Winner of the Edward Eager Memorial Prize for fiction in 2006
Sarah liked sappy, depressing songs. It wasn’t that she herself was depressed— it was that she simply liked to be reminded of what being depressed was all about. It made her feel smaller somehow. Less important. Less alive.
In fact, sometimes Sarah wondered if she even existed at all. Sometimes she stared at the backs of her hands, their inky pinkness, and was astounded to remember that they were her own, that beneath them blood flowed and coursed. Sometimes she took a pen and dug it into the ridges on the back of those palms, drawing forth life-drops, salty red water color. She liked to walk outside in wintertime in a t-shirt and shorts to remember that she could feel. She liked to cross streets against the light, to remember that she could die.
In her first grade class, Sarah was asked by her teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up. The girls to the right of Sarah had said they wanted to be actresses, teachers, fashion designers. The boys to the left said police men, the president, rock stars. When it was Sarah’s turn, she looked directly into her teacher’s brown eyes, at her plain, predictable face. Her own eyes were clear blue, and she was still as she spoke:
‘Sometimes I feel like a ghost.’
When the teacher ignored Sarah’s response and moved on to discuss the merits of “Baseball Player” with the sticky-faced boy, Sarah merely watched with indifference. She was used to being incorporeal.
On the playground, Sarah always went off by herself, sat in the far corner of the field talking to the air. She was a pretty child—glass blue eyes and strawberry-blonde wisps of hair—and the other girls wanted her company, drawn to beauty as young eyes always are. But she was not for the monkey bars, or for ballgames or makeup. She simply went out to the field, or to a corner of the hallway if it was raining, and spoke little stories to herself, acted out dialogues. A ghost easily melted into other characters; it was easy to reincarnate without a being to escape.
As Sarah got older, her beauty became awkward. Her arms and legs stretched out like silly putty, bone-skinny and long. She had the slightly odd, unhealthy look of someone whose body was at war with itself, some bits growing enthusiastically while others were content to laze around, smaller and younger. On the morning of her graduation from Middle School, Sarah took out her mother’s sewing scissors and snipped into her peachy locks, leaving behind an asymmetrical pixie coif. Her mother was horrified. Was there an explanation, she demanded, of why on this of all days, with all the relatives coming, that Sarah had to destroy her only pretty trait? Sarah looked at her mother blankly, calmly. ‘I wanted to see what would happen.’
Throughout high school, Sarah did minimal work, earning straight Bs, no better, no worse. In class, if she was asked a question, she said she didn’t know the answer, and then turned in worksheets immaculately and correctly filled out. She didn’t talk to her classmates. Unable to complain, her teachers eyed her with distrust. If they didn’t know better, they’d say she was purposefully, willfully pursuing mediocrity, honing it with the same exquisite effort of student council and honor students. Why would anyone do such a thing?
After high school, Sarah went to a community college fifteen minutes from home. She lived in her parents’ home, but they insisted she at least take the guest room on the first floor rather than staying in the tiny second-floor closet where she’d lived as a child. She consented and moved her clothing into the first floor closet, but she left the room décor as her mother had arranged it. Every morning she made her bed, took out her small pile of rubbish. If you had walked into her room after she left, you would swear it had been vacant for years. You would swear nothing had even been touched.
In college, Sarah took art history classes. She focused on the Impressionists, especially on Monet, fascinated by how what looked so abysmal close up could coalesce into form from the right distance and perspective. How something so chaotic, unreal, could become beautiful.
It was in one of these classes that Sarah met Simon. Simon was the teaching assistant to the professor, the unfortunate lackey with the task of grading papers and writing tests. Simon was tall and skinny, with an endearingly awkward sort of face. His eyes were a little off center if you looked at him straight on, which gave him a sort of lopsided appearance accentuated by his height. His hair was black, but flecked with dandruff he couldn’t seem to escape, no matter the promise of dandruff shampoos. But his nose was rather nice, well sized and placed, and his dark eyebrows were velvety handsome. It was the eyebrows that Sarah noticed first.
Sarah walked up to Simon after the third class lecture. He was pushing his glasses up higher on his nose when he turned to her. She was the first girl he had ever seen who was taller than he was, even in heels. Her eyes were so clear he could see his face reflected in them, like glass, looking so slightly, but distinctly, up at her.
“I’m Sarah,” Sarah said. Simon looked at her, expecting a question to follow, something about the upcoming assignment, a clarification about the reading. But she just stood there, so still, so unblinking. He fumbled with the notebook in his hand, moving it to his left so he could offer his right for a shake. She didn’t even glance down at his hand.
“I’ll see you at the Tavern at 8,” She said. It wasn’t a question, or an invitation. Then she turned on her heels (blue suede boots up to her knees—where does one find shoes like that?) and walked out of the room. Simon looked around him for help, for guidance, but no one seemed to have noticed what had just happened. He winced as his notebook fell to the floor in a clatter, and bumbled to pick it up. As he was getting back to his feet, he thought he saw a glimpse of blue suede in the doorframe, standing, but by the time he blinked his eyes clear to get a better look, it was gone.
Simon shined his shoes for his meeting with Sarah. He’d never done it before, but she seemed like the kind of person for whom you would do such a thing. He didn’t have any shoe black, or the proper tools, so he went to the little shoe repair shop down the street. A small, sixtyish man stood hunched over a rapidly spinning wheel, holding a scarlet ladies stiletto pump over the surface, apparently sanding down the bottom of the sole. The old man’s grey-smudged fingers seemed small and blunt next to the delicate red slipper. Simon stood in the doorway, his dark green coat melting into the background. The old man looked up and didn’t see Simon at first. Simon didn’t make any noise either, didn’t differentiate himself from the darkness. He just stood and watched, slightly ashamed, as if he were looking into someone’s private memories.
After a few moments, Simon made himself walk in. Softly clearing his throat, he took a step forward, but the man could hear nothing over the whirring of the machine. Timidly, Simon took another step forward, looking down to hide his eyes, which he knew would brim with the moments he’d stolen. He felt as if he had been caught taking cookie dough from the bowl when his mother’s back was turned— that is, the way he imagined he would feel if he had the kind of mother who baked cookies, who mixed them from scratch in a bowl. Simon didn’t.
Simon shook himself out of his frozen stance, took a hesitant step forward and put out his hand to the shoemaker. The shoemaker looked at Simon’s outstretched palm and then at Simon’s eyes. Simon took a deep breath and pointed at the shoe-polishing kit on the counter. He tried to clear his throat but still his voice came out shaking and hoarse: “I would like to purchase this,” he whispered. He thought he saw the old shoemaker glare at him, perhaps angry to be interrupted for so trivial a purchase from so lopsided a man. Simon internally berated himself. How was he going to talk to Sarah—tall, disarming Sarah, Sarah of the blue suede boots—if he couldn’t win a kind look from an old man holding a red stiletto heel?
Simon fumbled with his wallet, pulling out a crisp fifty dollar bill to pay, managing to drop and scatter every piece of paper and credit card he had in the process. He could only imagine the disdain (or worse, pity) now crossing the shoemaker’s face as he bent hastily to collect his things. Clutching his assorted personal items in his hands, Simon grabbed his shoe-shining set and moved towards the door. He didn’t answer the old man when he called after him, telling him he was forgetting his change. Simon didn’t want to turn around, didn’t want to go back, forgot the money. He could only keep moving toward his car, cards and papers and shoe shine kit in his hands, anxious to drive to anywhere but where he was.
By the time Simon was ready to go meet Sarah, his apartment was decorated with black splotches—on the table where he’d held his shoes, on the floor around it, and somehow (baffling even to Simon) on the walls and ceiling. The shoes were a little uneven and in reality less shiny than they had been in the first place, clotted with black matte blobs here and there. The bottom of Simon’s khakis had gotten black streaks on them when he walked. He considered changing, but he had nothing to change into, and he didn’t want to be late.
Simon got into his car, a small hybrid which was more trouble than it was worth. His mother, an environmentalist, had coerced him into buying it so that she could tell her friends about her “eco-friendly son.” Not wanting to start a debate— for those always ended up with the conclusion that he was lopsided and useless— Simon had done as she’d asked, stoically weathering the breakdowns and poor performance with a grudging acceptance. He got it started by the third time, which wasn’t too bad for a cold winter evening. He hoped that this was a sign that things were looking up.
When Simon pulled into the parking lot of The Tavern a few minutes late, he was surprised and relieved to see no other cars. He silently thanked fate that Sarah must be running late too. He had the feeling that she was not one to be kept waiting in a bar.
Relaxing, Simon opened the door, trying not to notice the flecks of black falling off of his shoes and onto the snow around the entrance. He was shocked when he was met, eye-to-eye, by the steady blue gaze of Sarah, seated at a back booth, turned directly to the door, as if having known that he would arrive in that moment, in that nexus of setting and time. He thought to raise his arm in gesture to her, but stopped, realizing that it was unnecessary. They both knew there was no other reason for him to be there.
Simon watched as the room seemed to pull itself toward him, Sarah and the booth at the back steadily coming nearer. It was a moment before he realized that he was not in some strange vortex, but was actually walking toward her himself, bringing himself through active steps towards the back of the tavern. Odd that he didn’t notice his own movements. Odd that it felt like flying.
He reached the booth and stood a moment, his eyes above hers as she sat with legs crossed. It didn’t strike him as unnatural that someone would sit this way in a bar, on a bar bench. It simply was. She simply was. Her shoes tonight were green—ballet slippers, with ribbons that criss-crossed up her calves. He wondered how she had managed to keep them so clean in the snow. He wondered if her legs got cold.
“You shined your shoes,” she said, so lightly and gently that he wondered if she had said it at all, or if he had heard it as an echo of something inside his own mind. He half-nodded, to be safe, and sat down. She was drinking something pink (what was it with women and pink drinks, he wondered), and he ordered a gin and tonic, summoning the waiter with a hand in the air. The drink arrived, clear and bubbly. He looked up to see that Sarah’s eyes had not traveled from his face. He hoped she hadn’t noticed how lopsided his own eyes were, but knew that she had.
Sarah watched Simon drink his gin and tonic. She watched him curl his fingers around the bowler glass, watched the clear sides perspire and moisten his hand. She liked the way he drank—slowly and deliberately, contemplating each sip and executing it carefully. He felt her eyes on him, tried to ignore their unblinking stare. He tried to watch her back, but he must have done something wrong, because before he knew it, she had a new drink in front of her and the empty glass was taken away. He didn’t remember seeing her ever take a sip. He didn’t remember the waiter coming by.
Simon wondered if this was why Sarah had brought him here—to watch him drink, to analyze his face with her lucid, still eyes, to play magic tricks with disappearing liquor and reappearing martini glasses. He wondered why she didn’t speak, but he didn’t know if he should speak to her. He shifted on his seat. She watched.
And then suddenly, a waiter brought two meals—pasta and broccoli for her, no sauce, and tripe and onions for him. Simon knew he hadn’t ordered a meal, and he knew that neither of the meals which arrived was on the Tavern’s bar-inspired menu, which ranged from beer-soaked buffalo wings to deep fried chicken fingers. He also knew that he had never told anyone that his favorite meal was tripe. It was something he had never admitted, something in fact he had deliberately hidden to save face. What little boy loves tripe, after all?
Simon watched as Sarah finally lowered her eyes—slowly, carefully—to her meal. He hadn’t noticed how high her cheekbones were before, or the slight pixie tip in the center of her hairline. She lifted her fork (the first utensil Simon had ever seen in this place, dedicated to licking fingers and draining pints) and curled the pasta delicately around the tines, her wrist small and smooth as it twisted the silver. He looked to his tripe, took a bite. It was perfect. The best he’d ever had. He cut another piece. And another.
When they’d finished, the plates seemed to disappear, almost fluidly, instantly. Simon saw that his gin and tonic had been refilled, that Sarah now sipped at Perrier. She was still sitting cross-legged. He wondered if he should sit that way too, but was afraid what the loose polish on his shoes would do to the bench.
“So, do you… like the class?” He ventured, his voice (even in whispers) sounding large and raucous after an hour of silence. Sarah met his gaze and held it, saying nothing. She blinked once, lightly. Then she stood, took her long silver coat from the peg beside the booth, and without a word or a look back, walked out of the restaurant. Simon looked at his drink, still full. Had he done something wrong, had he broken some code? The glass slipped from his grasp and spilled bubbly liquid down his shirt and onto his pants. He grimaced, but was thankful Sarah hadn’t seen. He heard for the first time that there was music playing in the bar, saw that there were lots of college-aged kids stumbling around the dance floor. They were line dancing, pealing laughter. He realized he could barely hear himself think.
Suddenly, Simon knew that The Tavern was not where he wanted to be, not at that moment, not alone. He got up from the table, put on his coat. As he walked past the waiter on his way out, he thanked him for the meal. The waiter smiled at him generically. It wasn’t until Simon was almost home that he realized he hadn’t paid, that there hadn’t been a bill.
In the coming days, Simon looked anxiously for Sarah in class. But he never saw her—not quite. A glimpse of a green ribbon here, a flash of strawberry sheen there. He thought he saw someone in a red twenties knit cap walking down the street one afternoon after lecture. The hat was something he knew she would wear even if he had never seen her in it. When he looked again, of course, the figure was gone, turned into some bookshop or down some other road. He couldn’t help but wonder, am I destined to be haunted by floating red hats for the rest of my days?
Simon tried to inquire of her friends, but he couldn’t seem to find anyone who really knew her. She was The Quiet Girl, The Art Girl, The Strange Girl, The Tall Girl. She was The Girl Who Walked, The Girl with Colored Shoes, The Girl of the Green Ballet Slippers, of the Blue Suede Boots. But to no one was she Sarah. To no one was she real.
Then one class, when Simon had almost decided to try to forget her (knowing full well he would fail), there she was, in black and white toe-peep pumps, her hair in soft curls. She smiled at him, sat at his side, took notes in a messy script which looked almost foreign. She said nothing as the slides flicked light and dark. At the end of class as she stood to leave, she turned to him, blue eyes calm.
“Goodbye Simon,” she said. He was caught off guard by her words, wanted to ask when he could see her again. He wanted to ask what she ate for lunch, how she’d known he loved tripe. He wanted to know if she liked the color orange, if she’d ever been to the sea, why she wore peep-shoes in winter, if she’d ever been ice-skating. But by the time he knew what he wanted to know, she was already gone. And by the time he thought to go after her, no trace of her could be found.
The next day, Simon found a note in his teaching mailbox, the place which was usually home only to the detritus of student papers. It was a note with one word, in lovely, but almost unreadable scrawl: Lofton. The only Lofton he knew was Lofton Park, near the freeway. It was the only park around, and hardly what you would consider a park at all, punctuated by the sounds of bleeping horns and whizzing tires. The grass was eaten away by weeds. The shrubs had taken over part of the parking lot.
Lofton. Why would Sarah want to meet him in Lofton, and was that even what the note was supposed to mean? And when was he supposed to go? And what were they going to do? Should he bring a jacket, should he (cringe) shine his shoes? Was he to bring dinner or would they go out, and were they meeting at dinnertime at all? He was baffled, yet somehow electrically alive. He was, somehow, not surprised by this mysterious note. He realized that he had been waiting for it.
When Simon went to the park that afternoon and saw Sarah hanging by a purple rope from an oak tree, he felt his stomach explode. When he saw her open her eyes and stare at him, clear bright orbs inside the noose, he felt the world collapse. He watched as she took a small pair of scissors—sewing scissors—and methodically cut through the purple twine above her head. He watched as she landed, cat-like, fingertips and toes, on the ground, the twine curling behind her like a tail. He stayed still and watched as she grew vertical, and walked over to him, blue suede point-sharp heels sinking into the mud between them. She looked at him directly, without shame, without questions. She looked at him softly, strongly. He watched her collarbones rise ever so slightly as she breathed, watched them vibrate as she began to speak.
“Simon, have you ever died?”
From then on, Simon and Sarah died as much as they could. They mixed bleach with their milk, they ground aspirin into alcohol. Simon hung himself with the elastic purple twine Sarah had used at Lofton park, a noose with enough give to let him hang between breath and suffocation. In the winter, the two ran hand in hand across the frozen parts of Lake Michigan, watching the ice crack and sink behind them. They dropped ecstasy. They snorted coke.
When Sarah and Simon met to die, they rarely spoke. They invented a new language, one of penstrokes and eyelashes. They climbed on steep, slippery surfaces, communicating through step and push. In class, seated together, they had whole conversations as they took notes, their eyes on the slides but minds humming in flight. The other students began to notice Simon’s transformation. He became quiet and still. He spent entire sections looking at one painting, saying nothing. He tested them on things he had never spoken, but had sworn he had taught.
Simon was a man consumed. In Sarah he found a new world, a new way of seeing and knowing. When she had asked him if he had ever died, he was astonished to realize that he was not shocked at the idea. He was astonished to feel that it was not strange, but logical, rational, when it came from her. He saw the sky turn yellow and pink with the setting sun. He saw the grass melt green into brown. He realized that there was a whole new world he was missing, a world where he could float in and out like a spirit.
After Sarah had asked him if he had ever died, they two had gone immediately to the freeway near the park, had thrown Simon’s black baseball cap into the lanes, watching as it pulled itself to a car fender with the rushing kinesis of lightning. When the hat touched the fender, Sarah told him, there was a moment when the hat and fender were one unit, one entity blended, reformed, relined, and reshaped, before the hat was pulled down to the concrete, before it was bitten and tasted by tongues of rotating rubber. This is the moment where the world was alive. In this moment, Sarah revealed, you could become a part of something else, fused into it. In this moment, you could latch on to something real. In this moment, even spirits could exist.
Soon Sarah and Simon discovered a way to die together, at the same time, rather than simply side by side. When Sarah and Simon made love, they disappeared into each other, faded into mist. When they lined their hands together, fingertips touching, they could see right through the palms joined before them. But when they came with each other, when their breath was choked by the exquisite pain of filling and being filled, they materialized together, suffocatingly real, choking touch and bleeding texture. In that moment, when pain exploded, when air was given shape and form, the world was lit by brilliant colors that shone into their clear and open eyes. It was in this way that Simon and Sarah found a way to die together; in this way that they found a way to live.
Every evening, Simon and Sarah went to The Tavern to eat pasta and tripe in quiet silence, plates and forks and knives disappearing and appearing, music fading in and out. Did they ever pay? Were there others present? What was he drinking? What was she wearing? Simon no longer noticed Sarah’s emerald ballet slippers, her blue suede boots. He took to wearing bowler hats, purple and red. He didn’t notice that they made him stand out. He didn’t notice that they were bright, or even any color at all. Everything around him, around them both, was dull, ephemeral, lackluster. Soon he could not remember what tripe tasted like, though he ate it every evening. Soon he could not remember what his own face looked like, though he used a mirror to shave in the morning, while Sarah brushed her (what color was it?) hair. He could only see when they were together, when they both jumped into the border of here and there.
When Sarah disappeared one night, unexpectedly between the hours of sleeping and waking, Simon assumed he too would disappear. Without her to die with, he could not possibly remain alive—not in the way he now experienced, not in the way she had shown him. He went back to The Tavern, and he still ate tripe without tasting it. But instead of being a grey contrast to something brilliant, The Tavern and the world were always inky thick and full, an ever-reaching fog. Eternally monochrome. Simon tried to die on his own, but the world remained murky, slobby. He walked on thin ice, even did it in short-sleeves, with no hat, but still, he could not feel. He went to museums to look at impressionist works, to try to rediscover what had seemed so vivid, harsh, exquisite with Sarah. He stood for hours in front of one particular Monet, eyes fixed on its smudges and blots while he walked slowly backward, waiting for the instant when those marks joined and became the woman and her son in the poppy field. He visited Sarah there, inside the painting, in the only way he knew how.
Months passed, and Simon felt himself fading more and more away. One evening as Summer was turning to Fall, he went to the Tavern and was served a plate of mashed parsnips. He summoned the waiter and said he wanted his usual tripe. The waiter looked blankly at him, told him that he had served Simon the “usual” every day for over nine months now, and this was it. Simon looked at his bowl, at the wooden spoon, at the grey mush. “This is what I’ve been eating?” he asked. The waiter nodded, and walked away, shaking his head. Simon sat still for a moment, then got up and left the restaurant.
Then one evening, when Simon was walking home from the university (he always walked), he saw a girl standing, wrapped in coats and scarves, holding the leash to a small dog which was sniffing around near a tree. He could only see her eyes through her layers—but they were small and clear, and vivid green. The girl’s whole body was small; he could tell even through her bundles because her ankles showed through a small gap between her pants and her shoes. She was wearing orange moccasins, with aquamarine beads. She was shorter than he was, by a good foot. She had raven hair which spilled down her back. Her skin was the color of cream.
Simon walked up to the girl, stood in front of her. She flicked her glassy eyes at him, gave a nervous giggle with a glance at her dog, shuffled her feet. Her little dog (black and white and brown), yipped effusively. Simon stared and stared into her green, clear eyes. His expression was still, calm. He held out a mittened hand.
“My name is Simon,” he said, “have you ever died?”