Sunday, July 19, 2009

Knocked flat

“Sarah will be coming to town next week, do you want to have her over or should we go out?”

Kate barely looked up at Graham from her book, “Isn’t there a third choice, like neither?”

“Fine, I’ll just take her out to dinner myself, you do what you want.” And with that Graham slammed the side door and headed out to the garage.

Sarah was Graham’s first wife, a poet and novelist in her own right. She was critically acclaimed, though truth be told, little read by any one other than the literary elite. Once, she and Graham had shared not only a life, but also a perspective on the art and craft of writing. Or at least Graham had tried to share her singular and high-minded perspective, for a while.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t match Sarah intellectually so much as it finally boiled down to the amount of energy he was willing to spend on writing his heart out only to have it go nowhere and be read by merely a select few. What was the point of that? To Graham, the audience was as much a part of the process as the solitary time spent writing. It was the end result, the storytelling that mattered. That’s really what it came down to; he was, in actuality, a storyteller, not a writer. Once he accepted, embraced that, his career began to click. His marriage to Sarah fizzled out soon after.

But they’d shared eight years together and the split was amicable, no children, no house, no book royalties, yet, for either of them to squabble over back then. Sarah’s success in the interim years was in a different vein from Grahams, but apparently she seemed to feel equally satisfied, sufficiently proud of what she had achieved, as far as Graham could tell anyway. There was no feeling of competition between them, no awkward pretense, at least about their work. Besides, Sarah was family as far as he was concerned. He just wished Kate could see it that way.

Whenever she came to New York Graham and Sarah would get together. Otherwise she lived in Ireland, where, she said, “the line between poetry and prose was as thin a veil as that what hung between life and death, love and hate.” Sarah was always saying mystical things like that. Or maybe they just sounded mystical with that faint, albeit off kilter, Irish brogue she spoke with. This was more than keenly amusing to Graham since in reality Sarah was a nice Jewish girl originally from Brighton Beach…complete with her own distinct accent as he fondly remembered. Yet he didn’t find her new lilt disingenuous. Sarah wasn’t so much an imposter as she was…adaptable, like a chameleon.

This visit Sarah was going to be speaking at some symposium at Rutgers University, their alma mater, so rather than meet in the city they agreed to dine in New Brunswick. There was a little tavern that both knew well, still in business these many decades later. It was small and cramped but the pub food was good and it tended to be quiet on a weeknight.

Kate and Sarah had a love/hate relationship throughout the years, right now it was on the flip side -- Kate thought Sara had become a pretentious snob. To some degree she was right, but there was a charming undercurrent of self-awareness beneath it all, hidden in all the outward affectation, if you just knew where to look for it. Sarah could laugh at herself, she knew when she wasn’t fooling anyone and could take a joke, especially from Graham, a fact that was probably not lost on Kate, he could tell. She was a bit confrontational, a bit in your face, but one always knew where they stood with Sarah.

And Sarah was genuinely serious about her work; that deserved some respect. She took pride in the critics’ opinions that she held in esteem and seemed to easily dismiss the rest as hacks. Graham would sometimes read her latest piece, if she sent it to him, and she clearly made no compromises, she still wrote from the heart as she had when they were young idealists. On some level Graham admired her willingness to still take risks. But he also dismissed that at this age as a frivolous choice with consequences beyond the written word. He was firmly entrenched in a different kind of reality, so flights of fancy really didn’t impress him all that much. To him, Sarah the author was different, strange, maybe a little flaky or even, conversely, militant. But Sarah his ex wife, his longtime friend, that was who mattered. It was loyalty not camaraderie that held them together.

When he walked in to the tavern he only briefly scanned the room, no doubt Sarah would be late. To his surprise she was waiting for him at the bar. No matter how much her appearance changed through the years there was something the same about her, distinctly Sarah-like. They greeted each other warmly, she offered first one than the other cheek for Graham to kiss. He laughed and said with a teasing tone, “Oh I forgot, we are European now, aren’t we?”

“Now, now, don’t start Graham cracker, don’t start,” but Sarah was smiling brightly, looking pleased but yet a little wary. “I’ve come out to this dive joint just to see you, so don’t start in on me.”

“How dare you call our old home away from home a dive joint, I’m crushed.”

“Yes, I see that. How are you Graham, you look well, are you well?”

“I’m fine, good, great, how are you Sarah, you look real good.”

“Good, just good?”

“Radiant, lovely, ravishing, bewitching, should I go on?”

“No, I’ll take ravishing and bewitching and leave the rest, best not to push my luck with you. How’s Kate, she’s not joining us?”

“She’s good, fine, no, she had some things to take care of and then there’s Nola…”

“Ah, my very next question, how is that lovely little pixie child of yours? Honestly Graham, in that photo with the Christmas card you sent she looked so delicate and positively fairy like. She really is an astonishing looking creature, Graham. You know that right? You tell her that all the time, right?”

“Nola is great, she’s doing well at school, they’ve skipped her two grades in fact.”

“Two? Wow, that’s a lot. Two grades? Well of course she must be a genius.”

“Yeah, she’s, uh, smart, you know. We’re happy with how she’s doing right now.”

“Right now? As opposed to…?”

“No, nothing, I just mean we’re happy with the grade skipping and how it’s working out.”

“I see.”


“Nothing. It’s just that…”

“What? Say it. You know you’re going to before the night is over, just say it now while we’re both still sober and being nice,” Graham forced a laugh and tried to make a joke, but he suspected what was coming next. There was one subject that had grown more and more divisive between them over the last two years, and that was the subject of his daughter. Sarah had developed a bit of an obsession when it came to Nola, in his opinion, ever since she was at the house a few Christmases ago and Graham had to discipline the child for her behavior. Sarah had sided with Kate that Graham was too harsh and it had turned into a huge fight, the day ruined. This was only the second time he saw Sarah since then, and now it looked like it was going down hill almost as fast as the last time.

“You know what I think, and I just can’t let it go. I always see such a huge difference between how you are about Nola compared to…”

Graham could feel his chest tighten. See, this was the thing about Sarah…once she saw where you were vulnerable, where she could push your buttons, she was like a dog with a bone. She worked at you and worked at you. He knew now what this visit was about, what was coming. It figures, he thought. I should have skipped the long drive and just let her do this over the phone.

“Ok, look, last time you were here you were all over this. It’s like a year later and you’re picking up this conversation right where you left off. What, was this some kind of ambush? Can’t we just be two friends having a drink and catching up, why do you have to go there? What is going on, why do you care so Goddamn much about all this?”

“Why do I…? Honestly Graham, you don’t think I have a right to care about you and your life, about your little family. I was there, I was there when he…I saw how ripped apart you were. I held your hand and was your shoulder while poor Kate was in a grief stricken haze. Geez, I mourned that kid as if he were…”

“Well he wasn’t,” Graham snapped, wounded that this is where the night was going but unable to stop it now. “He wasn’t and Nola isn’t either. This is my family. You didn’t want a family, you wanted poetry and Irish castles and I wanted cowboys and a nice cozy teaching position in the cheesy suburbs.”

“This isn’t about what you wanted, or what I wanted,” Sarah’s eyes grew narrow and harsh, “This isn’t even about you, you stupid son of a bitch. I see you and your whole family going down the tubes and I…”

“You see? You see? You don’t see nothin’. What do you see? You phone me once in a blue moon, write cards, maybe see my face a few times a year and then you’re gone. You don’t know me. You knew me.”

Sarah’s eyes flashed darkly, so dark there was no division between pupil and iris…so black they shined in the dim light of the tavern. “No Graham. I thought I knew you. But clearly I was mistaken.” She stood up suddenly, looking down on him, staring him in the eye as intensely as he’d ever been stared down before. “Fuck you,” she said quietly, like it was a realization rather than a curse. “Fuck you, Graham Collins, you stupid blind jerk.”

He met her gaze, trying not to be rattled by her confrontation, standing his ground with all the coldness he could muster, “Right back at you,” was all he could think to say. Not clever, but it was more his demeanor that sent the message he intended…that she couldn’t get to him. No one could.

With that, Sarah grabbed her purse and stormed out of the tavern. Graham thought for a moment about following her. But he didn’t seem to be able to move. He was numb. He realized at that moment that he didn’t care at all that his oldest friend, one of the people who had stood by him for half his life, had just stormed out of the bar and probably out of his life for the rest of his existence. Graham didn’t care because to go that deep, to that part of him where caring lived, was impossible. That part of him, that place in the center of his being that cared about friends and truth and facing things had died a long time ago, gone with Ethan.

Only he just realized it now, a decade later, sitting alone in a bar in New Brunswick. He realized it too late to change it, even if he wanted to. And he didn’t really want to any more anyway.

Graham left the tavern and slowly started down Eastern Ave the opposite way from where he’d parked until he realized what he was doing. Crap, it was like being on autopilot. Graham had mechanically headed towards where he and Sarah had lived all those years ago. He shook his head, laughing at himself. As he turned around to head the other way he walked smack into someone, knocking them to the ground. “Oh God, I’m so sorry, are you alright?” Graham exclaimed, quickly bending to offer a hand to help the woman up.

“Christ, if I’d known this is what I’d have to do to get an apology out of you I would have worn some protective padding.”

It was then Graham realized the woman he’d knocked flat was Sarah.

1 comment:

Tabitha Bird said...

great exert! i was wondering though, if you are going to try and have this published are you going to run into problems because you are already publishing you work on your blog??? Just wondering. My understanding is that no more than 10% of a manuscript can be published anywhere, even if it is your own book. I'd just hate you to find out later that publishing your work here on your blog means that a publishing house won't publish it.