieter here too.”
“Well, then, there you go. Besides, I want to know what you think of Martin’s book. You can keep me updated.”
Jeremy found that spending his days at the café with Maria brightened his life considerably. For one thing he was finding it easier to write. For another, it gave him something to look forward to in the daytimes, with Lucy out at work. He would write a little, chat with Maria some, read a little, and continue writing. It was much nicer than writing at Barnes & Noble, where he would inevitably end up sharing a table with a stranger, and where he had the distraction of the growing crowds as the mornings became afternoons, and the afternoons evenings.
He was even enjoying Kimble’s novel. Sure, it was a little too literary, too many references, and asides into highfaluting ideas, but all in all it wasn’t such a bad read. Mostly, he tried to see what about Kimble as a writer impressed Maria so much.
After a week of going to the café every day, he came in one morning, sat down and Maria greeted him beaming.
“Hello, Mister Writer. Guess what?” she said.
“Oh, I don’t know. What?”
“I bought one of your books.”
“No kidding? Which one?”
“It’s called Trumped.”
“My virgin.” Jeremy smiled. “Have you started it?”
“I have,” she said, “and I don’t know why you said you don’t write great literature. I knew you were just being modest. That’s why I went out and bought it.”
“Trumped? Great literature? You’d be the first person to say so.”
“Oh, I doubt that. When I’m finished with it, I’m going to have Martin read it. You’ll see.”
“I bet you he’ll like it.”
“Have you… have you mentioned to him that you met me? That I’ve been coming to the café every day for the past week?”
Something sad and strange flashed in Maria’s eyes. Then she smiled. “I don’t tell Martin everything, you know.” Pause. “Listen. I should get back to work. Talk to you in a bit.”
Jeremy tried to say something as she turned to go, but his mouth went dry. What exactly did she mean? He felt a sense of relief she hadn’t mentioned him to Martin, but at the same time, a sense of dread that she eventually would. His head felt light. It’s not like there was anything going on between him and Maria. They’d just met a week ago. What – a man can’t come to the same spot to read and write everyday? He can’t develop a harmless friendship with his waitress? So why did he feel guilty, and why did he feel this sense of dread? He picked up his copy of CUNT, and looked at Martin’s picture on the inside jacket. That smug fuck. There he sat, in a loose jacket, a striped button down shirt, top couple buttons opened, and that same fat face, smiling back at Jeremy, as if to say: You will never have my life.
What would Martin say, when Maria mentioned she’d picked up a copy of Trumped? He could hear Kimble now, “By Jeremy Cole? What – that hack? He couldn’t write his way out of a brown paper bag. Matter of fact, I met him once, and you know what he had the audacity to say to me…?”
He closed the cunt, and put him down. He took out his notebook, and read through the last few paragraphs he’d written. Then he opened Kimble’s book again, and read a couple paragraphs at random. Certainly different styles; but then, both paragraphs were out of context. He couldn’t compare them. He went back and read the first paragraph of his draft, and then the first paragraph of Kimble’s book. He reread them. Kimble’s prose felt lighter. He read over his own first paragraph again. Maybe he was just too used to his own style. He read Kimble’s first paragraph. Fuck Kimble. His was a draft – a first one at that. Kimble’s was a finished product.
“What are you up to now?” said Maria, swinging back by his table.
Jeremy looked up at her, and said: “just writing.”
“Well, don’t let me interrupt.”
“No – not at all. You’re not interrupting. As a matter of fact, I’m glad you’re here. I wanted to reread the first paragraph of Trumped. Do you mind?”
“What an odd thing to ask. Do you know that Martin memorizes the first paragraphs of all his stories? He even has entire short stories of his memorized.”
“No kidding. Anyway, hold on. I’ll be right back with it.”
Fuck Kimble. Entire short stories memorized. Well, what’s the point of that? He could memorize entire stories if he wanted, but who could bear to walk around with their own expired voice constantly in their head? It was enough to remember short passages, phrases, worse yet reading old material. Maybe he should have stuck with his literary writing. He gave up on it so young; too soon. He suddenly had a desperate desire to pull out one of his old literary manuscripts, and read it over.
Maria came back with Trumped.
“I love how you begin this book,” she said, as she handed it to him. “It’s a beautiful paragraph. Martin would say the same. I know what he likes.”
A feeble smile. “That means a lot coming from you.”
“Do you want me to leave you with it for a little?”
“Thanks, Maria. If you don’t mind too much, that would be great.”
Jeremy watched Maria as she turned and walked to the back. You will never have my life.
He turned Trumped over, read the blurb on the back, read a couple review blurbs, all pretty good. People really connected with this book. No one ever connected to one of his books again like they had Trumped. It really was an inspired work. He opened it up, and looked at the picture of him, ten years younger, smiling, idealistic, happy. He flipped past the opening pages to the first chapter. Reading the first paragraph again, he was impressed. It was pretty good. He put it down, and reread Kimble’s first paragraph. Sure, Kimble was a more mature writer, but Trumped was written by a thirty year old man. Kimble hadn’t even been published yet. Jeremy chuckled. He put Kimble’s book to the side, and moved Trumped to the side, and he opened his notebook. Maria was inspiration. After six years with Lucy, tired and bored of his life, tired and bored of his own writing, and battling age and a growing inferiority complex, along came Maria, and changed everything. He tested out a couple sentences. He could feel the clarity in his head again; the words were coming naturally. Sentences appeared like incantations. Paragraphs. There was magic to literature, and he’d recaptured it.
For the next several weeks Jeremy went to the café daily. He spent the evenings and weekends with Lucy, but every weekday he spent all his time with Maria. It was the only time he was happy. The rest of the time he felt like he wasn’t even living his life. Like he was living a past life, one that he needed to shake off completely. Things hadn’t been well between him and Lucy for a while, but now they were getting worse.
“Jeremy, are you having an affair?” she’d ask, again and again, usually after lovemaking.
“An affair? What an imagination you have. And I’m supposed to be the writer.”
Then he’d turn over and go to sleep, dreaming of morning, when he’d be able to walk down to the café in the cold February wind, and see Maria again.
“What are we going to do on Valentines Day?” Lucy asked him one night, as they were lying in bed.
Valentines Day! It had completely slipped his mind.
“Jesus, Jeremy. It’s the ninth. If you had a job, you’d know these kinds of things.”
“A job! I have a job, Lucy, I’m a writer.”
“How has that been coming anyway? Any better?”
“Actually it has.”
“In the last three weeks I think I’ve written almost thirty-five thousand words. It’s coming along incredibly well. I’ve been getting a lot of reading done too.”
“Oh yeah? What’re you reading?”
“I’m reading that book you gave me by that bore of an author.”
Lucy laughed. “Kimble’s book? You are still reading Martin Kimble’s latest novel?”
“Well, why not? You bought it for me.”
“Why not! Why not, indeed.” Pause. “So, what do you think?”
“It’s not bad, actually. I’d even go so far as to say it’s pretty good.”
“I never thought I’d live to see the day.”
“I might not much care for the man, but I’d like to think that as a reader, I’m pretty good about being objective.”
“Whatever you say. That’s not the Jeremy Cole I know.”
“Well maybe you don’t know Jeremy Cole.”
It was the wrong thing to say. This was the first real conversation they’d had together since he started going to the café, and as soon as he said the words, he regretted it. He watched the lines in her face harden, and her expression sink, and her dark eyes sink into her cheeks, and she was trying very hard not to cry.
“I’m only joking of course,” he said.
“Yes, of course.”
On Valentines Day, Jeremy arranged for a bouquet of roses to be sent to Lucy at her work, even though he’d never done so before, and had even had talks with her about how tacky a practice he thought it was. He remembered his days back when he was temping, and he remembered how unoriginal and uninspired it seemed when women received these silly bouquets at the office. He remembered all the pettiness, and flat congratulations from the single women in the office, and it just made him wince to think back to the life of office politics.But, he sent Lucy roses all the same.
Valentines Day was a bright, crisp, cold sunny day, and just like every other day, he walked his way down to the café. The whole way there his heart raced. He would be spending Valentines Day with Maria! You will never live my life. Yeah, Kimble, fuck you too.
When he got to the café, he took his usual seat, and looked around. Something was wrong: Maria was usually waiting for him; she’d greet him at his seat, with, “Hello Mister Writer.” But today he didn’t see Maria anywhere. After sitting for a couple minutes, a young man, probably in his mid twenties came up to the table, and said: “May I take your order, sir?”
Jeremy looked around, flustered.
“Is there a problem, sir?”
“I’m – I’m a regular here. You must be new. I’ve never seen you before.”
“No, I just usually work weekend shifts. Been here a little while actually. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Maria. The girl who works here on the weekdays?” Pause. And then it occurred to him: Of course, Valentines Day. Why would Maria spend Valentines Day anywhere but with Kimble? “Listen, I’m sorry. It’s nothing. I – I was just expecting Maria. That’s all.”
“Oh, her.” The waiter laughed. “What a flake!”
“Maria quit this morning.”
Maria quit this morning?
“What do you mean she quit?”
“She just up and quit. She didn’t come in or anything. The manager said she called here this morning in all sorts of hysterics. He could barely make out what the hell she was talking about; but that’s that. She said she quit and would never come back to the café again. Boyfriend trouble, maybe. Fucking Valentines Day, man.”
“Maria quit this morning?”
“So, can I get you anything?”
Jeremy felt dizzy. “A whisky. A whisky, and a copy of today’s paper.”
What happened? Had Kimble broken things off with her? Another woman, maybe? These things always happened on Valentines Day… Should he try to get her phone number from the waiter? His thoughts were going faster than he could catch them. Slow down. Think this through. It had to be Kimble broke it off. Just like that scumbag. On Valentines Day, too, of all days. Maybe it was unavoidable; maybe the other woman showed up unexpectedly; maybe Maria showed up unexpectedly somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be. Whatever it was he’d find out. He’d get Maria’s number from the waiter, and he’d call her, and they’d go somewhere and have a drink, and he’d make sure she was taken care of, and he’d leave Lucy if he had to and be with Maria and they could spend afternoons at some other café together, where he could write and where she could read, and –
“You know what,” the waiter said, coming back to the table. “I’d bet my bottom dollar it has something to do with this.”
He threw down a copy of the New York Times, opened to the Entertainment section. The caption read, “AWARD WINNING AUTHOR MARTIN KIMBLE ANNOUNCES ENGAGEMENT TO ACTRESS.”
Jeremy looked back up at the waiter. “I didn’t know Maria was an actress.”
“Maria? An actress?” The waiter looked confused. “I don’t think Maria was an actress. What – you didn’t think -?” and then he started laughing.
“What? What in God’s name is so funny?”
“Oh, no no no no no. Maria was batty about this guy. Just adored him. In a creepy kind of way even. All she ever talked about was Martin Kimble this, Martin Kimble that. I’m sure she dreamt one day she’d marry him, but it’s not like she ever even met the guy. I’m sure this must’ve crushed her. Like I said, she was sort of flaky.” Pause. “You all set here? Can I get you anything else?”
“No. No. Just the check.”
As Jeremy collected his things, he thought about the long cold walk back uptown, and the long day ahead of him. He couldn’t write; he couldn’t think; he couldn’t do much of anything, but wait. He flipped the page, and saw a photograph of Kimble hand in hand with his fiancé. You’ll never have my life – and Jeremy realized that all along he’d been in love with a chimera; in fact, like Maria, he always had been, his whole life long. And there was nothing left now but to go home and wait for Lucy.
-Whit Frazier, 2007