It was the exhilaration of new parenthood that first united Michael and Paul, outside the Brooklyn hospital where their wives, Rebecca and Jenny, had exiled them from the delivery room. For Paul, though, tragedy swiftly followed that euphoria. Hoping to speed his and Jenny's recovery, he turns to Michael for a favor, unwittingly kindling the spark of connection between these couples into the affair that will blow them apart.
One year later, on the same morning that the catastrophes of their personal lives come to an explosive head, a mysterious crisis in Midtown Manhattan all but shuts down the city, leaving both men stranded--Michael at the northernmost tip of the island and Paul in a dark subway tunnel under the East River. Each must make the arduous trek home through record-breaking heat, nervously eyeing the thin plume of smoke above the skyline, though it's their private turmoils that loom largest. Told in the alternating voices of these charismatic but deeply flawed men, Little Disasters deftly cuts between the suspense of the citywide disaster and the history of secrets, lies, and losses that has brought these four intertwined lives to the brink. Smart, unsparing, and bitingly funny, Randall Klein's debut is an engrossing story of the bonds of love and family--and our unending urges to test them, even when we need them most.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Present Day: July 19, 2010
Jennifer Sayles and I are a terrible idea. The two of us together is like touching a stove to see if it’s hot, or cutting through the park at night, or eating strange, ripe berries straight off the bush.
We’re that moment right before the world becomes catastrophic, when we are more alive than we have ever been or ever will be again, and we embrace our commitment to the bad idea, because that’s the idea that makes perfect sense.
I’ve learned this lesson, step by heavy uphill step, trees sagging wearily around me, looming over the paved path, as if in judgment. I’ve learned this, on a quest up to the entrance of the Cloisters, a fortress of an art museum located at the northern tip of Manhattan, about as far across the city from my sliver of Brooklyn as one can get.
I slipped out this morning when the sun was just starting to come up and the temperature was still merciful. I waited on the platform with men in uniforms—security guards, orderlies, janitors. These are the men who ride the subway before rush hour, who sit and catch a few minutes of sleep, narcolepsy by necessity, their heads hitting their chests the instant the doors close, some global positioning alarm clock springing them awake when the train rolls into their stations. I hunkered down, sipped milky bodega coffee, people-watched, voyaged north and north and farther north, people coming on, people getting off, the hourglass swell of riders crowding the train, then dwindling more and more as we zipped our way up until there was no one getting on, only people departing. And then we arrived at 207th. Blocks go that high in Manhattan. I started searching for the park, walking through a neighborhood that woke and stretched as I passed.
We chose the Cloisters because neither of us had ever been. We have ignored this guidebook staple, full of medieval art and tapestries. It’s an intimidating stone building in the middle of a park, the type of place that might have been besieged by dragons in another time. When I get to an entrance to the park and look up at the distant edifice of the Cloisters, I realize immediately that Jenny is not going to meet me up there. She’s not going to want to walk through the park and up this hill in the humidity and rising heat. I check my phone; it’s already eighty-eight degrees and the sun has been out for maybe an hour. But we agreed. If I’m not waiting at one of those entrances in fifteen minutes, and there is the skin-of-her-teeth chance that she is, I’m pretty much fucked. And so, uphill.
My phone tells me it’s ninety degrees. The air saps moisture from every pore, leaves me drenched in sweat. When Jenny gets here we’ll stroll for a bit and laugh about this, work a shower into wherever the rest of our day takes us. Now that we’ll have been to the Cloisters I can’t see us ever coming back. It’s beautiful—there’s a view of the Hudson through trees, winding paths for hand holding—but this will be, at best, a place we take our kids once. It’s too far from everything. One day we’ll pack a picnic, rent a car by the hour, and take li’l Wassily or wee Austen up to see where Mom and Dad committed to one another once and for all. My breath stinks sour of coffee, and I plan to kiss her when she arrives, so I smoke a cigarette to balance out the taste.
Jenny is supposed to be here by now, but she hasn’t been on time to a single thing in her entire life. I’ll need to work on that with her, subtly and without eliciting resentment. Or I’ll have to learn to live with it. Today isn’t about punctuality, though. Today isn’t about the people we’ll become. That sounds pedantic in my own head; I’ll need to revise that in case it’s something I say out loud to her when she finally does arrive.
I check my watch, wondering what route she took to get here. Leaving the apartment this morning—opening the front door and stepping into the stairwell and closing the door behind me, testing the knob to make sure it’s locked, hearing the neighborhood around me still but for the drone of cicadas and the distant belly rumble of truck noise—I thought it would all be more difficult. I thought I would leave some part of myself behind. But it wasn’t and I didn’t. I have a grasp of what I have done and cannot undo. That’s on my mind, still sitting here waiting for Jenny. But it doesn’t feel like loss. It doesn’t feel like the pains of a phantom limb callously discarded in Red Hook.
At some point in the future I’ll stare forward blankly and let my mind wander into every hidden room of the past to the black, rotted core of exactly what I’ve done. How I became the villain. But if I feel anything now, still waiting for Jenny, it’s resolute. I made my choices, and now come the ramifications. I can deal with those.
Before that fall, though, come so many gorgeous moments—shared secrets, shared joys, shared sins. It’s entirely possible that Jenny is at some other entrance, waiting patiently for me as I do for her, anticipating the same lateness, though my slavish devotion to punctuality would suggest otherwise. Give me six months to live, and rather than bargain with God I’d throw myself into traffic to meet the deadline early. Jenny knows this about me. I take out my phone and find her in my contacts. There she is, one of many, but her name may as well be encircled in neon.
Hey Love, I’m staring at a castle and waiting to kiss the sweat on your shoulders. You close?
And ten minutes later, that happy chirp.
I couldn’t. Michael, I’m sorry. Please don’t hate me.
Just like that, I’m running through the park, downhill, away from the Cloisters, where I had never been before, and where meeting Jennifer Sayles was a lovely idea that made no sense whatsoever.
One Year Ago: July 18, 2009
I’m smiling, grinning really, deeply in love with my life and all that the day holds. And the smell of freshly baked cookies—always the smell of freshly baked cookies—enveloping me like a straitjacket.
The egg timer beeps. Rebecca waddles into the kitchen. The timer is one of those magnetic models that leeches onto the fridge and, when it hits zero, starts counting upward, so irresponsible bakers can see how many seconds they’ve let something overcook. Rebecca is not an irresponsible baker. That electronic whistle, like a homing device, draws her to the oven from anywhere in the apartment. Why she takes the extra step of turning off the timer before reaching into the oven I don’t know, she could just as easily flip the process. That’s not exactly true, or it’s more kind than accurate. Rebecca turns it off first to emphasize that she didn’t fuck up, that another perfect batch cooked not a second longer than her handwritten recipe instructed.
I can’t say the same for our son, who is late by two weeks. Rebecca had designs on July Fourth. “A fireworks baby,” she said, as if that’s a thing. It’s now July 18, her own egg timer beeping shrill as the seconds mount up, and her doctor wants to get this little bun out of the oven.
“Our son will share a birthday with Nelson Mandela,” I say, impressed. “Also Harriet Nelson, Hunter S. Thompson, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins . . .” I scroll through a few more names, debate whether to add Hume Cronyn to the list. “Ooooh, also Mein Kampf was published in 1925. That’s ominous.”
I close my laptop and join Rebecca in the kitchen. She takes another batch of cookies out of the oven, each one perfect—perfectly round, perfectly plump, perfectly browned—and sets the timer to let them cool for five minutes. I intercept her as she’s hitting start and kiss her flush on the mouth, kiss my wife the way I always promised I would, like I intend to still once our son is born. She responds with a hum of pleasure, her body relaxing under my hands, cradling her tummy. When we break she says, very quickly, “I love you.”
“Dammit,” I curse under my breath and she laughs. It’s a competition we have, who can say it first after a long kiss. She wins four of every five. I lose myself somewhere in her lips, but a part of Rebecca always stays alert, always thinks of the next thing on her to-do list. “I love you too,” I grumble.
“My bag is packed and so is yours.” I follow her into our bedroom. She has packed an overnight bag for herself; I helped with that one. She’s laid my backpack next to it, packed without my knowing. There are books, of course, and my iPod. Three bottles of water, and enough energy bars to keep me fed through hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.
“You know there’s a bodega across the street. You’re not delivering in the Gobi.”
“In case you can’t leave the hospital.”
“There’s a cafeteria too.”
“Say thank you, Michael, and keep looking. There’s more.”
She’s also packed candy cigars. “To share with the other dads. They’re bubble gum.” Oooh, and a flask. My flask, a gift from my dad when I turned twenty-one. I unscrew the cap and smell Blanton’s, my special-occasion bourbon.
“I say thank you, Rebecca.” I kiss her again. “Thank you for being amazing, and thank you in advance for the unspeakable gore you are about to endure.”
The timer beeps, and she’s past me and out of the room faster than a blink.
Thirty minutes later I pull the truck up to the front of the apartment and we walk down the stairs together. I’m holding the bags in the lead, and she has her hands on my shoulders, slowly and carefully making our way outside. It’s nine in the morning and already blisteringly hot. A storm passed through a few nights earlier, the humidity finally coalescing into actual raindrops, but now we’re back to hatefully heavy air. Rebecca has Rorschach blots under each breast seeping through her gray T?shirt. I left the engine running and the air-conditioning on, and she glances back at me gratefully for this small mercy as I help her into the passenger seat.
“Did you turn everything off?” she asks. She means in the house. God forbid we let Con Ed gouge us more than they already do.
“Did you lock the door?”
“I did. Did you remember the baby?”
She pats her stomach.
“Okay,” I say, “Let’s go become parents.”
It’s already been decided that my role today is to wait, patiently, in the waiting room. I am allowed to check up on her, and if the doctor gives me any news, I am allowed to go back into her room and discuss it with her, specifically if decisions need to be made. But I am, under no circumstances, to sit in her room and add to her stress. This isn’t some spiritual choice that Rebecca made so that our son would not be born into a world of negative chi; she simply doesn’t want me irritating her. I can respect that. Rebecca likes to have her accomplishments to herself. This child will be ours; the labor, however, is hers and hers alone. The doctor and the nurses won’t even factor into the games she plays with pronouns.
We drive under the Gowanus Expressway and pull onto Ninth Street. The warehouses give way to brownstones. Rebecca stares out the window silently. She does this when she’s tense, goes spooky and mute. I reach across and grasp her hand and she clutches mine right back.
I stroke her bare fingers, one knuckle to the next, with my thumb. She took her wedding ring off a few months ago when her fingers grew too swollen. Something clicked in me that day, seeing my wife visibly pregnant, wearing her jeans with the spandex waistband hidden underneath a long-sleeved T?shirt. Without that ring, some quality that defined her in my mind changed from a minor to a major chord, and I saw her anew as a stranger—a stranger I profoundly wanted to fuck.
“What brought that out?” she asked afterward.
I couldn’t tell her the truth. I looked at Rebecca, her body supine, her belly distended, her swollen breasts rolling like uncooked dough into her armpits, her hair limp and lifeless, her skin spotted like a teenage boy’s. “You just turn me on like lights,” I said instead. “You flip the switch and pop.”
That was the last good lay. Rebecca and I discussed this, in tones serious and somber. We discussed that I’m finding it difficult to view her vagina as an orifice designed for pleasure when it is now preparing itself to be an orifice for procreation. Those are her words, incidentally, cribbed from a baby book, recited with solemn understanding. I tried to protest (“No . . . !”), but if that were a reason she’d accept as justifiable, I’d cop to it. Since then, Rebecca will initiate sex and I’ll respond, softly poking at her. She moans and grunts and says words of encouragement, and I can tell she’s faking enthusiasm; sex for her now is like having an itch that I pat gently instead of scratching. That will change. I promise myself to take whatever journey I need to take in order to return us to the days when she’d wax for me.
I hang a left on Eighth Avenue. We’re in the posh part of Park Slope now, a neighborhood whose pretensions we mock from the comfort of our kitchen. But we’re also a block away from Prospect Park, its lush green scent wafting in through the vents, triggering fantasies in Rebecca of our son ambling down the hills by the baseball diamonds, shrieking with laughter at dogs swimming in the filthy pond that’s always pudding-skinned with algae.
We turn onto Seventh Street. The hospital stands on both sides of the block. Rebecca sucks in breath as if through a straw. Her mouth goes tight and her eyes clamp up. I quickly veer the truck over to the side, stick it in front of a fire hydrant.
“Hey.” I make her turn to me. “This is happening.”
“I know,” she says, and the waterworks start.
“He’s coming out, it’s time.”
“And he’s coming out in a good hospital, with a doctor you trust.”