Newer, More Intricate Markings
Take Home Test
Due: September 11, 2022
As a teenage girl, Sara was conditioned to have sex. She was conditioned to think of sex as an obligation of love, essentially equivalent to it, and also as a way to keep someone, to cast a spell over another body with her body. In her worldview, the act of intercourse was the only legitimate final binding of a relationship. Partly it was her mom and grandmother who implied this in the way they spoke about love; partly it was how boy-crazy her friends acted; partly it was the religion she was brought up believing. There were other factors: cultural—a girl only has to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet a handful of times to believe that love, once given, can be destroyed only by death—and personal, as she was possessed of an inborn sensitivity she wouldn’t have the language for until much later. She thought all girls received this education; that if she followed the instructions, she’d find—and hold onto—“the one.”
……In 2001, the year she was 20, as August began its descent into autumn, Sara was thinking about sex. She’d met a guy six weeks prior—she called him Sebastian, per some secret language of summer romance—and she was about to leave him in Western Massachusetts to start school in New York City, to finish her undergraduate degree, which had been put on hold while she “figured things out” following time spent in Southern California with her now ex-boyfriend. Sebastian was not supposed to happen—after a year at home, she felt secure, finally, in her trajectory, and had not anticipated anything interrupting it. Certainly she had not imagined this boy on the cusp of being a man whose skin was smoother, milkier, than her own; nor how he teased her with his tongue stud when they kissed, which was often; nor that the first constellation of hickeys on her neck would be overlaid again and again with newer, more intricate markings. Below his belly button was a dark line of hair, something she sometimes traced her fingers over, an arrow to an arrow; she wanted to be pierced by him, pierced to the moment forever.
……The moment, though, was moving too fast. Until that point, the summer had felt endless, in both good and bad ways—she’d decided to “take a break” from drinking a few days before Sebastian introduced himself, certain she needed to clear her head, but unwilling to see how that certainty belied her assumption that she had everything under control. As it turned out, Sebastian was reeling from a recent break up, but he was straight edge—which is to say, he did no drugs and drank no alcohol. He showed her how to transcend herself without substances. Did others laugh, or hold hands, or kiss until they felt drunk with it? Did others stay awake till dawn, completely sober, doing nothing in particular but enjoying conversation? Sara hadn’t, until Sebastian.
……Time is never very interested in stopping for personal revelations, and their final week together arrived without fanfare, hours speeding toward something she felt powerless to control. She found herself gripping onto sturdy objects, leaning on bookshelves, propped against dressers and drum kits, sitting on the curb while everyone else stood. She kept a Lynda Hull line on repeat: “It’s almost Biblical driving this midnight burning highway”[i]—the blur and flush of hours passing, wondering how to grasp the present as it dashed through her fingers.
……Soon, she would pack three suitcases and officially move to “the city.” What would the days spanning now and then hold? Sometimes she and Sebastian talked about the future, elliptically. He told stories of visiting his ex-girlfriend, who was enrolled in fashion school in Manhattan, and Sara overlaid herself in the ex’s place: vegan food at Kate’s Joint, shows at CBGB, autumn leaves falling in Central Park. When she spoke of her dreams for the next two years in the city, she figured he pictured himself there too.
……That Saturday night which marked the beginning of their final week of summer, Sebastian took her to a going-away party—his sister’s, younger than Sara but also an undergrad, at a Brooklyn art school—and though Sara hesitated in the doorway, unsure of crossing the threshold, Sebastian pulled her into the crowd, his fingers intertwined with hers. He was easy among others, and of course, this was his crowd, friends from school and bands and town. He introduced Sara to his sister, bleach blonde, hair and skin almost the same color, which gave her the aura of a lemony ghost blurred by fog; she had heavy thighs and a dismissive glance at Sebastian’s mention that Sara was moving to the city too. The sister didn’t like Sara; that much was plain. Without warning, the stereo system cranked up. “No sleep till Brooklyn,” the room chanted and bounced, bodies surging as one ecstatic organism, and Sara started to feel overwhelmed. This often happened to her at parties. She tugged Sebastian’s hand and leaned in close: “I’m going to go sit by the stairs.” She gestured to a built-in bench below the coat hooks. He gave her a concerned look, but she waved it away. “I’ll be okay,” she said.
……Sara liked the song, as she was learning she liked most of the music Sebastian played for her: where she sought harmony and lyricism, he sought speed and noise, but he surprised her with songs that blended the two. As she sat tucked away by the stairs, she watched Sebastian work the room. Laughing, animated, in his element. Every so often, he turned to meet her eyes, and when she smiled, he nodded in return before resuming his conversation. She thought of how different this was from her ex-boyfriend, who often disappeared at parties, chasing whoever had the best bud, sometimes for hours. Sara had grown adept at finding her own way home. It upset her ex that she did this, but not enough for him to change his habit. Sebastian might not be by her side, but he stayed in her sight. She felt secure in the nook, and the time alone gave her a chance to people watch, to invent stories.
……One of the other women, blonde like the sister, though without the dark roots—purely pale, with an undertone of pink like cotton candy—loomed over everyone else, even the tallest guy, but particularly Sebastian, who wasn’t particularly tall. The giantess’s moony blue eyes, and sometimes her ungainly body, trailed Sebastian from place to place. Interesting. The giantess was built like a mattress, flat and puffy; she nearly touched the ceiling. Was this who would replace Sara, once she was gone? Because this was the narrative track that ran beneath the one where Sara and Sebastian took Manhattan by storm—he’d find someone else, someone more accessible, more sensible, and Sara would be forgotten. He insisted her worries were unfounded, but he needed company, she knew that, and this giantess appeared willing. Had he noticed? He was friendly with her, but then, he was friendly with everyone. His sister’s best friend, he’d tell Sara later, had some kind of genetic condition related to growth hormones. Like Andre the Giant. But even this information did little to ease Sara’s mind. Sebastian didn’t like being alone; he equated it with loneliness.
……That night, their penultimate weekend together, Sara wore satin hipster briefs the color of caramel—bought at Victoria’s Secret with Sebastian in mind—beneath her jeans, and couldn’t decide if she liked the way the fabric slipped against her freshly shaved skin. Would allowing him access to this last locked room convince him she was worth it, and once convinced, would they inhabit the life they were assembling kiss by kiss? A life in which they used the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” for each other; a life in which they were a unit, indivisible and complete. Sara wondered if she wanted this even more than she wanted New York, but New York was only a week away, and she’d worked hard for it; how dare she even consider giving it up for this guy who missed his ex so much he sometimes cried himself to sleep? If she was with him when this happened, she rubbed his back until he quieted.
Part I – Multiple Choice
Why was Sara afraid?
……..A) Sara was afraid because she loved Sebastian and it wasn’t a love she understood because it did not a) look like her previous experience of love, nor b) look like any mythology of love she’d inherited. The love was not all-consuming; it was not a game she couldn’t figure out how to play. It was a love that just was—clean and sober and respectful and brilliant and wild and unnerving.
……..B) Sara was afraid because Sebastian was chivalrous to the point of satire, or so she believed, because she could not trust that he adored her. She was waiting (is she still waiting?) for the judgment to come.
……..C) Sara was afraid because the giantess would be there in town, and so would the dark-haired girl who was plump like an orange and always shot Sara dirty looks, and a myriad of other girls flouting their mascaraed eyelashes and impeccable tattoos in Sebastian’s direction. Was Sara’s position by his side interchangeable? They’d all be there and she would be elsewhere. She was leaving; that was always the premise.
……..D) Sara was afraid of her desire to escape the party, to curve into Sebastian on the couch for a movie, walk his dog together after midnight, sleep beside him on the futon with his arm slung around her. Sara was afraid he was using her as a life raft to keep afloat after the ex-girlfriend; Sara was unable to see she was guilty of the same and he was keeping her above water in a boozeless sea.
……..E) Sara was afraid she would never be enough for him, though she already is—enough. More than enough. They both knew they were up to something uncommon and neither was willing to acknowledge the very beautiful, very real, mess they were making. But “it’s only in pushing past lazy clichés that a love affair moves from theoretical to tangible, from something a girl believes to something a woman knows how to work with.”[ii] Sara was afraid because clichés about love were the only thing she’d ever put any faith in.
Part 2 – Short Essay Question (500 words or less)
How should Sara proceed with her evening?
……Let’s get this straight: By the time Sara is twenty she’s kissed only a half-handful of guys, and had sex (in the heteronormative sense of the word) with only one person. In her circle, she stands alone with so low a number: Kat, more than both hands can count; Stacey, the same, and for her it isn’t attraction, it’s obligation; Bess, with boyfriends lined up since middle school, thinks nothing of rounding third with whomever she happens to be with on a date, and why not, she likes to feel good, it is her body to decide. Trina, who wiggles her pinkie and complains about the size of her current boyfriend’s dick, has to pretend she feels it; Becky claims she’s born again and a virgin till marriage, but once confessed to fucking her boyfriend on her parents’ dining room table while they slept upstairs.
……Sara’s friends call her a feminist, a word flavored with admiration and insult; likely they think her prude, and maybe she is, unable to bring herself to sleep with someone she doesn’t love, and not for lack of options. She needs someone with whom she shares something divine. This is old-fashioned, she knows, entirely unlike the rest of her politics.
……It isn’t that she doesn’t like sex—the sex she’s had has been good, probably better than good, attentive and focused on her pleasure. In the year between leaving her ex-boyfriend and meeting Sebastian, she bemoaned her celibacy to friends, because she thought that’s what she should do; it was what they’d understand. Deep down, she is ambivalent. However much she wants a body to share hers with, she feels strong and centered when alone. Sebastian complicates the already-indecipherable calculus: Sara is attracted to him, very much so. She thinks she should have sex with him—it is the next logical step in the lessons she’s received on the matter, and she is trying to square his chronic nostalgia for his ex with the fresh way he beholds her body: a reverence and hunger for which she has no basis. Then too there is the other fear, perhaps unfounded but still very real: sex can bring a relationship but a relationship can bring, if she isn’t diligent, the life of a suburban housewife, with dinner and dishes and vacuuming and beds made, the Today Show, glossy magazines touting “How To Keep Your Man Satisfied in 7 Easy Steps!”
……And this is not what she wants, not even close. She wants a life of art. Life as art. That late August night, as she watches Sebastian move through the crowded room of an unfamiliar house, populated with band T-shirts and Dickies and checkered Vans, streaks of purple in studiously messy hairdos; oil paintings and dark wood trim, skateboards lined along the porch outside the front door—she thinks she sees the promise of something brilliant, something impossible. There it is, glimmering. All she has to do is reach for it. She lingers by the stairs, tracking the blonde giantess tracking Sebastian, and imagines surrendering to him, awakening tomorrow with that final, fragile barrier gone.
……Eventually, he makes his way through the crowd and asks, “Ready?”
……“If you are,” she says, and he nods.
……They go out to his car and he unlocks her door, and while he crosses behind to the driver’s side, she leans over and unlocks his. She’s heard it said that you get three great loves in a lifetime.[iii]
……But how’s a girl to know which is “the one”?
[i] “Red Velvet Jacket,” Lynda Hull. Originally published in Colorado Review and later included in The Only World, HarperCollins: 1995.
[ii] “The Close Reader: Recovering Nora Ephron,” Rachel Syme. The New Yorker, August 22, 2022.
[iii] A Bronx Tale. Screenplay by Chazz Palminteri; directed by Robert DeNiro. 1993.
Sara Rauch is the author of What Shines from It: Stories and the autobiographical essay “XO.” Her prose has appeared in Paranoid Tree, Paper Darts, Split Lip, Lunch Ticket, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.