In these twelve award-winning stories, Kate Milliken unflinchingly shows us what can happen when the uninvited guest of our darkest desires comes to call. Whether surrounded by the white noise of a Hollywood celebration or enduring a stark winter in Maine, the characters of If I’d Known You Were Coming yearn to heal old wounds with new hurts. With a wry wit and a keen eye for emotive detail, the author of this unforgettable collection sets intersections in motion that will leave you both winded and wanting more.
In one story, a mother, driven by greed, unwittingly finds out how far her needs will push her. A hand model surprises himself and everyone else at the birthday party of an old friend’s daughter in another. With poetic deftness, a woman evaluates the meaning, the familial stories, that we carry with us from birth. In a story ripped from the headlines, a woman pines for the legs her husband lost in a freak accident at a Santa Monica farmer's market. A medical clerk, restless and alone, takes advantage of a disabled neighbor.
Kate Milliken knows the ties that bind and how tautly we will pull them. These are stories about desire, betrayal, love, regret, and family. Like all great fiction, If I’d Known You Were Coming possesses that uncanny ability to reveal us to ourselves.
About the Author
Kate Milliken’s stories have appeared in Zyzzyva, Fiction, New Orleans Review, and Santa Monica Review, among others. A graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop, and several Pushcart Prize nominations, Kate has also written for television and commercial advertising. She currently teaches on behalf of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and lives in Mill Valley, California, with her family.
Read an Excerpt
If I'd Known You Were Coming
By Kate Milliken
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Kate Milliken
All rights reserved.
A Matter of Time
A hinge or a latch or some goddamn thing had rusted out and now the front door kept swinging open like an invitation.
This was when things were better than they had been, but still bad enough Lorrie was sure it couldn't get any worse. This was in Calabasas, in the five-room bungalow with the small square back porch that was partly detached, leaving a gap wide enough to catch a foot. The bungalow with the little kidney-shaped pool with the cracked floor, empty, leaving only a slick of green pointing toward the drain. This was on the other side of a head-high block wall, on the outside of a sprawling new development and just blocks from a mall—a mall, for god's sake. On the weekends a line of cars snaked past the front windows, waiting to pull into the mall parking lot. It was watching all those people, in their rip-sleeved t-shirts, trapped in their cars, looking sweaty, drumming their steering wheels, that made Lorrie all the more restless.
"It's only a matter of time," Marty would say. He wanted more, too.
Caroline, their daughter, had had to start kindergarten at the school on the other side of the mall. Lorrie was suspicious of the teacher; she never seemed wholly awake. And Lorrie was sure that it was not a matter of time at all, but rather, a matter of whom you knew.
So they were having friends over, select friends. Lorrie found recipes and wrote a questionable check for good liquor, plenty of it. Select friends and Nick Regan. They knew Nick Regan.
Lorrie had a knack for finding things that looked more expensive than they were, of assembling the appearance of luxury. She frequented yard sales and, though loath to be living near a mall, she bought the stemware and a tablecloth at Macy's. Through the Penny Saver she found thin bronze figurines of marching stickmen—à la Giacometti—and candlesticks and a crystal chandelier, polishing what needed polishing with toothpaste and a toothbrush, bringing it all to a high shine so as to distract the eye from everywhere else. Marty called her brilliant and kissed her forehead and cupped her shoulders in his hands, as if congratulating her for playing so hard at a game so clearly unwinnable.
They had gone to college with Nick Regan, near Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not at Harvard, but a college not far from there all the same and they'd enjoyed taking the liberty of saying they went to college in Cambridge, aspirating the A. Nick had always had a plan. If he hadn't spoken of it so often Lorrie might have thought more of his plan then, before it all panned out. In the nine years since graduating he'd produced as many films, each one doubling the previous one's budget. Lorrie learned this from the interviews she'd been reading. Now anyone could know Nick Regan as well as they did. Maybe better. This was their third attempt to have him over for dinner.
Lorrie was finishing the canapés, fully dressed—slipped into a Lagerfeld rip-off, her hair teased up and in a satin headband. But Marty was humming, still unshowered, moving through the house with a box of tools. She could smell him, his pleasant musk, wholly unfit for company. Caroline was sitting on her hands, sagged into the couch, in a depressing tulle poof of a dress, looking small. She wondered if the girl could possibly manage to keep the one outfit on through the evening. She'd been going through a phase—for years—of needing to wear each piece of clothing out of each drawer at least once a day. Marty found this funny, suggesting Caroline was practicing for wardrobe changes—another little thespian in waiting, like himself. Lorrie felt Caroline watching her. A pitcher of spiked lemonade was sweating on the table.
"Go change," Lorrie said, shooing her off with her hands.
Caroline fanned the dress over her knees. "You said look nice."
"Go on, please. Put on jeans. Help your dad."
Maybe Marty had this right, going about his day as he was—Nick could cancel again—but it irritated Lorrie to no end that Marty had still not dressed. She was reminding herself to hold her tongue, saying the phrase to herself—hold your tongue, hold your tongue—as a kind of meditative mantra. It was almost working. Their previous night's argument had ended on the admonition: we just do things differently, Lorrie. She wanted to be okay with this. She did. Marty was okay with it, after all. But the front door was still dropping open and sawing across the concrete stoop and back again. "Marty, please. Fix that door. And get dressed!" She was yelling. You could hear a sneeze in any room of this house as if it were right beside you. She need not yell. This too had been discussed the night before. Marty called it hollering.
"Next on the list," he said. He sounded as if he were underneath the bathroom sink. What needed fixing there, she did not know, but the fact that there was something more pressing than their front door made her skin hurt. She settled the last pastry into its line and lifted the tray with thoughtful arms, out to the drifting porch.
The idea was for everyone to sit there drinking and eating sticks of vegetables and small salty fingerfuls of canapés in the last of the sunshine, getting drunk, before she served them anything substantial. She wanted to relax Nick Regan, to let him know they were still fun, kid and all, and that Marty was still waiting for his break and weren't they just enough of a hard-knock story to warrant a bit of his time? Lorrie liked a feel-good story, for things to turn around. The movies Nick produced were this way. Lorrie wanted to believe it could be so easy.
They were expecting Nick, Beverly Colton and her new thing, Tad, or something small sounding like that, and an actress Marty had met in one of his acting classes, Roberta. Lorrie had warned Marty that competition, especially of the opposite sex, was not advisable. "She's fat," Marty said, to be reassuring. Lorrie smoothed the tablecloth, turned the white heirloom china—from an estate sale—and set the stemware out. Little tea lights lingered between each setting. It would be tight, six people sitting there, but they could wander in and out of the house, of course, and she was aiming for a certain level of intimacy. One of her fantasies for the night involved Nick Regan divulging some industry secret, or, even better, a personal one. Then they wouldn't have to ask anything of him tonight, then she could call him in a few days, a week later, and mention that she'd just been thinking of that little story he'd told and wouldn't it be nice if there was an audition or something Marty could come in on, they could visit afterward, have another laugh about it? This was her darkest fantasy. They, Marty, just needed a fair shot from an old friend.
Lorrie made it clear to Caroline that she could eat in her room and was to remain there after dark. They'd intended for Caroline to stay with a friend, but the friend's mother had phoned to say the girl had been sent home with lice the day before. Lice! Lorrie spent the thirty minutes after the call fingering her daughter's scalp, cursing that kindergarten teacher, but she saw no lice. And Caroline, aside from stripping down and changing outfits at every transition of the day, was a good girl, happy to do as she was told. She had always been comfortable playing on her own. They'd never considered having a second child as none of them, including Caroline, seemed in need of one. From the porch you could see into a corner of Caroline's room: she was there now, pulling through clothes, holding them up, looking for something in particular. Lorrie made a note to draw the curtains, but she didn't expect Caroline's being home to distract from the party in any significant way. Now, the last two times Nick canceled, he had had the decency to call hours ahead. But he might not this time. He could just not come, not call at all. This had not occurred to her before and something left Lorrie as she stepped back inside, realizing this. The anticipation, the flutter that was keeping her moving at the tips of her toes, the electricity at her core, turned then, darkening, like an amassing inner cloud.
She stood in the kitchen a moment, listening to Marty tinker around, then bang at a pipe on the other side of their thin wall and she knew that if Nick did not come that evening she wouldn't have it in her to invite him again. It was this evening or it was not at all and what would that be? This. She would be here, walking distance to a mall, married with child. And when someone asked Marty what he did, he would still answer: freelance, student, odd jobs, this and that. She hated most his answering this and that. She looked at the cordless phone. She pulled away her headband.
But then there he was. Early.
Nick Regan was early.
He was standing in their doorway, pulling off his sunglasses to ogle the broken, leaning door. She touched her cheeks. She had not yet done her make-up, as make-up should be applied last, so she need not step away to freshen up. A hostess must be available. She licked her teeth. "Nick Regan," she said, pushing her headband back into her hair, flattening her dress. She felt she might cry.
"Don't tell me I missed all the fun," he said, giving the hobbled door a playful shake. He had such a toothy grin. She had not remembered his teeth, not like that. He was wearing a baby blue polo shirt, the collar up, jeans and loafers. Positively put together.
Caroline came running into the room as if being chased, all elbows.
"Well, well. Who is this?" Nick Regan bent at the knees. Caroline stopped dead. The pants she'd chosen were too short and too small, pinching the round of her belly.
"This is Caroline. She was just getting dressed. Our daughter. Didn't I mention—"
"No, no. I don't think you did." Nick took Caroline's limp hand, as if to spin her around, though neither he nor Caroline moved. It was right then that Lorrie understood he was there just to stop by, to be polite, to satisfy the insistence of her many invitations, but he was headed elsewhere, somewhere better. That was why he was early. To bow out before anyone else arrived. "My word she looks just like you, Lorrie."
Caroline was between them. Yes, of course, she did have the same auburn hair, that much was obvious, but she also had Marty's cheeks—the cheeks that gave him a bit of Brando, but that left their daughter looking as if she were always about to blow a bubble.
Lorrie felt Caroline looking up at her before she even spoke, "Mom, can I go change?" A fish face.
Nick stood. Caroline turned and ran back behind the wall.
"Who knew?" Nick shrugged. "I'd have thought Marty's genes would have gone and fucked it up, but she's just gorgeous. Just like you, Lorrie." He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
"Let me get you a drink," Lorrie said. Her face flushed. He smelled of cologne and cigarettes. Lorrie was unsure when she had last eaten. The juices in her stomach were audible—only to herself, she hoped. "I wish you could stay longer, Nick." She said this as if they'd discussed his escaping already. Why skirt it? It was that obvious. "I've made an amazing lasagna, canapés. Can we have you for one drink? Gin and tonic, yes? Tanqueray? Stay for two, won't you?"
"Well, I don't eat cheese anymore. Bad for the skin. But yes, yes, a T and T will do. I wish I could stay—"
"But there are so many other things going on, of course," she said for him, waving at the air, excusing him from excuses and handed him his drink. They went on like this for a minute, with Lorrie nervously talking over him, until Marty walked in, showered and dressed, tucking in a t-shirt. He'd put his jeans back on. Good. Casual, relaxed. Nick and he greeted one another, as men do, in a sporty-back-clap embrace of sorts. She had forgotten how much taller Marty was than Nick. She'd read that it was good for an actor to be short, that the camera created the illusion of height or something. Marty was not short. But he was as handsome as he was aimless and this was what had attracted her to him. She was younger then, childless. Aimless was sexy. She'd been stupid. But after seven years they still made love regularly and she did love him. There was no getting around that.
Marty did not know that Nick was halfway out the door. She moved into the kitchen and pulled on an apron, as if there was more to be done, a larger party imminent.
"A nice place you've got here," Nick said.
Marty laughed—he was good at this part, moving people beyond any awkwardness. "It's transitional, of course. Come on, I'll show you around." He jokingly pointed in a circle, around himself. He really believed that this was just transitional. Lorrie's mother had been this way too, full of bubbling hope. It had gotten her nothing. "Come on," Marty said. They walked around Lorrie, to the back. "I'll show you the spread Lorrie's put out. The house isn't much, but we've got a sweet little space out here."
Nick flashed her a tight apologetic smile as he moved past. "All right then, real quick."
She was mindlessly wiping down the clean counter.
She dialed Beverly, wanting to tell her to hurry. Maybe he would stay if things escalated fast enough. But Beverly didn't answer. She was either on her way or picking up her new guy—he'd had his license taken away for speeding. Beverly had horrible taste in men. They weren't even handsome. Just reckless.
Lorrie went to close the curtains in Caroline's room. Caroline was down on the floor, dressed now in a blue jumper, blue shirt, blue tights, squinting at a puzzle. She looked up at Lorrie in the dimmed light. Lorrie turned on the overhead and went back to fix Nick another T and T. She poured herself a Chardonnay. Marty had given it all up. It was the new trend, giving things up, after decades of indulgence. This was right before everyone got bored and cocaine fixed it all.
Lorrie could see them through the kitchen window. They were facing the concrete wall, beyond the pool, away from her. The magnolia tree was not yet in bloom. Marty put his arm around Nick and bent toward him as if to share some confidence. She couldn't hear them, but she saw the lob of Nick's head, his shoulders rolling, as he gave into laughter. Then the two men broke apart smiling, in agreement over something. Maybe that was all. Maybe Marty had asked him for an audition, just like that. She need not fret. She stepped outside.
"This could be nice," Nick said. "Get that pool fixed up and you've got yourself something."
Marty winked at her. "Nick's excited for your lasagna, Lorrie."
She took a big swallow of wine, feeling a dribble escape onto the rayon of her gown. Fuck.
"My other thing," Nick started, but then paused, seeing the fresh gin and tonic in her hand. He took it and handed back the empty. "It's nothing that can't wait. I'd much rather visit with you guys. Given everything." Given everything? He lifted the new glass to this, toward Marty and Marty toasted him with an imaginary drink in hand.
Marty had used her, made her sound desperate for Nick to stay. Just another crazy woman desperate for a decent dinner party. That's how it was? But she was desperate, wasn't she? And shouldn't Marty be too? He had showered and shaved and tucked his shirt in and now he was reaching for her glass of wine. Yes, he was desperate too. Desperate enough to use her to make Nick stay. Marty, she wanted to say, it seems we don't do things that differently after all.
"I'm glad you'll stay, Nick. It's not a very cheesy lasagna anyway." She smiled at both of them and took her glass back from Marty before he could drink it. "I promise." She touched Nick's arm. He looked down at her hand. She felt a heat in her armpits. She pulled her hand back and sipped at her glass, looking to Marty, who was pointedly looking off, toward the wall. Nick fingered his ice. There was the scraping sound of the front door swinging open. Lorrie knocked back her wine.
* * *
Beverly's new guy was in fact named Tad and he was terribly small. Comically so. It relieved something for everyone. Except Tad, of course. Roberta came up the walk behind Beverly and Tad, as if on cue, a kind of punch line. She was quite fat, with a real waddle on her, thick-ankled, big drapey dress, and salty: "You didn't have to break the door off to fit me in. Way to flatter a girl, Marty." What a rag-tag bunch. Tad didn't talk much. He sat back in his chair like a sulking child while Beverly leaned forward, curled in interest over the table, just positively fascinated by what Nick had to tell of the films he'd worked on, the stories he had. Nick kept stroking his thin mustache, feeling quite sure of himself, aware of his stature amongst this group. Plus Beverly had a way of making you believe what you were saying was the most interesting thing in the world, nodding her head, mouth open as if mildly stunned by the magnitude of even your most trivial remarks. But then, when you'd concluded, she would, after a pregnant pause, blithely tell a story of far greater interest, all the while fiddling with her cascade of blonde hair. She was a gem. Priceless really, with her ability to cut people down without their even knowing. You could practically hear their knees go out. Lorrie had invited Beverly for just this reason, for leveling Nick Regan if necessary, just enough leveling to make him feel they were worth his time. Beverly had a Jack Nicholson story in her pocket. She'd met him as an extra on a comedy. She had run lines with him, among other things.
Excerpted from If I'd Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken. Copyright © 2013 Kate Milliken. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
A Matter of Time.................... 1
Names for a Girl.................... 14
The Whole World.................... 21
Everything Looks Beautiful.................... 38
Parts of a Boat.................... 42
Man Down Below.................... 56
The Rental.................... 88
Sleight of Hand.................... 114