Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fiction: Aren't They Wonderful? Don't They Feel Good?

Aren't They Wonderful? was the first of my stories to be published (1987). I think it's beautiful but I got nothing but grief from friends (I didn't have writing pals at the time) who found it dark. I understood--I've never wrote a story quite like this since--but also wondered if their insight, vision and understanding weren't limited. Not to mention empathy. You tell me.

. . . a band of angels, their small quivering wings rustling a whole new sound, jubilant and sane, singing music as spherical as a chant, lifted Sophie . . .

Aren't They Wonderful? Don't They Feel Good?


Sophie has something to say about strength but she weakens each time she writes the word. She thinks of past love.

An entry in her journal:

A sniff of light
a shimmer heard
behold a bolt
next savored sheen
palpable irradiation: illumination

And she’s satisfied life is good: hasn’t she written a poem? Then she looks. For something. To break. Knows she can’t do it. Bangs drawers. Cabinets. Looks for something to kick. Her foot busts space. She sees herself. Stops. There is no end. Tomorrow is coming. Now she’ll sleep.


Once Sophie and her mother Jane had been shopping. They’d been at it for a while; tension was clawing at their nerves. They were in a basement downtown, in a huge store, old and dark with smells. Sophie, 17, was not happy. Jane, 43, was not happy.

‘Please buy this dress,’ Jane pleaded.

‘It’s ugly,’ Sophie said.

‘You look fine.’

‘I don’t want to look like this.’

‘Please.’ Jane suddenly dropped to her knees, looking as stylized as a madonna. ‘Please,’ pleading, ‘I’m begging you. I’m on my knees.’

Sophie became a frozen shrine.

They bought the dress or they didn’t. When Sophie thought back to the dressing room, she only remembered the dress was green. She only remembered her mother.

The bus ride home was an extension of the dressing room frieze and a relief for Sophie because she could answer Jane’s screams.

‘Get on the bus.’

‘Don’t shout at me.’

Sophie didn’t forget the people who looked at her and her mother, with interest contempt disbelief unconcern, and the dull skies and grime now part of the sidewalk and people, again, a blur all around, each person with eyes to see and ears to hear but robots only, not recording her feelings, sensing or reflecting them, mannequins, props of flesh for her family drama, and she remembered thinking,

‘I can handle anything after this.’

The yelling picked up with Jane: ‘Get on the bus.’

‘Don’t yell at me.’

‘You snot, get on the bus.’


‘Damn you.’

‘Leave me alone.’

‘All right,’ Jane told Sophie, ‘you’re alone.’

Damned, Sophie took the next bus and arrived home half an hour later than Jane. She remembers nothing more.


Sophie wakes in the night. Someone has said, ‘No!’ Sophie?


During Sophie’s last week at home, school was almost over, Jane decided with Sophie out of the house she’d get a job, and applied at a travel agency, was accepted, she’d worked occasionally, and told Sophie’s father Karl that she was employed, that she might travel, now and then, a weekend, a week. Not much. Not as much as she’d like, she was sure. And although Jane hadn’t said those last words, hadn’t editorialized that ‘she was sure,’ it was implicit, it was heard, and her father broke dishes, nearly a whole set. He did not want his wife leaving. So Jane said just that – she was leaving. She told him privately, sparing Sophie the trauma of the scene, but then phoned school during graduation practice so Sophie was called in from the field, she didn’t mind, to hear her mother’s voice in the phone say, ‘I’m leaving your father.’ Sophie answered her mother, some words, murmured, ‘oh.’ They hung up together and Sophie went to a V.P.’s office to tell she was leaving school now and wouldn’t be back, not for graduation, not for anything. The V.P. threw down his pencil, locked his hands behind his head and Sophie walked, out the doors, his office, front office, building and gates, walked home and found her mother at her small black desk in the bedroom.

‘I’m not going to the ceremony,’ Sophie said.

‘Graduation?’ Jane asked.

‘I don’t want to. I never did. And you two won’t show up now so what does it matter.’

‘Why won’t we show up? Of course we’ll show up. What are you talking about?’

‘The divorce, Mom.’

Jane stared at nothing, her thoughts tumbled in her head like ping pong balls.

‘Mom,’ Sophie said. ‘They pulled me in from the field, from practice and you told me on the phone you’re leaving, you’re filing.

‘No!’ Jane shouted.

Sophie looked at the long cord, clear plastic around gray plastic, heaped along the floor to the phone on Jane’s desk.

‘I have to leave your father,’ Jane told her daughter.

‘He’s not very nice to you,’ was Sophie’s response.

‘I love you, Sophie.’ Jane extended her hand to her daughter. Sophie touched it. Then she went to her room and closed the door.

When her father came home the front door banged. She heard his movement to the kitchen, to the sink, his opening the cabinet below where he kept his whiskey, the bottle, the glass, pouring, just enough, ice cubes. She heard him sweat, heard the red flame from his face, smelled the black hair, flamboyant. He walked to her door; she tightened; he stopped. He was there a while, looking through the door, she knew he was looking through the door. His own bedroom door was open, his own wife within, still seated, doing something or doing nothing and he stood outside that doorway, not knowing that each entrance marked a change: entering a room should be a cause for celebration, such a shift in thought, but he did not celebrate change and he strode to his wife and said,

‘Damn you.’

‘Sophie doesn’t want to graduate,’ Jane told Karl.

‘What do you mean?’ he snapped.

‘She just told me she doesn’t want to bother with the ceremony.’

‘What’s wrong with the god-damned kid,’ Karl said. He strode back to the kitchen and Sophie moved with stealth out the back door to the street. She returned after dark. She’d walked through a cemetery, then slipped into a golf course, not one her parents belonged to, not that her parents belonged to any, and walked more. The house was dark and Sophie chanced it and went into the living room, a small room in a small house; she could not lose herself here. She stood in the middle of the room. Her mother came in.

‘Please go to graduation.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Your father wants you to go.’

‘What does he care.’

‘Of course he cares.


‘Please,’ Jane said, breathing short and loud, suddenly on her knees.

‘Mom,’ Sophie said.

Jane pushed close to Sophie so they touched. ‘Please,’ Jane said. She breathed and breathed.

Sophie felt sick.


Sophie sleeps.


Sophie stayed home a week past graduation, she’d gone through with it, and was in bed asleep late one night and she heard noises, muffled, whispered voices that could easily have been part of a dream or vision but weren’t. She heard her parents in the distance and the distance loomed close and she realized her mother was in her closet, huddled in Sophie’s closet and her father was on his knees, begging Jane to come back. Sophie didn’t blink.

‘Please don’t leave me, Jane,’ Karl pleaded.

‘Don’t wake Sophie,’ Jane said.

Karl looked at Sophie, she knew his eyes, so she stayed fixed, hoping family evocations of her sleeping would convince them she could sleep through this dim pageant. After a while they left.


There is something Sophie has to say.


So we know Sophie had her moments, late at night, when her world stood in a severe isolation, each part separate, alone, uncaring about her or anything. Moments in daylight, when she wondered how to endure the next second and having endured that, if a further spot of time, sad time, accumulated, was necessary.


Strength and weakness follow one another like school day friends.


Like a good human Sophie did endure, as does a rock, placid granite, knowledgeably but without many moves. And sometimes an agony in her cried out, straight out through her flesh and some days she hunched and cowered hoping to muffle the wail which escaped from her chest like energy; it broke through the sternum. Because it came from the body, she thought the body should receive the cure. She noticed men: their shoulders; they looked absorbent. She could press against them and the wail spent itself.


There is something Sophie has to say about strength and weakness.


Sophie considered love. She knew her parents had loved once, although she didn’t know who. She wondered if love was not the great crippler of the ages, endemic, epidemic, devastating, and who’s ever the wiser. Still she fell in love and her choice wasn’t wrong, but the couple thought they comprehended the sphere of male-female relationships, a static ying-yang prototype where man and woman are curled, curved halves of a circle, giving and taking, and the couple thought that was enough and it ended up being nothing and in the night Sophie heard her father and by day she heard her mother.

She’d wake to her whispers and hushes breathing through the walls. She’d hear wind in her closet and she’d open the door and there would be her father, on his knees, saying, ‘Please don’t leave.’ It didn’t matter if Sophie didn’t open the door. The world still pleaded.

She heard her mother’s yells, her mother begging at Sophie’s core, blindly trying with the greatest drama and impact to make her case. She remembered her mother on her knees. The world was on its knees.

She asked a friend.

‘Is it possible? We’re in love, why doesn’t it work?’

And her friend said,

‘That’s what operas are all about.’

And not a few plays, novels and myths.

Sophie had no grip on this smooth demon love which treated the body as though each cell were a small permeable mass to be injected with the name of the loved one so he was visible in every pore, so, like a field of sunflowers, silly, craning their yearning female faces, uncharacteristically passive, the women basked in their sun, their love. And drooped in the dark.

Sophie loved with abandon. Her lover merely cared. Sophie was the darkness, she thought, and he was the light. He left.

Forging through the long night is no mean feat and when Sophie found herself alone, sans love, she grappled. She waited for the night to be over and something went wrong, it refused to end, and she called a friend who showed up, 3 a.m., in her nightgown with her pillow and then Sophie slept. But her friend could not keep coming over and Sophie was again alone. She feigned ease, understanding a watched pot never boils and ignored the clock which worked triage on the night, allotting so many seconds here, so many minutes there, so many hours altogether. She unplugged the electric clock and hid her watch in her suitcase, read, played Scrabble against herself, went to bed. Her eyelids met, top and bottom, top and bottom, but sprang apart, suddenly shocked by such intimacy and maintained vigilant separatism all night. She imagined her loved one, transfiguring his image to a shell of warmth jutting out, like the wail, from her chest, encircling her. It was lovely to swoon at this memory, his hands gliding from her face to her throat to her shoulders, his saying over and over, ‘What a gift.’ What a gift. Still she couldn’t sleep but short shocks and after several days her nerves had a life of their own and she knew she had to sleep and knew she couldn’t.

She despaired.

On a cold, loveless night when she realized rude memory would not let up, that the world’s stupidity and cruelty stood in direction opposition to its sensuality, Sophie the poet, the angry woman kicking the air, a Sophie as old as Eve, lamenting the loss of sensuality, the breezes and hues, sweet smells and coos and delights of the tongue, this Sophie did it: went into the kitchen, opened the oven door, turned on the gas without lighting the pilot and, as if encoded, dropped to her knees.

Sophie doesn’t know what happened then, nor can we. It is no one’s business whether a band of angels, their small quivering wings rustling a whole new sound, jubilant and sane, singing music as spherical as a chant, lifted Sophie and slid her into bed, or if the goodness of her parents, heretofore not discussed, their belief so obviously startled by the ways of the world that their yelling and pleading had only been a shocked reaction, that her parents’ quieted selves, glowing in her all these years, asserted itself and Karl on her right and Jane on her left led Sophie to bed. And tucked her in.

Sophie awoke with a jolt the next morning. What woke her? A sniff of light. She sprang out of bed, ran to the kitchen, the oven was turned off, ran to the front door, opened it and inhaled deeply through her nostrils breathing in the dawn with its tender smells and tender light. She was alive, she realized, and she was glad.


Sophie has lots to say.


Her spirits rose and sank and rose again, but Sophie continued to live. We presume she’ll be old and still ripe and luscious before she beats it into the next world. And Sophie lives because she’s alive. That’s it. Life is mandate to live. The dark lifts.

‘We all have these urges,’ her father Karl once told her, having sensed his daughter troubled, and further implied, but we just can’t give in. And her mother Jane once said, ‘You have sheets on your bed every night.’ She said this to Sophie to comfort childhood tears. ‘On your soft bed you have sheets every night, dear Sophie,’ Jane whispered. ‘Aren’t they wonderful?’ Jane kissed Sophie’s forehead. ‘Don’t they feel good?’

by Sarah Sarai; published in Bellowing Ark, 1987, Seattle, Washington.

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