The Stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In Are High-Cost and Gentle

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“I didn’t want another period of instability,” Sara Majka writes in the title story to her spectacular debut Cities I’ve Never Lived In. “I felt the suspension you feel when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stay.”

In the story, being “fine” is traveling by bus across the United States on an assignment to report on soup kitchens. The project had seemed structured and achievable to the narrator at home, but she finds it to be much more elusive in practice, in part because she’s almost as broke as the people she meets. After picking up her first dinner from a truck in Detroit, she reflects, “Holding the bags changed how I felt about myself. It made me feel more vulnerable… For a number of years I had been struggling to hold myself together, though I had worked to disguise this, and now carrying the thin bags made this visible.”

The narrator who frames each of these fourteen stories is vulnerable — she’s caught up in the tumult of an ended marriage, and the poverty of an artist without a back-up plan — and her vulnerability resonates across the desolate landscapes she stops in. In “Boston,” for example, the narrator stays the winter in the empty beach town of Provincetown, Massachusetts. She goes clamming while she’s there, “at first out of curiosity, and then because [she] loved it, and then after that, when the wind became bitter, the clams scarce, the ice on the jetty treacherous, simply because [she] didn’t know what else to do.”

The narration in the stories maintains an anchored and distinct sense of loss, and — in part because of occasional biographical overlaps — it often seems to engage with memoir. The ex-husband Richard feels vivid and continuous each time he appears, as does the runaway father, as does the craving for a baby before it’s too late. But, it’s unclear where or when Majka switches between fiction and nonfiction. Her stories seem to resist those genres.

In a recent essay for Catapult, Majka wrote, “Not long ago, I realized that whenever I picked out books to teach my freshman composition students, I often picked ones where the narrator could be confused with the writer …I would guess my attraction to those books has something to do with an alleviation of loneliness that comes from that proximity to a real person, though that may not be it. It’s hard to say why this work means so much to me. You sense the cost of it.”

The stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In are high-cost, and also necessarily gentle. In addition to the narrator reporting on her own life, she also tells the stories of the people she meets.

Take, for example, “Settlers,” in which she remembers an impoverished painter she knew, who told her about how he was abandoned by his wife in northern Maine. Everyone in his rural town was very poor, and almost all of them ate in the church hall soup kitchen, where no one would talk to him about his wife leaving. Majka writes, “[He] had to remind himself they thought they were doing him a favor.”

Later in his story, the father walks through the Maine countryside at night, and goes to the house of his daughter’s daycare provider. She’s single, too, and seems to like him, and he asks if she’ll come have dinner sometime. She tells him she wants to invite him in and she wants to come have dinner, too, but she knows she’ll just be lonelier when it’s over, and, “this — how she was now — was as lonely as she could handle.”

Every character is lonely in these stories, and none of them how to fix it. Life on this social and geographic periphery is savage. In one story, a young woman drowns in the ocean at night; in another a child gets abducted from her school. In “Travelers”, the narrator’s therapist — a “gentle woman” whom the narrator loves to talk to — dies unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage. “I ended up calling a crisis hotline,” Majka writes. “It was the first time I had ever done that. I called not because life had become unendurable, but because I wanted to know what to do in case it became unendurable.”

One of the most prevailing desires in the book is the narrator’s craving for a child. She is single, poor, and her fertility is fading. In the final story, she sits on the floor of her mom’s tiny bedroom and says she doesn’t think her waitress job will last —

“That it had been [her] plan to save thirty thousand dollars to have a baby, but now there weren’t enough customers.”

Her mom says, “Thirty thousand dollars wouldn’t have paid for a baby.”

The narrator says, “I know.”

But Majka’s biography says that she now lives with her son in Queens. So maybe it’s all just fiction. Or maybe some things really do work out.

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