Brenda Webster Author of VIENNA TRIANGLE forthcoming Jan.09 from Wings Press "...a fascinating dramatization...An extraordinary set of people...poses crucial questions about women, war, psychoanalysis..."
- Rosellen Brown author of Before and After.
"Don't call her. That's the worst thing you could do for her. She'd just drag you into a morass of self pity. Believe me, I know, I've been her friend for years. You can't help her." This was Sara's best friend talking. I'd called her because I was worried. Sara hadn't answered her phone for days. "No. Don't call her," she says emphatically in a voice very like Sara's. "Leave the phone alone. She has to hit rock bottom. Then maybe just maybe she'll take herself to detox center and dry out. We can't do it for her. Believe me..." After I type this, Sara materializes beside my computer, shrunk she's been shrinking ever since last May but still a presence you have to take into account. She's standing hands on hips, open mouthed at my stupidity. Then she lets me have it.
"Rule one: never bring in a character you're not going to use. You should know that by now, Miranda. And a phone conversation in the first paragraph. I mean, my God! How much less dramatic can you get?" "All right," I tell her, "you don't need to yell, I'll try something else." "And remember you're not a reporter," Sara says as she fades out, "you're writing fiction." I pick up my pencil and concentrate.
The first time I drove up Sara's street and parked diagonally in front of that queasy green door of hers, I was struck by the fact that her address was a fraction: 37 1/2. I saw a fleeting image of half a person, a separated Siamese twin, with half a heart or liver. As I rang the buzzer, I was wondering which organs were absolutely necessary for survival. Her door opened and Sara stood there squinting out into the October sun. She was a big bodied woman with a worn expression, wearing a too tight skirt and a white blouse that showed her cleavage. I was surprised. I'd imagined her sharp and angular. This wasn't the brassy, metallic feel I'd expected in a chic woman writer who understood what publishers wanted in New York.
"You're early," she said apologetically, as we climbed the steep stairs to her apartment. "I was still straightening up." She led me down the hall past Indian wall hangings and promo pictures for her latest book in a black dress with a necklace of animal teeth, blond curls combed back, eyebrows lifted quizzically, eyes staring into the camera. Passing the bathroom, I got a glimpse of a litter pan with some sand scattered on the tiles but otherwise the place was neat as a pin. The bed was carefully covered with a down quilt in pale blue later even thinking of that bed so like a young girl's, full of hope in a pastel future, always made me want to cry. But now the tiny living room's combination of coziness and order gave me confidence. Though it was crammed to bursting with furniture, the only clutter was on the desk which formed a divide between living room and kitchenette.
"My study," she said, throwing an arm towards it with an ironic flourish. "Sorry but I'm going to have to smoke," she went on, lighting up a cigarette and pulling on it greedily. Then she sat down behind her desk. The minute she picked up my manuscript, weighing it with her hand, her expression changed. No longer a hostess but captain of a space ship. She motioned me to a place on the sofa. "You can open the terrace door if the smoke bothers you."
Watching her rifle through the pages I felt as though a dentist was probing my cavities with a practiced hand. "I don't mind," I lied; half hoping politeness would soften her criticism."Look," she said blowing smoke through her nose, "if you want us to work together you know what you have to do. Toughen this heroine up. I don't care if she's got a schizophrenic mother and a husband who's a transvestite, she's a wimp."
Her opinion wasn't news to me. I'd read her letter. But still it was hard. "She's a masochist," I said with as much dignity as I could manage. "That's what the book is about." I didn't tell her I'd experienced it firsthand years of being caught up in a miserable marriage, brain turned to zero. Whiteout but she seemed to know.
"I suppose you think because you've been there, it's going to be convincing on the page?" She leaned forward showing me the necessity of toughness by the way her body clenched."Listen; leave truth at the door, Miranda. You're not reporting on the Chinese massacres, goddamit, this is fiction you're writing. Characters who lie around whining just aren't interesting. Now let's get down to business. How old is she?" "Forty-two," I mumbled. "And kicking her husband out is the first active move she's made in 42 years? Believe me," she said in a hard voice, "no one is going to have any sympathy for a character like that."
With her cigarette dangling from her lip she looked like a female Bogart if you could imagine him with blond curls and cerulean eyes. "Look, you'd jump off my terrace if I told you everything that's wrong with this book all at once, so I'll do it in installments. Let's start with dialogue. Have you ever taken a play writing course?"
I shook my head. "Well, maybe you should," She picked up my third chapter and pointed a bitten fingernail at the lines of mother daughter conversation. "Your dialogue is flat." She read the passage out in a bored voice, curled head tilted to the side. "There's no punch to it." I clenched my teeth and reminded myself that even though I'd been writing for twenty years, this was a first novel and my agent had sent it back to me for rewriting. "Which do you want to be, mother or daughter?" she asked, setting a big white timer with glow numbers."Don't think, just answer. She put the timer on the edge of the desk next to me. It was ticking like a time bomb. "Daughter," I said, feeling my stomach churn. I didn't like the idea of a psychodrama. "Okay, I'm your Mother." She composed her face. "I'm sorry my dear," her voice was haughty and cold. "but I just can't visit you now. I don't know why you're making such difficulties. You know Ali Bubu's sick. Twenty is frightfully old for a cat. Any illness could be fatal. If I leave, I know cook won't mince his chicken fine enough." "But I have the tickets, Mother," I said hesitantly, no more able to think of strenuous objections now than I had been with my mother. If she hadn't died, I wouldn't even have been able to write this book.
"Change them," Sara spat out, "It can't be much trouble for you. You have all kinds of time. To pretty yourself up. To get things for the children. To play house." So far Sara had kept pretty close to my own words but now she was inventing freely. Even though this was only an exercise, my cheeks began to tingle."I can't change them, Mother." I stammered, "they're thirty day advance..." "Stop for Christ's sake." Sara put up a hand. "That's way too reasonable. Not even in the ball park." She got into her role again, looking so nasty I felt shivers spider leg up my spine.
"Besides Connie, your place is a mess and the kids get on my nerves. Come to think of it, I never really enjoy myself. I was just doing it because it seemed to mean so much to you." I felt a cramp of anger in my stomach. What a nerve she had saying that when she'd been the one to insist. Sara looked at me expectantly. "Are you just going to sit there and take that? Yell, swear, do something." "Connie's not the swearing type," I said. "She had German nannies who washed her mouth out with soap." Like my character, I'd always prided myself on self-control. Sara didn't seem to hear me. "She can swear if you want her to. Who's in charge here anyway, you or your pas? Go ahead," she puffed smoke from her nose, "tell your mother to shove it."
I stared at her. It was clear she wasn't going to let me off the hook. "You've never given a damn about me, Mother," I whispered. "Say it as if you mean it." She pounded on her desk, scattering papers, "don't whine, attack. What makes Elsie cringe? Everyone has something. My mother couldn't stand the word `fuck'. It meant working class to her. So every time I got mad I'd hit her with it. Go ahead, borrow it. I'll let you have it for free." I felt my throat constrict as though I was going to cry. My hands balled into fists. "Don't come then if you're going to be such a damned bitch about it. I don't care. Don't fucking come." Sara stabbed a finger at me. "That's what's missing in your dialogue," she said triumphantly, "hostility."
Sara was insistent about getting hostility on the page. She trained me to it like a Marine sergeant teaching a recruit to bayonet a dummy. She had a five point rule for good fights. "Treat them like jazz riffs," she drummed her fingers on the desk. "Keep pushing each character's argument. Do it five times for each character and you'll have something that resembles a real fight." "But I can't" that was the way I usually started my sentences "Besides Connie's already said that Allen has no right to blame her for looking at another man when he stays out all night." "Yeh?" the muscles around her mouth tightened and she looked as if she were about to punch me. "Well push it. Take a clue from what you have and find something new to fight about." I shook my head dubiously. "Where's Allen been?" she asked. "Out 'till three o'clock twice a week and she's not even curious? Is she brain damaged or what?" "A mistress," I said suddenly getting the idea, "she could accuse him of having a mistress." "Right," she puffed out a lung full of smoke, "and then?" "Of spending money on her.." I looked out the terrace door and noticed a roof tile lying in two forlorn pieces next to a flower pot. "Money he should have been using to get the roof fixed." "That's two. You need two more." Her cigarette hand was jerking impatiently. Like a conductor motioning to someone who's behind the beat. I struggled to think of something. "He could bring home diseases."Now you're getting it." she leaned back and gave me one of her rare smiles. "You know the fight with Leo in the first chapter of my book?" she asked abruptly. I nodded wanly. "You want to know how many times I rewrote that?" She paused for emphasis."Thirty-five times. You need the stamina of a long distance runner in this business. Writing is rewriting."
Since traffic on the Bay bridge was unpredictable and I was often early, Sara gave me a key and told me I could come upstairs and read on the sofa until she was ready. One rainy day in January, as I was climbing the inner stairs I heard an awful yowl and a string of curses.
"Hey, " she called out in a high, tight voice I didn't recognize. "I'm in the bathroom. Could you give me a hand?" She was leaning over the edge of the tub, holding down a struggling black cat. There was a needle attached to a rubber tube stuck into its back and a partly empty bottle of clear fluid hung from the shower head.
I squatted beside her. "Jesus, what are you doing?" The cat was spitting and yowling terribly. It had a white star on its forehead that seemed to be turning gray. "Dialysis," she sputtered. "He's been jumping around a lot and it must have gone into the muscle. Help me hold him." I bent over and tried to secure the cat's rear."I'm going to have to try again. Keep a strong grip." She pulled out the needle and threaded it in just under the skin. "Come on baby," she crooned, her voice catching. "It's almost over now, hold on." The cat's squalls subsided into an occasional mew like a hiccup and Sara gave me a wry look. There was smudged mascara on her lashes.
"Why don't you take him to the vet?" I asked, still holding the cat, it's tail flicking angrily against my arm. "I can't. It costs too much. It has to be done every week. I've been doing it for eighteen months. It's beginning to get to me." She coughed, covering what sounded like a sob. "Frankly, sometimes I think I'm crazy. But this cat's the last thing I have of John's. I got him when we split."
"My first husband left me a dog..." I started but Sara had already gone on. "We had a custody battle you wouldn't believe over this guy," she rubbed the cat's ears lightly with one hand. "Yeh, John was the big love of my life." Her voice quivered and I noticed for the first time how soft her mouth was, and the way one front tooth stuck out a little, making a faint indentation in her lip."He was Leo in my novel. I wrote it after he left." She sighed. "You know the hardest thing about writing that book was to make him a likeable character." She gave me a crooked smile, tooth against her lip. "I hated his guts."
I was shocked, curious, wanted to probe. "If he was a bastard, why did you have to make him so likeable? Why didn't you skewer the bastard?" This was unnerving. I'd relied on her judgment. Followed her advice as faithfully as an acolyte. Now it occurred to me, I really knew nothing about the woman who was giving it. She glared at me, suddenly furious."Damn it Miranda you have to love your characters. If you don't nobody else will. The book won't fly. That's one of your troubles, you don't love your characters enough." "What about fighting back?" I thought of the sparring lessons she'd been giving me. Push it hit him push it again. She took the needle out and the cat sprang away, fur ruffled. "You have to do both." She got up, her earrings swinging like pendulums; fractured ceramic faces, half green, half white. This grand passion of hers wasn't in character. It confused me. Sara had been so brutal about my heroine's romantic yearnings: "Stop bullshitting," she'd told me. "Connie wants to get laid, that's all, love has nothing to do with it." Sara stared into the mirror, brushing on fresh mascara, putting back her professional face. She looked tougher than usual, so I didn't dare ask any more questions. Now she was putting on her deep pink lipstick.
"Jesus, these teeth give me a pain." She contemplated them, wiped off a streak of pink. "Did I tell you I'm going to have my front ones out?" I shook my head, horrified. "No. Well, I am,"she said in the same nononsense tones she used about cutting my manuscript. "They've been pissing me off for years. I'm taking them out and getting a plate. That way at least something about me will be beautiful."
I stared at her engagingly less than perfect bite. "You can't be serious, Sara, no one pulls out teeth unless they're rotten."‹d_‹å "The only reason I'm doing teeth is because it's cheap. I'd have cosmetic surgery if I could afford it. Liposuction, breast "Sara you can't wrench out perfectly good healthy teeth. If
someone did it to a child, you'd say it was child abuse. Besides you have a lovely mouth. Your teeth are sexy. Why do you want to look like a toothpaste add? Regular teeth are boring." I was talking fast so I wouldn't have to think too hard about what she was saying. About how she felt. About black despair and bloody gaping holes.
"My teeth stink." Sara said closing her mouth and going over her bottom lip until it looked as fat as if a bee had stung her. "My mother was the one with the terrific smile. She was Miss Cadillac 1940." The mother in Sara's Miss Cadillac story had been as empty and shallow as a photo ad. And crazy drunk besides. My throat clenched to think of Sara as that woman's child. "Was it really like that for you?" I blurted out. "God, was it? And if it was, why do you keep telling me to leave truth at the door when I write fiction?" The more she told me about herself, the more I saw her replaying her life scripts. Leo, Miss Cadillac. "Miranda, you think too much," she said, turning her back on me and walking briskly over to her desk. "It's bad for your writing." I opened my mouth to protest but she cut me off. She picked up my latest chapter. "This sex scene is way too thoughty. I don't smell, taste, or feel anything. Sex is a physical act. Hot and wet and messy. Where are the details? The sensations?"
Even as I examined my defective passage, I had to admire the way she'd turned the subject. Just when I thought I was about to find out something important, she'd slipped away again. "What you have isn't bad," she went on brusquely, "but you dog out of it in five lines. The first time Connie and Marc have sex and it's over in five lines. The woman hasn't been kissed in fifteen years. Her husband won't touch her cunt. Finally she gets laid. What does she feel?" I was still sore from a strenuous bout of lovemaking on the weekend. "Relaxed?" I said, wishing we could get back to the subject of truth and fiction. "But before that? Tension, Miranda, describe the tension.
She grips his shoulders, runs her hands over his body, her back arches. He bites her nipples. She moans. She wants him inside her. Think of the last time you made love with Ernie." It was like thinking about eating chocolate cake when you've just gorged yourself. "I guess I write about sex better when I'm horny." I said. "Don't you?" Somehow I imagined she was leading a freewheeling sexual life. Her stories were full of pick ups in bars, fucking in seedy rooms or on the decks of fishing boats slippery with blood.
She winced. "Do you know how long it's been since I've gone to bed with anybody?" I took a wild guess. "A month?" "Seven years, Miranda. Six since I've even had a date."
"Six years! Suddenly her room seemed like a cage, the color went out of it. No touch, no hands touching, no warmth. Only an old black cat. I shuddered. "My God Sara, I'd be climbing the walls. How do you manage?" At least when I got divorced I had my children near me. "I get up at six every morning," she said matter of factly as though my question could be answered literally, "put on my old sweats and by seven I'm at my desk. I work until adult brain death sets in at around three o'clock." I looked startled and she laughed. "Don't panic, it's only a metaphorthen, it's clients and dinner in front of the t.v. It's simple." Just then her cat scratched at the terrace door and she got up to let him out. "Don't go on the roof again," she told him the way you would a toddler, "you're going to break your neck."
I got up too and we watched the cat amble across the terrace and lie down in a patch of sun. He looked like an old rug. All his white patches had gone gray. "Jesus, Sara, you're a young woman. You don't look forty. You can't give up like that.. I mean, I had a bad marriage and some lousy love affairs and I'm much older than you are but... look, I'm going to scout around for you. Set you up with someone." I started running through my list of eligible men. I was beginning to feel guilty for having survived my own disasters.
"Thanks. But I've lost the taste for it. Besides, maybe he'll come back again. He's done it before. Even after he was married." In the last book, Leo was called Adonis and he took a woman out to have a picnic in the snow. Everything was frozen. Popsicles,icecream cake. By an icy stream. I think they made snowmen. It was like a scene from Dante's inferno. The lowest circle.
That Monday she called to cancel our appointment. "My cat has to be put to sleep'" she said, her voice shaking. "It wouldn't be worth it for you to drive over the bridge. I don't think my brain will be functioning." I thought of the loving, anxious way her eyes followed him. "Do you want to me to come and just be with you? I could get
there by three."
"Thanks, but I'll be okay. It's been a twenty year relationship." Her voice was small as a child's. "It's not easy.""It obviously hurts like hell," I said. I thought of telling her to go right out and get a kitten but it was too soon and I knew I wanted it just to make myself feel better.
When I called later to see how she was doing, she told me she had an awful headache. "It'll be a miracle if I can get into the shower and wash my hair. That's going to be it for today, getting over the shower edge. Sara's Everest. If I manage that, tomorrow I'll straighten the living room." She had an odd way of laughing just after she'd said something depressing. Usually that made me laugh too but by this time I had began to wonder if she wasn't going off the deep end. I could see her moving slower and slower like a broken watch, until finally she stopped...It made me sick.
"My mother always said good things come in threes," she was saying with her flinty sarcasm. "My cat gets put down, my brother is suing me for libel, and Don, my next door neighbor is dying of AIDS. I'm going to spend some time in the hospital with him. I just want to sit with him, hold his hand." Drop everything Sara, take care of yourself, I thought, but didn't say. How did I know? Maybe generosity and wit were just the things that were going to save her. She stopped suddenly and there was a thick silence almost like a damp cloud next to my ear then her voice turned stern. "But look, you don't need me for a week. You know what you have to do, keep working on making Connie more self sufficient.I've already told you the woman needs a job. She has to be able to depend on herself when she gets rid of these men. We have to know that she's going to make it."
When I finally saw Sara, she didn't even give me a chance to ask her how she was, she started right in hammering at me about Connie's weaknesses. "I don't see any real change here, Miranda. No character development. You're 100 pages from the end and Connie still can't stand up to her mother." "Your heroine in Mind Gamesï doesn't stand up to her mother either," I said. I was tired of her relentless criticism, her cutting so many appointments, the way she changed moods. You don't follow your own rules, Sara." I paused for breath. Her five point rule had really improved my fights. "You're writing autobiography all the time. I bet your mother even pretended you were a grown woman instead of a five year old child and called you Mrs Whitly instead of Sara." This had been a particularly riveting detail in her last book. A child who grows up invisible. Never named. Or named differently.
"She did. So what." Sara said. "She came in to say good night to me, sat down on the edge of my bed and said `Mrs Whitly how are you honey, let me tell you about the bargain I picked up at Bloomies.'" Hearing Sara say that in her who gives a damn voice made my hands cold as ice. "Look. I know what you're thinking," Sara went on, "but it took me years to be able to write about this. I had to get distance. You don't have it. That's why I'm trying to help you." Her hands were shaking so badly she could hardly hold my chapter. She was peering down at the print as though it was an army of ants moving across the page. "Have you ever been drunk?" she asked me suddenly. "Not since I was twenty." The drinking scene she was looking at had been pure speculation.
"People always obsess when they're drinking," Sara told me. "I know I always do. It's like looking through a microscope at a complicated cancer. Every time you look you see something new. And it's all bad. You've got to stretch this scene out. Have Connie think about each time Marc let her down. In detail. I want to know what she was wearing when she called him, what she'd planned to do. Maybe she has tickets for the opera, or it's a great day for the beach. But no matter what she asks him, he's got an excuse." Sara looked out her terrace door where a light wind was ruffling the leaves of her neighbor's lemon tree. On the top was a flamboyantly artificial parrot. She was smoking nonTMstop and because her hand shook, ashes were scattered all over her desk.
"It's going to be bad without Don," she said, catching me watching her."I mean how many funerals can you take. I've been to three already this year. Now I've got to pack up his stuff." She brushed at the ash. I hadn't realized Don was dead. Needy clients, a cat with kidney failure, a neighbor killed by AIDS, it was too much. "Sara, I know it's none of my business but all this is killing you. Don't be such a good Samaritan. Or, at least wait til you feel better."
"I can't," she said in her brightest voice; "Besides, our cats were buddies. They crapped in each other's litter boxes. Now where the hell were we?" She studied the page. "Like I said, Connie can't just start drinking like this. You have to motivate it. Start back in the grocery store when she hears Marc's been cheating on her. She could get a bottle of creme de cacao to make a sundae and then forget the ice cream. That way the reader knows she's telling herself a story. The first rule of drinking is you have to be able to con yourself." She flicked a glowing end of ash towards the saucer she was using as an ashtray. "Then after she's obsessed break up the paragraphs here, she suddenly feels the urge to do something, write a letter, go over to his house. It seems so simple suddenly to solve everything. She throws on her clothes jumps in the car and drives over feeling like Wonder Woman. Bullets bouncing off her bracelets. You get the idea. Then maybe when she gets there she suddenly flips over into a low and gets confused. A lot depends on when the high and the low hit her. Understand?"
I nodded. I knew Sara drank but I didn't know how much. Still it was clear she needed help. While I was wondering whether I should offer to find her a good psychiatrist, someone rang the bell downstairs. "The postman," Sara said and went off unsteadily. I heard the front door open and shut and then a few minutes later a loud crash. I ran down the hallway to see her leaning against the front door holding her foot up in back. A book package on the floor in front of her. "You won't believe this but I just fell down the fucking stairs." Sara said in the wry tone she always used when some disaster hit. "I think I may have broken my ankle." "You need to see a doctor." I don't have one. No insurance either." "We'll go to emergency. Come on, lean on me." I helped her down the front steps towards my car.
"The funny thing is I was going up the stairs," she giggled,choked, edged into the front seat."Look I know how much you want to finish and... We don't have to go. I could put ice on it." "You think I'm going to let you crawl upstairs? I'm not that obsessed with my prose."
We had two wait for two hours in emergency until they found a doctor to tape up her sprained ankle and give her pain pills. "I almost jumped off the terrace this morning," she told me cheerfully as I was helping her back up her stairs, after buying a couple of bottles of wine for her at the corner store,"but I couldn't make up a guest list for my funeral so I gave it up. My address book isn't arranged alphabetically." "That's not funny, Sara." "It really would have been hell to get it together." She
said in a satisfied voice. I frowned. I didn't know how to get through the clowning. "Don't look so worried," she said, hobbling into her living room, leaning on my arm. "I never desert a client in the middle of a job." "I'm not worried about my book right now, Sara. I'm worried about you." "Thanks" she said looking for a minute as though she was going to collapse in my arms, or hug me, cry. But then she collected herself. Limped over to her desk. "I guess I got out of bed on the wrong side this morning. You know how the minute you wake up you just know nothing's going to go right?"
The best thing I could do for her was let her talk. "Before I'd even finished brushing my teeth, my mother had called to complain about my father." She tried to grin, but it was pathetic. "Then after she hung up,I suddenly realized my book wasn't going to make it. The metaphor wasn't working." "It's probably just a mood. Tomorrow you'll..." I stopped,not knowing which way to go. Not even clear if she was serious. "Tomorrow shit," she said. " I burnt my manuscript." I stared at her. "Yeh, put it in the garbage can by the front door and burnt it. " She stared back at me. " I know you think I'm hard on you, but I'm harder on myself." It was like a black comedy where you want to cry and laugh at the same time. "You must have it on disk. You can print it out again. Take another look." "When I make an artistic judgement, it's final," she said, "I don't have second thoughts. I'm just going to have to start over."
The next time I saw her, her ankle was swollen and achy. She kept fiddling with the bandage, making it tighter and looser. "What I really need is a full time caretakermanager. If I make a lot of bucks with my next novel,I'm going to look for someone to live in. Wake me up in the morning with a nice cup of coffee.`Hey, Sara, baby, it's time to get up.' She'd massage my neck, pay the bills. You know a nice woman who wants a job? " I thought of Gertrude Stein writing in bed, throwing her
manuscripts on the floor for Alice B. Toklas to pick up."I wish did," I said. "You deserve something. You give so much, Sara. You know, I've been wanting to thank you," I hesitated, not sure she'd let me tell her what I owed her, "you've done more for me than a thousand writer's workshops." "You sure bitched a lot.." she said in her tough voice but I could tell she was pleased.
"That doesn't mean I'm not grateful. I know how much stronger my book is. Let me take you out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate finishing it." I'd just given her my last chapter. "Someplace where they wait on you hand and foot." It wasn't the same as having someone to massage your neck every morning, but I meant it in that spirit.
"What's this about finishing?" She picked up my final chapter. "I know how much you'd like me to say you're done but I can't. You've got the emotional logic all wrong." She adjusted her bandaged leg on a stool. "Connie can't just whip off to California after her mother recovers, she should take her back to live with her." "What are you talking about, Sara? Her mother's done everything she can to wreck Connie's love affair. Elsie even tries to kill herself because she's losing control of her. And you want Connie to bring her home. I can't believe you're saying this. You of all people." "Connie's mature enough to do it. She's strong. She can handle it now."
"But why should she? Why should she give up her life? You're the one who told me she had no guts. You hated the way she whined. You said she was self indulgent and sorry for herself. Now you want me to put her back where she started. A slave to suicide threats and emotional blackmail? Sorry, but I won't do it."
Sara seemed agitated. She kept licking her lips. "Being adult is taking care of your parents." "Come on Sara, you may think you should feel that way, but it isn't the way you really feel." Sara put her head in her hands. I probably shouldn't have pushed it any further "Taking care is one thing, putting yourself back in the trap is another. Every time your mother calls up you're practically sick. Maybe some parents should be written off.
"They're all you have."
"You have friends."
"Don is dead. Eileen is moving to Oregon."
"So Oregon's not so far. She'll visit."
"I love my parents," she said in a flat voice. "In spite of everything, I love them."
"Sara, look, tell me something. Why did you make the mother in your book a murderess? What did you see in her that let you do that? Something so ..."
She didn't let me finish. "She'd already murdered the souls of her children," she said simply.
Sara materializes once more above my computer. She isn't yelling this time, she looks subdued, pale. You've made this travesty of me sound schizophrenic, she said. You seem to have forgotten everything I've said about picking one trait and sticking to it. What is going on here? Either your Sara is feminine or she's tough or she's an animal lover, but not all three. Not in one short story. It's way too much. You'll see. No one's going to get it. It's going to lie in your desk drawer until you're ninety and rot." "I don't care," I said petulantly. "Even if you wash your hands of me. I'm going on. Besides, if you really cared a damn about what happened to me, you would have stuck around." "At least make the end dramatic," she says.
I let her phone ring. I'd been doing it for days. Sometimes her answering machine would be on, and I'd listen to her voice, fascinated it was so brisk and cheerful with its "Hi there...I'm so glad you called." Other times the phone would just ring and ring. After five days, I was too anxious to concentrate. I drove into the city, pushed the bell of the house next door and persuaded the new tenant to let me in to Sara's apartment from the balcony. "Sara," I called, stepping into the room. Then I saw blood on the couch. I ran forward and there she was lying on her back, behind her desk, head turned to the side. She was dressed in her favorite teaching outfit, the white blouse and the plum colored skirt I'd seen her in that first morning.
How is it that I knew she was dead? Was it the way her legs sprawled out? One shoe off, the foot swollen. Or did I really only know a minute later when I saw her face. Mottled, eyes staring, a moustache of dried blood. Sara, Sara, Sara. I picked up the phone and dialed 911. While I waited for the paramedics to come I concentrated on counting the empty wine bottles. There were twelve. I wanted to break them all over her head, I was so angry. If she hadn't already done it, I would have killed her
Dream conversation with the Coroner
Coroner: Sections of cerebral tissue show mild neuronal degeneration.
Me: What about the crossed circuits? The ones that make you repeat over and over what hurt you hurts you will always hurt you
Coroner: Sorry. No other pathology is identified in the brain but the lungs show chronic inflammation.
Me: I knowI'd made a collage of all the empty cigarette packs I'd collected from her apartment. I called it Sara Strikes out. What about the heart?
Coroner places the heart on the table in front of me, it is smooth and glistening. I balance it in my hand. It weighs about 325 grams. No evidence of thomboemboeli or myocardial infarct, he'd tells me. No focal lesions or degenerative changes.A good heart.Sara comes in and stands by the table she is cut open in front and you can see she is missing her essential organs.
Me turning to her: Do you hear that Sara? This ticker could have gone on ticking for another fifty years. Look at it. The heart bounces a little in my hand as though it's trying to beat. See how it shines. Healthy. It's healthy, Sara. How could you letdown a heart like this?
Sara doesn't answer. She takes back her heart. It changes into a green frog. Coroner is getting impatient: He drops a large organ onto the table. Parts of it are bright yellow. The liver's shot, he says. There is a cut right down the middle of it. But no blood comes out. Tentatively, I reach out a hand and touch it. It has agreasy consistency.
Me, recoiling: It's foie gras, Sara. You've made your liver into pate. I start to cry.
Sara: Don't get hysterical on me. Things are messed up enough without more aggravation. Suddenly a bottle of champagne appears on the table, three glasses, a tin of foie gras, some crackers and a knife. The coroner wipes it off and pours the wine.
Me, lifting my glass: To you, Sara.
Sara handing me a cracker with some pate: You haven't eaten anything. Go ahead. Eat. You're hungry aren't you? Go ahead. I don't begrudge you.‹d_‹åI try to eat and choke.
Sara: Eat. Weakling, wimp, no better than your character.
Me taking a bite: I'll never forget you. I'll tell them..
Sara, interested: What? How would you describe me?
Me: A new voice in American letters, a special sensibility,first woman to do the bar scene, power, wit, courage...
Sara considering it seriously: I can live with that.
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
Women Support Women