The Harbor

Evan Puschak
May 9, 2014 · 9 min read

Sadie Neal’s new song, “I Never Liked You Anyway,” premiered at number one. She spent the following days tweeting and walking around the harbor. She tweeted, “I won #NeverLikedYou” and “Retweet this if he wants you back,” after the insistence of her manager. Evenings she went out to dinner with Julia Vicente and Cave, and later tried to get comfortable at home. Her cottage was pleasant enough, but Sadie knew it was too large for her nerves. After shutting herself in she would get stoned, clean obsessively and listen to her old records. Usually she fell asleep on the couch.

The harbor was green and artificial. Wind came off the seawall rapidly as if to charge the houses that dotted the hill. Along the tideline a rank black algae, smelling of fish and sulfur, filled in the spaces between rounded stones the size of dinosaur eggs. It was quiet in the early mornings, as cafes took in their bread bags and first orders. A handful of ships knocked about in the shallows, cabin cruisers of varying sizes, though most of the dock was crowded with restaurants and souvenir shops (the old uses of the harbor were being relieved by more productive economics). In the mornings, Sadie wrote e-mails and did phone interviews with all the national magazines.

Eliot Rittenbaum from Rolling Stone wanted to know who the song was about; so did Randall Radar from Pitchfork and Wesley Foer from The Times. Everyone knew and everyone said they wanted to know. They wanted to hear her say it. They wanted to write it with quotes.

Sadie answered each time, “Isn't pop music meant to be relatable?”

Residents of the harbor gave her space. Spotting her their eyes would flash, then fill with a vague displeasure, a disdain for anyone who might get fazed in the presence of fame. They knew about her—knew about the months of drug and alcohol abuse, the poor spotlit years of transition into adulthood. In their apartments and houses they spoke of how they hated her and what she represented, her “bubblegum” music, her need to be taken seriously. To friends, in front of the TV, they had said things like, “Can’t she see she’s trying too hard?” and, “Does anyone actually like this kind of music?” The old contempt seemed small-minded now, particularly in the light of her new work, but they resented Sadie for this feeling too.

Sadie didn’t mind people thinking that they knew her; being known was heartening. It was being unknown that frightened her, and so much about her was unknown. The suicide attempts at fifteen and twenty-one: who knew about those? The love she had for her stepfather? His mortifying rebuke? The feeling she had that her personality was the sum of all those quick accusations others made about it? These things could not be read on her face in passing, she thought. They had to be told.

Psychoanalytically she was passed all that. Cave said so. “The desire to have it define you,” he said, “is who you are now.” Julia chuffed: “Will you shut up?” Whatever he was describing, Cave made it seem like there was no way out. A perennially out-of-work journalist from Delaware, he had problems of his own. Julia Vicente counted herself chief among them.

The three met in 2007 at a restaurant on the pier called The Brighter Jewel. Each had come alone. They shared an inability to describe what brought them to the harbor (as well as a general lack of persuasiveness on most subjects), though they all felt strongly about getting away from one nebulous thing or another. Cave and Julia, both initially attracted to Sadie, eventually found satisfaction in each other and, after failing to live in several cities across the northeast, purchased the top floor of a duplex six blocks from the water. Their relationship could not be understood without Sadie Neal, who for obvious reasons could never stay at the harbor for longer than two or three weeks at a time. After some quiet years a sour consciousness formed in both of their minds that their life together only really occurred when Sadie was in town, and that in her absence it lacked some vital substance which made it real. Cave found work at the local Courier; Julia at The Brighter Jewel. Sadie gave them money when they needed it. In time, they became experts on one another.

“Read this,” Sadie said, handing Julia the Rolling Stone.

“‘Neal won’t say it,’” Julia began, uncomfortably, “‘but her demure evasion of the matter—a quick, practiced denial—is meant to affirm the popular suspicion. Like her last album, the stellar Always New, “I Never Liked You Anyway” is satire and heartbreak in one; each mode functionally concealing the other. This is achieved so perfectly that it’s impossible to say whether she hates Mr. Sharp or just me for asking the question.’”

“Jesus,” said Sadie.

“I’m confused by this,” Cave said. “What’s the point in denying the song is about Jack? Can you explain the point in that?”

“Because it’s not about him, Cave. Maybe it’s about you.”

Cave laughed, “Oh, really?”

This was Sadie’s way of confession, her way of admitting something painful without putting it on record. At least that’s what Cave and Julia thought. Sadie sighed, “Jack Fucking Sharp,” but if there was any more to the thought it didn’t come. She wasn’t really sure whether Jack was in her mind when writing the song, only it fit so perfectly with the sentiment that she waffled until others could convince her that it was the truth. Now Cave had settled the matter with the help of some nosy reporters. Thereafter she was sure that Jack (who had left her only weeks before her “critical rebirth” with Always New) was the source of that valuable pain. As a matter of class, she kept up her “demure evasion” and let others say what they wanted.

The next morning Sadie decided to stay on at the harbor for a few more weeks, to the delight of her friends.

They spent most of their free time together. Sadie and Cave took a table at The Brighter Jewel when Julia was working. Sadie and Julia laid out on the sail-shaped artificial beach when Cave was stuck at the Courier, reporting on various local trivialities. His editor asked him to write something about Sadie and he refused, which almost cost him the job. After work he joined them on the beach or back at Sadie’s cottage, where they often stayed the night. Sadie let them have the master bed, but all three preferred to sleep downstairs, where great walls of salt air cooled the rooms.

Sadie played new songs for them on the piano. “I won’t put out any more music unless the two of you approve.” But neither Julia nor Cave ever thought negatively of Sadie’s work. If they did they didn’t say so, even while Cave was regularly critical of other aspects of her life.

It was his idea that he and Julia represented Sadie’s second chance—her second act—and that in the first she had been thronged with yes-people and premature notoriety. He could see the influence in her cottage: modest by the measure of her wealth and unglamorous. Her clothes were simpler. Her manner was meeker. Her music was better. Their friendship was deep and catalytic. He reminded Sadie at every opportunity.

At home one evening Cave said to Julia, “Can you imagine her leaving now, after all these weeks? Why not build a studio here at the harbor?”

Julia said, “I could do with a break.”

“You could—?”

“I hate that the thought of her going away makes me anxious.” Julia cut off, but Cave said nothing. “Can’t we leave her for once?”

Again, Cave had no response. The following morning he took off work and swam out to one of the small barrier islands that enclosed the harbor’s brackish semicircle. On the ocean side thousands of mole crabs buried themselves behind the undertow. Whitecaps lurched aggressively at one another a few dozen yards out, while by his feet the water was almost placid. Cave took out his cell phone from a side pocket in his bathing suit, still dry in a Ziploc bag, and began to write short, abstract notes of which he was later unimpressed: “Life is a game except in those instances when one chooses to love.”—“We are defined by the questions we allow others to ask us repeatedly.”—“All identities are shared.” He felt sick.

Impatiently he climbed over the dunes to the other side of island. The town rose up in a shallow, stepped incline from the water, like stadium bleachers. Sadie’s cottage was visible to the right of the beach, standing forward in sharp focus like a two-dimensional cutout pasted onto a poor impressionistic canvas. A grey mist was moving inland. He and Julia’s apartment was obscured, but knowing where to look he could make out the colors of pale oak and tanbark some four hundred feet up the hill. He imagined the mist had interpenetrated and diffused everything it touched, not just the appearances of those things from afar. He imagined Julia in bed, reading entertainment magazines on her phone, feeling lazy and disgusted, and the mist coming in to break her down on a microscopic level.

When he got back to Sadie’s cottage, a short hand-written note informed him that she and Julia had gone into the city.

Unable to fall asleep in Sadie’s bed, he wandered around her home for a couple hours in the early morning. He turned over the random artifacts she kept on glass shelves in the living room: an antique vase depicting a group of men huddling around a fountain, a stone that had been bisected to expose violet crystals within, some old keys. He wondered if a decorator had picked them out or if she had. Moonlight slanted in a bar of white motes onto her couch. Cave tried to assuage his feeling of helplessness with push-ups and crunches and jumping jacks—to little result.

In the middle of the room floating stairs curled up to a loft bedroom. He climbed them hurriedly and masturbated in Sadie’s bed. He took a shower and sat at her desktop computer. The words he wrote seemed nonsensical at the time, like the details of a friendship put through some kind of food processor, but his editor at the Courier adored them.

When Sadie read the article she felt forced to disown Cave, which she did, but regretted that decision for years afterward. The cottage was sold, her things shipped away. She never came back to the harbor. Cave held on for a few months, then arranged to move away as well. He made a life for himself in a post-industrial town by the Appalachians—wife, kids, doubles tennis for a handful of years, then cards. Eventually he was happy.

On the train back from her trip to the city with Sadie, Julia Vicente could only feel dissatisfied. Her friend had decided to go on to Europe and start work on a new album. “I’ll be back by August,” she said, “just when the summer’s ready to climax. Tell Cave not to worry.” The train clicked as it sliced through overgrown fields, decaying factories, towns. Julia looked out of the window and felt cheated. It’d been too exciting, the thought of being alone with her like that. As soon as Sadie’s eyes met the glittering lights of the city, Julia knew what she had done to herself.

At the train station she called for a cab. Waiting in the mini-cafe across the street, she held a Styrofoam cup of coffee to her chest and let the steam climb into her eyes. She pushed a fingernail into the side of it until a small gash bled lines of ochre fluid. An old man some seats over said, “Tell me what happened to me in 1976.” She said she couldn't say.

Cave was dead asleep in their bed. His knees crammed into his chest—the quilt tangled up with his ankles—and his eyes were straining upward, as if to look into his own brain. In two hours Julia had a double at The Brighter Jewel. She thought about making breakfast, then grabbed her phone and went to lay beside him. She rotated the phone in the light, reflecting a burning parallelogram onto his eyes. He blinked slowly, but didn’t wake. Julia put her headphones on and tried to sleep.

Evan Puschak

Written by

short fiction, sometimes

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