“If I’d Known You Were Coming”
Everybody needs somebody. Just one other person who is as faithful to them as they are to themselves.
Winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award (the John Simons Short Fiction Award) in 2013, If I’d Known You Were Coming is a collection of 12 short stories written by Kate Milliken. Although each story stands alone, many of the colorful characters reappear in several of the narratives which makes parts of the book appear to be a novella. The common theme that runs through all the stories is the dysfunctional characters – people who abandon or neglect their children, chase addictions, skirt responsibility, or succumb to their fears or desires – whose flaws impose great harm upon others.
We all know of mothers or fathers who have walked out the door and made empty promises to children but to read of parents who stay but disengage from their children can seem almost worse. Women afraid of being alone, men who need a lot of attention, and children with great expectations make for the perfect storm of character neurosis in this short story collection.
In four of the stories, Caroline is a main character. The reader first meets her in A Matter of Time when Caroline is 5 years old, living with both her parents in a shabby bungalow in Los Angeles while her father, Marty struggles to break into acting. Her 31-year old mother, Lorrie is preoccupied with herself and consumed with having a better life, leading the reader to wonder how far will Lorrie go to get what she wants?
Later in The Whole World, Marty is giving a birthday party for 16-year old Caroline who has been living with her father for the past nine years. When, Marty’s best friend, Bill (a hand model) decides to bring his girlfriend, Roxanne to the party, personal boundaries are redefined. And, in Inheritance, 23-year old Drew has moved back to his childhood home in Maine after the death of his elderly parents. When he places an ad to lease one of the bedrooms, Caroline – a young adult by now – takes the room under the auspices she plans to go to school nearby although she doesn’t know the specific school which adds to the mystery surrounding who she is and what she is doing in Maine. Recalling his mother saying to guests, “If I’d known you were coming,” Drew soon learns “a life could hold so many lies, sometimes enough to keep it together. Sometimes not.”
In Blue, 20-year Josie is home from college and eager to get out of the house she shares with a mother preoccupied with entertaining a slew of married boyfriends, who tend to be abusive. When the chance to dog sit for the widow next door arises, Josie enthusiastically seizes the opportunity learning her own lessons about men along the way.
20-year old Josie reappears in Detour as a girl on a mission to reconnect with Hank, a man she regarded as her father although technically he was a stepfather (he left her mother five years prior). Josie brings her friend, Caroline (the same Caroline from A Matter of Time, The Whole World, and Inheritance) along to the farm where Hank now lives with his horses and dogs. An emotional story of what happens when a child places more importance on feelings and an adult places more importance on technicalities.
In Parts of a Boat, Bill, the hand model and his ex-girlfriend, Roxanne reappear but with new partners. Bill has his needy girlfriend, Catherine while Roxanne is married to Sean Max, an actor. The protagonist in the story is Catherine – a young woman who relocated to Los Angeles after her first husband and father of her six-year old son passed away unexpectedly. A story of what happens when a lonely parent can’t see beyond her own emotional needs.
In Names for a Girl and Bottleneck, Deidre is a reoccurring character. Pregnant with her first child, Deidre is flipping through a book of names and recalls being told she was named after an Irish warrior whose name meant “fear” (Celtic) or “young girl” (Irish). As Deidre ponders the meaning of names, she recalls a childhood with an alcoholic mother who brought home abusive boyfriends, and a long-distance father who has never been able to deal with the emotional needs of his children.
Milliken excels at writing about characters who are lonely, needy, and dissatisfied with their circumstances. In The Rental, Man Down Below, and in Everything Looks Beautiful, the protagonist is a woman who can’t see beyond her own loneliness and looks to others to fill her physical and emotional needs, often to the detriment of those on the giving side.
But the story that disturbs the most is Sleight of Hand which features Delores living in the childhood home she shared with her father, when he wasn’t off gambling or drinking. An adult now, Delores is preparing to sell the house when her friend, Loraine comes to stay with her for a few days. Unbeknownst to Loraine, Delores has a secret about the house which makes for a contemplative weekend.
You are who you are. Children show you just who you are.