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.
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About the Author
Sara Majka's stories have appeared in A Public Space, PEN America, The Gettysburg Review, and Guernica. A former fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, she lives in Queens, New York.
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Cities I've Never Lived In
By Sara Majka
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2016 Sara Majka
All rights reserved.
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.CHAPTER 2
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.
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Table of Contents
Boy with Finch,
White Heart Bar,
Saint Andrews Hotel,
The Museum Assistant,
Cities I've Never Lived In,
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