all images & content © 2003 jacob miller
 
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Excerpt from Time Happens
by Jacob Miller

CHAPTER I

1


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.
In 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 to me.
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 night.
"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.

2

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.

3

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 help, Eliot.";
"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, no clues.
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.

4

From 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 of thing.
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.

5

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 leave you?";
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 do it.";
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 other.
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.

6

Have you never, at some point, found yourself seated before a glass of vodka and 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.

 
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