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Chapter 1: Brown-Eyed Girl
What a couple they made, the heterosexual woman and the homosexual man! Not just this particular couple, but all others like them, men and women freed from the netting of sexual love, from the calamities that regularly plagued their more predictably coupled-up friends. They felt sorry for those friends, who always seemed to tangle together in unhappy beds and who fought viciously in the dead of night, the men clattering down flights of stairs, Nikes still unlaced, belts still lolling unbuckled, the women standing at the top in tears, calling out vaguely, "Wait!"
Sex led to crying; this was a universal truth. There were tears in the beginning, when you were young and frightened by desire, and then there were tears at the point of impact, when you realized you had irrevocably begun a life of sex and all its complications. And much later there were tears after you had grown accustomed to sex and understood that it might someday be taken from you. People left each other all the time; people who swore they couldn't live without each other left each other. They managed; they survived. They ate nuts and berries in the wilderness, lived among wolves and crouched by streams to wash. They took classes, adult education workshops in car repair, pottery, perhaps a Romance language. Some of them fled their echoing apartments, the places where he had been and was no longer, cashed in their frequent-flier mileage, upgraded to business-class, and flew somewhere madcap, like Italy. They were in the process of frantically forgetting, and could do what they liked.
Once in Italy, they stared at Titians and Tintorettos with a kind of zeal that would have won them good grades in their college art survey class, although during that class they had mostly slept, for the room was dark and the chair was soft, and life at age twenty held other interests, mostly sexual ones. But now they tried to fall in love with the nonsexual parts of the world, the details that they had never noticed before. They attempted to adjust; they called their friends late at night, and the other newly single ones were grateful for the distraction, taking the cordless phone across the apartment to grab a spoon and a jar of Nutella from the kitchen cabinet (for this would be a long, leisurely, sugar-and-shortening-propelled conversation), while the married friends were magnanimous, silently signaling to the husbands beside them, with whom they had probably just been clashing: Our depressed friend is needy tonight. I'll be quick.
But the heterosexual woman and the homosexual man would be forever exempt from lovers' woes. No lust snapped in the air between them, making them behave like odd, shifty teenagers who have just had sex for the first time and can't believe their good luck. Nothing could ruin what these two had, because what they had was built on a simple foundation of allegiance and relief.
When Sara Swerdlow and Adam Langer rode in the car side by side, they were as contented as twin babies in a double stroller. They listened to tapes and they made themselves right at home. Hanging from the rearview mirror was a little plastic smiling Buddha that Adam had bought for Sara for good luck, and it swung on its silk rope as the car moved. They talked about men, how disappointing they were as a group, agreeing that neither of them liked the floral stink of aftershave, or the puzzlingly popular aesthetic of boxer shorts, which transformed all men into their uncles. They were great friends and had been for many years, during which time his hairline had retreated coastally, and her whippet-thin body had thickened at the hips, as though to ready her for the inevitable task of childbirth.
Everyone who knew Sara and Adam understood that their friendship was something to be envied, something lofty and sacred. They would never fall into a heap in bed, although they had, on occasion, accidentally seen each other naked. He thought she had startling but beautiful breasts; she thought he had the whitest legs in the universe. Friendship was a thing of extraordinary value, ever since it had become clear to both of them that lovers never lasted, and that families were the traps you walked into on major holidays and emerged from the next day, stuffed with carbohydrates and seething. But friendship, at least a friendship such as this, stayed put. It didn't matter whether one person was more successful than the other; what they had seemed outside the arena of mean little jealousies.
Everyone but Sara was jealous of Adam, who had become famous at age twenty-six for his play Take Us to Your Leader, a light comedy about a Jewish family on Mars. When the play moved to Broadway, several of the other students in his playwrights' workshop developed unexplained intestinal ailments and sleep disorders, and tacked on extra sessions with their therapists. The huge and wildly positive review in the Times opened with the line "What if Neil Simon were gay?" and as a result the play ran and ran. Busloads of theater groups and temple sisterhoods rolled in from the suburbs to see it, leaving matinees clutching scrolled Playbills and muttering favorite lines, still weepy with laughter.
The other workshop members despised Adam's flagrant display of commercialism, yet cursed their own bargain-basement Sam Shepard noodling. They would never have expected this to happen to Adam Langer, of all people; he was the shy, forgettable person hunched in the corner of the classroom, the one with the nails bitten down to tiny smiles. Why hadn't fame tapped someone else among them, such as the thin man whose plays were all set in cruel British reform schools, or the pale, freckle-chested redhead from Keetersville, Georgia, who gave her Southern characters colorful names like Jehovah Biggins and Lady Fandango?
As it turned out, Adam was the perfect receptacle for fame. With his boyish unease and long, studious face, he seemed modest and he photographed surprisingly well. He became a popular and natural interview subject, speaking easily and at length about everything from the changing shape of the American family to the role of the gay person in society, casually referring to Rimbaud and Verlaine and Oscar Wilde as if they had all worked on the high school literary magazine together. Adam represented a certain mainstream brand of gay culture that was bookish and appealing and highly presentable. People were always asking him questions -- in print and in person -- and Adam Langer loved to answer.
He had been an awkward adolescent, unloved by anyone but his mother and father. Adam's ears were perpetually red-hot, like someone who seems to have just come back from the barbershop, and he was a jiggler; a crossed leg often went flapping like a wing, and if a pencil happened to make its way into his hand, it would soon be put into service tapping out a rhythm that no one in the otherwise silent coffee shop or classroom wanted to hear. But after his play reached Broadway and stayed there, Adam developed an instantaneous and nearly alarming sexual popularity. Suddenly, other men wanted to sleep with him, he who had been turned down often throughout college, managing only a few brief liaisons, including one with a mutely shy exchange student from Nepal. Now he had a handsome boyfriend named Shawn Best, who would be riding out to the beach house this very afternoon on the bus line whose young female attendants gave all passengers little bottles of Squaw Creek spring water when they got on board.
Sara had had a series of disappointing lovers. Most recently, there had been an environmental lawyer named Sloan, who came around a few nights a week, folding his pants over the back of her chair and letting a spill of coins hit the floor; Sloan was affable and shaggy and was, as her mother, Natalie, might have said, "fun in the sack." But then he had gone up to British Columbia for some complex logging legislation, and that had been that, which was just as well, since after several weeks of sleeping with him Sara still hadn't been able to imagine what this overflow of sex might lead to. And besides, there were details about him that she didn't like; he had admitted to her that he had changed his name from something more ordinary -- either Steven or John, she couldn't remember which -- and Adam pointed out that this was a suspect and pretentious thing to do.
Sara was a graduate student at Columbia, and had made her peace with the fact that she might be in school forever, a program in Japanese history ambling slowly toward a doctoral dissertation that would grow to become biblical in length, with footnotes jamming up the bottom third of each page. She didn't mind the prospect of being an eternal student, although she pretended to; school offered a familiar swaddling, and Sara wasn't really sure if she would ever be good enough at what she did to snag one of the very few academic positions available. A friend of hers from Columbia who had completed the program a year earlier had given up looking for a teaching post and had taken a job translating the instructions for the assembly of Japanese-made toys sold in the States ("Your new Turbo Robot-Pak is easy to play with, and will delight you and your friends for hours!!!"). Sara was terrified of winding up with such a job. If she tried to imagine herself somewhere ten years from now, she was unable to picture herself doing anything at all. The screen was simply blank and unrevealing. When Sara was deeply immersed in the text of a Japanese book, she loved the intricacy of the language, the thrill of the chase as she tracked down the meanings of unusual phrases. But when she objectified what she was doing, she understood that the world would not welcome a scholar of Japan with open arms. She would probably have to translate the folded instructions inside toys someday, or else marry well.
Sara and Adam continued to take the house in Springs every August along with Maddy, who was a lawyer, and her husband, Peter, a teacher in a public high school, even though there were better deals to be found, bigger houses with wider lawns and higher ceilings. Even though, after anyone took a shower in the downstairs bathroom, a few slender, bobbing mushrooms often pushed their snub noses up between the aqua tiles. They continued to take the house even though Adam, for one, could have certainly afforded his own place by now. The house made them feel unhurried, dumbly caught in that vague nebula of the late twenties/early thirties, when you don't yet feel frantic to own property or to breed, when you can lie around smoking cigarettes and eating an alternation of heavily salted snack foods and sweet, spongy packaged cupcakes, and no one cares.
In previous summers, they had all slept until noon every day of the vacation, but the shape of this summer would be somewhat different. Seven months earlier, Maddy had given birth to a baby named Duncan, who would certainly change the atmosphere this month. The baby, with its endless, insatiable needs -- and with its own portable infant monitor that its parents toted from room to room, lest they miss a single coo or explosion of gas -- was both an advertisement for fertility and a deterrent. Sara wasn't remotely ready to have a baby; she hadn't even started to scale the walls of awareness of her unreadiness, yet was vaguely worried that an abortion she'd had a few years earlier had rendered her infertile. Although she'd had almost no ambivalence about the abortion at the time, she had still known that an older, more mature and focused version of herself would probably want children someday. But the actual thought of being a mother was still so unpleasant that she held her diaphragm up to the light before sex for an extended moment of squinting inspection. No pinholes, no apertures. She had no idea of what kind of mother she'd be: Would she behave the way her own mother had -- overinvolved, frenetic, or would she find her own style? There was no way to know. She couldn't tell if it would be worse having a baby now, like Maddy, or never being able to. At this point in her life, sex was for energetic body-slamming and the kind of yowling, cats-in-an-alley orgasms that made the neighbors long to be young again.
Now Sara stopped the car in front of a lunch stand, and she and Adam ate at a picnic table. "This taste," Adam said as he swallowed the first bite of a crab roll, "is like Proust's madeleine. When I'm not young anymore, this taste will bring every sensation back to me."
"No offense, but you're already not young anymore," said Sara. "Young was two summers ago. Last summer was the cusp. This summer it's all over."
"Then I guess I should get on with my life," said Adam, as a clump of crabmeat tumbled down the front of his shirt. "I should start writing about different things. Not set all my plays in my parents' paneled rec room. I should write a play called Bosnia. I should write about oppression, or cruelty." They both laughed, because he was no good with such material; it would have been a huge stretch. Instead, he sat here wiping a mess of crab off his shirt, leaving an oblong stain behind. His clothes were full of old, faded stains. "Shawn is cruel," Adam added. "At least, he has a cruel mouth; you'll see what I mean. Do I get extra credit for that?"
Shawn Best had recently pushed his way across a crowded reception in the city to get to Adam at a meet-the-playwrights evening. In a clutch of admirers, Shawn stood out as particularly striking and aggressive, inquiring whether Adam would listen to a cassette tape of songs from his play, and then, even though Adam politely declined, sending it to him by messenger the next morning. The tape, as far as Adam could tell -- having listened to only a few songs and not particularly liking musicals -- wasn't good, but at least it wasn't truly terrible; he remembered that it had to do with the plight of two American spinsters in Rome. There was a passport mix-up in the second act, and one of the spinsters fell into a fountain and sang a long ballad about all the missed opportunities in her life. A few days after he had sent over the tape, Shawn telephoned for Adam's response, and arranged to pick up the cassette in person. Adam, dazed and passive, had let this stranger into his apartment, where he made himself instantly at home, wandering into the kitchen, where he took a peach Snapple out of the refrigerator without asking, popped it open and drank. When he was done, he sat on the couch in the living room, put the bottle down on the coffee table, then suddenly produced a condom from his wallet.
"What are you doing?" Adam asked, slightly frightened.
"Oh, you don't want to?" said Shawn.
"Well, I don't know...," said Adam. "I hadn't thought about it. I don't even know you. This is very confusing." Actually, he had thought about it; he'd imagined being wrapped in Shawn's arms, inhaling the vaguely brothy sweat-smell of him. Shawn seemed to know all of this without being told; he took it for granted that other men had these thoughts about him.
Shawn tore the packet open with his teeth, then stood up and led Adam to the bedroom. "Wait. Wait. No," Adam had said on the way, because his knee-jerk reaction to sex was always "No." But now there was no reason for "No." It wasn't as though he was a teenager with an impending curfew, frantically making out with someone in the azaleas beside his house, while nearby his parents lay in bed as innocent as children, lulled by the gentle tedium of The Tonight Show. With Shawn, who was a complete stranger, there was the question of safety, of HIV status, but he held a condom in his hand like a peace offering. "Are you, are you...you know...," Adam whispered a little later in bed, cringing at his own question.
"Am I what?"
"Healthy," said Adam. "Clean. Negative."
"Well, to be honest, I don't know," Shawn said.
"You don't know?" said Adam, incredulous -- he who had already been tested several times.
"I'm not ready to take the test," said Shawn. "The idea of it freaks me out. The abolute black or white quality. The yes or no." He paused. "But look," he added, "this will be totally safe. I've got this little latex raincoat here." So Adam closed his eyes and let himself fall back against the bed.
That night, seconds after Shawn was gone, Adam had called Sara up and babbled details to her: the line of hair running down Shawn's stomach like an arrow leading the eye to its destination; the way Adam had felt frightened at the idea of having sex in daylight, where his own body and all its pores and imperfections would be on display, but how Shawn had made him feel at ease; and how, after the sex was through and Adam's heart was still beating as fast as a hamster's, the two men had lain on the bed and played Twenty Questions, which Adam had played during every long car ride of his childhood. Lying in bed with a lover after sex was almost like a long car ride. Times stood still; you didn't know how long you would be there, inert bodies stuck together in this small space, limbs bumping, but you didn't really care.
This had all happened only a few weeks earlier, and somehow it had led to Adam inviting Shawn out to the beach house in Springs for the first weekend of August. He would be arriving in a few hours.
Now Adam and Sara finished their lunch and climbed back into her mother's Toyota, which was already hot from sitting in a parking lot in the sun. They drove a few miles more until Sara noticed a stand by the side of the road with a sign that read "pies." Sara thought they ought to buy one for their landlady, Mrs. Moyles, and so they did. She hopped out and returned with a fresh raspberry pie with a latticework crust. As they drove on toward the house, the pie box slid around on the seat between them, and Adam steadied it with his hand, feeling an intense swell of contentment.
He could have driven with Sara forever; this was so much better than almost everything else in his life, certainly better than the writing that lately seemed to go nowhere. He knew that the follow-up to his first success would be closely watched. Everyone would want to know if he could do it again; could he make those matinee audiences weep with laughter? Oh, he thought, probably not. This summer he would finish his second play, and in the fall he would show it to Melville Wolf, his producer. "Make it funny," Mel had warned. "Make it really, really funny. Make me bite my tongue, it's so funny. Make the inside of my mouth bleed."
Adam constantly dwelled on the burden of his early success, and on the futility of even vaguely approximating the experience again. He had seen a TV talk show recently that featured a panel of ex-child stars; clips of their early work were shown, and in each case it was extremely painful to observe the long-gone purity of skin, silkiness of hair, and open-faced hopefulness of those children, and then have to compare that with the lumpy plainness of their fully formed, adult selves. Adam thought of his own father, a businessman who had enjoyed a big success very early in his career when he invested in an electric fan company called, dully, FanCo, and how, when air-conditioning blew across the parched American landscape, his father had lost all his money.
There was one aspect of Adam's life that was removed from all anxiety. Sara was that aspect, as good and loyal a friend as he had ever known. He thought that women understood the world in a way that men did not. A woman could lead you, could take you by the hand and show you which of your shirts to wear, and which to destroy. His love for her was so great that when they were apart for too long he felt as unbalanced as a newlywed and almost lightheaded. During the year they saw each other at least once a week for a cheap Tandoori meal at an Indian restaurant draped to resemble a caravan, and they usually talked on the phone a few times a day. They even watched television together on the phone late at night -- explicit nature documentaries and peeks into celebrity palazzos -- lying in their separate beds in separate apartments, laughing softly across miles of telephone wire.
Now August had arrived and they would be living in the same house for a month. Adam wanted to live with Sara forever. His fantasies often placed them both in Europe; he saw them living in the South of France and having children, a boy and a girl who could romp in a vineyard and be effortlessly bilingual. The idea of marrying Sara excited him, then always burned away in the gas of its own foolishness. He didn't want her, and she certainly didn't want him. They would spend August together, the high point of the year, and when Labor Day came they would part, as they always did.
When they pulled into the driveway of the house now, Adam was asleep against her shoulder, his head big and heavy and damp. She woke him up, and they carried their belongings up the weedy path, noticing that each year the small mustard-colored house looked a little worse upon approach, and that one year it would look so awful that they would back away without entering, and never return again. Sara lifted the stiff brass knocker on the front door and let it drop; the sound it made seemed tinny and insignificant, yet from inside they heard immediate footsteps, as though the landlady had been huddling by the door, awaiting their arrival.
Mrs. Moyles looked the same as last year, only a little worse, not unlike her house. She was a pudding-faced woman whom they suspected of alcoholism or dementia, or both, and who had a head of hair that looked as though she cut it herself while blindfolded. There was nothing charming about her house, either, no details that you could point out to guests, such as a secret passageway, or a set of fireplace pokers with handles shaped like mermaids. It was a no-frills house, a place to stay if you wanted to spend a month in the vicinity of a fancy beach resort and didn't mind the presence of linoleum and a hive of tiny, hot rooms.
"So you made it," she said to Sara and Adam, the same words she said every year when they arrived.
"Yes," they invariably said in return, nodding their heads in an attempt at politeness in the face of her indifference. Now Adam held out the pie box, but she didn't make any attempt to lift her hands up and take it. "This is for you," he prompted. "Raspberry."
Mrs. Moyles peered down at the box in his arms and said, "What am I supposed to do with that? I have diabetes!" As though they should have known. But they knew nothing about her, other than the fact that she owned this cheerless little house at 17 Diller Way, which she agreed to rent to them each summer for an uncommonly low price.
So they kept the pie for themselves, and Mrs. Moyles handed Sara the key to the house, muttered a few things about the gas jets on the stove, the sprinkler on the back lawn, and the list of emergency telephone numbers on the refrigerator. And then, to their relief, she was gone, driving south to her sister's house for the rest of the summer in her ancient, boat-sized Chevrolet. Adam and Sara turned to each other, giddy with expectation, and took a look around, observing the warped, upright piano, a Stüttland, an ancient Bavarian brand no one had ever heard of, and the unmatched living room chairs, one with illustrations of Paul Revere and Betsy Ross all over it, and the windows with their ill-fitting screens. Then, accepting their fate with a shrug and a laugh, feeling the filth and gloom of the house steal over them, they went upstairs to unpack in their separate bedrooms.
Adam stood in the small, sloping room that he inhabited every August, opening the drawers of a bureau and putting away his clothing. The room was furnished with a collection of badly painted pieces, now flaking in a paint-chip snowfall to the splintery floor. He slid a drawer closed, or tried to, for it had no runner, and needed to be worked into its slot. Finally he put a palm against it and slammed it the final inch shut.
Across the hall, Sara opened a drawer of her own small bureau to put away her underpants and her red leather notebook that she wrote in exclusively in Japanese, and found inside an old copy of Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, and a single, filthy gardening glove. The drawer smelled of earth, and when she looked around the room she saw that the paisley wallpaper was the color of mud, and buckling. How many more years would they take this house? she wondered. How many more years could they tolerate living like teenagers? She sat down on the small bed, feeling it groan even under her delicate weight. This summer would be different from the others, she thought. This summer she would become less flighty, more substantial. She would engage with people her own age, people other than Adam, and she would try to disengage from her mother.
Everyone who knew Sara Swerdlow well also knew her mother, Natalie Swerdlow, a travel agent who lived in suburban New Jersey. Natalie could be a demanding, edgy, overbearing mother, and while Sara sometimes spoke against her to her friends ("She's too nosy," she'd say, or "I wish she'd get a life"), she always felt guilty afterward, and would telephone her mother for a long, purgative session of girl talk. Mother and daughter had been virtually inseparable since Natalie's divorce when Sara was small. The marriage had frayed and Sara's father had shrugged off to Dayton, Ohio. He was an alarmingly passive man who had never been expressive with his daughter, and Sara found that she didn't really miss him as much as she missed the idea of him: a father. Someone like all the other girls had, who picked you up after band practice, or who drove a carful of you and your hysterically giggling friends to the mall, sitting up front alone like a poker-faced chauffeur in a pea jacket. A father who spent a lot of time examining his new leaf-blower from Sears, apparently fascinated by the force with which the leaves were sucked into the bag. A father you could not know, because you were a girl and he was a man, and there was a vast, awkward gulf between you. Everything you would do together would be difficult, and it would only grow worse. When Sara's father left home, she consoled herself with the idea that she would be spared the discomfort of spending so much time with a man she could not talk to, and who could not, or would not, talk to her.
She would spend much more time with her mother, she decided, and apparently her mother had the same idea, for in the face of their newfound aloneness, the mother had clung to her only daughter. They looked alike, these two fine-boned Swerdlow women. Natalie still spoke to Sara on the telephone every day. It was she, in fact, who made the first call to the house that summer. Sara and Adam had been inside for less than twenty minutes, when the telephone rang. "Sara!" Adam called. "It's for you!" She knew who it was; who else would think to call her here, so soon after she had arrived?
"Hello?" she said into the telephone.
"Surrender, Dorothy," said her mother.
"Hey, Mom," said Sara. "What took you so long?"
"Oh," said her mother, "I thought I'd give you a little space."
"Yeah, right," said Sara. She rolled her eyes at Adam, as if to signal, My crazy mother, but in truth she enjoyed these conversations. Her mother, though an extremely intrusive person, was also a source of comfort. Sara had been a shy girl who drew pictures of small woodland animals and read books about blind or orphaned children. Her mother thought of her as sensitive and tender, which was so different from the way everyone thought of her mother. Natalie Swerdlow had a hard laugh and great good looks, with a body that appeared more elastic than it had reason to at her age. She also had a sense of fun that was often drummed out under the dull, quotidian beats of suburban life. How had Natalie wound up in New Jersey, she used to ask herself, living in a big house and married to a dentist? ("A periodontist," Ed would correct, and she would say, "Pardon me.") Her daughter, Sara, was the saving grace, the small, swaying plant that had resulted from this unlikely union. As the marriage to Ed Swerdlow, D.D.S., turned into a festival of bickering at home and in various restaurants, Natalie swiveled her attentions and hopes onto her daughter.
Sara loved receiving such a flood of attention from her overwhelming, wonderful mother, and together mother and daughter developed an alliance: the big and the small, the formed and the unformed. They sang songs, they paged through fashion magazines, they once even bleached their hair with temporary dye, transforming themselves into mother-daughter platinum-blond starlets for one night only. Each received a borrowed burst of voltage from the other, the appropriation of qualities that would otherwise never be available.
Natalie understood early on that her daughter would one day be more beautiful than she herself had ever been; Sara's neck and fingers were longer, her eyes larger, her hair perfectly straight. Sara attracted everyone -- men, women, children, pets -- through her gentle elegance and hints of melancholy darkness. You wanted to be near her because she smelled woodsily good and had a simple, easy laugh. You knew that Sara would always remember your birthday with an interesting little gift, and that she also had an inner life that you didn't fully comprehend. She was pretty, but not vacant. She wasn't merely one of those uncomplicated girls who invest everything in the boys in their midst, stringing necklaces for them made of shells and attending every dull lacrosse game, sitting on the bleachers in the grassy air, hugging themselves in the cold, while the boys ran with their big, strange, netted sticks. Sara, it was clear, was different.
0 But so, too, was Natalie, although in other ways. Natalie had been very sexy back in the sixties -- slightly brazen in swept-up hairdos and a series of very short dresses the color of Necco wafers. Now Necco wafers didn't exist (or did they -- in the back of some dusty candy store?) and those hairstyles and dresses had long been retired, but Natalie had made a graceful transition to the styles of the seventies and then the eighties and the nineties, emerging fully intact: a slim travel agent who looked far younger than she was. She was freer than her daughter, louder and more assertive. She was the mother who appeared at PTA meetings looking so good that the assistant principal hovered solicitously and flirtatiously all evening. She was the jazzy mother who was creative in everything she did. When she made salads for Sara, she arranged the iceberg lettuce leaves, carrots, tomatoes, and olives into the approximate shape of a girl. Natalie threw herself into Sara because this gave her a pleasure greater than any other.
There were actually very few pleasures elsewhere in her life back then. Her marriage was over and for a while she was celibate, uninterested in starting up anything new. Sex with Ed had mostly been pathetic; sometimes, during the marriage, he came home from the office still wearing his papery white dental tunic, looking vaguely futuristic. She thought of his hands, imagined them exploring the intricacies of some stranger's teeth and gums. Why, she wondered, would anyone want to be a dentist?
When she and Ed had first met one summer at a hotel in the Catskills, she had asked him this. It was a challenge, a put-down, she knew, but he did not seem offended. Instead, he seemed to enjoy the chance to explain to her the inner workings of the mouth.
She had sat with him at the bar of the Concord Hotel, while he drew a picture of the upper jaw for her on a cocktail napkin. God, I'm bored, she thought at the time, but it did not stop her from seeing him again. In fact, her boredom with Ed Swerdlow became a constant, pleasurable topic of conversation she could have with her friends. "That man is so boring!" Natalie would say to a girlfriend on the phone after an evening spent with Ed. But in an odd way she liked him -- his single-mindedness about becoming a dentist, his straightforwardness, and even the shape of his head.
Ed looked in her mouth on one of their early dates, sitting her under a strong light and tilting her head up. "Not bad," he said, referring to the fillings that other dentists had packed into the hollows over the years. Sitting with her head thrown back like that, she understood that she would never really love him. Her friends spoke of undying love for men, and Natalie pretended to know what they meant, but she was an unabashed narcissist at heart, and her interests did not stray far from herself. Until there was Sara.
Sometimes, in August at the beach house, other members of the house casually eavesdropped on Sara's telephone conversations with Natalie, because the way Sara and her mother spoke to each other was compelling. First came the inevitable "Surrender, Dorothy" salutation, then an odd, colloquial banter laced with affection and tension. The others in the house had by now let their own parents drop away from their lives to a certain extent, becoming entwined with them mostly when there was a cash-flow problem that only a parent could solve, or a family scandal worth discussing, or a holiday arrangement to be made. This summer, the bond between Natalie and Sara was more complicated than usual, because Natalie had lent her daughter her second, slightly rundown car, also a Toyota. The car was a simple loan for August, yet it came with warnings attached. "If you bang it up, I'll kill you," Natalie had said. "And don't let any of your friends take it for a joy ride." Joy ride. Her mother saw them as irresponsible teenagers, instead of this crew of careful, faithful friends hurtling in a pack toward the middle of their lives.
Natalie hadn't been to the house in Springs, and Sara wanted to leave this the one place her mother would never see. When she was thirteen, Sara had told her mother everything, because she assumed that was what all girls did. She had told Natalie about how she had cheated on her geography test, and she had told her about stealing a nugget of hashish from Alison Bikel's father's nighttable drawer. And when, during a game of Seven Minutes in Heaven, Neil Grolier had put his hand inside Sara's underpants, the feelings that hand had engendered were so wild and peculiar that she had needed to tell her mother about them, too.
But her mother had simply looked at Sara and said, "Yes, a man's hands can be a wonderful thing." Then she went on to describe for Sara all that awaited her in the combustible universe of sex. It was terrifying and disgusting to hear the details, but somehow still exciting. "When the time comes," Natalie had said, stroking her daughter's head like a dog and gazing off, "you'll know what I mean."
Two years later, she learned what her mother had meant. Because she was a beautiful girl of a certain type (long, shining fair hair parted in the middle, astonishingly clear skin, turquoise beads ringing her slender neck), a certain type of soulful boy liked her. The boys actually resembled Sara; their own hair was shining and parted in the middle, too. One of them wrote out the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" for her in painstaking calligraphy on parchment paper. She had sex with him in her white canopy bed while her mother was at her desk at the Seven Seas Travel Agency in the city, arranging a whirlwind Spain-Portugal itinerary for a honeymoon couple. Neither Sara nor this boy knew exactly what they were doing; they both fumbled around on the bed and made a few inadvertent mewing noises, then a reservoir-tip Trojan was produced with much fanfare and there was a great deal of pain and a little blood, and suddenly what had been awkward and joyless became serious, sublime.
Over the years, both mother and daughter became involved with an assortment of men, and the big house in New Jersey became a place to bring them. Natalie dated amiable, divorced businessmen with middle-aged waistlines and a predilection for no-iron slacks. It amazed Sara that her mother could be attracted to these men, yet Natalie felt the same way about Sara's boyfriends, whose mouths vacantly hung open, and whose hands smelled of all things fried. During Sara's adolescence, sex was an open secret in the house; the teenaged daughter's diaphragm was hidden under a stack of inorganic chemistry homework in her top dresser drawer, and the mother's older, more weatherbeaten version was hidden under an Anne Klein scarf in her bottom dresser drawer.
Off at Wesleyan freshman year, Sara called Natalie at seven in the morning while a boy lay beside her in her narrow dormitory bed. She put the phone up to his sleeping lips. "Listen," she whispered to her mother. "He's breathing."
And her mother held the phone up to the lips of the systems analyst lying in her own bed. "Listen," Natalie whispered back. "He's snoring."
This summer, neither woman had a man in her bed, at least not yet. There was time; August had barely begun.
Shawn Best arrived in Springs at six o'clock, his arms and legs freezing from the aggressive air conditioner of the luxury bus. He had brought a bayberry-scented candle as a housegift, in a spun-glass vessel made to resemble a Druid. It looked like a prop from a stage version of The Hobbit. Shawn did have a cruel mouth, Sara thought, but his eyes looked too innocent to contain anything that could truly be described as sadistic.
The men were formal around each other, careful not to touch or betray any intimacy. Shawn seemed disappointed in the summer house; he had probably imagined something palatial, even though Adam had warned him the place was nothing special.
"Well," said Sara, "I'm going to take a rest before Maddy and Peter and the baby get here." She extricated herself, her smile tight.
In the late afternoon, Maddy and Peter arrived in the red Ford pickup that Peter had been driving since college, their baby trapped into a rear-facing car seat between them. There were hurried, excited greetings, and exclamations over the baby, who had a head of spiky hair and questioning, dark eyes. Then everyone found their rooms and began to unpack their bags, working open the old dresser drawers and settling in. They could hear Duncan crying, his sobs rhythmic and cartoonish.
Later, Peter went out and bought lobsters and beer, and another haphazard dinner got under way. Shawn brought out matches and lit his ugly bayberry candle. They all talked about the year, their jobs, the news of the world. They somehow began a discussion of the genital mutilation of girls in Africa, which had Maddy and Sara speaking in quiet, angry voices. Maddy had been independently researching the topic from a legal standpoint and hoped to publish an article about it in a law journal, even though it had nothing to do with her area of expertise, which was torts. But it had all been put on hold after her baby was born and she went on leave from the law firm.
At dinner, the serious discussion about genital mutilation led to some silly talk about Notary Publics. "What is a Notary Public, anyway?" Peter asked. "I know everyone has to use them once in a while, and sometimes you can find them in the weirdest places, like the back of a hardware store, just sitting there under a display of Phillips head screwdrivers or something, and you pay them to stamp your papers, but who are they? And how did they get to be who they are?"
"I think they have to go to school for it," said Maddy.
"But what do they learn in Notary Public school?" asked Sara. "What's on the final exam?"
"And why," said Peter, "would someone want to be a Notary Public? This is the great mystery of the universe; forget about why the dinosaurs disappeared. There are a million jobs to choose from out there, and this is the one they pick." They were laughing now, enjoying the familiar cadences of their conversation.
The group had come together freshman year at Wesleyan, when they had lived together on the third floor of a dormitory. Their humor, and many of their references, were often inaccessible to anyone else. Their entire view of the world was tilted and limited, a fact that they recognized. In earlier years they had considered themselves ageless, their bodies unlined and resilient, their experiences somehow meaningless.
But that was their twenties; now they were thirty. Everything was different at thirty; nothing was taken lightly or carelessly. Now they talked and talked, these thirty-year-olds, in the kitchen they sat in every August. The kitchen chairs were uncomfortable in a 1950s suburban way -- coral vinyl bolted down with metal studs -- and the tablecloth was shiny oilcloth, but the company (except for Shawn, the unknown presence) was so welcome and comforting, that everyone seemed on the verge of nostalgic tears. This day, after all, served as the letting-go of the held breath of all the months, the release from a year in New York that had been particularly grim, locking them into their fluorescent cubicles at work, and the small apartments they called home. They had barely gone outside all winter; they had ordered movies from the video store, and a rotation of take-out dinners (Chinese, Thai, barbecue), waiting for it to become bearable outdoors, and for the world to once again seem approachable. The newspapers reported that people had frozen on the streets that January in record numbers, the alcohol in their blood quickening death. But then spring arrived, transforming seamlessly into summer. Now here they were again, wearing shorts and gathering to eat the tender meat of local lobsters, and it seemed as though winter had never even taken place.
Later that first evening, after the sun set and they were all sitting on the deck that looked out over the scrubby yard, Adam announced that he wanted to drive to town to buy ice cream to go atop the raspberry pie. Sara agreed to take him in the car. Shawn went inside and planted himself in front of the awful old piano, lightly playing one of the songs from his musical. Adam climbed back into the car with Sara and they headed out to the Fro-Z-Cone on the edge of town. The sky was still pale, and even though you couldn't see the ocean from this road, you knew it was around here somewhere. Your hair felt damp; you thought you smelled salt, although you weren't sure if salt really had a smell.
"You hate him," said Adam, as the car pulled out of the driveway. "Shawn, I mean."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"It's all right. I hate him a little bit too," said Adam. "He's kind of an opportunist. He's very nervy. But he really likes me. And there's actually something sweet about him."
"I don't know him well enough to hate him," said Sara. "I'm sure he's perfectly fine."
"He's good in bed," Adam said, sheepishly.
"Well, good for you," said Sara.
"You know, you could at least pretend to like him," said Adam. "God knows I've pretended to like some of the losers you've brought to the house over the years."
"Losers? Who?" demanded Sara.
"The gem guy, for one," said Adam.
The gem guy had been a man a few summers earlier who dealt in rare stones and the occasional coin. He was from Bahrain and was quite handsome, yet it turned out that he maintained archaic, obnoxious notions about sex roles, and was uncomfortable around Adam because Adam was, as the gem guy had phrased it, "an unrepentant sodomite."
"The gem guy was a long time ago. And he was about sex, pure and simple," said Sara. "He was a pig, and he insisted on scrubbing his penis with scalding water, a loofah sponge, and Lava soap after he was done. He would have used turpentine if we'd had it in the house."
"You know what I wish?" Adam suddenly said.
"Yes," said Sara, sighing. "What you always wish."
"Well, is that so bad?" said Adam. "Wishing that we loved each other, you and I? That way?"
"You mean," said Sara, "that lovely, intimate, fluid-exchanging way."
"You're such a fucking romantic," said Adam.
"Actually, I am."
"But not with me," said Adam softly. "Oh, well. So it goes." The Fro-Z-Cone came into view, its immense neon ice cream cone icon buzzing and sputtering in the twilight. "Look at that thing," said Adam. "It's so phallic. It just looms over everyone, and we all head toward it. We're all making a mecca toward the giant penis in the sky." Sara laughed, and he continued. "Oh help us, giant Fro-Z-Cone," he said. "Help us distinguish right from wrong, and good from evil. Pleasure us, giant Fro-Z-Cone, with your giant frozen...cone."
Sara parked the car in the lot beside a BMW that belonged to a bunch of teenagers clustered around the counter of the ice cream stand. "Look," she said. "The bearded woman still works here."
"Poor bearded woman," said Adam. "Why doesn't she at least trim it? It wouldn't be so prominent."
"Maybe it's a political statement," said Sara, and they both laughed meanly. "God, we're terrible," she said. The bearded woman was elderly, with a milky eye and long strands running from her chin like a witch in a fairy tale. She had been here for years and years, "since ice cream had been invented," according to Adam. Now they ordered a tub of vanilla, watching as the woman held a container under the nozzle of the soft-serve machine, the ice cream being extruded in a long turban. In the distance, the teenagers smoked and howled and broke bottles, the glass cracking almost musically against the blacktop of the parking lot, while bugs jumped all around them in the neon light.
Sara and Adam paid for the ice cream and then ducked back into the car. As Sara started the engine, she saw that one of the headlights no longer worked. Adam got out and stepped around to the front. She craned through the open car window. "Busted," he said, shaking his head. "We can take it in tomorrow. There's an auto shop in town."
"How would you know?" asked Sara. "That's like the last thing in the world you would ever know about. Transmissions. Carburetors. It's kind of outside the Adam Langer Sphere of Knowledge."
"Well, ha-ha to you, missy," he said. "I guess I'm full of surprises." He paused, smiling. "Actually," he said, "the only reason I know about it is because there's this guy who works out front, and he never wears a shirt, just a bandanna around his neck. I call him the Hairless Mechanic."
"I thought it was something like that," said Sara.
They saw that the teenagers had scattered; one of them must have casually smashed the light with a bottle. Adam got back inside and they headed off. The single working headlight swung its solo beam onto the half of the road under its watch. How strange it felt to be driving like this; it was like having one eye open. The sky was turning truly dark; back at the house, everyone would already have gone inside, waiting for their plates of pie and ice cream. Sara felt that the house was where she belonged, and yet she knew that as a life it was imperfect, makeshift, good for summers only.
Had she been doing the kinds of things that would eventually lead to a life she wanted to live year-round? Her friends were like bodyguards who kept one another from the perils and disappointments of the larger world, and yet she wondered if she was prepared for her life. She should set her expectations lower, she thought, finding some fairly ordinary job that involved a mastery of the Japanese language, which she had become skilled at but not brilliant.
Adam was brilliant, she thought, in a way that came to him naturally and effortlessly. But Sara continually tried hard and she could almost feel the tug of all that trying. Inevitably, she was someone who meant well. In graduate school, she had known students who simply blazed their way through seminars. One woman, Adrian Pomerantz, was so intelligent that the professors always lit up when Adrian spoke; her eloquent, cogent analyses forced them not to be lazy, not to repeat themselves. Adrian was small and dark, with a fine film of hair above her upper lip and a wardrobe made up of odd little dresses that she purchased from an antique store in the Village, but which looked as though they should be worn by Shakers. She was a sturdy little chestnut of a woman who had probably been winning academic prizes her entire life, but somehow, no matter what she did or how much she dazzled, Adrian Pomerantz would only be admired, never loved.
Sara would be loved. Sara Swerdlow would get away with it; she would float through everything she undertook, and no one would mind.
There was a young assistant professor at Columbia named Ron Getman, who had been particularly helpful to Sara when she was trying to decide upon a dissertation topic. He had sat with her in coffee shops on Broadway, and in his gloomy little office, and he had gazed at her steadily as they discussed her thesis, which was to be about propagandistic images of the Japanese people during World War II. He was virtuous and would not kiss her without some sort of sign of encouragement on her part. She considered giving him such a sign but rejected the idea, knowing that it might have been possible to find love with this man who had fair, fading hair and spoke Japanese with a rapidity that amazed her. She didn't deserve Ron Getman; no, she didn't really want him. She didn't know what she wanted. Not him, not Sloan the environmental lawyer who had changed his name, and not even Adam, whom she loved so deeply. That was the problem, and it informed almost everything she did. What did she want? What could she get out of studying Japanese -- a pathetic nowhere job with a toy company? What could she get from men? A litany of orgasms, babies, a mortgage, a future? And then there was the question of her mother; lately she thought she had been deprived of oxygen during all these years they had spent together. It was all too much -- Natalie wanting to know everything, and Sara willingly telling her. In some ways, she even hated her mother.
The only arena in which she was secure, and fully herself, was at the beach house every August. She almost felt as though she wanted to hurry back to the house now, and so she stepped more firmly on the gas pedal. The car radio played a song that was riveting in its associations: Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl," an oldie which had played throughout much of Sara and Adam's adolescence. Boys had sung it to Sara: a sexy, durable summer song, her own brown eyes wide with pleasure. And Adam, she knew, had sung it to himself in his bedroom along with a clock radio, wondering why he wasn't attracted to girls, girls with brown eyes, with blue eyes, with long, constantly shampooed hair, and whether he ever would be.
They were both singing now, when a car backed out of a driveway into the road and right into the driver's side of Sara's car. At first there was a shuddering smack of metal and a feeling that must be like giving birth, or being born -- a ripping apart, a disconnection, and a pain that was bigger than you were, so that you slipped right inside it, as if in hiding. There was sound with it, too: the groaning of metal as it gives up and collapses into itself.
Her mother would kill her, Sara thought as the door of her car pushed into her, overtaking her like a tide. The Buddha on the mirror swung back and forth, and Adam's mouth was open as if forming a question, and the carton of ice cream bounded across the seat. For some reason she thought of the bearded woman standing at the Fro-Z-Cone year after year. Nothing really changed, at least not so you could see it. Even aging was done surreptitiously, behind a smeary partition, under unnatural light. Sara Swerdlow cried out once, briefly, and then she died.
Copyright © 1999 by Meg Wolitzer