Chapter 1 (July 1987)
The breeze off the waterfront raised goose bumps on Sarah’s arms. She rubbed them to keep warm, wishing she’d brought a sweater to cover her slip of a dress. Couple after sparkling couple disappeared inside the restaurant, some giving her an occasional backward glance but then leaving her alone on the sidewalk, teetering on her heels. Their laughter taunted her, as did the aroma of lobster and melted butter.
She squinted down the pier. Nothing resembling Jay or his car was anywhere within visual range. Glancing at her watch again only proved he was ten minutes later than the last time she’d checked, when he’d only been twenty minutes late. The pay phone across the street had already eaten two of her quarters, gifting her nothing in return but two fruitless stabs at his answering machine.
Her stomach growled, poking at her for trusting him to show up and for starving herself all day in anticipation of the fancy dinner he’d promised. I should have known, she thought, shaking her head. This was supposed to have been a celebration. He’d been clean for six weeks and wanted to thank her for sticking by him. Again. But getting a “something came up, meet me there” message had never been the start of anything good. It was often the start of another binge and another morning-after when she would be called in to do damage control, armed with orange juice, aspirin, and a fifth of something from the package store across the street. She gave him another ten minutes, made her flustered excuses to the maître d’, who had already given away their table, and took off toward South Station with just enough quarters in her purse for the trip home.
The T ride back to Sarah’s apartment near Boston College felt like the longest of her life. Into the hamper went the slinky new dress she had no business buying on her joke of a salary. She tossed on an oversized T-shirt and jeans with a rip in the knee. While she settled into her roommate’s sofa with a bowl of leftover spaghetti, she managed to convince herself that lobster was overrated.
Then, she called Emerson.
“Why do I keep cleaning up other people’s messes?”
His electric typewriter, the same Smith Corona Super Sterling he’d been using since college, hummed in the background. Sarah felt a twinge of guilt for disturbing his writing. He always made time for her; she knew that and tried not to take advantage, but sometimes—
“For the same reason I do,” he said. “It makes you feel useful.”
She missed Emerson: the way he spoke, how carefully he chose his words. Even when they were words she didn’t want to hear. “I don’t feel useful. I just feel used. He stood me up tonight. Again. It was totally humiliating.”
“So…stop seeing him.”
“I tried that,” she bit at her lower lip, “a few times…”
Emerson let out his breath. It was an old, wounded sound, clearly discernible over the purr of the typewriter. His voice took on a serious tone, deeper than usual. “Sarah—”
“I know,” she sighed. “You’re tired of this conversation. I’m tired of it, too. I’m sorry, Em. But…I think I need to have it one more time.”
The humming stopped. She hadn’t visited him for a couple of years—another thing to feel guilty about. How easy it would be to pack a bag, take the bus to Syracuse, and let him adore her until she got her confidence back. But she knew the cost of his adoration and how much easier it was to bear from a distance.
She pictured Emerson leaning his long, unmuscled body back against his chair. He’d push a lank curtain of dishwater-blond hair off his forehead and his little, round glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. The corners of his mouth would set into that heartbreaking perpetual downward turn—to match his eyes, his brow, his shoulders—as if his very genetics were trying to drag him into the earth, piece by piece.
His voice then came out lighter. “All right.”
“What were you working on?”
“You don’t want to talk about Jay anymore?”
“No. It’s too depressing. Tell me what you’re writing about.”
Pause. “You really want to know?”
Another pause. “Spray cheese.”
Sarah laughed for the first time that day. “Not something for the New Yorker?”
To supplement his paycheck, Emerson wrote “personal experience stories” for men’s magazines. His forte was using food products in ways Shop-Rite never intended. He’d started back in college. The money was easy, and it was all kind of a goof to begin with, but Sarah preferred not to think about why, at twenty-nine, he still wrote for men who read with one hand.
To further distract herself, she asked, “What happened with the short story you were writing about your brother?”
At first, he said nothing. She imagined him pulling off his glasses, rubbing at his eyes. “It’s a melodramatic pile of crap,” he finally said. “Every time I read it, I keep thinking how much better it would be in the hands of a real writer.”
“You are a real writer, Em.”
His laugh sounded bitter around the edges. “Don’t humor me. I’m a hack. I push a mop at an old age home and get paid by the word to write fake letters so men with no imaginations can get off.”
“But only until something else pans out,” she added quickly, a running joke she’d added quickly many times.
“Right,” he said, drawing out the word. “I’m just biding my time until the Nobel Committee finally notices my literary accomplishments. Or my skill with a mop-wringer. Whichever comes first.”
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