But maybe, after all, justice was meant to sound like silence: Not a marathon of mauled over words she had previously thought were required for forgiveness, which, in the end, left her exhausted; her throat — dehydrated. Sarah despised feeling like that. Shouldn’t forgiveness be a higher ground, an emotion that belonged to the Magnanimous and the Wise? the, god bless them, Non-Mundane? Instead, she watched herself become a woman with a sloppy face, like a washed-up actress on the screen of a decade-long soap opera; and she paced her apartment, with the cell phone sweating against her ear (surely causing her cancer later in life!); and she worked laboriously — on forgiveness: Holding up each word in front of her torso, measuring it at the shoulder seams. Are the sleeves too long? Does it make her look fat? Is there anything — left to be done?
And neither did this newly discovered sound of justice resemble the forced catharsis she chased in sessions with her shrink. Where had she learned to expect these miraculous results? Must’ve been on another TV show, somewhat better written for a channel on which the actors were allowed to swear; and they could cry unattractively, while spraying spit and snot. (Later on, in interviews, these same actors would call the scenes “career defining”, while Sarah found them merely mocking humanity. Maybe, the problem was she was easily bored. Or, maybe, she understood too much.)
Sarah’s shrink was a poised woman who wore clothes from the manikins of Gap and Banana Republic — clothes that on Sarah always sat awkwardly and sadly, and made her apologize, for something, as she returned the silly plastic hangers to the changing-room girls: “Sorry…”; the poised woman who appeared immune from being shocked by the atrocities Sarah’s mother had interfiled into her life, like thin jackets of DVD’s with splatter horrors, hidden in a heart surgeon’s movie collection.
The word one would never use in Sarah’s own obituary was made for the lives of women like her PsyD. (Was the “p” silent, in that? She’d assumed that, but was embarrassed to ask. So, she began writing “Date with Sid” in her calendar, every Tuesday, even though the shrink’s name was Miranda. Miranda Bloom comma Sid.) Her Sid’s world — was nifty. Nifty piles of magazines in a fan formation of a peacock’s tail. Nifty little plastic plants, never wilting, lining the dust-less bookshelves with thick or thin books, always dense, whose reading made Sarah feel sleepy. Or apologetic. Even the clean-lined IKEA furniture — with unforgiving, hard surfaces and un-homey fabric patterns never to be found in her mother’s hysterical universe of tchotchkes — was nifty.
Sarah, unlike her Sid, could never be nifty. She tried, coming back for another round of awkward mirror reflections in dressing rooms of Banana Republic. But somehow, it just wouldn’t fit. Any of it. The store’s white lighting buzzed above and revealed Sarah’s old pockmarks from her 5th grade measles that her mother had decided to treat with holy water and sage. Embarrassed, Sarah would place the nifty cloths over a pile of colorful and bejeweled women’s underwear while avoiding the bored and slightly inquisitive stares of the salesgirls (“Sorry…”); and she’d swear to never come back.
But she would. After seeing another nifty woman laughing into the pinstriped bicep of a handsome man, on West End Avenue, she would attempt to shop for that life again, as if she hadn’t learned the lesson. The same way she hadn’t learned the lesson with Doug — a tenured professor of poetry on an epic journey of trying to leave his wife. She continued to come back to him. Maybe this time. They would carry on, until neither could recall whose turn it was to leave; who was doing the staying, the grasping, the scorning; and who would be in charge of forgiving.
“What do you want, ideally, from your life with Doug?” the shrink, looking particularly nifty, paced her words as Sarah thumbed the thinning threads of her sweater sleeves. She often wore her clothes to tatters, until the freckles of rolled lint began crowding her armpits and crotch; and she would be, again, embarrassed.
She didn’t expect the question. Between the two of them, Doug was the one with the plan. She — was the woman with none. She had met him at the library where she’d interned one summer, having purchased herself a Liberal Arts education that should’ve guaranteed her a teaching career, had Sarah really wanted one. Except that she didn’t. Hadn’t. She hadn’t thought it through, while in college; and she landed in the library; landed with an intention to leave, eventually — like those grayish-white swans that landed in her Ukrainian birth village one autumn; but miscalculated, stayed too long and froze during the first drop of the temperatures.
She had been following her fragmented thoughts about her Sid’s sexuality, when the question got hung in the air, each word — an ornament of paper-thin glass:
“What do you__want?__Ideally.__From your life__with Doug?”
“I wonder if she dates women?” Sarah had been thinking, while thumbing her sweater, about the Sid, based on the mere fact that the woman wore primarily flat shoes. Sarah stopped, having been caught red-handed. Red-thumbed.
She, of course, would never say this out loud. She — “of course!” — was much worldlier than that! But Sarah was also an immigrant’s daughter, not born in this country. (Which, to most, had made her worldly enough, but never exotic. “Exotic” belonged to girls from the countries that Americans favored for tourism: the tan and taut creatures from escapist lifestyles, and from the irresponsible summer flings of middle-aged men, bored in their marriages.) The dull shards of her mother’s old-fashioned prejudice still appeared in situations of ultra-Westernized pathos. Like this one: Sarah, on a very hard couch (surely earning herself cancer, later in life!); complaining, coming down hard, then taking cover from her shame in a numb silence of a spoiled brat; then, seeking refuge in a blunt stereotype with which her mother broke down the world.
No matter how hard she tried — to wring her hands, like that actress with the sloppy face — her shrink appeared unimpressed. Some of Sarah’s college classmates had spoken of how easily they gained alliances with their Sids. She, however, seemed incompetent at manipulation. Sarah was smart but not that smart. (Pretty, but not “exotic”.) And she wondered if her shrink was now judging her for the extramarital affair with Doug. (It was “extramarital” for Doug, not for Sarah. Sarah was just an outside participant, far from being an outside force. A third wheel, along for the ride, however crippled. “The woman with none.”)
Could it be the case that her shrink was now appalled and no longer impartial? Anything you say__or do__can__and will be__held against you?
Sarah never got the warning — from Miranda, the Sid.
Most of her teenage years, she had spend sorting out the world. The one of her mother’s — which she was obliged to automatically respect — confused her with its invasive familiarity; and she found herself pretending to not understand the cashiers at the Ukrainian deli, who attempted to speak to her in Russian. Somehow, they all knew her, even though their faces appeared no more familiar than the color-enhanced photographs of the folk dancers in the Times Travel Section, on Kiev. But they knew her: her name, her marital status (or the lack of one) and occupation. Or, they knew her mother. But did that at all justify their asking for her phone number so that they could fix her up “with a nice Russian boy” (which most of the time meant some young alcoholic heir of a local mechanic, who wore rhinestoned jeans and spent his inheritance on bottle services all over town)?
The new world — again, chosen by her mother who left the old country with five-year-old Sarah, in the name of a better life — that world seemed to be fast-talking and brash, filled with people who suffered from fashionable dis-eases, like “depression” and “ADD”; inflamed “sciaticas” and bored souls. The new world seemed allergic to sentiment. Even sex wasn’t safe here; and after her first “mature” (as her mother called it) experience, Sarah began to notice that sex came with shame. The smarter girls (often “exotic”) used it to negotiate free deals. Free meals. The dependent ones confused it for love, always making, forcing something out of it. And Sarah pitied the men who had been trained to get it, but not know what to do with it, afterward. So, it would sit — a pulsating blur in one’s living-room, underneath the soft light, waiting for the lovers to go through with it.
“You, Amerikan vemen,” her mother would say, in her reckless English, whenever she lectured the American womanhood in her daughter. “You dan’t know vat you vant.”
On her ride home on the A-train, Sarah had made a hobby out of watching the two cultures collide on the faces of Russian teenagers heading to Coney Island, late in the evening. She could always pick them out of a crowd: Their Western fashion looked slightly misfitted (far from nifty, and somehow wrong: “Sorry…”). And the words — “Whack!”, “Sick!”, “Fo’ sho’!” — came out unaccented phonetically, but their cadence was off. Something was off, always, in the immigrant world; but because she couldn’t name it, perfectly, precisely, to her American contemporaries, Sarah often found herself misunderstood. And silent.
“What’s your beef with yo’ mama, anyway, man?” J.C. always called her “man”. He was an artist living in Brooklyn Heights, and yes, they had tried sleeping together once. J.C. stopped it from happening though, when Sarah’s toes got tangled up in his socks while she tried to pull them off with her feet. (There were many ways to make sex feel pathetic. But a naked lover in white tube-socks — was the surest.)
“I wanna respect you, man…” he said looking down at Sarah from a propped-up pillow while she paved a trail of dry kisses in between his breasts and wondered about a sexier way to get rid of a curly hair, stuck in the back of her tongue. There was no such a way. So, she hooked her index finger, jammed it inside her mouth and began fishing for it.
By then, J.C. was already spewing out his theories on sexual politics. Sarah nearly gagged. He was first generation American born, from South America (so, did that even count?). She had assumed, at the time, that J.C. knew something she didn’t; so, she stopped. In those moments, it would’ve been less awkward — or less sad — to be one of those outspoken, brave American girls, with wild hair, layers of hippie jewelry and bright red lipstick, who had ready ideas on sexual liberation of women and mysterious comebacks via the ironic lyrics of Dylan or Ginsberg. Sarah was smart, but not that smart. Not nifty. Not “exotic”.
That night, she took the subway home, fishing for the curly hair in the back of her throat, in an empty train car. What was the big deal, she wondered. And why was it that men could so easily justify speaking on behalf of her conscience, her desires?
Doug had done it to her, for years: choosing for her from the menus of fancy restaurants. Over the years, their eateries would change, going from the dimly lit expensive places to the crowded diners with hairy waiters who emerged from the kitchen with stained pots of coffee. Doug had been on an epic journey to leave his wife. But maybe, Sarah just wasn’t enough of a reason.
Sarah leaned her forehead against the cold glass of the sliding doors and cried, quietly, finger hooking at the back of her throat.