The New Milner

They say life imitates art, but Milner’s latest novel is alarmingly prophetic.

A small boy walks on the pages of a large, open book.

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The wife is in this local reading group, Local Bookies. It meets different places once a month, like the B&N, the Methodist church basement, and usually on the first Saturday. It’s open to men, but they only read books by women. They are reading “the new Milner,” which you must have heard of. It’s everywhere, all over the internet. Their book for February. I don’t know the actual title since nobody refers to it by the title. Just “the new Milner.”

Couple weeks ago she was reading it in bed. I was feeling a little frisky, so just to get her attention I asked her what it was about. “Who cares,” she replies. “It’s the new Milner!” and she dives back in. That sort of killed the friskiness.

A night or so later I overheard her describing the new Milner to some work friend over the phone, so I get another drive-by update.

“It’s about a married couple with a kid named Josh, who plays soccer. Josh’s soccer coach is young and sort of hot. But I’m only on page 40.”

Later that night she’s reading the new Milner in bed, again, and I ask her what’s up with Josh and his family.

“Weird, but it’s as if it’s about us. For instance, the couple in the book has been together eighteen years, like us, and the husband works for a utility, same as you, and the wife is in a book group, same as me.”

“Is their kid on the math team?”

“No, soccer team. Coach is a young stud. And his mom is sort of into the coach. Listen to this.”

At midfield the team encircled Josh’s coach, who knelt, half-hidden, mid-circle. Abruptly, like Poseidon emerging from the depths, he burst into view, clapped twice, and his young charges rushed to their positions. Rapt, she stared at him, tall and tanned, in an electric blue jersey and shorts that stopped above the cleanly dimpled knees and revealed a pack of bronze thigh muscles that shifted sinuously when he moved. She caught her breath. She had never seen such legs, calves, thighs, or such a body — sculpted not in a gym but on the fields of praise — and instantly the whole landscape of her marriage began to change.

“Sounds like porn,” I cracked.

“Sounds like life,” she replied, coldly.

Fine, I thought, be that way. Keep reading. The more you read the faster you’ll be done and the sooner our sex life can return to normal.

Soon, I was getting nightly summaries, usually in bed, but what caught my eye was the parallels between us and the family in the new Milner.

For instance, the husband is a guy named Al who like me climbs utility poles for a living and whose wife, like mine, reads in bed and is in a book group.

That night she kept trying to focus on the month’s selection, but her thoughts could not get any traction. Like tires on an icy road, they kept sliding back to that afternoon and Josh’s coach, young Poseidon in electric blue. At last she gave up, closed the book, and turned off her lamp.

“By the way, hon’,” she said with her back to Al, “I met Josh’s coach today, and what a cute young guy! He also has the sexiest name.”

“Sexy? Since when are names sexy?”

“It’s Richàrd, not your regular ‘Richard.’ The accent is on the -chard.”

“He married?”

“Nope.” She yawned. “Young, hot, and unencumbered.”

“Wait a second,” I said to my wife. She stopped reading. “He’s French?” For some reason I was suddenly all ears.

“No, that’s just the way his name is pronounced. Richàrd. Second syllable gets the accent.”

“Sounds fancy,” I said.

“Wow!” she says. “That’s exactly what Al says in the book! Look.” She turned the book toward me and pointed:

Al sat up in bed and turned to his wife, her back to him in the darkness, suddenly all ears.

“He’s French? Sounds fancy.”

A couple nights later I come to dinner and there’s the new Milner by her plate. I’m curious, so I ask her, what’s up with Al and his bride?

“Things are heating up. I just finished chapter seven. The U-12 Travel Team has a major tournament and Coach Richàrd and all the parents are staying in the same Marriot. All the parents except poor Al. He can’t go because of his work; he’s on call that weekend. Like you, hon,” she says, “when Sandy hit? You slept beside your mobile the whole week.”

The chapter ends with the wife and Richàrd running into each other in the hotel bar after the team’s in bed. They have a heart-to-heart, just the two of them, into the wee hours.

“Then what?” I ask.

“Nothing. They talk.”

“How long?”

“All chapter seven, like” — flipping through pages — “twenty pages.”

“I see where this is going.”

“Two people having a conversation is where it’s going,” she snapped, all sass and sarcasm. “Why does everything between a man and woman always have to end in bed?”

I noticed the edge of the bookmark buried about a further half-inch down.

“What page you on?”

“I don’t know. The one I’m on … maybe two hundred?”

Good, I thought, and went back to my dinner.

Valentine’s Day I gave her a card attached to one of those floppy rubber bookmarks that look like police truncheons and that you lay across the open book. They come with random stuff printed on one side. This one had cooking directions — “Quick Kitchen Equivalents,” how much is a teaspoon, how much a “pinch” of salt is. She thanked me for the card, apologized for getting me nothing, then made some crack about how men think women read nothing but cookbooks.

“So,” I asked, ignoring her remark, “what’s up with Al and his happy family?”

“They won the tournament! One of the parents, this nosy woman named Abby, just basically grilled Al’s wife about her ‘all-night’ conversation with Richàrd in the Marriot. This Abby is a bitch. She is always baiting people or getting into their business and using it for these sleazy romance books she writes. ‘What were you and the dashing Richàrd discussing so late into the night? Soccer strategy?’ She reminds me of Martha.” Martha is the mother of a kid on Junior’s math team who drinks too much, is a snoop, and who also writes books she publishes online.

“Well, life imitates art,” I said, “as Shakespeare said.”

“Shakespeare never said that. I think it was Oscar Wilde.”

“So, how much longer before you finish it?”

“I’m around two-thirds.”

“How many pages?”

“Around 400. Why?”

“Just saying, it’s taking you forever.”

I fell asleep watching her read the new Milner. Next morning, I found her at the breakfast table still reading. She said she could hardly put it down. I got another plot update over breakfast.

“Al just caught his wife and Richàrd having a tête-à-tête, on the phone.”

“Hah. Now they’re speaking in French.”

Tête-à-tête is practically English. People use it all the time.”

“Yeah, French people.”

“I use it and I’m not French.”

“Whatever. How did Al catch them?”

“He started tapping his own phone,” she said. “I don’t understand how. You probably would.”

I do. More on that in a moment.

The upshot? After a couple-three phone-taps, Al is intrigued. Not just sexual jealousy but — he tells himself — genuine parental curiosity. After all, the guy coaches his son. So Al decides he has to meet him. From now on, Al tells his wife, he will be driving young Josh to soccer practice.

Which is how Al comes to meet Coach Richàrd and solves the puzzle of Richàrd’s fancy name:

“So, uh, Richard,” Al said, the mispronunciation deliberate and emphatic, “tell me something about yourself.”

“It’s Richàrd,” the young stud replied, unruffled, smiling wryly. “My name is Richàrd. Accent on the second syllable.”

“Sorry. It sounds foreign. French? You’re French?”

“No,” and he laughed a sharp, crisp, dismissive laugh. “I am Irish on my mother’s side and Polish on my father’s, but I was called Richàrd at home. Everywhere else, I was Rich, Richie, Rick, Ricky, and at Princeton, I was dubbed ‘The Rickster’ by my Delta Sig brothers. It’s got something to do with how impatient I am,” And with a significant if not entirely pregnant pause, he added, “especially with stupid people.”

“Why did your parents call you Richàrd?”

“They were rich, pretentious assholes,” he replied. “And also stupid. I rarely see or talk with them.”

My wife read this part to me and Junior over dinner. Turns out — a paragraph or two later — Al learns that he and Richàrd have the same birthday, twenty years apart.

“Listen to this!” she said. “‘Al winced at the thought of the irresistible, cheerless, yawning Grand Canyon of lost, unrecoverable years that sundered and also soldered them together — forever.’

“‘Yawning Grand Canyon,’ wow,” she repeated. “Jesus. Only Milner writes like that, I mean — that is so Milner.”

She got up to load the dishwasher and left my Valentine’s gift lying across the open pages. Page 250.

“Don’t lose my place, hon,” she said, turning back to the dishwasher.

The Saturday after Valentine’s Day she got up before me and showered. Nothing unusual — not that we had done anything that night that cried out, “Take a shower!” I smelled coffee, which woke me, but I lay there — the new Milner by her pillow — estimating the odds of her coming back to bed. I figured they were zero, so I took a cold shower. (I ought to confess here and now that since the beginning of the month I have become addicted to cold showers. They soothe my nerves, drown out the body’s white noise. They allow me to experience being wet and naked, even if it’s a solitary experience.)

Josh was still asleep, so with only a towel around my waist, I went downstairs carrying the new Milner.

She was by the sink. She had on her pink bathrobe and had wound a striped bath towel around her hair. Over our sink is a bow window with a view onto our backyard and the apple tree I planted when we moved in eighteen years ago. She was staring out the window as if she was in a trance. At the apple tree, or so I thought. She was always on me to chop it down because it blocked her view and gave lousy apples. Then she unraveled the towel and started toweling her hair in a very lazy, sexy, dreamy way, like the girl I had married eighteen years ago, who brought me coffee on our honeymoon, which we spent most of in bed. Couple seconds passed. Then she rewrapped her hair in the towel, then suddenly stopped and turned.

“What are you staring at? And go put some clothes on! You no longer have the kind of body worth showing off.”

“You forgot this,” I said, holding out the new Milner.

She turned her back, poured a mug of coffee and stood at the counter, then went back to staring out the window.

I sat before my empty “World’s Best Dad” coffee mug, embarrassed, and I admit really pissed off. Randomly, I opened the new Milner:

Saturdays! she thought, yawning. How long they had been given over to the ritual of washing and conditioning her hair? Long and black, full and thick, she drew it into a slick braid that hung down her back like bell rope. Her hair, she knew, was still thick and rich and healthy, a young girl’s hair. It was late February, winter nearly fled and spring in the offing, and some unknown power stilled her, paralyzed her with the desire to just stand there and stare into her yard — which she found truly pedestrian and unsightly — and let her beautiful hair hang, half unwound, like an inverted question mark, the answer to which, along with her fate and her future, she already knew. Richãrd, young, sensuous, witty — and unencumbered. Or was it no question mark at all, but a hangman’s noose? The thought made her smile. She was rewinding the towel around her hair when she sensed someone else in the room.

It was Al. He was staring at her, smiling — no, she thought with disgust, leering — and standing in the doorway wrapped in a dingy towel, dripping wet, his gut eel-slick and spilling over the knotted towel end, his fish-belly white arms folded across his chest, which was still wet, going gray, gross, shapeless, and oddly, she thought, effeminate.

“What are you staring at?” she announced, coldly. “And please, put some clothes on! Christ, Al, that’s not the kind of body one goes around showing off.”

This was one too many for me. That, and the fact that in both the book and in my life, it’s now, it’s February.

Things got weirder. My wife, like Al’s wife, is now spending hours at night on the phone with our son’s math coach, a young guy named Nick. When our Junior started working with him, my wife would address Nick as “Professor.” Suddenly he’s plain old “Nick” and the conversations go on an hour. Since my wife flunked both algebra I and stat, you know they’re not discussing set theory.

So I put my foot down. Next time I drove Junior over to his math coach, I told her, I was going to introduce myself.

What can I say? This Nick is tall, not gangly but muscular, dresses sporty and really fills out his clothes. Full head of “slick jet-black hair and eyes of cornflower blue” — the new Milner’s description of Richàrd — and had “a strong, manly handshake.” No glasses, no wedding ring, no gut. Courteous, even invited me in for coffee. Ivy league all the way, and worse, impossible to dislike.

I drove home feeling like shit. When I got in, I told her that since I drove Junior over to his tutorial, she should pick him up. I made up some crap about a cramp in my shoulder and needing to rest. She grinned.

“Sure, no problem!”

Minute she was out the door I went to the basement. I grabbed this old cradle phone that came with the house, then plugged it into a half-hidden extension in the second-floor “Nothing Room” — we have three rooms on the second floor, and the empty one which was supposed to be for our second child, who was stillborn, we call the Nothing Room — then unscrewed the cap covering the mouthpiece and removed the little disc microphone inside. This is also how Al tapped the phone in his house and eavesdropped on his wife’s conversations with Richàrd. Legacy tech, but still effective.

This takes me up to maybe a week, eight days ago. I had got so totally absorbed in Al and his wife and the world of the new Milner, I started calling my wife Milly — short for Milner — out of spite. It was my lame way of getting even with what her goddamn book had done to our sex life. Over dinner on Sunday, I asked “Milly” to pass me the potatoes. Junior lifted one eyebrow at her and made a face.

“Your father thinks it’s okay to mock what I read. It’s some game he’s playing,” she said, sarcastically. “Right, Al?”

Since then, I am “Al,” who is married to “Milly.” We have a kid named “Josh.”

Last Wednesday I got home late. As I walked through the door, I heard voices. She was on the phone! I raced to the Nothing Room and lifted the receiver.

“Well, Nick isn’t my given name. I just use it because it’s convenient.”

“What is your given name?” she asked.

“Nicolás.”

“Nicholas?”

“No, Nicolás. Accent on the lás.”

“Wow, very exotic,” she cooed. “I like that.”

“That’s what I was called around the house.”

“Is it a family name?”

“No, my parents were simply pretentious assholes. Everywhere else I’m just Nick or Nicky. My frat brothers called me Nickster because I am so punctual. You know, ‘the nick of time’?”

She giggled. Nicolás guffawed. I went limp.

I didn’t sleep that night. In the dark, I listened to her breathe and listed all the parallels between me and Al. There were way too many. Junior is asthmatic, and so is Josh. Both are constantly losing their inhalers. Al and I have trees in our backyards — him peach, me apple — and both our Millies hate them. We planted them the same day we moved in, eighteen years ago. Me and Nicolás have the same birthday, twenty years apart, like Al and Richàrd. Abby, the real gossip in the new Milner, writes romance novels, same as bitchy Martha, only Abby’s aren’t published on the internet. Milner’s Richàrd and our Nicolás had free rides to the same Ivy (Princeton) and both got Ph.D.s from Stanford (Macroeconomics, Economic History). Both are “hot and unencumbered.”

The corker is on page 347, near the end of the book. Al’s wife’s nightly phone sessions with Richàrd end abruptly. Instead, she begins “taking walks” or short drives to the drug store. At first, he is puzzled:

Their conversations had been, Al confessed to himself, not intimate exactly, yet behind the static in the line he had often heard the laughter of two people who could not realistically or simply be called just friends, either. It was the laughter of two who were more than friends — possibly, even, secret lovers — and the occasional pauses of a man and a woman desperate to prolong the conversation and proceed from conversation to — Al could no longer deny it — coitus. Then suddenly, without warning, came the night when, hidden in his dark listening post on the second floor, like a lonely lookout trying to spot land from his crow’s nest, Al would hear nothing new, nothing revealing in their usually unsettling exchanges. Why? Then it hit him — soon after he had taken over the job of driving Josh to soccer practice, the conversations had changed. They had begun censoring their conversations! But even so, certainly they could not have stopped talking to each other completely! So how were they communicating?

The answer came a day or so later. He was getting out of his van and about to lock it up for the night and head home when he glanced around and noticed everyone he worked with talking or typing into a cellphone. Why had he not thought of this before? His innocent bride of nearly two decades had bought herself a cellphone to carry on a secret affair!

Was it before or after I read this little passage that my wife’s nightly phone chats with Nicolás stopped completely?

I resorted to basic skullduggery. If she was using a cellphone, she was also texting. I have no idea how to tap a cellphone, but I could certainly read her texts. I had to know.

I waited for my chance. It didn’t take long.

Two nights ago she was arguing with Comcast over their usual overbilling, on the portable by our bed, and was on hold. I was across the corridor exiting the bathroom, having enjoyed another cold shower. On the bed, alongside the new Milner, was her open pocketbook. Her back to me, I padded over and looked close.

Yes! There it was, the tiny antenna connected to a shiny mobile phone, just waiting to be plucked.

“What,” she asked me, not even turning around, “are you doing near my pocketbook?”

“I was going for the new Milner,” I said, “I just wanted to— ”

She cut me off with a wave.

“I’m still on hold here. You’ll have to drive over and pick up Junior. Nicolás is indisposed. He can’t give him a ride. And do put some clothes on!”

That night I slept on a chair in the Nothing Room, staring at my now useless spying equipment and feeling helpless and really guilty. I felt like a burglar who breaks into his own house and finds nothing to steal. Helpless, guilty, and foolish.

As of today, last day of February, my world is a photograph blown up so large all you see is the dots. All trees, no forest. Junior now answers to “Josh” and doesn’t make a face when “Milly” calls me “Al.” (Even he calls me “Al.”) Like Al, I’ve given up trying to read my wife’s text messages. Oh, and Martha, the boozer romance novelist? She has turned out, like the Abby character in the new Milner, to be not just a gossip but nasty as well.

Martha approached me outside Nicolás’ a couple nights ago after soccer — I mean, math practice. I was picking up Junior and she was dropping off her son. She was carrying the new Milner. I asked her what she thought of it.

“Just finished it!”

“And?”

“Hey, it’s a Milner!” she gushed. “What’s to add?”

“Mil — uh, my wife is still reading it,” I said. “She especially liked the character named, uh …”

Which is when I realized that I knew the names of all the characters — Al, Josh, Richàrd, even Abby — but not the name of the wife.

“… the wife?”

“See? You too! We all do it!” she said. “Milner didn’t give her a name! It’s a tricky point of view thingy, right? The French invented it. We writers call it a McGuffin. The wife is nameless. And namelessness makes sense for this girl, believe you me. She’s friggin’ mythic! If you’re this woman telling this story, and it ends this way?”

“Which is how?”

“Don’t make me spoil it!” Abby-Martha said. “Please!” She came closer and breathed a half liter of Valpolicella in my face. “Unless you want me to?”

“I want you to.”

“Comes down to this,” and she leaned against me. “Milner has flipped the script on male privilege. Is Al losing his grip or is his nameless wife gas-lighting him? You know the basics? Al suspects her of cheating, she does nothing to make him think otherwise?”

“Is she?” I was sweating. “Does she?”

“But that is exactly the electrifying beauty of the new Milner!” She blew more sour grapes in my face. “Okay, spoiler alert! Or half-a-one. In the backyard of their house is a peach tree Al planted when they moved in.”

“I know. Eighteen years ago.”

“So Al gets a call at work. It’s from her. She’s all excited, tells Al to come home. Immediately! It’s important, even urgent. Al rushes home, and the moment he enters his house, confrontation! The truth she reveals is more shocking than what is about to happen to poor Al, but he listens and listens, then races — no, bolts into the backyard and goes right to that peach tree, climbs a stepladder, grabs the branch that’s got the rope attached to the tire swing he put up there for Josh, wraps it — ”

She wrapped the scarf she was wearing around her throat once, twice, then yanked it with her free hand, stuck her tongue out and made bug eyes.

“God, there is something so … poignant in a character’s going out like that, swinging from a tree that is the very symbol of his marriage! Really, it’s worthy of Steinbeck.”

“But why does he, uh?”

“Oh, no, that’s the half I’m not telling you. It’s beyond dark. The point is to highlight how Al’s exit stage left is actually anticlimactic. Anyway, you’d probably do the same thing in his shoes.”

My wife finished the book last night, and I got a call from her not five minutes ago. Urgent, we need to talk! I’m leaving and heading home. If you don’t hear from me in a couple of hours, check my backyard. I’ll leave my heavy utility knife on the ladder. Tell Junior, or whatever his name is, I love him.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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