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On Borrowed Time
By David Rosenfelt
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Tara Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The moment we met is burned into my mind, and even now I replay it over and over. It's somehow vaguely comforting, and thinking about Jennifer gives her a presence. I've wanted to give her a presence for so very long.
It's not outright denial, but it's almost as good.
It was at a political rally for a candidate Jen was supporting. It's funny, but I can't remember who the candidate was, and I can't venture a guess, based on what I learned later about Jen's politics. In that area, she was always a contradiction: a social liberal who was fiercely in favor of the death penalty, and a fiscal conservative who never met a homeless shelter she didn't want the government to support. But whatever it was she was advocating at that or any other moment, that advocacy was fierce.
I'm a writer, so I had the political "get out of jail free" card; it was a violation of my alleged journalist credentials to even hint at my leanings. I wrote mainly magazine articles, most of them political or business-oriented, but I wasn't there for anything having to do with work. The truth is, I had just been wandering by and stopped to see what was going on.
So on that day we were who we are, or at least as I have always seen us: Jen as a participant in life, and myself as an observer of it.
It didn't take a particularly keen observer to notice her. She was light-up-the-room beautiful, even though she was wearing a New York Yankees cap. I hate the Yankees, always have, always will, but I quickly rationalized that I'd never really felt any animosity for their caps. So I went over to her and introduced myself.
"Hi. I'm Richard Kilmer. I'm a journalist."
"How nice for you," she deadpanned. Journalists were not necessarily her favorite people.
"Yes ... I wanted to ask you a few questions. About the rally ... the candidate ..."
She smiled, and it was the first time I had ever seen a smile that had nothing whatsoever to do with the mouth or lips. This smile was wholly in her eyes, and I later came to realize that this was part of her ability as a smile ventriloquist. Just by being in the vicinity, Jen could make everything and everyone smile, without letting on that she was doing so.
"I really don't know that much about him," she said. "But if you want your questions answered ... Carl, come here a second?"
She called over a young man standing a few yards away. Carl was unshaven, balding, and maybe twenty pounds overweight. Not a horrible-looking guy, but not really my type.
"Hey," Carl said, proving that if nothing else he was a charming conversationalist.
"This is Richard Kilmer ... a journalist. He's looking for some information." She went on to tell me that Carl knew far more about this particular candidate than she did.
"What do you want to know?" Carl asked.
"Well, to be perfectly honest," I said, "I was more interested in the female point of view."
Carl frowned his disdain at me and walked away.
"You should have said so," Jen said, scanning the crowd. "Then let's see what we can find for you."
She was playing with me, no doubt looking for some female shot putter to stick me with. "I was interested in your point of view," I said.
"Let me guess," she said. "You're particularly interested in my point of view coupled with coffee, drinks, or dinner."
"That's uncanny," I said.
"Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
"I only use honesty as a last resort."
She thought about it for a few moments, as if weighing it. Then, "Coffee."
I hated that look.
It was a look that said, You're full of shit, Richard. You know it and I know it, so let's move on, shall we?
My problem with the look, and with Jen, for that matter, was that it and she were always right. In that case, I had just tried to tell her that we should drive to her parents' house in upstate New York on Monday, rather than Sunday. I had lamely claimed that we'd hit less traffic that way, but she knew it was really because I wanted to watch the pro football games. When it comes to football, I'm somewhere between a fanatic and a lunatic.
"You want to watch football tomorrow," she said. It wasn't a question, but rather a statement of fact.
"Football?" I asked. "Tomorrow? God, the week flew by; it never entered my mind. Where do the days go?"
She laughed, and asked, "What time are the Giants playing?"
"The Giants? The Giants? The name sounds familiar...."
"One o'clock. They're playing the Redskins at home."
She shook her head in amazement. "Redskins. How can a team have a name like that in the twenty-first century?"
I nodded vigorously. "Exactly. They are politically incorrect pigs. Which is the main reason I want them to be defeated tomorrow. Somebody has to take a stand on the side of decency, and they will leave Giants Stadium tomorrow having learned a moral lesson. And it's about time."
There was that look again. It was time to come clean.
"The winner makes the playoffs. The playoffs, Jen. That's three wins from the Super Bowl. I really want to see it."
"Then why didn't you just say so in the first place?"
I shrugged. "Honesty? Last resort? Remember?"
She smiled. "Tell me about it." That was sort of a catchphrase she used whenever someone told her something she already knew, which was pretty often.
Jen agreed that the game was not to be missed, so she called her mother and told her we'd be there on Monday. It wasn't a big deal, since we'd been invited for Christmas, which was Friday. Her parents lived in Ardmore, a small town about two hours from our apartment in Manhattan on the Upper West Side. We had a two-bedroom on the thirty-third floor of a building called the Montana, on Eighty-seventh and Broadway. If there is a piece of real estate in the world that should not be called Montana, it is that one.
Jen had told me a couple of weeks before that her parents were excited to meet me, that I was the first boyfriend she had ever brought home. As always, it was jarring to hear her call me a "boyfriend"; we seemed to be so much more than that. I think on some level that's why I bought a ring and planned to ask her to marry me the following week. If she accepted, and I anticipated that she would, I would instantly make the quantum leap from "boyfriend" to "fiancé."
In a matter of hours after first meeting Jen I had regressed from independent twenty-nine-year-old male, unwilling (or afraid, if some of my dates were to be believed) to make a commitment, to pathetic twenty-nine-year-old puppy, panicked that she wouldn't like me. My amazement that she did, that in fact she grew to love me, was not modesty, false or otherwise. The simple truth was that Jen could have had absolutely anyone she wanted, and she chose me. It was the kind of situation for which the word "hallelujah!" was coined.
Jen moved into my apartment four months after we met. We chose mine because it was bigger, and because I owned it, while she was just renting. In a matter of hours, the apartment went from a place completely devoid of personality to a real home. When Jen got finished with it, my impersonal group of rooms had become the kind of home the Waltons would beg to spend Thanksgiving in.
Jen even liked my friends, few in number as they were. Don't misunderstand, for the most part my friends are intelligent, successful people. They may have their faults, but there's not a terrorist in the bunch, and the world would be a better place if their level of goodness prevailed everywhere. But as a group, we have one flaw; we argue about everything. They are heated, sometimes stimulating, sometimes childish debates about a wide range of topics from sports to politics to people, and the truth is, most outsiders find it a little off-putting.
Since I had only arrived in town three months before meeting Jen, I had only had time to develop two close friendships. I had met both John Sucich and Willie Citrin playing basketball at the Y, and discovered we all had a love of politics, sports, and women. Not necessarily in that order.
Jen was an insider from day one, and one particular night was a perfect example as to why. We went out to the Legends Sports Bar to have dinner and watch the Knicks-76ers game. John and Willie brought along dates, who in my mind were named Somebody and Whoever. For both John and Willie, two dates was a long-term relationship, so I didn't spend too much time memorizing the women's names. I knew it was dehumanizing, but I figured that if they didn't want to be dehumanized, what the hell were they doing with John and Willie?
That night we were arguing about the death penalty, a frequent topic. John and Willie were for it; I am so strongly against it that I once wrote a series of articles advocating my position. As always, they told me that if my sister were murdered I'd feel differently. I don't have a sister, but they'd probably killed her off fifty times. Jen was on their side; this was a woman who quite literally wouldn't harm a fly, but would apparently toast a convicted murderer or rapist without thinking twice.
I neither won nor lost the argument — in fact, the one common thread through all our arguments was that no one ever won or lost. Not a single time in my memory had anyone been convinced to change a position, no matter how stupid that position might be. But I could always tell when Willie and John were unhappy with how things were going, because they would say that they were fed up with my "Ivy League bullshit," as if my having gone to the University of Pennsylvania disqualified me from having a legitimate point of view.
Our second argument this night was about third basemen. It was and is my opinion that Mike Schmidt is the best all-around third baseman ever to play the game. John went with Brooks Robinson, while Willie picked Pie Traynor. Now, I'm sure Pie was great, but he was sucking dirt for about fifty years before Willie was born, so Willie's position was inherently uninformed. You could always tell the guy with the inherently uninformed position; he was the one who yelled the loudest.
Jen cast her vote for David Wright, a ridiculous choice so early in his career, but he was a Met and she always thought the Mets were the best. Somebody and Whoever were bored silly by the entire spectacle, though at one point Somebody said, "My brother likes sports."
Before long, Somebody and Whoever said their good-byes, while John and Willie stayed with Jen and me so we could keep the arguments going. When all the yelling was over, Jen announced, "Richard's spending Christmas at my parents' house."
"Whoa!" was John's response. "This is more serious than I thought."
"We're living together, idiot," I pointed out with my characteristic subtlety. "You didn't think that was serious?"
"Well, Richie, my boy, I'm afraid things are about to change."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
John turned to Willie. "You tell him."
Willie sighed, as if he hated to have to break the bad news. "Rich," he said, "suppose you had a daughter who looked like that." He pointed at Jen. "Now suppose she brought home a guy who looked like that." He pointed at me. "You see where I'm going with this?"
"I'm afraid I do," I said.
Jen wouldn't hear of it. "They'll love him." She kissed me. "I love him."
A stupid grin on my face, I turned to John and Willie. "She loves me. Eat your heart out."
Sunday brunch had become my favorite meal of the week.
Jen and I would buy a New York Times and go down the street to Cassidy's Café. We'd order Bloody Mary mixes (I can't seem to get myself to say "Virgin Mary"), and then Jen always had an omelet, while I had French toast and bacon.
The only conversation that would take place was the ordering of food and the occasional "Please pass the sports section" and "Are you done with the News of the Week in Review?" We both viewed New York Times reading as a serious matter, and one that was not compatible with chitchat.
Unfortunately, on that day I hadn't even finished Maureen Dowd's column when I heard Jen's name called out. I looked up to see Sandy Thomas and her husband, Adam. Sandy had been Jen's best friend since she got to the city two years ago, and they were co-owners of a small art gallery in Soho. It's another of the things that Jen and I did not have in common; she was a terrific painter and a true connoisseur, while my favorite "art" was Garfunkel.
I knew Jen wanted us to be alone almost as much as I did, but she invited them to sit down, and they jumped at the offer. I wasn't pleased, but it wasn't that I didn't like them. Adam was a decent enough guy, although he mostly talked about how much money he had, and I liked Sandy quite a bit. It was more that this time with Jen and the Times was sacred, and only came along once a week.
But my charm soon asserted itself, as it was wont to do, and it was a quite pleasant couple of hours. Jen and Sandy had a discourse on artists, books, and music, while Adam and I grunted about sports. Of course, I had to call an early halt to the session, so that I would get home in time to see the game.
I have to admit I didn't think about Jen's parents during the Redskin-Giants game. Basically what I thought about were the Redskins and the Giants. It was a typical game, played on a cold December afternoon where the teams played ball control and fought over small pieces of real estate like it was Hamburger Hill. The outcome was in doubt until the final play of the game, but the Giants won, which meant they were going to the playoffs, and therefore all was right with the world.
In the morning, I dressed, packed, and went down for a newspaper. Jen dressed quickly, as always, but packing to her was something akin to what pyramid-building was to the ancient Egyptians. It was an agonizing, arduous process, with seemingly thousands of difficult decisions every step of the way. The end result was always the same; she packed virtually everything she owned.
When I returned there were four suitcases near the door, waiting for Richard the pack mule to take them downstairs.
"I assume you want me to take these to the car?" I asked.
She nodded. "Please. I'll get the ones in the bedroom."
"There are more?" I asked, but didn't wait for an answer. I reached down to pick up the first one, which was either nailed to the floor or weighed a thousand pounds. "What's in here, your rock collection?"
"Tell me about it," she said, and laughed, and within twenty minutes I managed to get all her stuff, plus my one bag, loaded into the car. It was a relatively warm day, in the high forties, and Jen suggested that I open the top on my convertible. I declined, since I preferred not to listen to the sound of my teeth chattering all the way upstate. We did open the windows, though, and it felt good as we got farther and farther out into the country.
We stopped for lunch along the way, and then drove through Jen's hometown on the way to her parents' house. She lived there until she was eighteen, and she took pride in pointing out every landmark there was to point out. The town had clearly overdosed on quaint, but my big-city, cynical eye recognized it as a great place to have come from, even though I was quite pleased that I hadn't.
We actually stopped at a place called the General Store, and it was exactly as one would expect. I could picture Ben Cartwright coming in from the Ponderosa to shop there, or more likely Hoss, since there was an entire corner of the room devoted to a display of licorice.
It was almost four o'clock when we got to Jen's parents' house. They hugged Jen intensely, greeted me warmly, and told me to call them Janice and Ben, which I assumed were their names. All in all, it felt like a good start.
Their house was a Colonial, probably literally, though Janice informed me that it was "only" a hundred and fifty years old. In the city, when we talk about a prewar home, we're referring to World War II. In this town they meant the Revolutionary War. But it was a cool house, with a great fireplace and wood-burning stove in the large combination living room and den. I was starved, and the scent from dinner, as we entered the house, was so extraordinarily great it made me want to eat the air.
Jen and Janice went off to the kitchen, leaving Ben and me sitting on the two chairs near the fireplace. My sense was that he relished this first chance to get to know the man who might marry his little girl. If the roles were reversed and Jen were my daughter, I would be torturing him on a rack to learn the truth about him.
"She's quite a girl," he said.
I nodded. "Sure is."
"What am I talking about?" he asked himself. "She's a young lady."
I nodded again. "Sure is." I thought I was doing pretty well.
"Always had a mind of her own," he said.
A third nod from me, with a small chuckle thrown in for effect. "Still does."
The conversation went on pretty much that way for the next ten minutes. He mouthed a series of platitudes about his daughter, and I vigorously agreed. They all happened to be true, but I probably would have agreed with him if he said Jen was secretary general of the UN. When I arrived, I had checked my integrity at the door; my goal was to be liked.
Excerpted from On Borrowed Time by David Rosenfelt. Copyright © 2011 Tara Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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