Ruben and Rachel
Ruben and Rachel first met when he tripped over her long, brown legs on the grass of the university quadrangle in the late summer of 1979. He was crossing the lawn between the palisades, whilst reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Rachel was reclining with a copy of Artweek magazine placed over her face in an effort to obscure the bright sunlight.
Ruben landed face down on the page describing Bloom’s enormous fart at a tram stop. Rachel erupted with an expletive filled tirade which included a threat of garrotting and testicular cruelty. Several people stopped what they were doing and looked over at the commotion. One young man looked as if he might intervene, until he heard the unlovely diatribe of Ruben’s victim. Ruben, turning towards the source of all this yelling, was alarmed to see only wild and agitating blond wisps at the centre of a bobbing orb of pure sunshine. Once he regained his glasses and a small portion of composure, he realized the gyrating object with which he collided, was in fact a pretty girl in shorts jumping about on one leg.
“Look at my shin for Christ sake; I’m going to have a bruise as sure as mud, you idiot!”
“Oh! I’m so sorry, I should be looking where I’m going…this bloody book…it’s,” he became lost for words, by now Ruben was sitting up and looking confused and red-faced. ‘Ulysses’ was splayed out on the grass beside him. The dust jacket had come astray from the binding, and its spine was cracked.
“Jesus, no wonder you’re on planet Zog – reading Joyce and it’s not even midday!” she said. It was clear Ruben was very troubled by the incident and her reaction. She calmed down and helped him up. Ruben brushed himself off, apologising again, explaining his professor expected everybody to have read Joyce if they wanted to come anywhere near his tutorials.
“What a knob!”
She said this supporting herself on a nearby tree trunk, lifting her leg and rubbing it, a flip-flop dangling from her foot. Ruben replied by falling in love with her, although he had never been entirely sure at whom the insult was directed. The incident did, however, lead to one of those apocryphal stories couples tell their friends and family, which acquire a patina of quaint corniness with every retelling. We had literally fallen head over heels in love. In any case, after Bloom’s incommodious discharge, Ruben skimmed the middle of the monster, and then the last chapter, with a fresh understanding of how not to write.
The next day Ruben spied Rachel again in the quadrangle, and asked her out – to compensate for his attack on her shin he professed – attempting inadequately, to conceal his romantic interest. She looked at him as if he was insane, and then said yes. They went for dinner at the Hellenic Club on Elizabeth Street. He didn’t want to appear disingenuous, and so he took the opportunity to tell her he was in a relationship with another woman. He described the union as fractious and in a state of perpetual disintegration. She stopped eating and looked up, appraising him with a direct gaze for a few seconds.
“I quite like you Ruben, I’m actually becoming quite fond of you, but this news is not my concern. You have to deal with it as you see fit. I can’t be involved,” she said.
“Of course Rachel, I won’t mention it again.”
“Goodo,” she said and proceeded to demolish her mousaka.
“I love you,” he said.
“I know,” she said, between mouthfuls.
After dinner they went to a performance of a drunken folk singer who fell off his stool half way through his set. There was an audience of fifteen people in the basement of the YMCA building and nobody reacted much to the musician’s antics. Ruben, however, helped him back on to his stool, awkwardly handed him his old Gibson and even opened another can of beer for him. He played his avant-garde variety of folk for another thirty minutes. There was lots of intricate fingering, a dissonant ‘D’ string and obscure lyrics about love gone wrong in cars, as best as Ruben could discern.
The musician chain-smoked cigarettes, wedging the butt beneath the e-string on the tuning head. This was before the nicotine wars and everybody smoked like there was no tomorrow, including Ruben and Rachel. Now, of course everybody drinks and eats chocolate until they fall over, because they can’t smoke anymore. When it was time to leave, Ruben felt vaguely responsible for the muso, and approached him again to offer assistance. He didn’t seem to know what to do next but he managed to pick up the remaining can of beer and install his Gibson in its case. He mumbled something about Les Paul and Ruben assumed he was referring to an anticipated arrival of a confederate. Feeling better about the hapless muso he joined Rachel at the door, informing her of the fellow’s apparent arrangements.
It was a little chilly on the way back to the metro, from where they intended to go their separate ways. Rachel hugged Ruben with both arms around him, resulting in an uncomfortable, crab-like walking style. He could not recall experiencing so comprehensive a demonstration of affection before, and felt completely enfolded by this lovely person.
“Is that something you do a lot?” Rachel said.
“Well, I just felt sorry for him, it’s not an easy life I suspect. It was no bother to me really.”
“He was an odd sort of man,” she said.
“I hope Les Paul turned up,” he said.
They met several times after. On the third occasion Ruben enquired as to whether her feelings for him may be in any way reciprocal.
“I have not decided if I love you back,” she said and added. “You’re rather old but I will try not to let it hinder my decision.”
“It is an age difference of ten years only; surely I should not be penalized for it. I have fallen in love, and there appears to be nothing I can do about it,” he said. He submerged into confusion of dark thoughts.
“So you think because you are in love with me, it logically follows I will be with you? I have to say that strikes me as a little peculiar Ruben. Besides don’t you think your current relationship is something of a complication,” she said.
“The way I feel about you is much more than could be said about my relationship with Audrey, it’s been on the rocks for a long time.”
Two days later Ruben, accompanied by Audrey, ran into Rachel at the farmers market in Chinatown. Audrey was an actress who had made a name for herself playing the part of a wilful young woman on the cusp of a brilliant career as an artist. Ruben clumsily introduced Rachel, even forgetting her name momentarily, so flustered was he. Rachel shook hands with Audrey and told her she admired her acting, departing in search of aubergines.
“She may well be the most beautiful girl I have ever seen,” Audrey said as they walked away, confirming Ruben’s own assessment. Audrey’s career was in the ascendant and this had exacerbated the growing distance between her and Ruben.
The following day she was flying off to meet an agent in Los Angeles. They resolved the issue of their relationship over a farewell dinner that night.
“Ruben; are you in love?”
“Yes….but it isn’t with you anymore…I’m sorry,” he pierced a slither of radish with his fork, peering at it as if it had become the defining moment of his life. A gloomy apprehension descended upon him. Audrey raised her eyebrows, with a resigned form of exasperation; at which point Ruben realized he had missed the point.
“It’s OK, I have been having an affair with Felicity for several years and it is probably time to admit its’ over,” she said. Ruben felt miffed about Felicity, with whom he was acquainted and decided he never liked her anyway, but still…
“So, you have been infelicitous with Felicity. Why are you telling me this now? It’s a pretty important bit of information.”
“Because Ruben, believe it or not, I am still fond of you and I didn’t want you to be lonely and I knew you would be; you are just so bloody helpless sometimes.”
“Now you tell me,” he was upset, but he couldn’t figure out why, considering recent events.
“I saw the way you were with that girl at the market today and I have to say, whatever it is, it’s a damn sight better than what we have.”
He moved to his sister’s apartment after Audrey’s departure and began wooing Rachel in earnest. Shelley, his sister, said it was about time he had woken up to the fact Audrey was a lesbian. Ruben shrugged and experienced a mixture of feelings, which condensed to something like shame for not believing her in the first place. Shelley, who was younger and somewhat competitive, made him feel tense. He had become accustomed to his sisters exasperation, among others, but she could also be kind. She sat down beside him and held his hand, while he attempted to exercise a degree of control over his emotions.
One day Ruben and Rachel went to the beach where he told her he and Audrey had parted company. They were both propped up on their elbows where the last remnants of the waves reached their toes. Ruben closed his eyes against the glare of the sun and its golden threads reflected in the ocean, when he felt her hand rest on his. They had a variety of fumbling sex in his room at Shelley’s flat, and Rachel cried all the way through it.
“Rachel, am I hurting you? Ruben said.
“I always cry the first time, I know it’s weird but I feel like I am falling between the cracks, as if I am liquefying,
“Oh,” was all he could muster.
“Jesus, I know, I’m sounding ridiculous but I don’t want you to stop. I’m happy as well.”
“Oh, OK,” he said but by now he had been put off his stoke.
“Shit, that makes me sound like a slut…like I have slept with a lot of men and I haven’t.” He understood what she said in a way that defied explanation. One or two of his tears fell onto her golden hair, which seemed to shine even in the moonlight. There appeared to be no other possible explanation for the way he was feeling, he was in love and he realized for him, it was a unique experience.
He was twenty nine and Rachel was nineteen but she seemed older to Ruben. Her friends thought he was a little on the strange side.
“My god, the man’s a discomposed jumble of gormless neuroticism,” said one. This prompted her to acquire new friends and subject Ruben to more rigorous consideration. She held back from commitment for a week or two, again remaining mum to his enquiry about her own feelings towards him.
“Have you made a decision yet Rachel?” he asked her several times at her usual patch of lawn in the quadrangle. She stared at him, tight lipped, gauging his veracity and generally checking him out for any weirdness, beyond that already on display. By the end of the third week, when the bruise to her shin had become a fading memory, she was pretty convinced that she was going to permit herself to fall in love with him, but let it slide for a while longer, in case further self-interrogation was required.
He rang her several times at home. Once, a man with a loud voice answered and then made a distant and explosive sound Ruben assumed was an exhortation for Rachel to come to the phone.
“That was my dad,” she said.
“Oh, he sounded angry.”
“He’s not. It’s the way he sounds all the time. I will see you at the uni bar tomorrow evening after my six o’clock tutorial; be there or be square.” She hung up abruptly, but her voice was coloured with amusement; a minor compensation for Ruben who was by now, in a lather of despair and sleep deprivation. They became a bit drunk at the bar, kissed for a while until they decamped to Shelly’s. The next morning Shelley and Rachel met for the first time and became immediate best friends. Later Shelley joked that despite her preference for men she had also fell for Rachel.
“What a doll Ruben, she’s a keeper,” Shelley said.
“I know,” he said.
Rachel invited him to her place, for lunch the following week. He walked up the weedy driveway; Rachel was standing on the porch dressed in her customary shorts and flip-flops. He felt overdressed in chinos and desert boots. She kissed him and then she moved back, looked him in the eyes and uttered with exaggerated clarity the word ‘Yes’ and kissed him again. The discreet shedding of a joyful tear or two was interrupted by the appearance of a tall and somewhat dishevelled looking man with a mop of crazy looking grey hair. He was dressed in a torn black t-shirt with a picture of a recently deceased rock star stamped on the front, oversized shorts and crusty sandshoes. He introduced himself as Jonah.
“Yes to what Rach?”
“Please meet the man I am going to marry dad.”
“Goodness….well….you had better come in sir. Miriam…Miriam! Rachel has a fellow here she wants to marry.”
He sounded like he was calling the Cox Plate at Randwick, his voice a variety of snapping syntax Ruben found unnerving. A woman he assumed was Miriam and Rachel’s mother appeared, looking like a slightly dated carbon copy of her daughter. She had an unruly crown of wispy blond hair above a pretty face and a slim body encased in a worn lab coat. She had no shoes on and was spattered with drops of white paint. It occurred to Ruben the entire household was not in receipt of a comb, an iron or a needle and thread and he surmised they may well be in need of a cobbler.
“Mum this is Ruben.”
“I won’t shake Ruben, I’m filthy and I am going for a shower. For reasons I am not entirely sure, I’ve been painting the attic. This place is like Pitt Street sometimes and I think I might be in need of my own bloody space. Rach take Ruben and make him a drink. I’m assuming you’re staying for lunch Ruben; unless you intend going out and getting married immediately.”
“O thankyou…ah yes, I mean no we are not going to marry right now…are we Rachel?”
“No, I have to clean my shoes, wherever they are. By the way do you own an iron Ruben?”