“I’ve decided__to let Doug__go,” Sarah told her Sid, on a typical Tuesday morning. Her mother would have scoffed at the idea of anything typical, let alone the chronic event of Sarah’s whining on the hard couch, never to be found in her own hysterical universe. Nonetheless, Sarah had said it; and surprised herself when, out loud, she had to insert a glottal stop between “Doug” and “go”. She had thought it before, those two specific words in a row; but never let her mouth take them over. Because when she practiced speaking to Doug (while in reality speaking to herself, alone in her narrow kitchen), she had never let “go” — go after “Doug”. She didn’t know how to let “Doug go”. So, she would continue to come back.
Did the Sid notice it: Sarah’s surprise at the way phonemes worked, once her mouth took them over? For a second, she imagined her face on an infant, cooing and choking on her first words. What wonderment! It wasn’t necessarily Sarah herself — as an infant — but perhaps her firstborn. That was the exact problem with these only children, in the world, like Sarah: They made for more desperate mothers, for they hadn’t yet seen themselves reflected in another human being. But back in the day, when she had asked her mother for a sibling, “I have not time — for such a sing!” — her mother answered, every bit the tired woman this new chosen world had begun to make of her. Eventually, Sarah would give up asking; and by the time, she herself could biologically mother a child, she had forgotten all desire to mother a child — spiritually.
Miranda, the Sid, was studying her with glossy eyes. She must’ve just stifled a yawn, Sarah thought. Then, she reiterated her decision, whose courage appeared to have expired back in her kitchen. She was looking for the long overdue alliance:
“Yes.__I’m going to let Doug (stop) go.”
“Going to”. Not “gonna”. Sarah judged all American contractions quite bluntly, holding them away from her face with the two fingers of her dominant hand: Violations to the language! decapitation of words, ew! Her own native tongue sounded too proper in her mouth, for she hadn’t practiced it much, since leaving the old world. Her mother’s Ukrainian was always humorous, bawdy and full of life. Sarah, on the other hand, sounded like an academic; or like the librarian that she had become, her intention to leave, eventually — forgotten. She had stayed too long and froze.
“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. said to her on the phone. He had a “gonna” on his voicemail greeting: “I’m gonna call you back.” It had been bugging Sarah for all the years that she had loved him, learning for the first time that some men do stay long enough to reveal their faults — and to teach you to adore them, still.
Still, the “gonna” would bug her until she stopped listening far enough into the outgoing message. (And if anyone had an “outgoing” message — it would have to be J.C.! “Peace!” his voice always announced at the end of it — a naive ultimatum to the world by someone who hadn’t experienced much unkindness. But before Sarah could get to the “peace”, she would’ve already hung up before the “gonna”. NOT “going to”.)
Eventually, she mentioned it.
“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. responded, from the back of his throat — the same geography from which her mother spoke, as well, in both of her tongues. Her mother’s words had a chronic tendency to fall back, making her register chesty. Or, hearty. Everything about her mother — was hearty.
Sarah propelled her words forward, as her American contemporaries did:
“I’m not! I have a Liberal Arts education and I work at the New York Public Library.” Her self-patronizing didn’t work. So, she thought about it, sweating the phone against her ear. “Okay. I’m going to try to be better about it, you’re right.” Still: “Going to” — not “gonna”.
But when she told the news to her Sid, while pacing her words, “What made you decide__to do that?” — the Sid responded.
Like attracts like, Sarah let the flash of a thought slip by. Like attracts like, and she had been spending every Tuesday morning observing — and sometimes admiring — this nifty woman who hung up her words, niftily. Sarah could never be nifty. She was frozen, in between the two worlds of her mother’s; sorting something out because something was always off. She was constantly relaying between wanting to belong and not knowing why the fuck should she?! And she would narrow it down to the pace: Things moved differently here; differently from what little she could remember of the old world. It wasn’t so much the speed of things, but the direction — a lack of it — making each life’s trajectory chaotic. It took longer to sort out a life; and even when one finally did, the life could easily shake off one’s grasp of its saddle, run off its course and resume flailing between others’ ambitions and desires for you, then your own delusions and ways of coping with losses and defeats.
To the Sid’s question, Sarah finally responded: “I feel badly__for doing that__for all these years__to Doug’s wife.” Except that, by then, she would be in her narrow kitchen, alone again, talking to herself. She was never quick enough for an eloquent comeback, face to face with another human being.
(Her mother never seemed to have that problem. Mother would always speak her mind, causing a brief gestation of shock in her conversations. But then, the American participants would laugh off their discomfort, patching their sore egos with “You’re so cute!”, at her mother’s expense.
“God bless you!” Sarah’s mother would respond then, mocking the American habit for only jolly endings.)
Once, Sarah had tried imagining this woman — this other woman — in Doug’s life, who had been so epically hard for him to leave. Except that Sarah had gotten it all confused, again: She — was the other woman. The third wheel. She had read theories about women with low self-esteem before — women like her; women who prayed on other women’s husbands and who envied the wives of those sad men, with the eyes of a spaniel. (What was the difference between jealousy and envy, again: The doer of one — but the assumer of another?) So, Sarah had tried imagining the woman she should envy: The one who got Doug full-time — something that she should be pitied for, actually.
That night, Doug had taken her out to a pan-Asian restaurant on the Upper West Side. Or, actually, they had just walked-in — into the house of dim lanterns and dim sum; because otherwise Doug, according to his disgruntled self-prognosis, was “gonna crash”. (“Gonna”, not “going to”. So much for poetry, professor!)
The shrimp stew he had ordered for Sarah arrived to her golden-and-red placemat. The shiny shrimp tails, as pink as newborn hamsters, stuck out of the white rice, covered with milky-white slime. She didn’t even like rice. Her people came from the land of potatoes. Potatoes and sorrow. He wanted none of it.
“I can’t sleep over tonight,” Doug broke the news into his bowl of steaming miso soup. His hunger has been staved off with cubes of tofu. “It’s Beth’s birthday.”
Beth. She bet Beth (insert a glottal stop in between) was patient and calm; living steadily ever after, while quietly meeting the expectations that her parents naturally harbored for their next generation. She must’ve colored her hair every two weeks, in settle shades of red; wore flat shoes, hummed while folding Doug’s clean laundry; and she cut her nails short, as to not cause any breakage on surrounding surfaces. And she bet (stop) Beth had a sibling. Nifty.
“Nifty,” Sarah echoed. Neither the slimy shrimp nor the sticky rice could balance on her wooden chopsticks. So, she grabbed it by the tail: “Shouldn’t you be__taking her out__then?” She was beginning to pace her words again. It started to feel like rage.
Doug squinted his eyes. It wasn’t his first time, but not something that she had gotten used to yet, in their affair: The beginnings of their mutual resentment.
“No need to get snappy,” he said, suddenly looking like he was about to cry. It was an expected trajectory, for him: going from a man-child who felt uncared for (what, fending for his own food, or he was “gonna crash”, while under her care?!) — to the scorned lover, exhausted by his failed expectations. Then, why wouldn’t he just stay with Beth, who sounded smart enough and mellow; at peace and never shocked at this world’s disorder; unfazed by chaos, as children of full, healthy families tended to be? (Nifty.)
And how ever did she, herself, end up here, wanting to take the place of the woman who deserved her pity, actually — a woman Sarah would much rather like, were she to meet her, on her own? On their own, could they fall into a gentle admiration — love? — of each other?
“So, how old is good ole Beth__going__to be?” Sarah asked. But her words came out shrill, and the sloppy face of the washed-up actress began inching its way down her forehead.
There had been other break-ups, in their history. Most of them, she had instigated herself, practicing them ahead of time, alone in her kitchen. But in reality, the break-ups came out clumsily, and not at all ironic.
In her heart — or rather somewhere around her diaphragm, underneath her lungs, perpetually under her breath — Sarah felt she would be punished for this. She was already getting judged by her Sid — the woman she was paying to side with her, and then to guide her from that place of purchased empathy.
This time — it would be different.
It would be Sarah asking Doug out. She had told him to meet her at a Starbucks, located at least two zip codes away from his and Beth’s neighborhood. Doug would arrive first, with some latest book of poetry moderately well reviewed by critics under his armpit; and she would find him — drowning into the soft leather chair in the corner and muttering — while making ferocious notes on its pages and sipping from a Venti. Except that this time, she wouldn’t listen to his embittered theories, always delivered in a slightly exhibitionist manner, as if pleading to be overheard: on this poet being undeserving, or on that one — being, god forbid, better connected. (“When is it gonna be about talent, in this industry?!” “Going to” — NOT “gonna” — professor!)
This time, she would pass up her dose of caffeine, walk out into the wind and pace ahead, while the fat snowflakes sloppily kissed her forehead. The five o’clock sun overlooked the island with its rouge glares. This place had a flair for nonchalant beauty. It never posed, but grew and changed — a once magnificent idea merely running out its course: New York City. This City left all acts of sad foolishness and silly coverups of aching egos to the ones that could not keep up. (“You’re so cute!” — “God bless you!”)
And she would try to keep the break-up neat; because catching the A-train after ten at night meant freezing on the platform while watching giant rats have their supper in the oil spills of the rails. Later on, on the phone, that would be her mother’s favorite part; and she would ask Sarah for more details: the color of the rats’ fur in Ukrainian and the reek of the tunnel, made dormant by the cold temperatures, which she demanded for Sarah to translate into Celsius, in order for her to understand — to get the very gist of it, the very heart. Everything about her mother — had a heart. Perhaps, that was the secret to her overcoming chaos.
But when it came down to the heart of the matter — Sarah’s dull ache of disappointment, the failure of words, and the resigned mindset of someone frozen in loss — her mother became quiet. And the phone continued sweating against Sarah’s tired ear, surely causing her something, later on, in life.