Despite having put extra effort into drying her hair, into taming her brows, into all the routines that had become more exhausting and more necessary in the recent terrible years, Sarah arrived early to the meeting. Looking around the aggressively charming room, she was overcome with a scrubbed-clean sensation that she couldn’t immediately identify. Sarah reminded herself that there was no reason for this surge of positive feeling, that she’d surely have heard something over e-mail or text if there were any real reason for it. But when Caroline arrived in a burst of clashing patterns, with her thick black hair upswept in a jade- green banana clip that looked improbably fashionable, Sarah recognized the feeling; it had been a while: hope.
“Oh, honey,” Caroline said, with an enviably unrestrained hug. “I can’t believe it’s been a year.”
“I know.” Sarah nodded. “I know.”
“It always goes so fast, doesn’t it?” Caroline sat and whipped out a pair of plum-colored cat-eye reading glasses, quickly scanned the menu, and placed it facedown.
This year, Sarah thought; nothing fast about it.
“So,” Caroline began, “I don’t think you’re actually interested in what you sent me.”
“No. I’m sorry but you’re not. That’s not where the fire is. But,” Caroline said meaningfully.
“There’s a but.”
“I expect the world of you and always will. You know that?”
Sarah nodded dutifully.
“I have a suggestion. Are you open to hearing it?”
“Of course,” Sarah said, exasperated. “Of course I am.”
The waiter appeared. She became flustered while ordering— “I’ll just have what she’s having”—as if she needed Caroline to see any more evidence of her inability to think clearly. And of course Caroline insisted on ordering a bottle of Sancerre. Sarah had originally loved Caroline’s penchant for daytime drinking, and at the outset it always sounded like a great idea, but Sarah always felt slightly paranoid after sharing a bottle with her, as if she’d spoken too candidly or else had said too little.
“You look so nervous,” Caroline said, as the waiter walked away. “You don’t need to look like that. Not with me.” Her mouth twisted like a little fist before offering a smile more prac- ticed than all the smiles that had ever preceded it.
This lunch, Sarah realized, might be our last.
Caroline leaned forward. “I think you should revisit the other script.”
Sarah felt a pulsing in her temples. “I told you I couldn’t do that.”
Caroline nodded. “I know you did.”
“When I was working on that script, Caroline—it was as if I had no choice.”
“Exactly.” Caroline nodded. “That is what I’m saying. That’s how it read, even then, when it was so raw.”
“I still can’t believe I showed it to you. It was a mess.”
Caroline nodded. “It was.”
Sarah shrugged. “Even though it was a mess, I thought that script had a beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t realize that the story I was telling—that was just the beginning.”
“So, this is what I’m trying to tell you: You have perspective now. You know where it can go.”
“I know where it went. But I can’t write about it. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to. Not with this ending.”
When their salads arrived, Sarah made sure to take a few bites. The beets were too vinegary, the greens too spicy; she took several sips of wine.
Caroline shrugged. “You don’t need to commit to reality. The story can be whatever you want it to be. And maybe making a film about it—”
The wine suddenly tasted cloying; heat flushed Sarah’s arms, her face. She nearly spat it out.
Caroline touched the napkin to her mouth and held it there for a moment.
Then this woman of unshakable nerve, this person who had believed in Sarah when no one else could see her talent, her agent of over twenty years, her one remaining connection to a professional reality, closed her eyes before placing the napkin gently on the table. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
On the train back to Brooklyn, Sarah bit her nails down to the quick, after a summer of successfully growing them out. Never would she have imagined ending up as someone who rarely wrote more than an occasional fragment, or for whom the shame of not working was so familiar. She tried remind- ing herself that she still taught a class (Film Aesthetics 1 & 2) each semester at New York Film Academy and she sometimes returned to the screenplay idea she’d sent Caroline, but Sarah knew what working felt like and what it took out of her, and this was not it.
Nearly a decade ago she had promised Caroline a second screenplay. It was the reason for this annual lunch; every year, the Friday after Labor Day, they met to discuss her progress. She hadn’t any new screenplay to deliver, but she had sent five pages of notes and ideas about Queen Victoria’s daughter Al- ice, who breastfed her child against her mother’s wishes only to have her infant daughter reject her milk and then, after se- curing a wet nurse, decided to breastfeed the wet nurse’s son. Up until Sarah had sent the e-mail, the fragments of this story lived only in a document on her laptop entitled “third project,” as if Sarah were so entirely uncommitted to Queen Victoria’s forward-thinking and emotionally complicated daughter that she couldn’t even bother with a working title. Regardless of how polished or unpolished those pages were, a period film would be too expensive to produce even if she could call in some final favors with her stylist friend or get the wardrobe sponsored. She knew it was a nonstarter and yet somehow she’d sent it anyway.
Sarah had made one film, over twenty-five years ago. It had been lauded as strange and beautiful. She’d made this film quickly and cheaply, never imagining its success and certainly not imagining that it would be the best thing she’d ever do. She’d spent her youth writing stories and had made this one film out of a desire to escape and to conjure, but she couldn’t do either anymore.
To use one’s imagination for art or even for leisure: this seemed like the world’s greatest luxury.
Here was the thing she couldn’t get used to: she had only one story now. It was obvious to everyone who knew her.
She closed her eyes and tried to let these thoughts roll by, to shift her focus to something good. She’d felt real and true excitement a couple of months ago, hearing Kiki’s voice for the first time in eight years. Her old friend had left a voice message, then e-mailed within the hour. Both times she said she realized it had been years since they’d spoken, but she just had to tell Sarah and Matthew about the new arrival.
We had a baby, Kiki had written. A girl. I hope I’m not wrong in thinking you’d want to know.
Sarah had called back. She left her own voice mail, then wrote an e-mail asking for pictures. Of course of course of course. Of course I want to know. THANK YOU. I’m thrilled for you. And I can’t wait to hear everything.
Kiki wrote back with the weekend invitation. Make it a long weekend, she wrote. Stay till Monday if you can. She suggested, to Sarah’s relief, they dispense with the back-and-forth and just catch up in person. She sent the address and a P.S.
We sold our house in Silver Lake and rented this house, sight unseen, in a town we’d never heard of. Kiki included three overtly tense rectangle-smile emojis, but, knowing Kiki, what she was really saying was It’s an undiscovered gem. You’ll see.
Moving from Los Angeles to upstate New York seemed a particularly strange choice, given Arman’s acting career. If it were any other couple, it might have sounded depressing. But because it was Kiki, because it was Kiki and Arman, moving to an unknown town in upstate New York with an infant seemed straight-up glamorous.
None of the four of them—amazingly, Sarah supposed— were on any social media. Matthew had a presence for his company, but that was different. When she searched out Arman and Kiki, Arman was on IMDb, and Sarah had turned up some reviews of a few films he’d been in. Kiki’s textile company had a website—which had popped up about five years ago during one of Sarah’s semi-habitual Google searches. Kiki’s designs were made with ink and watercolor, the patterns abstract and lush.
Sarah kept her eyes closed and pictured one of Kiki’s underwater-kingdom images. What was she going to get the baby? She’d already made a special trip to a store in Boerum Hill, where she’d become overwhelmed with choices: tiny fleece vest? Exquisite ash-and-maple stacking blocks? The felt crowns and natural-fiber dollies and mobiles made from locally sourced tree branches sent her into a minor panic. It was such a perfectly curated aesthetic of how to raise a person. She hadn’t bought or made anything like this for her own daughter. Would any of it have helped? A silly thought—how could it have possibly?—but she did wonder. She questioned everything.
While gripping a Ghanaian beaded gourd-rattle, she’d felt her shoulders tense and her whole self grow suddenly, inexplicably hostile at the sight of perfectly folded onesies in shades of beige, gray, and celery, colors too chic and muted for anyone under thirty. She’d almost taken a cab straight to Target for a more mainstream selection, but if the haute-hippie baby store had so undone her, she shuddered to think how she’d react in this mood to that toxic plastic morass. She’d gone home instead and congratulated herself on having the good sense to take a bath sprinkled with vetiver oil. Afterward, from the comfort of her warm home, which she was unreasonably fortunate to have, she ordered a monogrammed L.L. Bean sail bag in a cheerful Prussian blue, only to realize at checkout that she didn’t re- member how to properly spell the baby’s name, and though she scrolled through her e-mails, she couldn’t find any message from Kiki with that information (even though she felt sure she’d received one). E-mailing Kiki to ask how to spell her baby’s name would seem somehow inexcusable, as if Sarah hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
And here she was now, on a subway with her eyes closed, reliving the boozy lunch with Caroline, wincing yet again at Caroline’s suggestion. It occurred to Sarah—not for the first time, not by a long shot—that she’d become a difficult person.
She opened her eyes and opened her book.
Having barely finished a page, she heard:
“I see you are an intellectual.”
She continued reading without looking up, offering the same curt smile she reflexively gave to men on the street who said things like Baby, you looking for me? Sarah startled easily. It was one of the first things her husband had noticed about her, how uneasy she was. She had never been able to decide if the ob- servation bothered her or if she appreciated it. He’d also liked her hair—long, dark blond, and straight, with blunt bangs— which she basically hadn’t changed in thirty years.
“It is unusual,” the voice said, “to see someone with a hardcover book.”
She sneaked a glance across the car. He was somewhere between professorial and homeless. He was older— grandfatherly—with a worn tweed coat too warm for an early-September day that still felt like August and a full head of gray hair that hadn’t been recently combed. From his accent she guessed that he was Eastern European.
“I’m no intellectual,” she said.
He asked what she was reading and Sarah said it was a novel, and when this didn’t satisfy him and he asked what it was about, she said it was about baseball.
“You are a sports enthusiast?”
“No.” She explained in an irritated rush how she loved books and movies about sports but never the sport itself.
“You’re not a fan?” he asked, as if the word itself was amusing.
“Never,” she found herself saying. “I’m distrustful of teams.”
“I understand,” he said, which caught her off guard. She smiled.
Why was she chatting like this? She had never spoken to a stranger on a train. Once, on the F, many years before, a Chinese woman had reached into a cloudy glass container, pulled out a hard-boiled egg, and handed it to Sarah’s toddler. Sarah was both disgusted and touched and had let her child accept it. She thanked the woman, who didn’t speak English, so they’d just smiled at each other periodically for several stops until the woman got off at East Broadway.
“Are you a professor?” the man asked.
“I told you I’m not an intellectual.”
“And not all professors are, I am afraid to say.”
“Are you . . . an actress?”
“Professor to actress? Funny jump. Never mind—I’m neither.vHow about you? Are you a professor?”
He laughed and then started coughing.
“I’ll take that as a no?”
“Are you a doctor?” he countered, his cough petering out.
“I guess I’m a filmmaker.” Immediately she wished she’d lied. “Although I haven’t made a film in years.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “And why is that?”
“I see.” He raised his eyebrows; she felt a fresh wave of shame.
The Q train shot across the Manhattan Bridge. Orange- pink light and the old man’s face. The sun was far from setting; his jaw was strong beneath sagging skin. As he’d shifted his body to listen to her, there’d been a whiff of something. If he’d been younger, she might have registered this smell as unhealthy and antiseptic, but because he was old, because he was wearing a worn tweed jacket, her brain came up with camphor, moors, a splash of wet wool.
“So,” he persisted, “your films; are they documentaries? Sagas?” He smiled.
“No, I made two feature films. The first one I wrote and directed. The second one I was hired to direct.”
“How wonderful. And were these films shown in theaters?”
“Yes”—she blushed—“but it was a long time ago.”
“This is wonderful,” he repeated with such delight it was as if he’d made a bet with someone that very morning that he could find, while riding public transportation, an acclaimed filmmaker.
“My first film did well, actually,” she felt compelled to add, though for whose benefit she wasn’t sure.
He clasped his hands together and nodded. “This must have been very exciting.”
“I guess it was.” It was hard not to feel touched by his seemingly genuine interest. “I mean—it was. But I was so young and I really had no idea how unusual it was for a first feature to make a profit, or to get into the good festivals, be reviewed—all of it.”
“This film that . . . ‘did well’—as you say—what is it about?”
“I just meant in comparison to the other one.” It was mis- guided, she had learned, to assume she couldn’t seem arrogant to others just because she held a low opinion of herself. “It’s about a young white woman from South Africa under apartheid. She moves to Iceland to work in a fish-processing factory.”
He didn’t respond and she wondered if he’d heard her.
“I don’t know. It was the nineties. It’s almost like it hap- pened to someone else. Though my husband shot it—he was the cinematographer—so I know it happened; I mean, he can verify that I was there, that I was . . . in control.” She laughed a little anxiously. “Do you ever feel that way about some of your memories?”
“Do I feel as if my life has been determined by another? Do I feel as if someone else has made certain decisions and has— look—taken this action or that one? Yes, of course. But this is a very common feeling, no?”
“Of course it is.” He waved his hand as if to cast away any notion of singularity. “And, this . . . this story—why did you write such a thing?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve always said it came from seeing a photo- graph of these women in Iceland removing their snowsuits and revealing chic dresses underneath, around the same time as reading many articles about the Truth and Reconciliation Com- mission in Cape Town, but to tell you the truth I’m not sure how the idea started. I mean, I know I’ve seen that photograph, but I think the story might have come first. I met someone at a party who was visiting from Reykjavík.” Sarah shrugged.
They were underground again. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the grimy black of the subway window, with those under-eye circles still new enough to give her pause. “I don’t re- member whether I met the Icelandic woman or saw that photo first. Anyway, it’s not autobiographical—the film—in case you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t. I do not make stupid assumptions. In addition, you are clearly an American.”
“Glad to hear it.” She was suddenly grinning and friendly, if also insulted by being clearly American. She was teetering on the verge of actual joy simply by talking to someone who knew nothing about her and her constricted little life. “Are you visiting?”
He nodded. “And you?”
“Me? No.” It was pleasant to imagine she was visiting New York. That she could pick up and return to another life, her real one. “No, I don’t travel much. Although I’m headed out of town for the weekend.”
“I’m visiting old friends.” She suddenly realized that when she had envisioned this visit—walks in the woods, swims in a lake, wine in a spacious kitchen—there was no baby.
“Good friends, I think?”
“She was a good friend.” Sarah nodded. “He was, too, in his way. But it’s been a long time.”
The man shrugged and waved his hand again, as if he were now dismissing the notion of time itself.
“My husband travels so much for work; when he’s home, we usually end up staying put. And you? Do you travel a lot?”
“You know,” he said, taking his time, “when my wife was alive, she always wanted to go to this place and that place and I did not want to go anyplace. I thought I hated to travel. As it turns out, I enjoy it very much.”
“Well, that’s great. I mean, I feel kind of bad for your wife, but—”
“Don’t,” he said sharply.
“You needn’t feel bad for her.”
“Okay. No, I only meant—”
“It is very humorous to me when people use this expression: ‘Do you think people ever really change?’ Because of course they do.”
“I agree,” she almost whispered.
“I said I agree.” She cleared her throat. “People change. People definitely change. We tell each other these lies all the time, every day. Like ‘You look the same.’ No one looks the same. We tell ourselves so many lies about time. The way we deal with time. We’re all just—hurtling toward death. But it’s like—‘Oh, people don’t change’ and ‘You look the same’ . . .”
Her words shredded the air with their shrillness. She should have kept reading.
The foreign man said, “I am a visitor here. You are a little bit strange and I am grateful for your conversation.”
“I am a little bit strange.” She settled into a smile. “It’s true.”
“As am I.”
“And where are you from?”
“I live in Washington.” As if he’d just remembered. “Washington, D.C.”
“And before that?”
“I come from Prague.”
“Oh! I love Prague.”
“I’ve been several times. My husband had a fellowship there a long time ago, soon after Havel was elected. He shot a film. He was a filmmaker, too, I mean, back then,” she found herself explaining; was she boasting again? “The crew was Czech.”
“I see. It was a good place for foreigners at this time. Our beautiful buildings, our young idealistic people.” He smiled archly. “And of course the low cost of filming.”
She shook her head. “No—I mean—it was so much more than that.”
“Yes?” He looked into her eyes, and for a moment she didn’t know quite how to respond. His eyes were bottle green, his eyebrows and stubble stark white.
“It was more than that. Everyone was so knowledgeable and passionate and—”
“You were young. Yes? You were very young.”
She laughed uncomfortably. “Well, sure.”
He rooted around in his jacket pocket and produced a torn piece of paper. There was a scribbled address, the words St. Ivo. “Are you familiar with this restaurant?”
“Here in Brooklyn?” She was disappointed that he didn’t want to know what she loved about Prague. “I think so. But I don’t think it’s a restaurant.”
“No? He told me that it was.” “Who did?”
“My son. He is the owner.”
“Oh. Well then, I guess it is.” She paused, as if he’d caught her in a lie. “I thought it was a bar. I’ve passed it but I haven’t been inside.”
“Do you have children?”
“Ah. I see.”
“That’s right.” She smiled, showing all of her teeth. “It’s just my husband and me.”
“I see.” Then, after a moment: “Is this my stop coming up?”
“You’re meeting your son at his restaurant? Then yes.”
“You are a filmmaker. I should like to see your films.”
“Well”—Sarah tried not to sigh—“as I mentioned, there are two. One is terrible. One might just hold up. They . . . exist.” She told him her name. “The first one might have actually been dubbed in Czech.”
“I’d prefer to see the original,” he replied sternly. “I see plenty of English films, you know. And I read in English quite well.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, rushing, “your English is excellent.”
He rummaged around in his pocket again and took out a small notebook and pen. “Write your name.”
She did. “There’s only one of me.” And when he looked con- fused: “My name. It makes things easier online.”
“Oh, I do not use the Internet.” The subway slowed. “Please, write down your address and your telephone number, and this way I may telephone or write to you if I cannot find your films.”
That a stranger would ask for her home address so earnestly, without any sense of self-consciousness—it was so old-world, so wildly out of step with their time.
What Sarah suddenly wanted: to be in Prague in spring with her daughter. To sit in the unremarkable café that was re- markably still there each year they’d returned. To order pas- try after pastry. To talk about the various museums and castles they’d surely visit the next day, the day after. To listen as her daughter came up with a theme—Mythological Creatures, Death, Kafka—and to sit side by side, by her side, playing the same game they’d played while traveling since she was ten years old: you write a sentence and fold the paper over, and the other person writes a sentence, and together, without seeing what the other person has written, the two of you tell a story.
She wrote down her phone number.
The subway doors opened; he was going to miss his stop.
She scribbled her home address.
He grabbed the notebook and looked at her. His green eyes were clear—insistent, even.
“What?” she asked, not exactly uncomfortable.
“You are a good mother.”
Then he disappeared into a rush-hour crowd. Watching him from afar, he looked younger, almost rakish. She felt genuinely stunned and as if someone were watching her.
Maybe she’d misheard him. Maybe he was one of those people who thought women’s lives were incomplete without having a child, and—having assumed she was much younger—had said, You’d be a good mother.
But his tone, that insistence, had suggested he’d known she was lying. And also suffering.
Kiki had once said something about how Sarah’s face invited projection. During one of their first late-night talks, Kiki had declared—in her intimate way, initially so destabilizing— “People must assume they know you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“No signifiers. You could be from so many different worlds.”
Sarah had laughed, even as she felt judged. “Are you saying I’m—what? Generic? A blank slate? Neutral?”
“I just bet you’re familiar to different kinds of people.”
Sarah remembered feeling unusually comfortable in that moment with Kiki. It was true. People did often think they knew her. And she’d never thought to question why.
This was probably why the Czech man had started speak- ing to her on the subway. Or he understood she was vulnerable and was somehow trying to con her. He had singled her out, flattered her, and it had worked. She’d told him—a complete stranger—that she was leaving town for the weekend; then she’d written down her home address. Sarah reflexively checked that her wallet was in her bag. She opened her wallet to make sure all the money and cards were there.
She jogged up the station steps, sat on a park bench in the oncoming dusk, and typed St. Ivo, Brooklyn, into her phone. She scrolled through Yelp reviews, blog mentions; was she searching for proof that he’d been telling the truth? Verifying that this bar had food service? That someone with a Czech father worked there? And who was St. Ivo? She found, through the oracle of Google, that he was the patron saint of lawyers and a sometime symbol for justice. St. Ivo was also the patron saint of abandoned children.
The cloudless sky thrummed with pearly light, and a text came in from Matthew—How was seeing Caroline? Where are you?
Where was she?
She went over the lunch and the subway ride, unwittingly weaving together two sets of images and phrases, until she forced herself to think of anything else, and a group of kids— maybe eight years old—popped into her head. They took Wilderness Skills classes in Prospect Park and she often saw them here, dismissed around this time. The kids were so cute and also easy to mock: Wilderness Skills in Brooklyn! But it wasn’t too difficult to imagine how, when autumn came and when the park’s entrance became a dark mouth blowing bitter air, the idea of knowing how to use a compass would seem pretty shrewd.
She imagined a son—a boy named Alex—his expression as she approached. He was lanky and freckled, with a mop of dark hair; big feet, dazzling smile. Even though she always picked him up from the park, his face lit up every time.
She supposed she wasn’t the only person who daydreamed these glimpses: other children, other husbands, other lives. She dreamed of the children she might have had, if this or that pregnancy had taken, if this or that man had been hers.
Sarah once met a woman in the support group who was significantly older than she, and though the woman looked tired and sad, she also looked stylish. Sarah remembered a blush- colored bouclé sweater and what solace Sarah had taken in the care the woman clearly showed herself. She’d been frank about cutting off her daughter. “I’m done,” she’d told Sarah. “It’s over. She’s not getting any more money. I’ve already given; do you know what I mean? I gave at the office. I gave at the door.”
Where was she? Where was Sarah?
I’m with our daughter again, Matthew. And everyone calls you Matt except for me.
You’re making lush short films that no one will see because it’s the dawn of the 1990s and there’s funding and interest and no Internet for the foreign man on the subway to ignore, and I am with our daughter. I’m sitting on the pine floors of our kitchen in Prospect Heights a million or twenty-four years ago after feeding the baby breakfast, and I’m seeing the grooves in the honey-colored planks, the bits of food that are stuck in those grooves that I need to remove with a special knife kept specifically for this purpose. I’m with our daughter—twelve, thirteen years later—different apartment, differ- ent world—as she laughs so hard at the TV that I think something is wrong with her (could something be wrong with her?) and then I start laughing, too, because her laugh is contagious and, yes, just a touch scary, the way the best laughs are.
She rose from the bench and started walking. Maybe she was being followed. She walked faster, developing a stitch in her side. If Matthew had just texted her, it meant he’d finished his long run, which he did most Friday afternoons when he wasn’t on a shoot. Despite the side stitch she began jogging toward where he usually finished, suddenly eager—frantic—to see him.
From St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon. Used with permission of the publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2020 by Joanna Hershon.