Once a Sarah, Always a Sarah
"Sarahland" by Sam Cohen, recommended by Andrea Lawlor
Introduction by Andrea Lawlor
Not to brag but I’ve been a fan of Sam Cohen’s work for years. Before this week I’d mostly read Cohen’s stories as Word docs, or in Xeroxed zines, or on the web. There’s something very bare, very immediate, about reading that way, what the poets call blocks of text.
Now I’m holding in my hands this pink-and-green hardback of Sarahland, Cohen’s debut collection, and everything makes so much sense. Great cover design can do that, articulate something about the book you didn’t know you knew. Sarahland’s cover nods back to the queer punk literary scene of the early 90s: the heyday of Serpents’ Tail, the High Risk anthologies, the neon cut-n-paste look of New Queer Cinema posters, old Homocore zines. You know that dream of another room in your house? Sarahland’s that room for me, the new New Narrative classic I’d somehow missed the first time around, magically updated to this world now and from the perspectives of a series of edgy cool girls named Sarah.
In the title story, “Sarahland,” we meet a college student Sarah, and then a pack of maybe interchangeable other Sarahs, default-friends our own Sarah sort of hates. The first astonishment: every sentence casts a little spell, reminds what a sentence can do. Another, arguably related, astonishment: Cohen treats all these Sarahs with the same tender scrutiny. We might be rooting hardest for Dr. Sarah, our Sarah, but we can’t dismiss any of the Sarahs because Cohen’s authorial solidarity won’t let us—they’re wrong but they’re not bad; they’re multiple but specific. It’s a femme power-move, Cohen re-writing even the newest narratives.
Our Sarah is complex in that familiar queer way: she struggles to figure out why she’s so fascinated by a Sasha, the roommate of one of the other Sarahs; she tries to get out of the friend-group trap she’s in without biting off her own leg; she continually fends off a creeping “infestation of boys.” Well, she tries to fend off the infesting boys. Compulsory heterosexuality here is the airborne toxic event, every season’s Big Bad. “Sarahland” pivots hard, a signature move throughout Cohen’s collection. Everything’s prismatic, everything shifts, we’re not stuck in the old world. The dumb patriarchy gets downgraded to backstory for this multiverse of Sarahs, each their own star.
– Andrea Lawlor
Author of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
Once a Sarah, Always a Sarah
“Sarahland” by Sam Cohen
You’ve read the story, but there’s no forest here, no wolf. No subterfuge is necessary; the boys are everywhere, out in the open, an infestation. Like cockroaches, they’re most visible at night.
We stiletto them in the bellies and elbow them aside to clear a path down the hallway. We roll our eyes at their begging or pout and wag our fingers. We invite them in or pretend later we invited them in or slam the door in their faces or slam their fingers in the door. We grab one by the hand and continue down the hallway because he’s cute or because we want to fend off other boys or because we want to make someone jealous. We pretend to be angry at them or we pretend to like them or we feel angry or we like them.
We have time to kill so we’re watching a movie. The movie is Heathers. We’re in sweats with the school’s initials on our butts, and Sarah A. is eating broccoli that was once frozen but is now microwaved with yellow I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray pooled in its florets. Last quarter, Sarah A. was bent on gaining the Freshman Fifteen, dousing her cafeteria fro-yo in chocolate syrup and gummi worms, ordering three a.m. pizza and saying, eat girls. College was supposed to be fun, and the Freshman Fifteen was proof you were having it. This quarter, though, Sarah A. was poking at the slight curve of her belly above her low-rise jeans and proclaiming, “I’m o-beast!” In this new phase, Sarah A.’s room smelled perpetually of microwaved broccoli and Febrezed-over farts.
It is a time when I have, without trying, fallen into a group of Sarahs—Sarah A., Sarah B., plus me. I am also a Sarah A., but no one calls me that. They call me Dr. Sarah, kind of mocking my premed major.
“Are you serious, you’re so pretty,” said the real Sarah A. when we first met in line at the frozen yogurt machine in the cafeteria. “You really don’t need to do all that work.” Sarah A. was always very certain about what you did or didn’t need to do. But after she said it, I looked around in chem class and saw that, yeah, I was prettier than everyone.
“We’re just here for our MRS degrees,” Sarah B. spun around and added. Sarahs A. and B. were both five foot zero and bird-boned, with dark hair. Sarah A.’s was glossy and long and Sarah B.’s was poofy and pyramid-shaped. Next to them, I was a giant: four inches taller, salon-blond, an obvious nose job. “Ambition’s attractive to guys, though,” Sarah B. said. “You have to show them you’re not like other girls or whatever.” She popped her lips, pocketed her gloss, and pulled the fro-yo lever. “I’m going to be prelaw until I get engaged. I’ll go to law school if I have to, but hopefully I’ll never have to practice.”
It was a weird plan, so weird I wondered if Sarah B. was lying, like, was she stating her deepest fear as her goal so it would feel like success when it came true? My own secret plan was to be premed until I could figure out how to be one of those ocean scientists who spends a bunch of their time swimming naked in a pack of dolphins. It seemed like the beginning was the same—introductory bio, o-chem, et cetera and then somewhere a secret level unlocked, and you underwent a series of quests you didn’t know about yet, and boom: dolphins.
We lived in a privately owned off-campus dormitory where 90 percent of the girls were named Sarah, or else Rachel, Alyssa, Jamie, Becca, Carrie, Elana, or Jen. The other 10 percent were named Bari, Shira, and Arielle. The whole dorm was Jewish. I never understood how these things happened. Nowhere on any of the dorm’s advertising materials, which had succeeded in making me so excited to live with no parents in a building of studious eighteen-year-olds with a frozen yogurt machine, did it say the word Jewish, but it seemed wherever I went in my life, everyone was Jews. While I might think I was making independent choices and moving around freely in the world, it was as though a secret groove had been carved, and some invisible bumpers were going to push me gently back into that groove, the Jew groove, Sarahland, and Sarahland would trick me and trick me into thinking it was the entire world. It was confounding when I learned Jews were only 3 percent of the country, because, where was everybody else?
“We’re like Heathers, but Sarahs,” Sarah B. says.
“Sarahs are just Jewish Heathers,” says Sarah A., touching up her manicure with a stroke of light pink.
“Sasha’s totally the Winona Ryder,” Sarah A. loud-whispers.
Sasha’s phone rings a few minutes later and she springs out of bed and cups her hand over the mouth part as she sidles into the bathroom.
Sasha is Sarah A.’s roommate. She wears black leggings and tank tops and when we’re there at ten p.m. flat-ironing and measuring shots of vodka into our cranberry juice or back in the room at three a.m. holding each other’s hair back for puking and/or eating baked ziti pizza, Sasha is locked in the bathroom, on the phone with her boyfriend who goes to some other school in some other state. Her eyes are always puffy around the bottom, but she’s skinny with naturally straight black hair and she doesn’t seem to give a shit about us or what happens during our nights out and this makes her glamorous. I’m stuck in a horde of Sarahs but Sasha’s on her own, crying alone in the bathroom or smoking alone on the dormitory’s front stoop like someone’s divorced mom.
“I want to be Winona Ryder,” I say.
“You’re so weird Dr. Sarah,” says Sarah B.
“The Heathers are who is cool in this movie,” says Sarah A. “Winona Ryder is demented. She’s friends with the fat girl in the end.”
It isn’t the right way to even watch the movie I was pretty sure. You’re supposed to want to be Winona Ryder, attached to a cool boy in a leather jacket who shoots up princesses and jocks and thereby shoots up culture itself. There seem to be only two options in Heathers and probably everywhere—either you’re attached to a group of girls and obsessed with diets and clothes or you’re attached to a boy and obsessed with freedom and killing people. Sasha seems to be breaking the rule: she’s attached to a boy, I guess, but he’s an absent boy, a phone boy.
I am feeling unsure about my own level of pleasure, being subsumed into a Sarah horde but I’m also unsure how to extricate myself, where I would even go. My own roommate Shira clearly wants a bestie with whom to flat-iron while trying on clothes and taking vodka shots, but she’s desperate and therefore a worse version of the thing I already have. The Sarahs at least have an ease with which they flat-iron and match shoes to outfits and take vodka shots and when something comes easily you can shrug it off like you barely even want it, and then you’re more or less cool at least.
I ended up in this group partly because my best camp friend Ayelet was best friends with Sarah B. in high school. Every time I look at Sarah B. I remember how Ayelet and I swore to each other that camp was the only time/place that counted as Real Life, how we promised that our real selves would hibernate for ten months and only reemerge upon entry, next summer, into the North Woods. We held each other each August in the Minneapolis airport like a couple about to be separated by war, and wept.
Sarah B., I’m realizing as I watch her smash her eyelashes between those medieval-looking metal clampers, is only best friends with Ayelet’s non-camp self, her impostor self, the shell of Ayelet. But now I’m stuck. Sarah B. invited me along on an early Bed Bath & Beyond trip based on our mutual Ayelet friendship and later invited me to sit with the Sarahs and soon Sarah A. made a laminated chart of all our schedules so that we could only walk to and from class in a group and suddenly, without getting to fully decide, I was a Sarah.
The Nice Jewish Boys live in the dorm across the street, but for some reason, they are always in our dorm, leaning on hallway walls, sprawled across furniture, lying ghoulishly under our covers when we return from nights out. This is no grandma/wolf situation because there’s no trickery—instead, the NJBs are in plain sight, drunk and wanting. They pound on our doors and shout our names, scrawl WHERE ARE YOU SARAHHHH on our dry-erase boards in all caps, materialize next to us while we’re passed-out drunk. We wake, sometimes, with their slobber on our faces, their shoes in our sheets, their palms clawed around our boobs in a way they didn’t try that hard to make look accidental.
Sarahs A. and B. are excellent at fighting the boy infestation. They spray disinfectant constantly, are always wiping things down. Possibly it’s their pack mentality that keeps the boys away. They are clicked into each other, satisfied with doing nothing but taking cab rides to TCBY, working out on the elliptical downstairs, making popcorn and watching rom-coms until they meet their husbands, who certainly aren’t going to be any of the infesting boys. The infesting boys aren’t ready to be met yet, as husbands. I have a wandering eye though—I’m not looking for a husband but I am looking for something and, for the boys, my curiosity is like a small glob of peanut butter on the countertop in the summertime must be for ants. It makes them swarm.
Going Out is something we have to do every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. I’m not sure if any of us like it, but we show up for it like we show up for class, like we would show up for a job if we had one. I’m not sure how everyone found out about Going Out, how everyone discovered it will make these The Best Years of Our Lives but at eight p.m. on Thursdays, my roommate Shira starts automatically flat-ironing her hair and Sarah B. sends out a group text saying, What are we doing tonight? and Sarah A. says, Meet in my room at 9.
We walk down icy streets in high heels with peacoats covering our almost-bare skin and arrive at a bar where drinks are expensive and sit in a crowded judgey room and talk mostly to each other or else to people we like even less. In the best case scenario, Sarahs A. and B. feel that we might meet our husbands when we Go Out because the older boys are there, too, but this is a real outside chance so mostly we just go spend nine dollars apiece on cosmos and stand around in uncomfortable shoes.
We try on halter tops, tank tops, boatneck tops, cowl-neck tops, scoop-neck tops, cold-shoulder tops, tube tops, sparkly tops, sheer tops, stretchy tops, and silky tops. We use little paint brushes to cover our zits and freckles. Every time we look at ourselves in the mirror, we jut our lips forward and gaze serious and sexy like we want to fuck our own reflections, and I wonder if any of us know what our actual faces even look like. We measure shots of vodka into cups of cranberry cocktail. We line up in a row and set our camera timers to take photos.
We lean over Sarah A.’s digital camera to scrutinize our looks. We can see ourselves a little differently in the camera’s display screen than we do in the mirror. We’re smiling now, convincing the viewfinder we’re having the best time.
Sarah A. grabs the camera and pouts at it. “I hate my nose,” she whines. “When I get my nose job, I’m totally taking photos of Dr. Sarah with me.”
Sarah B. laughs, leaning over Sarah A.’s shoulder to look, too. “Good plan, I’m going to also. Dr. Sarah you truly have the best nose job in the whole dorm.”
“Thanks,” I say.
The truth was, I didn’t even want my nose job. My parents had returned from Vegas “up fifty thousand” as they said. They pulled up in a limo, champagne-drunk and ecstatic, and announced their plan to divvy the money toward projects they’d been meaning to attend to: spider vein removal for my mother, a dining room table finally, a nose job for me.
I cried and slammed my bedroom door and refused to go but somehow I ended up in the surgeon’s chair shot up with drugs anyway and when I woke up my face was black and blue and three weeks later everyone agreed I looked like a shikse.
We put finishing touches on our looks and sing “Dancing Queen” while flat-ironing the bumps out of the backs of each other’s hair.
“Come here, Dr. Sarah, you always have schmutz on your face,” says Sarah A., clutching my jaw between her thumb and middle finger and turning my head from side to side for inspection. She licks a finger from her other hand and swats my cheek. We all check our little silver snap cases for our fake IDs and then we go to the bar.
The bar is called Stillwaters. Everyone calls it Stills but I think of it privately as the Stagnant Pond. The Pond’s packed with Jewish girls from our dorm and Jewish boys from the boys’ dorm plus all the kids who have ever lived in those dorms.
The boys are at the bar, but they barely talk to us there. At the bar, they’re busy doing boy things—taking tequila shots and clapping each other on the back, shouting. We stand at the bar checking out other groups of girls and the truth is everyone looks like there was a memo: dewy skin and dark eyes, lightly glossed lips, hair meticulously flat-ironed, one of two models of jeans.
I chose this college because of a barista during my campus visit, I think. The barista’s head was shaved on one side and she had piercings all the way up her ear. She seemed angry in general but like she liked me and I thought I would come to know girls like her here. But since Sarah A. created the Excel schedule chart, I only ever went anywhere in a pack. If it was blizzarding excessively, Sarah A. demanded we take a cab. The cab would go on streets we didn’t normally take. I’d see a group of kids with Kool-Aid hair and fingerless gloves standing around outside a coffee shop smoking, probably talking about deep things. I felt like they might know the locations of some of the keys to the levels I’d need to pass through in order to be a dolphin scientist. But I was destined, it seemed, only to ever get glimpses outside the Jew groove from a cab window.
Tonight, it’s blizzarding excessively. Luckily we have scarves with us, which we wrap around our heads and necks, like babushkas, Sarah B. says, and run screaming in our stilettos through the wind and snow into the pizza place. Sarah A. gets a white spinach slice, I get a baked ziti slice, and Sarah B. gets margherita, which she daubs with napkins until there’s a pile of see-through napkins on the table and the cheese looks putty-dry.
Everyone who was at Stagnant Pond is in here now, drunk and eating various permutations of cheesy complex carbs. After pizza comes the worst part, which is the part where we have to stand out on the street corner in our stilettos with two hundred other people, all of whom were in the Stagnant Pond with us, and then the pizza place. Here is where we start to talk to other people for the first time. An older boy named Jon approaches and says, “Hey, how you been?” and I say “good” and he says “Cool wanna come over?” The thing is I’d gone home with him the week before and I was starting to understand that this is how it went: you gave someone a blow job and then once you gave the blow job and they never called, you felt rejected and a little sad even if you hadn’t liked them very much and so then you stood outside the next week with wind whipping snowflakes in your face in case they wanted another one. I’m not looking forward to trying to make my way through the boy infestation in my dorm and also I’m freezing and don’t want to stand in the snow anymore, so I say okay, and we run two blocks to his apartment, where I get under his covers, give him a blow job, and fall asleep.
When I wake up, I hear a voice say to me, To thine own self be true! I collect phrases I like, like this, in my quote book and eventually they become internal voices, reverberating in my head as though they’re my conscience or spirit guides. I feel guilty about giving a blow job I knew in advance I’d find unpleasant, to a boy I knew would never call, and then I feel, I am a social animal! We’re hardwired to form complex societies, so why should I be some loner animal that is trying to resist everything asked of me? I can stand around in the freezing wind and then give boys blow jobs if that is the ritual of my society! I put on my tank top and jeans from the night before and walk out of the older boy’s apartment in my stilettos, headache searing behind my eyes, in the snow.
I thought college would be exactly like summer camp, that there was a magic formula where you put a bunch of girls in an enclosed space without parents and we’d become Real. But, I deduced after major sleuthing, two factors were getting in the way: money and boys.
Neither existed at camp and here both were everywhere. The annual social we’d have with the nearby boy’s camp was the worst day of the year: everyone unearthed makeup and flat-irons stowed under bunk beds for the other fifty-eight days of camp. Normally we spent our days and nights sailing and tie-dyeing towels and weaving macramé wall hangings and trying to get up on one water ski and singing along to Joni Mitchell and the Indigo Girls around a literal bonfire but suddenly on the day of the social we only cared about having the straightest hair and the clearest skin and someone was always being a cunt to her best friend and someone was always crying.
Here we had the boy infestation, and money that came in seemingly endless forms. One form was the purses that hung on everyones’ doors, Pradas and Kate Spades and Louis Vuittons. I didn’t understand these purses, what they meant, but I sort of understood they had something to do with the Holocaust. These girls’ grandmas wanted them to know that here in America they could not be turned to soap, and these bags proved it. The bags were a display of patriotism; American flags might be goyishe and tacky but Prada bags were little markers of belief in liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the land of the free. Granddaughters could send pictures of themselves standing in a row of flat-ironed and haltered girls, each with a Prada bag, and their bubbes would feel, these girls were so safe.
I don’t have a Prada bag. My own mother celebrates her freedom by finding excellent deals at Loehmann’s on purses she swears look expensive but, I can see now, do not. My Loehmann’s purses are one of the reasons the other Sarahs feel like they need to teach me how to live.
“Dr. Sarah,” Sarah A. says. We’re sitting at a lunch table eating salads. It’s the day after the blow job. “I’ve been paying close attention. You actually eat super healthy foods, so I think you’re just eating too much of them.”
Embarrassment blooms rosacea-like all over my skin. Eating is the world’s greatest shame. I just learned the word slut-shaming from a flyer posted to one of the student union bulletin boards, but as far as I can tell, you can swallow dick in any quantity and no one cares. It’s true that if you were bad at fighting the boy infestation you were known as a slut, which I was. People thought being a slut made it ridiculous that I also planned to be a doctor, but I was a science major and I didn’t see how the two were correlative. Anyway, food and not sex was the real source of humiliation.
“Maybe try just eating half of whatever you were going to eat,” says Sarah A.
Sarah A. is putting me in an impossible position. Either I’m going to eat half and act like I didn’t know how to go on a diet by myself or I’m going to keep eating the same amount and make Sarah A. think I have no self-control.
I’m fatter than the other Sarahs, but I haven’t always been fat. Fourteen transformed my thighs into Spanish hams that spread out wide and flat, sticking to bleachers and peeling off painfully in summertime. My chest sprung overnight C cups. At fifteen, I reduced my calorie count to 400 daily. Four hundred seemed like enough for basic metabolic processes, yet few enough to strip the meat from my thighs and breasts, to make me less like a bucket of chicken and more like a super skinny girl. On 400 calories, I could wear crop halters and black leggings to musical practice. On 400 calories, my mom rewarded me with shopping trips. On 400 calories, I no longer went poo, which was nice because poo had always disgusted me and I no longer bled from my vag, which was also nice because I had been praying not to bleed from my vag ever since I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and really really didn’t identify with Margaret but did learn about certain kinds of negotiations you could make with God. Four hundred calories made it difficult to hang out with other people, but this, too, was okay, since only camp was Real Life. I could go home and sit in my room and record tape-letters to Ayelet and listen to tape-letters from her, especially the mix tapes she’d make at the end when she was done talking, Tori and Ani, Fiona and Liz. I listened to her tapes like they were church, or what I imagined church would be like. I listened for secret meanings, for lines about me. At open campus lunch, I could drive home in order to eat one microwaved frozen veggie patty. After musical practice, I declined fro-yo invitations from the naturally skinny girls for whom sugar-free was promise enough. When the taffeta dress I was meant to wear as my costume for the musical arrived, the entire top half fell off my shoulders and down to my waist where it gathered in ripples around my hips. “Did you send in the wrong measurements or did you shrink?” the woman fitting me joked. “You girls are so tiny,” she said. She went to find an extra, smaller dress somewhere, and I beamed.
At camp, we bonded by sneaking chocolate into our cabins. In the dorm, though, chocolate’s allowed so we have to sneak vodka. One tiny shot glass is 100 calories and then you have to chase it with some kind of juice, and at three a.m. you’re starving and when you get to the pizza place, spinning with vodka and a snow-blasted face, it’s impossible not to devour the whole slice.
It’s Sarah A. who has, in the first place, encouraged us to get burritos, beer and vegan hot wings, Doritos and wine. Sarah A. with her long black hair and super selective smile and overall tininess is convincing. And while the other girls are still petite even with their fifteen pounds, I am fat now and trying to distract from it with glitter powder on my eyes and décolletage. While the other girls stay in their packs, puking and having snacks, I am bent on being independent. I relish the time after two a.m. when there’s no laminated information about where I should be and I’m suddenly free. But I’m also drunk, even after puking and/or snacks, and terrible at fending off my own boy-infestation—I wake with them lying on top of me, breathing into my mouth.
This is what eating leads to. You start recklessly putting things into your body and you just become permeable. When I become a dolphin, I will eat only raw fish, catching them in my teeth as they swim by.
Even though all the kids in the private dorm have a list of the easiest classes the university offers and enroll en masse for Scandinavian Literature in order to meet their Comm B requirement, I care about learning and do not care about Scandinavia. I am a rebel in this small way. So spring quarter I enroll in a class called Integrated Liberal Studies, which promises to “imagine a method of critical thought that produces writing with the potential to change the world.” This is exciting—I’ve been discovering the pleasure of getting stoned and writing in my journal under the covers—and secretly I guess I do want to change the world, to make it void of money and boys at least.
For the first day of Integrated Liberal Studies, I wear my edgiest outfit, a kelly-green minidress over jeans, and let my hair dry wavy instead of flat-ironing it. Still, I feel like an impostor, an obvious JAP, when I see the other looks in the lecture hall—dreadlocks and pants held together by patches; cropped hair dyed yellow. Leaving class, I see Sasha, in a gray V-neck and skinny jeans, putting a notebook into her brown leather bag, which looks like the kind the professors have. Sasha’s hair falls to mid-back, straight without being flat-ironed, just a few choppy layers in the front. She looks like a celebrity photographed at Starbucks in the “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” section but also like a serious philosophy student.
“Hey,” she says. “How’s it going?”
I have never been someone who knew how to answer this question. I nod enthusiastically.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” she says. “I didn’t know you cared about philosophy. No offense.”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“Wanna get lunch?” Sasha asks. I do. I text the Sarahs: Have to meet with my TA; I’ll see you guys later, but I worry that they’ll wait at our meeting spot anyway, so I lead Sasha down a side street where we’ll miss them. We walk to the Mediterranean place where you get a plate of whatever combination of vegetarian things they’re serving that day for $5: spinach pie, olives, hummus, rice, cucumbers. We start arguing about the thinkers from class. I love Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wants us to live free of society, to throw off our JAP-y chains and roam wild like bears or geese.
Sasha rolls her eyes, pours hot sauce into her soup. “Rousseau is just some clueless dude with a dumb romantic fantasy of living like the savage brown people,” she said, using bouncy single-digit air quotes around savage brown people. I’d never heard anyone talk like this, in a way that could make me feel like the Great Men were just dudes we could know. It makes so much sense though. What other kinds of dudes would they be? “It’s all about Rawls,” she insists. “The original position. We have to design our morality imagining we’re all sitting in a boardroom, all starting over, and we don’t know where in society we’ll start out.”
Rawls is boring to me. I hate boardrooms. I don’t need society, I tell her—I can roll around in the dirt and eat fruit from trees.
Sasha rolls her eyes. “You’re such a white girl,” she says. Sasha was raised in a Jewish suburb, but she was born in the Caribbean. This is part of what makes her a little exciting, I know: you look at the Jewish girls and just see your own issues, your same mom trauma, a little fun-house-mirrored but still. The white kind of goyim are mysterious, too, but not in a way we care about—we mock their taste for mayonnaise and floral print, for promptness and guns. We avoid them in our classes without even trying.
“Let’s get a drink,” Sasha says once we’ve eaten every single thing on our plates. It seems like Sasha can eat whatever she wants, like eating involves neither shame nor calculations, and she still ends up a super skinny girl. We go into a bar with our fake IDs, where Sasha orders a dark-colored microbrew. The bar is dim and empty, we sit on stools. I somehow hadn’t realized you could just wander into a bar in the daytime. The possibilities for interacting with the world feel expanded and I don’t know what to order. I’ve never been in a bar except for Going Out on Thursday through Saturday nights, and it seems like it would be weird to order a Cosmo here. I ask for what Sasha has. It feels cool to drink something heavy and bitter on purpose.
I tell Sasha about the boy I’ve now given two blow jobs to, only I don’t phrase it like that, I say, hooked up with, and how I can barely find anything special about him to like, except that now that he’s not calling me I feel like I’m not special and want his attention. And I start thinking, well, he does have a really cute smile and he plays the guitar, which is cool, and he talks so little that he’s probably secretly really smart.
“I’m going to read you bell hooks,” Sasha says, and fishes a book from her professor bag, opens it. She reads an underlined sentence: “If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining.”
“I guess,” I say. I only feel real, I know, as a reflection, as part of a Sarah horde. I feel like Sasha’s full of shit also because what is she crying about in the bathroom, then, if she doesn’t want to be legitimated.
“I want to at least not have to be legitimated by anyone in our stupid dorm,” Sasha clarifies, as if reading my mind. “Or by boys, generally.”
I feel a surge of very intense feeling in my chest because I’ve never heard anyone acknowledge that our dorm is stupid or that boys ruin everything.
“You think our dorm is stupid?” I say. “I do, too.”
“It’s a Jewish marriage machine,” Sasha shrugs. Sasha has this cheery nihilistic vibe that makes it seem impossible that she spends her evenings crying in the bathroom.
“I think boys are stupid, too,” I blurt.
“Yeah. I made out with my girl TA last weekend,” Sasha says. I don’t know what to say to that; I feel shocked in a way like the world has exploded open and anything on earth is possible, like I could be a dolphin after all.
“What about your boyfriend?” I ask.
“I think I’m done with him,” Sasha says. “I’m over Jewish boys.”
She says it as though I haven’t heard her crying in the bathroom over and over, as though she’s the coolest person on earth.
“It’s not like they’ll ever be serious about me anyway,” she adds. “I’m, like, a fun island vacation before they find their Jewish wives.” What she’s describing sounds painful, but she is smiling, so I don’t know what to say.
A pasty bearded dude in a beanie and flannel next to us asks Sasha what she’s reading.
“It’s bell hooks,” says Sasha, “but we’d like to be left alone to enjoy each other’s company please.”
The guy looks startled, and when Sasha turns back to me, he mutters “Bitch” under his breath but loud enough that we can hear. I look at the way Sasha’s hair curves around her elbow, the way a combination of smoking and crying has made her look so sick-good in her V-neck tee tucked into high-waisted jeans.
We walk back to the dorm sharing a clove cigarette and talking about bands Sasha likes. She promises to burn me CDs. It’s my first clove and it makes me feel like we’re art kids in some movie in the ’70s instead of 2000s JAPs, like with Sasha I can time travel. When we get back inside, boys are seeping from wall crevices and popping around corners. Sasha waves her Longchamp tote around like a dangerous wand and the boys seep back into the walls.
The following Thursday night, Sarah B. IMs us: Hey girls, what’s the plan?
Sarah A. IMs back, My room at 9? Everyone’s going to Stills. Sarah B. sends back a sideways smiley. Fun! See you girls soon! I feel a sick fluttering feeling. I feel weird about being in Sarah and Sasha’s room in my halter and glitter décolletage, weird about Sasha watching me take vodka shots with the Sarahs, or else only seeing her as she slams the bathroom door behind her, revealing her over-it-ness to be a lie. I need to do what I can to preserve our idea of ourselves as girls who day drink, arguing about philosophy. I write back, I’m feeling kind of sick, I think I’m gonna stay in.
Are you really sick, Dr. Sarah, or are you just being weird?
The Sarahs are always calling me weird and it’s oddly effective. I don’t want to be weird. I hesitate. I’m going to stay in, I type.
She’s being weird, Sarah B. IMs. I roll my eyes and shut my computer.
I sit on my bed with the Bible open in front of me. We’re reading it for the Integrated Liberal Studies class, focusing on the red parts, what Jesus said. It’s my first introduction to Jesus. Jesus is all right. I always thought Jesus was tacky because I’ve mostly seen him rendered in pastels made out of cheap-looking plastic or all boo-hoo anorexic and tacked up for display. Along with reading, I’m sitting on my purple flannel sheet watching Shira straighten her hair in her vanity mirror with adjustable zoom and lighting. “Do I look okay?” she asks, watching me watch her in the reflection. Shira is slightly too fat to ask if she looks fat; it’s embarrassing, I think, for the word fat to even come out of her mouth. The best she could try to make you say was okay.
“Yeah,” I say, not really wanting to say anything more, even though I think she would look actually pretty if she didn’t look so anxious and sad. She has the right brand of jeans and the right pointy-toed boots, a good haircut and highlights, heavily mascaraed yellow-green eyes. Somehow I can’t be nice to Shira, though. She wants so badly this thing that I feel stuck in. The dorm’s Shiras didn’t cluster the way we did and even though Shira has friends of camp friends in here, too, none of them seem to want to hang out with her. “Where are you going?” I ask, deadpan and staring like she’s probably going somewhere dumb.
“I think people are going to Stills?” she says like a question. “Jenny’s coming to get me.”
Jenny is Shira’s one friend and it’s clear they don’t like each other that much, just both failed to work their ways into the group of girls they’d wanted. It’s sad to see them together— Jenny has curls cut into a bushy shape, a too-obvious nose job, and darting owl eyes that make her look like she wants to gouge yours out. She arrives, and after she and Shira greet each other awkwardly, they leave. I lie on my bed and read about Jesus.
Like an hour later there’s a knock on my door. I don’t want to deal with any of the infesting boys. SARAHHH one yells. I don’t respond. He keeps banging. I realize that the boys aren’t slithering through the crack in the bottom of the door or emerging from the walls: Shira’s just opening the door and letting them in. She’s so desperate to be a cool girl, I think, and the way to be a cool girl is to be in cahoots with the boys. I feel mad at Shira and then smile a little at the loyalty of the boys, who wait just for me.
The knocking stops finally and then starts again and persists and I hear a decisive voice say, “Sarah!” but the voice is female. It’s Sasha’s voice. I’m wearing sweats with the school’s initials on the butt and even though she’s seen me in these sweats countless times in her room, I feel embarrassed by them now. “One sec,” I call. I throw on a floral baby-doll dress that covers my butt. Is a baby-doll dress with sweats cool and arty looking? I’m not sure but I look in the mirror and the overall impression is: cute. I gather my unstraightened hair into two giant buns, with fuzzy waves dangling from each. I open the door.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” says Sasha. “I was wondering if you felt okay.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I just didn’t feel like Going Out.”
“Cool, I figured,” she says, walking past the threshold and into my room, just like the boys do. “Wanna listen to music?”
She’s brought Jameson. I’ve never tried whiskey and I feel, like, how did she come across these things in this vodka cranberry dorm? It tastes like men, I think, or it tastes like we’re men. We sit side by side on my bed and she opens her laptop and plays songs from Napster. Portishead, Zero 7, Radiohead, Erykah Badu. The Sarahs like Billy Joel and REO Speedwagon and with whiskey and Portishead swimming through my head I feel new.
“What do you want to be?” I ask her. It seems like this should be the obvious question of college because ostensibly we’re all here to become something but people mostly don’t talk about it, acting instead like we’re just going to be here in college forever.
“Civil rights lawyer,” she says. “What about you?”
“Ocean scientist,” I say, “but only secretly. Publicly, I’m premed.”
Sasha laughs. “But probably you’ll be a middle school biology teacher and marry a doctor, right?” She swigs whiskey and then passes me the bottle.
“What?” I say.
“I mean ultimately you’re a Sarah,” says Sasha.
I feel stung. I felt like we were connecting, like she was seeing me in a way that was different from how the Sarahs see me, like with Sasha I was becoming not a Sarah but just Sarah, the only Sarah, Sasha and Sarah. I say, “I’m not.” I sip from the whiskey bottle.
We’re silent after that, sitting against the wall and smoking weed and listening to a whole Radiohead album and sometimes commenting on it. There are two colors in my head, it says, and says it again. The voice sounds too fast, all over the place, like it can’t get a grip on something important. It’s kind of how I feel, stoned and sitting on my bed with Sasha, who feels I’m ultimately a Sarah. She can’t see the other color, I think.
The next day the Sarahs IM to meet in the lobby at eleven. We get breakfast like we always do on Fridays and then we go to the town’s expensive jeans store. Sarahs A. and B. somehow know how to talk to the perfect-looking girls who work in this store that has clearly hired a multiethnic staff of girls who each look like the Barbie version of their ethnic group.
“What washes do you have in the new Citizens of Humanity?” Sarah A. asks. “I’m looking for something with a medium wash but I’m short-waisted,” explains Sarah B. I stand there feeling weird as the other Sarahs chat with the girls who work there using terminology I seem to have failed to learn. “Look at this white V-neck, Sar,” Sarah B. says to Sarah A., ignoring me. I look at the V-neck, too, even though I haven’t been invited to. “It’s sixty-eight dollars for a T-shirt?” I whisper loudly. Both Sarahs glare. “Here, Dr. Sarah,” Sarah A. says, passing me a purple halter. “This would be cute on you for Going Out.”
“I don’t know,” I say. The truth is the store is so expensive that it feels pointless to look at anything.
“Come on,” she says.
“It’s cute, Dr. Sarah,” says Sarah B. “You need to show your boobs more.”
I try it on. Both Sarahs and two of the salesgirls gush and gush and gush and I can’t see what’s so special about the purple halter, but it begins to feel as though I’m stupid for not being able to see what’s so special about the purple halter, and without the ability to discern whether it is or is not special, I have no language with which to defend my disinclination to buy it.
When the salesgirl swipes my debit card for $61.48 including tax, I feel like she’s stealing my money.
Still, I wear the halter to Sarah A. and Sasha’s room that night for Going Out and Sasha says “That top looks amazing on you” and I blush. Sasha keeps looking at me and while she’s looking she says, “I want to go out with you guys.”
“Sashy!” Sarah A. says. “Yes, come.” She doesn’t say it fakely but in a genuine way because they’re friends, too, Sarah A. and Sasha, even if Sarah A. makes fun of Sasha and thinks she’s totally weird.
Sasha puts on a yellow T-shirt from Urban Outfitters that says Blondes Have More Fun, which is funny, I think, and then flat-irons her already straight black hair and does her lip gloss and eyeliner.
“Where are we going?” Sarah B. asks and Sarah A. says “Stills?”
Sasha says, “I hate Stills.” It’s so brave I think, to say that.
“I kind of hate Stills, too,” I try.
Sarah A. stops mid brushstroke, hip cocked, one side of her hair stretched all the way out in a diagonal. She meets my eyes in the mirror. “Fine,” says Sarah A. She’s not the type to fight when her authority’s not respected, which is part of why, I realize, I like her. If you don’t know what you want, she’ll definitely tell you, but if you do, she’ll roll her eyes and then lay off.
“Let’s do something more chill,” Sasha says.
Chill, I realize, means boots instead of stilettos. I stop in my room and change into tall brown boots, a knee-length denim skirt. I can’t find tights so I wear thermals underneath, thick wool socks with snowflakes on them. I keep the purple halter on and it’s a good outfit, I think. I put on my labradorite necklace to signify to the chill people of wherever we go that even if I don’t look like it, I have a connection to the universe, that I am available for a conversation that might be called “deep.” I throw a puffy on over the whole ensemble and we meet in the lobby.
It’s almost 40 degrees so we’re comfortable walking downtown in our scarves and hats. We check out the people standing in lines, look at what brand their parkas are and how they stand and how their laughs sound. We peer into doorways. Sarah B. gets intrigued by a blue-lit martini bar full of adults.
“Come on,” Sasha says, “I know a place.” We follow her down a set of stairs into a bar in a basement with a dirty checkerboard floor and a pool table.
“We are definitely not going to meet our husbands here,” Sarah B. says, brows hoisted, and Sasha and I exchange a look that feels so intimate, we both break out laughing.
“We’re just here to chill,” Sasha says.
“I don’t know how to chill!” Sarah A. confesses. Her eyes bug out and then she cracks up. This is why I like her, too, her solidity, the way she never tries to pretend to be someone she’s not.
We get drinks and then Sasha wants to play pool. Of course Sasha knows how to play pool, which of course is also shocking since she spends most nights crying in the bathroom. Sasha has a secret day life, I realize. Sarah A. weirdly knows how to play, too, and coaches Sarah B. while Sasha coaches me, standing behind me and talking about angles and ricochet. I do all right and Sasha is like, “fuck yes,” low-fiving me and clinking beers and I feel amazing.
Two guys come up, hippies, in my mind, because they’re wearing cargo pants and T-shirts, because they have scruffy beards and one has a necklace made out of some kind of fibrous material, with beads.
“You girls are skilled,” one says.
“Yeah we are,” says Sasha.
The other Sarahs stay huddled at the corner of the table as though these blond boys are strange animals.
The guys introduce themselves and immediately I realize I haven’t retained their names—Sean or Steve or Seth and Mike or Matt or Jeff.
We introduce ourselves and then I glance at Sarahs A. and B. at the other corner of the table. They’re engaged in conversation, like, they’re not going to bother.
Sean or Steve asks where we live and we tell him.
“Whoa, you girls seem too cool for that dorm,” he says. “You don’t seem snobby or stuck up at all.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“You girls want to dance?” asks Seth or Greg.
“Sure,” says Sasha and she tilts her head back and downs the rest of her beer. The boys are practically drooling because it’s all boys want, someone skinny with heavy hair that curls around her elbows but who doesn’t act like whatever they think of as a girl.
We all go over to the dance floor and the Sarahs kind of follow but stay huddled and apart. They’re wearing 7 for All Mankind jeans and Michael Stars T-shirts but they might as well be wearing pastel coats and pillbox hats and have their hands shoved in muffs. Bon Jovi is playing and we’re singing and pumping our hands in the air and I think, We’d never be doing this at the Stagnant Pond. The boys come back with shots and we swallow them.
Then “River of Dreams” comes on and the Sarahs can’t help themselves. They slide their Prada baguettes up beneath their armpits and jump around and sing. They stay and sing through “Sweet Caroline” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Sasha stands and watches, laughing and shaking her head. “This music is so terrible,” she says.
Sarah A. motions for us all to huddle and we do.
“This was fun but I think we should go,” Sarah A. says.
“I’m gonna hang for a little bit,” says Sasha.
“I’ll stay, too,” I say.
“With these anti-Semites?” Sarah B. demands.
“They’re not anti-Semites,” I sigh.
“Oh really? Did you hear what they said about our dorm being snobbish?”
“Our dorm is snobbish.”
“Okay, but you know that he means something different than you when he says that, right?”
I roll my eyes. “I’m not going to marry them,” I say, “I just want to jump around and sing and stuff.”
“Fine,” Sarah A. shrugs. “Be careful and stay with Sashy though, okay?”
“I will,” I say.
“Promise?” Sarah B. asks. “Don’t get drunk.”
Both Sarahs kiss my cheek and leave the basement and the boys go get shots and come back and we take them. This happens a few times. We get drunk.
Sasha and I dance to Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” which kind of moves us away from the boys, because we’re moving our arms like robots and just vibrating our bodies all crazy like they’re being controlled by a remote somewhere outside of us. We’re crashing our bodies into each other only it’s not us doing it, it’s the music making us crash and vibrate and run each other all the way into the wall and laugh hysterically and then this horrible thing happens: Sasha looks up and locks eyes with this other girl right behind me and her jaw drops and she leaps past me and I spin around and they’re embracing. The girl has a little golden fro, a septum ring and black overalls, and she is so so pretty. How does Sasha know this girl? Her secret day life? No one in the dorm has a septum ring. And then I realize they’re still embracing, embracing longer than I’d ever embrace either other Sarah, and kind of rocking, and I realize she’s the girl TA Sasha made out with, she must be. She looks sophisticated, like she knows things. Sasha introduces me, This is Shay!, but their arms stay wrapped around each other, right around each other’s hips and Shay is rubbing the bare skin of Sasha’s shoulder blade with her hand, with its opal and tourmaline rings and lavender nails.
For some reason my face heats up and my eyes start burning. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I say. I lock myself in a stall and sit on the toilet. I ball my hands into fists and push my fists against the wall, and then kind of let my body fall to the side, gravity helping the side of my face, my shoulder and arm, connect with the plastery wall. I fall again and again, each time a little harder than the last, the time between falls lessening. I don’t know why, everything just feels really intense and it feels like I have to meet that intensity with something equal. When I’ve collided with the wall enough times, I stay sitting on the toilet and sort of gulp air.
I look in the mirror and see my face is flecked with red on one side, I’ve coaxed the blood out, made it rise, in dots, to the surface. Oh well, I think. It’s dark out there, and everyone’s drunk. The skin isn’t broken. I wipe away the black smear under my right eye and head back out.
Sasha and Shay are standing at the bar, Shay’s arm around Sasha’s waist and her fingers tucked into one of Sasha’s belt loops. They call me over and say they got us shots. It’s Jägermeister, all licorice and gross.
Sean or Seth or Jeff appears out of nowhere and grabs my hand, says “Let’s dance.” I’m obviously a third wheel and so I go with him to the dance floor and we’re dancing, kind of grinding. Sasha and Shay appear next to us, staring into each other’s eyes and doing robot dance type stuff and laughing. I feel my face starting to burn again.
“Hey, I’m gonna head out,” I shout to everyone.
“Sarah, stay,” Sasha says.
“I’m tired,” I say. “It was nice to meet you,” I tell Shay.
“It was nice to meet you,” says Shay sounding legitimately full of joy, which makes sense because she’s some sort of poli sci genius who is getting to study as like a job and is also making out with Sasha.
“You gonna be okay walking back?” Sasha yells.
“It’s like two point five blocks away.”
“I’ll walk her,” says Seth-Sean.
“No need,” I say.
“Come on,” he says. He grabs my hand and we walk past the dance floor, up the stairs, and out to the street.
“So your friend’s, like, a lesbian?” Seth-Sean asks.
“I’m not really sure,” I say. “I think she’s just experimenting, as they say.”
“That’s cool. You really are a very cool girl,” Seth-Sean says. “It’s surprising that you live in that weird dorm.”
“Thanks,” I say. I feel like he’s just now picking up on my labradorite necklace and believing in it, believing that I’m connected to the universe.
“Do you want to come home with me?” he asks.
It feels sudden. I look at him and realize that maybe I am not that chill, not chill enough to go home with non-Jewish boys, or maybe it’s just that after seeing Sasha and Shay together, the idea of this big mannish person touching me feels gross.
“No,” I say. “I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
“Okay,” he says. “That’s totally cool.”
“Thanks,” I say, and then wonder what I’m thanking him for. “So what do you study?”
“Environmental science,” he says, “It’s great. I’m going to Costa Rica next year to study the cloud forests.”
“That’s so amazing. I didn’t even know environmental science existed. I’d love to do something like that. Cloud forests!”
He laughs. “It exists. Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Are you sure you don’t want to go home with me? I can show you some really amazing nature videos.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I say. I smile. “Nice try, though.”
We get to the doors of my dorm.
“Can I come in?” he asks.
“No, no,” I say. “I really am tired. Just take my number.” This feels like an effective way to fight off an infesting boy that I am well practiced in—give him hope.
“It’s okay, I’ll just find you Out somewhere,” he says. “Good night.” He hugs me and I hug him back. I let it be a long hug, let him pull me in close and bury his face in my neck and let his hands slide down to my waist but then they slide down to my butt and from the butt, he lifts me, pushes me into the entrance vestibule of the dorm and against the wall. I’m not practiced in saying no so instead I say “What are you doing?” and “Hey put me down” or maybe I don’t say that and what’s coming out is a confused unghhh sound and then my skirt’s scrunched up around my hips and my thermals are down, so easily, like he’s done it all, lifted me and unzipped and slipped right in, in a single move and I try wresting free but I can’t and all I can think is someone might walk in. It smells like a clashing blend of expensive perfumes that in their combination have lost all subtlety and become something nauseating and then it’s over. He drops me, and says “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I say.
And it is, I think, okay. It’s like everything. I reenter Sarahland.
In my room, there’s an infesting boy lying in my bed, looking dumb with the bill of his baseball cap curved like a duck or whatever and eyes closed and mouth open, periodically snorting up at the ceiling. His dumbness seems kind of sweet, I think. I change into pajamas my mom sent in a care package, pink flannel covered in cartoon lipsticks, and get in bed. I turn the boy on his side and push him toward the wall. He whines “Sarahhhh” but I just say “ssh” and then he resumes snorting and I crawl in, avoid touching him as much as possible, and try to sleep.