What Comes After

Rachel Sargent

I was twenty-seven when I saw him again, at a birthday party for my sister that uncomfortably straddled the line between our broke college years and some recently adopted bourgeois values. There were charcuterie boards of expensive cheese and cured meats, chopped veggies and assorted dips, but there was also a cooler filled with ice and cans of light beer, hard seltzers, and store brand sparkling wine. A massive new television took up most of one wall but the sectional couch that faced it was pilling and had several caved-in cushions. The place had a very thin veneer of respectability, one that was easily washed off.

Unlike her college parties, my sister knew everyone there. She flitted between groups of people like a hummingbird between feeders. Her boyfriend Peter had been the one to open the door. Hannah, it’s so good to see you, he said, enveloping me in a hug. He and Trish had been together for so long that he’d acquired a sort of historic status, like an old house the city won’t knock down because it increases the property values. Our place is kinda too small for a party like this, said Peter. So, Blake said we could have Trish’s birthday here.

That’s very nice of him, I said.

Yeah, he said. He knows all the neighbors and mows their lawns for them, so they don’t make any noise complaints.

How enterprising. I learned that Blake was a mining engineer who had put in some stark years out in Morenci, a few hours from Tucson. When he finally moved back to Phoenix, he bought the ranch house as an investment. Peter had lived there for two years before he and my sister had moved in together. Blake wouldn’t let us turn the air-conditioning on until it hit 100 degrees, said Peter.

In the kitchen, he handed me a beer. Sorry it’s not Guinness, he laughed. I smiled and said, that’s Ireland, and popped the cap off.

Oh right, he said. You should meet Zahara. She used to live in Europe too. Germany, I think? He craned his neck around the bend of the kitchen wall, searching for a face. She’s one of Blake’s new roommates.

Trish found me there, leaning against the granite countertop and nodding along to Peter’s words. You’ve got to come say hi to the girls, she said. I want to take some pictures. Her friends were all wearing shades of the same outfit, short little dresses with floral patterns. I found the photos recently, and I look like the odd one out, gangly and sad in a long skirt and t-shirt.

It’s so good to have you back, said one of my sister’s friends. What do you think you’ll do?

I’m applying for jobs right now, I said, and made a joke about my English degree qualifying me to be a barista. We both laughed and I felt sick. It had been years since I’d made that joke. I wore my degree proudly in London, debated politics, literature, and history. But now I felt stripped down to my barest essentials, like a fluffy dog shaved to the skin. I asked the friend about her work as a flight attendant and let her talk for a while as I tried to drink my beer quickly enough that I could exit the conversation.

I had just moved back to the United States, with a few hundred dollars and not much else to show that I had ever left except the lost years. It was September, and the frying summer still clung to the valley. At midday the sun baked the ground until it cracked beneath the yellow grass and in the evening a monsoon would wander through, pulling at the trees and soaking the patio until it left just as quickly as it had come, like a deliveryman leaving a package at the door. My mother and stepfather would coax me out of my bedroom at these times with a glass of wine so we could sit on the porch to ‘watch the rain’. I often thought about texting Tom this, but then I remembered that we had decided, together I think, that it was for the best if we didn’t speak.

I was spending a lot of time in my childhood bedroom, applying for jobs that I didn’t want. Across the street a bulldozer leveled an old ranch house with Talavera tiles where I had once spent weekends dog-sitting a tiny mutt called Darnit. In London I had a flat in Clapham, a boyfriend, and a job in an NGO as a policy officer. When they had declined to renew my contract, I’d first lost the visa, then the flat, and finally the boyfriend.

After I had drained the beer, I excused myself to the kitchen, which was where I saw him. He was bent over in the doorway of the tiny kitchen, pulling a sweaty beer bottle from a cooler, but when he straightened, he was unmistakable. It was like I had struck my elbow on a solid wall; the pain and confusion were so immediate.

I know that he was there that night, I know that I saw him, but I don’t remember his face now, just the outline of him. The scene itself is painted in such bright vibrant colors. I can recall a magnet on the fridge with a smiling couple and ‘Save the Date’ written across it in cursive, the raised strip lights on the ceiling, like someone had pulled the cover off to redo it at some point and had given up halfway, and even a turquoise ceramic bowl filled with tchotchkes from one of those paint it yourself places. But he, the principal actor, is a blur.

I went back to find my sister and pulled her from the conversation she was having with her flight attendant. What is it? she asked over the music. I pulled her down the hall where a queue was forming for the bathroom.

He’s here, I said. You didn’t tell me he would be here.

Who’s here?

Jeremy, I said. Jeremy is here. He’s in the kitchen.

Yeah, said Trish. He’s a friend of Peter’s, of course he’s here. She looked at me for a moment, eyes searching mine. Hannah, that stuff that happened, that was like ten years ago. Don’t let it ruin your night. Her words were familiar, and I could swear that she had said them to me before.

I didn’t say anything after that. I just nodded until she was satisfied and had left to rejoin her friends. Then I found my bag on the table by the front door and stepped out into the yard. My body felt tight and constricted, like a finger trap. The more I tried to pull away and leave it behind, the tighter it felt. I got out my phone to book a car ride home when I noticed a woman standing out on the lawn, smoking a cigarette and staring up at the moon. She must have heard the door close because she was looking over at me, her face wet with cool white light.

Leaving already? she asked. My thumb was hovering over the request car button, but I didn’t push it. I was intrigued. Few enough people in Arizona went outside in the summer to smoke. Few enough people smoked.

Oh, I said. Yeah, I guess. I could hear crickets chirping over the undulating hum of cicadas. A breeze played among the slim branches of the palo verdes in the yard.

God, it must be very boring in there, she said. She is still vivid and clear to me now. She was wearing a linen tank top that hung in wrinkles over her denim shorts and had a heavy fringe that ran into her eyes. She was thin in the way that all this looked intentional, instead of lazy. The things that skinny people can get away with, I thought.

No, it’s fine, I said. I just wasn’t feeling it. My sentence trailed into a yawn, and I could feel a headache pressing itself into my temples. I was tired a lot those days.

I became aware that the woman was still looking at me. She had her head cocked to one side as if she had misheard something I said. I’d love to paint you, she said.

Excuse me?

You have a very interesting face.

Oh, I said turning to watch a car pass along the road. Thanks.

We were quiet for another few moments. Then I said, So, you paint?

The woman exhaled some smoke. No, she said.

I was too startled to laugh. Then why?

You just have an interesting face. She flicked open a box of cigarettes and offered it to me. I hesitated for a moment, then took one. When she lit it for me, she cupped her hand around the flame. Has anyone ever told you that?

I said yes, once or twice, and she seemed disappointed.

She told me her name was Zahara. Like the desert but with a Z, she said.

Oh, right. You’re Blake’s roommate, I said. I inhaled the smoke, my first in years, and held back a cough.

I am, indeed, she said. And they can’t exactly kick me out for a party, though I’m sure they’d like to.

Oh, that can’t be true, I said. Though privately I was sure it was.

So, you’re a friend of the birthday girl, then? she asked.

Trish? I said.


Yeah, she’s my sister.

Ah, she said. Family event. So that’s why you left?

I imagined the smoke filling up my lungs like a huge bellows as I inhaled, entering all the empty spaces and crevices where nothing had touched. Then I exhaled and expelled it all from me. No, I said. Someone was there that I didn’t expect to see. Suddenly the cigarette was making me feel warm, too warm. I could feel sweat in my hairline, between my shoulder blades, beneath my breasts. I corrected myself. Didn’t want to see.

An ex? She asked.

Something like that.

We stood there in the moonlight for a while, blowing smoke at each other. I felt myself expanding, the smoke clearing the chittering anxiety from me like a leaf blower. Finally, she said, People don’t smoke with me much. Americans don’t like it much. She said it strangely, as if she weren’t one herself. I can see it in their eyes. Like, Oh are you poor? And they hate it when I say I am.

I laughed a bit, but it came out as a cough.

But you’re not poor, she said. Not if she’s your sister, and they’re her friends.

I lived in London for a long time, I said. In Europe some of the old ways are still alive. Like not being rude to people you’ve just met, I thought.

But England’s not Europe anymore, is it? she said.

I was taken aback. People at my sister’s parties didn’t really talk politics. No, I suppose they went to great pains for that, didn’t they? I said.

She smiled, a laugh at the corners of her lips.

You lived in Europe for a while too?

She looked mildly confused for a moment, a crease dividing her brows. Oh, yes, she said finally. I was an au pair in Paris for a year.

Oh really? And what was that like?

Very annoying, having kids climb all over you all the time, that kind of thing. She waved the cigarette, as if that was the end of it.

And what about living in Paris?

Oh, you know, very pretty, very cosmopolitan. I used to go to the galleries when I finished with the kids. I liked reading books outside the cafes with glasses of wine. Rude people though. I wasn’t desperate to stay.

I remember feeling disappointed, as if I expected her to say something more original.

So, why’d you leave London? she asked.

I hesitated. The truth felt long and complicated then, though it seems simple enough to me now. I simply made a decision or two somewhere along the line that set things down a different course. I was in a review meeting with my boss and her two bosses, both of whom I only ever saw at work parties, when they were drunk and permissive. They had spoken effusively about the research I’d done into eviction cases, my work with the local councilors. Then they said, regrettably, they didn’t have the capacity to renew my contract. The fees associated with a non-British worker were too much. It didn’t seem to matter that they had paid those fees gladly the year before. I remember raging about it to Tom afterwards as he chopped carrots for the dinner. It’s just an obsession with money, I said. Even though we’re a non-fucking-profit.

I mean, you’ve been complaining about the industry for ages, Hannah, he’d said. Why don’t you just use this as an opportunity to get out?

What, and give up? I’d said.

No, you know what I mean. Do something new. You used to always talk about TV and film, what about that?

I ignored him. It’s because I took David Henley’s comments to HR, I know it is.

I think might be a bit paranoid about that, he said.

We’d had a bad argument after that, and Tom declined to stay the night. Later, I couldn’t afford my share of the rent and made the mistake of assuming I could move in with Tom until I got on my feet again. I was practically at his door when he said he was having a hard time trying to take care of me all the time and that he needed to do some stuff for himself occasionally.

Early on in our relationship on some hungover Sunday morning I had asked him, do you ever worry that you’ll make one wrong move and your whole life will fall apart? He had laughed and told me not to worry. The stuff that’ll fuck up your life, in my experience, he added, you never see coming. When Tom dumped me my friends, his friends really, were clipped from me neatly, as if with garden shears. Soon enough in one of my phone calls back home, my mom gently suggested I come back to Arizona. Just for a little while.

Visa issues, I said finally.

That’s a shame, Zahara said. I had that happen too.

Oh, I said. I wouldn’t have thought you’d have much of that just being there a year.

Yes, she said. Well, it was towards the end of the year.

We were silent again, the sounds of our inhales and exhales filling the air instead. I noticed a thin tattoo in the inside of her elbow. It was an outline of a woman smoking, rather Matisse-like in its angles, and I felt somehow that I was experiencing something outside of reality.

Determined to ground myself I asked, How do you spend your time then?

It was a phrase I had picked up from Tom, who had finished college in Manchester during the crash when enough people were out of work that it was gauche to ask a person what they did for money.

She was a writer, she said. She freelanced for the newspaper but harbored desires to move out into the desert and write novels. I thought she looked like the kind of person who might do that. I could picture her traversing among the cacti in hiking boots and a straw hat in the early hours of the morning and then retiring to a cabin to write during the hot hours of the day. In a rocking chair perhaps. Maybe she would take up painting then.

Oh cool, I said. Would I know any of your pieces?

Probably not, she said. Though I had a book review in Harper’s recently. It was pretty well-received. Maybe you read that?

I don’t think so, I said. But maybe I’ll check it out.

Despite my degree, I had no interest in writing about writing. I would scroll Twitter or hate-read New York Times op-eds until I felt ill and had to sign out of all my accounts for several weeks. I have looked for that review several times since, but never found it. I had some idea that it would tell me something more about that night.

Ever heard of Edward Abbey? she asked. Desert Solitaire?

I shook my head.

She gave me a smile. You should look into him, living in Arizona.

It was clear that I wasn’t going home. But my insides turned sour at the thought of going back inside. If I went back in, I would run into Jeremy. There was only so long you could avoid someone in a house that wasn’t like the gaudy mansions on Camelback. I could hear myself stuttering along when he asked me how I was, what I was doing these days. Because he wouldn’t remember, and I would pretend not to.

Zahara studied her cigarette, whittled to its butt. Moving closer to the house, she tossed it in a patch of dirt between a bush and the wall, under the eaves of the roof where no grass would grow. She beckoned me over and gestured to the ground. I looked at my half-smoked cigarette and shrugged, adding it to the cracked earth. She stomped on the two of them with a sandalled foot.

Here, she said. Let me show you something. She walked towards the carport and stood next to a red sedan and pulling out keys.

Can we not walk there? I asked. Why I wasn’t more concerned about the possibility of going somewhere with someone I had just met, I have no idea.

That’ll take too long, she said. But it’s not far, just past the high school. She opened the car door and got in, looking up at me through her fringe.

Have you been drinking?

I don’t drink, she said. Then she shut the door. It was if she knew I would come, and because she knew I would, I did.  

We drove a few streets away, across the main road and past the high school.

So where did you move here from?

Portland. She said it very shortly.

And is that where your parents are from?

My parents are from…Wisconsin and Florida. She said it as if she were deciding, instead of remembering.

So where did you grow up?

Oh, all over. My family…you don’t want to know.

The air-conditioning dried my sweat and I shivered just a little. Then she was saying, it’s just down here. We were rolling past ranch-style houses and two-story farmhouses that looked as though they had been airdropped in from a more decadent climate.

She stopped at one and shut the car off. The moon and the orange streetlights illuminated a clear sheet of plastic so that it shined opaque. It was concealing a glaring hole at the center of the house, like a scoop from new tub of ice cream. The front lawn had two lines of upturned soil, entire sods of grass littering the ground. We both got out of the car and went to stand at the curb. The wind rippled the plastic and tugged at the strips of police tape that bound it up like a present. Drunk driver, Zahara said.

They had died on impact, obliterating the living room of this family’s house, plowing through their television and furniture, shattering family portraits, and sending the dog shrieking into the backyard. The residents were unhurt. Just an elderly couple who were awakened as their walls were rent asunder. Now they were living at a hotel nearby as the police and their insurance providers assessed the situation.

How do you know all this? I asked.

Fox 10 news. The answer disappointed me again. Perhaps I imagined her some kind of investigative reporter, or with a third eye that opened for explosions in the desert.

At the edge of the yard, I could hear a gurgling. Water glugged from a valve, slowly seeping across the ruined lawn. I guess they forgot to skip irrigation day, I said.

Zahara didn’t say anything. She slipped off her sandals and walked onto the lawn, her feet squelching as she moved to the base of a tangerine tree heavy with fruit. She palmed the trunk, painted white to reflect the sun, and plucked a piece of fruit from a branch.

We probably shouldn’t hang around here, I said, conscious suddenly of how this looked. A pair of women messing around a ruined house.

No one will notice, said Zahara. It’s late. She began to peel the tangerine, flakes of skin littering the ground. I couldn’t stop watching her, like a dangerous situation that I had to monitor or an intoxicating film that I couldn’t turn off. I was aware on some level that this person was nuts, but I also wanted to see what she would do next. I took off my shoes and followed her into the yard.

My sister and I used to play in the irrigation as kids, I said. We’d pretend it was a swamp. Seems gross now. You have any sisters or brothers?

It’s just mud, she said, but didn’t answer my question. She ripped the tangerine apart and offered me a slice. I took it and bit into the flesh, the sticky juice coating my fingers. We can hose off later, she said. Then she ate her own slice.

It was so quiet there. I kept waiting for a siren or a car horn to interrupt, but there was nothing, just the cicadas and the irrigation pump and the sound of cars from the main road nearby.

I haven’t seen my family in a long time, she said finally. I’ve had to make my own way for a while now. They’re a real car crash.

I swallowed sharply. She was smiling.

Zahara moved closer to the house, towards the plastic sheeting that covered the hole, and I followed her. We looked through the sheet into the house, the shapes of furniture foggy. But up close I could see splintered brick and shards of glass on the carpet.

What a horrible thing to happen, I said. I could feel the head high from the cigarette still clinging to my temples, shock still roiling my stomach.

At least it was just the house, said Zahara. And not any of the people.

But still, I said. The destructiveness of it. They probably lost so much. Family photos ruined, prized possessions, you know? I trailed off.

Zahara shrugged. I hope they had insurance. She said it flatly, as though she had really considered the matter and had hoped they did have insurance. She ran her hand over a splintered beam. That’s the way it is. You can just be minding your own business, paying your taxes, and enjoying retirement and someone can just drive a car through your living room. She turned back and head towards her car.

I did my best to scrape the mud off onto the curb before I got in the passenger side, sandals in my hands. We both sat in the car for a moment, looking straight through the windshield. My hand was on the center console, just resting, when I felt Zahara’s touch on my knuckles. I turned my palm over and let her draw signs on my palm. She ran the back of her fingers all the way up my arm, raising the hairs on it, to rest on my collarbone. Then we leaned towards each other and kissed, her lips warm and wet on my own. I felt a tingling warmth all over and stretched my hand to her waist, finding my way underneath her top and towards her bra. I hadn’t been with a woman for years, since before Tom, but I knew the contours like I knew my own body. When she moved her fingers under my skirt, I sighed, but as she maneuvered them around my underwear I started to slump. I was choked with the memory of Jeremy behind the frat house. Jeremy pressing me against a wall. Jeremy finding his fingers under my skirt and into me.

I was slow in taking Zahara’s wrist, gentle. I let our hands fall to my thigh. I’m sorry, I said. I don’t think I can right now.

Her face was buried in my neck, but she moved back slowly, searching me. You okay? she asked.

Yeah, I said. It’s just not a great time for me right now.

She nodded and waited for a moment before starting the car. We headed back towards the house and the party.

It’s not you or anything, I said. It’s just tonight, and—

Your ex?

I watched headlights travel across her face like a visor. Then I turned back to the window, staring at the school with its high gates and twenty-four-hour flashing red sign that advertised the date for Parent-Teacher night. He wasn’t my boyfriend, I said. We—we only happened once. And I didn’t want it to.

I didn’t look at Zahara, though I could feel her eyes on me.

Why is he at the party? she asked.

He’s my sister’s friend. Well, her boyfriend’s friend.

And they know?

My sister’s does. Or at least some of it. I can’t remember how much I told her. It happened so long ago.

I’m sorry, she said. That shouldn’t have happened to you.

It’s fine, I said and for some reason I was smiling.

No, it’s not. What happened? Then she caught herself. Sorry, I’ve had some stuff too. Don’t you just hate it? The way when you tell people, they claw at you and want to scrape every last bit of information from you?

I nodded, though I disagreed. When I told people they would look away, as though I’d just said a slur or something. They couldn’t wait to change the topic, or they’d just stay silent and wait for me to stop.

We were almost back to the house, stopped in the left turn lane waiting for a line of cars to pass by. Zahara wasn’t saying anything, so I started talking.

I told her I ran into him at a frat party my freshman year of college. I had a crush on him from high school, because he was around a lot, and I think he knew. We played beer pong then he followed me back to the dorm. The worst part is it all happened with those horrible overhead lights on. I remember it all like it was a surgery, him extracting parts of me. I managed to avoid him the rest of the year we overlapped in college, then he graduated and moved back to Phoenix. I stayed in Tucson every summer then moved to London for grad school. I hadn’t seen him in nine years. I allowed him to fade into nothing more than an explanation for why I wasn’t more experienced with men when I met Tom.

We pulled back into the driveway and Zahara switched the car off. Without the air-conditioning, everything felt close and hot. I didn’t feel any better for telling the story in full. In fact, I was sure I felt worse. Why had I stayed? I had pulled my phone back out of my purse to order a car again when she spoke finally.

He’s in the house?

I had thought this much was clear. Yes, I said. I felt it then, as if momentum had been building since I first spoke to her. I felt the edges of the power she had just been given.

Then I’ll have to tell him to leave.

What? I asked. No, I’m just going to go home.

Zahara was unbuckling her seatbelt, opening the car door. It had not been a question. You should go home, she said. Get yourself some ice cream or something. Get into bed.

I remember better than anything else that moment. I was chattering with unease and followed her as she made her way up the walkway and towards the house. Through the windows I could see Trish and Blake and Peter, could see light, and noise, music and conversation and high, loud laughter. The people inside were happy, they were at rest. In just a minute, a few seconds even, they would become people to whom something has happened.