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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Finding Henry Miller

by Cathy Roy

“Honey, Clark’s here,” my mother yelled from the kitchen. The white curtains blew gently over the avocado countertop. 
“You didn’t tell me he had a van,” she said with a concerned voice. My father had just shuffled into the living room. “You know what boys do in vans,” my mother said to my father. I wanted to pop up and tell them that Clark and I had sex everyplace in the world but the back of van, but I didn’t think they’d appreciate this coming from their 17-year-old daughter.  It was disgusting in the back of that van.  Too many parties combined with a leaky sunroof left it dank and moldy.  At one point, there were so many pot seeds on the floor, some actually started to sprout. The plants never got too big, though, because someone always picked them and tried to smoke them.  I never tried it. They gave everyone a headache. 
My mother opened the door.  Clark, how’s Stanford going?” she said and winked at me.  I think the wink meant he was a keeper.  Clark was tall with long blond hair.  He looked like a surfer, but he played lacrosse. “The only true American Sport,” he would constantly tell everyone, since it originated with the American Indians.  I wondered what the American Indians would think of the Stanford team.  He definitely had muscles and a tendency to make girls swoon.  I couldn’t believe he was having this effect on my mother.  I was ready to go away to college next year.  “Hey, Mom Roy,” Clark smiled with his perfectly white teeth. He really belonged with some model in Vogue, not with me.  I was cute, but completely insecure.  My school was full of beautiful California blondes. I was brunette and curvy. 
“There’s coffee in the kitchen – you kids be careful driving over to the coast.”  She and my dad, who mumbled hello to Clark, went out the door. 
Clark promptly sat down and pulled open a magazine.  He dumped a large amount of green stuff onto the magazine and started rolling joints.
“Can’t you use an album cover from my room?” I asked. “My parents read that magazine.”
            “It’s a long trip.  We need a few for the road.  What did you tell your parents by the way?” He widened his beautiful green eyes. 
“I told them we were watching some of your friends surf.”  I wasn’t about to tell my parents we were driving a few hours down the coast to see some author named Henry Miller. Clark was an English/Drama Major at Stanford and had read about the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. Rumor had it, if you just showed up you could hang out with Henry.  I was too embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read anything by Henry Miller. At the time, I was struggling with Shakespeare and Homer. But Clark was crazy about meeting Henry Miller, so I just nodded and pretended I knew what he was talking about.  I didn’t want him to think I was some stupid high-school girl, even though that’s what I was.  I was completely out of my league dating a Stanford student. What was I thinking?
“You might want to grab a jacket,” he told me as we started to leave. “There’s a bunch of fog on the coast and the heater is broken again.” 
“Big surprise,” I mumbled under my breath.  Maybe I was more like my father than I thought.
Clark had a loud stereo system, so I just sat back and listened to Steve Miller play “Keep on Rockin’ Me.” 
It was only a few months earlier that I had met Clark at the Stanford radio station. I was still in high-school but was a deejay there. We had a station meeting in the new Business School. The room sat 100 people and looked pretty plush compared to any classroom I had ever been in. It smelled new and was filled with loud college students and a few adults in their twenties. A gorgeous blond youth dressed in a three-piece suit with a fedora hat was at the end of one row.   
   “Who’s that?” I asked Barbara in a casual, I’m-not-really-interested way. Barbara was a teacher’s aide and one of the few women, besides me, at the radio station. 
“That’s Clark,” Barbara said.  “I’ll introduce you to him. You guys would get along.”  Barbara was always trying to fix me up with someone.  Her nickname was “the Burnout,” so I wasn’t really sure I trusted her decision-making skills.  Apparently she was a leftover Stanford student who had taken a lot of acid during the Summer of Love.  
After the meeting, everyone piled out into the quad for a beer party. Roses were in bloom.  Barbara waved me over to where she was standing with Clark.  For a fall night, it felt like summer. We perched on a stone bench talking about school, religion, music and travel. The smell of roses combined with beer wafted through the air. It was obvious he was flirting with me. After a couple of hours I confessed I was still in high-school, but he didn’t seem to mind.  I was supposed to be home at midnight, but I got home at 2:00 a.m.  Trouble. The next day he showed up at the end of my radio show with a few roses and asked me out to coffee. I was hooked.  No one had ever brought me flowers or asked me out for coffee. (Years later a friend would tell me he always stole roses for me in the middle of the night from the Stanford Rose Garden). Before I knew it, we were spending all of our time together.  Every day he waited in the high-school parking lot for me to get out of class.  My friends thought this was cool. 
The first time I got a love letter from Clark, he wrote, I think we’re still young, you know? It’s exciting to be young and in love too.  It’s a feeling I want to explore with you – and I want to bathe in it with you and play with it and stretch it and then one day look at it and the next let it go like a wound up rubber band and then sing it – and dance too and laugh, of course laugh and smile , smile a sweet smile and it’s just love – the name of a feeling we all want to feel. What?  I couldn’t imagine anything lasting for a long time – except maybe my youth. I was going to college soon and would probably leave the Bay Area. Clark was too good-looking and too smart.  It was just a fluke that I got him as a boyfriend.
Now here I was in his van, going only Clark-knows-where down the coast.
Clark had an uncanny sense of knowing when my mind was wandering. He snapped his fingers in front of me “Where are you at?” he asked.
“Nowhere,” I replied. “I’m with you.”  I widened my eyes at him, which I knew had an effect on him.
Usually when I was this stoned, I was paranoid, but something about this day seemed right.
About an hour later, we were deep in the redwoods. We appeared to be the only car on the road for miles. I had no idea what time it was or even where we were.  I stopped smoking and rolled down the window. We continued to drive out of the redwoods when I noticed the ocean view on one side of the car and pointed it out to Clark.
We pulled over and stared at the big expanse of blue. Clark pulled me slowly to him and kissed me with his tongue. I braced myself. Clark kissed liked my neighbor’s Saint Bernard. It wasn’t like I was expecting Robert Redford, but it seemed like he was a human tongue.  Was this is how it was supposed to be? I’d ask my girlfriends, but they were all so envious over Clark, I couldn’t tell them he wasn’t nearly as perfect as they thought he was. The first time he had kissed me, a few months earlier, I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I looked for the sponge he had just used on me. Then, when we had sex, I discovered that sex with him was less messy than kissing.  He was great at sex. The problem was how to have sex without the kissing part?  I hadn’t figured it out yet, so I had learned to let my imagination go wild during the kissing part or try to pretend slobber didn’t bother me.
I pulled away, demurely wiped my mouth and chin, and told Clark if we started anything we’d miss Henry Miller. He started up the car and focused his high-IQ lacrosse-playing mind back on finding the library. 
Clark had aspirations to be a writer.  “Maybe one day I’ll write a story about this,” he said. “I’ll call it Finding Henry Miller.”  Back in the redwoods I spotted a shack and as we drove past I read the sign in front of it: “Henry Miller Library.”  Clark hit the brakes and pulled in. There were no other cars in the lot.  Some books had gone flying from the back to the front seat, so I picked up a copy of The Tropic of Cancer that Clark had brought with us so that Henry Miller could sign it.  I looked at the black-and-white book-jacket photo and a young bald man with glasses stared back at me.  “He looks studious,” I told Clark.
We got out of the van.  Redwoods towered over us as sunlight poured through the openings.  It reminded me of church.  All we could hear were chimes and birds.  It felt peaceful.  We reeked of smoke. What was Henry Miller going to think?  I tried to smooth out my hair and halter dress so that I looked somewhat presentable.  I’d smoked way too much and could barely walk.  As we came up the stairs, an older gentleman came out the door. 
“Hello,” he said, and seemed to look me up and down.
“Mr. Miller, such a hon-hon-honor to meet you,” Clark said.  I must have been really out of it and paranoid, because it appeared that Henry Miller was staring at my breasts. I stuck out my hand for a shake, but instead he gave me a hug. I could have sworn his hand touched my butt.  From everything Clark told me, he was a distinguished writer, but I was beginning to think he was a dirty old man.  He wore old jeans and a very crumpled shirt.  It looked like he wore the same glasses that were in the picture.  He had been years ahead of the John Lennon look, I guess. 
I looked at Clark to see if he had noticed anything, but Clark just looked happy. Okay, I must have been imagining things.
“I’m just about to close,” Henry said, “but I have a few minutes for you two.” Then he winked at me. Why was everyone winking at me today? The face that stared back at me was nothing like the picture on the book.  I wondered what had happened to that young fellow. Was I too going to get all old and wrinkled-looking – just a ghost of my youthful self?  Realistically, how could I avoid it? Unless I died young.
I decided I was pretty out of it by then, so I let Clark take the lead as they talked about authors I didn’t know. I let my mind wander out the window and thought about an essay I had due on Shakespeare. I don’t remember any of the conversation between Henry and Clark, but Clark did get his book signed.
            Fifteen minutes later we were back in the van, and Clark was bouncing up and down, pounding his fists on the van roof. “Cool.  We met Henry Miller. Everyone in class is going to be SO jealous.  And you know what? He said I could come back anytime and bring you too!” He was smiling ear to ear. 
This time we drove up the coast listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The sun was setting in hues of orange and pink. 
“We should have brought a camera,” I blurted out, thinking we should have somehow captured this day, this moment, this time. Clark smiled at me and told me to remember to bring one next time. I just looked out the window at the deep blue ocean.
There would never be a next time. Clark would take a semester in England in another month and then run off to join a religious cult. He wrote me a few letters about his life in Europe, but we lost touch. I fell in love with another Stanford student and never got around to writing back. In college when I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, it confirmed my impression of him– he was a dirty old man. 
Over the years I became everything I thought was uncool when I was seventeen. I have a house, a large mortgage and a job in the corporate world. I’ve travelled to the places Henry Miller wrote about – New York, Los Angeles and Europe. My world, which seemed so limited over thirty years ago, expanded like the opening of an old book. Now I leaf through The Colossus of Maroussi, as if trying to divine the spirit of Henry Miller into my writing. The feel of the book works like a time machine. I write obsessively about California, Stanford boys and rock and roll. With all the sex and drugs going on back then, maybe Clark and I were more like Henry Miller’s characters than we imagined.
Cathy Roy grew up in Northern California and now resides in Colorado.  Her first novel Tasty Girl, about the mythical San Francisco radio station KTST (a.k.a. - Tasty), came out in the summer of 2010.  She writes humor, paranormal, and food reviews.

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