I wouldn’t call myself a muse. We were just fooling around, but it was regular enough that I started to spend nights and stay for breakfast even though I don’t really eat breakfast, but I always pretended I wanted scrambled eggs and herbed goat cheese and half of his berry smoothie because he thought I was always hungry, and I liked it that way.
The first morning I made a bad joke about how I assumed all poets just ate cold plums for breakfast, and he gave me a look like, oh. He didn’t extrapolate on the look. He wasn’t really a poet anymore, so maybe it was that. Now in his early forties he wrote what everyone assumed was autofiction, and his last book—a moody diaristic novel about a brief affair he had with a famous artist, a sexagenarian painter—had garnered him a couple literary awards and the kind of fame that extends its arms to queer subcultures but is tethered to academia and book Twitter.
But he was famous enough to get the kind of advances and grants that pay the mortgage on a two-bedroom midcentury condo in Diamond Heights. It was an odd place, with low popcorn ceilings and gray carpeting throughout, except in the kitchen, which was all dark wood and black appliances—even the fridge was black. The carpeting was an HOA regulation, he told me. “Because sound.”
His living room had built-in bookcases, and on the walls were a couple of paintings of bluish, naked men contorted and disfigured. He told me they were neo-expressionist when really they were neo-figurative. They looked like they were done by an ambitious child, but I told him they were great, wow. He had a balcony that looked out over the city—from Noe Valley to the Bay Bridge—but the apartment complex was high up on the hill, and every time I was there it was cold and foggy. The plate-glass doors to the balcony were off the carpeted dining area which connected to the kitchen via a dark-granite countertop. He always sat me on a stool on the carpeted side of that countertop, and he fed me eggs and toast and stood in the kitchen surrounded by black appliances and funereal cherry wood cabinets. He was of a milky complexion with a soft brown beard and shiny bald head, and his skin was luminescent. He wore tighty-whities, and the fog-diffused light that shone from the plate-glass doors behind me would light him up like an X-ray in that morbid kitchen.
We met at an award thing—the lit journal I read for was giving a hunk of metal to a well-connected woman in hopes of encouraging better connections for the journal, and it seemed like everyone else there was under the same guise of establishing stronger ties in hopes of further publication and recognition. It was a weird event, and I spent most the time eating canapes and drinking white wine. Every time I turned around, for some reason, Joyce Carol Oates was a couple inches away. It became ludicrous, and by the time I was drunk enough to talk to anyone, I was too drunk, and I went up to him and said, “You’re Jacob Woods, right?”
“Yes,” he said. “And you are?”
“Trying to get the fuck away from Joyce Carol Oates,” I said. “I think she’s following me around the room.”
He didn’t laugh. I was sure he thought I was crass, but he looked down at me a moment (for at 6’4” he looked down on most things) before deciding what to say. “She probably wants you to sign up for her MasterClass.”
“I’m much more of a Great Courses Plus kind of guy,” I said.
At this he laughed and asked if I was a writer. I told him I was a writer from the hours of 12 am to 2 am every third Tuesday of every fourth month, and that the words were meaningless and trite but I at least tried to make them funny.
“I’m sure you’re a wonderful satirist,” he said, handing me a glass of champagne from a passing tray.
“And you must be a sadist,” I said. “Torturing people with compliments.”
He looked down again and smirked, stepped a little too close and said quietly so I’d have to lean into him, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
He watched me blush. I presume he thought I was evaluating my performative self-deprecation, but it was about the response I had formulated but didn’t say: I could be hard on you, if you wanted.
He looked to the door. Joyce Carol Oates was putting on her coat. “Your date is leaving,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m alone too.”
We were too drunk to take the stairs up to his third floor apartment, so we took the old style elevator with the porthole window and doors that you swing open. The elevator was also carpeted, and much brighter than the party or car we’d been in previously. He hunched a little in the small elevator, and a fluorescent light shone down over his head casting a long shadow on his face, highlighting his prominent cheekbones. The elevator was slow, and he reached his hand up behind my jacket and rubbed my lower back where my shirt was tucked into my underwear. I turned to him then and told him I had read his Drake Equation poems when I was in college, and I loved his balance of cynicism and earnestness, and that he had been one of the writers who inspired me to become a writer. Then he kissed me, and we were at his floor and I was going to his apartment.
Several weeks of late-night texts later and we got to the point of sharing meals, but only breakfasts. They were leisurely breakfasts and I would eat slowly and methodically and drink two cups of coffee. In the beginning we talked books. But his bookshelves were lined with novels by his contemporaries, and at the time I was only reading midcentury women with M names. Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Mavis Gallant, Mary McCarthy.
He told me he didn’t really like The Company She Keeps, and I said that maybe I didn’t really like the company I kept, and we sat silently for a moment. Then I laughed and he laughed, and he asked if I would do him a favor. He said that the night we met, at the award thing, the managing editor had offered him a quarterly interview column where he could ask poets and artists open-ended questions. “Twenty Questions, he wants to call it. I’m editing it down from a list of 50 or so. Can I try them out on you?”
“Okay,” I said. “But in return,” I stopped. I didn’t know what I wanted—maybe whatever the journal was paying him for these interviews considering my only remuneration for reading the slush pile was invites to awkward award ceremonies. In truth I didn’t know what I should ask for because when I was with him I wasn’t sure who I was, not yet—I was starting to live this sliver of my life fictionally, a choice I made because I was in a creative dry spell. I hadn’t written anything in months and shelved all my works-in-progress. I thought, maybe I could see with different eyes, maybe I could write from a different voice. I was so sick of myself and my humdrum routine of waiting tables and rejecting other people’s stories that I decided to be a character in his.
“In return,” I said coyly, “I’d like you to buy some half-and-half for when I’m over here.”
“Sure,” he said, but it was deep-voiced, heavy with disbelief. I think he saw me as the poor, starving young writer trying to hustle his way up the literary pyramid scheme. And I was sure he saw our sex as transactional. He no doubt pictured the favors I’d ask: a recommendation for a grant, a reference letter for a job, a suggestion to an editor about publishing my work. His fiction was full of transactional sex—the college boy who seduces the adjunct professor to get out of a final, the gallerist wife of the closeted old sculptor, the woman who finds a one-night stand because she’s ovulating and wants a baby.
He put his plate in the sink and said, “I’ll get some half-and-half.”
“Good,” I said. “I can’t keep drinking coffee with cloudy almond milk.”
On Wednesday morning, he asked, “What’s your earliest childhood memory?”
“My father having a seizure in the snow,” I said, “and my grandmother was screaming my name. It was Christmas, we were in Tahoe, and the cabin we were renting was an A-Frame. My mother had been in the hospital, I later learned, because she’d miscarried a day earlier. My father had never had a seizure before, and hasn’t had one since. No one knows what caused it. I don’t remember how the story resolves itself. My father is fine now. My grandmother is dead. But the memory I have is being conscious of not recognizing my grandmother’s voice in the moment. Which means I had earlier memories of my grandmother’s voice, but the first memory I have currently is about not recognizing what I already had a memory of.
“It was fear that I hadn’t recognized. I’d been afraid, but never her.”
On Sunday morning, he asked, “Who in your life has inspired you the most?”
I told him Oprah, and he scowled at me.