I had been living with Jack for two years when I first noticed the door. It wasn’t a door the way I thought a door should be. There was no handlebar, no knob, no panel, no rail. It was a door because it led somewhere. Where it led to, I didn’t know.
The door came to my knowledge one hot Saturday afternoon early in May. Jack had gone to the city to see his publisher, and I, hungover from “just one more drink” last night, sat staring at the bookshelves in his reading room, scanning obscure titles and mentally adding them to the list of wisdom I have no intention on acquiring: The harm of coming into existence, Butter in a lordly dish, Missed periods and other grammar scares. Jack took delights in those books. He looked them up often for inspiration. I imagined Jack leaning against the bookcase, his bony hip slightly loose on one side, his left hand holding a book half open under the plain old lampshade, his right hand twisting the invisible moustache he was determined to grow one day. I imagined because I had never seen him reading in this room. I seldom venture in here. For one thing, it’s boring. It looks like it was furnished by a three year old who filled the room with only what he could pronounce: a table, a chair, a lamp, a bulletin board full of Jack’s scribble on post-it notes. And there are books. And books. And books. Not a painting. Not a picture. Not even one of those squishy balls you can squeeze in your hands when you’re stressed. “Too much distraction,” Jack once told me. There are writers who like to be in the company of people on a beautiful day, and there is Jack. He can only write when he is locked away from the things he loves: fun, sunshine, and me.
I don’t remember why I went into Jack’s reading room that afternoon, or why I decided to look under that specific bookcase. Chance. Fate. God willing. Whatever people call randomness of life nowadays. But I was in the room. I got up, poked around and realized that the bookcase had a bolt at the bottom, an innocuous-looking piece of wood tucked away in the shadow, invisible to the eyes of unsuspecting beholders. I disconnected the bolt and pushed. The midsection of the bookcase opened up like a revolving door, revealing a dark staircase spiraling into the ground. Jack had told me that the house had no basement. California is prone to earthquakes, so he had chosen to build this house on a solid rock with no room to wiggle should the ground toss and turn. Did Jack know about this? He should. He built the house. Then, where did the staircase lead?
I was contemplating the idea of exploring the staircase by myself when I heard Jack’s voice calling me in the living room. I was relieved. I had watched enough TV to know that nothing good ever came out of a dark, secret basement. I closed the bookcase, slid the bolt in and cleared out all the signs that might reveal I was here. Jack didn’t want me to know about the door. I didn’t want him to know that I did.
“I got you something for your hangover,” Jack handed me a pretty red and white paper box from one of those expensive bakeries in the city. I thanked and kissed him.
“How was your meeting?”
“As exciting as a meeting with your publisher could be. It was good only because the bar was already quite low.”
“That sounds awful,” I said, putting the paper box in the fridge. “Water?”
“Yes, please. Aren’t you going to open the box to see what’s inside?”
“It’s a cake, no?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no,” Jack said. “There are so many things I could have put inside that box. What could it be? Why did I put it in a bakery box? What is so special about it that made me choose it over all other possibilities?”
I had come back with a glass of water and was about to sit next to him on the couch.
“You always know how to make me do what you want,” I grumbled as I made that arduous journey to the fridge again. I took out the box, opened it. It was a cake: a sapless snowy piece of cake with a cherry on top. Jack grinned.
“That’s why I love you.”
I didn’t say anything.
“My meeting wasn’t that awful,” Jack kept on talking. He knew I could never stay mad at him for more than 30 seconds. “I finally met the marketing person for my book.” To Jack, meeting this person was like meeting his freshman year roommate for the first time. It was someone with whom he would spend the next six months working side by side, then one more month traveling together on book tours: 26 cities in 30 days. Sleeping in the same hotels. Sitting on the same planes. Looking at each other across the same awkward brunches and dinners.
“Do you like him?” I asked.
“Her,” Jack corrected me. “I don’t think I want to have an opinion of her.”
“Liar,” I said. “You have an opinion of everyone and everything in this world.”
I didn’t pursue the topic further. If he wanted to tell me about the girl, in time he would.
I think about the door often. I think about it when I wait on the young new riches and old sweet couples at the downtown café where I work. I think about it when I sit in a studio lobby with two dozens other girls who are all dressed more or less the same as me, counting down to my turn to audition for a role I have 0.01% chance of getting. I think about it when I’m out drinking with my friends at one of those live music bars, where struggling musicians get paid absolutely nothing to do the things they love. I have been with Jack for three years. If he has never told me about his basement, I wonder what else he has never told me about.
People always tell me that Jack is a catch, a significant improvement from my previous life choices. Unlike a string of my past lovers, when Jack tells people about his job, people actually want to continue the conversation in a civilized manner. “What is it like to date an author?” My friends often ask. “What is it like to read a book and know that one of the characters is you?” I don’t know. Jack has never written about me. He writes through me. He asks me about my day at the café: people I see, customers I serve, conversations I eavesdrop on. Jack says that when you are a waitress, you’re invisible. People don’t hesitate to speak out loud their most intimate secrets when you are waiting on them, as if you were just part of the furniture. I tell him about a retired high school teacher who comes daily to the café with a notebook in hand, asking everyone willing to talk if that person knows how to draw equations.
“Why is he doing that?” Jack asks.
“To prove that the American education system doesn’t work,” I say.
“How should I know? I’m not a retired high school teacher. I’m not even retired.”
I tell him about the Asian lady who orders latte with less milk. When I ask how much milk she would like, she insists that she wants it “just right”, and gets upset when I don’t understand what “just right” means. I tell him about a clueless college boy on a coffee date with a beautiful girl. She asks him what he is doing that Saturday and he replies: “Back and biceps. Saturday is back and biceps.”
Jack also wants me to act out characters in his story. He would burst out of his reading room, calling me with such urgency that makes me stop doing whatever I’m doing for fear that his life is in danger.
“Say, imagine you were an ambitious young artist and you just got a call from a dictator you disgust. He offered you the opportunity to do the project of your dream in his country. What would you say?”
“I am an ambitious young artist,” I would protest.
“No, seriously. What would you tell him on the phone?”
Or we would be eating out next to a perfectly nice and happy couple, and he would suggest something along the lines of: “How do you think his wife would react if you came over, doused that glass of wine on that man’s face, then walked away?”
I still don’t know what is behind the door. Whenever I’m home, Jack is also home. Being a writer, he either locks himself in his room or is out there in front of thousands of people waiting for him to sign their books. On the off chance that Jack is gone, I circle around in his reading room like a vulture waiting for an opportune moment to attack the door. Except that I’m not a vulture. I’m a chicken, with the feeble heart of a teenage chick. I’m afraid not only of the dark staircase, but also of what I might find at the end of it. What if it’s something that will make me lose feelings for Jack, and all that we have is gone? What if in there he keeps his feelings for his past lovers, and I realize that he never loves me as much as he did them? What if it’s a trap? The staircase is a mini scare house with boogeymen, spiders and a camera that records you in your ugliest and most dastard moment, and a speaker that screams to your face: “YOU WILL NEVER LIVE THIS DOWN”.
“Jack, have you ever lied to me?” I ask, hoping that it would give him an opening to the door. We are sitting at the candlelit dinner table, eating the pasta Jack cooks with kale in it. Like most writers and sophisticated people, he hates overhead lighting.
“Yes, of course,” Jack says. “Pass me the cheese, please.”
“When?” I put down my fork, not passing him the cheese.
“When we first met, I told you that I was in your neighborhood and asked if you would be free to meet. I lied. I was home. As soon as you said yes, I took a shower and drove over.”
“No,” Jack reaches for the cheese himself. “How about you? Have you ever lied to me?”
I think about Jack’s Mom. I don’t like her a bit, but I tell Jack that I like her to a certain degree. I think about the girls I have seen Jack with. I have imagined every single one of them seducing him, but I pretend that I don’t care. “I’m the cool girlfriend. I’m not jealous.” I think about the time when we ran into my ex and he stayed in my mind for the next couple of days. Jack asked me if something was wrong and I told him “nothing”.
“Yes,” I say.
Jack doesn’t ask me when, and I gladly drop the subject.
Jack wants to know when I would visit him during the book tour. “I need to check with my agent first,” I tell him. I have been putting a lot more effort into auditioning these days, not only taking auditions from my agent but also making contacts and reaching out to studios directly. Jack sighs. “You have the list of hotels I will be staying. Come when you can.”
I drop Jack off at the airport and watch as his scrawny body disappears behind security check. I’m excited. Maybe now that he’s gone, I will finally get around to see what’s behind the door.
But I’m in no rush. I have a whole month ahead of me to do it. I go about my day as usual. In the evening, friends come over to celebrate my temporary singlehood: booze, pizza and giant portions of fries. Nobody is here to complain about my eating habits. Nobody is here to remind me to turn off the overhead light every few seconds.
Everything is perfect, until I wake up in the middle of the night and realize I can’t go back to sleep.
Without Jack here, it grows, looming and menacing. The dark staircase spirals into the deepest corner of my dreams, awakening terrible things I have been trying to bury under my thoughts. They are not boogeymen or spiders. They are images of an old and grumpy me still working at the same café, and of Jack with his lifelong partner, someone who is not me.
Barbara, the girl in charge of marketing for Jack’s book, tags him on Facebook. I follow the post and look through her photos. There are pictures of her hiking, climbing, kayaking. There are pictures of her from her sorority years in college. There is also a photo of her and Jack, both happy and smiley, at a flea market in Phoenix. Barbara went to an elite school on the East Coast. She must be smart, like Jack. I wonder what they talk about during the month they are traveling together.
The first time window I have between auditions, I book a ticket to Chicago to see Jack. I go to his hotel and wait for him in the lobby. Jack doesn’t know that I’m here. It has been two weeks since we last saw each other. Whenever I ask him to facetime, he finds one excuse or another not to do it.
“God, I miss you,” he runs to hug me. He looks funny with a baby moustache. “I was worried that you would leave me suffering this trip all by myself.”
“Really?” I say. “Are you not having fun?”
“26 cities in 30 days, how could it be fun?”
“I don’t know. You are with Barbara and meeting new people and all.”
“Wait a second. Are you jealous?”
“I didn’t know what was going on in your head,” I say. “I asked you what you thought of Barbara, and you said you didn’t want to have an opinion.”
“I didn’t want to have an opinion of her because I didn’t want to say anything negative about the person I would be working with. I thought you already knew that it was my way of saying I didn’t like her.”
“How would I know? I didn’t graduate from an Ivy school,” I pout. “Why didn’t you want to facetime me then?”
“I want to surprise you with my moustache.”
“Silly you,” Jack shakes his head. “Silly, silly you.”
Jack had written the book’s prologue such that when you put together the first letter of each line, it says: “Liz, will you marry me”. It makes his readers go amok. At the café, I overhear two middle-aged women getting into a heated argument about who Liz might be. The New York Times runs an article about Jack’s neo-romanticism, double entendre on “romanticism”. My friends ask me when I will say yes.
I don’t know how to say yes to a question that isn’t asked at me. I wonder if I can just casually insert it somewhere mid-conversation: “Remember the time when you proposed to me, but not really?” The more time has passed, the more awkward it gets. We have never talked about marriage. Jack has never mentioned it even in passing. He just drops the bomb and waits to see how I blow up. To Jack, everything is a game. Whatever he does, he does it for kicks.
“Where is my ring?” I finally ask one Saturday evening when we are doing nothing at home and have run out of things to talk about.
“You proposed to me, didn’t you? “
“Yes, I did,” Jack says. He stops for a few seconds, during which time I have a mini heart attack thinking that he has changed his mind. “Your ring is waiting for you behind the door.”
It takes me a while to understand what door he is talking about. The door has been at the back of my mind for so long that, like the stain at a corner of a well-worn carpet, it no longer bothers me. I accept the existence of Jack’s secret door in the house, the way I accept that there are Math equations I can’t solve, that there are planets I can’t name, and that there is a part of Jack I will never know.
“How do you know that I know about the door?”
“I just do,” Jack shrugs.
“Can you go in there and get the ring for me?”
“Don’t you want to know what’s behind the door first before you decide?”
“I don’t need to know what is behind the door to decide. I love you all the same.”
There is a tinge of insecurity in Jack’s voice that somehow makes me smile. Oh, the almighty Jack is also afraid of rejection.
“Yes, really,” I say, shaking my head. Silly Jack. Silly, silly Jack.