Sarah by Liam Kruger
15 Dec 2015
Liam Kruger’s story “Sarah” was nominated by PEN South Africa for the 2015 PEN International New Voices Award, along with Genna Gardini’s poem “Performance Scale”. PEN Afrikaans nominated Carien Smith and her story “Likkewaan”.
Read “Sarah” below and our Q&A with Liam here.
I dated the universe for a few weeks back when I was in college. I don’t know that that’s my favourite thing about me, or anything – do people have favourite things about themselves? – but it’s what people tend to lead with when they introduce me to someone new and they need some detail to identify me by. Some people have interesting tattoos or jobs, some people play the harmonica, some people spent a year farming in Iceland. I dated the universe. For a little while.
People hear about this and say, I think I remember reading about that. Somewhere. What happened?
I say, we decided she was a little too old for me. Because that usually gets a laugh, and usually gets them off my back about her.
Her, it. My roommate, Kirsten, says I shouldn’t gender the universe. I sometimes reply that when I knew the universe, she was a girl, and besides she doesn’t really care what we call her – but this scares Kirsten, so often I say nothing. I don’t know. Maybe she’s right.
But the universe had, at that time, taken the form of a girl called Sarah Carver, who worked behind the fine art desk at the library. The universe does that sort of thing from time to time, manifesting inside of herself –as the decaying trunk of a birch tree in Montana at the end of the twelfth century, or as the quality of light falling over a long belt of daffodils in Ullswater on the fifteenth of April 1802, or as a handful of comets on the inner bend of the Oort cloud, or as a linguistics major making ends meet working in the library at my college.
Of all the gin joints in the world, says Kirsten.
I didn’t know Sarah was the universe when I first asked her out – I mean, I was nervous enough as it was when I thought she was just a person. Not just a person. But – when you’re trying to figure out if a girl likes other girls, and likes the kind of girl you are, and how to communicate that you are the kind of girl you are, which is the kind of girl she likes, in a short charming sentence, you don’t have room to worry about whether or not they’re also the physical manifestation of the universe’s sense of self. Although since Sarah I’ve found myself making room for that worry.
But I asked her out, even though I’m not great at that; I’d taken out and returned maybe a dozen rare books which I had had no interest in reading before I felt like I was in a position to ask if maybe she wanted to get a drink after work.
“Oh!” said the universe, missing the loan slip with her stamp and imprinting an indelible red RETURNED on the browned pages of a book about labyrinths which I had barely skimmed while trying to get my nerve up. “Um, sure,” she said, quickly pushing the book to one side, and letting her grey-blue gaze settle briefly on me before moving away. “I finish at six,” she said. “You can meet me out front?”
I said I would, and smiled, and walked out of the library, leaving behind a jacket and notebook which I have never recovered.
I met her out front at six; I’d spent the intervening hours cleaning my room, trying on and discarding every possible variation of clothing I had, and fretting. By the time I left the apartment I couldn’t bear to look at myself in reflective surfaces anymore.
“Hey,” I said. I’d settled on an outfit indistinguishable from what I’d worn at the library.
“Hey,” said the universe. She stood half a head shorter than me, and dark hair fell over shoulders that were hunched against the twilit chill, and she was looking over my shoulder and – what else would the universe look like?
There was an art gallery about a block away, where there were etchings of people with animal faces and free drinks; there was a Persian place maybe two blocks past that, where the retired couple who ran the place conned us into ordering this great, but overpriced salad platter; her apartment was another block past that. On the pavement outside, shaded by a broken streetlamp, she kissed me long enough for the coldness, the dryness of a stranger’s mouth to become something else, and then she stopped and told me to go home. I returned, twinkling to a room that looked strange and new.
And at this point, obviously, there’s a problem, because you want to know what it’s like to date the universe, and I don’t know which parts of that story belong to the universe, who was called Sarah for a time, and which parts of that belong to Sarah, whom the universe briefly inhabited. Sure, after I found out – and after they had the thing in the paper – I could look back at things that were maybe strange, but I can never know if they were strange because they happened in the company of the universe, or because everybody is practically a strange and separate universe of their own, a new territory that we only ever venture to halfway on the luckiest of days.
But we’d been on a couple of dates, and started sharing some history, even if Sarah omitted the greater part of hers. Sitting next to the universe on the couch my old roommate had left behind, watching I don’t even know what sort of movie, I found that I’d begun to think about what the shape of us, the roadmap of this thing, was going to be. So that later that night, curled up against her, I said,
“This is strange.”
“I’m usually terrified by now; I keep waiting for the part of me that runs away to run away.”
“Eventually,” she said, muffled against a pillow.
“Sure,” I said. And made myself count a couple of seconds before I added, “although I’m not there yet.”
“No,” she said, and squeezed my hand before moving it away from her waist. “But, y’know, everything ends.”
Then she sighed, leaned over to kiss me, and turned away to sleep. It was pretty late; her mouth tasted a little of morning breath, the slightly fermented ghost of the apple crumble we’d made sharp on her tongue.
I’ve thought about that since. I mean, on the one hand, she’s right – things end, as a rule; movies, jobs, liquor cabinets, camping trips, bars of soap, lines of thought. I’ve seen things end, and I know that I’m a thing which will probably end too, though I know this in the same way that I know my bedroom is dark and quiet if I’m not there – only in the back of my mind, and in a part of my imagination I don’t go to much. Getting worked up about it doesn’t really help things; the universe is huge, and as close to infinite as you’re going to get, whereas we’re all pretty small, and pretty finite. It’s no good taking your statistical insignificance personally.
But on the other hand, as a person, I’m not sure how else you’re supposed to take a thing like that.
It probably isn’t helping you to say that the universe prefers the left side of the bed, or sucks at using chopsticks, or has trouble talking about her mother. Because it doesn’t. Or I mean, it does, but only because it does everything; the parts of it I noticed aren’t important. Not in the way you want it to be.
But this was all later – at the time I was just tallying up the details of this girl I liked called Sarah Carver, my maybe-girlfriend though we never had that conversation. What do you want to hear? I brought her lunch at work; she took care of some of my library fines; I helped her put up new shelves; she drove me to the bus stop when I had to visit my brother for a weekend. Sarah didn’t like staying out all night with my friends, and I didn’t like hiking with her friends, so gradually we came to do less of both – venturing out into the world here and there, careful not to let our orbits deteriorate in such a way as to collide into one another, or spin off separately into space, intent, it seemed, on pursing a course together. For a while.
It would be overstating the case, and overindulging a desire for neat stories, to say that I found out about her, and what she was, just before I could broach the issue of What We Were. Here’s something I don’t like about myself, if we’re still on that: my desire to have things named, identified, clarified. Some people say they don’t care for labels; more power to them, I think, but what I don’t care for is uncertainty, and if a label is going to diminish however slightly the vast uncertainty that being alive entails, then I am very sorry, but I am going to label whatever’s within arm’s reach.
And Sarah was within arm’s reach. As was I within hers – and, a little unfairly, remain. However hesitantly, however far I was from actually saying the words, I’d like to think I was building up to some kind of grand gesture when the kid from the physics department showed up at our table.
The place was – I don’t think they adhered to any kind of national cuisine; the fish was good, the pasta wasn’t. They had a fireplace and mostly tolerable music. Sarah had ordered the pasta and was picking at my plate when a figure loomed up at my shoulder.
“Sorry,” said a voice; I turned to find that it belonged to a thin, tired-looking boy in a wrinkled shirt.
“That’s okay,” I said, without checking to see if this was true. The boy seemed to belong in turn to a car-battery sized box he clutched in his left hand. Sarah glanced up at him from what had once been salmon and said,
“Oh. It’s you.”
“It is?” I asked.
The restaurant wasn’t all that up-market, but it was nice enough that the metal box stood out; one or two waiters hovered a few feet away, trying to find out if they needed to intervene.
“Benjamin Haddad,” said Sarah. “You haven’t seen him around? He’s been following us.”
“I – what?” I began to stand up out of, I don’t know, anger or confusion or a desire to protect. Sarah shook her head
“Don’t worry about it, he’s harmless. Sit down. You sit down too, Benjamin.”
Stiffly, the boy named Benjamin retrieved a chair from an adjacent table, and dragged it over to ours. He was lanky and defeated-looking, but I was tense and needed a target for that, so I said, sharply, “What the hell is this?”
“Hey, calm down,” said Sarah. “Benjamin’s here to tell you that I’m the universe.”
You know how it is with brains; if you don’t want to understand the words you find an interpretation that you can bear. I looked over at Benjamin, who was staring at our slightly stained tablecloth.
“Well Benjamin that’s sweet of you,” I tried, “but Sarah and I have been seeing each other for a while now, and –“
“No, not like that. The actual universe. The totality of matter and energy and time, briefly coalesced within itself. It happens. Do you not do this in high school? Tell her, Mr. Haddad.”
I wanted to tell her she sounded drunk, but then Benjamin started talking and – well.
Obviously I can’t remember exactly what he said – a lot of it went far, far over my head at the time, and even with the slightly obsessive background reading I’ve done since then, the mechanics are beyond me. Maybe that’s why she chose me, if she chose me.
Benjamin – Benjamin the stressed postgraduate who was too old to get called a prodigy anymore, who was running out of funding, who decided to throw a hail-mary experiment to see if predictably collapsing wave functions could indicate the presence of remote observation; Benjamin who knew that the majority of the scientific community had given up on finding universal manifestations because, even if you could do it, so what? Benjamin who also knew that the holdouts still gunning for research were nutjobs with money. Benjamin who isn’t a bad guy, really, but whom I nonetheless resent for turning the story of me and Sarah Carver into something else. That Benjamin put the metal cage on his lap, and said, “Look, um, I’m sorry. But I’m doing a big paper on putative universal intelligence, and I couldn’t not ask.” This much I remember. Benjamin asking the girl across the table from me if she was the universe, the girl smiling, a little sadly but not quite enough, and nodding.
The cage had a red dial that went one way when it got pointed at Sarah, and another when it got pointed anywhere else. Not incontrovertible evidence, I know, but I wasn’t going to be any more persuaded by talk of predictive distributions of polarized photons at that point. His paper’s online, somewhere; Universal Scrutiny As Sufficient Motivator For Collapsed Wave Functions, 2018. And Sarah, Sarah who argued with me about the pronunciation of ‘schedule,’ seemed quite happy to let him talk without interruption.
She drank wine, I felt entitled to scotch, and Benjamin drank black coffee while he explained that he had hoped to find the universe’s consciousness coalesced into something on our person – a hair, an article of clothing, maybe a coin; he remembered there’d been a coin in Buenos Aires about a century ago that people had suspected of being the universe. He’d hoped this because an object like that he could take back to the labs, and study, and write a paper on; a person wrecked his results entirely.
“Then why are you here?” I asked, ignoring Sarah’s hand on my wrist.
“I wanted to be sure.”
Benjamin looked up, not at me, but at Sarah, and nodded.
I looked away. “And tell me how long does this coalescence, this universal focus, this,” I gestured towards Sarah, “this whatever tend to last? Forgive me, I studied anthropology.”
“We don’t really – rarely more than a few days if the data we’ve got is anything to go by. Which it isn’t.” He nodded at Sarah, at the universe. “The only reason I was able to find you was because you’d manifested this long.”
At which point I said something rude, stood up fast enough to knock over my chair, and left in a hurry.
I’d like to say I went to a bar, or to some park where I could look wistfully at the night sky, and that she found me there because she was the universe and she could, but I went home, and she found me there because she had keys to my apartment.
“Hi,” she said, closing the door behind her.
“Good talk?” I had kept the lights on, weary of the hurt-lover-in-darkness scene; still, I was sitting alone on an armchair, smoking.
“He wanted to know some universal truths; he’s drumming up some buzz with a short interview in a science journal. I answered the ones I could.”
“I thought it was rude to ask about people’s weight.”
She laughed. “See? You’re coming around already.”
“Please don’t,” I said. Then, when she had sat down on the couch across the room, “What does it feel like?”
Sarah started to smile, but seemed to realize that in that moment pretending to miss my point me wouldn’t have been funny at all, so she said, “you need to understand that there aren’t words for this. That any analogy I give you is going to misrepresent both the scale and the nature of the thing.”
“I am,” she said. “Imagine you have a body. Which means you have, and are occasionally conscious of your eyes, teeth, your heartbeat, your breathing, parts of your skin, your fingertips. And you know that no single one of these things constitutes the whole of your self, nor are these single things even single things, since they break down into muscles or cells or molecules, and beyond. Even so; there are moments when, for whatever reason, you’re really focussing on the tip of your left hand’s little finger, and in those moments you are a little more your left-hand little finger than you normally are. This is like that.”
“And that makes me, what? The left hand ring finger?”
“More like the cell directly adjacent to the cell I’m focussing on.”
“No it’s fine – do I dare to disrobe the universe and all that, right?”
I rubbed at an eye. “What happens when you stop thinking about the finger?”
“Well,” she said, “Benjamin’s little box stops pointing at me, for one thing. Otherwise – I don’t know how much my being here has affected Sarah’s behaviour. Sometimes it’s just like noticing your fingertip, which changes nothing; sometimes it’s like noticing how often you blink, which throws the whole thing off.”
“You’ve done this before.”
I winced. “So when you leave – she might too.”
“I might, yes. I also might not. Sorry, personal pronouns fall apart here.”
“Among other things. Why didn’t you tell me any of this? You could have.”
“Do I have a right to be angry about that?”
She didn’t shrug; she didn’t need to shrug, since she was always, on some level, shrugging. Because how else do you respond to prayers.
“If you’d like”.
I exercised that right unwillingly. Still do, sometimes.
I had stared at the floor long enough to form false constellations on its irregular patterning when Sarah asked me,
“Will you stay?”
It’s foolish to look for turning points – for moments that made all the difference; either we live in a predetermined universe, a ride with fixed rails and no forked paths, or else we don’t, but we lack the information that would tell us which choices are the important ones. Even so; I looked at a universe in the shape of a girl whom I had loved, asking me what I would do – and I knew that leaving then, crashing at Kirsten’s or catching a bus somewhere would be my first free act, my first and maybe only active rebellion against a way of living that was colder than I was, and that this was the last thing in the world I wanted to do.
“For a little while,” I said.
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
And then, hell, I don’t know. A couple of condescending news pieces, a month or so more of relative peace in between existential crises and sex, two more interviews with Benjamin, and then I got home one day and Sarah was just Sarah – no, I don’t know which day. Which is sort of a wrench in itself; I don’t know when my last moment with Sarah Carver, the Universe ended, and when my first moment with Sarah Carver, the person began. I noticed, maybe, that she spent less time looking over my shoulder, at some point metres or astronomical units or van der Waals radii away, and more time looking at me – so maybe it was a gradual thing. Would knowing the last time I was with the universe have made a difference? Would I have done something else? Probably not. I think it’d be nice to have had the moment lodged in my memory, to mark against, but I could be wrong there too. When Sarah asked for her keys back I didn’t put up a fight. Y’know, everything ends. Although implicit there is the thought that everything begins, too. Which is maybe a little nicer.
It would be good if there were moments afterwards, where I felt like universal attention was being tossed my way – like every now and then an overpriced chickpea mezze was elevated beyond all reason, but there’s nothing like that. At some point the journey concludes.
The story works reasonably well as a kind of pick-up line, though – smoothed out a little, minus some of the tears. People hear it and start looking for some kind of message, about me, more often about themselves – and sometimes they take me home to find it. Not my favourite thing either.
Because look, probably there is no metaphysical upshot or psychic learning curve to a thing like this, or like anything else; probably we should be allowed to just let stories end.
But what kind of a world would that be.