A Storyby Nicholas Delbanco
Do drop me some sort of line.
Sarah Miller taught English at the University of Iowa. In 1982, when she first entered a classroom at and as the head of it, she was twenty-six years old. Having graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she had been assigned to teach three sections of English composition per semester; others of her cohort received the offer too. Sarah accepted gratefully, though when her parents called the job a “plum,” she said it felt more like a “prune.”
In the autumn of her second year, instead of composition, she taught a creative writing class in prose fiction. This she preferred. Her students were undergraduates—not enrolled in the graduate program, where a young writer might grow famous, and the faculty, famous already, were drunks. Not all of them, of course, and not all of them flamboyantly so, but the early 1980s were years of self-indulgence, and Sarah often found herself in the company of men and women who recited poetry in bars. Or those who, playing pool, would bet on the size of a visiting author’s print run; the loser had to purchase the next round.
Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and willowy, she enjoyed her time with the affable drunks but went home, routinely, alone. Although born and raised in Manhattan, she came to like Iowa City—the heavy snows in winter, the walks by the river in spring. A PhD candidate in economics lived in the same apartment building, one flight up, and the two of them had an affair. She and Eric drove to the Amana colonies and to the birthplace of Herbert Hoover; they spent weekends together, grilling salmon on the barbecue or hunting for morels. Once they drove to Hannibal, Missouri, and explored Injun Joe’s cave. The couple agreed, however, not to opt for a long-term commitment, and when Eric went to Arizona for an entry-level job at Tempe, she stayed on alone. In 1984 she published an appreciation of John Cheever in The Iowa Review and a short story in Ploughshares; her appointment was renewed. In the watches of the night, or at her writing desk each morning, it seemed as though her own career might be gathering momentum, but the novel she was working on had stalled. And, since Sarah was conscientious, the teaching took most of her time.