There is a pause. Someone on the opposite end of the receiver is responding. Sarah immediately jabs back.
“Look just who replaced your spine with a rubber band?”
There is another pause. There is more response from the opposite end of the receiver. Sarah’s nostrils flare. She presses the phone against her left cheek and twists its coiled chord with her right hand. Peter can tell she is pissed. And he knows just who she is talking to.
“Fine, Morgan. Just fine! You just go right ahead and do whatever the Hell you want, ‘cause Lord knows you always do whatever the Hell you want, no matter what I have to say about it! Fine! Fine!
Another brief pause.
A fourth pause.
Sarah’s voice lowers to almost a whisper. The gulf of her nostrils recede.
“Yes, Morgan. Me too. Yes. I’ll see you tonight. Goodbye.”
A final pause.
Sarah firmly returns the receiver to its cradle. She looks for only a moment as though she might cry. She won’t. Sarah never cries. She sucks in a long breath, straightens a wrinkle in her shift, noisily shuffles several papers on her desk, heaves an audible sigh and looks across her desk at Peter. Peter looks back across his desk at Sarah. Her nostrils again flare, a signal that she remains mightily pissed at the caller on the other end of the phone. Peter acknowledges her message with an awkward smile. They both sigh and look away and then back at each other again. They both burst into laughter. Sarah has just concluded another aggravating conversation with her hapless boyfriend, Morgan.
In every business enterprise, the daily office routine assumes a natural choreography. It consists mostly of whatever drudgery some oblivious employer has determined is the business of the business. There are brief intervals when members of the staff will put aside their work and chat with one another. They will talk about easy things: the weather, something they’d read in the morning edition of the newspaper, something someone said to them on the previous day.
Over the course of months, these small, incidental conversations will accumulate, assume a warm patina and naturally age into unyielding friendships, almost without thought. You wake up one morning and realize that there is someone you have known for a very long time-someone you have come to know everything about-who is suddenly very important to you. This is the quiet, inescapable blossoming of lifelong affection. This is what is happening to Sarah and Peter.
“Ignorant butt hole.” Sarah jabs.
“Thoughtless lout.” Peter returns.
Sarah and Peter continue to lob epithets for Morgan for several more seconds. Peter and Sarah do this every time her boyfriend calls until Peter again remembers who’s sleeping with her.
Sarah registers surprise. She gracefully deflects Peter’s suddenly too personal reflection by placing her hand behind the nape of her neck, elbow and chin raised, the profile of her magnificent nose turned to Peter as though posing for a glamour photograph and counters:
“Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it God’s whole truth, sonny boy?”
Peter smiles timidly, realizing he has overstepped an unmarked boundary of their still budding friendship and turns the mock insult-party back on Sarah:
Sarah and Peter once again burst into laughter. Smiling, they once again return to the drudgery that is the business of their business.
Sarah and Peter go to lunch whenever Peter doesn’t have an appointment or Sarah doesn’t have plans with Morgan. Neither of them have much money, so the fare is usually not too ritzy. Sometimes they go to Babe’s for pizza. Sometimes they go to Smally’s for bar-b-que. When Peter is broke, Sarah will buy. When Sarah is broke, Peter will buy. Sometimes they can only afford to split a plate of fried rice at Chin Ho’s.
Sarah and Peter will also have supper together occasionally, especially if Morgan is out of town and Peter doesn’t have anything better to do. Nobody cares much for Morgan, except maybe Sarah. In turn, Morgan is far too self-absorbed to ever think of anyone but himself. After all, he is a tenure-track, Assistant Professor of English Composition at Alabaster University. Self-absorption is a principal requirement for so plum an appointment.
On this particular afternoon, both Sarah and Peter are nearly broke. It’s the end of the month. They go to Chin Ho’s to split an order of shrimp fried rice. As they enter the restaurant’s shabby dining room, Sarah notes a handwritten message taped to the front door. It says simply: “Under New Management.” Duke, the restaurant’s previous owner, is upstate, serving nine to fifteen for racketeering and prostitution.
“Damn,” Sarah remarks dryly, “there goes my big chance for career advancement in the personal entertainment business.”
“Sarah,” Peter chides, “You’re way, way too chic for Duke’s sordid little operation.”
“You’re right, Peter. You are so very right about that.”
Sarah hikes up her skirt in a display of playful eroticism. Peter tries very hard not to stare at porcelain skin of her fleshy thighs. They both sit down.
Lunchtime talk is like workplace talk-the weather, the news, things that are happening in the office-only with fewer interruptions. Peter describes his apartment’s roach infestation. Sarah offers her own personal remedy.
“You have roaches in Compton Point?” Peter asks.
“Oh yeah. But they come from really good families.”
“Here’s what I do,” Sarah explains. “I take all the food I really want to eat, seal it up in air tight containers and put them all on one countertop of my kitchen…”
This seems reasonable to Peter.
“… and then I take all the other stuff; you know, things you never get around to eating: things your Mother sends you, things you bought on sale, Christmas fruitcake, all that crap. I take it all and spread it out on the other counter. I make it look like a really lavish feast with tiny little scraps of toilet paper folded up like cocktail napkins…”
“Yeah. And I take a toothpick and an index card and make this little sign, written in really little, roach-sized letters that says “You all, come and get it!” and stick it in a bowl of applesauce.
“Yeah. And they do come, you know. They all come and have a grand old time. And, they leave the rest of my stuff the hell alone.”
“Really. You should try it. You really should.”
Peter thinks maybe Sarah is making all this up. She is.
A waiter delivers Sarah and Peter’s order: two forks, two chipped plates and a steaming bowl of shrimp fried rice. It seems wise to put aside further discussion of Peter’s problems with cockroaches. Peter ladles a forkful of dry fried rice into his mouth. The change in management has apparently done nothing for the restaurant’s miserable cuisine.
“So what was that all about?” Peter asks.
Sarah is confused by Peter’s question. He had begun the sentence inside his head, speaking only the last six words aloud.
“Oh. Sorry. Morgan. Your phone call from Morgan?”
Sarah rolls her eyes. Peter rolls his eyes. They both sigh.
“Morgan.” Sarah heaves, her nostrils again flaring.
Sarah has known Morgan MacBride for just over six years. They first met at Virginia Tech. Morgan was a graduate student in American Literature. Sarah was an undergraduate in the teacher’s college. After her divorce, the two of them renewed their acquaintance and began dating. Morgan is six years younger than Sarah. As previously noted, Morgan is an assistant professor at Alabaster University. As previously suggested, Morgan is a luckless sap who will never grow up.
Morgan was born to modestly affluent parents in Richmond, Virginia. He was never to want for anything that wasn’t immediately handed to him. His parents’ smothering love led him to believe there was not one thing that wouldn’t turn his way if he wished it so. His parents allowed him believe that all of this and more would be his, all without ever lifting a single finger.
Unfortunately, to Morgan’s continuing adult distress, his parents failed to provide him any social, intellectual or artistic skill that might allow him to accomplish even one small measure of any of these ambitions. In other words, Morgan MacBride had grown up a completely self-absorbed, spoiled, Southern man-child.
Nice piece of work Mr. and Mrs. MacBride. A very nice piece of work for sure.
At first, Sarah thought Morgan’s boyish quality of wonder to be thoroughly endearing. She was charmed by his sparkle, beguiled by his seeming grace and self-assurance. They both shared a great of love of books, especially the work of Southern writers. She would read him Faulkner and he would read her Flannery O’Connor. He wrote her tasteless, maudlin sonnets. She loved each of them, the more tasteless and maudlin the better. They both believed they would one day become writers. Morgan first, because after all, he was the man. Sarah next, because of the two of them, she was the one who could write.
They made love everyday and night for a month or more. Sarah was happy. Morgan must have seemed happy too. They talked of marriage. It was something Sarah saw off at some great distance in the future. She had done that already and had no immediate need to return to its suffocating limitations. This suited Morgan fine. This probably suited him more than Sarah would realize for a long time.
They lived together for a while and then Morgan was offered a teaching appointment at Alabaster. Sarah, seeing no real future in her pointless career as a teacher, packed up her belongings and moved with him to Compton Point. Morgan worked at the University. Sarah puttered around the apartment, writing occasional articles for Virginia Travel Magazine and eventually became incredibly bored with it all. At the urging of an old college friend, she went to work at the same firm as Peter, just to do something different.
Morgan worked a great deal, but never seemed to get anywhere, never seemed to accomplish anything and never seemed to bear any personal responsibility for either shortcoming. He was frustrated by his lack of recognition but could never make the connection between his personal estimation of himself and the hard fact of his dismal talents as a writer. Each year Morgan would share his annual faculty evaluation with Sarah. He couldn’t understand any of it.
“Morgan, it says here your work is unfocused, lacking insight or scholarly merit.”
“But, Sarah, I just don’t get it. I really don’t see this at all.”
It would be times like these that Sarah would look down at her poor, unfocused and meritless boyfriend, wondering just what sort of promise it was she once saw in him. When Sarah was younger, it seemed that so much of her life and its possibilities lay before her, not far beyond the next week or month or year. Her life was to always be an adventure and Morgan-youthful, boyish Morgan-had always seemed the perfect companion for such a trip.
And then imperceptibly, the future began to tighten in around Sarah. The future was no longer the grand thing she would do with her life in the next month, but deciding which dress she would put on tomorrow. The future was no longer some great, unexpected adventure that would overwhelm her a year from now, but what she would serve Morgan’s parents for dinner the following evening. For Sarah, every moment of the future began looking precisely like every moment of the present, destined to be repeated day after uneventful day.
In this, Morgan was no help whatsoever. He was so paralyzed by his own unfulfilled promise he could barely manage his own despair much less Sarah’s. And so, at a moment when she was least prepared to accept such a burden, Morgan leaned ever more heavily on Sarah. He leaned on her for her intellectual support, leaned on her for her sheltering maternity, leaned on her for her every encouragement and reassurance. He desperately craved each comfort of her every emotional and physical stroke upon his very fragile ego.
In return, Sarah would ask nothing really. Nothing much at all. Sarah would ask of Morgan only tenderness. Only tenderness. It was so little a thing to ask. It was such a small thing for one man to grant so loving a woman. And yet, it was the one thing in this world Morgan MacBride was incapable of ever granting anyone.
Nice piece of work, Mr. and Mrs. MacBride.
Sometimes, Sarah would still talk of marriage, as though it alone could yield something love could not. Unthinkingly, she mentioned the idea of marriage to Morgan’s mother once at Thanksgiving.
“Why Sarah,” Mrs. MacBride utters in astonishment, “You two are just kids. Just kids.”
“They’re not kids, Gladys,” Morgan’s insensitive father intrudes, “They’re big kids.”
For Sarah, this was a moment of revelation. She suddenly recognized Morgan, not as a twenty-nine year old man she dearly loved, but as a scared boy with the emotional maturity of an eight-year old that she had for too long carried on the armature of finely tendoned shoulders.
The day after Thanksgiving, Sarah would ask Morgan to move out of their Compton Point apartment. The day after Thanksgiving, Sarah would stop loving Morgan MacBride forever.
She would still tolerate his insatiable neediness. She would still cook him dinner whenever he dropped by. She would still sleep with him when he was in desperate need of her nurturing comfort. But she would never love him in the same way again. This is how much tenderness meant to her. This is how much tenderness should mean to us all.
Sarah would not say any of this to Peter. She certainly wouldn’t say such things over a shared plate of shrimp fried rice. Likely, she would not be able to articulate these things, even if Peter were to have nerve enough to ask her a very pointed question about it. Instead, Peter asks Sarah something much simpler.
“Do you think Morgan will ever finish his book?”
“Finish his book?” Sarah asks barely containing her incredulity.
Morgan had been puttering around on one or another his “great” novels for years. Bits and pieces of them lay strewn about the apartment, awaiting final assembly. Morgan had written great and profound sentences, great and profound paragraphs; even great and profound portions of chapters. But not one of all the hundreds of thousands of words could ever be cobbled together to make a book of any merit whatsoever.
“Finish his book?” Sarah revulses. “The man can’t even wash out his underwear!”
Peter knows all of this about Sarah and Morgan, though he and Sarah have never spoken about any of it directly. He and Sarah had never had a single discussion about her personal relationship with Morgan. They never talked about her love and subsequent loss of love for Morgan. Sarah has never said anything to Peter to suggest Morgan was anything but her one true companion. And yet, Peter understands it all, every last bit of it. This is what sometimes happens between two very good friends.
Peter does know what he would tell Sarah if given the chance. He has worked it out in his head and it rests there, waiting for the one moment when speaking it would make some sense to them both.
“Sarah,” Peter imagines himself saying. “I think this is what happens. When you give yourself to someone, a piece of you leaves. And you think this part of you never comes back. But you can’t worry about it, because even if you don’t see it yourself, when someone loves you in return, whatever you have given up to them comes back to you; it all comes back to you a hundred times over.”
Peter would imagine himself pausing for a moment before continuing.
“Sarah, I don’t think Morgan will ever understand this. It all comes back to you. It does.”
Some evenings, when Sarah is off with Morgan and Peter has nothing better to do, he will stop in at Charlie’s Roll-in Saloon. For eight dollars, he can drink three beers and eat a hard-boiled egg, leaving a fifty-cent tip for Charlie’s soggy, mother-in-law waitress.
The TV behind the cash register will be on. The Braves might be playing. The evening will melt away pleasantly enough. Peter will think of nothing. Nothing at all. He will walk back to his apartment and crawl into bed. The next morning, it will all begin again.
There are always three things in every person’s life. One is something from the past, something that was once very important though this importance is now waning. The second is something in the future. What this might be is never clear or obvious, but it is out there, in ascendancy. The third is the present. The present just sits, not seeming to go anywhere at all.
For Sarah, it is her thankless tolerance of Morgan that is waning, it is her futile job that languishes in the present and it is, still off some distance, her unrecognized affection for Peter that rises on the future’s horizon. For Peter, it is his faith in himself that is waning, it is his hope of success that seems headed nowhere and it is his already recognized but never spoken love for Sarah that is surely and steadily ascending.