Also from Cabbages and Kings Press

Pearl City

Control Theory

a novel of city Buddha-mind walking, love, and breaking free

by Karen Lynn Allen

“Karen Allen has written a story of a woman waking up to her life, and waking up, and waking up -- with help and distractions from a host of three-dimensional, fascinating characters.”

--Amazon customer review

“It's a moving book, a funny one, and even an inspiring one.”

--Amazon customer review

“For those looking for popular fiction on the intelligent, distinctive level of Alice Hoffman -- with perhaps more pertinence to the average working woman's life--Pearl City Control Theory's a winner.”

--Amazon customer review

“The subtle -- and sometimes not-so-subtle -- ways by which people control and dominate each other are extraordinarily well described. I learned more about my own relationships from this book than I have from several self-help books, and I wasn't even trying to!”

--Amazon customer review

Find Pearl City Control Theory as an ebook on Amazon (Kindle), Barnes and Noble (Nook), or Google Books. $4.99.

    When Sara’s husband, Mark, goes to the East Coast for law school, Sara stays behind in her beloved San Francisco. Their marriage will be BCDR -- bi-coastal, dual rental. It’s only for three years, Sara tells herself. An admirer of efficiency, she intends to keep loneliness at bay by moving in with her erratic sister, Amanda, and by staying busy at work in her newly promoted position as a manager for a large consumer products manufacturer.

    But Sara’s tightly controlled world starts to crack when she accepts the help of an inscrutable mentor and begins volunteering at a domestic violence shelter on the weekends. As mercurial Amanda does her best to disarray the order of Sara’s life, challenges at work and at the shelter test Sara’s resolve and illuminate the fissures in her careful structures. To top it off, Sara finds her mentor far too helpful when she knows she shouldn’t be seeing him at all . . .

I started walking, what I call City Buddha-mind walking, the summer before Mark left for Georgetown. The day he left I woke up early, Mark’s arm heavy across me. I rolled out from under it, quietly threw on some clothes and slipped outside into the fragile San Francisco dawn.

City Buddha-mind walking always took a few blocks to get going, to drop into the rhythm, to absorb the mood of the light and weather. Stepping out the door, I would plan my course, visualize the terrain, and then I’d head towards a good-sized hill to get my blood moving. Somewhere near the top of it, I would find my pace for the day; I’d hit my stride. And then I could think.

San Francisco has amazing light. Mark said he never thought my love affair with the city would last so long. For someone who prided herself in being practical and logical, couldn’t I see that a city is just concrete and asphalt and throngs of people hassled from living so close together? But on a clear day in San Francisco the sunlight dazzles, revealing color and form with a clarity so keen it stings the retina. Then as afternoon darkens to evening, clouds roll in and tuck the city in under an opalescent blanket of pearl. For better or worse, I knew I belonged on this troubled tip of peninsula and nowhere else.

That summer before Mark left, our impending separation circled our heads like a buzzard. In August it descended with a quick swoop and found me on the crest of Sanchez Street hugging my arms against the morning chill. The air was misty, the sky a lilac rose. The porcelain city lay spread out in front of me like a child’s fantasy kingdom. He’s really going, I told myself. With a sharp plunge the process of flesh eating and bone pecking had begun.

“Come here,” Mark said to me from rumpled sheets when I slipped back into our bedroom.

Mark had dark brown hair that curled in waves, broad shoulders, a defined jaw. The kind of guy that looks good even unshaven and half awake. He stretched out a hand to me and I went. After all, it would be a while before we had the chance again.

“Thank you for your patience, ladies and gentlemen. We will begin boarding Flight 642 to Washington in a few moments. Please remain seated until . . .”

People all around the crowded waiting area sprang to their feet clutching boarding passes like lottery tickets. Mark and I stayed where we were.

“So this is it,” I said, as if naming the obvious could make it less odious.

“Only for a while,” Mark answered, trying to reassure me. But the fact was, he was excited. Eager. His whole future lay ahead of him. And me? Well, my future lay ahead of me too.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will board by row. Please remain seated until . . .”

A queue half a block long now coiled through the waiting area.

Mark and I weren’t naive about what lay ahead. We recognized living apart would be difficult, even inconvenient, but Mark planned to study industriously, I planned to concentrate on my career, and we would crisscross the skies to see each other almost every month. Three years of law school would pass by in a flash. BCDR, my sister, Amanda, called it. Bi-coastal, dual rental. All sorts of couples were doing it these days.

“You could still come with me,” Mark suggested. “You’d find a new job in a week.”

I’d just got promoted. I didn’t want to move. “You could still go to law school here,” I mumbled back.

“Airports are crummy places to say good-bye.”

I handed Mark a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude to read on the plane.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please. Only rows 36 through 42 should now be . . .”

Passengers trickled by like water through a clogged drain. Mark put his arms around me; I kept mind folded against the front of his chest. His body was warm, reassuring. “Don’t look so down, Sara. It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

But I didn’t see. I looked down at my ring on my left hand and idly circled it around my finger with my thumb. Was I crazy to be taking this kind of risk? There’s no risk, I told myself.

“You’ll wear a groove in your finger if you keep twisting your ring like that.”

I leaned my head in, he bent his against mine, and we stood, foreheads touching and silent amid the hubbub.

Amanda grandly tells our relatives she lives in San Francisco for the ambiance. Whenever I climb to the top of Sanchez Street, the city at my feet, I always feel exhilarated, as if I’ve arrived at an apex of the world. With my pulse pounding from exertion, I gaze and gaze at the view, and as I do, I feel my heart crack and expand, just a little, like it does whenever I see someone I love from a distance. To my right, flat blue waters of the bay give way to dry golden hills that become the continent of North America, all three thousand miles of it. Just beyond Twin Peaks to my left, the Pacific Ocean surges and swells over the curve of the planet until it laps the shores of Asia. Mountain ranges crunch in my palms, waves crash at my feet, and existence is mysterious and manageable on this east-west axis of my mind.

“Last call for flight 642. I repeat, last . . .”

Mark and I stood together in the now deserted waiting area. “Time to go,” he said.

I stretched out my hand in the gesture of an offer. “I love you.”

Mark took my hand, told me he loved me too, and then inexorable forces of the universe sucked him away, yanking our orbits loose from each other.

So this is it, I thought despondently.

Mark walked jauntily down the ramp like an explorer off to jungles of deepest green.

Thinking back now on that summer, I recognize I started walking to practice being without Mark. I’d go out for only an hour, take in a few hills, look over the city and tell myself Washington was flat, really flat. I convinced myself interesting topography was essential to my sanity. Maybe it was. I’d return to find Mark reading the newspaper on the couch beneath his favorite poster of John Reed shaking hands with Emma Goldman. I’d look at his small frown of concentration as he read, and I’d tell myself I was lucky to be attached to someone so attractive, so intelligent, so passionate about justice and fairness. Then I’d say something like, “Why did we get married if we can’t even agree on where to live? ”

“Sara, Sara, Sara,” he’d say and read on just a little further which always irritated me. I was important enough to stop mid-sentence for. Then Mark would sigh, put the paper down, and I’d forlornly curl up next to him on the couch. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, I told myself. Once you were married, things were supposed to be settled and decided, not in constant turmoil about whose needs took precedence, the negotiations forever ongoing.

No doubt it was much easier in the past when the wife followed her husband wherever he went or waited when she was told to, no questions asked, but I knew compliance of that sort would be more unacceptable than my insecurity. And my insecurity was intense—perhaps even unreasonable—though I suppose having your husband decide to live on the other side of the continent is adequate cause for anxiety. Over the millennium of time, men have gone hunting, gone exploring, gone to war. At least graduate school seemed a relatively safe activity. Clearly Mark was going on a journey he needed. It took me much longer to realize I’d set off on a journey of my own.

Journeys. Everyone, including Mark, thought I stayed behind for my job, but it wasn’t just for that. It was for San Francisco and independence and self-definition and topography, though I will say, getting promoted at the tender age of twenty-seven had taken me four years of determined effort, and just when I got it, boom, Mark wanted to move. I worked for a corporation called Appleton-Smith. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. They make everything under the sun, from laundry soap to snack crackers. My promotion had made me the manager of a group of people whose reason for being was to manufacture hand cream. Very large quantities of it. We made high quality, department store kind of stuff in nice containers with fancy labels. Scented, sometimes unscented, with glycerin or vitamin E or aloe added in, depending on what would sell. We didn’t decide what sold, advertising and sales did. They said make it, we made it. My job was to get the materials, people and machinery together as efficiently and inexpensively as possible while meeting quality standards. I had a business degree, but this job took the patience of a playground supervisor and the psychological cunning of Talleyrand during the Reign of Terror. Some knowledge of logistics, machine maintenance, budgeting and concise memo writing also came in handy. Really, the only important prerequisite for business is common sense, but as Voltaire said in an age with its own kinds of CEOs, padded expense accounts and strained labor-management relations, common sense is not so common.

And so Mark left and I was miserable—more miserable than I expected even—but I did what I had to do and coped. Mark, in contrast, was immediately delighted with the challenges of law school. He joined an environmental student group, and his conversation began to narrow to events in Washington. I told him I was glad for him, and truly, I was. If Mark doesn’t have a cause to immerse himself in, he’s lost. During those first long weeks of September I focused on my job. At night, when I wasn’t calling Mark, I sat at home and read voraciously, plowing through novels the way a caffeine junkie knocks back lattes. Slowly I began to feel better. It was a simple existence, little to look forward to or regret, and I told myself this was the price I had to pay for staying in San Francisco. There was, however, one minor factor that I didn’t count on, one small principle of the universe that would eventually rip the pickets off of my fenced-in life, and that was this: nature (as anyone in first-year physics will tell you) always abhors a vacuum.

One morning a month after Mark left, I was doing the usual, settling down into the turbulence of a bumpy Monday at work. Glancing at my watch, I was startled to see it was only ten o’clock. Hard to believe. Already I’d returned six phone calls, dealt with a late glycerin truck and consoled an employee sobbing in my office because his wife had left him over the weekend. Now I gazed out my large office window that looked onto the factory floor and listened to the muffled clatter of machinery seeping through the plate glass. On a good day the din roared like the ocean. Today it sputtered like a dyspeptic lawn mower. I closed my eyes and wondered for the five hundredth time why I hadn’t moved to Washington with Mark.

My eyes opened with a start. A man in an expensive charcoal gray suit stood quietly in my office doorway watching me.

“Are you Sara Whitfield?” he asked. “I believe I have an appointment to meet with you.”

I quickly rose to my feet. “Yes, I’m Sara.” Paul, my boss, had mentioned in passing we’d have a consultant coming this week from Merrisocks Gospout, a prestige consulting firm in the city. Foolish me, I’d assumed I’d be given pertinent details, like when and why, in due time.

“I’m Aaron Lambert,” the consultant said, shaking my hand with far more composure than I was anywhere near mustering. As I hesitated, not sure whether to bluff or confess ignorance, Aaron calmly snapped opened his briefcase. “Accounting and purchasing procedures. That’s why I’m here. Don’t worry you’re the third person I’ve met with this morning and the other two didn’t know either.” The third? I winced. I hated for Appleton-Smith to look so disorganized to an outsider.  What must he think of us? “Your company appears to like surprises,” he commented dryly. “It must make this a festive place to work.”

Not highly, that’s what he thinks of us. Wonderful, I thought. Not only do I get a mystery consultant in my office before my second cup of coffee, I get an annoyed one. “Sorry. I wish I were more prepared. How can I help you?”

“Appleton-Smith’s last audit showed problems with employees following purchasing procedures. What you and I need to do is go over your department records from the last year and trace a few equipment purchases.”

I stifled a groan. No wonder Paul hadn’t given me more warning about this—I would’ve been tempted to call in sick. Many people in my department purchased many things; I now hoped it had all been done according to the snarled web of procedures our purchasing department loved to create. I looked at him, this consultant. In his thirties—I have a hard time judging men’s ages—black hair, intelligent eyes that probably didn’t miss much, not as tall as Mark, maybe five ten. His gray suit was more than expensive, it was elegant, and he wore a subdued, but absolutely beautiful violet-blue silk tie. He looked used to higher stakes assignments. I wondered what was he doing auditing us. As Aaron settled back into his chair, he took a few notes and began to look less annoyed. I, on the other hand, began to feel as if the Spanish Inquisition had descended on me to extract a confession of guilt.

Aaron glanced up. “You look like I’m here to pull your teeth. Cheer up. This may be dull, but it won’t be that bad.”

Well, dullness I could take. After all, lately it had been my constant companion. I had to go dig out reams of computer reports, and then Aaron and I sat across from each other in my office as we sorted through them.

“Are you an expert on accounting and purchasing procedures?” I asked.

“Not in the least,” Aaron answered affably enough.

“Why did they bring you in then?”

“I think my main qualification is that I don’t work for Appleton-Smith. Which makes me an unbiased observer, in theory anyway.”

“Oh,” I said. “Are you?”

“Unbiased?” He sounded amused. “Enough for something this routine. Do you have a printout of orders from June and July?”

I flipped through my stack to find it before going back to work on my own set of numbers.

“How long have you worked for Appleton-Smith?” Aaron asked later on as he jotted down an account code.

“Four years,” I answered.

“You’re married?” he said conversationally.

I glanced at a picture of Mark propped in a frame on my desk and then at Aaron’s left hand. No ring. “Yes. Are you?”

“No. Do you and your husband live on the Peninsula?”

“We live in the city, or at least I do. My husband’s in Washington DC, going to law school.”

Aaron pulled a calculator out of his briefcase. “A long distance marriage. That must be challenging.”

“I’m surviving. Whenever I’m bored, I just browse through old purchasing records and the hours fly by.”

The corners of Aaron’s mouth tugged into a smile. “A scintillating hobby. Is purchase order 45901 on your sheet?”

Scintillating, indeed. More like mind-numbing and coma-inducing. But he had a sense of humor, an encouraging sign. A friendly auditor is always preferable to a grumpy one. As I concentrated on my printout, I idly twisted my wedding ring around my finger.

“Three’s too many,” an angry voice boomed from seemingly out of the blue.

I looked up with dismay. “Joe—”

“Two. Tell her we’re doing two.”

“Excuse me,” I said to Aaron before quickly hustling Joe, the production supervisor, out of my office and into the hall. I knew what he was upset about. We had this argument nearly every week. “Joe, Althea wouldn’t have scheduled the changeovers if they weren’t necessary, you know that. She needs them to lower our inventories.”

Joe was a Korean War veteran twice my age who had run the mechanical side of the department for years. He tended to bark out orders like a Marine and wore a bristly crew cut so short I wasn’t quite sure what color his hair was. He leaned forward now, pointing a stubby finger at my face. I steeled myself for the onslaught.

“What do they do in college these days—everyone sit around thinking how to screw up my packing lines? Changing over this much is like cutting off our legs when we’re trying to run. I don’t give a flying frog’s hiney about inventories. I refuse, do you hear me? Refuse.” With that he folded his thick arms over his barrel chest. Though Joe and I were roughly the same height, he had a good sixty pounds on me, and from time to time I’d seen him arm-wrestle some of the guys in the break room. Given the chance, he would’ve snapped my arm to the table like a paper straw.

I didn’t like being yelled at, but I counseled myself to be patient. Besides, I had no choice. I needed his cooperation and he knew it. “Inventories cost money, Joe. It’s money tied up that you can’t do anything else with. Most other companies have been working to lower inventories for years.”

“Things sure didn’t used to be this way. Why, we used to run one scent of hand cream for two weeks straight, and the lines ran smooth as silk. This company . . .” He snorted and shook his head as if the dismal fate of American manufacturing were sealed in the three changeovers he had to do this week.

“Joe, you used to only have two scents and one size of tube. Now we’ve got bottles, tubes and eight scents.”

“Just do me a favor,” he said, pointing again.

“What’s that?” I answered with little enthusiasm. At least his voice was now a few decibels lower.

“Check on the schedule. Make sure we really have to do them. That’s all.”

“Maybe you could check with Althea yourself.”

“Aw, come on, don’t pull your we’ve-all-got-to-work-together number. I’m asking one simple favor.”

“Oh, all right. But no promises about the schedule changing.”

Joe sauntered down the hall pleased, his point made, his anger released. “Thanks much, boss.”

“You’re welcome, Joe.” I irritably ran my hand through my hair that was chin length, brown and quite straight. There must be some other way to deal with him, I thought. Until I found it, I knew this stonewalling would go on and on.

“Sorry,” I said to Aaron, slipping back in my chair. I knew he’d probably heard the whole conversation. “Sometimes I feel more like a referee than a manager around here.”

“No problem,” he replied. We both got back to our numbers.

Near noon, I was getting hungry and glanced at my watch. Aaron put down the stack of forms he held. “This’ll take at least another hour. How about lunch?”

“Sorry?” I said, surprised.

“Can I take you to lunch? You’re a client. It’s a common practice.”

I was used to eating alone, reading over a sandwich at a deli. Well, Amanda had been encouraging me to be more social, and besides, he might be interesting to talk to. I said yes and suggested a Chinese restaurant close by.

“What do you think of Appleton-Smith?” I said, genuinely curious after we ordered.

Aaron poured us both tea. “The truth? A standard company making standard mistakes.”

I blinked in surprise. Surely we were a little better than just standard, weren’t we? “You don’t sugarcoat much, do you?”

He shrugged. “At times. It depends.”

“Meaning I’m enough of a peon not to be a risk to say what you think?”

“Not at all,” he answered with a smile. “My guess is you’re enough of a realist to take an opinion for what it’s worth.”

I eyed him speculatively. Who was this man, friend or foe? What made him tick? “Most consultants I know do nothing but work,” I observed.

“The job can be demanding,” he agreed.

“And outside work, what do you do?”

Aaron looked me over a second. “Outside of work, I write poetry.”

“A poet,” I said, tilting my head to one side. “In a business suit?”

“It pays the bills. Business, I mean, not poetry.”

A poet, I thought. Did he look like one? Yes, maybe he did. How extraordinary. “I don’t read much poetry,” I said. “I suppose I should.”

“These days more people seem to be writing poetry than reading it,” he said without rancor. “Maybe it’s a dying genre.”

“I read a lot of novels,” I offered.

“Novels,” he repeated. “What kind?”

“Oh, classics mostly. I majored in business in college, and now I’ve got a lot to catch up on. I tend to hop around between centuries. If I were more disciplined, I guess I’d do it properly—start with Robinson Crusoe and move forward.”

“Literature’s not accounting. A random order will probably help.” Aaron appeared amused as he sipped his tea. “Do you like your job?” he asked. “You seem to be doing well—you have a lot of responsibility.”

“It’s why I didn’t go to Washington.” I looked across the room at a scene of Chinese pilgrims traversing a bridge under a cloud of cherry blossoms. “It probably isn’t a good enough reason.”

“Why is that?” he asked with sympathetic, if detached, interest. “Do you find being alone difficult?”

“Oh, no. I mean, Mark just left, and I’m living with my sister, and we keep each other company. I’m doing fine. I once read a book where someone criticized Americans for not having time for the interior life. Now I’ve got time for it.” As I readjusted my chopsticks in my fingers, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t let the conversation get any more personal. Curiosity, however, overwhelmed etiquette. “So what about you?” I asked. “Any relationships, girlfriends?”

“A long distance one” he answered with a smile. “Familiar story.”

“So we do have something in common. What’s her name?”

“Elizabeth. We’re engaged, actually.”

“Congratulations,” I said. “Where does she live?”

“Boston. She’s studying at Harvard Divinity School to be a minister.”

“Really? Well that’s unusual. Good for her.”

“Yes, she’s remarkable.”

“You really like her.” He nodded. Definitely in love, I thought. How nice. I always liked it when men spoke highly of the woman in their life. “And you don’t mind being alone?” I couldn’t resist asking.

Aaron looked up from his chopsticks. “I suppose I’m used to it.”

He drank some more tea, his eyes curious as he scrutinized me. His expression reminded me of the way people at the Museum of Modern Art look when they like a piece well enough to struggle with it, though I didn’t think I’d been that oblique. How black his lashes are, I thought, and his eyes were an interesting blue. Sapphire? You’re staring, Sara. I quickly glanced back over at the pilgrims.

After lunch we didn’t find any major deviations and finished the audit quickly. I told him which aspects of our purchasing procedures were inane in my opinion and suggested improvements. When Aaron went on to the Shampoo and Foaming Baths department, I gave a sigh of thankful relief at having passed the inquisition. Why had he asked me to lunch? Well, maybe if you were a consultant it was bad form to eat a sandwich solo at a deli. He’d been intriguing to talk to anyway.

I met with Althea later that afternoon. She was a tall black woman in her early thirties who now looked less than cheerful as she sat down across from me in my office. Sometimes I wondered what Althea’s life was like outside of work. I knew she had a husband and a three-year-old daughter, that she sang in her church choir, and that was about it. I didn’t imagine it was particularly easy to be black and work at Appleton-Smith, there were so few African-Americans working here.

We discussed her project to get smaller quantities of tubes more often from our supplier so we could cut our tube inventories. I asked if she needed any help.

“I heard Joe yelling this morning,” Althea said, brushing a piece of lint off the sleeve of her deep purple sweater. “Which I’m sure he intended. With all the fuss he makes, you’d think I was scheduling him for a root canal. I thought he had a project to reduce changeover time.”

“He does,” I said with a sigh, “but he’s convinced the lines run better on longer runs. I wish engineering would deliver the new parts like they promised. That should make things easier.”

“Hmm.” She sounded as if she agreed with me, but she also frowned and appeared to stare at a corner of my desk.

“Althea, do you like working here?”

Althea leaned back and her face turned blank and impassive, like a cat ready to ignore a scolding. “It’s a job.”

“You’re doing good work. Keep pushing, okay? If it gets too ugly, come talk to me. Let me know how I can help.”

“Sara, you need to figure out what’ll get those bozos to change. That’s your job, as I see it. You do your work, I’ll do mine.”

“You sound angry with me.”

“Maybe I am. You’re the boss—make something happen. Good intentions are nice but they don’t get you very far.”

We were silent for a moment, not exactly looking at each other.  “Anything else?”

“Nope. That’s all the glad tidings for today.”

She rose. This meeting with her wasn’t going any better than my one with Joe.

“Althea—” She turned. I paused, grasping for some bridge, some connection. “I—I like the color of your sweater.”

“Thanks,” she answered deadpan.

Sara, how utterly, utterly inadequate. My eyes followed Althea’s elegant, straight back as she left the room, and then I put my head down in my arms. Immediately, though, I popped back up. I could be seen through my office window, and I knew appearing on the verge of despair wouldn’t help me any. I wanted to support Althea and to get Joe to change, but there were times I felt powerless to accomplish either. What would Deming say? Good old Deming, the first business quality guru, ignored by his own country in the wake of World War II and made a hero by the Japanese instead. On the wall above my desk I had tacked up a small poster of Deming’s Fourteen Points. Point number nine now stood out accusingly: “Break down barriers between departments.” The barrier between Joe and Althea should be an easy one to conquer, a little baby step when I had so far to go.

“Oh, quit moping,” Amanda said after I had sighed and wandered listlessly around the apartment for hours that evening. Amanda, my older sister, is much less responsible and more cheerfully manic than I could ever be. When we were little, we created some costumes and tricks and put on a circus for our parents. Amanda had Dad shine a flashlight on her as she introduced us as “Serious Sara, Amazing Amanda”—a pronouncement I resented but accepted as truth. Now I was living with her, ILOM, itinerant lodger of the moment. I was by no means the first to have the honor.

“Your sympathy is touching,” I said. “Next time, send a card.”

“Look, I’m plenty sympathetic, I just don’t have any patience. Quit wasting your energy feeling bad. Either move to Washington or get busy living.”

“Amanda, I’m in transition. I’ve got to refigure out my life.”

“So get a hobby. Take a class. Volunteer somewhere. Why do I have to tell you this? You know what you should be doing. Sara, look at you, you’re turning into a hermit. Next thing you know, you’ll stop taking showers.”

“My personal hygiene is not at risk,” I said crisply. “So I have no social life anymore, that’s not a crime. It’s what I feel like. I feel withdrawn. Like a turtle.” I could picture two little eyes staring out from the shadow of its shell. “I’m entitled to mope if I want to. Can’t you just let a person be?”

Amanda went into the kitchen and came back out. “Here’s the phone book, here’s the newspaper. There’s plenty to do in a city like this. Better give yourself some structured activities, or you’ll end up spending every night in your room reading.”

I took the phone book and newspaper and let them drop to the coffee table. I wanted understanding, not solutions. “I’ll do it when I feel like it,” I said, getting up off the couch.

“Where are you going?”

“To my room.”

“You’re going to read,” she accused.

“Yep. Solzhenitsyn. Gulag Archipelago.” I left the room.

On Wednesday of the same week, Aaron stopped by my office. I hadn’t seen him since after lunch on Monday, and immediately I feared he’d found a miscoded purchase order, and I’d have to spend the rest of the day on a treadmill of numbers. It was quite the opposite. He apologized for the short notice, but he had tickets to the symphony tomorrow evening, and would I be interested? I tapped my pen against my lower lip. Well, he was interesting, well-mannered, and quite betrothed. Couldn’t be any harm, and the symphony sounded appealing—I did need to get out more—but would Mark get upset? Aaron stood in my doorway waiting for my response. Well, I’d call Mark and tell him. If he had a fit, I could always cancel. I told Aaron yes, and we easily agreed on a restaurant where we would meet for dinner. It was all quite painless, nothing like the clumsy nervousness of dating. In my opinion, not having to suffer through the awkwardness of dating qualifies as one of the best benefits of marriage, and I fully expected never to have to endure it again.

“I’ve got a date,” I told Mark that night on the phone.


“I’m kidding. I’m going to the symphony with a guy I met at work. He’s practically married to some woman in Boston. We’ll commiserate about our long distance phone bills.”

“Hmm. Well, I suppose. Hey, did you hear what they’re proposing as the latest safeguard against oil spills? It’s such a joke.”

“No, tell me.”

He certainly took it well, I thought later as I hung up. I went over the living room window and gazed at murky fog blotting out the lights of the Financial District. I’d always coveted this view from Amanda’s apartment, and now it was mine, too, for a while. Suddenly I wished with all my heart that I could turn and see Mark stretched out on the couch, reading the paper with his reassuring frown of concentration. But it was a ridiculous wish. I could see in the window’s reflection that the couch was empty. What could you see from Mark’s apartment? I’d find out in two weeks when I flew out to Washington to visit him.

Restlessly I picked up the newspaper still lying on the coffee table where I’d dropped it days ago. Maybe Amanda had a point. I turned to the section that listed organizations looking for volunteers and saw a shelter for battered women wanted someone to teach how to budget and how to balance a checkbook. I could do that. I called the number, left my name and was told someone would call me back.

A few minutes later Amanda bounded in the front door, home late from her job at an art supply store. She was humming to herself in a pleasant sort of way. Over the past decade Amanda had changed her hair color more often than some people change their sheets, but lately she appeared to have settled on a deep brownish red, permed and cut in a short bob.

“You’re in a good mood,” I said.

She hung her coat in the hall closet and headed to the kitchen. “Yes, indeed.”

I followed behind. “Why so chipper?”

“I’ve got a date for Friday.”

“My, my. Who’s the lucky guy?”

“You haven’t met him.” Amanda peered into the freezer. “He’s a doctor.” She whisked a frozen dinner out, stabbed the plastic wrapping a couple of places with a knife and popped it in the microwave.

I frowned. “I thought you didn’t like doctors.” In college she had gone out with a medical student who had argued constantly with just about everyone, was too busy to see her, forgot her birthday and then called her every day for two months after she gave him the boot. She’d had no trouble being merciless.

“I don’t. But this one’s different.”

I folded my arms across my chest. “Statistically improbable. How’d you meet him?”

“He came in the store and we started talking.”

“Amanda, doctors don’t buy art supplies.”

“This one does. His wife’s some kind of artist—monoprints, I guess.”

“He’s married?”

“Yep.” Amanda pulled her dinner from the beeping microwave. “A lot of people are these days.”

“Married. Oh, Amanda, no. It’s sleazy, it’s worm-like. It’s so, so . . . Genine.” Genine was our father’s second wife, former girlfriend.

Amanda peeled the plastic off her chicken enchilada, yipping as steam burnt her fingers. “So I’m Miss Scum of the Earth. I’ve been called worse. And it’s nothing at all like Genine, thank you very much.”

“So you have an affair and he dumps you—then what? You’ll get hurt.”

“I’m a big girl. So I get hurt, so what? It won’t be the first time.”

I sighed. “I care about you.”

“Yeah, I know.” She put down her plate and hugged me. “I appreciate it, but it won’t do any good.”

“Amanda—” I paused, undecided whether to tell her about the symphony. If I did, she’d give me as much grief as I’d just given her.

“Sara. What?” She faced me, eyebrows raised, hands on her hips.

“Oh, forget it. I’m going to bed.”

“You going to go read?”

“I feel like walking, actually, but it’s dark and I don’t want to go alone.”

“I’ll go with you,” she offered. “For a short one.”

We went just to the top of the hill, the wind whipping our breath away and stinging our eyes. The bank of clouds had blown away, uncovering the lights of the Bay Bridge and the East Bay as well as the spangled downtown skyline.

“What a magnificent city,” Amanda said.

“You can’t see any of the problems from up here,” I said dourly. “No homeless, no crime, no potholes, no AIDS.”

“Sometimes illusions are a nice break.”

At that moment I felt content to be living in San Francisco with my sister. We went home and I read until eleven, lying in a bed still more compressed and hollowed on Mark’s side than mine.

Chapter One

In the mood for some Ramones?

Princess in the

Land of Porcelain