Thursday, June 28, 2012

Looking Back at Loving Jack by Deborah Blumenthal

         It was my first novel and maybe my best one. I wrote it in about three months without stopping, putting in twelve hour days.  I didn’t know about writer’s block in those days. I didn’t know about the blood and sweat that goes into writing books.  I forged ahead and the words came.  I didn’t revise, I didn’t tear apart every sentence and rewrite it twelve different ways. I simply printed out the book when it was done and carried all four hundred and seventeen pages to the office of one of the top agents in New York City, a woman who was formerly the publisher of one of the major publishing houses. A few days later my phone rang.

       “It’s riveting,” she said, then acknowledging in the next breath that it was fun or “fluff,” to use her word.

       I had no problem with fluff.  It was a page turner, an escapist’s dream, and it held her interest. She told me that when she was a publisher she had bought a novel from a Washington insider.  The author dropped the phone when she heard the size of the advance. And now the agent had high hopes for my book.

     Months later, you guessed it, it never sold. 

     Undeterred by rejection, I wrote another book.  Not her kind of novel, but she sent that one out too.  It didn’t sell either, but the rejections came fast. Her name opened doors and got quick responses. 

      We parted ways further down the line.  Eventually book number two sold.  Fat Chance went on to sell well for a first novel. Since then I have written twelve other books, most of them for children and teens.

       But “Loving Jack,” my first novel, is still sitting in my kitchen cabinet, taking up enough room for a Cuisinart. I haven’t given up on it, but I also haven’t gone back to it in over ten years to give it a fresh, critical read.

      In case you’re interested, here’s the first chapter.  


Loving Jack

A

ChaptAs usual, the answering machine clicked on and off, non stop. Callers heard her clipped response.

“It’s Claudine, leave a message.” No promise to return the call at her earliest convenience. No reminder to wait for the beep. She didn’t care if the messages got garbled, chopped off mid sentence, or swallowed completely. She had no interest in their numbers, or calling anyone back anyway. Most were from the agency for jobs. The rest were from friends and acquaintances eager to find out how she was. She knew eventually she had to talk to people, but at this point, she couldn’t muster the interest.
She pressed the button, and listened briefly. She smiled when she heard Jack’s quick message:
“Hi babe, I hope you’re okay. You know how to get me.”
Vintage McCarthy. She had gotten to him, and he had gotten to her with his dark flirty eyes and easy smile. But Jack was a long time ago, and she didn’t want the sound of his voice to pull  her back. She fast forwarded the machine. The next string of messages were all from the agency, but no matter what the job, or who the designer, her answer was the same.

Only one thought kept resurfacing every time she thought about going back to work. She had to leave modeling, and do something real. She was tired of playing the mannequin and posing in a rarefied world where she and everyone around her was obsessed with an air-brushed reality, where real problems were soft focused to the point that they didn’t exist.

More and more, she became filled with the idea of moving on to start another kind of life. But she had avoided calling Anne Marie Walthur, not sure how she would explain that she had decided to slip out of the noose of a three-year contract, leaving behind a job that paid millions of dollars for doing little more than staring out at a camera and seducing viewers into wanting the cosmetics she used or the clothes she wore.
 
To make it harder, she had no idea what kind of work she would do in its place. It was almost laughable to think that she now had a huge bank account, but nothing she could parlay into any other area. Beyond a college degree, she had nothing to put on a resume except, “looks good in pictures.”

Holding a cup of strong coffee, she walked to the window of her Fifth Avenue apartment, and looked out at the sweep of Central Park. As morning approached, the sky faded from black as though the dark was being enveloped by a growing orange flame. 
She thought back over the past year. Leaving Jack, zigzagging the world for international shoots; coping with changing climates and time zones, eating on the run, suffering perpetual jet lag, and then hiding it all in the face of the camera. And if that weren’t enough to leave her tired, worn out and dispirited, life added one more trial by fire: A long delayed night flight to Paris that took off in a heavy snowstorm.

Her way to deal with it was not to. For the past three months, she had cloistered herself in her apartment, trying to shut out everyone and everything.  
Every morning, she was a spectator to a silent soap opera she had created, outside her window, with the curtain going up when neighbors, the unwitting stars, made sporadic appearances on terraces or through windows. She scripted stories about their lives, their jobs, and their loves, and from her safe, unthreatening distance, she watched the stories play out.

She saw a woman with thick black hair water pots of red geraniums on the terrace of the building across from hers. They seemed to flourish under her care. But her flowers seemed to be her only companions. Claudine peered into her apartment, but all she glimpsed was an etched Venetian mirror framed in blue glass, and a pair of deep blue crystal candlesticks in front of it.

Two floors below she saw the French doors leading out to the terrace of an apartment being flung open wide by a woman in high heeled slippers, wearing a flowing white robe. Behind her was a muscular younger man in boxer shorts who wrapped his arms around her waist and led her back in. Claudine  smiled and then looked away. She turned from the window feeling the old nagging sadness spreading over her.

Her apartment had only two rooms, but the moment she saw it, she knew she had to have it.  It was in a grand prewar building with twelve foot ceilings. The famous residents were mostly non residents who stopped by on their way to and from their other homes and other lives. The apartment was at the top, and at one time must have been the upper part of a larger duplex below. Perhaps the early owners didn’t want the second level or couldn’t make the climb. She never found out, but when she heard the price and saw the Manhattan panorama it offered, she left a deposit, on the spot.

Passing muster with the co-op board was no problem either. She had become a celebrity of sorts, but more than that, she was away much of the time. Not wanting to be in partnership with the bank, she paid for the apartment in cash. It was an apartment for one that had been on the market for a long time because of its small size.

A year after she bought it, the renovation was done. Friends described it as like being inside a diamond. The floors were done in polished black granite, and both living room and bedroom were dominated by huge gilt framed mirrors that brought the southwest city vista inside. Everything else was spare,  just two black leather couches in the living room, flanking a giant square stone coffee table, holding a crystal vase filled with yellow roses.

A queen -sized pear wood sleigh bed that she found in an antique store in Provence took up most of the bedroom. It had a curved headboard and footboard trimmed with a thin stripe of black paint. The bedding was white linen, and two plump square pillows were covered with white linen pillowcases outlined with three bands of black lines. The only accent in the room was a leopard needlepoint carpet that covered the floor near the bed.  The rest of the furniture was all built-in to offset the drama of the apartment. It was simple and  stark, with no pretensions. In both rooms, there were fireplaces with ornately carved white marble mantles.

The apartment looked its best on winter nights, when there were fires burning and the crackling glow of the flames glinted in the mirrors.  It was a protective cocoon that she always welcomed coming home to.

Every morning, she dressed in leggings, and a loose sweatshirt and running shoes, and started the day with a run around the Central Park reservoir, just two blocks away. The three mile run acted like an opiate that for a few hours at least, dulled the sadness that seemed to cloud her life.  Running around the soft earthy path never failed to make her feel better. The slight breeze in the air turned the stillness of the water into an impressionistic mirror that captured the reflection of Central Park West’s majestic lineup of prewar buildings. And as if to lend the painting scale, ducks with shimmering emerald green feathers paddled in tandem across the water. 

As she ran, she passed familiar faces. She recognized Tony, the detective who had dated a friend of hers.  He always wore long pants to cover up the holstered gun he wore around his right ankle. She never knew exactly what it was that he did, but he once told her it had something to do with surveillance, “bugs” he said.
“What are you an entomologist?” she joked.
“Not exactly,” he smiled. “My bugs don’t buzz.”
The reservoir was also a meeting spot, the place where a group of young women joined forces to burn calories, but ended up spending more energy on conversation. Everyone seemed to have their own motivations for running, and you could almost tell who was running to and who was running away from.

For the past three months, it was her only activity, except for going out for take-out. Even the briefest social encounter had become a chore.  She had little patience with small talk and hearing friends complain about the kind of things that in happier times she would have sympathized with - a flood in the bathroom, the job that got canceled, or a broken date. She wished for those kind of annoyances, they seemed such a luxury to her. But now she began to think that the time had come to push herself, to get on with her life.

Every time she passed someone with dark deepset eyes, she thought of  Jack. Once she was running behind someone with his build and found herself catching up with him to see his face. He thought she was flirting with him, and started running in stride with her. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, and then sped off before he had a chance to respond.

Jack was the only man that she had agreed to live, yet she always worked hard to keep some distance from him, to maintain her independence.  She didn’t want to depend on anyone, to feel beholden to them. Yet it was his very strength and self assurance that drew her from the start. He had an easy charm that she fell prey to, and his dark good looks appealed to her from the first moment she set eyes on him. 

But in the end, he wanted more of her than she could offer him.  He resented all the spur of the moment trips that took her around the world, and all the attention from the odd  entourages - ranging from photographers to hangers-on - that inevitably seemed to travel with models wherever they went.  He had his career, but he couldn’t accept that she wanted and needed a lot of space to have hers.

She left Jack, and spent more and more time in Paris. She’d have her own life, on her own terms.  She traveled back and forth, but began to miss staying in the New York.  She decided to do one more shoot for Paris Vogue, and then turn down European assignments for a while. More and more, in fact, she had been thinking of giving up modeling, and trying something new. She shared her thoughts with another model from the Walthur agency who sat next to her on the flight scheduled to take off for Paris. Neither of them felt the excitement anymore they agreed. They had done it long enough. It was time to move on.

But she put off talking to Anne Marie, the agency head.  Sometimes decisions make themselves, she thought. And in a way, this one did.

After all passengers were on board Paris bound Air France flight 305 one snowy evening, takeoff was delayed after the pilot asked to have the plane de-iced. Ten minutes later, it was sprayed down again. Finally the plane taxied to the runway, but then waited and waited for takeoff  clearance. All around her, Claudine could hear the comments of passengers who looked out and felt that something wasn’t right.
“We’re in trouble,” someone said, “something is wrong.”
Another voiced a premonition that disaster was ahead.
But then the engines started, and slowly the plane lifted off. Claudine had a sick feeling that the plane was not going to keep going. Suddenly passengers were yanked violently from their seats as the plane veered sharply to the left, and then jerked to the right.
“It’s out of control, it’s out of control,” someone yelled hysterically. Other passengers  started to scream. She heard the high pitched wail of a baby. Instinctively she assumed the crash position, with her head between her legs, and in seconds, the plane nosedived back to the runway slamming into an embankment. She felt a blast of heat fill the cabin, scorching her eyebrows.  The acrid odor of jet fuel filled her nose and throat. She remembered somehow ripping off her seatbelt and stumbling down the dark aisle through the gaping hole of the emergency exit in first class and then finding herself shivering out in the icy cold night waiting for help. Moments later, she saw flashing red lights, and heard the piercing whines of ambulances and fire engines. Someone wrapped her in a blanket, and dazed, she followed them into an ambulance, and was driven away.  Ten of the 310 people on board were killed.

Surviving flight #305 was life’s wake up call. She was being given another chance. Another life. The model who was her seatmate was not so lucky.


4 comments:

  1. This was a fun read, Deborah. Any thoughts about giving it another go?

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  2. Thanks, Karin. Yes, I definitely will get back to it after I finish my YA in progress!

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  3. What a story, Deborah! It's so interesting to hear how these novels ended up in the trunk. Or on the kitchen counter, as the case may be!

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