Sadie can’t sleep, claims there’s a restlessness in the air, she can feel it somewhere, and it won’t leave her be. At night, she tosses and turns, mumbling something I don’t quite understand, then in the morning she’ll be gone. I find her downstairs, curled up on the love seat in the living room, her grandmother’s crochet blanket strewn across her body, a bare arm, a bare leg, hands to her face, angel’s pose I think of it, too peaceful to disturb so I wait for her to stretch and stir on her own as I start a pot of coffee and toast a bagel in the kitchen.
Sadie says we’re not who we’re supposed to be, she’s not sure who we’re supposed to be, but it’s not this, can’t be. We are walking through our neighborhood after dinner, the leftover pork roast Sadie cooks every Sunday in the crockpot, puts it in before she rushes off to church to sing in the choir while I stay home to putter in the garden. It is a typical humid Louisville August evening with any breeze that happens by like opening the door of a hot oven. Sadie is fifty, soon to be fifty-one, another month there about. She handled turning fifty fine enough, better than expected, better than me. She was the last of the gang to make the transition and had time to prepare. I turned fifty a few months earlier, just put my head down and barreled through – no birthday cake, no black balloons, no looking back – low and fast, not pausing to linger, not searching for revelations. I wanted that day over, over and done with.
Sadie chose to get away for her birthday, perhaps on the off chance that fifty wouldn’t find her in Key West, in a quaint pink and green bungalow tucked beneath the plush canopy trees in Old Towne sequestered from the ruckus of Duval Street. But fifty found her, as it found us all – wake up, and sure enough, there it is. Still, turning fifty with a shot of Herradura and a platter of Royal Reds at Alonzo’s by the marina seemed to take the sting out for Sadie – the sting of too many shots of Herradura was another matter. “Maybe this year will be different, better maybe,” Sadie said as we toasted the sunset at Mallory Square amongst the acrobats and sword swallowers and snow birds staggering off the towering cruise ships in their pastel resort wear. “Maybe,” I offered back, and then, “I’m sure it will,” as I pulled her closer, inhaled the lilac in her hair, tasted the salty sweat from the nape of her neck.
Truth be told, Sadie doesn’t look fifty, everyone tells her that, and I have to agree. To me, she is the same as when she walked into my dorm room, a whole lifetime before, at three-something in the morning, rosy-cheeked and determined with a headful of plans and no reservations, and announced that we had to leave, take off, get the fuck out, to somewhere, anywhere, before that chapter of ourselves came to a close. She just walked into my room and said that. It didn’t matter that I was in bed, asleep, with someone I might’ve known. But what Sadie didn’t know is that I was already ready to go, wherever she wanted, on a moment’s notice, or no notice at all, had been ever since our paths crossed on freshmen move-in day, waiting in line for dorm assignments when my stuffed and strained backpack split at the seams, belching out its contents, Sadie on her hands and knees next to me, laughing, making it into the joke that it was, a joke only we shared, helping me wrangle my shit, and we hadn’t even met yet. I knew then, as I caught her gaze, those blue eyes, that I would go anywhere with her, and nothing has changed there. Sadie’s the same, older, but aren’t we all, a little beaten back by the twists and detours of life, but who isn’t. Yet still the same.
Sadie says we only have twenty years left, twenty good years left, that she’s done the math and that seems about right. I suspect it’s that math that’s been keeping Sadie up at night, one of the reasons at least, her brain running on overdrive just like in school when Sadie would be the last to leave the library during finals – I would see her when I was leaving the Hideaway with Hank after last call. “Twenty good years if we’re lucky,” Sadie clarifies, “before everything falls apart.” Sadly Sadie is all too aware of falling apart, having watched her parents fall apart, and how swiftly those poor souls went, and others she’s been close to – just fall apart to nothing, and disappear, and gone. Sadie doesn’t want that, not for her, not for me, not for us, not when there’s too much left to do, and we’re not who we’re supposed to be, not even close. “Just twenty good years,” she repeats, her voice dropping to barely above a whisper, saying it more for herself than for me, no doubt echoing an idea that’s been circulating inside her for a while.
We walk past the Johnsons’ house, the two-story beige and brown Tudor on the corner that burned twice on the same day back in April, charred around the edges and boarded up with two-by-fours, rusted dumpster in the front yard, a yellow plastic beach chair abandoned there from when the entire neighborhood came out to watch, an impromptu block party occasioned by the smoldering blaze. “That’s all we have left,” Sadie completes her thought, the smell of burnt, just burnt, still seeping from what remains of the Johnsons’ house, nothing anymore but a wooden cut-out backdrop from a movie set. We walk the rest of the way in silence, our regular route, our “constitutional” Sadie calls it, up one street, and down the next, and over, and over, and over some more, until eventually we’re back at our house, the same pattern, up one street, and down the next, as children giggle and play and enjoy the last idle days of summer before school starts, and dogs bark, and people grill out or cut their grass or push their trash and recycling to the curb. We walk in silence because Sadie is processing something, I can tell – the distant stare, the stiffened posture, the twitching in her fingertips – and I don’t dare disturb her, don’t say a word. She wouldn’t hear me anyway.
Later, much later, after glasses of chardonnay and two futile hours spent, or wasted, on an impossible jigsaw puzzle that has got to be missing pieces, upstairs and tucked into bed, I am shaken from what must have been a compelling dream since it left me dry-mouthed and flushed but with any memory of it vanishing the instant I awaken by the sudden shifting of the mattress and the squeaking of box springs. I glance across at the clock and it’s three-ten. Sadie slips out of the room, what has become her ritual at night, a patch of light from the hallway escaping briefly beneath the crack in the door that slowly shuts behind her. I hear the creaking, creaking of the steps as Sadie makes her way down the stairs, and across the hardwood floor in the living room, and then silence. I imagine a gentle exhale of cushions collapsing around her as Sadie positions herself on the love seat, curling up beneath her grandmother’s crochet blanket, angel’s pose, eyes closed. I roll over, reach a hand out to where Sadie was lying, on her side of the bed, what has always been her side of the bed, from college when she walked into my dorm room at three-something in the morning and plopped herself down beside me and said we had to leave. I scoot nearer to that spot, still warm from Sadie, and I drift back to sleep.
In the morning, when I go downstairs, head to the kitchen, expecting to pass Sadie in the same position, asleep in the love seat, she’s not there, the blanket neatly put away, the love seat undisturbed, cushions patted and fluffed. I notice, on the coffee table, where we had left for dead the partial skeleton of the impossible jigsaw puzzle, a stack of papers, all sorts of papers, loose-leaf pages and sheets of yellow legal pad, scribbled with notes in red and black and blue ink, and articles ripped from magazines and newspaper clippings, entire passages and paragraphs circled and highlighted, and a map, folded, not how it was originally folded because it’s near impossible to fold a map back to how it was originally folded, but folded nevertheless. I recognize Sadie’s writing, hardly the neatest to begin with but especially sloppy, generally eligible, words bleeding into words into words into long, indecipherable sentences, Sadie’s hand apparently unable to keep pace with the thoughts that were spilling from her mind. Some of the pages have rows and columns of numbers – the math that’s been keeping Sadie up at night? – but none of it, from what I can tell, math never being my strength, adding up to anything of consequence.
I call out Sadie’s name, peek around, here and there – the dining room, the study, the kitchen, even the pantry – but nothing, nothing but the sound of the air conditioner kicking on with a rattle of hard metal from the unit outside that we fear is on its last legs and should be looked at by someone who knows what to look for in air conditioner units yet we resolve to wait until it breaks, certainly at the worst possible moment. But no Sadie, nothing. I figure she might’ve gone out for a stroll, or an early bike ride at Cherokee Park before the suffocating mass of humidity descends for another day. So I return to the coffee table, and peruse these papers, these notes and outlines and figures that Sadie has jotted down in some fit of inspiration, and I lose track of the time, and I ignore that I should ready for work, and I neglect to start a pot of coffee or toast a bagel in the kitchen, too fixed on this, whatever this is – what is this? – until I hear a key slide into the deadbolt on the front door. I look up to see the knob jiggle and turn, and the door push open, a burst of sunlight splashing into the living room as Sadie walks in carrying two tall Styrofoam cups in a cardboard tray and a grease-stained brown paper bag.
“Oh, good, you’re still here,” Sadie says casually, as if it’s a lazy weekend and not mid-morning, mid-week. “I got coffee and bagels and look …” she holds up the bag, shakes it, “they had the smoked salmon you like.” When Sadie sees me hunched over her papers, she sets everything down on a TV tray and bounds over to squeeze next to me on the love seat. “You see,” she motions to the table, to nothing in particular, “I’ve done the math and we can do this.”
“Do what?” I ask, feeling like I’m the one who walked in on her in the middle of something, and I suppose I am. “What is all this?”
“The math,” she says, sighs, frustrated, as if the answer could not be more clear. “We can do this.”
“Jim, we have to go. Before it’s too late.”
I wait, for more, because there’s always more with Sadie, and there is. But just more of the same, more of what Sadie has already been saying, what she first said to me, that whole lifetime before, that made me fall for her, that made me want to go away. Sadie says we have to leave, take off, get the fuck out – and she knows where. She just walks into the house and says that. It doesn’t matter that it’s ten-something in the morning, and I should be at the office, answering the phone, responding to emails, meeting with people I don’t care to be meeting with, daydreaming into an inbox full of things I should do, tugging at the collar of my starched white dress shirt to loosen my tie.
“We have to go!” she repeats, excited the way she gets when she’s convinced she’s right about something and it’s everyone else who doesn’t have a goddamn clue. “I’ve done the math and we can do this. But we need to go now.” Sadie pauses, she must recognize the blank stare on my face, still no closer to understanding. So she reminds me, softer, slower, lower, “Twenty good years, if we’re lucky – that’s all we have left.” And then, for good measure, “carpe diem mother fucker.”
Sadie takes a deep breath, in through her nose, out through her mouth, pries the plastic lid off her Styrofoam cup of coffee, and patiently begins to explain her plan to me. I sit there, and I settle in, as Sadie breaks it down, her typically unruly curls, more gray than any of the other colors they’ve been, falling as they may, Sadie blowing the few strands out of her face with a puff of air pushed through her pursed lips. I sit there, and I sip from my Styrofoam cup of coffee, and I nibble on the toasted bagel with the smoked salmon I like, and I listen, and I listen, while Sadie goes on, and on, arguing her thesis, her dissertation, expounding the math that has been keeping her up at night. As she speaks, as Sadie tells me this, I start to understand, I do, and it makes sense to me, it does, what she proposes for us. But as she speaks, shuffling through the papers like courtroom trial exhibits, unfolding the map, ringing it out like a wet towel, I find myself focusing less on what Sadie says than on how she says it. I’m already in. I was in when Sadie walked into the house with a burst of sunlight – well before that actually. Instead, I find myself focusing only on Sadie, on seeing her again, like this, because it’s been a while since I’ve seen Sadie like this. She’s alive, how I remember her to be, before everything in the middle from where we started out to where we ended up became dense and heavy, before all of the bull shit and disappointments and lows that weighed us down, before we lost our way. Before all of that, and more, when I felt helpless to do anything about it. And seeing Sadie like this makes me alive again too. And I fall for Sadie. Again. I already want to go away with her – I always have – nothing has changed there.
And so I do, I go away with Sadie, the two of us, a week later, after getting our affairs in order, which takes longer now than it did when we were twenty-one, driving south on I-95, our SUV crammed with as much crap as we can carry, the rest of our belongings, with the rest of our life, the life we had been leading, in storage, indefinitely, the two of us, Sadie and I, setting out together to open this new chapter of ourselves, onto this new course that Sadie has painstakingly plotted and charted through all those many sleepless nights, and I trust her with that, unconditionally, because I love her like that, unconditionally. And Sadie still wants to go away with me. So we do, we just leave, take off, get the fuck out, to make the most of these twenty years that Sadie says we have left, twenty good years “if we’re lucky” – and I believe we are.
Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, The East Bay Review, Hypertext Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Juked, and Literary Orphans, among others. Peter has also had plays produced, including as part of the Festival of Ten at The College at Brockport – SUNY, for which he was named Audience Choice Winner. More can be found at www.peterjstavros.com.
TD: Tell us a little about this story.
PJS: “Twenty Good Years” is part of a collection I’m working on called The Sadie Stories that chronicles a couple from when they first met in college through the ups and downs during the course of their relationship. In this vignette, our characters are considering their own mortality as they realize that time is running short for them to accomplish something meaningful, or at least something they want to do – thoughts, I admit, I have had myself. So they resolve to make the most of the time they have left, while also appreciating the time they have had together.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
PJS: When I first began studying writing, I read a lot of Sam Shepard plays. I have long admired how he could create conflict, really tense situations, out of otherwise ordinary circumstances, and then expose a certain underlying beauty amid the pathos. And there was a rhythm with how his characters spoke that I have tried to emulate in my own writing. I was sad when he passed last year – and learning that he lived only about an hour away from me; had I known, I might’ve staked out that small town to catch a glimpse of him going into the store or something, but I would have been way too awestruck to dare approach.
TD: What is your favorite place to write?
PJS: I like to be outside whenever possible (see picture, with the rose bush finally in bloom), and I start everything on a pad of paper, which I then have to transfer pretty quickly to something typewritten or else I won’t be able to read my writing.
TD: Favorite word?
PJS: It’s two words, but Key West makes me happy. I also like it when my wife calls me “buddy.”