Some books and authors discussed in this episode:
Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved: Stories
Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories / Cathedral / Where I’m Calling From
Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea / The Sun Also Rises / A Farewell to Arms
Grace Paley: Collected Stories / Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Stories / The Little Disturbances of Man
George Saunders: Tenth of December / CivilWarLand in Bad Decline / Pastoralia
“Welcome Lilah” by Rebecca Schiff (from The Bed Moved)
On the bus, I was jealous. I was jealous of the girl in front of me, jealous of the girl diagonal. I was jealous of the elderly Chinese woman sleeping by the window. It was the Chinatown Bus. The bus was taking me to see a guy who had come to see me twice, a guy who held doors, a guy who told me I was cute like he was trying to ward something off. He would find all of these girls cute. Any of us could step off the bus and be his girlfriend.
By the time I got off the bus, I was done with him. He was there anyway, waiting to take my bag. The problem was that it was his birthday. I had a box of Italian cookies and a card I had written on the bus.
“You are special,” I had written. It was the only thing I could think of that wasn’t a lie. Everyone was special. “I hope you like cookies . . . ,” I had added. That was a lie. I knew he liked cookies. The cookies were in one of those white boxes that make baked goods seem promising.
“Some may have broken,” I said. “They’ll still be good.”
“I can’t wait,” he said. He really liked cookies. He had told me many times, but what else did I know about him? He cared about real estate. His mother was dead. So was my dad. Cookies and real estate. I did not care. This was my first boyfriend since the last one.
Does it matter that we were in Boston? We had to stay at his dad’s house in Newton, since my unwanted boyfriend wouldn’t rent an apartment. He only wanted to own. I wanted to meet the dad, but we got in too late. We put the white box on the white countertop, an island bisecting the kitchen, just like in my mother’s house. His dad had the same cheeses in the refrigerator, the same jams. The house had the same quiet.
On a bright square of printer paper, the dad had left me a note, a note that maybe needed a comma.
“I made a reservation for tomorrow,” said the son.
“For all of us?” He’d mentioned father, sister, maybe grandpa.
“No, just us.”
I didn’t know his father, his sister, or his grandpa, but there had been a chance they’d be people I’d like to know. I wanted to watch him with people he didn’t find cute. Maybe I could blend into those people. Though maybe he found his sister cute—not unfeasible.
“I’m going to have one.” He opened the white box, and held up the kind with a fruit center, the dark womb of cookie.
“I wanted to meet your sister.”
I wouldn’t. After the birthday ended, I was getting on a bus going the other way. Still, I liked the idea of the sister. She was a singer, a guitar cradler. She wrote funny songs about tingly soap. She had a nickname. She was a lesbian. They made up songs together and missed their mom together and posed together on their dad’s refrigerator.
My name was hard to nick. Lie, I guess. Or Ah. This is my girlfriend, Ah. She’s sighing with pleasure. She’s having an orgasm. That’s not a problem for Ah. That’s not our problem. Our problem is death. The night her father died, Ah tore the dad and husband cartoons off the refrigerator, because she didn’t want to make fun of a family member who was no longer in the family. She tore down the couples in bed, hating each other. They didn’t look like her parents anyway.
“No, Bean, dinner’s going to be just the two of us,” he said on the landline with his sister, slinking cordless past his own fridge cartoons. He tiptoed to get something from the pantry, and I watched his pants, dark gray with a little stretch in them. He shook a box of cereal. I saw that he wasn’t a boy, my boyfriend, but a small, clean man. He had come straight from work. Work was law. Real estate was his area. He had a client dying of AIDS who was suing his sister over a house they’d both inherited. I liked him best when he talked about the case.
We woke up late on the birthday, Saturday. The father was already gone. We walked around a pond. He took me to the Newton library and read me a poem in one of those soundproof study rooms. I didn’t really hear the poem. When we left the library, I tried to call my friends who’d had a party the month before, the party where we’d met, but both of their voicemails picked up after no rings.
“Hey,” I said, over dinner with just us, “when you turned twenty, did you care about real estate then?”
We were high up on plump cushions, intimidated by our steaks.
“I guess. Sure.” He started to cut a piece.
“How about when you were sixteen?” I looked at my knife, fork, perfect on the white cloth. I didn’t want to bloody them. It occurred to me that he would pay for dinner and that the paying would matter after I broke up with him. I was taking pains to wait until the birthday was over, but unless I waited a week, it would still be his birthday. And he would have paid even if I had broken up over dinner, to show that he would.
“No, then I wanted to make films, I guess—documentaries.”
“What did you want to document?”
“I wasn’t thinking about what I would shoot. My mother.”
He excused himself to the bathroom, and I told the waiter it was his birthday. The waiter frowned like he knew I didn’t want to be the one surreptitiously ordering the one-candled mousse. It wasn’t my fault dinner had been changed to just us. If I didn’t sing the song, who would? It was his birthday.
Every time this guy went to the deli, he embarrassed me with deli flowers. He got cookies for himself. He apologized. He was officially good, and I enjoyed berating myself for not appreciating his goodness. What pleasure I took in scooting ahead to a door before he had a chance to hold it. I’d shove myself through, sometimes grabbing it back and holding it for him, winning a race against chivalry nobody but me knew I had signed up for.
When we got back to the house, it was just like the night before, except for feeling full in an expensive way. The dad was asleep again. The lights were left on in the kitchen again. We started making tea. We started making out. I got down on my knees. I was happier than I’d been, suddenly. It was like when a kid goes underwater and gets to hear her own quiet for the first time all day. Down there was sealed off from his mild wrong, the vague suck of him. I sucked. I held on. The teapot squealed and I hissed, “Turn it off.”
“Maybe we should go up?”
Then we were jogging through the living room, past candelabra in the fireplace, and Marilyn Monroe framed in the corner, and I’m thinking, “The dad decorates?” I wished we’d stayed in the kitchen. But he had his pants. He was up the stairs. The sheets on the guest bed hadn’t been changed recently, since there had been no guests. The room had permanent guest bed smell. The room was maybe a room for a visitor who’d come to see the sick parent, a room for a visiting female relative who always knows more than you do about the statistics of your parent’s illness, the chances of her sibling’s or her cousin’s survival, and so unpacks her toiletries and waits at the kitchen table to ambush you with printer pages, with sighs, when you’re trying to just get home from school, to snack on fruit-filled cookies or jams or whatever it is you snack on, while your parent is fighting statistics upstairs.
Ovarian—does anyone survive that? What my dad had, nobody survives. Okay, somebody does, and the guy gets an article written about him in a journal of hope. One guy, hang gliding, balding in a wet suit, gets to continue to do extreme sports. My dad had sports, but maybe they weren’t extreme enough. Nobody wants to rescue a guy who gets to continue jogging.
My bag was on the floor, clothes erupting out of it, starting their sickening sprawl across the carpet, underwear hang gliding in the jeans. I was at the door, pushing in the lock, but it wouldn’t catch.
“Lilah, he’s definitely sleeping.”
“Maybe we should go back downstairs.”
Documentarian—that’s what everyone wants to be before they decide to be something else. It’s a good imagined profession. Creative, yet factual. Lions, yet poor people. Shots through the grass, the hut, the chew. Or snakes that don’t chew, that just suck the bump down.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said. I went down the hall and peed, peed through the turn-on swell, then washed my hands with a gray ball of soap. It didn’t tingle. I had never had a boyfriend I hadn’t liked. The one before this, I had liked him a lot. He was captain of his street hockey team. He carried his stick around, even on days when there was no practice, even though he was thirty-three. He probably still carries it around.
Back in the guest room, I said, “Listen.” I said, “I feel.” He backed onto the guest bed, pulled me on top of him to stop “I feel.”
“Okay,” I said. He smiled, relieved. We were still on. It was still his birthday. The track lighting lit the wine scabbed on his lip, gave his mouth a little Marilyn in the corner. I sat on his mouth. That had happened every time since we’d met, and made it feel like we’d known each other longer.
“Keep going,” I said. It was my version of “Don’t stop.”
“Good!” I said.
“You’re doing great,” I said.
“Can you breathe?” I said.
He hummed the first few bars of “Happy birthday.”
“Hold it,” I said, climbing off his head. “You were doing great stuff, but I feel a little nauseous right now.”
“From the wine?”
“A little. I’m not going to throw up.”
Disappointed, he tried to make it up with a snuggle, a hairstroke/whisper move. I felt sorry for myself for all the times I had been on the other side, whispering. It wasn’t just the hockey captain. There were others, guys who’d let me hopelessly cuddle them for months, years. How had they let me go on, me not knowing what they knew? In return, I would agree to let them be depressed.
Nobody had ever liked anybody.
From the book THE BED MOVED by Rebecca Schiff, copyright © 2016 by Rebecca Schiff. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Rebecca Schiff graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program, where she received a Berg Fellowship and a Henfield Prize. She lives in Brooklyn.