I’m going to be honest with you: I’m swamped with work and deadlines, and while I’m reading Henry Miller religiously, I won’t have time to blog or write this week. Therefore, I’m giving you (for free) the opening of my Henry Miller novella which you can find here on Amazon. Here it is:
A Novella about Midlife Crisis, Henry Miller
and True Love
© 2012 Inez Hollander
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are made up by the author or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
This has been a labor of love. These characters have become like my children, so if you judge them, judge them with the softness of your heart. We are all flawed and it is what makes us interesting. Perfection is a bore.
“Life is radiant if only we’re bitten in the right place.”
Henry Miller, Black Spring
“What the expatriate artist feels in Europe is a spiritual rebirth: the old self dies; the new self feels immortal.”
Erica Jong, The Devil at Large
“Lul!” the cyclist cursed as he raced by in what seemed a twenty-first century reenactment of the Flying Dutchman. His pedal narrowly missed my kneecaps as I stumbled backwards, weighed down by my forty-pounds’ backpack. I opened my mouth in fleeting protest, tasting my own bad breath. My eyes stung with jetlag. The filtered light of the pale polder sun was as intrusive as the realization of daybreak after a night of too many beers and too little sleep.
Maybe Amsterdam was a bad idea.
“Sin city!” my mother had cried with an enthusiasm that seemed at once uncool and inappropriate. I had wanted to fly into Paris, following into the footsteps of Hemingway and Fitzgerald who, in the 1920s, had seen Prohibition-weary Americans arriving by the boatload. A heavily discounted ticket took me to this bicycle-infested city and canal cornucopia instead.
So this was it: the city where Anne Frank languished in her Annex and Descartes wrote “I think therefore I am,” thereby egging on the European intelligentsia to think like modern-day scientists rather than medieval mystics.
“All that history is just killing me…” (my mom again, after I talked about Europe before leaving) and then the stinger with a hand on my knee: “Loosen up Henry dear; this will be your year off…you might as well carpe that fucking diem…” I cringed.
My mother had been pimping Europe as the locale of bar brawls, opium dens and falling hard for Europeans, who, according to my mom, all looked like “friggin’ Sophia Loren and Liam Neeson.”
Rather than scoring some Bologna broad or Stockholm sweetheart, I wanted to find myself, or rather, see for myself whether Europe still had that dynamo power to awaken young wannabe writers like me. Yes, the power of pot was one thing but the allure of Gertrude Stein quite another. Maybe I had come too late. Maybe Europe, “Old Europe” had been diminished to a cavernous museum of drafty corridors and sad relics that could not even conjure up the magic of its own monumental past.
I put on my sunglasses and glanced at the address my mom had so carefully written down: Herengracht 214a: use the orange bell and press hard. This was the wrong canal. The Herengracht was one canal ring further down. I walked on with increased vigilance, ready to ward off more homicidal cyclists hurtling themselves through space in my direction. The air felt slightly damp which was to be expected in a country that has defied the notion of sea levels. I marveled at the tall, stately canal houses with their gables, window shutters and warehouse hooks. Even though I had left California behind me at the other end of the world, it was as if I were walking onto a Hollywood set.
The Dutch language with its pronounced gutturals bounced off the brick buildings whose corners were sometimes decorated with flower stalls. The women seemed to have walked straight out of Vermeer’s paintings: big-boned blondes with blue eyes that sparkled a freshness and daring that made me feel vulnerable and naked. Wafting out of the first coffeeshop was the skanky smell of Nederwiet, Holland’s most well-known and potent varietal of pot. Cigarette smoking in public places and restaurants had finally been outlawed in Europe too, but this did not apply to the coffee shops where college graduates like myself smoked themselves sick, much like the Americans who drunk themselves half unconscious, littering the sidewalk cafés of Europe’s capitals in the 1920s.
I passed a street organ; its shrill music seemed a sure migraine trigger after the monotonous roar of the plane’s jet engines. The fellow who manned the organ shook a copper tin in my direction, begging for some tourist generosity. He winked at me and sang without inhibition. Something about tulips and Amsterdam. I stumbled on, and, slightly jittery and dazed, I was trying to prepare myself mentally for my meeting with the ice queen, June. June, the daughter of my mom’s best friend Jill happened to be working as an intern for a human rights organization in Amsterdam. While I would be bumming around Europe after having graduated from Berkeley, June had wasted no down time but kept padding her resume by landing this prestigious internship, after having graduated from Yale.
Although there was no love lost between June and I, my mom Rita and Jill had been best friends in college. Upon graduating in the 1980s they had been roaming the streets of Europe before starting graduate school. From what I know it had been an outrageous bash, as if they had wanted to shed all their living-dangerously behavior before settling down in dull marriages and dreary careers back home.
Eventually, my mom married my dad, a cigar-smoking venture capitalist, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Jill married an obsessive-compulsive corporate lawyer (my mom’s words, not mine) and settled in Weston, Connecticut.
Apparently, it had been their summer of excess and, after having picked up the forbidden Henry Miller at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, my mom had been reading Miller out loud on their many train rides through Europe. I can’t even imagine how June’s mother, who is definitely more repressed than my liberated hippie mom, reacted to all those passages with cocks and cunts.
Of course at this point in time, Miller, at first banned from America’s puritanical mainstream was banned all over again by the feminists who condemned him for his misogynist depiction of women, but Jill and my mom, while equally aware and braless (I shudder at that visual) as their feminist peers, began to embrace Miller as an advocate of freedom. “Miller,” my mom told me over dinner one night, “personified not only the freedom to be and the freedom to love, but also the freedom to rebel against what he called the ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ that America had become.”
Using Miller as their Bible and reason for being, my mom’s and Jill’s journey through Europe became a Dionysian quest for a mere delight of the senses: they gulped wine at breakfast, lunch and dinner, competed at finding the smelliest and runniest of cheeses and slurped at oysters, food that they would not have touched with a stick, growing up in the States. They stopped shaving their armpits and screamed with orgiastic joy when their Italian and French lovers praised their stale body odors or gorilla armpits. Liberated by the sixties, they pushed the boundaries of sexual decadence before the angst set in about HIV-Aids in the eighties.
“Our mantra,” my mom told me, as she was clearing the dinner dishes, “came straight out of The Tropic of Cancer…” and here my mom looked at the ceiling in an attempt to jog her memory, but then flawlessly cited with an almost rapturous joy: “To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”
“But mom,” I said, “You’re tone deaf!”
“You don’t get it, do you?” she looked at me, disappointed.
“We sang and chanted our way through Europe like New World Aboriginals, renaming the land and redefining ourselves. It was as if we were being reborn, finding new voices and new selves.”
To the latter I could relate, or hoped to relate once I set foot in Europe. I asked my mom what had happened after that…
“We parted for business school and law school, and wept…saying goodbye in the airport. If I could, I told Jill, I would marry you…”
“And what did she say to that?”
“I never thought I would hear her say what she said then, knowing her straitlaced Baptist education, but Miller had set her free from all the prudes she had grown up with, so she said…”
“Maybe I don’t want to know,” I said as I started clearing the rest of the table, but my mom was unstoppable especially when the truth serum of her fourth glass of wine kicked in.
“She said, ‘Dahling I would marry you too, but we need cock in cunt country’.” My mom threw her napkin on the table and started clearing out the dish washer, all silently, as if to underscore the anticlimax of what came after they had said goodbye at that Atlanta airport: the familiar trajectory of school, marriage, a house in suburbia, the chocolate colored Labrador, kids, minivans, menopause and estrogen replacement therapy.
Oddly, in a final tribute to Henry Miller and their shared summer of untamed abandon they had named June and I after the scorned writer and his second wife. June and I were born a week apart. It was as if they had dedicated a live monument to their summer of independence together by naming us Henry and June. Unfortunately, June and I were as far apart as our mothers had been close.
Here it was. The Herengracht. I took off my sunglasses to focus better on the street numbers. A wide hipped woman was busily scrubbing her stoop with bleach. I walked to number 214a, pressed the doorbell and looked back at the cleaning woman. I had never seen such devotion to a piece of sidewalk. I waited. Then pressed the doorbell again. I felt a sudden knot in my stomach. I disliked June but did not even know her that well. During the sparse reunions between my mom and hers I had been forced to play and interact with her while our mothers talked and laughed like hyenas over cups of coffee and glasses of Chardonnay.
As a preschooler, June had been bossy and direct.
“Why do you wear that shirt?” was my earliest memory of her saying.
“I dunno…” I remember replying, twirling my hair and blushing.
“It’s orange. I hate orange,” she said. She might as well have said “I hate you.” I never wore that sweater again.
As a teenager June had been equally insufferable. She clearly showed her impatience over the fact that she had to spend time with me when my mother and I were in town. Her frilly hand gestures, the valley girl roll of the eyes and her smart comments made me feel like a retard. Moreover, once she had noticed she could make me blush, she seemed to take a perverse joy in turning my cheeks a bright red. The redder, the better.
The last time we had met we were sixteen. It was a disastrous blush-heavy lunch at the Yale Club in New York City. On the way back to San Fran, I sulked in my airplane seat as if I were twelve again.
“Never again—I don’t have to see her ever again,” I told my mom. My mom was chewing Nicorette in what was a lifelong battle with her cigarette addiction. When she did not smoke, she overcompensated with booze and food, gained weight and then started smoking again to lose weight and quit her alcohol addiction.
“I am sorry hon–,” she said with blatant indifference, “It is such a roaring shame you two don’t get along…”
So never again, and here I was, pressing June’s doorbell…an orange doorbell, why would you have an orange door bell?
According to my mom, June had been in Amsterdam for two months. I anticipated that June would show off all her insider knowledge of the Dutch…and she would be bragging about that prized internship when all she probably did was answering the phone and making copies, human rights or not.
Suddenly the door swung open. I was startled, stepped back and felt an uncontrollable redness and warmth enter my cheeks: it felt like a fucking hot flash and I experienced a sudden urge to flee. I bit my lip and looked at my shoes as if I were that toddler in orange again. With some people, our parents for one, but people like June too, we never outgrow the crib. How tickled she would be to see a bumbling and blushing Henry on her doorstep…did I mention that she was taller than me too?
But then I heard a booming, baritone voice. Did I ring the wrong doorbell? Or did June travel to Amsterdam to have a sex change in one of those gender confusion clinics? I looked up at a balding man. Clearly not my childhood nemesis.
“You must be Henry! From Frisco! Come in, come in!” He ushered me in with the forcefulness of a Dutch flood.
“I am June’s landlord. She asked me to let you in. Come on up!”
The Dutchman’s enthusiasm seemed genuine. My mom had told me that the Dutch and the Danes were the Latins of Northern Europe. “Pour a drink in them and they’ll party with you all night,” she had said as she was dropping me off at SFO. I had a hard time picturing my mom, my PR firm mom who was known for organizing glitzy parties all over San Fran, burning the midnight oil with this canal house dude. We entered a narrow and dark hallway that smelled of Brussels sprouts. Or was it wet socks? Definitely not the Calvin Klein fragrance which I associated with hoity-toity June.
“By the way, my name is Dik,” the jolly landlord turned around on the steep and dank stairway.
“Nice to meet you…Dick…” I looked up at him as my eyes were getting used to the dark.
Dik unlocked the door to June’s place and handed me the key. June’s flat consisted of a small bed-sitting room with an ornate granite mantelpiece from a previous century and a kitchen and a shower stall off to the side. The real appeal of the place was a colonial and peeling balcony covered in vines, overlooking the canal. Sunlight came pouring in from the balcony.
“You can close se curtains,” Dik was jumping forward with an almost diabolical energy and closed the see-through drapes.
“June told me you can sleep on se couch, and oh, se shower’s over dere, towels are dere and if you need anysing, just let me know. I live downstairs.”
Dik’s th-s sounded like d-s but mostly like –s, the sibilance of hissing water that seemed in perfect harmony with all the water I had seen inside the meadows with the black and white cows, while on the train, and here in Amsterdam in the canals, along the narrow streets. As if Dick was reading my thoughts, he said cheesily: “Welcome to Amsterdam, se Venice of the Nors.” He grabbed my hand with an iron grip and then left as fast as he had come.
I dropped my heavy backpack on the tattered Persian rug and stepped onto the dry rot balcony. Down below was Dick’s green garden, bordering the brackish canal. Were those marijuana plants down below or did I have pot on the brain now that I had landed in dope heaven? I turned around and stepped inside again. I was soooo relieved June was out. I felt fragile in my jetlag-induced state and knew I would not deal so well with June’s constant scrutiny and denigration. In fact, on the flight I had already looked up where the Amsterdam youth hostel was in relation to June’s address. I needed a way out if things were really intolerable. But after a long hot shower that leaked into the kitchen, I fell down on the couch, exhausted. Before closing my eyes I noticed the moisture stains on the ceiling, and in the corners, the plaster cherubs staring down at me. The Old World. Grand. Even in its decay. That was my last thought. Sleep came over me like a heavy, narcotic trance.
Rita is speed-dialing her cell phone in the car.
“Jill? It’s me…Rita…
Jill is stirring homemade soup.
“What’s up? Good to hear your voice.”
“Nothing much—I am on my way to get my mammogram.”
“What? You’re breaking up, honey…
Jill tastes her soup with her pinkie in the air.
Rita speaks louder: “The OBGYN technician is going to flatten my chest meat to make hamburger patties out of them…”
“Oh…mammogram: there’s nothing like having your tits steamrolled on a cold shelf and having the living daylights pressed out of them.”
“After my first mammogram, my breasts were so much in shock that I thought they would never perk up again…”
“Don’t you think, Rita, that that damn machine is a man’s invention…?
“Yeah, we need a pappogram…some fucker of a flatiron that squashes dicks to check for prostrate cancer…”
Jill laughs and says: “Well if it is any consolation; I just had my biannual papsmear…”
“You mean mamsmear; it’s about time we make the terminology gender-appropriate…like Viagra should be renamed Miasma, because that’s what it is like for middle-aged women who are suddenly faced with Viagra boners when they themselves have become as dry as parchment paper.”
“Don’t get me started…”
“Oh Jill…we’re getting old…my friend the oncologist…remember Tina?”
Jill adds sherry to her soup, takes a swig from the bottle and says “Yeah…” while wiping her mouth.
“She says that we should lop ‘em all off. Breasts, that is, before they develop bumps and need biopsies.”
“Really, Rita, who cares about them anyway…after I was done nursing, mine shriveled like prunes, stretch marks included. No one ever told me about that…”
“It’s La Leche—the breastlatte feminazis. It’s their best-kept secret. A tit conspiracy of sorts.”
“Didn’t you see Henry off today?” Jill is going through her rack, spice rack that is.
Rita’s voice is breaking: “Shit…I think I am full-blown menopausal. I bawl over nearly everything. Dropped him off at SFO and wept all the way home…”
Jill puts down the nutmeg: “Rita, are you okay?”
Rita parks her car in front of the grocery store.
“I am fine…but I do ask, is this all there is? Having children, letting go, checking for gray roots in the mirror, budgeting for retirement, pondering whether we should learn to play bridge, gradual hearing loss, urine loss, forgetfulness, death, oblivion.” Rita lights a cigarette and as she exhales: “Henry Miller was spot on you know. This country is a fucking treadmill. The American Dream is dead. All we have is wet dreams for status, more consumer goods, gadgets, stylish junk…”
“What brought it on?”
“Henry…at the airport…him walking away from me, into the terminal…his youth…Europe…and me just a walking fossil in that damn departure hall. All of a sudden I felt like such a Has Been who wasted all her best years on all the wrong things.” Rita inhales. “I think I left all that was good in me, in Europe, so many years ago. America is…the back door to civilization…we have become the ‘dregs and debris of the disinherited,’ Jill…”
“Miller again…but Rita, dear, aren’t you idealizing that summer we had?”
Rita exhales, saying nothing.
“You are not smoking again, are you?”
Rita drops ashes in her lap and gets up, out of her car to get rid of the grey and hot ashes.
“Gotta go, Jill. Talk to you later.”
Wanna read more? Go to Euro Trippy on Amazon.
Miller is falling through the cracks of the American canon, so do check out my GoFundMe campaign here. If everyone pitches in $10, we’ll have a book before you know it…
Or read my Henry Miller blog.