We met altogether by chance. I had been languishing in graduate school. I'd made a mistake in pursuing psychology (and the smallest voice inside me kept nagging, Did you really commit to psychology only because that's what your boyfriend at the time studied?), but I was so close to finishing my PhD that it seemed wasteful of four years of the hardest work I'd yet done to up and quit. Instead I'd taken the noncommittal route and submitted my leave of absence from graduate school. I was also newly engaged and soon to be married. I filled the time between engagement and wedding not by planning for my wedding (there was no money for that) but by taking a dismally paying job as an assistant in a preschool classroom at a Montessori school. Passing by the toddler room at the end of my successful interview I remember marveling at the lanky, elegant woman, glossy brown hair cut in a bob, sitting on a rug and surrounded by six or seven toddlers clambering up and on her person. I thought, Audrey Hepburn. She was smiling, even then: always smiling. I was smitten. The director of the Montessori program opened up the door and greeted her as the younger babies crawled and the older ones lumbered, curious, over to us newcomers. "Sarah," said Annette, "This is Sarah, who will be working next door, in Laurie's room." "Hi, Sarah," laughed Sarah. "Another Sarah." "Sarah with an 'h,' of course," I grinned. "Only way," she replied, and I knew we'd be friends. As Annette closed the door, she sighed. "I don't know how Sarah does it. Hard - and smelly - work, with toddlers, and she prefers to do it alone." I'd remember that comment, because there were many times I myself would wonder how Sarah did it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was twenty-eight years old when Sarah and I met, and she was already forty-five. It's not lost on me that I am now forty-five. Perhaps that's why I'm finally ready to tell the whole story of Sarah and Sarah. Each morning when I arrived at the Montessori school, I'd duck my head into her classroom and call out, "Hi, Sarah!" She'd repeat, "Hi, Sarah!," and we'd both giggle. It was our own comedy routine, and damned if it wasn't funny (to us) each and every time we performed it.
Two days before she died, I called her on the phone, and when she answered, I started, as always, with, "Hi, Sarah," and she offered a weak, "Hi, Sarah," but she didn't laugh. And I stood there in my basement, phon to my ear, baby Jack on my hip, stood there by the washing machine and dryer where I'd been folding baby laundry, and a shudder of fear and knowing ran the length of me, and must have coursed through the baby, too, for he who rarely cried began to hiccup and then, frightened by his own hiccuping, to wail.
Soon we took to eating lunch together in the cramped teachers' room, but we shared the belief that the teachers at this school were on the whole mean-spirited and burned out, not to mention cliquish, so as spring approached so did Sarah approach me and ask if I wanted to walk around the school's neighborhood during our lunch break, instead of eating. I did.
While we walked we learned about each other. I confessed to her that I was at loose ends about what I wanted to be when I grew up. She laughed her musical laugh and confessed to me that she was at loose ends about what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her son was nearing the end of his elementary school years, and she was ready to go back to work full-time, but nothing beckoned, and motherhood had made her feel hopelessly outdated and ill-prepared for any other kind of work. Her mornings teaching toddlers left her afternoons free, and she had started to feel guilty that she was puttering about at home with nothing much to do.
Seventeen years apart we were, and yet facing oddly similar existential crises.
Sometime that April, Sarah asked me a favor. Her hunter green Jeep Cherokee (I coveted that car nearly as much as I coveted its owner) was in the shop, and her husband was going on a business trip the following morning, so could I pick her up on my drive to work in the morning and take her with me? Easily I could do that, I said, if she didn't mind my ratty little Honda Civic, and I wrote down her address.
The next morning I pulled up in front of her house and gaped. It was the kind of house I dreamed of living in someday. On a leafy, quiet street in one of the north suburbs of Chicago, it was a gorgeous white stuccoed home (built in the twenties, I'd later learn) with a side porch and a lovely garden, kept up by Sarah, whose skill as a gardener matched only her skill as a chef, and her skill at understanding the needs and wants of very young children. I came to the side door and knocked, as Sarah had instructed. A lithe man, nattily dressed and greying at the temples, poked his head around the door. "You the cab?," he pressed, impatient. "Uhh, no," I replied, reddening with embarrassment. And then he looked me up and down, not a little pruriently, and roared with laughter. "No, you wouldn't be," he sputtered. "What are you, ten years old?" He turned and called to Sarah, "Sarah, your little friend Sarah is here! Or is she your sister Sarah?" "Ahh, so you're in on the joke, too," came my quick rejoinder, and he winked, as was his way.
This was Buddy, larger-than-life, jocular, funny Buddy, and in time I would grow nearly as fond of him as of my friend Sarah. As in time my fiancé would end up loving them, too. Sarah and Buddy were who we wanted to be when we were older. Sarah and Buddy were who we would be when we were older.
All four of us were certain of it.