Years ago, my girlfriend was on the phone, talking with her friend Richard, who she just loves. And she's at home, and she's sitting on the couch, and the TV's on. And at some point, he notices the TV in background. I think because occasionally, she would switch channels, which, you know, is kind of a giveaway that maybe you're not paying complete attention to the phone call.
So he starts to get annoyed at this, and starts to say to her how rude it is, and how wrong. And her case, her self-defense, completely disarms him, and she totally wins the day with this argument. "I love you, so how can this be wrong?"
I love you. So if you're mad because you think that I'm watching TV because I don't give a damn about you and what you're saying, please note that this did not detract in any way-- it does not represent any kind of diminishment, any kind of depletion-- of my love. So could it be wrong?
Which I have to say completely cracked him up with its brazenness. Under that logic, you can do anything, anything, to the people you love and get away with it. Love is very hard to argue with. You're in an argument with somebody and they say they did it for love-- what are you going to say to that? You just wave the word around, and that's that.
Which brings me into the song "You Are So Beautiful... To Me." You remember that song? Imagine for a second somebody writing that song for you, or singing it to you, and you're hearing the song for the first time. OK. They start off, "You are so beautiful," and you think, OK this is romantic, this is going just great. And then they get to the "to me."
You're not beautiful to everyone. If you were beautiful to everyone, the lyric could stop right there. The song would be called "You Are So Beautiful." There are, in fact, songs exactly like that. "You are so beautiful." But no, no, no. You're not so beautiful in general. You're just so beautiful to me. It's insulting, you know?
But then, because the entire song is about how huge and complete this love is, what, you're going to argue? The writer or the singer would just say, "I love you. How could this be wrong?"
Today on our radio program, we bring you two stories about love. Each story a variation on the idea, "I love you. So how could this be wrong?"
Act one of our program. Polly Wants So Much More Than a Cracker. The story of a bird and three small children and what people will put up with for love.
Act two. On the Border Between Good and Bad. In that act, we're very excited to have the novelist Russell Banks here on the radio program, reading a short story that we have wanted to get on the air forever. We're finally getting a chance to.
From WBEZ Chicago, This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act One: Polly Wants More Than A Cracker
Act One. Polly Wants So Much More Than a Cracker.
When Veronica tells this story, it's a story about love. When she was 17, she saw a bird in a pet store. A macaw, which is a kind of big parrot, brightly colored, with a three-foot wingspan.
And I fell in love with her immediately, and you know, I was still in high school, I had no money whatsoever.
How expensive was she?
Well, the price tag on the cage said $1400.
So how long did it take you to pay off the bird?
It took me about five years to pay her off. Working part time jobs, babysitting.
And what did you love about her? What was the thing that drew you to her?
It's hard to describe how it feels to love an animal. But as soon as I saw her face, I just thought she was the most beautiful thing, and I had to have her, and I wanted to see that face every day, and I wanted to care for her. And I didn't know anything about bringing up parrots, or feeding them, or caring for them. I just wanted to take her home like a treasure.
OK. Fast-forward 23 years. Veronica is now 40 years old, married with two twin boys, Kyle and Cameron, age five, and another boy, Daniel, who's eight. One of the things that she didn't know about parrots when she first saw her macaw is that they can live for 80 years. 80. So every morning she takes the bird, whose name is Gideon, out of her cage, so she can freely wander the house.
And get into things she shouldn't get into, like a baby. Climbing into laundry baskets and ripping up clothes, and taking the kids' Pokemon cards and ripping them to shreds, and pulling newspapers out of boxes.
And so at breakfast, you've got three little kids there.
The kids will interact with each other, and Gideon will scream as loud as she can over their heads.
Now let's play a recording of Gideon for people at home.
It sounds really loud.
It's intolerable. It's a sound that you don't want to hear.
It sounds very dinosaur-like.
Yeah. Well, you know--
The word you just use was "intolerable"?
It's the most unpleasant sound I think I have ever heard.
But you've lived with this sound for 23 years.
I've lived with that sound for 23 years. It's in my dreams. It's wherever I go. It's in the kitchen, it's in the dining room, it's in my bedroom. And the kids have grown up with her, so they don't really notice it at first. But after about the fourth or fifth scream, they will start covering their ears and shouting back at the bird, and--
Will you stop it, please?
Mommy! Will you take Gideon and put him-- her in the tree?
Now, you taped little interviews with your kids about Gideon. Here's Cameron, who's five.
Do you like having Gideon in the family?
Would you rather that she went somewhere else?
Yeah. All the way to [UNINTELLIGIBLE], to England. Because I don't want her to scream when we're watching TV.
Would you rather have a different kind of pet than Gideon?
Yeah. A dog that is really nice and doesn't bite and doesn't bark.
But do you understand why mommy loves Gideon?
This is Kyle, the other twin, also five.
One time she just almost bited off my thumb. That kind of scared me.
Um, they're terrified of Gideon. If they are approached by her, they'll immediately scream and run away. They won't go near her now.
And is that because Gideon is in fact a little dangerous? They're right to be a little scared?
Well, Gideon's primary objective in life is to be my mate. And so every other person or creature that comes near me is a threat to our relationship. And my children are a very big threat to our relationship, because we have physical contact with each other. And she sees me carrying them and cooking for them and touching them and picking them up. And so she has a desire to kill them, basically. I mean, in the bird world, she would kill a predator or some intrusive love interest.
Now, after your kids were born, and you saw how Gideon reacted to your children, and you saw how your children reacted to Gideon-- they were scared that Gideon bit Kyle-- did it change your feelings about Gideon?
I don't think anything can change my feelings about Gideon.
But if I had a dog that I loved, and you know, then I had a new baby in the house, and the dog was hostile towards the baby, I wouldn't feel the same way about the dog. You know, like I would feel protective of my kid, which I'm sure you did.
Well, I do feel protective of the children, and I take certain steps to protect them from her. But I can't stop loving her because of her natural tendency to want to drive away competition.
As I said, this is a love story. And though Veronica knows Gideon is driving everybody else who she loves crazy, she loves the bird. The same monogamous feelings that make Gideon mean to everyone else, make Gideon fantastically sweet to Veronica. Gideon watches her every move, cuddles with her, blushes-- Gideon actually blushes when they play together. She is all that Gideon lives for and it's hard to turn away from that.
Thank you, Gideon.
Veronica also worries that if she gave the bird away, the bird would die. They mate so fiercely that sometimes when their mate vanishes, that can happen.
I know, Gideon. It's upsetting.
And then there's this story. When Veronica was 18 and barely owned Gideon for a year, she took Gideon outside like she did every day, and Gideon flew away. Veronica hadn't been careful enough clipping her feathers.
She was wrecked. Every night, Veronica cried herself to sleep. Every day she sat on the roof, watching the sky. After six days, a kid on his way to school spotted the bird.
And I went quickly, ran to where he said she was, and I saw her in probably the tallest tree. And immediately scaled the tree. Got all the way to the top, which was about, I was up about 50 feet. She was on the end of the branch, all the way out. And so I inched my way out.
And about three quarters of the way out-- I was only a foot away from her-- the branch snapped, and I fell straight down without hitting anything on the way, and just fell 50 feet and landed on my feet on hard ground. And I suffered a multiple compression fracture of my spine and I had a collapsed lung. I should have died, according to the orthopedic surgeon.
Do you think the fact that you nearly died trying to save Gideon is one of the things that makes it impossible for you to give Gideon up?
That's something I've thought about, yeah. It's quite possible. I feel like it's brought us closer. It's not a pleasant thing that happened. But I feel like, um-- she would have died out there.
You say that "it brought us closer," but you're the only one who actually understands that you went out and you got injured trying to save Gideon. Gideon doesn't understand that.
No, she doesn't understand that. But I know she understands something. She's very bonded to me. She became so close to me at one point that her hormones produced an egg. And that's something that happens only between couples. So I know she feels something. I don't really need to know much more than that.
In the end, I think this is only partly a story about Veronica's love for Gideon. It's also a story about her family's love for her, that they put up with the bird.
Now, we all want to believe that the people who love us will at least accept the parts of us that are not so appealing. And in Veronica's case, the unappealing part just happens to have physical form and be a bird. Every day that her kids and her husband put up with that, they prove to her just how much they love her.
I don't know why you had to buy her. Like, how much bucks was she?
She cost a lot of money.
But how much money?
She cost, like, $1400.
Whoa. Just for a parrot? Why would they do that? Why?
The most remarkable thing, I think, about the phrase "I love you" is how rarely it's used literally to mean I love you. That I have a feeling of love for you. It's used much more often, I think, to mean 100 other things. "Tell me that you love me," or "I need to get off the phone now," or "Things are fine between us, right?" or "Yes, it's fine that we keep the parrot."
Coming up. Yet another way to use the word love. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two: On The Border Between Good And Bad
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, stories of love, and people trying to better understand their own actions in love. We've arrived at act two. On the Border Between Good and Bad.
In this act, we have this short story from Russell Banks, which he was kind enough to read for us. A warning to listeners that he mentions sex in the story. Nothing explicit. Here's Russell Banks.
To begin, then, here's a scene in which I am the man and my friend Sarah Cole is the woman. I don't mind describing it now because I'm a decade older and don't look the same now as I did then, and Sarah Cole is dead.
That is to say, on hearing this story, you might think me vain if I looked the same now as I did then. Because I must tell you that I was extremely handsome then. And if Sarah were not dead, you'd think I was cruel, for I must tell you that Sarah was very homely. In fact, she was the homeliest woman I have ever known. And I knew her well, because for three and a half months, we were lovers.
Here is the scene. You can put it in the present, even though it took place ten years ago, because nothing that matters to the story depends on when it took place. And you can put it in Concord, New Hampshire, even though that is indeed where it took place, because it doesn't matter where it took place. So it might as well be Concord, New Hampshire, a place I happen to know well, and can therefore describe with sufficient detail to make the story believable.
Around six o'clock on a Wednesday evening in late May, a man enters a bar. The bar, a cocktail lounge at street level with a restaurant upstairs, is decorated with hanging plants and unfinished wood paneling, butcher block tables and captain's chairs, with a half dozen darken and thickly upholstered booths along one wall.
Three or four men between the ages of 25 and 35 are drinking at the bar, and like the man who has just entered, wear three piece suits and loosened neckties. They are probably lawyers-- young, unmarried lawyers-- gossipping with their brethren over martinis so as to postpone arriving home alone at their whitewashed townhouse apartments, where they will fix their evening meals in microwave ovens, and afterwards, while their TVs chuckle quietly in front of them, sit on their couches and do a little extra work tomorrow. They are, for the most part, honorable, educated, hardworking, shallow, and moderately unhappy young men.
Our man-- call him Ronald, Ron-- in most ways is like these men, except that he is unusually good-looking, and that makes him a little less unhappy than they. Ron is effortlessly attractive, a genetic wonder. Tall, slender, symmetrical, and clean. He is beautiful the way we usually think of a woman as being beautiful. And he is nice, too-- a consequence, perhaps, of his seeming not to know how beautiful he is to men as well as women, to young people, even children, as well as old, to attractive people, who realize immediately that he is so much more attractive than they as not to be competitive with them, as well as unattractive people.
Ron takes a seat at the bar, unfolds the evening paper in front of him, and before he can start reading, the bartender asks to help him, calling him "sir," even though Ron has come into this bar numerous times at this time of day. Especially since his divorce last fall.
Ron got divorced because after three years of marriage, his wife chose to pursue the career that has interrupted-- that of a fashion designer-- which required her to live in New York City, while he had to continue to live in New Hampshire, where his career got its start. They agreed to live apart until he could continue his career near New York City. But after a few months, between conjugal visits, he started sleeping with other women, and she started sleeping with other men, and that was that.
"No big deal," he explained to friends who liked both Ron and his wife, even though he was slightly more beautiful than she. "We really were too young when we got married. College sweethearts. But we're still best friends," he assured them. They understood. Most of Ron's friends were divorced by then, too.
Ron orders a scotch and soda with a twist and goes back to reading his paper. He lights a cigarette. He goes on reading. He takes a second sip of his drink. Everyone in the room-- the three or four men scattered along the bar, the tall, thin bartender, and several people in the booths in back-- watches him do these ordinary things.
He has got to the classified section, is perhaps searching for someone willing to come in once a week and clean his apartment, when the woman who will turn out to be Sarah Cole leaves a booth in the back and approaches him. She comes up from the side and sits next to him. She's wearing heavy tan cowboy boots, and a dark brown suede cowboy hat, lumpy jeans, and a yellow T-shirt that clings to her arms, breasts, and round belly like the skin of a sausage. Though he will later learn that she is 38 years old, she looks older by about 10 years, which makes her look about 20 years older than he actually is.
"It's not bad here at the bar," she says, looking around. "More light, anyhow. What you reading?" she asks brightly, planting both elbows on the bar.
Ron looks up from his paper with a slight smile on his lips, sees the face of a woman homelier than any he has ever seen or imagined before, and goes on smiling lightly. He feels himself falling into her tiny, slightly crossed dark brown eyes, pulls himself back, and studies, for a few seconds, her mottled, pocked complexion, bulbous nose, loose mouth, twisted and gapped teeth, and heavy but receding chin. He casts a glance over her thatch of dun-colored hair, and along her neck and throat, where acne burns against gray skin, and returns to her eyes, and again feels himself falling into her.
"What did you say?" he asks.
She knocks a mentholated cigarette from her pack and Ron swiftly lights it. Blowing smoke from her large, wing-shaped nostrils, she speaks again. Her voice is thick and nasal, a chocolate-colored voice. "I asked you what you're reading, but I can see now." She belts out a single loud laugh. "The paper."
Ron laughs too. "The paper. The Concord Monitor."
He is not hallucinating. He clearly sees what is before him and admits-- no, he asserts to himself that he is speaking to the most unattractive woman he has ever seen, a fact that fascinates him, as if instead he was speaking to the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
So he treasures the moment. Attempts to hold it as if it were a golden ball, a disproportionately heavy object which, if he does not hold it lightly, with precision and firmness, will slip from his hand and roll across the lawn to the lip of the well and down, down to the bottom of the well, lost to him forever.
To keep this moment here before him, he begins to ask questions. He buys her a drink. He smiles until it seems even to him that he is taking her and her life, its vicissitudes and woe, quite seriously.
He learns her name, of course, and she volunteers the information that she spoke to him on a dare from one of the two women sitting in the booth behind her. She turns on her school and smiles brazenly, triumphantly, to her friends-- two women, also homely, although nowhere as homely as she-- and dressed like her in cowboy boots, hats, and jeans. One of the women, a blonde with an underslung jaw and wearing heavy eye makeup, flips a little wave at her, and as if embarrassed, she and the other woman at the booth turn back to their drinks and sip fiercely at straws.
Sarah returns to Ron and goes on telling him what he wants to know. About her job and Rumford Press, about her divorced husband, who was a bastard and stupid and sick, she says, as if filling suddenly with sympathy for the man. She tells Ron about her three children, the youngest a girl in junior high school and boy crazy, the other two boys in high school and almost never at home anymore.
She speaks of her children with genuine tenderness and concern, and Ron is touched. He can see with what pleasure and pain she speaks of her children. He watches her tiny eyes light up and water over when he asks their names.
"You're a nice woman," he informs her.
She smiles, looks at her empty glass. "No. No, I'm not. But you're a nice man to tell me that."
Ron, with a gesture, asks the bartender to refill Sarah's class. She's drinking White Russians.
She asks him about himself, his job, his divorce, how long he has lived in Concord, but he finds that he is not at all interested in telling her about himself. He wants to know about her, even though what she has to tell them about herself is predictable and ordinary, and the way she tells it unadorned and cliched.
He wonders about her husband. What kind of man would fall in love with Sarah Cole?
That scene, at Osgood's Lounge in Concord, ended with Ron's departure alone after having bought Sarah a second drink and Sarah's return to her friends in the booth. I don't know what she told them, but it's not hard to imagine. The three women were not close friends-- merely fellow workers at Rumford Press, where they stood at the end of a long conveyor belt, day after day, packing TV Guides into cartons.
They all hated their jobs, and frequently after work, when they worked the day shift, they put on the cowboy hats and boots, which they kept all day in their lockers, and stopped for a drink or two on their way home. This had been their first visit to Osgood's, however, a place that prior to this, they had avoided out of a sneering belief that no one went there but lawyers and insurance men.
"We'll have to come in here again," Sarah said to her friends, her voice rising slightly. Which they did, that Friday. And once again, Ron appeared with his evening newspaper. After a few minutes, Sarah was once again at his side. "Hi."
I said earlier that I'm the man in this story and my friend Sarah Cole, now dead, is the woman. I think back to that night, the second time I had seen Sarah, and I tremble-- not with fear, but in shame.
My concern then, when I was first becoming involved with Sarah, was merely with the moment. Holding onto it. She talked more easily than she had the night before, and I listened as eagerly and carefully as I had before, again with the same motives-- to keep her in front of me, to draw her forward from the context of her life, and place her, as if she were an object, into the context of mine.
I did not know how cruel this was. When you've never done a thing before, and that thing is not simply and clearly right or wrong, you frequently do not know if it is a cruel thing. You just go ahead and do it. Maybe later you'll be able to determine whether you acted cruelly. Too late, of course, but at least you'll know.
One night several weeks later, Ron meets Sarah at Osgood's, and after buying her three White Russians and drinking three scotches himself, he takes her back to his apartment in his car, a Datsun fastback coupe that she says she admires-- for the sole purpose of making love to her.
I'm still the man in the story and Sarah is still the woman. But I'm telling it this way because what I have to tell you now confuses me, embarrasses me, and makes me sad. And consequently, I'm likely to tell it falsely. I'm likely to cover the truth by making Sarah a better woman than she actually was while making me appear worse than I actually was, or am. Or else I'll do the opposite, makes Sarah worse than she was, and me better.
The truth is, I was pretty-- extremely so. And she was not-- extremely so. And I knew it, and she knew it. She walked out the door of Osgood's determined to make love to a man much prettier than any she had seen up close before, and I walked out determined to make love to a woman much homelier than any I had made love to before. We were, in a sense, equals.
No, that's not exactly true. I'm not at all sure she feels as Ron does. That is to say, perhaps she genuinely likes the man, in spite of his being the most physically attractive man she has ever known.
Ron unlocks the door to his apartment, walks in ahead of her, and flicks on the lamp beside the couch. It's a small, single bedroom, modern apartment, one of 30 identical apartments in a large brick building on the Heights just east of downtown Concord.
Sarah stands nervously at the door, peering in. "Come in! Come in!" Ron says. She steps timidity in and closes the door behind her. She removes her cowboy hat, then quickly puts it back on, crosses the living room, and plops down in a blonde easy chair, seeming to shrink in its hug out of sight to safety.
Behind her, Ron, at the entry to the kitchen, places one hand on her shoulder, and she stiffens. He removes his hand. "Would you like a drink?"
"No, I guess not," she says, staring straight ahead at the wall opposite, where a large, framed photograph of a bicyclist advertises in French the Tour de France. Around the corner, in an alcove off the living room, a silvery gray 21-speed bicycle leans casually against the wall, glistening and poised, slender as a thoroughbred racehorse.
"I don't know," she says. Ron is in the kitchen now, making himself a drink. "I don't know. I don't know."
"What? Change your mind? I can make a White Russian for you. Vodka, cream, Kahlua, and ice, right?"
Sarah tries to cross her legs, but she is sitting too low in the chair, and her legs are too thick at the thighs, so she ends, after a struggle, with one leg in the air and the other twisted on its side. She looks as if she has fallen from a great height.
Ron steps out from the kitchen, places one hand on Sarah's shoulder. And this time she does not stiffen, though she does not exactly relax, either. She sits there, a block of wood staring straight ahead.
"Are you scared?" he asks gently. And he adds, "I am."
"Well, no. I'm not scared." She remains silent for a moment. "You're scared? Of what?" She turns to face him, but avoids his blue eyes.
"Well, I don't do this all the time, you know. Bring home a woman I--" he trails off.
"Picked up in a bar."
"No, I mean. I like you, Sarah. I really do. And I didn't just pick you up in a bar. You know that. We've gotten to be friends, you and me."
"You want to sleep with me?" she asks, still not meeting his steady gaze.
"Yes." He seems to mean it. He does not take a gulp or even a sip from his drink. He just says "yes," straight out and cleanly. Not too quickly, either, and not after hesitant delay. A simple statement of a simple fact. The man wants to make love to the woman. She asked him and he told her. What could be simpler?
"Do you want to sleep with me?" he asks.
She turns around in the chair, faces the wall again, and says, in a low voice, "Sure I do. But it's hard to explain."
"What? But what?" Placing his glass down on the table between the chair and the sofa, he puts both hands on her shoulders and lightly kneads them. He knows he can be discouraged from pursuing this, but he is not sure how easily.
"You and me, Ron-- we're real different." She glances at the bicycle in the corner.
"A man and a woman," he says.
"No, not that. I mean different, that's all. Really different. More than you think. You're nice, but you don't know what I mean, and that's one of the things that makes you so nice. But we're different.
"Listen," she says. "I gotta go. I gotta leave now."
The man removes his hands and retrieves his glass, takes a sip, and watches her over the rim of the glass, as, not without difficulty, the woman rises from the chair and moves swiftly toward the door. She stops at the door, squares her hat on her head, and glances back at him.
"We can be friends, though. OK?" she says.
"I'll see you again down at Osgood's, right?"
"Oh, yeah. Sure.
"Good. See you," she says, opening the door. The door closes.
The man walks around the sofa, snaps on the television set, and sits down in front of it. He picks up a TV Guide from the coffee table and flips through it. He does not once connect the magazine in his hand to the woman who has just left his apartment, even though he knows she spends her days packing TV Guides into cartons that get shipped to warehouses in distant parts of New England. He'll think of the connection some other night, but by then, the connection will be merely sentimental. It will be too late for him to understand what she meant by "different."
But that's not the point of my story. Certainly it's an aspect of the story-- the political aspect, if you want. But it's not the reason I'm trying to tell it in the first place. I'm trying to tell the story so that I can understand what happened between me and Sarah Cole that summer and early autumn ten years ago. To say we were lovers says very little about what happened. To say we were friends says even less.
No, if I'm to understand the whole thing, I'll have to say the whole thing. For in the end, what I need to know was whether what happened between me and Sarah Cole was right or wrong. Character is fate, which suggests that if a man can know and to some degree control his character, he can know, and to that same degree, control his fate.
The next time Sarah and I were together, we were at her apartment in the south end of Concord, a second floor flat in a tenement building on Perley Street. I'd stayed away from Osgood's for several weeks, deliberately trying to avoid running into Sarah there, though I never quite put it that way to myself. I found excuses and generated interest in and reasons for going elsewhere after work.
Yet I did meet her-- inadvertently, of course. After picking up shirts at the cleaner's on South Main and Perley Streets, I'd gone down Perley on my way to South State and the post office. It was a Saturday morning, and this trip on my bicycle was part of my regular Saturday routine.
I did not remember that Sarah lived on Perley Street, although she had told me several times, in a complaining way. It's a rough neighborhood. Packed dirt yards, shabby apartment buildings, the carcasses of old, half-stripped cars on cinder blocks in the driveways, broken red and yellow plastic tricycles on the cracked sidewalks.
But as soon as I saw her, I remembered. It was too late to avoid meeting her. I was riding my bike wearing shorts and T-shirt, the package containing my folded and starched shirts hooked onto the carrier behind me, and she was walking toward me along the sidewalk, lugging two large bags of groceries.
She saw me and I stopped. We talked and I offered to carry her groceries for her. I took the bags while she led the bike, handling it carefully, as if she were afraid she might break it.
At the stoop, we came to a halt. She leaned the bike against the banister and reached for her groceries. "I'll carry them up for you," I said. I directed her to loop the chain lock from the bike to the banister rail and snap it shut, and told her to bring my shirts up with her.
"Maybe you'd like a beer?" she said as she opened the door to the darkened hallway. Narrow stairs disappeared in front of me into heavy, damp darkness, and the air smelled like old newspapers. "Sure," I said, and followed her up.
"Sorry there's no light. I can't get them to fix it."
"No matter. I can follow along," I said. And even in the dim light of the hall, I could see the large blue veins that cascaded thickly down the backs of her legs. She wore tight, white dot Bermuda shorts, rubber shower sandals, and a pink sleeveless sweater. I pictured her in the cashier's line at the supermarket. I would have been behind her, a stranger, and on seeing her, I would have turned away and studied the covers of the magazines-- TV Guide, People, the National Enquirer. Yet here I was inviting myself into her home, eagerly staring at the backs of her ravaged legs, her sad, tasteless clothing, her poverty.
Picture this. The man enters the apartment behind the woman. She waves him toward the table in the kitchen, where he sets down the bags and looks good naturedly around the room. "What about the beer you bribed me with?" he asks.
The apartment is cluttered with old, oversized furniture, yard sale and secondhand stuff-- neat and arranged in a more or less orderly way, however-- and the man seems comfortable there. He strolls from the kitchen to the living room and peeks into the three small bedrooms that branch off a hallway behind the living room. "Nice place," he calls to the woman. He studies the framed pictures of her three children, arranged as if on an altar, atop the buffet. "Nice looking kids," he calls out.
When he returns to the kitchen, the woman is putting away her groceries, her back to him. "You sure are quiet today, Sarah," he says in a low voice. "Everything OK?"
Silently, she turns away from the grocery bags, crosses the room to the man, reaches up to him, and holding him by the head, kisses his mouth, rolls her torso against his, drops her hands to his hips and yanks him tightly to her, and goes on kissing him, eyes closed, working her face furiously against his. The man places his hands on her shoulders and pulls away, and they face each other, wide-eyed, amazed, and frightened. The man drops his hands and the woman lets go of his hips. Then after a few seconds, the man silently turns, goes to the door, and leaves.
Sarah appeared at my apartment door the following morning-- a Sunday, cool and rainy. She had brought me the package of freshly laundered shirts I had left in the kitchen, and when I opened the door to her, she simply held the package out to me as if it were a penitence gift. She wore a yellow rain slicker and cap and looked more like a disconsolate schoolgirl facing an angry teacher than a grown woman dropping a package off at a friend's apartment.
I invited her inside and she accepted my invitation. I had been reading the Sunday New York Times on the coach and drinking coffee, lounging through the gray morning in bathrobe and pajamas. I told her to take off her wet raincoat and hat and hang them in the closet by the door and started for the kitchen to get her a cup of coffee when I stopped, turned, and looked at her. She closed the closet door in yellow raincoat and hat, turned around, and faced me.
What else can I do? I must describe. I remember that moment of ten years ago as if it occurred ten minutes ago. The package of shirts on the table behind her, the newspapers scattered all over the couch and floor, the sound of windblown rain washing the side of the building outside, and the silence of the room as we stood across from one another and watched while we each, simultaneously, removed our own clothing. My robe, her blouse and skirt, my pajama top, her slip and bra, my pajama bottoms, her underpants, until we were both standing naked in the harsh, gray light, two naked members of the same species. A male and a female. The male somewhat younger and slightly less scarred than the female, the female somewhat less delicately constructed than the male. Both individuals, pale-skinned, with dark thatches of hair in the areas of their genitals, both individuals standing slackly as if a great, protracted tension between them had at last been released.
We made love that morning in my bed for long hours that drifted easily into the afternoon, and we talked, as people usually do when they spend half a day or half a night in bed together.
During the next few weeks, we met and made love often, and always at my apartment. On arriving home from work, I would phone her, or if not, she would phone me, and after a few feints and dodges, one would suggest to the other that we get together tonight, and a half hour later, she'd be at my door. Our lovemaking was passionate, skillful, kindly, and deeply satisfying.
Then one hot night, a Saturday in August, we were lying in bed atop the tangled sheets, smoking cigarettes and chatting idly, and Sarah suggested that we go out for a drink.
"Sure. It's early. What time is it?"
I scanned the digital clock next to the bed. "9:49."
"That's not so early. You usually go home by 11, you know. It's almost 10."
"No, it's only a little after 9. Depends on how you look at things. Besides, Ron, it's Saturday night. Or is this the only thing you know how to do?" she said, and poked me in the ribs. "You know how to dance? You like to dance?"
"Yeah, sure, sure. But not tonight. It's too hot, and I'm tired." But she persisted, happily pointing out that an air-conditioned bar would be as cool as my apartment, and we didn't have to go to a dance bar. We could go to Osgood's. "As a compromise," she said.
I suggested a place called the El Rancho, a restaurant with a large, dark cocktail lounge and dance bar located several miles from town on the old Portsmouth Highway. Around 9, the restaurant closed and the bar became something of a roadhouse, with a small Country and Western band and a clientele drawn from the four or five villages that adjoined Concord on the north and east. I had eaten at the restaurant once, but had never gone to the bar. And I didn't know anyone who had.
Sarah was silent for a moment. Then she lit a cigarette and drew the sheet over her naked body. "You don't want anybody to know about us, Ron. Do you."
"That's not it. I just don't like gossip, and I work with a lot of people who show up sometimes at Osgood's. On a Saturday night, especially."
"No," she said firmly. "You're ashamed of being seen with me. You'll sleep with me, all right, but you won't go out in public with me."
"That's not true, Sarah."
She was silent again. Relieved, I reached across her to the bed table and got my cigarettes and lighter.
"You owe me, Ron," she said suddenly as I passed over her. "You owe me."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Sarah. I don't owe you anything."
"Friendship you owe me, and respect. Friendship and respect. A person can't do what you've done with me without owing them friendship and respect."
"Sarah, I really don't know what you're talking about," I said. "I am your friend. You know that. And I respect you. I do."
"You really think so, don't you."
"Yes, of course."
She said nothing for several long moments. Then she sighed, and in her low, almost inaudible voice, said, "Then you'll have to go out in public with me. I don't care about Osgood's or the people you work with. We don't have to go there or see any of them," she said. "But you're going to have to go to places like the El Rancho with me, and a few other places I know, too, where there's people I know. People I work with. And maybe we'll even go to a couple of parties, because I get invited to parties sometimes, you know. I have friends. And I have some family, too, and you're going to have to meet my family. My kids think I'm just going around bar-hopping when I'm over here with you and I don't like that. So you're going to have to meet them, so I can tell them where I am when I'm not at home nights. And sometimes you're going to come over and spend the evening at my place."
Her voice had risen as she heard her demands and felt their rightness until now she was almost shouting at me. "You owe that to me, or else you're a bad man. It's that simple, Ron." It was.
The handsome man is overdressed. He is wearing a navy blue blazer, taupe shirt, open at the throat, white slacks, white loafers. Everyone else, including the homely woman with the handsome man, is dressed appropriately-- that is, like everyone else. Jeans and cowboy boots, blouses or cowboy shirts or T-shirts with catchy sayings or the names of Country and Western singers printed across the front. And many of the women are wearing cowboy hats pushed back and tied under their chins.
The man doesn't know anyone at the bar, or if they're at a party, in the room, but the woman knows most of the people there, and she gladly introduces him. The men grin and shake his hand, slap him on his jacketed shoulder, ask him where he works, what's his line-- after which they lapse into silence. The women flirt briefly with their faces, but they lapse into silence even before the men do.
The woman with the man in the blazer does most of the talking for everyone. She talks for the man in the blazer, for the men standing around the refrigerator, or if they're at a bar, for the other men at the table, and for the other women, too. She chats and rambles aimlessly through loud monologues, laughs uproariously at trivial jokes, and drinks too much, until soon she is drunk, thick-tongued, clumsy, and the man has to say her goodbyes and ease her out the door to his car, and drive her home to her apartment on Perley Street.
This happens twice in one week and then three times the next.
Ron no longer calls Sarah when he gets home from work. He waits for her call, and sometimes, when he knows it's she, he doesn't answer the phone. Usually he lets it ring five or six times, and he reaches down and picks up the receiver. He has taken his jacket and vest off and loosened his tie and is about to put his supper, frozen manicotti, into the microwave oven.
"How are you doing?"
"OK, I guess. A little tired.
"No, not really. Just tired. I hate Mondays."
"You have fun last night?"
"Well yes, sort of. It's nice out there at the lake. Listen," she says, brightening. "Why don't you come over here tonight? The kids are all going out later, but if you come over before eight, you can meet them. They really want to meet you."
"You told them about me?"
"Sure, a long time ago. I'm not supposed to tell my own kids?"
Ron is silent.
She says, "You don't want to come over here tonight. You don't want to meet my kids. No, you don't want my kids to meet you, that's it.
"No, no. It's just, I've got a lot of work to do."
"We should talk," she announces in a flat voice.
"Yes," he says. "We should talk."
They agree that she will meet him at his apartment and they'll talk, and they say goodbye and hang up.
While Ron is heating his supper and then eating it alone at his kitchen table, and Sarah is feeding her children, perhaps I should admit, since we are nearing the end of my story, that I don't actually know that Sarah Cole is dead. A few years ago, I happened to run into one of her friends from the Press, a blond woman with an underslung jaw. Her name, she reminded me, was Glenda. She had seen me at Osgood's a couple of times, and we had met at the El Rancho once, when I had gone there with Sarah. We were standing outside the Sears store on South Main Street, where I'd gone to buy paint. I had recently remarried, and my wife and I were redecorating my apartment.
"Whatever happened to Sarah?" I ask Glenda. "Is she still down at the Press?"
"Jeez, no. She left a long time ago, way back. I heard she went back with her ex-husband. I can't remember his name. Something Cole. Eddie Cole, maybe."
I asked her if she was sure of that, and she said no. She'd only heard it around the bars and at the Press. But she assumed it was true. People said Sarah had moved back with her ex-husband and was living for a while with him and the kids in a trailer in a park near Hooksett, and then when the kids, or at least the boys, get out of school, the rest of them moved down to Florida or someplace, because he was out of work. He was a carpenter, she thought.
"He was mean to her," I said.
"Oh, well, yeah. He was a bastard, all right. I met him a couple times and I didn't like him. Short, ugly, and mean when he got drunk. But you know what they say."
"What do they say?"
"Oh, you know. About water seeking its own level and all."
"Sarah wasn't mean, drunk or sober."
The woman laughed. "Nah, but she sure was short and ugly."
I said nothing.
"Hey, don't get me wrong," Glenda said. "I liked Sarah. But you and her-- well, you sure made a funny-looking couple. She probably didn't feel so self-conscious and all with her husband," she said somberly.
"Well. I loved her," I said.
The woman raised one plucked eyebrow in disbelief. She smiled. "Sure you did, honey," she said, and she patted me on the arm. "Sure you did." Then she let the smile drift off her face, turned, and walked away from me.
When someone you have loved dies, you accept the fact of her death, but then the person goes on living in your memory, dreams, and reveries. You have imaginary conversations with her. You see something striking and remind yourself to tell your loved one about it, and then get brought up short by the fact of her death. And at night, in your sleep, the dead person visits you.
With Sarah, none of that happened. When she was gone from my life, she was gone absolutely, as if she had never existed in the first place. It was only later, when I could think of her as dead, I could come out and say it-- "my friend Sarah Cole is dead"-- that I was able to tell this story. For that is when she began to enter my memories, my dreams and reveries. In that way, I learned that I truly did love her, and now I have begun to grieve over her death, to wish her alive again, so that I can say to her the things I could not know or say when she was alive, when I did not know that I loved her.
The woman arrives at Ron's apartment around eight. There was a soft knock at his door. He opens it, turns away, and crosses to the kitchen, where he turns back, lights a cigarette, and watches her. She closes the door. He offers her a drink, which she declines, and somewhat formally, he invites her to sit down.
She sits carefully on the sofa, in the middle with her feet close together on the floor, as if being interviewed for a job. He comes around and sits in the easy chair, relaxed, one leg slung over the other at the knee, as if he were interviewing her for the job.
"Well," he says. "you wanted to talk."
"Yes. But now you're mad at me. I can see that. I didn't do anything wrong."
"I'm not mad at you."
They are silent for a moment. Ron goes on smoking his cigarette. Finally she sighs and says, "You don't want to see me anymore, do you."
He waits a few seconds and answers. "Yes. That's right." Getting up from the chair, he walks to the silver gray bicycle and stands before it, running a fingertip along the slender crossbar from the saddle to the chrome-plated handlebars.
"You're a son of a bitch," she says in a low voice. "You're worse than my ex-husband." Then she smiles meanly, almost sneers, and soon he realizes that she is telling him that she won't leave. He's stuck with her, she informs him with cold precision. "You think I'm just so much meat, and all you've got to do is call up the butcher shop and cancel your order. Well, now you're going to find out different. You can't cancel your order. I'm not meat. I'm not one of your pretty little girlfriends who come running when you want them and go away when you get tired of them. I'm different. I got nothing to lose, Ron. Nothing. So you're stuck with me, Ron."
She sits back in the couch and crosses her legs at the ankles. "I think I will have that drink you offered."
"Look, Sarah. It would be better if you go now."
"No," she says flatly. "You offered me a drink when I came in. Nothing's changed since I've been here, not for me and not for you. I'd like that drink you offered," she says haughtily.
Ron turns away from the bicycle and takes a step toward her. His face has stiffened into a mask. "Enough is enough," he says through clenched teeth. "I've given you enough."
"Fix me a drink, will you, honey?" she says with a phony smile.
Ron orders her to leave. She refuses. He grabs her by the arm and yanks her to her feet. She starts crying lightly. She stands there and looks up into his face and weeps. But she does not move toward the door, so he pushes her. She regains her balance and goes on weeping. He stands back, and places his fists on his hips, and looks at her. "Go on. Go on and leave, you ugly bitch," he says to her. He says the words again, almost tenderly. "Leave, you ugly bitch."
Her hair is golden, her brown eyes deep and sad, her mouth full and affectionate, her tears the tears of love and loss, and her pleading, outstretched arms, her entire body, the arms and body of a devoted woman's cruelly rejected love.
A third time he says the words. "Leave me now, you disgusting, ugly bitch."
She is wrapped in an envelope of golden light, a warm, dense haze that she seems to have stepped into as into a carriage. And then she is gone and he is alone again.
He looks around the room, searching for her. Sitting down in the easy chair, he places his face in his hands. It's not as if she has died. It's as if he has killed her.
Russell Banks, reading from his short story "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story." The full, unedited version of this story is in his collection The Angel on the Roof.
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