Cities I've Never Lived In

Cities I've Never Lived In

by Sara Majka


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In subtle, sensuous prose, the stories in Sara Majka's debut collection explore distance in all its forms: the emotional spaces that open up between family members, friends, and lovers; the gaps that emerge between who we were and who we are; the gulf between our private and public selves. At the center of the collection is a series of stories narrated by a young American woman in the wake of a divorce; wry and shy but never less than open to the world, she recalls the places and people she has been close to, the dreams she has pursued and those she has left unfulfilled. Interspersed with these intimate first-person stories are stand-alone pieces where the tight focus on the narrator's life gives way to closely observed accounts of the lives of others. A book about belonging, and how much of yourself to give up in the pursuit of that, Cities I've Never Lived In offers stories that reveal, with great sadness and great humor, the ways we are most of all citizens of the places where we cannot be.

Cities I've Never Lived In is the second book in Graywolf's collaboration with the literary magazine A Public Space.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - John Williams

The stories in Sara Majka's arresting collection…are peppered with broad, effective declarations of emotional philosophy…They are also anchored in keenly observed specific details and pivot around deceptively imaginative plots. These are modest-seeming stories that hold deep truths, by a writer of great promise.

The New York Times Book Review - Lydia Kiesling

Unjustly, I assumed right away that I knew exactly what kind of book this would be: a book about arty people with complicated personal lives, who use the word "lover" and contemplate wintry landscapes from lonely trains…But Majka brings the reader to startling places…Majka is dexterous at bringing a physical clarity to the sites of emotional muddle…She excels at writing neglected, forlorn people and places…Cities I've Never Lived In is not a compassionate book, exactly, despite all the sad things in it. From certain angles, it's a kind of New England gothic, where the lost children and dead women and doppelgängers serve to add atmosphere and meaning to the narrator's past peregrinations, her dalliances and uncertainties. It turns out in the end that this is in fact a book about an arty person with a complicated personal life. But it's a lovely one, written in a moving and uncanny register.

Publishers Weekly

The stories in Majka’s debut collection are linked in two ways: many feature the same first-person narrator, a youngish woman whose marriage has broken up, but even those that don’t have a common mood—a loneliness and yearning for something that will likely not occur. In the title story, the narrator travels from city to city going to soup kitchens—she’s not hungry for food, but for a connection, a way to be open to the people she meets there. It’s not a plan with a measurable success or failure—when it ends, she’s still looking for “an answer to the loneliness.” In “Four Hills,” she meets an appealing man, and when she sees that he’s married, she feels “the calm settling of disappointment as it joined the tide of all the other disappointments.” The stories that aren’t about this character seem to be told by her. These are set mainly in Maine, sometimes in Portland, and sometimes on islands; they feature people who are figuratively and literally getting cut off. In “Strangers,” an island loses its only grocery store; in “Saint Andrews Hotel,” a touching foray into a less realistic mode, the islanders lose their ability to reach the mainland. Though the stories seem to blend together, this seems a deliberate choice, and the result is a human and eloquent exploration of isolation. (Feb.)

From the Publisher

*A Chicago Tribune Winter/Spring book pick and one of The Millions' most anticipated books of 2016*

“Majka brings the reader to startling places. . . . From certain angles, it’s a kind of New England gothic, where the lost children and dead women and doppelgängers serve to add atmosphere and meaning to the narrator’s past peregrinations, her dalliances and uncertainties. It turns out in the end that this is in fact a book about an arty person with a complicated personal life. But it’s a lovely one, written in a moving and uncanny register.”The New York Times Book Review

“Arresting. . . . These are modest-seeming stories that hold deep truths, by a writer of great promise.”The New York Times Book Review

“Graceful.”Oprah Magazine

“I still can’t get some of [Majka’s] perfect assessments of the human condition out of my head. Her writing is matter-of-fact (thought very beautiful), and her characters are sad, occasionally desperate. . . . She’s incredibly effective.”The Cut

“If you’ve ever fantasized about ditching town for unknown corners of the U.S., this debut collection of short stories is sure to satisfy your curiosity.”Refinery 29

“Majka’s voice and world are wholly her own. A real feeling of warmth and nostalgia lifts these stories above the ordinary.”Kenyon Review

“Beautiful and poetic.”Rain Taxi Review of Books

"Precision, beauty, and reality meld in Majka's captivating stories, which feature characters who live in obscurity on society's fringes.”Shelf Awareness

“Majka has a talent for a striking observation.”Kirkus Review

“A human and eloquent exploration of isolation.”—Publishers Weekly

“Majka’s stories gently remind us that we take our preoccupations with us wherever we go as we follow the narrator tovividly rendered places from the shoreline towns of Maine to small islands, from decaying Midwestern cities to Greenpoint by the BQE. The prose is lucid and spare, with crystalline moments of gut-punching insight on every page.”—Electric Literature

“Majka is a great line-maker who can kill you in just a few words.”—LitReactor

"Whether traversing mainland or islands, on terra firma or cut adrift, Majka's narrator is wonderfully sympathetic. We see her, and others, battling loneliness and existing 'a while without love,’ without ever sinking into self-pity. With great beauty and subtlety these 14 interlinked tales speak volumes about 'what happens when what makes life possible disappears.’”The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Sara Majka’s prose is the star in this debut collection of linked short stories, which follow a young New England woman rebuilding her life post-divorce. Majka’s words find a way to tear at your insides as they come together to form a vivid picture of isolation. Deeply moving, these stories are the kind that’ll make you stare straight into that roaring fire while you think hard about what’s important to you.”Elle Magazine

“This amazing debut short story collection explores distance in all it forms. . . . This is a book filled with stunning craft and transportive stories. Subtle and intimate, Majka’s writing will reach all the way into you, plucking at your very core.”Bustle

“A man leaves a woman; a woman leaves a man; in bars, hostels, and even soup kitchens, people search for connection. . . . Every story [in Cities I’ve Never Lived In] comes back to the themes that occupy the young narrator’s mind the most: loneliness and loss, the in-between spaces of life, and the struggle to understand ourselves and the people around us.”Booklist

“There's an observational quality to these stories that makes them feel lived and are packed with truths that wouldn't feel out of place in a personal essay. . . . That's the beauty of Majka's voice: a dreary day turns Gothic, ordinary loss transforms into something wise, even if we never quite make it to the place we're striving to reach.”San Diego CityBeat

“There is a quiet, meditative reflection of beautiful language, emotion and unsolvable mysteries of life that had me rereading passages over and over.”The Daily Dosage

“These stories are a marvel that will break your heart. . . . Majka’s debut is breath-stopping.”—A.N. Devers, Longreads

Cities I’ve Never Lived In is my favorite kind of story collection—one that strikes many, many delicate balances. It’s both comforting and spooky, dreamlike and surprisingly frank, clear-eyed and slyly supernatural, and often all simultaneously.”—Callie Collins, American Short Fiction

"These stories are sparse and fierce and move elegantly to the very heart of the reader. The voice remains with me, has left an emotional trace like a person I lived with and loved and often recall.”—Catherine Lacey, author of Nobody is Ever Missing

“A collection that leaves you longing—as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities—for places that you, the reader have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again. Humane, dazzling, and knowing.”—Kelly Link, author of Magic for Beginners

“Like Alice Munro and Raymond Carver, Sara Majka writes stories of people on society’s ragged edge—in money trouble, work trouble, heart trouble—and does so with tremendous subtlety and a grave sophistication all her own. Every one of the spare sentences in this book is heavy with implication and insight. It’s impossible to read these stories too closely.” —Salvatore Scibona, author of The End

“I cannot remember a book that more perfectly achieves the sensation of, as Majka describes, ‘being nowhere, or in someone else’s life, or between lives.’ With each subsequent story, the feeling intensified until, as only the very best writing can do, I felt transformed by the experience. Cities I’ve Never Lived In is a momentous book, and Majka is a writer operating at a very high level of insight.”—Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang

Cities I’ve Never Lived In is like no other book I’ve read: graceful and poignant, original and wise. Its stories unfold in the bars, thrift stores, and rented rooms of a Maine you won’t find in tourist guidebooks or outdoor catalogs, but their deeper territory is the human heart: loss and loneliness, desire and grief, and the strange beauty to be found in desolation. Like the memories that haunt her watchful, wounded characters, Sara Majka’s exquisite prose stayed with me long after I had turned the last page of this terrific debut.”—Mia Alvar, author of In the Country

“This is a beautiful and destabilizing book filled with ghosts. Majka is a writer I’d read anything by.”—Diane Cook, author of Man Vs. Nature

“The characters in Sara Majka’s haunting collection drift through cities and landscapes like refugees from feeling, searching for something they can’t begin to name. These stories confound all our expectations: they fade in and out like memories or dreams, at once indelible and impossible to grasp. Again and again they broke my heart. Majka is a daring and enormously gifted writer, and this is a thrilling, devastating debut.”—Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

Kirkus Reviews

A clutch of delicate stories, for the most part set in Maine but generally occupied by more cerebral concerns about distance and disconnection. In the title story of Majka's debut collection, the artist narrator decides to bail on a relationship and instead travel the United States to tour soup kitchens. Perhaps needless to say, it's a glum grand tour: from Buffalo to Detroit to Cleveland and then parts further west, she wrestles with the question of "what was effective art about the hungry or homeless," paralleled by her own loneliness. The other 13 stories are defined by similar emotional brittleness among its female protagonists. The narrator of "Nashua" sinks into a relationship with a heavy drinker; in "White Heart Bar," a declining marriage is paired with the narrator's contemplation of a missing girl; a child who went missing from a church's day care weighs heavily on the mind of the narrator of "Travelers." These could be the same fragile women from story to story, the same lost girls, the same despairing bars in Maine, or different ones (the narrators are typically nameless). Regardless, the emotional pitch remains the same—brittle, hurt but plainspoken, unassuming or airy prose. To her credit, Majka has a talent for striking observation. "Four Hills" opens with a brilliant line: "He had the sort of face that made me check for a ring." And "Saint Andrews Hotel" has this somber note: "We fall out of love only to fall in love with a duplicate of what we've left, never understanding that we love what we love and that it doesn't change." Such gemlike sentences come with trade-offs, though. There's little sense of forward movement, and though Majka doesn't rely on tidy endings, avoiding closure for the sake of contemplation makes these stories relatively inert. A stylist to watch but one needing a broader palette of conflicts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977313
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 563,209
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Cities I've Never Lived In


By Sara Majka

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2016 Sara Majka
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-731-3



Maybe ten or eleven years ago, when I was in the middle of a divorce from a man I still loved, I took the train into the city. We were both moving often during this time, as if it were the best solution to a shattered life: to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not our marriage and our lives, then something in ourselves. Richard was teaching in the Hudson Valley, and I had moved back to Maine, but would go sometimes to see him, and we would take long walks through the estates along the river, and drive up to Hudson, where there was a café that we liked, with an outside patio made of concrete. The croissants were carefully made there, though they served everything on paper plates.

Richard would order while I waited at the table, and when he returned we would eat and often complain about the waste of paper. After a time I would get in my car and find my way back to Maine, though I didn't know the roads well and I'd have to pull over to call him. The wood signs had road numbers neither of us knew, but we would piece it together and tell each other small jokes.

During one of these trips I took the train into the city. I wasn't well in the way that I would be several years later, and the wave of the power lines in the midday sun seemed alive to me. I watched them for the better part of the journey — the way the lines threaded up and down, and passed through sun and shadows. It felt as if there was only me and the distant spectacle keeping pace with me.

The train was dirty, with few people on it. We passed empty lots and warehouses. When we pulled into Grand Central, I entered the station and stood against the wall, so that I could look at the ceiling without being noticed. The exhibit was in the new MoMA, which seemed that day like a church built to disorient. A large white space, with escalators that took you from floor to floor, and every floor looked like the one before it. I was there to see the work of a Venezuelan artist named Armando Reverón. The Times had run an article with photographs of his life-sized dolls and of his self- portraits with the dolls. The exhibit took up one gallery, with the paintings in front and the dolls in back. For a time I sat on a bench, then I left the gallery.

In the spring I saw Richard again, him in his lightweight coat, standing in the parking lot near his office at the college. He was dating someone by then, someone who lived in town. He looked at me — a small, unseasonably dressed woman — and what he saw I didn't know; probably he felt sorry for me, but I also imagine it — my discomposure — made him happy, standing there, holding his cup of coffee.

* * *

After the divorce, I went to a cottage along the water that belonged to a friend. Richard and I had gone there several times when we were together, always in odd seasons, during odd weather, when no one else wanted it. I planned to be there all winter, unless someone else came. Richard came one day. There was a cafeteria-style restaurant that served cheap fish meals, where people ate together at long tables, and we met there. He sat down with me and looked at the people at the tables — they were fishermen, and women who cleaned hotel rooms during the season, and men who cooked during the season, and now it was out of season and no one had much to do — and said it hadn't changed much. After, we walked through the town. I felt like a caretaker showing a house that I loved but that had been more neglected than it ought to have been. We could go clamming, I said. He asked after the tide and I said, 3:00 p.m., and he said, That's a good tide. I thought of my body underneath my coat, of what it would feel like to take my coat off in the kitchen while he was there.

Clamming happens in many villages along the East Coast. Clam beds are seeded, in that people aren't looking for wild clams, but are searching for clams that have been put there much as fields are sown. I know little about the lives of clams, though I'm left with the idea that they drift, that the tide raises them and they skirt along until being brought down. You get them by going while the tide is out, and raking with an instrument that looks like a garden tool. You know you've hit a clam by the weight and the ping against the rake. Then you reach down and toss it to the pile. If it's so large the clam will be chewy, or so small it passes through the gauge, you put it in the sand and stomp on the ground. This keeps it from the seagulls that come in, once you leave, like ravens to a kill that's been left behind. When the birds get clams, they fly to a flat roof and drop them to break them open. To the people under the roofs it sounds like solitary hail.

* * *

Later on I was in the city, where I stayed in a married couple's apartment while they traveled. It was a corner apartment filled with light, overlooking a church. The husband was an artist and the walls were covered with his canvases. I'm not sure if the husband had wanted them hung, but the wife had, so I would wake and have coffee with the sun coming in and the brightness of the paintings. There were cats who slept with me, and there were stairs to the roof. If you went up just as it was getting dark, the last of the light receded behind the steeple and made it loom as if in a magical way, and I was full of the feeling of being nowhere, or in someone else's life, or between lives.

The old man who lived below the roof had a window on his landing that was coated in film, and he had placed four dying plants in front of it, leading me to believe the dead plants on the roof were also his. Those were entirely dead, and looked like buried branches, or like a Zen garden of sparseness. It was as if he had first tried a garden on the roof, but when those died he receded further, only daring to try outside his door, and as those were dying he enclosed himself even more, and I never saw him.

When the couple was there, we would smoke on the roof and eat bean salads. I would watch the light around the steeple and feel happy that I was there, feeling for a time that there was nothing but the roof, and them, and their happiness. Then we would creep back down. We weren't supposed to talk on the landing because of the man, though often they'd forget and would tell each other small jokes. It seemed the sort of carelessness that love can evoke, where things can be taken with great seriousness, but also without any at all. But I never forgot about the man and felt him each time I passed his landing, with that dark mat and pile of shoes, and the plants crowding the sill, which rather than suggesting hope, seemed a fleeting and failed attempt at life.

One time when I was visiting, the couple told me that a woman was now living with him. She was much younger, didn't speak good English, and barely went out. They didn't know how he could have gotten her. She was young, not unpretty. On my last visit, though, the wife said, It's just the man again.

It's hard to talk about love. It's as if it closes when we're not experiencing it and becomes impossible to recall. After my divorce, I briefly dated someone much younger. He was about to move to Berlin. I had been there once and remembered trying to make out a subway map at night when a student walked over to help. The student had been tall in the dark, as tall, it seemed, as the post the map was on. It's strange what you remember, what will keep. Whole years can pass, can end up being unimportant, but that stranger in Berlin I remember.

* * *

For years after the divorce, I found I fell in love easily. Sometimes when this happened, I moved to another city, and for a while I was happy because small things were again enough to fill the day. There was the matter of finding a mattress, and trips to the junk shop, with tubs of silverware to sort through, and row after row of shelves, each darker and more closed in, looking for stacks of old plates, putting plates on my lap so I could look at the ones underneath. I liked the grime of the places and what it left on my fingers. The cluster of old men at the door and waiting to see which of the men owned the shop and would ring me up, and the bags tearing so my purchases would have to be taken out and carried.

One store had bins of clothes in back and I would take home jeans with holes and old belts and shoes collapsed in on themselves. At night I boiled eggs and sat in front of the fan drinking gin and tonics, eating the eggs with jarred olives. The grocery store smelled bad and there were often puddles, both in the store and in the street, because of the fire hydrants that were opened in the summer so that children could play and the adults could watch and be hit by mist.

There was a new bar in the neighborhood and a lot of money had been put into the bar, as if for a party that hadn't happened yet. Local artists decorated one wall with metal, and the front window was stained glass. I liked to go during happy hour when the bartenders were just starting. Their outfits — hats and western shirts — looked silly at that hour, and I felt affection for them as they cut limes and poured drinks. I drank greyhounds because the juice was good, and juice was not the sort of thing I bought back then. The bartenders liked each other and spent time together outside of work, not at parties, but in small ways that were nice to hear about. Once or twice I stayed after happy hours, and they grew quiet when more people showed up. Then it had seemed a foreign place like an airport.

The other nice thing was going out to smoke when the sun went down and the sky grew pink. Pigeons perched on a building across the street would lift and fly in circles. Afterward, there were more hours left in the night than there should have been, and it wasn't that beautiful anymore. It was a dark city of trash bags behind gates and partially lit stores that seemed both open and closed. Puddles of dirty water mixed with something sweet you didn't want to step in.

I loved the city back then. It was the sort of love that was uncomfortable, as it didn't return feelings, but only astounding views. The sudden opening of the subway onto a bridge. Looking blankly out the window at the Statue of Liberty at sunset, at sunrise. All the bottles of cleaner at the bodega, each a different color, that I thought were sodas at first. I remember that I was frightened, that I was afraid of getting worse, as I had been getting better for some time. I was afraid that this life I was leading — though everything was beautiful and filled with sensation — might prove too brittle, might fall apart in ways that would surprise me.

* * *

I was thinking of what happens when what makes life possible disappears. The Armando Reverón exhibit had made me think of this. He was mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, and had retreated to an inner life with dolls, making objects for them, and painting himself with them. In the paintings he stares out, isolated, surrounded by inanimate figures.

I had been reminded of Reverón during a movie I saw in the city. I went to the theater alone one rainy afternoon. An ex-boyfriend worked at the theater, but he wasn't there. The movie was a documentary about a man who had been severely beaten and had to have surgery after. He lost much of his memory, and afterward was a different person. He had been an alcoholic before, but afterward didn't drink. He also had a girlfriend before, but not afterward. Afterward he developed infatuations for people. I thought that what the Times had said about this man, that to fall in love would be the greatest risk, was true. Mostly the movie was about the worlds he created with dolls and the photographs he took of them. When he had an infatuation, or a close friend, or someone he hated, he would make a doll version of them. They all lived in a town he made, and they went to a bar he created.

When I watched the movie, I thought if he did find someone, if she then left for one reason or another — as sometimes people have good reasons for leaving, even if they, too, are in love — then this man could lose whatever capacity he had for staying alive. That love is more than a risk for some, for some it's impossible, and what do we do in the face of that?

I didn't make it through the movie. I would have missed the early bus, and by the time the next one arrived it would have been dark and still raining. So I left the theater, walking past my ex's coworkers. Perhaps they thought I had gone for him, and, when he wasn't there, had been so overcome that I had to leave. Outside I raised my umbrella. By then I was walking slowly and cautiously to prove that I was collected, or still quickly to show that I was worried over time and buses. I forget which now, though it would have been one of them.



Back before I was married, I used to go to a store in Portland called the Clown that left out coffee and crescent cookies for customers who never came. It was an old, high-ceilinged place with a gallery in back that showed the work of local art students — robots made from mechanical parts, paintings of gaunt women in kitchens. Everything was covered in dust as neither the art nor the merchandise ever changed. In front were bowls made from pounded spoons and boxes of French soap, and in the basement a wine cellar with rows of bottles mixed in with antiques. I used to wonder if the owners called it the Clown because they had given up on it, knew that despite the color and array it was really without any hope. I went to the Clown, I think, because it felt as if someone loved it despite its futility and I always admired that sort of love.

The only thing I ever found that I wanted, though, was a set of miniature books. I had wandered to the basement one day when I found the tiny volumes. I slipped them in my pocket as I might have done the crescent cookies and went outside. The books reminded me of something I hadn't thought of for years. Once, when I was little, my father brought home an antique dollhouse. He told us he was going to sell it to the miniature museum. We were living on the island at the time, and my father sat on the patio cleaning the dollhouse while my brother, Stewart, and I watched. Another man was there, and this man and my father examined the objects in the dollhouse. In the closet, they found rolls of wallpaper and boxes of lightbulbs. There were books in the bookshelf, perfumes on the dressing table. They opened each vial and sniffed carefully, as if afraid to lose the contents. The man said he knew of someone who would be interested in the dollhouse, someone who would pay more than the miniature museum. My father sat back in his chair. The wind ruffled his hair. He wore a lightweight khaki Windbreaker. His thin hands were red at the knuckles and along the webbing between his fingers.

Well now, he said when the man left, do you think the blackberries are ripe yet?

The blackberries had been talked about all summer until I could see them in my mind: The two of us would walk the path along the cliff while the ocean sparkled below us. All around would be tall grass. We would look back and see the lighthouse, and he would say, There's where we live, near the lighthouse. We would carry baskets with sandwiches wrapped in foil. We would come to a place filled with blackberries, the whole hill covered in them.

When we went it was all four of us. Our parents left me with Stewart while they walked the beach. Stewart barely picked anything and then dropped the bucket I had filled for him. He found a way to fall and land on the berries. He wore a pair of canvas overalls, and berries burst against the fabric.

When the time came to go to the mainland to sell the dollhouse, my mother put me in a pink dress and a blue coat and oxford shoes with sharp laces. She pinched her mouth in whenever she did laces or buttons. She put a bonnet on me that had elastic under the chin.

On the boat, the two of them went inside to get drinks. Stewart and I stayed outside on deck chairs. We could see them through the glass. They looked elegant, as if they were strangers on a transatlantic boat ride. My mother wore a hat, long coat, and scarf. She leaned in toward my father. My father, who was tall and thin and young — they were both young back then — was in his Windbreaker and cotton pants. On the deck, the wind picked up and blew my brother's hair. He was holding a bag of peanuts. He put them in his mouth in fistfuls and some missed and fell on the deck. He was wearing a seersucker suit that had shorts instead of pants, and the seagulls got so close they brushed his legs.

On the mainland, we went to my grandfather's and my parents drove away to sell at antiques shows. They were gone for months. Maybe it was then that my father left — it was hard to know for sure. My grandfather was a gentle, benign presence. Not enough, surely, but when is there ever enough? He would putter around his farmhouse, hammering boards, inspecting the hose for leaks — the place where his neck sagged into his collar looking like a sucked-in paper bag. The shed where he grew African violets, keeping the leaves from burning by taping wax paper over the windows.


Excerpted from Cities I've Never Lived In by Sara Majka. Copyright © 2016 Sara Majka. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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