Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Nor'easters. A short story.

Nor’easters
By Liska Jacobs

Rather then be confronted by Judd, Jacob decided to visit his brother in Los Angeles. He hadn’t seen Paul since his mother’s funeral, and now was a good time as any for a reunion. The air had turned crisp overnight, the morning sky was that blown out blue color- nothing but spacious brightness. It would be that way now, for the next couple months- until the snow came. Then the chill would be unbearable. The nor’easters would slice across the city; all the inhabitants bundled in layers, their ruddy faces tweaked pink from the cold- clamoring onto the subway like the ugly faced children that would soon be hurdling down the ice rink in the Commons.
Paul must be twenty three now, no- that wouldn’t be right, that was how old he was when their mother had died- no, he must, Christ, he must be twenty six. Jacob had spoken to him last Easter, he was working in an art gallery in Los Angeles, dating some artist.
Well, he would just surprise him. Jacob had the good fortune of being ten years Paul’s senior, so no matter how much of an ass he acted, Paul still admired him, still sang his praise. This of course was because Paul never really knew Jacob, by the time he could walk and talk Jacob had been shipped off to a boarding school. They were brothers, bound by a last name that had money and status attached. Jacob had been raised to inherit, the sole concern of his mother, and Paul had been raised second son, her sole comfort in life. When Jacob vengefully sold the Kiel transport business piece by piece, and thought his mother might actually keel over and die from the shame, Paul had argued with him and then ultimately forgave him. He was a real push over, one of those well meaning, light hearted douche bags that wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong while sitting on Jerry Springer’s couch. Jacob despised him growing up- hated his weak lungs, his small asthmatic body, and his mop top blonde hair that would always be messy and stylish at the same time. Since both their parents had died he felt some sort of need to stay in contact with his younger, better natured brother. He had realized that Paul’s naïveté (to put it politely) needed protecting, because no matter how many times he was put in Jerry Springer situations he never saw the bad news coming.
And besides Judd would probably come to the townhouse in another few days- maybe even tomorrow. He sure as hell wasn’t going to call her, and she- being one of those lawyer types- would not allow being brushed off, she would come knocking at his door and expect an explanation.
He absently turned over his hands and then briefly shut his eyes as if searching the back of his skull for one to give her.
Well, he was just going to have to surprise Paul.
***
On the plane he met Madison, a college student on her way back to school in California. She had spent the summer abroad doing some God-awful charity work for school credit. She was the save the world type; her face lit up with animation when she talked about the orphanage she had worked with; developing some program that gave the children cameras, so they could have a “creative outlet”. It was complete bullshit, but Jacob listened obligingly- she had amazing legs.
When they landed at LAX, it was late so he offered to buy her a drink at the bar and some dinner. She refused (being the save the world type) and so he offered her a ride in his car. He escorted her to an Audi coupe, the car normally reserved for him.
“I thought you said you worked for Greenpeace,” she said and narrowed her eyes.
“I do, I’m just lucky enough to have independent and substantial means.” He turned his head slightly and relaxed into an easy smile.
She turned her blonde head towards the passenger seat and then looked back at him, her blue eyes shifted steadily and she smiled back.
“Com’on then.” He said easily, and she slid into the Audi. He shut the door and crossed over to the driver’s side.
Madison was indeed the save-the-world type; she even fucked like one of those new wave hippy girls, a free spirit with a developed consciousness. He had smoked some pot with her, snorted a bit of coke in her bathroom without her knowing, and spent most of his first night in LA having an experience much like he might have had if he had gone to New York or London, and met some other postmodern sort of woman.
***
“You don’t have to stay long; I can tell you’re already bored,” Paul said with a bit of hurt in his voice. He had the look their mother got when she became despondent over some small matter; god forbid there wasn’t enough dill in the cumber sandwiches.
Jacob raised an eyebrow in admittance to boredom, but shook his head. He had shown up at the address their lawyer had given him- a flat in Los Feliz, a few days after arriving. It was descent enough, and Paul had made up a corner of the room so that it would sleep comfortably. The whole place had a modern coldness to it, decorated with large painted canvas and steel appliances. It differed tremendously from the ghastly Louis XIV décor that decorated the Boston townhouse; paneled walls, Japanese carpet, gilded frames - it really was appalling taste for a bachelor house. Jacob should have changed it after his father had died. But he hadn’t. All the gaudy pretenses that screamed out his mother’s insecurities harbored their same positions in the house, still looking on, as if they too had grown roots.
“I want to meet this girl of yours,” he said.
Paul looked hesitant for a moment; his dark eyes creased at the corners and a line appeared between his brows, and then he laughed- a little insanely for a moment.
Jacob looked at him, startled. “I seem to have missed something- did you smoke before we left your flat?”
Paul shook his head, “No, no. It’s not that. For a moment you had this look of dry determination- callus almost. It kind of reminded me of dad.”
“It was that scary?” A caterer walked by and offered them both a hors d'oeuvre. Paul smiled politely and popped one into his mouth. Jacob looked at her steadily, until she really looked back, and then nodded. She moved away from them, tossing a curious look at him from over her shoulder.
He smiled to himself.
“I don’t know how you do it. You would think after the woman’s movement they would be smacking you left and right.” Paul shook his head and walked towards the first abstract full scale painting in the exhibit. He tilted his head as if trying to measure something with his stare.
It had been an awkward reunion; at least it had been awkward for Jacob. Paul had embraced him in a childlike hug, full and welcoming. Jacob had laughed uncomfortably and slapped his brother on the back. To be received with such warmth had touched him, but a part of him despised even that.
“It’s a bad painting of Russians with the Madonna at the center- what could you possibly be trying to see?” Jacob rolled his eyes and moved to his brother’s side.
Paul sniffed, “ It’s an abstract interpretation of Delahaye’s, A Rally of the Opposition Candidate Alexander Milinkevich. We love Hazel’s work at the gallery, it has that modern reflection that is really selling right now.”
His younger brother turned to look at him, his face awash with the kind of snobbery only a masters in Art could inspire.
“Right, and what does the Madonna have to do with it?”
Paul shook his head and threw up his hands as if making some ridiculous Catholic gesture to the Virgin herself. “Don’t ask these kinds of questions when you meet her- please God, don’t. She’s not going to like you, I just know it.”
“Why wouldn’t she like me?”
Paul ran a hand over his clean shaven face, and looked at Jacob sardonically.
“What?” Jacob asked.
“The way you treat women- she’s not ok with men like you.”
“Not ok? What, does she pass out flyers or something? What do you mean- not ok?” Jacob rolled his eyes- a postmodern woman with a grudge, wonderful.
Paul took his brother by the arm and moved towards a painting of some soldier, lying dead in the dirt.
“I have never met anyone like her- she’s… she’s strong,” he finished rather lamely. He even looked lame- like a puppy that had been kicked too many times and had grown into a lame dog.
Jacob laughed half-heartedly in an attempt to conceal his disgust. “One of those Sex and the City girls?”
Paul frowned, but before he could answer, a dark haired brunette looped her arm through his and smiled up at him. Her hair was cropped short, drastically angled along her jaw to a point just beneath it. She looked at Jacob with hazy blue eyes, assessing eyes that measured without speaking.
Jacob thought she would have an unnerving poker face. “This must be Hazel,” he said.
She had a rather pleasant smile- it suggested laughter without truely exercising the emotion. It was quite disarming and Jacob could see his brother’s attraction to her. She had a sort of gravitating pull to her, the kind he imagined his mother having, before she had children and married into the Kiel legacy.
“And you must be the older brother Jacob.” Hazel said and extended her hand.
He looked at her outstretched hand for a moment, before firmly shaking it. She returned his grip to suggest that she wasn’t going to be dominated. He smiled, not because he had never met a modern woman who firmly shook hands like a gentleman, but because Hazel’s hand suggested, as did the quirk in her smile, that she was not to be fooled, and Jacob always found women who thought such nonsense to be fascinating creatures.
“We were just admiring this piece,” Paul said, and motioned back to the abstract nightmare on the wall.
Hazel followed his gaze, and then turned back to Jacob, “Paul cannot give me a single piece of constructive criticism. He just replies to everything that I create as being good or that he loves it.”
“How can I?” Paul asked.
Jacob laughed, “Indeed. How could he? You need an impartial eye.”
“Someone like you, I presume.” Hazel said and raised a delicately penciled eyebrow.
Jacob looked towards the painting of the dead soldier and promptly turned back to his brother and his girlfriend.
“Presuming is never a practice that I participate in, you should make it a point to do the same.” He noted with satisfaction that Hazel had slightly narrowed her eyes. “But since you have presumed -”
“Jacob,” Paul said with warning in his voice.
“No, no- it’s ok. I want to know his opinion,” she said, and made a gesture for him to continue.
“I see no connection between artist and subject. This piece here- I have seen the original. It feels like you consciously were trying to create an experience for the viewer- what about your experience?” Jacob walked to the far side of the painting and was enthusiastically viewing some minuet detail as if it mattered in his criticism. “If this is your response to death, then I would say that you haven’t really experienced it.”
He turned back to his brother, who had placed one hand over his face before running it over his chin. Hazel’s poker face had slipped; her hazy blue eyes were sharp with heat.
“And where did you obtain your Art Criticism degree?” She said, smiling her disarming smile again.
Paul stepped forward, but Hazel pulled back on his arm. “I should apologize, it seems that your brother’s constant praise has softened my nerve.” She laughed softly, which annoyed Jacob.
“It was very rude of me, come now, let’s be friends,” she said, and placed her hand on Jacob’s. “Paul, I think we need some cava- what do you say? I never serve champagne at my parties, too cliché.” She looked at Paul, smiling fully at him. “Be a dear, will you?”
Paul looked sharply at his older brother before kissing Hazel fully on the lips. Both Hazel and Jacob watched him as he made his way to the bar.
“Do you really think that I have no connection with my paintings?” She said. Her face was turned so that he could not see her expression. “Or were you just saying that to anger me?”
Jacob walked them towards a sofa that had been placed in a corner of the room. “I’m not going to apologize for my opinion, but I am sorry if it distressed you.”
She cocked her head to the side and studied his profile for a moment. He let her, pretending to be distracted by two caterers who had bumped into each other on the opposite side of the exhibition.
“I wonder then, did you say it to anger Paul?”
He turned to study her face for a moment, considering her question. She had a rather fertile look- he told himself it was the striking combination of pale skin, dark hair, and blue eyes, and when she turned to meet his stare, he couldn’t help but feel some pull towards her, some sort of strength.
“Why would I want to upset my brother?”
She raised an eyebrow in mock suspicion. “He talks to me about his family- about you.”
“Does he?” He said in his most bored voice.
“I know about what happened back in Boston.” She said it rather flatly, but when he turned to look at her, he saw a curl in her lip that suggested a kind of curiosity that he hadn’t expected from her.
“I didn’t know Paul knew the whole story.”
She tilted her head so that her chin almost rested on her chest, “Well, I’m not sure- what’s the entire story?” She peered up at him through her lashes.
Jacob threw his head back and laughed, startling a couple near them. “I’m going for a cigarette,” he said and rose from the sofa.
She followed him outside and he kept his lighter open for her. He watched her inhale the smoke, and looked away when she looked up at him. They stood on the balcony, overlooking 6th and San Pedro.
“So?” She urged.
Jacob turned his cigarette over in his hand, admiring his fingers. They were long and slender, not feminine but not wholly masculine either.
“Are you familiar prewar Japanese avant-garde?” He asked.
“Should I be?”
“I collect it. It’s a rather overlooked genre in the states. I think it’s because most people avoid what makes them uncomfortable.”
“And is Japanese avant-garde one of those things?”
Her angular hair hung over one of her eyes, and she played with her nails. He admired her hands for a moment, they looked as Paul had described her- strong. Jacob glanced back into the gallery.
“Avant-garde in the states and Europe was based on all this Freudian crap, in prewar Japan, the Japanese embellished mythology and popular imagination rather than bad psychology.” Jacob took a drag from his cigarette and let the smoke trail from his lips; he leaned his head back as if to ponder this phenomenon- a man composed of carbon, smoking.
“I don’t understand, avant-garde is expected to push the boundaries - it is expected to make people uncomfortable. No one overlooks it because of that.” She argued.
He smiled at her curiosity, and felt as if the ringing that had been echoing inside his head since Boston had finally waned.
“Americans are not uncomfortable with Freudian logic- it’s as old as the Romans. It’s built into our very fabric. But apply the avant-garde to popular imagination and…” He made a gesture that encompassed the two of them and the space around them. “People become uncomfortable.”
She raised an eyebrow, “How so?”
He shrugged. “Do you see prewar Japanese avant-garde exhibited?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “What does this have to do with why you had to leave Boston?”
Jacob smiled now, “I paid Jamie, and her friend to spend the night with me- both of which were,” he paused and flicked his cigarette over the balcony, “were enthusiastic about my paraphilias; and I was equally curious about theirs. I’m not sure how delicate your disposition is…”
She rolled her eyes, and he laughed.
“Good,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to upset you.”
“I am so sure,” she said smiling.
“We three had an agreement- we took the usual precautions, but I suppose the risk is the excitement. Jamie- as I am now calling her- liked asphyxiation; one of mine, is voyeurism.” He watched her now, as the smoke filtered from her lips.
“And Judd? Paul did tell me about her.” She looked maternal and reprimanding, which disappointed Jacob.
“Most people avoid what makes them uncomfortable; I left town before my girlfriend could confront me about my infidelities.” He shrugged again, under her heavy stare.
“What a bastard you are!” She hadn’t said it in a cutesy kind of voice, as if she were flirting with him. She spoke with a kind of final judgment that rung higher pitched and louder than the buzz that had been plaguing Jacob.
“There you two are,” Paul said, and stepped onto the balcony. He handed them each a glass of cava.
“Your brother has the most fascinating views.” She drawled, and sipped from her glass.
Paul looked at his brother for an explanation.
“I was just telling her about Prewar Japanese avant-garde and why America doesn’t exhibit it.”
“Because we’d like to forget we bombed them.” Paul said matter-of-factly.
***
Hazel spent most of her mornings in her studio, the afternoons wandering through new exhibitions and visiting old ones that she preferred. She secretly hated the pretentious architecture of the Getty, and coveted the quiet banal atmosphere of the Hammer. In the evenings she liked to go to the movies, not the independent cinemas, but the great duplexes that played all the big blockbusters. In one week she saw all four of the top grossing films at the box office. She really had no taste, in Jacob’s opinion, but he watched her anyways. He watched her watch Nicholas Cage in some heinous action movie; he had visited the posh galleries on Robertson, suffered through a speaker at some God-awful festival on human rights, and stood just outside her art studio in the mornings, listening to her blast Moby and John Mayer. It had been an ill-used week, but Jacob’s fascination persisted.
Jacob had tried to go out to a bar a few times, even a club or two, but he had gotten drunk, sloppy drunk, and woke up with a severe hangover and a sense of grief that he had not felt at his parent’s funerals. Paul had noticed not a thing, partly because of his own denseness and partly because he did not know his brother well enough to see a change. He woke up each morning, made them both coffee and sometimes toast, before he showered and went to the gallery. Jacob had gone to his work a few times, but found it almost in replica to Paul’s flat, which depressed him greatly for some reason. He left with a dull sense of hopelessness. A few times he almost called Judd, one of those times he actually let the line ring before he hung up. She called him of course, and he listened to her messages with a new kind of self-consciousness that bit harsher than any nor’easter.
On Jacob’s third Saturday in Los Angeles Paul decided to make dinner for Hazel and him at the flat. Jacob trailed behind them at the farmer’s market; sulking and seriously contemplating vacationing at one of the spas their mother had been so fond of.
While Paul labored over a stainless steel skillet later that night, with an apron tied around his lean waist, and ashen blond hair swept into a loose ponytail, Jacob looked on with an uncomfortable sense of embarrassment, and felt oddly inferior. He drank heavily, and when Paul asked Hazel and he to run to the store for some puccini mushrooms, he was already drunk.
She walked ahead of him, and they bought the mushrooms in silence. On the way back to the flat she turned to him with narrowed eyes and thin lips.
“Do you love your brother at all?” She nearly shrieked. “Or are you just such an asshole that you want to destroy everyone around you?”
Jacob looked at her shocked, “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you following me around like a fucking lap dog! What is your problem?” She pushed him. “You think I wouldn’t notice? How long before Paul notices? He’s a nice guy, I can’t even believe you are related!”
She spoke with spite, and passion; her eyes beginning to glisten. Jacob felt himself slipping, falling from some place that he thought was already the bottom. He tried to grab hold of her, to make her stop- she just wouldn’t stop talking. She was shrieking, or there was shrieking in his head- something was ringing in a high-pitched squeal.
Hazel pulled from his grip with disgust, “Jesus Christ- get off me! What did you think- that I would sleep with you in some vain attempt to push the boundaries, a la Avant grade?” She made a sound of disgust, but Jacob didn’t hear it, he was pulling at his temples with fierce determination.
“Shut up,” he said hoarsely.
“You need a mother, not a girlfriend.”
He grabbed for her again and she tried to shake him off. It was easier than he thought, she had seemed strong, but he could easily pull her behind a wall and pin her against it. He blindly kissed her, the ringing in his ears escalating, pulsing through his blood. She was wearing a short baby doll dress, which he pushed up against her. There was shrieking now, from all sides- in front of him, bouncing around in his head- all merging and building to something. She fought back, and a sudden blow to his stomach caused him to stumble back.
Her dark angled hair was wild looking and her blue eyes accusing. Jacob opened his mouth to say something, to defend himself from this maternal damning stare, but she spit on him before he could speak. Something snapped in him, the ringing ceased for a moment and a peculiar weightlessness took hold of his body. Oddly his motions felt heavily weighted as he slapped her fully across the face, so hard that she dropped to the floor. He looked at her for what felt like the first time, as she laid there in the fetal position.

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