That summer, Sarah and I become established friends. We lost all the awkwardness that accompanies a new friendship, and we did so quickly. Now and then one of us would comment on our age difference, but then laugh and call us kindred spirits or soul sisters, destined to be friends whatever obstacles blocked us. In July, armed with wedding pictures (I'd been married in June), I arrived at Sarah's house for lunch (iced tea on the deck! lunch outdoors on little trays! patio furniture!), and we pored over the pictures. She asked a lot of questions about my relatives, and I remember thinking that most people, even friends, didn't care to hear all one's family dynamics and complications. But Sarah's interest was as genuine as it was rare.
At the same time, our husbands were getting to know one another. Later in the summer Buddy and Sarah invited us over for a dinner party with another couple. My husband and I were nervous. We were young. Would we behave appropriately, maturely? Could we be witty and convivial? We managed, while still feeling out of place. I know what I spent the evening pondering: How does someone manage this? Cooking an elegant meal for several people? Having all the right dishes, knowing about wine and its different types of glasses? Adulthood was still so far from me, still so much an object of scrutiny rather than a time to be lived.
If I tell you that my husband and I studied Sarah's and Buddy's life in order to prepare for our own, it will sound too forced. But that's what we did. We learned so many adult ways from being exposed to them. Driving home, my husband would sigh dreamily: Sarah is just a fantastic cook. I'd nod, and add, And what a gorgeous house. I love the exposed wood everywhere. Let's have a house like that someday, he'd reply, and then we'd fall silent, companionably planning our own future together.
If this makes us sound like the worst kind of bourgeois wannabes, you have to understand that we were what, twenty-eight years old? Still kids, still poor students, neither of us with a coherent or satisfying picture of childhood from which to draw. My parents had divorced when I was a baby; his when he was five. He and I were joined, perhaps most perfectly, in our desire for a life of stability.
Oh, we saw certain things, although maybe we couldn't have named them then: Buddy's tendency to dip too far into a bottle of scotch and then turn bitterly, meanly funny, at his wife's expense more often than not. Buddy's talk about his work: best job ever that you wouldn't want to have? Sarah's unwillingness to engage in an intellectual or political conversation, fearing, I think, that she'd say something stupid or uninformed. Sarah believed (and joked) that my husband and I were the smartest people she'd ever known, largely because we were both on our way to receiving PhDs. (By this time I was back in graduate school to finish my degree.)
In 1996, the following summer and also the summer of the Atlanta Olympics, Buddy and Sarah asked us to house-sit and cat-sit for a week while they attended the Olympics courtesy of an Atlanta friend. For my husband and me, this was a chance to play-act at having a life we wouldn't know for years. Sarah understood this; now I see that this was the reason she'd asked us to stay. Her cat could have boarded somewhere, but no. We would spend a week in their house, and we could take care of their plants and garden, too.
Remember what happened at the 1996 Summer Olympics? Was it on a Friday when Sarah's and Buddy's relatives started calling the house very early in the morning? There had been a bombing, and all the parents and siblings were frantic. I was unable to assuage their fears until Sarah herself called to let us know that she and Buddy were fine, just fine. I felt a wave of relief and wondered how it could be that I'd known these people for little more than a year but nevertheless cared so much about their well-being.
The day after Buddy, Sarah, and their son returned from Atlanta, their cat - the cat my husband and I had cared for - died. No, I am not making this up. He had a tumor, as it turned out, but I felt so terrible, and my husband and I compulsively went over the things we had done (or failed to do) for this cat, just to reassure ourselves that we hadn't actually killed him. In time it became yet another joke that we all could share, but Sarah was very sad for a long while. Wally had been with her for over a decade.
The cat's death was the first tear in the history of the two Sarahs, and although Sarah and Buddy never for a second blamed us for the loss of Wally, Sarah herself felt guilt over not being with Wally for the last week of his life, and my husband and I felt guilt about the cat despite knowing that we hadn't caused him harm. And then there were the Atlanta bombings, casting a pall over all of it.
Foreshadowing... But of what?