Five Minutes Ago
Miller wanted to go to Rite Aid, but Lisa wanted him to go to Smith Drug, and this is what they found themselves fighting about in the sticky five minutes after she announced that her period was late. “It’s probably nothing,” she said. “Go to Smith and grab me an E.P.T. stick. And also some more Crest. We’re almost out.”
“There’s a new tube under the sink,” Miller told her. “What do you mean, it’s probably nothing? How late are you?”
Lisa sighed and stuck a pen in between the pages of the book she was reading, to hold her place. This was how she liked to fight: sighing and feigning distraction. The book was Mrs. Bridge. “Six days. And there’s no new tube under the sink—that’s the one we just finished. Go to Smith Drug,” she repeated.
“Rite Aid’s closer.”
“It’s raining out.”
“I thought we were going to support the little guys.”
“You might be pregnant.”
“Miller,” she said to him, and picked her book back up. “It’s probably nothing.”
He looked at her face closely, to see if she meant it—was it Nothing? or maybe this was really Something?—but she closed her eyes and yawned and it was impossible to determine. This felt strange to him, because Lisa was rarely impossible.
Miller rolled his eyes at the dog. The dog snuffled and yawned. This all happened five minutes ago.
Joel Miller and Lisa Stanislaw live together in Brooklyn, in three small rooms painted yellow. The apartment belonged to Lisa before Miller moved in, and therefore Miller suffers certain daily indignities—lacy ruffled curtains, a teakettle shaped like a duck, a black-and-white poster, over the television, of a towheaded boy offering flowers to a towheaded girl. When Miller moved in eight months ago, he and Lisa made compromises—he was allowed to smoke indoors; she was allowed to keep that fucking poster. So.
These days, despite their respective concessions, the pair make admirable roommates, agreeing on grocery store decisions and bathroom cleaning and music. They gladly pay for air-conditioning, but have jointly vetoed cable. They play the Stones and Chaka Khan on the CD player. They like to cook ravioli together, and three to four times a week enjoy brisk, healthy sex. They also share the yawning, snuffling dog, Harry, and, to sum up, rarely step on each other’s toes. It is a peaceable existence.
The corner of Brooklyn that Lisa and Miller inhabit is called Park Slope: leafy blocks jammed with renovated brownstones and cheery ice-cream parlors and taped-up flyers announcing lost cats or stoop sales. Lisa has lived here for six years—since three days after her Barnard graduation—and Miller knows that she prides herself on being very much of the neighborhood. Storekeepers wave to her on her walk home; she smiles and waves back. Her favorite mornings are the ones in bright summer when Long Island farmers set up stalls at the mouth of Prospect Park and call it a “greenmarket.” On these mornings, Lisa wakes up early to jostle for dented blueberries and slightly viscous zucchini bread. As for Miller, it took him a while to acclimate to the Park Slope penchants for eating organic and supporting independent businesses. Before Brooklyn, he’d lived on the Upper East Side and drank two Starbucks mocha lattes daily. Although the lattes made Miller feel girly, their Starbucks provenance never left him feeling like a bad citizen.
But his girl has her ideas.
Lisa is, currently, a first-grade teacher with a broken leg. Miller finds her pretty in a quiet way: long brown hair, straight nose, small chin. She wears straw hats and ankle-length batik skirts. Once in a while Miller wishes she’d get a nose ring, dye her hair platinum, or tattoo a flower on her ankle. He wishes she’d come home in a black leather miniskirt, and occasionally it fills him with a sad resignation to know she never will.
Nevertheless, Miller is quite attached to each of Lisa’s charms: clear skin, generous spirit, big breasts, conscientious nature. She is an optimist, and comes equipped with an abiding love of the underdog; hence Prospect Park over Central, the bus over the subway, the Atlantic Monthly over the New Yorker. She’s forever handing out change to panhandlers and smiling at babies in strollers. She organizes an annual winter coat drive at the school where she teaches. She pays her bills on time.
“I think it’s still raining,” Miller says.
“It should be clearing any moment.” Another thing about Lisa: she always knows the forecast.
And yet, while Miller is grateful for all the good things about his girl, he finds it troubling that, taken as a whole, they are usually no challenge to the memory of the girl who came before her. •••
Harry the dog noses around Lisa’s cast, which is starting to smell a bit funky after two weeks bound to her leg during a sticky, humid spring. “Oh, Harry-bones,” Lisa says, tickling him under his hairy gray chin. She loves Harry, spoils him, treats him to whole roasted marrow bones she orders off the Internet. “You’d go to the pharmacy for me, wouldn’t you? You’d do a favor for a poor girl with a broken leg, right?”
“For God’s sake.” Miller glowers. How he wishes that Lisa had gone on the pill like a normal woman. Each of his previous girlfriends had been on the pill, and as far as Miller knows, not a single one of them had ever gotten pregnant. But, no, Lisa can’t stand birth control pills; they make her feel bloated, moody, aggressive, sleepy, angry, sad. They are an unnatural intervention in her body’s biorhythms. Lisa prefers condoms.
“You know, maybe if you had stayed on the pill . . .” he says.
“Miller,” she groans, withdrawing her hand from Harry’s chin. “Please go.” The rain outside their front-room windows beats down loudly. “Smith is twelve blocks away,” he says.
“Why are you being a pain about this?”
“I’m just saying . . .” he protests. “It’s raining out, and who knows if Smith even sells E.P.T.?”
“Smith sells E.P.T.,” she says. “And if they don’t, get me a different test. I don’t care. Do you need money?”
“I have money,” he says. “It’s not about money.”
“Miller, I really want to get this test taken care of. Today. Like now. We’ve got Bonnie’s dinner thing tonight and I won’t be able to eat otherwise.”
“Do you really think you’re pregnant?”
“I don’t know,” she says. She sighs again and leans her head back against the cushions of the greenish plaid sofa they found together at a garage sale. She is wearing one of his old T-shirts and a pair of her own shorts, her cast propped up on the chipped glass coffee table. It is eleven a.m. on a cool gray Saturday. It is April. There is no way, Miller thinks, that she can be pregnant.
“Listen,” she says. “Don’t worry. If it turns out I am, we’ll figure something out.” She pulls her hair off her face, and he can see the knotty veins through the skin of her hands. He can also see that her hands are trembling.
“Of course we will,” Miller says, hit with an unexpected whoosh of sympathy. “We’ll figure it out.” He sits down next to her and kisses her. He puts a hand on her cool right cheek. “You’re not pregnant, you know.”
“But I might be.”
He kisses her again. “I’ll be back soon.”
She nods, smiles primly, and turns back to her book. And so Miller walks the twelve blocks to Smith Drug soaking wet, because despite Lisa’s forecasting it’s still raining, and Miller didn’t want to ask her where to find the umbrella.
In the Life of Joel J. Miller, Some Close Calls So Far:
1.The very first time he stole anything. During one November lunch hour in the first grade, Miller pilfered seventy-four cents from the money jar Mrs. DeCesare kept on the far left corner of her desk. Young Miller had wanted the seventy-four cents to buy a Chocolate Dream Bar at the fifth-grade ice-cream sale; even though Chocolate Dreams only cost sixty cents, he figured he might as well take what he could. He closed the jar just as DeCesare reentered the room, and when she saw him alone in the darkened classroom, she seemed to grow worried and then quickly annoyed. “Go to the fifth-grade ice-cream sale,” she commanded, in a voice paved with nicotine and irritation. He followed her instructions, clutching the contraband nickels and pennies in his sweaty little palm. If DeCesare ever noticed that the money jar was short seventy-four cents, she never pinned the larceny on him. He got lucky. Nevertheless, for months following the incident, Miller suffered from guilty nightmares, and knew fear.
2.The Friday night that Allie Friedman first gave him a blow job on her parents’ bed. Allie was his twelfth-grade girlfriend, and in defense of them both, the blow job episode was not as sordid as one might initially assume. In fact, Allie was using the oral ministrations to maintain her virginity for as long as she could. Miller, a jaded seventeen, sorely longed for more. He had tried all the standard horny-adolescent stratagems: the testaments to eternal devotion, the appeal to reason (“it’s gotta go sometime”), and the declaration that he knew she couldn’t enjoy giving head as much as she swore up and down that she did. Dear Allie. One night a few months later, after Miller had finally wrestled her to the floor in an extended make-out session, messed around under her hot, damp panties for a good twenty minutes, told her that he loved her, and made his standard appeal to reason, she exhaled and said, “Jesus, fine, I can’t take it anymore.” But the look in her eyes was one of such profound resignation that he immediately lost his hard-on and ended up remaining a virgin until his freshman year at Brown. As for the close call: Allie was tending to Miller on her parents’ bed (they liked it in there, because they could watch racy movies on HBO while they dry-humped), when Mr. and Mrs. Friedman got home from the theater an hour before their estimated time of arrival. Allie, sweet, cautious Allie, heard the garage door opening, zipped Miller up, and wiped her lips just as the front door closed; Mr. and Mrs. Friedman found them, improbably, sitting in the hallway between Allie’s bedroom and their own, “just talking,” Miller hunched over and legs crossed to hide his pulsing erection, Allie leaning drowsily against a wall. He was sure he could hear both their hearts pounding through their shirts. However, much like good Mrs. DeCesare, if the Friedmans thought anything strange about the scene they happened in on, neither of them ever said a word.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Flaw of Love by Lauren Grodstein. Copyright © 2004 by Lauren Grodstein. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.