TO BEGIN, then, here is a scene in which I am the man and my friend Sarah Cole is the woman. I don’t mind describing it now, because I’m a decade older and don’t look the same now as I did then, and Sarah is dead. That is to say, on hearing this story you might think me vain if I looked the same now as I did then, because I must tell you that I was extremely handsome then. And if Sarah were not dead, you’d think I were cruel, for I must tell you that Sarah was very homely. In fact, she was the homeliest woman I have ever known. Personally, I mean. I’veseen a few women who were more unattractive than Sarah, but they were clearly freaks of nature or had been badly injured or had been victimized by some grotesque, disfiguring disease. Sarah, however, was quite normal, and I knew her well, because for three and a half months we were lovers.
Here is the scene. You can put it in the present, even though it took place ten years ago, because nothing that matters to the story depends on when it took place, and you can put it in Concord, New Hampshire, even though that is indeed where it took place, because it doesn’t matter where it took place, so it might as well be Concord, New Hampshire, a place I happen to know well and can therefore describe with sufficient detail to make the story believable. Around six o’ clock on a Wednesday evening in late May a man enters a bar. The place, a cocktail lounge at street level with a restaurant upstairs, is decorated with hanging plants and unfinished wood paneling, butcherblock tables and captain’s chairs, with a half dozen darkened, thickly upholstered booths along one wall. Three or four men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five are drinking at the bar, and they, like the man who has just entered, wear three piece suits and loosened neckties. They are probably lawyers, young, unmarried lawyers gossiping with their brethren over martinis so as to postpone arriving home alone at their whitewashed townhouse apartments, where they will fix their evening meals in radar ranges and, afterwards, while their tv’s chuckle quietly in front of them, sit on their couches and do a little extra work for tomorrow. They are, for the most part, honorable, educated, hard-working, shallow, and moderately unhappy young men. Our man, call him Ronald, Ron, in most ways is like these men, except that he is unusually good-looking, and that makes him a little less unhappy than they. Ron is effortlessly attractive, a genetic wonder, tall, slender, symmetrical, and clean. His flaws, a small mole on the left corner of his square but not-too-prominent chin, a slight excess of blond hair on the tops of his tanned hands, and somewhat underdeveloped buttocks, insofar as they keep him from resembling too closely a men’s store mannequin, only contribute to his beauty, for he is beautiful, the way we usually think of a woman as being beautiful. And he is nice, too, the consequence, perhaps, of his seeming not to know how beautiful he is, to men as well as women, to young people, even children, as well as old, to attractive people, who realize immediately that he is so much more attractive than they as not to be competitive with them, as well as unattractive people, who see him and gain thereby a comforting perspective on those they have heretofore envied for their good looks.
Ron takes a seat at the bar, unfolds the evening paper in front of him, and before he can start reading, the bartender asks to help him, calling him “Sir,” even though Ron has come into this bar numerous times at this time of day, especially since his divorce last fall. Ron got divorced because, after three years of marriage, his wife had chosen to pursue the career that his had interrupted, that of a fashion designer, which meant that she had to live in New York City while he had to continue to live in New Hampshire, where his career had got its start. They agreed to live apart until he could continue his career near New York City, but after a few months, between conjugal visits, he started sleeping with other women, and she started sleeping with other men, and that was that. “No big deal,” he explained to friends, who liked both Ron and his wife, even though he was slightly more beautiful than she. “We really were too young when we got married, college sweethearts. But we’re still best friends,” he assured them. They understood. Most of Ron’s friends were divorced by then too.
Ron orders a scotch and soda, with a twist, and goes back to reading his paper. When his drink comes, before he takes a sip of it, he first carefully finishes reading an article about the recent re-appearance of coyotes in northern New Hampshire and Vermont. He lights a cigarette. He goes on reading. He takes a second sip of his drink. Everyone in the room, the three or four men scattered along the bar, the tall, thin bartender, and several people in the booths at the back, watches him do these ordinary things.
He has got to the classified section, is perhaps searching for someone willing to come in once a week and clean his apartment, when the woman who will turn out to be Sarah Cole leaves a booth in the back and approaches him. She comes up from the side and sits next to him. She’s wearing heavy, tan cowboy boots and a dark brown, suede cowboy hat, lumpy jeans and a yellow tee shirt that clings to her arms, breasts, and round belly like the skin of a sausage. Though he will later learn that she is thirty-eight years old, she looks older by about ten years, which makes her look about twenty years older than he actually is. (It’s difficult to guess accurately how old Ron is, he looks anywhere from a mature twenty-five to a youthful forty, so his actual age doesn’t seem to matter.)
“It’s not bad here at the bar,” she says, looking around. “More light, anyhow. Whatcha readin’?” she asks brightly, planting both elbows on the bar.
Ron looks up from his paper with a slight smile on his lips, sees the face of a woman homelier than any he has ever seen or imagined before, and goes on smiling lightly. He feels himself falling into her tiny, slightly crossed, dark brown eyes, pulls himself back, and studies for a few seconds her mottled, pocked complexion, bulbous nose, loose mouth, twisted and gapped teeth, and heavy but receding chin. He casts a glance over her thatch of dun-colored hair and along her neck and throat, where acne burns against gray skin, and returns to her eyes, and again feels himself falling into her.
“What did you say?” he asks.
She knocks a mentholated cigarette from her pack, and Ron swiftly lights it. Blowing smoke from her large, wing-shaped nostrils, she speaks again. Her voice is thick and nasal, a chocolate-colored voice. “I asked you whatcha readin’, but I can see now.” She belts out a single, loud laugh. “The paper!”
Ron laughs, too. “The paper! The Concord Monitor!” He is not hallucinating, he clearly sees what is before him and admits–no he asserts–to himself that he is speaking to the most unattractive woman he has ever seen, a fact which fascinates him, as if instead he were speaking to the most beautiful woman he has ever seen or perhaps ever will see, so he treasures the moment, attempts to hold it as if it were a golden ball, a disproportionately heavy object which–if he doesn’t hold it lightly yet with precision and firmness–will slip from his hand and roll across the lawn to the lip of the well and down, down to the bottom of the well, lost to him forever. It will be merely a memory, something to speak of wistfully and with wonder as over the years the image fades and comes in the end to exist only in the telling. His mind and body waken from their sleepy self-absorption, and all his attention focuses on the woman, Sarah Cole, her ugly face, like a wart hog’s, her thick, rapid voice, her dumpy, off-center wreck of a body, and to keep this moment here before him, he begins to ask questions of her, he buys her a drink, he smiles, until soon it seems, even to him, that he is taking her and her life, its vicissitudes and woe, quite seriously.
He learns her name, of course, and she volunteers the information that she spoke to him on a dare from one of the two women still sitting in the booth behind her. She turns on her stool and smiles brazenly, triumphantly, at her friends, two women, also homely (though nowhere as homely as she) and dressed, like her, in cowboy boots, hats and jeans. One of the women, a blond with an underslung jaw and wearing heavy eye makeup, flips a little wave at her, and as if embarrassed, she and the other woman at the booth turn back to their drinks and sip fiercely at straws.
Sarah returns to Ron and goes on telling him what he wants to know, about her job at the Rumford Press, about her divorced husband who was a bastard and stupid and “sick,” she says, as if filling suddenly with sympathy for the man. She tells Ron about her three children, the youngest, a girl, in junior high school and boy-crazy, the other two, boys, in high school and almost never at home anymore. She speaks of her children with genuine tenderness and concern, and Ron is touched. He can see with what pleasure and pain she speaks of her children; he watches her tiny eyes light up and water over when he asks their names.
“You’re a nice woman,” he informs her.
She smiles, looks at her empty glass. “No. No, I’m not. But you’re a nice man, to tell me that.”
Ron, with a gesture, asks the bartender to refill Sarah’s glass. She is drinking white Russians. Perhaps she has been drinking them for an hour or two, for she seems very relaxed, more relaxed than women usually do when they come up and without introduction or invitation speak to him.
She asks him about himself, his job, his divorce, how long he has lived in Concord, but he finds that he is not at all interested in telling her about himself. He wants to know about her, even though what she has to tell him about herself is predicatable and ordinary and the way she tells it unadorned and cliched. He wonders about her husband. What kind of man would fall in love with Sarah Cole?
That scene, at Osgood’s Lounge in Concord, ended with Ron’s departure, alone, after having bought Sarah’s second drink, and Sarah’s return to her friends in the booth. I don’t know what she told them, but it’s not hard to imagine. The three women were not close friends, merely fellow workers at Rumford Press, where they stood at the end of a long conveyor belt day after day packing TV Guides into cartons. They all hated their jobs, and frequently after work, when they worked the day shift, they would put on their cowboy hats and boots, which they kept all day in their lockers, and stop for a drink or two on their way home. This had been their first visit to Osgood’s, a place that, prior to this, they had avoided out of a sneering belief that no one went there but lawyers and insurance men. It had been Sarah who had asked the others why that should keep them away, and when they had no answer for her, the three had decided to stop at Osgood’s. Ron was right, they had been there over an hour when he came in, and Sarah was a little drunk. “Well hafta come in here again,” she said to her friends, her voice rising slightly.
Which they did, that Friday, and once again Ron appeared with his evening newspaper. He put his briefcase down next to his stool and ordered a drink and proceeded to read the front page, slowly, deliberately, clearly a weary, unhurried, solitary man. He did not notice the three women in cowboy hats and boots in the booth in back, but they saw him, and after a few minutes Sarah was once again at his side.
He turned, saw her, and instantly regained the moment he had lost when, the previous night, once outside the bar, he had forgotten about the ugliest woman he had ever seen. She seemed even more grotesque to him now than before, which made the moment all the more precious to him, and so once again he held the moment as if in his hands and began to speak with her, to ask questions, to offer his opinions and solicit hers.
I said earlier that I am the man in this story and my friend Sarah Cole, now dead, is the woman. I think back to that night, the second time I had seen Sarah, and I tremble, not with fear but in shame. My concern then, when I was first becoming involved with Sarah, was merely with the moment, holding onto it, grasping it wholly as if its beginning did not grow out of some other prior moment in her life and my life separately and at the same time did not lead into future moments in our separate lives. She talked more easily than she had the night before, and I listened as eagerly and carefully as I had before, again, with the same motives, to keep her in front of me, to draw her forward from the context of her life and place her, as if she were an object, into the context of mine. I did not know how cruel this was. When you have never done a thing before and that thing is not simply and clearly right or wrong, you frequently do not know if it is a cruel thing, you just go ahead and do it, and maybe later you’ll be able to determine whether you acted cruelly. That way you’ll know if it was right or wrong of you to have done it in the first place.
While we drank, Sarah told me that she hated her ex-husband because of the way he treated the children. “It’s not so much the money,” she said, nervously wagging her booted feet from her perch on the high barstool. “I mean, I get by, barely, but I get them fed and clothed on my own okay. It’s because he won’t even write them a letter or anything. He won’t call them on the phone, all he calls for is to bitch at me because I’m trying to get the state to take him to court so I can get some of the money he’s s’posed to be paying for child support. And he won’t even think to talk to the kids when he calls. Won’t even ask about them.”
“He sounds like a bastard,” I said.
“He is, he is,” she said. “I don’t know why I married him. Or stayed married. Fourteen years, for Christ’s sake. He put a spell over me or something, I don’t know,” she said with a note of wistfulness in her voice. “He wasn’t what you’d call good-looking.”
After her second drink, she decided she had to leave. Her children were at home, it was Friday night and she liked to make sure she ate supper with them and knew where they were going and who they were with when they went out on their dates. “No dates on schoolnights,” she said to me. “I mean, you gotta have rules, you know.”
I agreed, and we left together, everyone in the place following us with his or her gaze. I was aware of that, I knew what they were thinking, and I didn’t care, because I was simply walking her to her car.
It was a cool evening, dusk settling onto the lot like a gray blanket. Her car, a huge, dark green Buick sedan at least ten years old, was battered, scratched, and almost beyond use. She reached for the door handle on the driver’s side and yanked. Nothing. The door wouldn’t open. She tried again. Then I tried. Still nothing.
Then I saw it, a V-shaped dent in the left front fender creasing the fender where the door joined it, binding the metal of the door against the metal of the fender in a large crimp that held the door fast. “Someone must’ve backed into you while you were inside,” I said to her.
She came forward and studied the crimp for a few seconds, and when she looked back at me’ she was weeping. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” she wailed, her large, frog-like mouth wide open and wet with spit, her red tongue flopping loosely over gapped teeth. “I can’t pay for this! Ican’t!” Her face was red, and even in the dusky light I could see it puff out with weeping, her tiny eyes seeming almost to disappear behind wet cheeks. Her shoulders slumped, and her hands fell limply to her sides.
Placing my briefcase on the ground, I reached out to her and put my arms around her body and held her close to me, while she cried wetly into my shoulder. After a few seconds, she started pulling herself back together and her weeping got reduced to sniffling. Her cowboy hat had been pushed back and now clung to her head at a precarious, absurdly jaunty angle. She took a step away from me and said, “I’ll get in the other side.”
“Okay,” I said almost in a whisper. “That’s fine.,”
Slowly, she walked around the front of the huge, ugly vehicle and opened the door on the passenger’s side and slid awkwardly across the seat until she had positioned herself behind the steering wheel. Then she started the motor, which came to life with a roar. The muffler was shot. Without saying another word to me, or even waving, she dropped the car into reverse gear and backed it loudly out of the parking space and headed out the lot to the street.
I turned and started for my car, when I happened to glance toward the door of the bar, and there, staring after me, were the bartender, the two women who had come in with Sarah, and two of the men who had been sitting at the bar. They were lawyers, and I knew them slightly. They were grinning at me. I grinned back and got into my car, and then, without looking at them again, I left the place and drove straight to my apartment.
One night several weeks later, Ron meets Sarah at Osgood’s, and after buying her three white Russians and drinking three scotches himself, he takes her back to his apartment in his car–a Datsun fastback coupe that she says she admires–for the sole purpose of making love to her.
I’m still the man in this story, and Sarah is still the woman, but I’m telling it this way because what I have to tell you now confuses me, embarrasses me, and makes me sad, and consequently, I’m likely to tell it falsely. I’m likely to cover the truth by making Sarah a better woman than she actually was, while making myself appear worse than I actually was or am; or else I’ll do the opposite, make Sarah worse than she was and me better. The truth is, I was pretty, extremely so, and she was not, extremely so, and I knew it and she knew it. She walked out the door of Osgood’s determined to make love to a man much prettier than any she had seen up close before, and I walked out determined to make love to a woman much homelier than any I had made love to before. We were, in a sense, equals.
No, that’s not exactly true. (You see? This is why I have to tell the story the way I’m telling it.) I’m not at all sure she feels as Ron does. That is to say, perhaps she genuinely likes the man, in spite of his being the most physically attractive man she has ever known. Perhaps she is more aware of her homeliness than of his beauty, just as he is more aware of her homeliness than of his beauty, for Ron, despite what I may have implied, does not think of himself as especially beautiful. He merely knows that other people think of him that way. As I said before, he is a nice man.
Ron unlocks the door to his apartment, walks in ahead of her, and flicks on the lamp beside the couch. It’s a small, single bedroom, modern apartment, one of thirty identical apartments in a large brick building on the heights just east of downtown Concord. Sarah stands nervously at the door, peering in.
“Come in, come in,” he says.
She steps timidly in and closes the door behind her. She removes her cowboy hat, then quickly puts it back on, crosses the livingroom, and plops down in a blond easychair, seeming to shrink in its hug out of sight to safety. Ron, behind her, at the entry to the kitchen, places one hand on her shoulder, and she stiffens. He removes his hand.
“Would you like a drink?”
“No … I guess not,” she says, staring straight ahead at the wall opposite where a large framed photograph of a bicyclist advertises in French the Tour de France. Around a corner, in an alcove off the living room, a silver-gray ten-speed bicycle leans casually against the wall, glistening and poised, slender as a thoroughbred racehorse.
“I don’t know,” she says. Ron is in the kitchen now, making himself a drink. “I don’t know … I don’t know.”
“What? Change your mind? I can make a white Russian for you. Vodka, cream, kahlua, and ice, right?”
Sarah tries to cross her legs, but she is sitting too low in the chair and her legs are too thick at the thigh, so she ends, after a struggle, with one leg in the air and the other twisted on its side. She looks as if she has fallen from a great height.
Ron steps out from the kitchen, peers over the back of the chair, and watches her untangle herself, then ducks back into the kitchen. After a few seconds, he returns. “Seriously. Want me to fix you a white Russian?”
Ron, again from behind, places one hand onto Sarah’s shoulder, and this time she does not stiffen, though she does not exactly relax, either. She sits there, a block of wood, staring straight ahead.
“Are you scared?” he asked gently. Then he adds, “I am.”
“Well, no, I’m not scared.” She remains silent for a moment. “You’re scared? Of what?” She turns to face him but avoids his eyes.
“Well . . . I don’t do this all the time, you know. Bring home a woman I . . . ” he trails off.
“Picked up in a bar.”
“No. I mean, I like you, Sarah, I really do. And I didn’t just pick you up in a bar, you know that. We’ve gotten to be friends, you and me.”
“You want to sleep with me?” she asks, still not meeting his steady gaze.
“Yes.” He seems to mean it. He does not take a gulp or even a sip from his drink. He just says, “Yes,” straight out, and cleanly, not too quickly, either, and not after a hesitant delay. A simple statement of a simple fact. The man wants to make love to the woman. She asked him, and he told her. What could be simpler?
“Do you want to sleep with me?” he asks.
She turns around in the chair, faces the wall again, and says in a low voice, “Sure I do, but … it’s hard to explain.”
“What? But what?” Placing his glass down on the table between the chair and the sofa, he puts both hands on her shoulders and lightly kneads them. He knows he can be discouraged from pursuing this, but he is not sure how easily. Having got this far without bumping against obstacles (except the ones he has placed in his way himself), he is not sure what it will take to turn him back. He does not know, therefore, how assertive or how seductive he should be with her. He suspects that he can be stopped very easily, so he is reluctant to give her a chance to try. He goes on kneading her doughy shoulders.
“You and me … we’re real different.” She glances at the bicycle in the corner.
“A man … and a woman,” he says.
“No, not that. I mean, different. That’s all. Real different. More than you … you’re nice, but you don’t know what I mean, and that’s one of the things that makes you so nice. But we’re different. Listen,” she says, “I gotta go. I gotta leave now.”
The man removes his hands and retrieves his glass, takes a sip, and watches her over the rim of the glass, as, not without difficulty, she rises from the chair and moves swiftly toward the door. She stops at the door, squares her hat on her head, and glances back at him.
“We can be friends. Okay?”
“I’ll see you again down at Osgood’s, right?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.”
“Good. See you,” she says, opening the door.
The door closes. The man walks around the sofa, snaps on the television set, and sits down in front of it. He picks up a TV Guide from the coffee table and flips through it, stops, runs a finger down the listings, stops, puts down the magazine and changes the channel. He does not once connect the magazine in his hand to the woman who has just left his apartment, even though he knows she spends her days packing TV Guides into cartons that get shipped to warehouses in distant parts of New England. He’ll think of the connection some other night, but by then the connection will be merely sentimental. It’ll be too late for him to understand what she meant by “different.”
But that’s not the point of my story. Certainly it’s an aspect of the story, the political aspect, if you want, but it’s not the reason I’m trying to tell the story in the first place. I’m trying to tell the story so that I can understand what happened between me and Sarah Cole that summer and early autumn ten years ago. To say we were lovers says very little about what happened; to say we were friends says even less. No, if I’m to understand the whole thing, I have to say the whole thing, for, in the end, what I need to know is whether what happened between me and Sarah Cole was right or wrong. Character is fate, which suggests that if a man can know and then to some degree control his character, he can know and to that same degree control his fate.
But let me go on with my story. The next time Sarah and I were together we were at her apartment in the south end of Concord, a second floor flat in a tenement building on Perley Street. I had stayed away from Osgood’s for several weeks, deliberately trying to avoid running into Sarah there, though I never quite put it that way to myself. I found excuses and generated interests in and reasons for going elsewhere after work. Yet I was obsessed with Sarah by then, obsessed with the idea of making love to her, which, because it was not an actual desire to make love to her, was an unusually complex obsession. Passion without desire, if it gets expressed, may in fact be a kind of rape, and perhaps I sensed the danger that lay behind my obsession and for that reason went out of my way to avoid meeting Sarah again.
Yet I did meet her, inadvertently, of course. After picking up shirts at the cleaner’s on South Main and Perley Streets, I’d gone down Perley on my way to South State and the post office. It was a Saturday morning, and this trip on my bicycle was part of my regular Saturday routine. I did not remember that Sarah lived on Perley Street, although she had told me several times in a complaining way–it’s a rough neighborhood, packed dirt yards, shabby apartment buildings, the carcasses of old, half-stripped cars on cinderblocks in the driveways, broken red and yellow plastic tricycles on the cracked sidewalks–but as soon as I saw her, I remembered. It was too late to avoid meeting her. I was riding my bike, wearing shorts and tee shirt, the package containing my folded and starched shirts hooked to the carrier behind me, and she was walking toward me along the sidewalk, lugging two large bags of groceries. She saw me, and I stopped. We talked, and I offered to carry her groceries for her. I took the bags while she led the bike, handling it carefully as if she were afraid she might break it.
At the stoop we came to a halt. The wooden steps were cluttered with half-opened garbage bags spilling egg shells, coffee grounds, and old food wrappers to the walkway. “I can’t get the people downstairs to take care of their garbage,” she explained. She leaned the bike against the bannister and reached for her groceries.
“I’ll carry them up for you,” I said. I directed her to loop the chain lock from the bike to the bannister rail and snap it shut and told her to bring my shirts up with her.
“Maybe you’d like a beer?” she said as she opened to door to the darkened hallway. Narrow stairs disappeared in front of me into heavy, damp darkness, and the air smelled like old newspapers.
“Sure,” I said and followed her up.
“Sorry there’s no light. I can’t get them to fix it.”
“No matter. I can see you and follow along,” I said, and even in the dim light of the hall I could see the large, dark blue veins that cascaded thickly down the backs of her legs. She wore tight, white-duck bermuda shorts, rubber shower sandals, and a pink sleeveless sweater. I pictured her in the cashier’s line at the supermarket. I would have been behind her, a stranger, and on seeing her, I would have turned away and studied the covers of the magazines, TV Guide,People, The National Enquirer, for there was nothing of interest in her appearance that in the hard light of day would not have slightly embarrassed me. Yet here I was inviting myself into her home, eagerly staring at the backs of her ravaged legs, her sad, tasteless clothing, her poverty. I was not detached, however, was not staring at her with scientific curiosity, and because of my passion, did not feel or believe that what I was doing was perverse. I felt warmed by her presence and was flirtatious and bold, a little pushy, even.
Picture this. The man, tanned, limber, wearing red jogging shorts, Italian leather sandals, a clinging net tee shirt of Scandinavian design and manufacture, enters the apartment behind the woman, whose dough colored skin, thick, short body, and homely, uncomfortable face all try, but fail, to hide themselves. She waves him toward the table in the kitchen, where he sets down the bags and looks good-naturedly around the room. “What about the beer you bribed me with?” he asks. The apartment is dark and cluttered with old, oversized furniture, yard sale and second-hand stuff bought originally for a large house in the country or a spacious apartment on a boulevard forty or fifty years ago, passed down from antique dealer to used furniture store to yard sale to thrift shop, where it finally gets purchased by Sarah Cole and gets lugged over to Perley Street and shoved up the narrow stairs, she and her children grunting and sweating in the darkness of the hallway–overstuffed armchairs and couch, huge, ungainly dressers, upholstered rocking chairs, and in the kitchen, an old maple desk for a table, a half dozen heavy oak diningroom chairs, a high, glass-fronted cabinet, all peeling, stained, chipped and squatting heavily on a dark green linoleum floor.
The place is neat and arranged in a more or less orderly way, however, and the man seems comfortable there. He strolls from the kitchen to the livingroom and peeks into the three small bedrooms that branch off a hallway behind the livingroom. “Nice place!” he calls to the woman. He is studying the framed pictures of her three children arranged like an altar atop the buffet. “Nice looking kids!” he calls out. They are. Blond, round-faced, clean, and utterly ordinary-looking, their pleasant faces glance, as instructed, slightly off camera and down to the right, as if they are trying to remember the name of the capital of Montana.
When he returns to the kitchen, the woman is putting away her groceries, her back to him. “Where’s that beer you bribed me with?” he asks again. He takes a position against the doorframe, his weight on one hip, like a dancer resting. “You sure are quiet today, Sarah,” he says in a low voice. “Everything okay?”
Silently, she turns away from the grocery bags, crosses the room to the man, reaches up to him, and holding him by the head, kisses his mouth, rolls her torso against his, drops her hands to his hips and yanks him tightly to her, and goes on kissing him, eyes closed, working her face furiously against his. The man places his hands on her shoulders and pulls away, and they face each other, wide-eyed, as if amazed and frightened. The man drops his hands, and the woman lets go of his hips. Then, after a few seconds, the man silently turns, goes to the door, and leaves. The last thing he sees as he closes the door behind him is the woman standing in the kitchen doorframe, her face looking down and slightly to one side, wearing the same pleasant expression on her face as her children in their photographs, trying to remember the capital of Montana.
Sarah appeared at my apartment door the following morning, a Sunday, cool and rainy. She had brought me the package of freshly laundered shirts I’d left in her kitchen, and when I opened the door to her, she simply held the package out to me as if it were a penitent’s gift. She wore a yellow rain slicker and cap and looked more like a disconsolate schoolgirl facing an angry teacher than a grown woman dropping a package off at a friend’s apartment. After all, she had nothing to be ashamed of.
I invited her inside, and she accepted my invitation. I had been reading the Sunday New York Times on the couch and drinking coffee, lounging through the gray morning in bathrobe and pajamas. I told her to take off her wet raincoat and hat and hang them in the closet by the door and started for the kitchen to get her a cup of coffee, when I stopped, turned, and looked at her. She closed the closet door on her yellow raincoat and hat, turned around, and faced me.
What else can I do? I must describe it. I remember that moment of ten years ago as if it occurred ten minutes ago, the package of shirts on the table behind her, the newpapers scattered over the couch and floor, the sound of windblown rain washing the sides of the building outside, and the silence of the room, as we stood across from one another and watched, while we each simultaneously removed our own clothing, my robe, her blouse and skirt, my pajama top, her slip and bra, my pajama bottom, her underpants, until we were both standing naked in the harsh, gray light, two naked members of the same species, a male and a female, the male somewhat younger and less scarred than the female, the female somewhat less delicately constructed than the male, both individuals pale-skinned with dark thatches of hair in the area of their genitals, both individuals standing slackly, as if a great, protracted tension between them had at last been released.
We made love that morning in my bed for long hours that drifted easily into afternoon. And we talked, as people usually do when they spend half a day or half a night in bed together. I told her of my past, named and described the people I had loved and had loved me, my ex-wife in New York, my brother in the Air Force, my father and mother in their condominium in Florida, and I told her of my ambitions and dreams and even confessed some of my fears. She listened patiently and intelligently throughout and talked much less than I. She had already told me many of these things about herself, and perhaps whatever she had to say to me now lay on the next inner circle of intimacy or else could not be spoken of at all.
During the next few weeks we met and made love often and always at my apartment. On arriving home from work, I would phone her, or if not, she would phone me, and after a few feints and dodges, one would suggest to the other that we get together tonight, and a half hour later she’d be at my door. Our love-making was passionate, skillful, kindly, and deeply satisfying. We didn’t often speak of it to one another or brag about it, the way some couples do when they are surprised by the ease with which they have become contented lovers.
We did occasionally joke and tease each other, however, playfully acknowledging that the only thing we did together was make love but that we did it so frequently there was no time for anything else.
Then one hot night, a Saturday in August, we were lying in bed atop the tangled sheets, smoking cigarettes and chatting idly, and Sarah suggested that we go out for a drink.
“Sure. It’s early. What time is it?”
I scanned the digital clock next to the bed. “Nine-forty-nine.”
“That’s not so early. You usually go home by eleven, you know. It’s almost ten.”
“No, it’s only a little after nine. Depends on how you look at things. Besides, Ron, it’s Saturday night. Don’t you want to go out and dance or something? Or is this the only thing you know how to do?” she teased and poked me in the ribs. “You know how to dance? You like to dance?”
“Yeah, sure … sure, but not tonight. It’s too hot. And I’m tired.”
But she persisted, happily pointing out that an air-conditioned bar would be cooler than my apartment, and we didn’t have to go to a dance bar, we could go to Osgood’s. “As a compromise,” she said.
I suggested a place called the El Rancho, a restaurant with a large, dark cocktail lounge and dance bar located several miles from town on the old Portsmouth highway. Around nine the restaurant closed and the bar became something of a roadhouse, with a small country-western houseband and a clientele drawn from the four or five villages that adjoined Concord on the north and east. I had eaten at the restaurant once but had never gone to the bar, and I didn’t know anyone who had.
Sarah was silent for a moment. Then she lit a cigarette and drew the sheet over her naked body. “You don’t want anybody to know about us, do you? Do you?”
“That’s not it … I just don’t like gossip, and I work with a lot of people who show up sometimes at Osgood’s. On a Saturday night especially.”
“No,” she said firmly. “You’re ashamed of being seen with me. You’ll sleep with me, but you won’t go out in public with me.”
“That’s not true, Sarah.”
She was silent again. Relieved, I reached across her to the bedtable and got my cigarettes and lighter.
“You owe me, Ron,” she said suddenly, as I passed over her. “You owe me.”
“What?” I lay back, lit a cigarette, and covered my body with the sheet.
“I said, “‘You owe me.'”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sarah. I just don’t like a lot of gossip going around, that’s all. I like keeping my private life private, that’s all. I don’t owe you anything.”
“Friendship you owe me. And respect. Friendship and respect. A person can’t do what you’ve done with me without owing them friendship and respect.”
“Sarah, I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I am your friend, you know that. And I respect you. I really do.”
“You really think so, don’t you?”
She said nothing for several long moments. Then she sighed and in a low, almost inaudible voice said, “Then you’ll have to go out in public with me. I don’t care about Osgood’s or the people you work with, we don’t have to go there or see any of them,” she said. “But you’re gonna have to go to places like the El Rancho with me, and a few other places I know, too, where there’s people I work with, people I know, and maybe well even go to a couple of parties, because I get invited to parties sometimes, you know. I have friends, and I have some family, too, and you’re gonna have to meet my family. My kids think I’m just going around bar-hopping when I’m over here with you, and I don’t like that, so you’re gonna have to meet them so I can tell them where I am when I’m not at home nights. And sometimes you’re gonna come over and spend the evening at my place!” Her voice had risen as she heard her demands and felt their rightness, until now she was almost shouting at me. “You owe that to me. Or else you’re a bad man. It’s that simple.”
The handsome man is over-dressed. He is wearing a navy blue blazer, taupe shirt open at the throat, white slacks, white loafers. Everyone else, including the homely woman with the handsome man, is dressed appropriately, dressed, that is, like everyone else–jeans and cowboy boots, blouses or cowboy shirts or tee shirts with catchy sayings printed across the front, and many of the women are wearing cowboy hats pushed back and tied under their chins. The man doesn’t know anyone at the bar or, if they’re at a party, in the room, but the woman knows most of the people there, and she gladly introduces him. The men grin and shake his hand, slap him on his jacketed shoulder, ask him where he works, what’s his line, after which they lapse into silence. The women flirt briefly with their faces, but they lapse into silence even before the men do. The woman with the man in the blazer does most of the talking for everyone. She talks for the man in the blazer, for the men standing around the refrigerator, or if they’re at a bar, for the other men at the table, and for the other women, too. She chats and rambles aimlessly through loud monologues, laughs uproariously at trivial jokes, and drinks too much, until soon she is drunk, thick-tongued, clumsy, and the man has to say her goodbyes and ease her out the door to his car and drive her home to her apartment on Perley Street.
This happens twice in one week, and then three times the next–at the El Rancho, at the Ox Bow in Northwood, at Rita’s and Jimmy’s apartment on Thorndike Street, out in Warner at Betsy Beeler’s new house, and, the last time, at a cottage on Lake Sunapee rented by some kids in shipping at Rumford Press. Ron no longer calls Sarah when he gets home from work; he waits for her call, and sometimes, when he knows it’s she, he doesn’t answer the phone. Usually, he lets it ring five or six times, and then he reaches down and picks up the receiver. He has taken his jacket and vest off and loosened his tie and is about to put supper, frozed manicotti, into the radar range.
“How’re you doing?”
“Okay, I guess. A little tired.”
“No. Not really. Just tired I hate Mondays.”
“You have fun last night?”
“Well, yeah, sorta. It’s nice out there, at the lake. Listen,” she says, brightening. “Whyn’t you come over here tonight? The kids’re all going out later, but if you come over before eight, you can meet them. They really want to meet you.”
“You told them about me?”
“Sure. Long time ago. I’m not supposed to tell my own kids?”
Ron is silent.
“You don’t want to come over here tonight. You don’t want to meet my kids. No, you don’t want my kids to meet you, that ‘s it.”
“No, no, it’s just … I’ve got a lot of work to do…”
“We should talk,” she announces in a flat voice.
“Yes,” he says, “we should talk.”
They agree that she will meet him at his apartment, and they’ll talk, and they say goodbye and hang up.
While Ron is heating his supper and then eating alone at his kitchen table and Sarah is feeding her children, perhaps I should admit, since we are nearing the end of my story, that I don’t actually know that Sarah Cole is dead. A few years ago I happened to run into one of her friends from the press, a blond woman with an underslung jaw. Her name, she reminded me, was Glenda, she had seen me at Osgood’s a couple of times and we had met at the El Rancho once when I had gone there with Sarah. I was amazed that she could remember me and a little embarrassed that I did not recognize her at all, and she laughed at that and said, “You haven’t changed much, mister!” I pretended to recognize her, but I think she knew she was a stranger to me. We were standing outside the Sears store on South Main Street, where I had gone to buy paint. I had recently remarried, and my wife and I were redecorating my apartment.
“Whatever happened to Sarah?” I asked Glenda. “Is she still down at the press?”
“Jeez, no! She left a long time ago. Way back. I heard she went back with her ex-husband. I can’t remember his name. Something Cole.”
I asked her if she was sure of that, and she said no, she had only heard it around the bars and down at the press, but she had assumed it was true. People said Sarah had moved back with her ex-husband and was living in a trailer in a park near Hooksett, and the whole family had moved down to Florida that winter because he was out of work. He was a carpenter, she said.
“I thought he was mean to her. I thought he beat her up and everything. I thought she hated him,” I said.
“Oh, well, yeah, he was a bastard, all right. I met him a couple of times, and I didn’t like him. Short, ugly, and mean when he got drunk. But you know what they say.”
“What do they say?”
“Oh, you know, about water seeking its own level.”
“Sarah wasn’t mean when she was drunk.”
The woman laughed. “Naw, but she sure was short and ugly!”
I said nothing.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong, I liked Sarah. But you and her … well, you sure made a funny-looking couple. She probably didn’t feel so selfconscious and all with her husband,” the woman said seriously. “I mean, with you … all tall and blond, and poor old Sarah … I mean, the way them kids in the press room used to kid her about her looks, it was embarrassing just to hear it.”
“Well … I loved her,” I said.
The woman raised her plucked eyebrows in disbelief. She smiled. “Sure, you did, honey,” she said, and she patted me on the arm. “Sure, you did.” Then she let the smile drift off her face, turned and walked away.
When someone you have loved dies, you accept the fact of his or her death, but then the person goes on living in your memory, dreams and reveries. You have imaginary conversations with him or her, you see something striking and remind yourself to tell your loved one about it and then get brought up short by the knowledge of the fact of his or her death, and at night, in your sleep, the dead person visits you. With Sarah, none of that happened. When she was gone from my life, she was gone absolutely, as if she had never existed in the first place. It was only later, when I could think of her as dead and could come out and say it, my friend Sarah Cole is dead, that I was able to tell this story, for that is when she began to enter my memories, my dreams, and my reveries. In that way I learned that I truly did love her, and now I have begun to grieve over her death, to wish her alive again, so that I can say to her the things I could not know or say when she was alive, when I did not know that I loved her.
The woman arrives at Ron’s apartment around eight. He hears her car, because of the broken muffler, blat and rumble into the parking lot below, and he crosses quickly from the kitchen and peers out the livingroom window and, as if through a telescope, watches her shove herself across the seat to the passenger’s side to get out of the car, then walk slowly in the dusky light toward the apartment building. It’s a warm evening, and she’s wearing her white bermuda shorts, pink sleeveless sweater, and shower sandals. Ron hates those clothes. He hates the way the shorts cut into her flesh at the crotch and thigh, hates the large, dark caves below her arms that get exposed by the sweater, hates the flapping noise made by the sandals.
Shortly, there is a soft knock at his door. He opens it, turns away and crosses to the kitchen, where he turns back, lights a cigarette, and watches her. She closes the door. He offers her a drink, which she declines, and somewhat formally, he invites her to sit down. She sits carefully on the sofa, in the middle, with her feet close together on the floor, as if she were being interviewed for a job. Then he comes around and sits in the easy chair, relaxed, one leg slung over the other at the knee, as if he were interviewing her for the job.
“Well,” he says, “you wanted to talk.”
“Yes. But now you’re mad at me. I can see that. I didn’t do anything, Ron.”
“I’m not mad at you.”
They are silent for a moment. Ron goes on smoking his cigarette.
Finally, she sighs and says, “You don’t want to see me anymore, do you?”
He waits a few seconds and answers, “Yes. That’s right.” Getting up from the chair, he walks to the silver-gray bicycle and stands before it, running a fingertip along the slender cross-bar from the saddle to the chrome plated handlebars.
“You’re a son of a bitch,” she says in a low voice. “You’re worse than my ex-husband.” Then she smiles meanly, almost sneers, and soon he realizes that she is telling him that she won’t leave. He’s stuck with her, she informs him with cold precision. “You think I’m just so much meat, and all you got to do is call up the butcher shop and cancel your order. Well, now you’re going to find out different. You can’t cancel your order. I’m not meat, I’m not one of your pretty little girlfriends who come running when you want them and go away when you get tired of them. I’m different. I got nothing to lose, Ron. Nothing. You’re stuck with me, Ron.”
He continues stroking his bicycle. “No, I’m not.”
She sits back in the couch and crosses her legs at the ankles. “I think Iwill have that drink you offered.”
“Look, Sarah, it would be better if you go now.”
“No,” she says flatly. “You offered me a drink when I came in. Nothing’s changed since I’ve been here. Not for me, and not for you. I’d like that drink you offered,” she says haughtily.
Ron turns away from the bicycle and takes a step toward her. His face has stiffened into a mask. “Enough is enough,” he says through clenched teeth. “I’ve given you enough.”
“Fix me a drink, will you, honey?” she says with a phony smile.
Ron orders her to leave.
He grabs her by the arm and yanks her to her feet.
She starts crying lightly. She stands there and looks up into his face and weeps, but she does not move toward the door, so he pushes her. She regains her balance and goes on weeping.
He stands back and places his fists on his hips and looks at her. “Go on and leave, you ugly bitch,” he says to her, and as he says the words, as one by one they leave his mouth, she’s transformed into the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He says the words again, almost tenderly. “Leave, you ugly bitch.” Her hair is golden, her brown eyes deep and sad, her mouth full and affectionate, her tears the tears of love and loss, and her pleading, outstretched arms, her entire body, the arms and body of a devoted woman’s cruelly rejected love. A third time he says the words. “Leave me, you disgusting, ugly bitch.” She is wrapped in an envelope of golden light, a warm, dense haze that she seems to have stepped into, as into a carriage. And then she is gone, and he is alone again.
He looks around the room, as if searching for her. Sitting down in the easy chair, he places his face in his hands. It’s not as if she has died; it’s as if he has killed her.
Russell Banks is the author of nearly two dozen books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. His most recent book, A Permanent Member of the Family, was published in 2013.