Excerpt from Time Happens
by Jacob Miller
Just how fragile our worlds can be sometimes astonishes me. I like to
think I'm an intelligent man with a sturdy enough self-image, but my own
thin line between a sense of ease and a sense of rage has been known,
I admit, with hardly any warning, to snap. A start. An end. What's there?
A wrinkled fortune extracted from a stale cookie. A sleeping pill located
at the bottom of a woman's jewelry box. A woman vanishing.
1984 I met Kate Maclaren - a girl who might've stepped out of Shakespeare's
Padua and landed on Long Island. What was it Petruchio called his Kate?
Sweet wench, foul shrew, bonny Kate, Kate the curst, the prettiest Kate,
Kate of Kate-Hell? After that, what remains? The stain Kate left on the
lip of a fluted champagne glass was enough to leave my own lips dry from
day one. It seems to me now I noticed that imprint of her lips before
I noticed her.
When I first met Kate Maclaren at a party thrown by a mutual friend, she
insisted that she didn't believe in serious relationships, loathed the
very idea of marriage and would never have children. But then hardly a
beat passed before she finished her drink, drew her shoulders back, put
down her glass, licked her lips, looked wistfully into the distance and
whispered what a shame it was, seeing how any kid we might have together,
sharing our combined features, could've been so beautiful.
Kate had a shock of wild curly auburn hair, long, delicate brush-like
eyelashes, enormous brown eyes, fair skin, full lips and a girlish frame,
with a thin waist that I could almost cover just by putting both my hands
around it till they were almost touching. As for herself, she'd small
hands, little girl hands that couldn't make it around my wrist. And yet
she had a woman's bust that almost seemed exaggerated appearing on such
a small frame. Still, she resisted being told she was beautiful. She insisted
instead that she knew she looked fuckable but that she was not beautiful.
"The Virgin Mary was beautiful,"; she'd say, "I'm just the sort of dark
woman that arouses men, but not to higher ideals, that I know.";
She was twenty-three years old then, still living at home with her family
and, after we started seeing each other, she wanted to keep our relationship
a secret from her family. I knew that as a Jewish man, and someone who
had not the remotest interest in being married, I would be a hard sell
for the Irish Catholic family. So I didn't care, just as I ignored the
fact that she would have been a hard sell to my Russian Jewish family
if my parents had still been alive. Still, nothing beyond her mattered
She was equally comfortable swapping shots of Old Bushmills, speaking
of Aristotle or shooting pool. That she knew the ancient Greeks as well
as she did and, at the same time, played a formidable game of eight ball
caught me off guard. What could I do? Drastic measures were called for.
After two months of dating and still not getting her to bed, after I'd
lost enough games of eight ball to amuse the well medicated Vietnam vets
who frequented the bar where I took her for drinks, after she'd bored
me to tears one night extolling the virtues of the free market system
and the importance of the presence of competition in bringing out the
best the market had to bear, I arranged for her to meet me at my apartment
on a Saturday night, before going out to dinner, at six o'clock and then
told six different women to call me at five minutes after six that same
"The presence of competition brings out the best"; - that's what she'd
said - so I took her at her word. And any woman I was in touch with back
then was unwittingly called into my plan. Two female cousins, three x
girl friends, my landlady. The week before our date I rushed off the phone
with each of these women who called me and then asked if they could please
call me back Saturday at that fateful time.
When Kate arrived I greeted her without a shirt, towel around my neck,
lather on my face, apologized that I was running a bit late and just had
to finish shaving, poured her four fingers of Old Bushmills and asked
her to give me five minutes, make herself to home and to answer the phone
for me if it rang. When the first call came in I shouted from the bathroom
that I really didn't want to speak to anyone but might be receiving an
important call from an editor and could she please say I wasn't there
but take a message.
After six phone calls in just as many minutes, all calls from different
women, by the time I finished shaving, put on a clean shirt and joined
her, she was looking at me in a very different way than she had before.
Eyes squinting, her already short skirt hiked at her thighs, shoulders
drawn back, her breasts arching upward in a youthful and defiant battle
posture, despite herself, despite her guard almost always being up, she
was intrigued. And the more I feigned embarrassment and discomfort at
all the calls that kept coming in from different women, the more intrigued
she became. Finally I asked if we could leave quickly, before the phone
rang again, and we went out for dinner.
We went to a Chinese restaurant that night. Ate fast, drank fast, then
found ourselves looking at two fortune cookies in a small plate. I handed
her one that had a slight crack in it and watched as she opened it. We
were both fairly drunk at that point and she thought nothing was out of
the ordinary until she unfolded the small piece of paper then read her
fortune: "You will fall in love with a tall Jewish poet.";
Of course I'd gone to the restaurant earlier that day to get some fortune
cookies, taken them home and spent the afternoon with a pair of tweezers
removing the fortunes in each and then, when I found one that, although
it had a slight crack in it, had an opening wide enough for me to insert
my own fortune in it, I planted my surprise. I'd measured the fortunes,
then typed my own on my IBM selectric typewriter, then cut the fortune
to size and inserted the small piece of paper into the cookie. When we
entered the restaurant that night I found the owner, (a short, little
old man who was forever bowing), passed him the fortune cookie I'd doctored
with my small piece of paper and winked.
On the way out of the restaurant I watched as Kate pocketed that fake
fortune then went up to the owner, whispered something to the little old
man, and kissed him on the cheek. I'm still not clear on what she said
to him. But nothing mattered after that. We were young and luxuriated
in the discovery of each other's bodies. Long brunches with drinks were
followed by long afternoons and evenings in bed. Her breasts grew slightly
larger from staying on the pill. And, being terrified of marriage myself
at that point, I would simply nod when she expressed her belief that all
marriages were doomed to set the man and woman at each other's throats.
An inexpensive hotel was located near her parents' house that she could
walk to. The Capri was perfect and we'd laugh at the older couples that
snuck through the lobby sheepishly in the middle of the day. That is until
the day we saw Kate's father retreating through the lobby with some strange
woman. I of course had not met him before but noticed the short, bald
man who slouched his shoulders, rushed ahead of the woman he was with
and averted his eyes when Kate saw him. I also noticed how Kate had immediately
turned pale at that moment. She later explained it to me - that the man
rushing out of the lobby had been her father and the woman he was with
had not been her mother - but Kate insisted it was nothing to her. Still,
after that she was unable to make love for several weeks, till she'd shaken
the image off. And again, weeks after that, she was back to swearing how
she would never be a romantic, never be sentimental, never become a parent,
never be anyone's wife.
And I actually believed her, took her at her word, never even dreamt she'd
save the fortune I'd doctored. Most of all, I was good at being oblivious
back then, and I'd certainly no inkling that one night I'd find myself,
sixteen years later, already having been married to her for so many years
only to discover she'd left me, taking our son with her, and that night,
as I hunted for a sleeping pill, I'd find that old fake fortune I'd made
in Kate's jewelry box she left behind, hidden under the cheap silk lining
at the bottom of the box, the small piece of paper wrinkled and a bit
yellowed by the years.
Months before she left, in the master bedroom of our modest apartment,
I recall staring at Kate's naked torso. It was the night the business
of Joseph's troubles first appeared. In the bed beside my desk, Kate was
sleeping, as she often used to, with the sheet and quilt kicked down to
her ankles. A clap of lightning illuminated the room. Kate rolled over.
On her stomach, her knees drawn up, her breasts pressing against the mattress,
she moved her mouth, pursing her lips against my pillow.
At that point, I'd been watching Kate for sixteen years, watched her moods
change, watched her body change, known her flights of temper, known her
flights of warmth, known every contradiction, drunk too much with her,
drunk not enough with her, drunk as much of her as I could swallow, said
too much and said not enough.
A flash of lightning illuminated each naked line from the nape of her
neck, through the arch of her spine, below her thin waist, to the perfectly
defined curve of her ass. I needed a cigarette. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't
stop wondering what words might be on Kate's lips as she kept moving her
mouth against my pillow. What was it she had to say that she couldn't
say awake but almost let slip as she slept?
Kate was always pleased that I was easily aroused by her body and just
as easily often pissed when I didn't know how to read her. There was a
powerful mix about her of a ‘just fuck me' attitude and ‘if
you don't understand me by now you're too dense for prayers' attitude.
On the other hand, when she was tender, I could think of no other person
in my life. But it had been awhile since I'd seen that side of her. Back
then I was already wondering what she was up to but accepted that people
and things are often uncertain. After all, what is certain? Manhattan,
the high rises we live in, that we come into this world alone and leave
it alone, that in between we tend to grapple with the mystery of another,
that our lovers are often enigmas to us, that my lover had a great ass.
Call me superficial - this is how the thinking can start and stop.
Just the day before it had struck me, on seeing our reflections in a dry
cleaner's storefront window, how old I looked next to Kate. Although she
is, in fact, only four years younger, as the years have gone by, my tendency
to appear older than I actually am, (a scalp of thin hair, a collection
of lines and shadows beneath my eyes), coupled with her tendency to appear
much younger, (the small waist, her athletic turns), left us already looking
like the classic upper east side, New York couple. Where I was a graying
stick in a stained coat, she was an auburn ride of young curves squeezed
into clean denim.
The reflections in the dry cleaner's shop window suggested to me all those
ridiculous pairs I've always detested, the wealthy man in his fifties
or sixties, working through a midlife crisis in his second or third marriage,
with a woman in her twenties. But then it struck me that where that older
man at least provided financial comforts to the younger woman, I, as a
struggling writer, brought little to Kate. And there was no garment, no
article I had to clean at that dry cleaner's back then as much as the
scrap of myself.
Back then, as often as I might have complimented Kate's body, grabbed
her or groped her, she'd feign disinterest then, with her back to me,
I knew she'd smile and walk slowly away with a delicate turn of her hips.
And what can I compare that to? Should I have told Kate that the turn
of her hips resembles the turn of a freshly poured drink settling in my
favorite glass? It's true, I do appreciate the rocking back and forth
turn of a drink, (which does still remind me of Kate's hips), I appreciate
the turn of every last drop, then need to drain it. But what's wrong with
that? Why shouldn't I enjoy a drink? Let it be added to the list: Manhattan,
the high rises we live in, the enigma that is called Kate, her great ass,
my need to get her back and my glass of the Russian remedy. What else
can be returned to?
Most folks say that the first novel came from Cervantes. I date the form
much earlier with a little book by Apuleius called The Golden Ass. In
Lucius Apuleius's work a Greek story is related concerning a young man
who travels to Thessaly, encounters a woman who drives him crazy and,
to get closer to that woman, seduces her maid and then, by "witchcraft";,
he is transformed into a donkey or jackass. The rest of the story shows
him as a pack animal, suffering all the torments of abuse such creatures
endure, until he can be transformed again into a man. But what better
conceit for the first novel in Western Civilization than the story of
a man who has become an ass through his fascination with a woman? Forget
gender issues, neutralize the premise - haven't we all been turned into
asses by love?
Of course, it can be argued that we actually turn ourselves, from time
to time, into asses. And perhaps each individual must bear responsibility
for being, from time to time, an ass. But lovers, it must be admitted,
can often accelerate the process. No matter - I began by looking at my
wife's ass and now have gone in an entirely different direction.
I recall that I couldn't sleep that night, months before she left. I was
watching Kate and letting my thoughts wander when the phone rang. It was
4 a.m. Kate and our three-year old son, Michael, were asleep. Joseph Strauss,
(who was most definitely not asleep), was calling from the 12th precinct.
Joseph, a student of mine and the son of my best friend, was speaking
in fragments. What I initially gathered was that he'd been arrested on
drunk and disorderly charges, as well as assault, and was being held overnight
in the precinct lock-up.
It unfolded for Joseph this way: the odor of beer and smoke, the sheen
left by a moist rag on the old oak bar, the din from the jukebox, a pounding
in his head that by itself was too much, then laughter from a nearby table,
then the words in his ear. Those words were exchanged for others and then
the face of the short, stocky, olive-skinned, older man was suddenly too
close to his own - his bulging eyes, too dark, his bulbous nose, too red,
his sneering smile, too nasty, too sinister. Just exactly how a beer mug
found Joseph's hand and became a weapon remains a question. But the glass
had met its mark fast and then the man was down, his fucking unbearable
face was looking up at him from the floor, his cheek was bleeding and
his sneering smile was gone.
The desk Sergeant had placed Joseph's possessions in an envelope. What
was there? He allowed me to look - shoelaces, a belt, seven dollars and
thirty-eight cents, and the antique Hamilton watch Joseph had received
as a gift from his father when he'd graduated from high school, four years
ago, when his father was still alive - to think that Ruben, my oldest
friend, was alive just a few years ago then - Back then Joseph's mother
wasn't staring at the phone each day when it rang, pacing, tugging at
her own hair and not answering the phone for fear of yet another debt
speaking to her with the same insistent and condescending words. Back
then she wasn't terrified of her telephone, wasn't convinced that it somehow
had it in for her. But Joseph had been assuring me that everything would
be fine soon, that his mother was only slightly nuts, that things would
take care of themselves, and I'd let it go at that.
As I dressed to go down to the police station that night, Kate woke up
and, after hearing as much as I knew about Joseph's trouble, she threw
down the gauntlet, connecting Joseph's mess inextricably to our own.
"At Ruben's funeral I promised his wife you'd be there for Joseph if he
was ever needing a father figure. You told me yourself to assure her we'd
"I know, Kate. Relax, that's why I'm going to see him now.";
"You know if you're nervous in front of him about this you'll just make
him more nervous than he probably already is.";
"I'm not nervous.";
"Then why'd you have to have a drink before getting dressed just now?";
"I thought you were asleep.";
"That's lovely, go to get the boy out of the drunk tank stinking yourself.
Is that your brilliant plan?";
"Kate, give me a break.";
"Why? You'll never be a good father to our own son if you haven't a clue
on how to help Joey, and if Mikey doesn't have any sort of father, what
am I doing here?";
Twenty minutes later, when I got downtown and was waiting to see Joseph,
the desk Sergeant in the precinct house, a barrel-chested man in blue
with a crew cut and an absurdly thick neck, didn't say a word as I kept
looking at Joseph's possessions, staring at them as if something in the
envelope might explain what had transpired, but of course I found no answers,
And so what the hell did I know? Shoelaces, a watch, a belt, some coins,
some currency. What can inanimate objects say? That they'll be around
longer than most of us, that given their longevity they've grown disinterested
in words, that they can measure time through a film of dust or from the
bottom of an official envelope?
Wild thoughts can scrape a person's skull at such times. My thoughts swam
a mile, treaded water and then looked for land. I nodded to the desk Sergeant
and pushed the envelope back across his desk.
my desk, after I returned home from the 12th precinct, I bent to Kate's
legs that night and caressed one of her ankles. In her sleep, she stretched
and then recoiled, pressing her shoulders further into the mattress, pushing
off her knees and lifting her ass higher, doing a sleepy dance with her
body, her perfect firm ass raised and wiggling as she slept, presenting
the ultimate moving target. At such times a gesture, a little touch, a
tired caress, and a stretch could start so much. Slowly, softly, I ran
two fingers, the index finger and the middle finger of my right hand,
down the nape of her neck and then down the line of her spine to the crack
of her ass. I stopped there and watched as she pressed her shoulders harder
into the mattress and lifted her backside further still.
Maybe this will sound creepy to some but I often used to play with her
this way and wondered at such times if she was waking up or if her movements
were pure instinct. That night the patter of rain on the sidewalk just
beyond our window increased and Kate's body in bed responded. Was it my
fingers that did the trick or the fingers of rain? No matter, even though
I was not above occasionally beginning to make love to Kate while she
was asleep, such that she'd wake with me inside her and let me take her
in her semi-conscious state, that night was not the night for that sort
Just then I couldn't say exactly what I was to Kate. A husband, a companion,
the father of her son, a few well targeted fingers in the dark, the movement
of the rain.
The need to help Joseph was complex and distracting in the midst of my
own troubles with Kate. It wasn't just that Kate had thrown down the gauntlet
and I had to prove my potential to be regarded as reasonable father material.
And it also wasn't just that I genuinely cared about Joseph and was fond
of him. There's also the matter of doing right by a shade, a ghost, or
a collection of memories.
My only friend who truly stood the test of time was Joseph's father, Ruben
Strauss. But what can I say about Ruben to explain my fascination with
a pair of shoelaces in an envelope at the 12th precinct? I grew up with
Ruben, the man who has been dead for some years now and yet remains for
me the boy, a few years older than me, with a cap gun, the boy who had
firecrackers before any of us did, the boy who fixed-up my bike with baseball
cards to snap in the wheel spokes, the boy who knew everything except
how to keep his own sneakers tied and constantly ran around with loose
shoelaces. Ruben, the boy who advanced my early lexicon of dirty words
more rapidly than any other acquaintance, the boy with whom I eventually
spent hours staring at the first pictures I ever saw of naked women in
the Playboy magazines he always somehow managed to get and then did my
best to conceal my earliest hard-ons.
Ruben was the boy with whom - if only I had spent half the number of hours
I spent talking with him about girls actually interacting with girls,
I might've gotten laid a few years earlier than my first time. But now,
so many years later, I wouldn't take back those years of suffering over
the schoolgirls we dreamed of for anything. Of course, we wanted nothing
more than to get laid. It was, to our young imaginations, something like
being Neil Armstrong, like walking on the moon, going to an unknown planet
in a horizontal posture - that was it, an astronaut with a huge hard-on,
that was the thing to be as far as our earliest American ambitions went
in the early 1960's. But you can't forget the other hopeless kid you suffer
through such years with, even if you become an asshole for a while and
convince yourself that you're too sophisticated and grown up to still
allow yourself to be attached to your own past. Added to this, Ruben once
saved my life.
It was a nasty winter the winter that Ruben saved me, at least so far
as the New York winters we'd known till then. Ruben was ten and I was
eight and we'd gone into the park determined to skate. Unfortunately,
neither of us really knew how to skate. Still, we'd borrowed old skates
from neighbors and trudged through the snow to a frozen lake in the park
to try. When we arrived, three older boys we didn't know who were playing
hockey immediately started making fun of us as we kept venturing a few
feet forward, ankles weak and wavering, and then falling on our butts
on the ice. But we didn't care.
Ruben kept stooping to try to retie the laces on his skates, which kept
unraveling and then tripping him up when they went under the blades of
his skates. But he never got it right and half the time only succeeded
in falling on the ice as he bent to retie his laces. Finally he pulled
them as tight as he could and one of his laces snapped so low that the
skate wouldn't stay on. Ruben still was determined to skate though and
decided he'd run back to his house to get another shoelace to use and
told me to wait for him. I recall watching him trudging back out of the
park as the snow fell and then hearing the voices of the older boys as
they skated over to me.
"Kid, can you get our puck?";
"Kid, help us out.";
"What's a matter? You ain't got the guts, scared?";
"Hey kid, you a chicken-shit?";
The puck from their hockey game had slid past the goal they'd designated
by two sticks on the ice and was lying on the thin ice at the other end
of the lake. I knew it was dangerous but as thin as the ice was there,
that's how thin my eight-year old sense of manhood felt. The challenge
had been leveled at me, albeit by three moronic boys. No matter - at the
time, it seemed to me, they presented a reasonable argument and assurances
that defeated me.
"We're too big for that ice but you're small, it'll hold you.";
"Anyway, what are you worried about? We're right here. You get in trouble
we got you covered. We're not going anywhere, kid. What - you think we'd
For a moment, I turned and watched the last traces of Ruben in the distance,
trudging through the snow, leaving the park, then I stood and turned toward
the black puck sitting on the thin ice. Suddenly I was nodding at the
three older boys and then moving toward the thin end of the lake. My skating
was wobbly; my ankles weak. What did I say at the start of this history?
Just how fragile our worlds can be sometimes astonishes me. Well, so it
does seem life's made of brittle stuff and, as far as that goes, I guess
ice is not the least of it.
At first I heard a sound, like the lake itself was moaning, but then the
ice smothered the sound. Then the ice around me seemed to buckle.
"Don't move kid and it won't crack.";
I stood as still as I could, looking at the ice at my feet, feeling my
ankles wobble and listened as the older boys debated my fate. Finally
the ice did crack though, and in a flash I was no longer on the lake but
in the lake, learning what a difference a preposition can make. As I felt
the cold water soaking my wool socks, my flannel long underwear, felt
the weight of my legs getting heavier as I kicked and hollered, I heard
the three elder moron boys departing.
"You want to get him - go for it, you'll fall in yourself.";
"Hey, let's beat it. Who's he to us? He'd just tell the cops we made him
And at the age of eight, I understood. Their reasoning was infallible
- they didn't want to leave me to drown in the freezing water but had
to. Such things happen - people leave each other; people abandon each
After a while I started to feel numb, my feet flailed about but couldn't
find the bottom; my hands kept breaking more and more ice each time I
tried to pull myself up and out. It was, come to think of it, a lot like
the end with Kate. The woman vanishes; the man shivers. Only Ruben showed
up after about ten minutes, found a stick, a knobby old broken branch,
and pulled me out of that lake and then ran me to his house.
Years later, after he took over his father's agency, Ruben was also my
agent. And I suppose I was initially flattered when he asked me to teach
his son, Joseph, and help him with his dream of becoming a poet. I knew
that I owed Ruben. What price can you put on your limbs being pulled out
of a freezing lake? So after Ruben died and Joseph came to live, and then
to starve, in New York, Kate and I of course opened our home to him. Kate
knew that Ruben and his wife, Norma, had both been only children and so
Joseph had no aunts or uncles. It was my job, she declared, (even as we
were getting ready for Ruben's funeral), to be ready to be a stand-in
dad for Joseph.
"But you'll probably screw it up if the boy ever has a serious problem.
I don't even know if we should speak of it to Norma at the funeral.";
It was textbook Kate - on the one hand, I admired that she thought first
of the grieving family as she did when I was so self absorbed in my own
grief over the loss of my best friend, on the other hand, she'd a hell
of a way of delivering her thoughtfulness. Still, years after that conversation,
when I was in the precinct house the night that Joseph was arrested and
the desk sergeant had asked about my relationship with Joseph, I did think
of Kate's words. Eventually he accepted that I was close enough quasi-family
that he let me see Joseph and speak with him. I also spoke with the arresting
officer who offered a vivid picture of the scene he encountered in the
bar. Finally, I also called a lawyer from the precinct house who agreed
to meet me at Joseph's arraignment.
After that what still comes back though is how, when I first saw those
damn shoelaces of Joseph's in that envelope at the precinct house, I couldn't
help seeing the damn untied, muddy and frozen laces of his father, Ruben.
And for a moment I imagined Ruben skating ahead of me and I could almost
see him again - a skinny kid gliding above that sheet of winter glass
in the park and, somehow, despite everything, he wasn't falling.
Have you never, at some point, found yourself seated before a glass of
then lifting your head suddenly, startled, certain someone was speaking
to you, only to realize - after rubbing your eyes, squinting, wiping the
sweat from your forehead, scanning every inch of the room you find yourself
in - that no person has uttered a word to you but it is, in fact, simply
the drink before you that you've heard? No matter, perhaps such sensitive
hearing is not as common as my own experiences might suggest to me.
Maybe I shouldn't be but I'm convinced there's no right or wrong as such
things go. Hell, I'm certainly no expert. In my own experiences, truth
be told, as I look back on it now, each conversation I've ever had with
a drink has tended to be one-sided and quite limited. I cannot even swear
for the language of a wide assortment of drinks. So what's any of it matter?
I can only confidently attest that a glass of vodka always utters the
same two words. It is always the same insidiously whispered refrain that
one hears from the Russian remedy. The two words: Time Happens.