When Sybil Czkschuya came back to town, we weren’t surprised. She had moved in with a man on the southern part of Sicily and given up her prestigious academic position at the university to work part-time at a pottery studio, manning the kiln when she should’ve been calculating the spaces between stars or the insane trajectories of planets in far-off galaxies. She called me first when she came back, and that didn’t surprise us either: I was the only one who had encouraged her to go.
When she first brought up leaving, I had said, “It could be good for you,” and we laughed about the uncertainty over the phone; but, on that swampy day in May, when she called to announce her return, she sounded weak somehow — demoralized. Well, that’s what you get for listening to me, I thought somewhat bitterly.
I met her for drinks nonetheless at the place on the corner of Hopwater and Gramshaw — this pub where they serve pork rinds in your french fries and large beef hamburgers topped with fried eggs and pickles so tangy that you think your face might never untwist. She looked just as composed as when she left, but tired now — with faint circles beneath her eyes where none had existed before, and, when she laughed, she leaned forward, as though her back ached. Her eyes, however, maintained their compelling darkness, which made the specks of light encompassed in them all the brighter, and it was enough, almost, to make me believe that she hadn’t lost her sense of self-affirming happiness even though her life had fallen apart.
“It was beautiful in Sicily,” she said a few drinks in. Her words were slurring now. “I loved the streets. I loved the seafood.”
“Did you have a lot of seafood while you were there?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said. “But the seafood that I had, I loved.” She leaned forward. “It’s too beautiful there. It makes it painful to leave.”
“There are places in America that are like Sicily aesthetically.”
“No,” she said sadly. “It’s really not the same.” She leaned back and then to the side as though balancing something heavy and wobbly. “I’m a pretty good scientist. I should’ve gotten something.”
“It’s pretty hard out there.”
“Most people don’t have the credentials I have. Most people don’t think like me.”
“I thought you wanted to give up science.”
She shook her head sharply. “Not in the end.”
We had been close, but Hastings and I were closer. I found him reading an old, torn-up copy of Madame Bovary — something he had missed in college between classes on isotopes and probability. He was building his knowledge of classics on my request — I thought it would make him a more sensitive person — but, as he read, I saw him mark the pages with detailed notes on the prose’s quality and the narrative’s logic, and I knew that he had overlooked my intention. When I saw him that night, he kissed my forehead as usual and returned speedily to the novel.
“I saw Sybil Czkschuya today,” I said.
He looked up from his book and asked, “How is she?”
“She seemed fine.”
He thought for a moment and then returned to Madame Bovary.
“It didn’t work out, huh?” he asked, and I said that I guessed not. “Well, it was so unlikely that she would find anything,” he said. “It’s competitive enough among academics as it is — to convince a university that you’ll stay in another country forever is a pretty difficult argument.”
As he spoke, the lamplight formed harsh bright angles on his glasses that exacerbated the inherently analytical qualities of his appearance. I wanted to ask him why he never invited me out with his friends, but I knew better than to bring this up at 10 p.m. on a weeknight. I pulled the blankets over my shoulders and laid down in a half-perch on the pillow beside him.
“It’s crazy to think she could give her life up like that,” I said. “It’s like she didn’t care about us at all.”
He rolled his shoulders back somewhat. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “She was probably overwhelmed.”
I let his words hang in the air for a moment before saying, intensely but quietly, “Probably.”
The next morning, I invited Sybil out for drinks. She joined me about fifteen minutes late and sat down in a huff, with her hair slightly a mess and her eyeliner smeared. She immediately ordered two glasses of wine — one red and one white.
“Which do you want?” she asked. I started to tell her that I was feeling more like a beer when she interrupted: “My treat.”
I was in no position to object to a drink from someone who sought only to make me feel better, though I suspected that, in doing so, she sought to make herself feel better as well, and so I took the red.
“I got an interview,” she said with a mix of relief and exhaustion and hope. “A university. Not too far from here.”
“Is it a tenure-track position?” I asked.
“No,” she sighed. “But at least it’s something.”
I had nothing unique and positive to offer her, so I affirmed that it was.
“It’s supervised by this guy who worked with my advisor,” she said. “He’s very good at finding people, they say. Half his employees went on to become professors somewhere.”
By now the wine had come out, and I was thankful for it. I swallowed a generous amount and took in all the bitterness.
“That’s great, Sybil,” I said. “I’m really happy for you.”
She seemed pleased to hear this, and I felt almost sorry for her.
“What about you?” she asked. “How’s your job going?”
I said it was going fine.
“And how’s Hastings?” she asked.
I tapped my spoon against my glass before I coughed and said, “He’s doing fine. Thanks.”
She glanced downward for a moment before raising her gaze back up to meet my own. It was clear that we had an understanding.
“Well, I should go,” she said weakly.
“What? No,” I said almost jokingly. “I can buy us another round.”
“I really have someplace to be.”
“On a Wednesday night? I’ll get us some tea if you want, even.”
It looked as though fire would spout from her eyes — she was so angry — but then she said, “You don’t have to do this.”
I shrugged. “Do what?” I asked.
“Whatever,” she said. “Buy the tea.”
I chose the most expensive oolong they had.
“Fine,” she said.
“Just trying to make you feel better,” I said, but, in fact, this generosity was something else: A reminder of how the chips had fallen. Likely, she thought: He still chose me once. But I wouldn’t confirm it. We were both being polite now, something I preferred to anger outwardly expressed. At least a silent recognition allowed for niceties, and, given that we ran in the same circles, I welcomed the civility. But I almost wanted to laugh with her like before (“Remember how you tried to pull one on me? On me! You were so stupid! Of course he’d choose me!”), when we spilled over ourselves with laughter so much that our stomachs hurt for hours.
However, when I met her gaze with, I’m sure, a lightness in my own, I saw only sadness, and I grew angry. How dare you make me feel pity for you? I thought. How dare you? I wanted to criticize her insistence on ordering two drinks and making me choose. I wanted to tell her that her choice was ridiculous: You don’t relinquish a tenure-track position for a pottery studio in Sicily. But, when the tears streamed down her face, I felt embarrassed for her and for myself for having brought her out. It really wasn’t fair, I thought. And, worse still, I now questioned whether the persistent sparkle of her eye was one of happiness or of an inkling tear — sorrow bursting to come out. “It’s okay,” I said. “Don’t cry.” And I handed her many napkins. She balled up each one after using it and set them aside in a neat little row. They looked like the heads of flowers, there, crumpled and soft on the wooden table. At some point, I called over a waiter and told him that Sybil could have whatever she wanted. I gave him my credit card.
After Hastings’ card was declined the next day, I explained what happened. His eyes went wild, so I didn’t say much — only that I took out an old friend. He interpreted that correctly, I think, and returned to Madame Bovary. “Which part are you at?” I asked. And he told me about the placidity of the countryside and how Flaubert used modifiers like a chef over-seasons. That wasn’t what I asked you, I thought, but I listened patiently, banking on each word to bring me closer to how he felt.
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