Most mornings, Sara wakes at six and leaves the cats lying in bed like folded sweaters. She steps to the kitchen, starts a kettle, and has a twinge for Orlando, who retained the British habit of tea. The small touch sets off a quiver in her mind, rippling through the sleepy stillness within her. Four years they've been together, and she can conjure his presence immediately and as achingly as those first tender weeks when she was still learning to love him. She imagines his dark curly hair and large deep-set eyes, and she sighs. The close ache settles deep, like a fog around her heart, concealing the love she holds for him against the rest of the world. There is a long day ahead, a long day before she hears his voice again.
After drinking her tea, she undresses for a shower. She cups her own breasts the way he might. In the shower, in the mornings, she caresses and squeezes, shivers and trembles, until she comes in her own arms. It is for her and her alone, for her own relief. At night, she'll fondle herself in bed until she cries, and she won't have satisfaction. That is only for him.
Sara dresses in a turtleneck, long skirt, and tall boots, braids her hair and pulls it into a bun. The cats are all awake and complaining for breakfast, but Sara makes the bed first. Another of Orlando's ghosts: he should be in bed, asleep as she moves around the bedroom. She feeds the cats, then grabs her bag and puts on her coat. She leaves to catch the subway to school. And again in the subway, she thinks of him, busking in the halls.
Once she's at school and working with the kids, she doesn't think of him; her focus is on teaching as she walks around the classroom helping kids with their art projects. At lunch, her friend Mindy asks how Orlando is doing on the road. The answer is the same every day--he loves the performances and hates everything for publicity. They've yet to break into the stardom their manager and label foresee. Sara is fine with that.
She may have something to do after school, such as a meeting or some prep work for the next day, but she's usually home by four, when Orlando calls. They talk for at least thirty minutes, but it's thirty treasured minutes for Sara, whose ache is lessened as long as she can hear his voice on the phone. She is full, she is happy. Orlando sounds as though he's having a great time, writing new music on the bus and performing songs off their first album.
For the rest of the evening, she sits uselessly at the easel, she knits, she plays with the cats. And then she gets in bed, and finally sleeps.
One fall day, Orlando caught Sara on her cell just as she was walking through the door. Sara dropped her bag and coat on the floor in the living room and stretched herself across their bed to talk to him. "Hello, beautiful," he said. "How was your day?"
"Hello, love. It was fine. Rainy, so the kids at school were full of trouble. Not too bad, though. Where are you today?"
"I'm in Minneapolis. They all start to look the same after a while. John Lennon was right. It's just bus to hotel to car to venue, and repeat. Hey, when we get to New York, you should come out. We're going to be shooting a video for 'Last Exit.'" The song was released as the band's first single to little fanfare.
"Oh, I really can't. I don't like having subs when I'm not sick." Sara also hated the hassle of travel and the worry that she might get lost. It would probably be a quick train ride, but it was catching up with him on the other side that scared her. She was tempted, however, by the prospect of seeing Orlando sooner than she expected, and it sent a little thrill up the middle of her.
"These are exciting times. We're getting a lot of buzz out of New York, getting played a lot."
Sara sat up and unzipped her boots from knee to ankle. "How are you holding up?"
"I've been fine. If I get in some time for writing, then all is right with the world. I've been able to do that during the day. I wrote a song about you."
"Oh, they're not all about me?" Awkwardly, she pulled off one boot, then the other, and let them drop to the floor.
"You wouldn't want that, not for some of the nasty ones. No, this is an 'I love you, I miss you' song. I wish you were here with me."
"I wish I could be too." She lay back down and tried to picture him, lounging on a couch, wearing a hoodie and jeans, crazy curly hair upon his head leaning against the couch's arm.
"You know, there will come a time when you don't have to teach, and it might be sooner than you think."
"I like teaching. I can't really imagine my life changing. It's cozy the way it is. All I'm missing is you at home."
"Ah, but me at home doesn't get you the style to which I want you to become accustomed."
Sara laughed. "I'm fine with my style now. All I want is you."
"But we can be together if you leave your job and come on the road with me."
"It would be such a disruption to my life. And who will take care of the cats?"
"Oh, we can get a house sitter to watch the cats and all that. I miss you so much. Will you at least think of coming when we go to New York?"
"Maybe a short trip. I can't stay out and play with you too long."
They were quiet for a moment, just listening to each other's silence.
"Lando?" she said.
"Do you think this is all going to work?"
She heard him draw in a long breath and exhale. "I think so. I would never say that to anyone else, but I think we're going to be big."
"Are you scared?"
Again, he hesitated, and Sara could almost see the thoughtful expression on his face. "A little bit. It's just unknown. I don't want it to change me."
"What you are doesn't change. You have to remember who you are. And you will as long as I'm around."
"I hope you're right, love."
"I worry that you're going to get famous and you'll have all these women..."
"Hey, you're the only one I want. I mean it, Sara. I miss you." Sara's throat drew tight and she felt the prickle of tears. "I want this. It's the only thing that I know how to do. But I'd be a dishwasher if it meant keeping you."
"I would never ask it of you."
She went to New York. She took a long weekend that included Friday and Monday so she wouldn't miss too much school. But it all exploded over the weekend. On Friday, there was a late night talk show appearance. Then everybody was suddenly talking about the band, for reasons that Sara didn't understand. The public was like the ocean, large and unforgiving, prone to its own moods and foreign ways, and Sara suddenly became aware of the danger of drowning, of Orlando's drowning without realizing he was in trouble. On Saturday before the scheduled concert, they went out for lunch and to see the town, and they were interrupted no fewer than a dozen times.
He loved it, smiling and signing autographs and taking pictures as Sara stood off to one side. She felt odd and separate. She could never do what Orlando was doing. But she never wanted to do it, either. The thought of being in the spotlight was abhorrent to her; in school, she hated having her work subjected to critiques. Then she realized, like it or not, she was there with him, being The Wife. Her life wasn't The Wife's. On one occasion, she kept walking, pretending that she didn't see Orlando being stopped, and walked on. A block down, she stopped and closed her eyes, lowered her head as though alone on the street, wondering what she was doing. Then she looked up and turned to see Orlando jogging to catch up to her.
He always found her. After the show, she went back to the hotel, citing her early night habits and a headache, and she silently suffered a desperate need to be alone. She fell asleep with the light on. Orlando came in around midnight. She heard him go into the bathroom. She lay in bed dozing, listening while he took a shower. His showers were always quick, five minutes or so. She heard the water turn off and listened to the toilet flush. The fan went off. She tingled in anticipation and he didn't disappoint. She felt the pressure at the end of the bed, his climbing up and pulling the covers away from her. This was a favorite game of theirs. She allowed him to pull off her nightshirt while her eyes remained closed. When he slid into her, her eyes opened and locked on his, not letting go until after she came.
Afterward, they lay spooning together, and Sara said, "Lando?"
"This thing seems huge. The fame and all the performing."
"But I love you so much that it scares me. Other people are going to want a piece of you because you're the most beautiful, most talented person I know."
"I don't think that will change," he remarked. He shifted and put his nose in the hollow of her collarbone. "There's nothing in question here, is there?"
"I'm ordinary. I can't even paint a simple portrait right now."
He laughed and kissed her shoulder. "Darling, I'm not all that great. And I love you and everything you do, even if you're having a tough time." They were quiet for a while until he said, "This is a job. It is. And I like my job."
"You get lost in it."
"Yes... but I can't choose otherwise."
"You said you'd be a dishwasher for me."
"You said you'd never ask it."
The video shoot came and went. It was posted on YouTube, and then it went viral. At lunch one day, Sara was in the teachers' lounge as another teacher, Brianna, was sitting at the computer and said, "Hey, have you guys seen this video?" Sara was still munching on an apple, but she gathered around with the other teachers to see what Brianna was bringing up. And there was Orlando and his bandmates. Sara backed away and quietly returned to her seat. Mindy came into the lounge and saw the video that was playing. She said, "Hey, Sara, isn't that your husband?"
Sara blushed as the other teachers started talking at once, asking questions about the video, about the band, about Orlando, about their relationship. Sara answered with short sentences, threw away her lunch, and escaped back to the art classroom. Brianna had said, and it stuck, "Wow, aren't you jealous? He's going to have all kinds of women after him."
Some part of her had answered no. She believed in Orlando. But it wasn't really the fans that worried her. It was all the other women that he was going to have close contact with while working--models and actresses in the videos, journalists, radio deejays. But this was an occupational hazard. This was life. Even as a dishwasher, he'd have the opportunity to meet and flirt with other women. Someone would admire him for doing a good job and stroke his ego. Even if he weren't in public, that could still happen. That made her feel a little better.
At lunches, Sara noticed it wasn't just her and Mindy anymore. She was surrounded by new faces who'd invited themselves to their table. The talk turned to what their husbands did, and Sara saw immediately where this was going. "And we know what Sara's husband does," Brianna said, and the others giggled. "Sara, what's it like to come home to that? Must be exciting."
"I don't get to come home to him right now. He's on the road," Sara replied, starting to gather up her lunch trash.
"How did you meet?" "In the subway. He was playing guitar."
"That's so cute!"
Sara threw away her trash and went out to help at recess. Brianna hadn't said much to her in the previous year, and Sara wasn't granting space for intrusion by people who suddenly became friendly after Orlando had some success. She wouldn't let herself be fooled.
Sara was monitoring a class of second-graders who were working on family portraits for the upcoming open house where their parents could see and take home their children's drawings. Across the room, she heard, "Ew, Jacob!" followed by, "I'm telling!" Sara rounded a corner and did a double take. Although Jacob was trying to cover up the drawing with his arms, Sara could see that he had sketched his family in the nude. "Emma, sit down, please. Jacob, we can't draw people with no clothes on in school, okay? A lot of great artists did it, and you can when you're older. But I need you to draw your family with clothes on, okay?"
Sara took the drawing from underneath his reluctant arms and fetched a fresh sheet of paper for him. Sara wasn't sure if he was going to cry, but she watched him until he picked up another crayon. Sara tucked the first drawing into her bag.
On the way home, she thought about it some more and hoped that Jacob hadn't learned the wrong thing from all of it. Of course artists had been rendering the nude human form for thousands of years. She smiled as she recalled that she drew nudes, too, and had some of Orlando that the world at large would now undoubtedly find interesting. She didn't want to make Jacob feel ashamed of nudity, his or anyone else's. And she was in the odd position of having to censor what was natural, especially, maybe, in a household like his, where he had three brothers. But it was also her duty to teach the children what was socially acceptable, and nudity in a second-grade classroom was not appropriate, partly because of the responses of children like Emma, who might in turn go home and tell her parents what she saw. Sara wondered if she would be hearing from parents the next day.
She did; Jacob's mom called. She didn't appreciate Sara telling her son that nudity was not appropriate because the human body is beautiful and natural, and her family practiced naturism. Sara told her that she had respect for the home, but she was in a bad position because of the other children and their parents. She offered to send the picture home with Jacob so he could finish it there, which the mother liked. Still, Sara worried a bit that she might have dampened Jacob's spirits, which would be a shame since he was quite a bit more advanced than his peers.
Sara went home that evening and reviewed some of her nude studies of Orlando: lying in bed with his back to her; sitting spread-eagle on the floor; standing arms akimbo, just out of the shower. She drew them a few years ago in a fury of driven creativity one afternoon when she was still in school, and it surprised her, the energy and personality that she'd managed to capture. He looked pleased with himself and uninhibited, just as he usually did when it was only the two of them in their secret world. She missed him in his easy, teasing nakedness and she wondered if there would be rainy Sundays like that again.
She told Orlando about Jacob and his mom on the phone, but he was already irritable. She meant it to be a funny story, but he said, "Well, that doesn't seem right."
"How would I explain it to the other parents? Or to the students?"
"You Americans are so uptight about nudity. The human body is natural--"
"Don't you think that's a little tired, the puritanical Americans line? Nudity is not appropriate in a school setting."
"Christ, Sara, you're an artist. You trained as one. You know better than all this. This poor kid--"
"Hey, this isn't my failing here. His mother knows that other people don't do this. She's making her kid an activist." "Well, she's going to have that talk with him now, thanks to the intolerant teacher who's squelching his creativity and his family's beliefs."
"Never mind. God."
"Never mind nothing. You're compromising yourself and everything you went to school for."
Sara said nothing, hating him a little bit for this conversation.
"You're done talking, then?" he said.
She stayed quiet, trying not to cry, feeling as if she were in trouble without knowing what the hell had happened.
"Fine. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
And he was gone before she could respond. Not that she would have responded. It was just supposed to be a funny story. It was an awkward situation. Sara felt cracked open, raw, ragged. It was a split between them; a chasm opened where she couldn't tell his mind and that made him feel very far away. One of the cats crawled up onto her lap and she tossed her off onto the floor. She wasn't in the mood for love. She looked around the room and had traitorous thoughts. It wouldn't be all that different if he weren't around anymore. Some clothes of his were still hanging in the closet, and socks and underwear of his were in the drawers. But nothing was out on the top of the dresser or nightstand. He wasn't here. He valued his career more than his marriage. And he made her struggles feel small, the tribulations of a schoolchild who has a test in a subject all the adults have already mastered. She hated it. She was no child. Why would he scold her as one? She managed well enough on her own. She got herself out of scrapes, just like she did with Jacob. It was harder for her than it was for most people, she thought, but she did it anyway. She kept moving, and she could do it with or without him, without his supervision.
But as the night wore on, and she went through the motions of watching TV and knitting, doing a little sketching, her earlier thoughts struck her as betrayals. He might have just had a rough day. And that was marriage, wasn't it? The weathering of moods and snappings and bad days? Wouldn't it be unfair to judge everything on one bad day? Sara got up, feeling a little stupid, and opened the closet. His clothes no longer smelled like him, the way they did when they were dating, because now they lived together, and his smell had melded with hers. Her nose was now used to it. She wanted more than anything to smell his scent, the way she could when he was here.
At the end of the night, she cried and threw her leg on his side of the bed.
After midnight, her cell rang. Sara dashed out of bed to get the phone and stubbed her toe against the doorframe. Orlando. "Darling, I love you. I thought about you all night. Sorry to wake you."
"I love you too. Stubbed my toe and it really hurts."
"Oh, I'm sorry, darling. I just didn't want you to wake up in a bad mood. I'll let you get back to bed."
After she hung up, it occurred to Sara that he hadn't actually apologized.
When Sara walked into the lounge the next day, there was a gaggle around the computer, Brianna in control once again. Sara set down her bag and kept her eyes on the table, away from the computer screen. The others noticed her and dispersed, retreating to corners of the room. Brianna came over and said, "Sara, have you seen the photos?"
"What are you talking about?"
In spite of her better judgment, she got up and went to the computer. There were photos of Orlando in a club. The flush of pleasure at unexpectedly seeing his face drained from her when she looked closer. He was standing very close to a blonde woman dressed in black. They were both holding drinks. Orlando was leaning in to her. There were photos of them laughing, Orlando's head thrown back in a guffaw. Her heart pounded: she could feel her hands shaking. This couldn't be what it looked like. It couldn't. Her vision narrowed. She looked again. He was kissing her. She was touching a hand to his stomach. Sara went to her bag for her phone. She had to know. She called Orlando. No answer. She didn't leave a voicemail.
When she got home, she tried calling him again, and this time she reached him. "Orlando, what are those pictures?"
"You and a blonde woman standing in a club. You were kissing her. Does that jog your memory?"
"I was not kissing her. I promise you. I would never."
"Go look at TMZ and tell me you're not."
"I swear to you, Sara. I didn't kiss anyone."
"Who is she?"
"Probably the photographer I met. She wants to do a shoot with the band. She's nothing else."
"Do you know how embarrassing it is for me to have pictures like that on the Internet?"
"I'm looking at them now. It was a professional conversation. It was loud in the club--I couldn't hear her. The one where it looks like we're kissing is just the angle and an unfortunate face I was making."
"How am I supposed to explain that? They were all looking at those pictures when I went into the lounge today. They were feeling sorry for me because you were such a bastard."
"You can't pay attention to what other people think."
"This is my life! It's not just this. This is symbolic of the whole fucking thing."
"This is my life too! This is what I do. All I can do is swear to you that I never hurt you. All I can do is ask for your trust."
"This is too hard. What am I supposed to think?"
"It isn't going to get any easier." His voice was hoarse, tired.
"I don't know if I can live with this. I wanted a quiet life. Your world's not quiet."
"Sara, don't. Please don't. It's not rational."
"I want it to be rational."
"We can make it a quieter life. We can buy a house now, get out of the city. You don't have to teach if you don't want to. We can be in a remote little town where people don't care who we are."
"That's more complications. It's not simple."
"What right do you have to simple? Even if I weren't going through all this, getting recognized and being photographed, you'd have no guarantee of a life free from complication."
"I have no control over any of this. I want some measure of a normal life."
"What did you think would happen when you married me? Didn't you know that you'd be married to a musician who'd be successful? Did you ever believe it?"
"Of course I did." They were both hanging by the thread of the silence.
Orlando said, "I can't give you what you want, Sara. But I can't believe that you'd give up on us because it's a hard adjustment. None of this is me."
"Does it make any difference to you that this is beyond my dreams, to be doing what I'm doing right now?"
"Of course it does."
They were each quiet again. Then Orlando said, "I don't know what else to say, other than I want you with me."
They hung up, and Sara lay in bed with the cats. She wondered if she were being ungrateful. But it was her life to choose as well, and she was startled that she could choose to change it. Break up with Orlando, and it all went back to quiet and slow. The thought caused her tears, but this way of life? The interruptions and always the sense of being watched, not by the public, because paparazzi didn't care about her, but being watched by the people she knew. She was fine with fading into the background and being under everyone's radar. Only in that was there true freedom. Only in the periphery was she comfortable.
But there was Orlando, sweet Orlando. She had no doubt about her love for him, but he wasn't here, and wasn't likely to be here much in the next few years. She could join him on the road, but she shuddered at that thought, too. Never having an anchor of home would make her crazy. She hated traveling anyway, and being with him on the road meant traveling for months at a time. And there was the sense of being a distraction. He worked a lot on the road; he was busy writing songs and collaborating and promoting the album.
She got out of bed and sat at the easel in the corner of the bedroom. A study in the style of Picasso's Blue Period, her own figure was in the foreground with her eyes cast down, swathed in a blanket. Orlando stood in the background likewise swathed, gazing up at the sky. She made a guttural sound of disgust at such obvious symbolism.
She got up again and propped herself in the stuffed chair with pencils and a sketchpad. She started drawing scenes of their life together, recreating them in her mind's eye and then on the page in grays and whites and blacks, in the style of a graphic novel. She drew quickly. Their first meeting: she was coming home late from working in the studio, taking her usual train home. But this time in the tunnel connecting the junction of the subway stations, there was a busker sitting on the floor with his guitar case open in front of him, playing and singing deeply, with his eyes closed.
Sara the Meek, Sara the Shy, Sara the Cautious, stood near him and watched the singer who could belt soulfully and echo it all the way down the connecting hall. He opened his eyes just in time to see her striped kneesock slip down to her thin ankle, and she saw him notice it. He looked up to her face as he finished the song. People were still filing in behind her.
Sara spoke first. "You have an amazing voice."
"Thank you," he answered, gazing at her curious face.
"What's your name?"
Something drove her forward, some whisper of intuition that, for once, she was listening to. "Do you want to get a cup of coffee?"
He considered it for a moment, and smiled and shrugged. "Sure." He scraped up the money in the case and stuffed it in his pocket before nestling his guitar in and locking up. "What's your name?" he asked as they walked down the corridor together.
"Sara. I'm an art student."
She drew when they decided to get married, sliding into it with ease. In the spring, about six months after they met, Orlando asked if she would marry him, just as a favor? Sara had laughed at him as they walked down the street to the apartment that they still shared. It was snowing fat, heavy flakes, and the weather was gray and dingy and had been for more than a week. Once they got back to the apartment and took off their wet coats, Orlando drew Sara into a hard hug and said, "How about marrying me because I don't want to live without you ever again?"
Sara pulled back and looked at him, and he was smiling shyly. "Yes, that I'll do," she answered. Within the week, they stood in a judge's chambers and were married with only their best friends in attendance.
Sara drew the expression of Orlando's face, the tentative, questioning look after he'd posed the question to her the second time.
She drew his early real gigs, after he graduated from the subway busking, back when she never missed a show, no matter how late it went. And she drew the jubilation always on his face after performing.
She stayed awake all night, drinking tea and drawing. At one point, she put on her iPod and listened to his album. Hearing his voice sparked her, made her belly tingle. At seven a.m., she called in to the substitute service to request a sub. All around her on the floor were these scenes of life. Two of the cats were lying on some of them. Her fingers were covered in graphite. She knew the choice to be made, and she knew what the choice would be.
Title graphic: "Across the Platform" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.