Personal Velocityby Rebecca Miller
A Washington Post Best Book of 2001, Rebecca Miller's powerful debut, Personal Velocity, is the basis for her Sundance Festival award-winning film by the same name. Acclaimed by The New York Times as "the work of a talented and highly visual writer," the vibrantly fresh and lustrous stories in Miller's collection explore the multifaceted lives of/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
A Washington Post Best Book of 2001, Rebecca Miller's powerful debut, Personal Velocity, is the basis for her Sundance Festival award-winning film by the same name. Acclaimed by The New York Times as "the work of a talented and highly visual writer," the vibrantly fresh and lustrous stories in Miller's collection explore the multifaceted lives of women in seven arresting portraits. From within the secret self of each character we see the surprising shape of her life created as she hurtles through it. Modern and diverse, these women of different classes and ages struggle with sexuality, fate, motherhood, infidelity, desperation, and an overriding will to survive. We meet Greta, a cookbook editor who is chosen by Tavi, the hottest writer of his generation, to edit his new book. The book becomes a best-seller and Greta is propelled out of her marriage by her own ambition and success. The story, however, ends with a poignant flashback to the moment when one morning Greta realizes that ambition has grabbed her as she looks down at her kind, lackluster husband's wing-tip shoes. She suddenly knows she is leaving him and that their marriage is effectively over. Other characters include Paula, a pregnant twenty-one-year-old, who is on the run from the horror of a man who was hit by a car and died walking her home from a club the night before; Delia, an abused, working-class wife who goes into hiding with her children; and Louisa, a painter who moves rapidly from one lover to the next, acting out a self-perpetuating drama over which she has no control. Edgy, fearless, and beautifully spare, Personal Velocity marks the emergence of a singular new voice in Americanfiction.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
Greta Herskovitz looked down at her husband's shoes one morning and saw with shocking clarity that she was going to leave him. The shoes were earnest, inexpensive brown wing tips. Greta was wearing a pair of pointy alligator flats. Lee was twenty-eight, the same age as Greta. He was six feet tall, had blond hair, powerful shoulders and a slender waist. His cheeks were peppered with pockmarks, but they looked good on him. Since he'd left graduate school, Lee had worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker and was whittling away at an eleven-hundred-page dissertation about two firsthand accounts of nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions and how they reflected Victorian society. The cannibalism in particular. Lee was a kind, quiet man. If he ever fell out of love with Greta, she knew he would go into therapy and fix it, But she hadn't bargained on her own success.
One day about a year prior to the moment with the shoes, Greta was walking down the hall of the shabby, venerable publishing firm Warren and Howe in a pair of cheap pumps, carrying an untidy pile of seven file folders, each containing a different recipe for rice pudding. She was currently editing a book by Tammy Lee Felber entitled Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Ways to Cook Rice. Aaron Gelb, the legendary senior editor at Warren and Howe, a wise, sad man with enormous pockets under his brown eyes and a slow, pessimistic, humorous pattern of speech, called out to her from his office.
"Ms. Herskovitz," he said, "would you come in here please?"
Greta turned, alarmed. She was wearing a fitted brown suit with a skirt that ended several inches above the knees, and she wondered if maybe she was pushing it. As she entered, Mr. Gelb sat down at his desk and put his head in his hands, his customary posture when in thought. Greta sat down opposite him. Her nylons rubbed together as she crossed her legs. Worried that her skirt looked obscene, she gave it a little tug. Mr. Gelb slipped his glasses to the top of his head, rubbing his eyes for a very long time and sighing. Then he looked out the window.
"Thavi Matola wants to have lunch with you," he said.
Thavi Matola was the hottest writer of his generation. He was thirty-three. Greta's publishing house wanted him badly. They were calling his agent, trying to get to him through his friends. His first novel, Blue Mountain, was a love story about Bounmy, a Laotian male prostitute, and an Alabama gas-station attendant named Rory. It had won the PEN Faulkner Prize, sold half a million copies.
"With me?" Greta said.
"He called me up and said he heard we had an excellent editor here. And it was you." Greta had never edited anything but cookbooks. "Do you have any idea why he might have said that?"
"Maybe he likes to cook," said Greta. Mr. Gelb smiled faintly.
"If the lunch goes well, he'll come to Warren and Howe. If not, he'll go peddle his wounded psyche someplace else."
"Wow," said Greta. "This is really strange."
"One o'clock on Thursday at the Senate," Gelb said, opening a drawer and taking out a large roll of antacid tablets. "Wear pants." Greta got up. When she was at the door, Gelb said, "Wear what you want. What do I know." She shut the door. Poor Mr. Gelb. She went straight out to the most expensive shoe store she had ever heard of and put the alligator flats on her credit card. She couldn't even begin to afford them, but she needed to feel worthy, she needed to feel like a pro.
On the day of the meeting she wore a red suit with a fairly short skirtjust above the knees. It was a cool, clear spring day. She was twenty minutes early, so she walked over to the Museum of Modern Art and wandered around the cluttered gift shop with the fixed stare of a sleepwalker, little charges of anxiety going off in her belly, till three minutes to one. Then she rushed over to the restaurant, sat down at the corner table that had been reserved by Mr. Gelb's secretary, and took out her notebook so she'd look busy. Inside was a shopping list: bananas, clementines, toilet paper, rice, batteries, tampons. She looked up and Thavi Matola was standing there.
"Greta Herskovitz?" he said.
"Yesoh, hi!" Greta stood up, adjusting her hair band. She felt off-kilter. She should have been watching for him. Thavi sat down. He was slender, androgynous-looking, with smooth brown skin and short curly hair. His mother was Laotian, Greta remembered. Father, Italian-American soldier, dead. Refugees. Hard life. Three sisters, two left behind in Laos because of that government.
"I really loved your first book," she said.
"It's a piece of shit," said Thavi in a slight accent, lighting a cigarette.
"I think that's pretty common," said Greta.
"Self-hatred." A minor convulsion of amusement forced the smoke out of Matola's nose; he fixed his gaze on Greta like a child surprised to hear a stranger call him by his nickname. Greta felt her muscles relax. "The pasta's good here," she said, then ordered steak frites. Thavi convulsed again, air hissing from his nostrils, lips clamped shut. They started a bottle of wine. Greta didn't usually drink at lunch but she could tell he wanted to so she went with it, trying hard not to let her mind go slack.
"What's the new book about?" she asked. "If you don't mind talking about it."
"Laos," he said. "The trip over. I was on my own."
"That must have been frightening," said Greta. "How old were you?"
"Thirteen," he said.
"Have you written much yet?"
"About a hundred pages. Aren't I the one supposed to be asking the questions?"
"I don't know," she said.
"What's your story?" he asked.
"Manhattan, I was born in Manhattan, went to the Flemming School uptowna small private, you knowand then to boarding school, then to college, then to law school, but I quitmy father's a lawyer, we're not speaking, my mother iswell, dead. They're divorced. I mean they were. I'm twenty-eight. My father has a three-year-old." God almighty please let me shut up, she thought. Her steak arrived. She cut into it vigorously.
"My friend Felicia Wong said you were great at trimming fat," he said, watching her do so. Felicia Wong had written short stories at Harvard. Greta had been one of the editors of The Advocate. She had an eye for the inessential and would sift through the undergraduate fiction, culling every superfluous word. The writers had called her the Grim Reaper. Yet they all wanted Greta Herskovitz to comb through their work. She had been a bit of a star at Harvard.
"I have a tendency to overwrite," he said. "I need someone to kick my ass."
"I can kick your ass," said Greta accommodatingly, wondering if he was gay. By the time she got back to the office, Thavi Matola had called and said he'd sign with Warren and Howe if Greta Herskovitz edited the book. It was unbelievable. No more rice pudding. All the other editors came into her cubicle to congratulate her. Miss Pells, the sixty-five-year-old receptionist, showed Greta where her new office was going to be. She'd have a door, a window. Before Greta left, Gelb called her into his office.
"We'll renegotiate your contract next week," he said, looking impressed and suspicious. It was surreal.
When she got home Lee was watching a documentary about boat building. Greta burst into the room, dropping her bag on the floor, yelling, "HE WANTS ME TO DO IT!"
"That's amazing, sweetheart," he said. Greta saw a shadow of anxiety cross Lee's face, and she blushed, feeling strangely sheepish. As they talked over her triumph quietly on the couch, a toxic blend of anxiety and elation built up in Greta's mind and seemed actually to be pressing against her skull. She craved air. She wanted to go out, she wanted to tell people her news, she wanted to get drunk, to celebrate. She remembered a party uptown being given by an old friend from Exeter, a girl named Mimi. Mimi was tall and thin, very blond, and so beautiful it was hard to look at her. She was, however, uneasy in herself, and had a tendency to join cults, which was to Greta a small consolation. Greta was squat, with short muscular legs and thick dark hair and squinty brown eyes and full lips. And charisma. Many men found her sexy. Her boyfriends had tended to leave her, though, for girls like Mimi. The fragile kind.
At the party, Lee was having a laconic conversation with a couple of playwrights they both knew. Greta watched him as he talked. Lee's words were so carefully chosen that sometimes she imagined his ideas having to stand in line for inspection before they could be expressed. The delay must have been agonizing. As a rule Greta found Lee's withholding of language sexy. But tonight she was restless. She squeezed his hand and wandered off to explore the apartment, buoyed by her news. Mimi's bedroom door was open so Greta walked in to look at the photographs she'd glimpsed from the hall. She had always been curious about Mimi. As she peered into a silver-framed portrait of a portly Indian man in a robe, she heard a rustling behind her. She turned and saw Oscar Levy. Oscar had been a suitor of Greta's at Harvard, but she'd never slept with him. He was funny and pessimistic, a first violinist with some important orchestra now, Greta couldn't remember which one. He stood behind her in his rumpled gray tweed jacket and black turtleneck, holding a beer.
"Oscar!" Greta said. "God, you scared me."
"You scared me, too," he said.
They chatted for a while, sitting on Mimi's chaotic bed. The room stank of incense. There was a gentle neutrality in Oscar's tone that Greta didn't recognize. He was speaking to her as one speaks to someone who has been mentally ill or had cancer. She knew why, too. It was because she had turned out to be a loser. Greta thought of Lee in the other room, conversing tersely, groping behind him for her hand expectantly like a child on a shopping trip.
"I was sorry to hear about your mother," Oscar said.
"Thanks," said Greta flatly, looking at the little mole above his lip.
"Your husband seems like a really nice guy," he said. "I've just been talking to him."
"He'll never leave me," she said, and blushed, shocked by her own candor.
"That seems like a weird reason to"
"It's not the main reason. I love him. I think he's funny. We have a good time. He's a wonderful person."
"Okay, okay," he said.
"What about you," she asked, "are you"
"God noI'm only twenty-eight!"
"So am I, Oscar Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Yes. We don't see each other much. She's with the Boston Symphony. I'm with the Brooklyn."
"Oh." His sneaky boast irritated her.
"Are you still with that publishing company ..."
"Warren and Howe. Actually I just found out I'm going to be editing Thavi Matola's new book," she said. There was a pause.
"The guy who wrote Blue Mountain?"
"Wow. That's amazing." He looked at her as if her seductiveness was being refueled before his eyes. She suddenly felt angry at herself and got up. "I should get back," she said. She went to Lee, holding his hand, her head on his shoulder. At ten o'clock Lee went home because he had to get up early and call an author in Nova Scotia to check facts about a fly-fishing article. Greta hung around for another hour, speaking to people absentmindedly as she watched Mimi giggling in her floor-length orange robe, a photograph of an old man hanging in a pendant around her neck. As she walked out the door Oscar was behind her. "You want to share a cab?" he asked. On the ride downtown, as they drove by the park, Oscar leaned over and kissed her. Greta parted her lips; his tongue reached out tentatively, like a snail, and started poking around blindly inside her mouth. He tasted faintly of metal. The cab stopped at his apartment building.
"Come in," he whispered.
"I can't," she said. She wanted to go home. She wanted to pretend this hadn't happened.
"Come on. One conversation."
"No. Sorry. Please." She pulled the cab door shut.
"Ninth Street and First Avenue," she said. The cab sped off. Greta leaned back and shut her eyes, sinking into a pit of self-recrimination. Shit, shit, shit, shit, she thought. She hadn't slipped up once since the wedding. But it had been a problem before.
Three years earlier, seven days before she married Lee, Greta was sitting in a pastry shop near Columbia reading when a young man in a vintage tweed coat walked up to her table and asked her if she had a cigarette. He was in his late twenties, slender, clearly Jewish, and he looked like he had a cold. Behind him through the plateglass window Greta could see fine snow swirling through the dusk.
"I don't smoke," she said.
"Too bad," said the young man.
"I actually think I should be congratulated," said Greta.
"Why, did you quit?"
"I was never really addicted. I used to smoke occasionally, then it struck me that it was idiotic." Oops, she thought. Greta was always insulting people without meaning to, especially men. Even when she was eleven, slights were her way of flirting. Which explained why she had so few dates until she went to college. "I mean," she said, "it wouldn't have been idiotic if I had actually been addicted. Then it would have been pathetic." The young man was staring at her now, a bemused smile on his face. "I'm sorry," Greta said, blushing. "I just got out of a shrink appointment." She wished she was on the subway, a sure sign that she was having a bad time.
"You don't have to apologize," he said, laughing. "It's a stupid habit and I'm stopping when I turn thirty."
"When do you turn thirty?"
"Yes," he said.
"I'm getting married on the twenty-third."
"Oh!" he said, averting his gaze. "Terrific! Maybe we should celebrate together."
"Yes. An abstinence party."
"Well, good luck."
"Thanks." He walked over to the counter where the pastries were displayed and asked for a cup of coffee. Greta opened her novel. Out of the corner of her eye she watched the young man take his cup, sit down, and remove some papers and a fountain pen from a battered leather shoulder bag. He became immersed in his work immediately and seemed to have forgotten all about her. Married/invisible, Greta thought as she drained her cup and put on her heavy camel-hair coat. As she passed him she said, "Bye."
"Bye," he said with a pleasant smile, a smile reserved for married women and aunts. It was nearly dark now. Greta walked down the block, her mind congealed around the image of the young man seated at his table ignoring her. She walked as one hypnotized into the bodega on the corner and asked for a pack of Camel Lights. Three dollars and seventy-five cents! She had stopped smoking when they were one-seventy-five. She took the cigarettes and shoved them into the pocket of her coat, shouldering the wind as she trudged back up the block to the pastry shop, opened the door, walked over to the young man, who was writing into a leather-bound notebook, and set the packet of cigarettes gently down in front of him like a bird dog releasing a partridge from its mouth. The young man looked up at her quizzically, then smiled. They smoked together and talked for an hour. His name was Max. He was a theological student at Columbia, wanted to be a rabbi. Greta let out a shriek when he told her.
"You don't look like a rabbi," she said.
"I'm not Orthodox," he said, grinning, his hand on her thigh. Greta called Lee from a pay phone and said she was spending the night with her maid of honor. The rest of the week was a tangle of wedding preparations and subterfuge. It never occurred to Greta to call off the marriage because she was having an affair. She kept the two narratives distinct in her mind; they coexisted as if in twin universes separated by a vast field of space. The only trouble was that Greta was exhausted, what with traveling uptown to Max and downtown to Lee, the fittings, the fucking, the dinners, the bachelorette party, and the cold that Max had given her. Only her trusted, worldly friend Lola Sanduli, who understood Greta better than anyone, knew about Max, and Lola felt that the whole thing was harmless. It was just Greta being Greta. And indeed, at the end of that crazy week, as Greta sat smoking one last cigarette with her lover at the Hungarian pastry shop, an hour before she had to take a cab to the airport so she could marry Lee in Ohio, Greta was going over and over the things she'd packed for the wedding, wondering if she'd forgotten anything. She was excited to be getting married and felt very much in love. With Lee. The week with Max had left her feeling absolutely gorgeous. Now she wished he would disappear. But Max was very much extant, staring glumly at his coffee cup, his thin, pale face and black curls making him look like a Spanish Christ, of all things. At last he spoke, breaking her concentration.
"Is he even Jewish?"
"No. What difference does that make?" Greta asked, irritated.
"It makes a difference."
"You really are a rabbi," she said, smiling.
"Well," Max said sadly, "I hope you're happy."
Why the hell had she kissed Oscar Levy? Yuck. The cab pounded its way down Broadway, its suspension shot. Greta's cheeks burned with remorse. The truth is that for some time now she had been dimly aware of a darkness gnawing at the edge of her mind, a gathering blackness that she couldn't name, but she felt it as a hole, an emptiness into which something alien might step. It was a kind of hunger.
* * *
Lee was asleep when she came home. When she woke up, he was on the phone in the living room.
"A `Connamaragh Black,'" he was saying, "is for ... right. Exclusively? ... Okay. Okay, yes...." Greta went to Lee and curled up on the floor, her arms around his strong calves. He leaned down and stroked her head. "I see," he said. "Right. I think that's it, Mr. Conway, thank you for your time. Good luck with the fish this morning. Bye." He hung up the phone.
"What's the matter?" he said.
"I feel yucky," she said.
"You want me to make you pancakes?" Greta nodded, crawling into his lap and burying her head in his chest.
"I love you so much," she said.
Greta had decided to marry Lee on a trip to Ohio to visit his parents. His family lived on the border of Kentucky, and his strawberry-blond high school girlfriend Kelly had a charming southern accent and perfect limbs.
"Why do you love me?" Greta had asked Lee as they poured over pictures of him tossing footballs, accepting awards, holding his blue-eyed girlfriend's hand on prom night. "I'm just a nasty little black-eyed dwarf." He kissed her forehead.
"I love my nasty dwarf," he said. And he did love her. But Greta was suspicious. She became jealous of everything and everyone out of Lee's past. Lee took on a power in her eyes, the power of having been loved by a girl with blond eyelashes, of having grown up among these mystical beasts, slow-moving, broad-browed Germanic people who said grace and "please pass the bread, Mom," who weren't always yelling out ideas over dinner like they were selling fish in a souk. After four solid days of Ohio Greta felt so intensely in love that she wanted to elope. But they ended up having a proper white wedding in a country church in Ironton, a hundred yards from the golf course where Lee had lost his virginity to the girl with blond eyelashes. Greta was wearing a vast white dress. After they'd said their vows she turned around and saw her father. He looked annoyed. Tears stung her eyes.
Avram Herskovitz didn't think much of Lee Sehneeweiss. He didn't think Lee had size. Everybody in the Herskovitz clan had to have size. Avram had white, sharp teeth, a booming voice, burning black eyes. He never put on weight. He was one of the best-known lawyers in the country, a self-made man. He defended the indefensible. He was on the news a lot, standing on some court steps, saying, "This decision is a victory for justice in this country." Many people thought he was a moral giant. Others thought he was a cynic who didn't care about guilt or innocence, only about winning. Greta knew he was both of these things. Avram Herskovitz had been forty when he married Greta's mother, Maroushka. Maroushka had been twenty-five, a tender-eyed Polish girl, born in Auschwitz two days before the arrival of the Russians. Her father, a professor of ethnology, had been gassed a week before her birth. After the liberation, Maroushka's mother went quietly insane, and Maroushka was brought up in a series of orphanages. This story stirred some deep yearning in Avram. He had to save this woman, he had to give her a beautiful life. He brushed off his first family like leaves from a sweater. When Greta was born he cherished her. She was his new beginning, life sprung from the ash heap. He held her up above the waves on the beach. They were inseparable, alike. As unconsciously as a leaf unfurling, young Greta chose to embody her father's channing voraciousness, shrinking instinctively from the wistful sweetness of her mother, smelling as it did, ever so faintly, of death. Then when Greta was twenty-one, a dogged and rapacious law student, she came back to Nantucket for the summer, as she had every year since she was three, with some tremendous news: a paper she'd written on capital punishment was going to be published in the Harvard Law Review. She entered the hall, smelling the familiar mixture of must and potpourri, threw her bags down and charged into the living room, triumphant. Her father was standing by the window, watching the calm sea. A slight breeze fluttered the yellow curtains. Avram turned and looked at his precious daughter with a strange, pained expression. Greta could feel that she had interrupted something. On the couch at the other end of the room, her elbows on her knees, head in her hands, was a young woman. She looked up at Greta. The young woman had green eyes, a thin face curly dark hair, and a slender, wiry body. She was wearing white linen pants and a striped cotton T-shirt. Greta felt a terrible aching deep in her gut.
Excerpted from Personal Velocity by Rebecca Miller. Copyright © 2001 by Rebecca Miller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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