Oh, Brothers

I bonded with Jake about Israel, but I was attracted to Seth. In the end, it turned out it wasn't really my choice after all.

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When I read Marguerite Duras’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Lover, I was twenty-four years old, just finishing my MFA in writing and wondering what I would do next with my life. I stared at her cover photo on the book jacket. She was seventy, wrinkled, yes, yet more so than any human being I had up until that point laid eyes on: wrinkles marking her face in every direction, while tough like elephant hide. I was horrified; panicking I consulted my mirror for telltale signs of aging. There were bags under my eyes from staying up late or drinking or a combination of both. I checked my driver’s license photo where I’m smiling. Were they laugh lines or crow’s feet? Like all women just ending a marriage, I was suddenly single, yet I was on the clock. I couldn’t believe that I had wasted all that time — four years dating, getting him to commit, then forcing him into a marriage only to stop wanting to be married to him two years in. 

The pressure I was feeling made me resentful. Instead of looking for another stable relationship, I acted out, sought people and situations that did not lead to a safe place. If marriage represented safety and security then I wanted the opposite end of the spectrum — planning a backpacking trip around the world where I would visit the writers I’d met in the International Writers Program, leaving the U.S. for an unknown period of time with no immediate plans of pursuing job, marriage, or children. I wanted to experience something else, be someone else and the only way I knew of doing it was to travel. The wife of my Russian teacher insisted that I talk to her brother-in-law, Rabbi Jeff — she was convinced my plan was foolhardy and that I needed counseling. She tempted me with Hillel House’s free Friday night dinner. Picture a long table filled with your favorite childhood foods — chicken soup, brisket, and roasted potatoes — only saltier and drier than your memory. She gloated and smiled at me around the dinner table as she passed the Challah and noticed me talking to the two boys on my right. They were brothers, still undergraduates at the University.

I couldn’t decide which was the better looking one. Jake maybe played football in high school. Seth, darker and more effete looking, was a film student — definitely the artsy brother, more of what I was used to. That first evening we bonded over my tales of living on a kibbutz in Israel before enrolling in grad school. I’d climbed date trees with a crew of French volunteers and learned how to stand on the topmost fronds without getting cut by the thorny bark that covered the trunks while I slashed off ripe dates with a machete and dropped them into a burlap bag. I’d made love with a French boy also staying on the kibbutz on the steps of the ancient synagogue at Bar ‘Am, before leaving the kibbutz and camping in the Sinai Desert with him, on the shores of the Red Sea, having hitch-hiked from Haifa to Eilat. The brothers were mesmerized. Jake wanted to study abroad in Tel Aviv and asked me if I’d help him write his application. Seth retreated a little to the side, not wanting to intrude in on what was quickly becoming his brother’s terrain, yet his sense of decorum or shyness or both was captivating. I couldn’t get involved with both of them; they were brothers and knew I would have to choose. But slowly, that choice was being taken from me, as Jake did most of the talking.

Two Jewish boys. Their familiarity was oh so welcoming. Here I was in this part of the country — the Midwest — one of the few dark-haired girls on campus, still gesticulating with my hands instead of having learned to keep them in my lap. We started seeing a lot of each other — mostly, they were helping me get through my separation from my husband, coaching me on how to kick back shots and dance in a mosh pit, activities I had let up on during our long courtship and not so long marriage. They invited me to come home to Chicago with them on weekends — well, really it was Jake who asked, Seth merely nodded. I felt a little funny dressing in my black short skirt for the punk rock concert in Lincoln Park that Jake would be taking me to. After all, I was four years older and a soon-to-be divorcee. Their mother gave me the once over. Did she suspect? Had Jake told her that I was married?

“Enjoy yourself,” she said with a smirk as if she too had read The Lover.

There’s a certain feeling of solidarity that older women feel toward younger women even as they are about to sleep with one of their sons. I know women with sons who allow their girlfriends to sleep over in their son’s beds and cook breakfast for them in the morning, which is exactly the situation I had found myself in. (Although Jake and I wouldn’t have sex yet, we’d slept that night in his sleigh bed together like friends, our sprawling bodies only casually entwined.) Our teaspoons clinked against the side of our ceramic coffee mugs as we stirred in sugar and milk. Jake and Seth’s father — a lawyer — sat at the table reading the Tribune. His mother served omelets. It wasn’t the trip to Shanti’s beach hut in Goa that I had imagined as the first destination on my trip around the world, (Shanti was the wife of the visiting Indian writer who had extended an open invitation), but I was feeling young again.

My relationship with my current boyfriend, Owen Samuels, was going nowhere. Despite my feelings for him, which were intense, he wasn’t someone I wanted in my future. Tall, languid, he exuded sex, the kind of guy who would walk a few steps behind you just to stare at your ass. In someone else it might have been obnoxious, but in Owen, it was part of his appeal, though again, not a characteristic I’d want to base a lifetime commitment upon.

One day, Owen and I were making love on his platform bed in his stuffy, dark basement apartment in front of the open window. I felt a chill on my neck, like I was being watched. Sure enough, I looked up, and met Jake’s eyes. He was standing in front of the window on the grass at ground level. Instead of making a scene, my tactic was the same as when a cab pulls up at a busy New York corner, pretending not to be interested, just to get the other people waiting off guard. Then, when they’ve relaxed, there’s an opportunity to quickly hop in. That’s what I did. The next time I saw Jake alone it was outside the coffee house in Iowa City, the first of its kind featuring brewed java, after decades of diner coffee. He was carrying a take out bag, the liquid seeping through the heavy brown paper.

“I don’t think you put on the lid tight enough,” I told him.

He looked embarrassed.

“Did you have to?” I asked.

“I just don’t know what you’re doing with that guy,” he told me.

I leaned over toward Jake to give him a hug, but caught myself going straight for his lips and then he was sticking his tongue in my mouth, kissing me back. We walked to my apartment together, both of us fired up from the coffee we’d just drank, missing our morning classes.

Of course I would have to break up with Owen if I was going to continue seeing Jake, until Jake made it perfectly clear that he was interested in sex with me but not a relationship. It wasn’t anything he said. I had that sixth sense that comes after years of reading silences — mostly my husband’s. I felt angered and betrayed. Jake was my friend who had been caring for me during my separation from my husband. Now he was just another guy chalking up a conquest. Worst yet, he must have bragged to his brother, because the next time I saw Seth his face was a hard silhouette, as if a “No Trespassing” sign had been mounted over it. He was the one I was more attracted to and now sleeping with him at some point in the future felt more and more remote. I wondered if Jake lured me to him on purpose out of sibling rivalry, intuiting that I preferred his brother and he wanted to put a stop to it.

Then a funny thing happened. Jake announced at a Hillel dinner one evening that he didn’t just want to study in Israel, he wanted to move there and enlist in the IDF. The term ended with my having little to do with either of them — Seth probably blamed me for Jake’s determination for living in Israel, since that very first night when I went on and on about my experiences living on the kibbutz, and Jake was busy brushing up on his Hebrew, preparing for his aliyah. I don’t even remember saying goodbye to Jake before he left or to Seth when I left Iowa City for good and moved to Manhattan. About a year after I’d been living there, I got a phone call from Seth, not even knowing how he got my number. I guess he looked me up in the White Pages. It turned out that he was in the City. He was staying at a friend’s penthouse apartment with about four of his friends from Chicago and wanted to know if I was free.

“We’re finally in New York City but we don’t even know where to go. Could you show us around?” he said so innocently I couldn’t help thinking that the real reason he called was so that he could score with me. I was excited. Jake was posted somewhere on the Jordanian border and Seth felt free enough to try to get together with me in New York. Ha! Maybe he had liked me all that time, after all.

“You were so vulnerable all my brother had to do was tell you that you looked good that day and you’d go sleep with him,” Seth said on the dance floor at Danceteria, a punk rock club in the East Village where Madonna had played before she became an icon.

I moved away from him, off to the side, joining his friends at the bar. One of his friends, this really good looking guy who was flying from New York to Los Angeles the very next day to try and pursue an acting career (he had an appointment with an agent), asked me if wanted to dance. It was easy to spite Seth because his friend was so good looking and I continued dancing with him, brushing up against each other all limber and sweaty, the rest of the night.

We didn’t leave the club until around 2 AM and Seth asked me if I just wanted to stay over at the penthouse. “How many times will you get to sleep at a place like this?” he said. He didn’t need to convince me. It was thirty floors above the city with a sweeping panorama and a balcony that ran across the width of the building. The refrigerator was stocked with water and wine and the water pressure in the shower was strong enough to shake off the soot that covered my skin from living in Manhattan and showering in a tub with a hand-held faucet.

It wasn’t until the middle of the night when Seth’s friend — Eric — turned toward me. The six of us were all sleeping on cots in the living room — yes it was a penthouse apartment, but it didn’t have a separate bedroom, typical for even very exclusive buildings in New York City. Either I was already awake or he woke me up when he very gently put his arm across my chest and pulled me toward him. I didn’t want to say anything and risk waking up the other guys. I was so shocked that Eric had crossed the line, yet I was also happy that a guy this good looking would be attracted to me, especially since clearly Seth was not. Eric was younger by almost four years. I was pushing thirty. I had read the Duras, its tortured passages yearning for youth, and felt like she had written the book specifically for me and my situation. I gazed into his beautiful eyes fringed in his long, dark lashes with this thought — might this be my last encounter with someone in his twenties? Not one to harbor regrets, I went for it. • 15 August 2014

Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.
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