(Before we begin, here's a little excerpt from the poem I feel guilty about using! Atlantis, of course, is a lost island from mythology. The poem is by Mark Doty and is actually about the AIDS epidemic (hence why I feel really bad about subverting it to suit my perverse Cheers obsession), but I think this little fragment works.
Now the tide's begun
its clockwork turn, pouring,
in the day's hourglass,
toward the other side of the world,
and our dependable marsh reappears
—emptied of that starched and angular grace
that spirited the ether, lessened,
but here. And our ongoingness,
what there'll be of us? Look,
love, the lost world
rising from the waters again:
our continent, where it always was,
emerging from the half-light, unforgettable,
Kevin arrived early, as he customarily did, and so she invited him into the living room to wait for her. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked. "I won't be long, I just need to finish an email and then we can go."
"To your publisher?" he asked brightly, and before she could respond he added, "No, my dear, nothing to drink. I would like to get to Ojai sooner rather than later – before the midday sun descends upon the valley, you know, with its impossible heat." These last words he said slowly, musingly, seemingly entranced by his own eloquence, and his fingers coiled in a vague, contemplative gesture. It was something he did often, and something she was also inclined towards, and so for this reason he left her feeling terribly ill at ease and embarrassed for both of them, recognizing a desperation in the arrogance that underscored his habits. Kevin was a failed writer, who had self-published two wildly unsuccessful novels, and so these lapses seemed to her a descent into fantasy; when he spoke like this, his focus utterly inward, he was imagining that he had something of importance to say. In her younger years she had been convinced of exactly the same thing, but now – as she was nearing sixty and perpetually out of work after losing her job as a screenwriter – she sometimes worried that her conviction was equally delusional, and that others viewed her as she viewed him. She smirked inwardly as she picked up her laptop and seated herself at the kitchen table, rereading the start of her email.
Kevin was right; she was writing to her publisher, or rather, a prospective publisher who she feared was slowly losing patience with her. In the beginning he had indulged her incessant inquiries, remarking that he saw a great deal of potential in her work, but it had been almost a year since their correspondence began and he still found her revisions unsatisfactory, refusing to publish her book. She was on the fifth draft of her novel and had been working on it, almost nonstop, for twenty years, but for the first time in her life she was beginning to feel that her confidence had been genuinely rattled and she was stuck. She had no idea what to write, how to fix the problems – and what was worse, she hardly cared. Only Kevin sang her praises these days.
"My darling!" he exclaimed when she asked him, hesitantly, if he thought perhaps the manuscript was too long. "You have crafted three thousand perfect pages. Any omission could only detract from this stunning effort. Do not take the publisher's words to heart, no great artist is appreciated in his own time."
In his own time. Was he using the masculine as a gender-neutral third person pronoun, as did the French, or was he actually talking about himself? She suspected the latter and it nauseated her, not because she was irritated by his egotism but because his blundering self-absorption seemed to awaken within her terrifying doubt. Where had this come from? She had always had a few insecurities, like everyone, but for the most part she had been remarkably confident in herself. Now she felt that her entire identity was disintegrating, that she was inept and useless. No one would publish her novel, no one would produce her play, no one would hire her to write for TV, and Kevin was her only friend. She hadn't been this down-and-out since Sumner had abandoned her at Cheers all those years ago, and even then, she was young. Now she was old, and starting to fear she had little to show for all the time that had elapsed.
She did like Kevin, in a grudging way, mostly because he liked her quite a lot. They had met at a writing seminar at UCLA and when she described her manuscript to him he took immediate interest, requesting she send it. Despite its imposing length he finished it in under two weeks and sent her a lengthy email of praise, after which she had invited him out to lunch and a strange kinship developed between him. She called it a kinship because she could not conceive of it as a romance, although she knew this was how he viewed it. But to her they were too pathetic to deserve such a distinction, unable to become lovers because there was no real fight left in either of them; they had been subdued and made docile by their lives.
"Diane," Kevin said suddenly. She looked up from her computer and saw that he was rifling through her mail, which she had left on the coffee table.
"Kevin, can you please not read my letters?" she asked dully. At this he let out a guffaw of laughter, apparently amused that she would make such an accusation.
"Darling, I wasn't reading them, just looking at the envelopes. I apologize if you perceive this as an invasion of privacy, but my curiosity has been piqued and I must ask… You are a correspondent of Doctor Frasier Crane?"
"Oh," she said, surprised by the question. "Yes, he's an old friend."
"I should have known!" he cried. "Brilliant minds are drawn to each other, of course – it's how we met! I am a longtime admirer of Doctor Crane's work. How exactly did you come to know him?"
She paused for a moment, wondering how to best explain it. Should she start with the part where he was her therapist at a sanitarium, or the part where she left him at the altar in Italy? Who, she wondered morbidly, would be more enchanting to him: Diane the ruthless siren or Diane the lunatic? And then these thoughts reshaped themselves into new, semi-related thoughts, and without being able to stop herself she conjured an image of the bar in her mind's eye, a perfect replica – as if it had been preserved in tree sap for over twenty years. She felt sick, and replied brusquely, "It's a long story."
"I see," he said.
"He's speaking at Berkeley next weekend," she said, hoping to direct the conversation back towards the present. "That's why he wrote, he invited me to come."
"How splendid!" Kevin exclaimed, clapping his hands together, and then he turned to peer at his watch. "Would you mind terribly if we left soon?" he asked. "I meant this to be a surprise, but there's someone waiting in the car who I want you to meet. I think you'll like him a lot."
"What?" she said. "Who?"
"You'll see," he grinned, winking at her.
She finished the email and they traipsed from the house together, a one-story bungalow in Culver City. She had lived there for almost five years, ever since she lost her job and beach house. Although she did not find it altogether unpleasant, it was, like much of Los Angeles, rather void of character, empty of substance.
"Diane," Kevin declared, proudly, when they reached the car. "I'd like you to meet Sam."
She had been extracting a piece of gum from her purse and jolted to attention, looking up to meet his eyes with an almost frenzied shock. But when he opened the front door of the car, a black Labrador retriever bounded out and trotted around her happily, pressing its wet nose to her hand. She followed its movements warily, extending a hand to pat it once on the head, and then eased away. Kevin looked concerned.
"You're not afraid of dogs, are you?" he asked.
"Uh," she hesitated. "No, not particularly, it was just…"
"Ah," he interrupted, and she was glad for it, because she had no idea how she had intended to finish her sentence. "You had a bad experience? Were you bit?"
"Yes," she said quickly, embracing the alibi. "Hard."
"I see," he nodded sagely. "Yes, they say dogs can smell fear, and it may be that you provoked him without realizing it. But you needn't worry about old Sam here, he was a restless thing when he was younger, but he's getting quite old now and doesn't like to do much more than lay out in the sun."
"That's… nice," Diane replied uncomfortably. Kevin opened the back door and patted the seat with his hand.
"In here, old boy," he instructed, and Sam-the-dog clambered inside at his command. "Diane gets the front seat today."
The dog was evidently not very well trained, or at least not in the habit of behaving himself in cars, because he would not sit still and continually squeezed his head into the space between the two front seats, nudging Diane with his nose. Every few minutes, Kevin would have to push him back. She could not decide if his determination annoyed or amused her, and she watched the dog out of the corner of her eyes with a guarded wariness. He had a drooping, goofy-looking face, with floppy ears and a long, pink tongue that lolled from his mouth, his expression a strange mixture of sheepishness and contented pride. He seemed to know that he was not supposed to climb into Diane's lap, but did not particularly care and kept trying anyway, no matter how fruitless his attempts were.
"You took his seat," Kevin explained, shrugging.
"I'm sorry," she said, inanely, to no one in particular.
"Don't be," he answered courteously, and clapped his hand over hers as he continued speaking. "Ah, Diane, I really do think you'll learn to love Sam in time. It's normal to be frightened, of course, since dogs can be so unpredictable, but I can't think of a better companion. There is no better feeling than that of being loved unconditionally. Such loyalty! He doesn't care what I do or say, he just likes my company."
Kevin had no idea what he was doing to her, so she couldn't tell him to stop; instead she squeezed the metallic base of the seat until her knuckles were white and stared straight ahead at the road. "That's lovely," she said at first, her voice lifeless and void of inflection, but his words continued to exert themselves on her like weights, and finally she had no choice but to struggle against them – even if it was to be in vain.
"But doesn't it bother you?" she burst suddenly. "That he doesn't have any opinions of his own, or love the same things you do, or take any real interest in your work? Can that really be enough? Is just… love… really enough?"
"Diane," Kevin said, his eyes narrowed in bemusement and his lips twisted into a questioning smile. "We are talking about a dog here, in case you forgot."
"Oh," she blushed. "Right."
This detail had, perhaps, slipped her mind.