by Robert Sachs
“Nathan, where are we?” Julia asks, looking at a purple and orange dangling participle swaying from an unfocussed noun. They are standing at the base of the penultimate paragraph on page thirty-five. They had only recently met on page thirty.
Nathan looks worried. He knows where they are and wants out. “In a novel, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you not understand English?” Nathan isn’t normally this abrupt. But his nerves are frayed and he isn’t quite himself. This isn’t his first time, after all, and it seems to him as if he’s been trying to escape from one novel or another most of his thirty-two years.
“Do you always answer a question with a question?” Julia asks. Since moving from Keokuk to New York she has lost some of the wide-eyed affability that marked her early years. She learns quickly that affability is seen as a sign of weakness in Manhattan. Now, at twenty-eight and a five-year resident of the Big Apple, she isn’t taking crap from anyone.
“When appropriate,” Nathan says, but softly, with a smile, somehow glad Julia hasn’t shrunk from his smart-ass answer. He sits down on the last paragraph on the page. “We’re characters in a story.” He puts his elbows on his knees, with his hands covering his face. “Shit,” he adds, more to himself than to Julia. It has happened to him before. “There’s only one way out.”
“The author needs to cut us, edit us out.” As he says this, Nathan notices for the first time how attractive Julia is. She is tall, a couple of inches taller than he, an angular young woman with soft red hair and legs like the stems of spider lilies. He moves close to her, takes her hand. “Explicit sex might work,” he says.
Julia slaps his face. “Not funny, Nathan. We’re here in the middle of some god-forsaken novel and all you can think about is sex?”
“No, no,” he pleads. “I only meant it’s our ticket out of here. He’ll see that his story has taken a wrong turn and cut us.”
“What’s-his-name. The author.”
Julia looks at him hard. “You’re making this up to get in my pants, right?” she says. “Creep.”
Nathan pulls at his hair. “No. I’m telling you this is how we can get out of here. I know a guy? Last year I found myself in one of his short stories. Minor character. Tried everything to get out, but the only thing that worked was explicit, fiery, kinky sex. Trust me.”
“Right,” she says, moving to another paragraph. “I’d rather die.”
“Well, there is that.”
“Dying. It’s the other way of getting out of the story.” Nathan smiles at Julia. “A bit drastic, don’t you think?”
Julia has to admit to herself that she finds Nathan attractive. She was always drawn to swarthy men and Nathan is dark, with thick black, wavy hair, and he is muscular—another plus—if somewhat squat—a minus. His eyes sparkle and his nose moves up and down when he talks. He has a full beard, black, with specks of red. She wonders how it would feel to kiss a man with so much facial hair. “Couldn’t we just date for a couple of chapters and see how it goes?”
“Fine by me,” Nathan says, moving close to Julia’s paragraph. “Dinner tonight?”
“I’m busy tonight,” she says. “He’s got me singing in a bar. How about Friday?”
It’s an out-of-the-way French restaurant. Nathan notices the narrator and a woman named Jocelyn sitting at a table near the back of the room. As soon as the narrator notices Julia and Nathan, he and Jocelyn get up to leave. He nods briefly and solemnly to Nathan as he passes their table.
“Wasn’t that the narrator?” Julia asks after the couple had gone. “And Jocelyn, that whore?”
“Stuck up bastards,” Nathan says. “Forget them. Their scene’s over. Let’s you and me have a good time.”
They have a dry Beaujolais while waiting for their food. Julia finds Nathan charming and funny.
“I didn’t know you were funny,” she says.
“When I want to be.” After dinner Nathan suggests they go back to the first chapter.
“Why the first chapter?” Julia isn’t quite sure she can trust Nathan.
“Neither of us are in it: The author won’t expect to see us there. We won’t be noticed.”
“But no funny business,” Julia warns.
Once in the first chapter, Nathan starts to say he thinks the language there pedestrian, when there is a flash of light.
“What?” gasps Julia, grabbing Nathan’s arm.
“He’s highlighting the paragraph above us. Must be editing. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I don’t want him to see us here. He’ll get suspicious.” Nathan takes Julia’s hand and guids her along the right margin up the page to the header. “We’ll be safe here.”
They watch as the author moves some words and deleted others. After a few minutes, Nathan says, “I think he’s through with this chapter. We can relax.”
Julia leans close to Nathan. “Do you really think the sex can work?”
“It’s worth a try,” he says, trying not to smile. They walk back to the fifth chapter arm in arm. He kisses her on the cheek. “Night,” he says.
“Good night, Nathan.”
Julia doesn’t hear from Nathan for several days and she begins to worry that without him she’ll never get out of the book. But suddenly, there he is sitting beside her.
“You scared me. Don’t you knock first?”
“Get real, Julia. We’re characters in this novel. We bounce around from chapter to chapter. Speaking of chapters, I’ve been to the end.”
“The end? Were you spotted?” She touches his shoulder.
“No, I was careful, but it’s not good news.”
“Tell me, I can take it.”
“We’re minor characters. There is no mention of us after chapter 8. And the plot is to barf for.”
“The bastard,” Julia says, referring to what’s-his-name, the author.
“Minor characters in a Podunk novel. Never thought it would happen to me.” He looks at Julia who is still in her pajamas. “All the more reason we have to get out while the getting is good.”
She notices the copular verb. “You mean sex, don’t you?”
“It’s your call, babe. Either we do it or we languish here: Stuck in a second-rate novel on remainder tables all over America.”
The hotel room is small but comfortable. Julia starts right in with an enthusiasm that surprises and thrills Nathan. After forty-five minutes, Nathan is spent and delightfully dizzy. But Julia wants more.
“This is sure to get cut,” Nathan thinks. “I hope I’m up to it.”
“Bet you’ve never seen this one,” she says, grabbing Nathan before he has a chance to protect himself. Two hours. Three. And finally, they lay there, sweating and exhausted. There are two more nights of this before the blinking cursor alerts them.
“This may be it,” Nathan says, rummaging through the night table for some ointment.
And then, as quickly as it had started, they are sliced from the story and set free.
Nathan finds himself on the C train headed toward Brooklyn, smiling. Julia wakes up—also smiling—in a dorm room at Ohio State. It is 1964 and they are strangers.
After college Julia settles in Chicago where she becomes a popular folk singer. Nathan drifts for a while, ending up working as a bar-back in a posh Gramercy Park tavern.
One summer a couple of years later, Julia gets a gig singing at the tavern where Nathan works. It is a busy night for him but he is able to catch a minute or two of Julia’s set. He feels a stirring. He can’t take his eyes off the young folk singer.
“Who’s the babe?” he asks the bartender.
“Julia somebody. Nice, huh?”
“There’s something familiar about her,” Nathan says. “Like I may have known her years ago. Ever get that feeling? You see someone you couldn’t have met before and yet you feel somehow you have? That you might even have been close friends?”
“No,” says the bartender. “Sounds like the plot of a story I once read. I can use more ice.”
After her set, Julia approaches Nathan. “Noticed you at the bar. Have we met?”
“Do you feel we have?” Nathan asks.
“Do you always answer a question with a question?”
“When appropriate,” Nathan says softly, with a smile.
Robert Sachs’ fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Free State Review, the Great Ape Journal, and the Delmarva Review among others. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Spalding University. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. His story, Yo-Yo Man, was a Fiction Finalist in the 2019 Tiferet Writing Contest. His story, Old Times, was the Fiction Winner in the 2021 Tiferet Writing Contest. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com