It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Donald Breckenridge to these pages. He’s an old friend and supporter, the fiction editor at The Brooklyn Rail, editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. He’s written a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein and two novels, 6/2/95 and YOU ARE HERE.
The following is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel This Young Girl Passing (Autonomedia, 2011). A while ago I read the ms. and wrote the following: This Young Girl Passing is a deceptively short, dense, ferociously poignant novel of sexual betrayal and despair set in impoverished upstate New York, a Raymond Carver-ish milieu of never-weres and left-behinds. Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. The novel’s triumph though is in its architecture, its skillfully fractured chronology and the deft back and forth between the two main plot lines, two desperate, sad affairs twenty years apart and the hollow echoes in the blast zone of life around them.
Monday April 19, 1976
Bill had kept Sarah after the bell to find out why she was failing his class. She dutifully asked him to recommend a senior who would be willing to tutor her. He wrote a name and number down on a scrap of orange paper then offered her a ride home.
“And the photographs,” Sarah glanced at Bill, “you should see them,” as they continued along the narrow path, “the models are wearing casts and some of them even have black eyes,” they walked by a cluster of bluebells as she concluded, “it’s like pornography only worse.” A chipmunk scurried across a large rock then disappeared into a pile of leaves. “Women being beaten by groups of men in suits… How could anyone find that beautiful?” Bill stepped over a tree trunk that had fallen over the trail, “I know I don’t,” turned to her and held out his right hand. The cloudless sky was teeming with dozens of songbirds in flight. She placed her left hand in his, “it’s like the feminist movement never happened,” and stepped over the trunk. The plaster cast on Sarah’s right arm extended from her elbow to her wrist. He stepped on a brittle weed and a cluster of brown thistles clung to the cuff of his pant leg. Her best friend Laura had covered the cast in tiny red hearts and flowers with fingernail polish. When a blossoming willow caught Bill’s eye he stopped walking, “I think they’ve run out of supposedly wholesome ways,” and pointed it out to her, “to sell expensive clothes to wealthy women.” The willow’s flowering limbs swayed as the breeze cast off a shower of yellow petals. “What does that say about the way society treats women?” A multitude of bees, undeterred by the breeze, pollinated the tree. Bill realized that he was still holding her hand, “but the models are just well paid mannequins.” She frowned, “What does that mean?” “It isn’t that complicated Sarah,” beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, “the people behind the camera simply script fantasy roles for women and those roles have little or nothing to do with reality.” The air around them was enriched by the scent of the blooming tree. “Well,” she looked at him closely, “don’t you think it says a lot about the kind of people who buy them?” and noticed the faint outline of her reflection in his brown eyes. “I suppose,” he nodded, “but aren’t most of those designers gay?” A robin in a nearby tree began to sing. They saw each other in class, their last class of the day, five-days a week, and yet she never looked the same. He was almost twice her age, “I mean, that really doesn’t have anything to do with it, but it does seem strange that you would get so worked up about advertisements in fashion magazines.” She smiled tentatively at her reflection while asking, “How is it not complicated?” Bill had been married for three years, “things like that are very temporal,” and he was as bored by his wife’s passionless lovemaking as he was repulsed by the middle-class existence that pacified her. He was as embarrassed by his wife’s ideals, “next year they’ll find something else,” as he was resigned to them. “Like what?” “Who knows,” Bill shrugged, “maybe next year they’ll use vivisection to peddle their dresses.” Sarah let go of his hand, “that’s very funny,” and began walking away. He watched her hips sway beneath her blue jeans, “Can I ask you something?” She turned around, “you just did.” He stepped toward her, “Why does that bother you so much?” She lowered her eyes, “I really thought you were different,” and scratched at the rash above her cast, “So, why make jokes about something you obviously don’t understand?” Her fingernails left faint whitish trails around the rash. “I was being ironic, Sarah.” A bee hovered above a cluster of dandelions just inches away from the tips of her sandals. “You’re being an asshole.”
She had told him in the car that the cast would be removed next Monday and that she was very self-conscious about the way it smelled. When asked if her parents were concerned about her grades she looked out the open window of his Impala and laughed. When asked why that was funny she spoke enthusiastically about Truffaut’s 400 Blows that he had shown the class a month ago—then made it clear to him that the only place she didn’t want to go was home.
“What is it that I don’t understand Sarah?” She placed her hands on her hips, “What is it that you wanted to show me, mister Richardson?” He took two steps forward, “I thought that maybe we could talk and that you could tell me-” “Tell you what,” she held her ground, “that I’m going to love playing in your magic tree-fort?” “You can start by telling me why you’re failing my class.” She shrugged before looking intently above his head. He softened his tone, “there’s a beautiful lake a short walk from here,” then motioned toward the tail, “are you coming or not?” She nodded sullenly and they continued along the trail. “I don’t care if you call me an asshole, we can always disagree, but please don’t ever call me mister.” “Why not?” “Because it makes me feel like an old man.” “What about mister Asshole,” she laughed, “Can I call you that?” “That really doesn’t work either,” furrowing his brow, “I’d really like for you to think of me as a friend… okay?” She took his hand and asked, “How old are you?” “I’ll be thirty-one this August.” “Oh, that’s right, you’re a Leo… you are the most willful.” “Not that nonsense again.” “It’s not nonsense Bill, you can tell a lot about a person from the sign they are born under.” “For instance?” “The Zodiac is how we, as mortal beings, have passed from the spirit world into the material one.” Holding Sarah’s warm hand while being lectured about the Zodiac made Bill feel like he was sixteen again. “The world is divided into two opposing parts, involution and evolution. The first six signs of the Zodiac represent involution and-” “What are the first six signs?” He asked. “Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, and then you the Leo,” squeezing his hand for emphasis, “the willful lion and then Virgo, the soulful giver.” “And when were you born?” With a smile, “my birthday is in February, under the sign of Aquarius.” “Isn’t that a water sign?” “Right, it’s the eleventh sign in the Zodiac and it’s a water sign, on the side of evolution. Aquarius symbolizes the disintegration of existing forms. It’s a symbol of liberation.” Bill’s foot got caught on a root and he almost tripped. “Be careful there…” he nodded sheepishly as she continued, “the Egyptians identified Aquarius with their god Hapi who personified the Nile and when it flooded it was a tremendous source of both agricultural and spiritual importance.” He was tempted to suggest that if she spent half-as much time studying French as she did astrology then she wouldn’t be failing his class. They passed a rusting black and white sign nailed to a tree warning trespassers that they would be prosecuted. “So,” Sarah concluded, “we are from opposite sides of the Zodiac and I think that is a very good thing.” The trail opened onto a small clearing. “And you consider yourself a liberated person?” They startled a pair of Mourning Doves foraging in the tall grass and their wings made an airy whistling sound as they flew away. “I do,” with a solemn nod, “to the extent that a woman can be in a society dominated by men.” He turned to her, “And how much of that has to do with the sign you are born under?” She said, “everything,” with conviction. “Come on Sarah, don’t you think your environment has more to do with shaping the person you are and the one you’ll turn out to be?” “No I don’t,” she stopped walking, “I think it’s the other way around,” then let go of his hand. “It’s all up to your astrological sign?” “You know,” noting his smirk, “arrogance is another one of the Leo’s traits.” He placed his hands on his waist, “it seems to me that you’ve got it all backwards.” “How so?” A crow cawed as it flew above the meadow. He looked away from her before asking, “How did you break your arm?” “I fell off my bike,” she bit her lower lip, “I told you that.” He frowned, “yes, you did.” She looked down at the clump of green grass between them, “So how far away is this world famous lake of yours?” He nodded in the direction they’d been walking, “it’s just beyond this meadow.” She tried to sound apathetic, “Are we going there or not?” He cleared his throat before stating, “the most important virtue in any relationship is honesty.” She stepped toward him, “you are nothing like any of my other teachers.” “I think most of your teachers are in school because of the paycheck they get every other Friday.” She nodded, “it is so easy to talk to you.” “If they had to sell shoes instead of teaching to pay the bills it wouldn’t faze them one bit.” Her curly blonde locks, “everyone in class thinks you’re really cool,” were rearranged by the breeze. He glanced at her chest, “it is very important to me that we are always honest with each other.” Her dark brown nipples were erect and visible through the light cotton blouse. “Sure Bill.” He scratched the top of his head, “I’m really glad you feel that way Sarah,” and looked down at her sandals, “let’s not keep any secrets from each other.” Her toes were perfectly symmetrical and the nails were dark red. “Sure Bill, I think that honesty-” “I think you already know that I really care about you,” he looked into her eyes, “and I always want you to tell me the truth.” Her smile, “sure,” revealed the narrow gap between her two front teeth. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?” “No, I did,” shaking her head, “but he broke up with me right before Christmas.” “Did he hurt you?” The trees cast shadows around the edge of the meadow. “Not really, he was a real jerk though… I still don’t know why I went out with him.” “No,” Bill shook his head, “I meant physically,” while looking at her intently, “Did he break your arm?” “No way,” her eyes widened, “I don’t like guys like that… jocks or violent ones.” A jet silently streaked across the blue sky leaving a thin vapor trail behind. “What kind of guys do you like?” She began to blush, “older ones I guess, most of the guys my age are so immature… they behave like little kids.” “What about married men?” She laughed out loud. “Why is that so funny?” The last thing she wanted to do was offend him, “it’s not,” but he had such a constipated expression on his face, “you make it sound so serious,” she took hold of his left hand and examined the gold band, “Aren’t you married?” he nodded before she quickly added, “I’ve even met your wife.” Bill slowly pulled his hand away, “When?” “She’s almost as tall as me and she has long brown hair and,” Sarah winked, “and her name is Mary.” “How do you know her name?” She felt like a lawyer on television presenting a surprise witness to a stunned jury, “Mary chaperoned a dance in my sophomore year,” with a giggle, “your not very happily married to Mary though.” “Sarah,” he began to blush, “I asked you a question and I’d like for you to answer it.” She held up her left hand, “okay,” and whispered an oath, “I’ve never dated a married man,” before placing her left hand on his shoulder and kissing him on the mouth, “but in twenty years you’ll still be fourteen years older than me.”
Friday March 28, 1997
Sarah contemplated his tranquil expression before saying, “I always thought that you had,” in a soft voice. Bill pulled the damp condom off his flaccid erection, “that isn’t true.” The pounding in his chest had begun to subside. Sarah possessed a glowing intensity that radiated between them, “a lot of girls in school,” her cheeks were a rosy pink, “said they slept with you,” and her eyes were wide open. Sperm collected in the tip of the condom he held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. She pressed her thighs together and sighed. He weighed the fluid with an absentminded pride, “that certainly doesn’t mean that I did.” A television could be heard through the wall behind the bed. She reached behind her back with both hands and undid the tangled clasp of her bra. He leaned over and placed the condom in the ashtray. She pulled the black bra away from her breasts and cast it onto the edge of the bed. To the right of the ashtray there was a beige touch-tone phone. “How could you believe something like that was true?” To the right of the phone a red and white brochure instructed the occupants on how to exit the building in the event of a fire. A metal lamp with a beige lampshade was mounted to the wall above the nightstand, a sixty-watt bulb illuminated a portion of the room. She waited for him to adjust the thin foam pillow beneath his head before claiming, “because you never took me seriously.” Long brown watermarks ran across the ceiling above the bed. He closed his eyes, “that isn’t true,” clasped his hands and rested them on his stomach.
Bill had saved a batch of color photographs of Sarah from the spring of ’76 and would remove them from the cardboard box marked poetry that was buried in the bottom of the closet in his study at least twice every five years. Mary would be spending the weekend at her sister’s in Bridgeport and he would be home alone and very drunk. Bill and Sarah had driven up to Sylvian Beach on a sunny weekday during the Easter break of her junior year. The image of Sarah standing on the beach with her jeans rolled up to her knees as small waves broke before her pale ankles. The image of Sarah feeding a seagull (with outstretched wings) French-fries while sitting at a dark red picnic bench. The portrait of her looking directly into the 50-millimeter lens—her blue eyes almost mirrored the cloudless sky. Sarah sitting on the back of a green bench overlooking Oneida Lake. Sarah holding a melting chocolate ice cream cone with a sardonic grin. Bill would spend hours pouring over the images until he was seeing double.
The springs in the mattress creaked, “like you were just testing the bath water with the tip of your foot,” as she placed her right arm on his chest. He opened his eyes, “What does that mean?” The television on the dresser reflected their faint silhouettes on its darkened screen. She noticed the crows-feet, “That you were just interested in having sex with me,” etched around the corners of his eyes, “and that you just saw me as some dumb, needy girl-” “How can you-” He tried to interject. “-Who really couldn’t give you anything else.” “-You were sixteen years old,” Bill shook his head while adding, “and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have found someone who was as… as passionately interested in me as you were then,” then lowered his voice, “it was like a dream come true,” as the realization that it had taken two decades to tell her that descended upon him. “You never made me feel like you were committed to our relationship.” “I certainly tried,” he nodded with conviction, “the sex was very important, the sex was incredible, as it should be in every relationship, although it never is… but we shared a lot of the same interests as well.” Her eyes narrowed, “you never made me feel appreciated.” That she would berate him about the way their relationship ended didn’t come as a surprise, “I think that had a lot more to do with your upbringing and besides-” “I always felt like you were taking me for granted,” she pursed her lips, “like that letter you gave me.” “Twenty years ago,” he shrugged his shoulders, “you can’t change the past so why live in it?” Wasn’t renewing their relationship a way of reliving the past? Televised laughter could be heard through the wall as she thought about his question. How could she have harbored his betrayal for twenty years?
Sarah took her arm off his chest and sat up, “you know that I kept it.” Bill looked puzzled, “Kept what?” “That letter you gave me on the last day of school,” Sarah rested her shoulders against the headboard. “Oh that,” he contemplated their reflection in the television screen. “Oh that,” she placed the tip of her index finger on her chin, “I should have brought it tonight,” while watching his expression turn sullen, “Do you remember that day?” He nodded, “I don’t remember what I wrote in it though.” “You don’t?” “No of course not… Jesus Christ… not word for word.” She saw herself sprinting through the teacher’s parking lot, “I guess you’ve done it before,” and reached his car just as he was turning the key in the ignition. She was about to ask him what was wrong, “it was in the parking lot,” as he rolled down the window, “on the last day of school,” and shoved the envelope into her hands. He noticed the burgundy lipstick, “yes,” smudged around the corners of her mouth, “I do remember that.” “I’ll have to show it to you sometime… maybe that will freshen your memory.” Bill recalled how idiotic it felt waking up with a hangover on the daybed in his study to discover those photographs scattered across his desk. “What good would that do,” he shrugged, “I’m sure that you can find a lot of faults with anyone in retrospect.” “And I would get so angry with myself for wanting that life with you,” she brushed his right hand off of her thigh, “you had convinced me that you didn’t love her and I gave myself to you… unconditionally… and then you-” “I think you were being delusional,” Bill unclenched his fists, “I was never going to leave Mary,” before changing the subject, “What happened with your parents?” Sarah swallowed hard, “my mother is in a nursing home and I haven’t spoken to my father in thirteen years.” A door down the hall slammed. “Really?” She leveled her eyes at him, “if anyone hurt Kate the way he hurt me I would kill them.” “And no jury would ever convict you,” He cleared his throat before adding, “what if you got pregnant.” “I wanted that life with you so badly,” she hadn’t taken her eyes off his chest, “and I…” “What then Sarah,” he pressed his hands on hers, “what sort of life would we be living now?” “And I…” she blinked twice while looking intently at his face, “and I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you. Not even my husband,” she squeezed his hands, “even when things were really good between us. I’ve compared every man I’ve been involved with to you and none of them have even come close.” He leaned forward, “I’m right here,” and kissed her on the forehead. “I had an affair,” she turned her head away, “with my boss.” “The dentist?” She nodded, “at one point he wanted to leave his wife and kids for me and I told him I would quit and end our relationship if he even suggested it again.” “How long did this go on for?” “The other night I realized that I was never really able to love any of them… it was more like a role that I was playing,” she cleared her throat, “after we ran into each other last month I ended it with him.” Bill managed to mask his skepticism, “just like that,” but how many hours had she spent with her boss in a room like this, “you didn’t know,” he swallowed dryly, “you didn’t know that we would be intimate again?” “That didn’t matter,” she leaned forward, “knowing that you still cared about me was enough,” and kissed him on the mouth. Bill thought of taking her picture as she stood on the shore of Sylvain Beach. Sarah had removed her sneakers and socks, rolled up her jeans and stepped into the dark gray water. “It’s sooo fucking cold!” He was standing five yards away when he framed her in the viewfinder and focused. She looked down at the miniature waves breaking around her ankles just before he took the picture.
“Why were you playing a role?” Bill asked. Sarah’s shoulders were covered with gooseflesh, “I guess in some stupid way I felt that if I couldn’t be fulfilled by one person than two might make me feel,” she stopped herself from saying happy, “the thing is I could never convince myself that it was true.” He shifted on the bed, “That what was true?” She frowned, “that I was unhappy,” shrugging her shoulders, “or that I was just really lonely,” then looked closely at his face, “or maybe I had finally convinced myself that things would never change and that I would never have another chance with you.” Bill examined their entwined fingers, “When did you start sleeping with your boss?” comparing their mismatched wedding bands. “In December.” “That wasn’t very long ago,” he sighed, “you made it sound like-” “December of ’94,” she bit her lower lip, “it was three years ago… right after I started taking Prozac.” “And you’re still working there?” When she smiled and said, “I just got a raise,” he noticed how white her teeth were. He took his hands away and stood up. “Where are you going?” He slowly crossed the room, “to the bathroom.”
Dearest Sarah, She saw him in the teacher’s parking lot and ran over to his car. We have had the very real pleasure of each other’s company for more than a year now, but this relationship cannot continue any longer. She got there just as he was turning the key in the ignition and breathlessly asked, “What’s the matter with you?” I know this will not be easy for you to understand and it wasn’t easy for me to reach this decision but I need you to be strong for me and for yourself. He rolled down the window and gave her the letter. I have carefully thought through the plans we have made and the dreams we share for our life together and I honestly feel that I will be nothing more than a blight on your future. When she asked what was wrong he replied, “I think it’s time to move on.” The love and passion we have shared has been a real blessing and you have helped me rediscover a part of my youth that I thought I had lost forever. “What,” she pressed her hands on the car door, “what are you talking about?” I am ashamed to admit that I could never be willing or able to leave my wife for you. He revved the engine while asking, “How is this being discreet?” And instead of living a lie that would have only created greater unhappiness for us in the future I think it’s best that we come to our senses now and honor the secret love and friendship that we have shared. The car pulled away as she stood there. I will never forget you and I will always be devoted to the memory of our time together.
With much love and gratitude,
She was smoking when he returned. “Does it bother you that I’m on anti-depressants?” He stood at the end of the bed, “Isn’t everyone in America on Prozac?” She exhaled, “I’m being serious,” while scrutinizing his torso. “Well,” shifting his feet, “is it helping?” She said, “sometimes,” before placing the cigarette between her lips. “Then it doesn’t bother me,” the mattress sagged beneath him, “I didn’t know that you smoked,” as he sat next to her. “Maybe a pack every other week,” she noticed a tiny bit of flesh-colored wax on his earlobe, “why were you looking at me like,” picked it off with her index fingernail and flicked it onto the floor, “like you were afraid of me.” Bill shrugged, “Did you hear about that cult in California?” Their clothes had slipped off the back of the wooden chair and formed a pile on the gray carpet. “Heavens Gate?” The smoke from her cigarette swirled above the lampshade. He nodded, “it was all over the news again tonight.” She cleared her throat, “they thought the comet was coming to take their souls away,” and placed the cigarette between her lips. “And maybe it did,” he turned to her, “you know it’s flying above our heads right now.” She exhaled slowly, “Hale-Bop,” and the smoke was pushed beneath the lampshade, “that is just so sad,” where it lingered in the yellow light, “they claimed their bodies were only temporary vehicles holding in their souls and when Kate and I saw that clip on the news she said that all of those bodies, that the way they were dressed in those uniforms, made them look like envelopes.” “I really loved you Sarah.” Her eyes were downcast, “Then why did you end it?” Shaking his head, “I wasn’t.” She reached over and crushed the cigarette in the ashtray, “you used me.” “That was twenty years ago.” She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, “Can’t you just apologize for hurting me?” “Why have you victimized yourself over this?” Clenching her jaw, “I want to know why you took me for granted.” He let out a long sigh, “The risks were just impossible.” She placed her hands on her knees, “Just tell me why you gave up on us.” He frowned, “Answer my question.” “It’s not like I could have gotten pregnant anyway,” she looked at him uneasily, “I was on the pill, remember that, that was your idea.” He nodded, “Weren’t you on the pill in college?” The off-handed way she said, “I really wanted to have your baby,” stunned him. Bill shook his head in disbelief, “I wouldn’t have given you that choice.” “You’re an idiot,” she looked away and whispered, “I wanted to spend my life with you.” “That’s not what I thought was best for you,” he examined the tufts of hair below his knuckles, “that was a mistake on my part, a selfish and –” “Is this a mistake?” He didn’t hesitate, “No, no it isn’t.” She stretched her long legs out on the bedspread, “I’m going to see you again?” He nodded before asking, “If we had married then do you think we would still be happy?” “Why,” she placed her hands on his shoulders, “wouldn’t we be happy now?” and kissed him on the cheek. He cleared his throat before saying, “that’s an interesting question.”