Sarah smoked her cigarette in the chair beside our bedroom window. Occasionally she wanted to make love in the morning, but more often she woke before me and sat wrapped in a sheet, blowing smoke-prayers to the heavens. She gazed at the trees outside, but her mind’s eye was watching something else. Once, when I asked her about it, she told me she was thinking about the best moment of her life — a sparkling memory like the champagne she had the night she gave her law school valedictorian speech. She was the best, and everybody knew it.
I wished that she would quit the firm. “We have enough of everything, except time,” I said.
“You can’t survive on good memories,” she replied. “When you slow down, you fall behind. It’s hard work now, but once I’m a partner, we’ll be all right.”
Every time I heard her say that I wanted to yell at her. “What happens then? The work never stops!” I never did, though. Instead, I fantasized that I could take her into my arms and in one fleeting moment when she clutched the sheets and sighed my name, she would really be there with me, the way she was when we were students. Then, every morning, I woke up to the reality that we dreamed about different things now.
Sarah glanced over, almost imperceptibly — enough to see I was awake.
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
There were fine creases forming at the corners of her eyes, but her pale skin stretched tightly over the curve of her back, the facets of her spine like a train of pearls in cream. The spring of our twenties had come and gone, but that younger, happier woman was still there. I could see her, in the taper of Sarah’s hands and the curve of her neck when she read the newspaper on Sunday morning, tapping her fingers on the coffee mug.
“I think you are, when you think nobody’s looking.”
Sarah’s laugh had an edge. “You talk about me like I’ve got my guard up all the time.”
The next time Sarah spoke was from inside the closet. “Remember, we have dinner reservations at seven tonight. Don’t wear that maroon shirt, again, okay?” Her tone was instructional. If she was irritated, it never showed more than a little.
In my bare feet I spoon-fed the coffee maker and rubbed the stubble on my face, in rebellion against the sun. Sarah emerged in a navy skirt suit and coat of makeup, taking up her mug in one hand and flipping document pages with the other. On her way out the door, she left the coffee behind on the kitchen table, the forgotten remainder growing cold in the bottom. I poured it out and sat down at my desk for the day.
When Sarah came home I was clean-shaven, wearing a soft blue shirt with a tweed blazer. She looked me over silently and nodded her approval. She changed efficiently, and in brilliant turquoise and stocking feet, she padded across the floor.
“You’ll wear the right shoes?”
“Yes, the brown ones.”
“You never wear the earrings I bought you.”
She seemed not to hear me, and I suppose it didn’t matter. The ones she chose for herself looked stunning, and we both knew it.
Sarah drove us to the restaurant, briefing me on recent developments in her firm, in preparation for the inevitable shop talk that would arise. She was ambitious, but not inconsiderate.
“Remember, Paul’s just been promoted. His wife’s name is Sophia, and they have a baby boy, Jason. Paul likes movies so you’ll probably have something to talk about.”
I murmured an acknowledgement, enough to demonstrate comprehension but not so much as to disturb her flow.
“Eugene is the older one. He’s recently divorced, and obviously, we’re not going to mention that. He’s a golf nut, so if you don’t think you have anything in common, then just try to be agreeable.”
I forgot most of the evening as soon as it happened. Introductions, salad, business, steak, wine, theatre, cheesecake, coffee. Statements made by all parties evaporated into the air and when the table was cleared, there was nothing left but a full belly and the vague impression that a connection had been made.
At the end of the night, Sarah got in the passenger side of the car and collapsed against the headrest, handing me her keys without another word.
I pulled into the garage and we entered the house in darkness. Sarah removed her high heels, and threw them in a corner. “Thank God,” she sighed. She climbed the stairs wearily and flopped down on the edge of the bed. I unzipped her dress, and she accepted her night clothes from me with quiet thanks.
Sarah climbed under the covers, leaving me to turn off the light. “What a day! But that food was excellent, and we got some important decisions made. Sophia is looking healthy, don’t you think? Yes, I think we did well.”
I climbed into bed beside her. I remembered the countless nights I faced her back in the dim light, tracing her neck as it sloped into her shoulder, sprinkled with her fine blonde hair, watching as she fell asleep. How many days, like this, had vanished while she thought about other things?
“When is it going to be enough?”
She rolled over. “What?”
“When are we going to stop and enjoy our time together, like we did before?”
Sarah sighed, and then she said, very quietly, “When will you stop looking at me like I’ve become some kind of monster?”
I finally saw her, then — not the image in my memory, but the woman there with me — holding on and tired, waiting to be happy again. Looking at her the way she looked at the trees outside our window, I had never really seen her. Then, I knew:
“We can’t go back there, can we?”
Albert Allen is a psychiatrist working in Toronto.