Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sarah in "Music and Friends," from A Stranger on Earth (Fiction)

Sarah sat on a bench in the park, amused, curious, dismayed, and repelled by the people she saw. She watched nannies and the babies they cared for, and thought many of the children adorable, though when they began to cry or be demanding she wished she could make them disappear. She saw and heard a couple of young men enthusiastically engaged in a conversation about music—whether Devendra Banhart was a celebratory and satirical visionary or merely foolish, in which they talked about Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and the Beautiful South—that made her wonder about the other things they cared about. listened to the inane conversations some of the girls were having—loud, bragging, full of curses, the kind of conversations she used to think typical of boys. She had been reading a book of poems by Denise Levertov and a letter from her Uncle Thomas, one he had dictated to his friend Mark. She wished that she could visit him; she wished many things. What good was it to keep thinking about the matter, if she could not do anything differently? She read a few poems by Levertov, and returned to the letter, again and again, a torment that ended when Timothy walked toward her: his smile made her smile.

“Mind if I sit here?” he asked, as he was lowering himself onto the bench.

“No,” she said, with a mild laugh.

She stuck the letter into the back of the book, which he looked at.

“Mm, Levertov,” he said. “I haven’t read her in a while. Do you like her a lot?”

“Sometimes,” said Sarah.

“Why?” he asked.

“I like her assurance. She seems to know who she is, what she feels, what thinks, and what’s important in the world,” said Sarah. “She has a spiritual wholeness. It’s very calming, very healing, to read her work.”

Timothy smiled, and he looked thoughtful, sad, and then pleased before he said, “I always thought there was a lot of romance in her work, that she made things seem better and simpler than they were.”

Sarah looked at him. She looked hurt, and was silent, and she looked around and then back at Timothy, and she asked, “Do you think conflict and difficulty and lack of faith indicates depth, or confusion, lack of imagination and intellect?”

Timothy laughed, and said, “Wait, wait, I didn’t say I didn’t think she was good or that the opposite tact was right.”

“What do you think?” she asked.”

“It’s true that we often think that if something is complex, even difficult, that means that it is more crafted and more true to experience, to society and life,” he admitted, “and that’s partly an instinctive response to all the cliches, ideologies, platitudes, and spiritual stuff we are fed, and I do look for complexity in work, for some representation of the real conflicts that are in the world, but I also think that not everything is in doubt, that we have to believe something, that we have to have a mission.”

They looked at each other. Were they going to accept their friendship, their affection and respect for each other and assumption that each meant well, or were they going to fight?

“What’s your mission?” she asked.

Were they going to fight?

Timothy said, “I just want to write and teach.”

“It was good that you learned that early, and that you found the place for it—here, in the university, that you didn’t assume you could do that as easily or as well in the ordinary working world,” she said, ending in a tone that surprised her in its bitterness. Sarah looked away. What could she say now? What would explain that tone, or restore the usual spirit they shared?

“Yes, it was lucky, I guess, though it was what everyone expected,” said Timothy.

“Did they?” she asked, and she wanted suddenly to end this conversation. What was it like to move in a world in which people knew what was right for you—truly?

“Yes,” he said. “They knew I liked to learn and to talk and that to do something else would mean I’d be losing something that made me who I am,” he said.

I’m not furious with him, Sarah reminded herself. I don’t have to be nasty to him, she thought.

Timothy looked at her, and he wondered what he should say. They were talking but they did not seem to be having the same conversation. He took a chance and asked, “Did you not have anyone who believed in you?”

Sarah looked around. She wanted to lie, say something pleasant, something less damning than what she was inclined to say: she could not think of anyone. She said, “It’s not that no one thought I was intelligent or might do something useful.” She paused, and then said, “Use is not always value. No one seemed to think I was important or that anything I was likely to do was going to be important.”

“That’s sad,” he said.

Sarah could accept that, especially as he did not seem false or pitying.

“What do you want to do now?”

“I wish I could study,” said Sarah. “Being here reminds me of that,” she said. “I cannot accord it. I have been sending out resumes—and it seems I’ll be lucky to get a low-paying job. It’s strange. I couldn’t afford school and the usual bills.”

“It must be very frustrating,” he said. “Of course, you know, you’re much smarter than most of the students in my classes.” He smiled, and said, “Smarter than some of my professors.”

Sarah laughed.

“It’s an irony,” he said. “It makes me wonder about how we end up where we do.”

“I know,” said Sarah, looking away. She was afraid she was going to cry, or say something, make a confession, that she would regret. She did not want to be seen as needy, as wounded, but what else might she be? Foolish? Lost? There was no way of seeing where she was as ideal.

(c) DG