By Sam Cohen

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"Queer, dirty, insightful, and so funny" (Andrea Lawlor), this coyly revolutionary debut story collection imagines new origins and futures for its cast of unforgettable protagonists—almost all of whom are named Sarah.


In Sarahland, Sam Cohen brilliantly and often hilariously explores the ways in which traditional stories have failed us, both demanding and thrillingly providing for its cast of Sarahs new origin stories, new ways to love the planet and those inhabiting it, and new possibilities for life itself. In one story, a Jewish college Sarah passively consents to a form-life in pursuit of an MRS degree and is swept into a culture of normalized sexual violence. Another reveals a version of Sarah finding pleasure—and a new set of problems—by playing dead for a wealthy necrophiliac. A Buffy-loving Sarah uses fan fiction to work through romantic obsession. As the collection progresses, Cohen explodes this search for self, insisting that we have more to resist and repair than our own personal narratives. Readers witness as the ever-evolving "Sarah" gets recast: as a bible-era trans woman, an aging lesbian literally growing roots, a being who transcends the earth as we know it. While Cohen presents a world that will clearly someday end, "Sarah" will continue.

In each Sarah's refusal to adhere to a single narrative, she potentially builds a better home for us all, a place to live that demands no fixity of self, no plague of consumerism, no bodily compromise, a place called Sarahland.


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You’ve read the story, but there’s no forest here, no wolf. No subterfuge is necessary; the boys are everywhere, out in the open, an infestation. Like cockroaches, they’re most visible at night.

We stiletto them in the bellies and elbow them aside to clear a path down the hallway. We roll our eyes at their begging or pout and wag our fingers. We invite them in or pretend later we invited them in or slam the door in their faces or slam their fingers in the door. We grab one by the hand and continue down the hallway because he’s cute or because we want to fend off other boys or because we want to make someone jealous. We pretend to be angry at them or we pretend to like them or we feel angry or we like them.


We have time to kill so we’re watching a movie. The movie is Heathers. We’re in sweats with the school’s initials on our butts, and Sarah A. is eating broccoli that was once frozen but is now microwaved with yellow I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray pooled in its florets. Last quarter, Sarah A. was bent on gaining the Freshman Fifteen, dousing her cafeteria fro-yo in chocolate syrup and gummi worms, ordering three a.m. pizza and saying, eat girls. College was supposed to be fun, and the Freshman Fifteen was proof you were having it. This quarter, though, Sarah A. was poking at the slight curve of her belly above her low-rise jeans and proclaiming, “I’m o-beast!” In this new phase, Sarah A.’s room smelled perpetually of microwaved broccoli and Febrezed-over farts.


It is a time when I have, without trying, fallen into a group of Sarahs—Sarah A., Sarah B., plus me. I am also a Sarah A., but no one calls me that. They call me Dr. Sarah, kind of mocking my premed major.

“Are you serious, you’re so pretty,” said the real Sarah A. when we first met in line at the frozen yogurt machine in the cafeteria. “You really don’t need to do all that work.” Sarah A. was always very certain about what you did or didn’t need to do. But after she said it, I looked around in chem class and saw that, yeah, I was prettier than everyone.

“We’re just here for our MRS degrees,” Sarah B. spun around and added. Sarahs A. and B. were both five foot zero and bird-boned, with dark hair. Sarah A.’s was glossy and long and Sarah B.’s was poofy and pyramid-shaped. Next to them, I was a giant: four inches taller, salon-blond, an obvious nose job. “Ambition’s attractive to guys, though,” Sarah B. said. “You have to show them you’re not like other girls or whatever.” She popped her lips, pocketed her gloss, and pulled the fro-yo lever. “I’m going to be prelaw until I get engaged. I’ll go to law school if I have to, but hopefully I’ll never have to practice.”

It was a weird plan, so weird I wondered if Sarah B. was lying, like, was she stating her deepest fear as her goal so it would feel like success when it came true? My own secret plan was to be premed until I could figure out how to be one of those ocean scientists who spends a bunch of their time swimming naked in a pack of dolphins. It seemed like the beginning was the same—introductory bio, o-chem, et cetera and then somewhere a secret level unlocked, and you underwent a series of quests you didn’t know about yet, and boom: dolphins.

We lived in a privately owned off-campus dormitory where 90 percent of the girls were named Sarah, or else Rachel, Alyssa, Jamie, Becca, Carrie, Elana, or Jen. The other 10 percent were named Bari, Shira, and Arielle. The whole dorm was Jewish. I never understood how these things happened. Nowhere on any of the dorm’s advertising materials, which had succeeded in making me so excited to live with no parents in a building of studious eighteen-year-olds with a frozen yogurt machine, did it say the word Jewish, but it seemed wherever I went in my life, everyone was Jews. While I might think I was making independent choices and moving around freely in the world, it was as though a secret groove had been carved, and some invisible bumpers were going to push me gently back into that groove, the Jew groove, Sarahland, and Sarahland would trick me and trick me into thinking it was the entire world. It was confounding when I learned Jews were only 3 percent of the country, because, where was everybody else?


“We’re like Heathers, but Sarahs,” Sarah B. says.

“Sarahs are just Jewish Heathers,” says Sarah A., touching up her manicure with a stroke of light pink.

“Sasha’s totally the Winona Ryder,” Sarah A. loud-whispers.

Sasha’s phone rings a few minutes later and she springs out of bed and cups her hand over the mouth part as she sidles into the bathroom.

Sasha is Sarah A.’s roommate. She wears black leggings and tank tops and when we’re there at ten p.m. flat-ironing and measuring shots of vodka into our cranberry juice or back in the room at three a.m. holding each other’s hair back for puking and/or eating baked ziti pizza, Sasha is locked in the bathroom, on the phone with her boyfriend who goes to some other school in some other state. Her eyes are always puffy around the bottom, but she’s skinny with naturally straight black hair and she doesn’t seem to give a shit about us or what happens during our nights out and this makes her glamorous. I’m stuck in a horde of Sarahs but Sasha’s on her own, crying alone in the bathroom or smoking alone on the dormitory’s front stoop like someone’s divorced mom.

“I want to be Winona Ryder,” I say.

“You’re so weird Dr. Sarah,” says Sarah B.

“The Heathers are who is cool in this movie,” says Sarah A. “Winona Ryder is demented. She’s friends with the fat girl in the end.”

It isn’t the right way to even watch the movie I was pretty sure. You’re supposed to want to be Winona Ryder, attached to a cool boy in a leather jacket who shoots up princesses and jocks and thereby shoots up culture itself. There seem to be only two options in Heathers and probably everywhere—either you’re attached to a group of girls and obsessed with diets and clothes or you’re attached to a boy and obsessed with freedom and killing people. Sasha seems to be breaking the rule: she’s attached to a boy, I guess, but he’s an absent boy, a phone boy.

I am feeling unsure about my own level of pleasure, being subsumed into a Sarah horde but I’m also unsure how to extricate myself, where I would even go. My own roommate Shira clearly wants a bestie with whom to flat-iron while trying on clothes and taking vodka shots, but she’s desperate and therefore a worse version of the thing I already have. The Sarahs at least have an ease with which they flat-iron and match shoes to outfits and take vodka shots and when something comes easily you can shrug it off like you barely even want it, and then you’re more or less cool at least.

I ended up in this group partly because my best camp friend Ayelet was best friends with Sarah B. in high school. Every time I look at Sarah B. I remember how Ayelet and I swore to each other that camp was the only time/place that counted as Real Life, how we promised that our real selves would hibernate for ten months and only reemerge upon entry, next summer, into the North Woods. We held each other each August in the Minneapolis airport like a couple about to be separated by war, and wept.

Sarah B., I’m realizing as I watch her smash her eyelashes between those medieval-looking metal clampers, is only best friends with Ayelet’s non-camp self, her impostor self, the shell of Ayelet. But now I’m stuck. Sarah B. invited me along on an early Bed Bath & Beyond trip based on our mutual Ayelet friendship and later invited me to sit with the Sarahs and soon Sarah A. made a laminated chart of all our schedules so that we could only walk to and from class in a group and suddenly, without getting to fully decide, I was a Sarah.

The Nice Jewish Boys live in the dorm across the street, but for some reason, they are always in our dorm, leaning on hallway walls, sprawled across furniture, lying ghoulishly under our covers when we return from nights out. This is no grandma/wolf situation because there’s no trickery—instead, the NJBs are in plain sight, drunk and wanting. They pound on our doors and shout our names, scrawl WHERE ARE YOU SARAHHHH on our dry-erase boards in all caps, materialize next to us while we’re passed-out drunk. We wake, sometimes, with their slobber on our faces, their shoes in our sheets, their palms clawed around our boobs in a way they didn’t try that hard to make look accidental.


Sarahs A. and B. are excellent at fighting the boy infestation. They spray disinfectant constantly, are always wiping things down. Possibly it’s their pack mentality that keeps the boys away. They are clicked into each other, satisfied with doing nothing but taking cab rides to TCBY, working out on the elliptical downstairs, making popcorn and watching rom-coms until they meet their husbands, who certainly aren’t going to be any of the infesting boys. The infesting boys aren’t ready to be met yet, as husbands. I have a wandering eye though—I’m not looking for a husband but I am looking for something and, for the boys, my curiosity is like a small glob of peanut butter on the countertop in the summertime must be for ants. It makes them swarm.


Going Out is something we have to do every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. I’m not sure if any of us like it, but we show up for it like we show up for class, like we would show up for a job if we had one. I’m not sure how everyone found out about Going Out, how everyone discovered it will make these The Best Years of Our Lives but at eight p.m. on Thursdays, my roommate Shira starts automatically flat-ironing her hair and Sarah B. sends out a group text saying, What are we doing tonight? and Sarah A. says, Meet in my room at 9.

We walk down icy streets in high heels with peacoats covering our almost-bare skin and arrive at a bar where drinks are expensive and sit in a crowded judgey room and talk mostly to each other or else to people we like even less. In the best case scenario, Sarahs A. and B. feel that we might meet our husbands when we Go Out because the older boys are there, too, but this is a real outside chance so mostly we just go spend nine dollars apiece on cosmos and stand around in uncomfortable shoes.

We try on halter tops, tank tops, boatneck tops, cowl-neck tops, scoop-neck tops, cold-shoulder tops, tube tops, sparkly tops, sheer tops, stretchy tops, and silky tops. We use little paintbrushes to cover our zits and freckles. Every time we look at ourselves in the mirror, we jut our lips forward and gaze serious and sexy like we want to fuck our own reflections, and I wonder if any of us know what our actual faces even look like. We measure shots of vodka into cups of cranberry cocktail. We line up in a row and set our camera timers to take photos.


We lean over Sarah A.’s digital camera to scrutinize our looks. We can see ourselves a little differently in the camera’s display screen than we do in the mirror. We’re smiling now, convincing the viewfinder we’re having the best time.

Sarah A. grabs the camera and pouts at it. “I hate my nose,” she whines. “When I get my nose job, I’m totally taking photos of Dr. Sarah with me.”

Sarah B. laughs, leaning over Sarah A.’s shoulder to look, too. “Good plan, I’m going to also. Dr. Sarah you truly have the best nose job in the whole dorm.”

“Thanks,” I say.

The truth was, I didn’t even want my nose job. My parents had returned from Vegas “up fifty thousand” as they said. They pulled up in a limo, champagne-drunk and ecstatic, and announced their plan to divvy the money toward projects they’d been meaning to attend to: spider vein removal for my mother, a dining room table finally, a nose job for me. I cried and slammed my bedroom door and refused to go but somehow I ended up in the surgeon’s chair shot up with drugs anyway and when I woke up my face was black and blue and three weeks later everyone agreed I looked like a shikse.

We put finishing touches on our looks and sing “Dancing Queen” while flat-ironing the bumps out of the backs of each other’s hair.

“Come here, Dr. Sarah, you always have schmutz on your face,” says Sarah A., clutching my jaw between her thumb and middle finger and turning my head from side to side for inspection. She licks a finger from her other hand and swats my cheek. We all check our little silver snap cases for our fake IDs and then we go to the bar.


The bar is called Stillwaters. Everyone calls it Stills but I think of it privately as the Stagnant Pond. The Pond’s packed with Jewish girls from our dorm and Jewish boys from the boys’ dorm plus all the kids who have ever lived in those dorms.

The boys are at the bar, but they barely talk to us there. At the bar, they’re busy doing boy things—taking tequila shots and clapping each other on the back, shouting. We stand at the bar checking out other groups of girls and the truth is everyone looks like there was a memo: dewy skin and dark eyes, lightly glossed lips, hair meticulously flat-ironed, one of two models of jeans.

I chose this college because of a barista during my campus visit, I think. The barista’s head was shaved on one side and she had piercings all the way up her ear. She seemed angry in general but like she liked me and I thought I would come to know girls like her here. But since Sarah A. created the Excel schedule chart, I only ever went anywhere in a pack. If it was blizzarding excessively, Sarah A. demanded we take a cab. The cab would go on streets we didn’t normally take. I’d see a group of kids with Kool-Aid hair and fingerless gloves standing around outside a coffee shop smoking, probably talking about deep things. I felt like they might know the locations of some of the keys to the levels I’d need to pass through in order to be a dolphin scientist. But I was destined, it seemed, only to ever get glimpses outside the Jew groove from a cab window.

Tonight, it’s blizzarding excessively. Luckily we have scarves with us, which we wrap around our heads and necks, like babushkas, Sarah B. says, and run screaming in our stilettos through the wind and snow into the pizza place. Sarah A. gets a white spinach slice, I get a baked ziti slice, and Sarah B. gets margherita, which she daubs with napkins until there’s a pile of see-through napkins on the table and the cheese looks putty-dry.

Everyone who was at Stagnant Pond is in here now, drunk and eating various permutations of cheesy complex carbs. After pizza comes the worst part, which is the part where we have to stand out on the street corner in our stilettos with two hundred other people, all of whom were in the Stagnant Pond with us, and then the pizza place. Here is where we start to talk to other people for the first time. An older boy named Jon approaches and says, “Hey, how you been?” and I say “good” and he says “Cool wanna come over?” The thing is I’d gone home with him the week before and I was starting to understand that this is how it went: you gave someone a blow job and then once you gave the blow job and they never called, you felt rejected and a little sad even if you hadn’t liked them very much and so then you stood outside the next week with wind whipping snowflakes in your face in case they wanted another one. I’m not looking forward to trying to make my way through the boy infestation in my dorm and also I’m freezing and don’t want to stand in the snow anymore, so I say okay, and we run two blocks to his apartment, where I get under his covers, give him a blow job, and fall asleep.

When I wake up, I hear a voice say to me, To thine own self be true! I collect phrases I like, like this, in my quote book and eventually they become internal voices, reverberating in my head as though they’re my conscience or spirit guides. I feel guilty about giving a blow job I knew in advance I’d find unpleasant, to a boy I knew would never call, and then I feel, I am a social animal! We’re hardwired to form complex societies, so why should I be some loner animal that is trying to resist everything asked of me? I can stand around in the freezing wind and then give boys blow jobs if that is the ritual of my society! I put on my tank top and jeans from the night before and walk out of the older boy’s apartment in my stilettos, headache searing behind my eyes, in the snow.


I thought college would be exactly like summer camp, that there was a magic formula where you put a bunch of girls in an enclosed space without parents and we’d become Real. But, I deduced after major sleuthing, two factors were getting in the way: money and boys.

Neither existed at camp and here both were everywhere. The annual social we’d have with the nearby boys’ camp was the worst day of the year: everyone unearthed makeup and flat-irons stowed under bunk beds for the other fifty-eight days of camp. Normally we spent our days and nights sailing and tie-dyeing towels and weaving macramé wall hangings and trying to get up on one water ski and singing along to Joni Mitchell and the Indigo Girls around a literal bonfire but suddenly on the day of the social we only cared about having the straightest hair and the clearest skin and someone was always being a cunt to her best friend and someone was always crying.

Here we had the boy infestation, and money that came in seemingly endless forms. One form was the purses that hung on everyones’ doors, Pradas and Kate Spades and Louis Vuittons. I didn’t understand these purses, what they meant, but I sort of understood they had something to do with the Holocaust. These girls’ grandmas wanted them to know that here in America they could not be turned to soap, and these bags proved it. The bags were a display of patriotism; American flags might be goyishe and tacky but Prada bags were little markers of belief in liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the land of the free. Granddaughters could send pictures of themselves standing in a row of flat-ironed and haltered girls, each with a Prada bag, and their bubbes would feel, these girls were so safe.

I don’t have a Prada bag. My own mother celebrates her freedom by finding excellent deals at Loehmann’s on purses she swears look expensive but, I can see now, do not. My Loehmann’s purses are one of the reasons the other Sarahs feel like they need to teach me how to live.


“Dr. Sarah,” Sarah A. says. We’re sitting at a lunch table eating salads. It’s the day after the blow job. “I’ve been paying close attention. You actually eat super healthy foods, so I think you’re just eating too much of them.”

Embarrassment blooms rosacea-like all over my skin. Eating is the world’s greatest shame. I just learned the word slut-shaming from a flyer posted to one of the student union bulletin boards, but as far as I can tell, you can swallow dick in any quantity and no one cares. It’s true that if you were bad at fighting the boy infestation you were known as a slut, which I was. People thought being a slut made it ridiculous that I also planned to be a doctor, but I was a science major and I didn’t see how the two were correlative. Anyway, food and not sex was the real source of humiliation.

“Maybe try just eating half of whatever you were going to eat,” says Sarah A.

Sarah A. is putting me in an impossible position. Either I’m going to eat half and act like I didn’t know how to go on a diet by myself or I’m going to keep eating the same amount and make Sarah A. think I have no self-control.

I’m fatter than the other Sarahs, but I haven’t always been fat. Fourteen transformed my thighs into Spanish hams that spread out wide and flat, sticking to bleachers and peeling off painfully in summertime. My chest sprung overnight C cups. At fifteen, I reduced my calorie count to 400 daily. Four hundred seemed like enough for basic metabolic processes, yet few enough to strip the meat from my thighs and breasts, to make me less like a bucket of chicken and more like a super skinny girl. On 400 calories, I could wear crop halters and black leggings to musical practice. On 400 calories, my mom rewarded me with shopping trips. On 400 calories, I no longer went poo, which was nice because poo had always disgusted me and I no longer bled from my vag, which was also nice because I had been praying not to bleed from my vag ever since I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and really really didn’t identify with Margaret but did learn about certain kinds of negotiations you could make with God. Four hundred calories made it difficult to hang out with other people, but this, too, was okay, since only camp was Real Life. I could go home and sit in my room and record tape-letters to Ayelet and listen to tape-letters from her, especially the mix tapes she’d make at the end when she was done talking, Tori and Ani, Fiona and Liz. I listened to her tapes like they were church, or what I imagined church would be like. I listened for secret meanings, for lines about me. At open campus lunch, I could drive home in order to eat one microwaved frozen veggie patty. After musical practice, I declined fro-yo invitations from the naturally skinny girls for whom sugar-free was promise enough. When the taffeta dress I was meant to wear as my costume for the musical arrived, the entire top half fell off my shoulders and down to my waist where it gathered in ripples around my hips. “Did you send in the wrong measurements or did you shrink?” the woman fitting me joked. “You girls are so tiny,” she said. She went to find an extra, smaller dress somewhere, and I beamed.

At camp, we bonded by sneaking chocolate into our cabins. In the dorm, though, chocolate’s allowed so we have to sneak vodka. One tiny shot glass is 100 calories and then you have to chase it with some kind of juice, and at three a.m. you’re starving and when you get to the pizza place, spinning with vodka and a snow-blasted face, it’s impossible not to devour the whole slice.

It’s Sarah A. who has, in the first place, encouraged us to get burritos, beer and vegan hot wings, Doritos and wine. Sarah A. with her long black hair and super selective smile and overall tininess is convincing. And while the other girls are still petite even with their fifteen pounds, I am fat now and trying to distract from it with glitter powder on my eyes and décolletage. While the other girls stay in their packs, puking and having snacks, I am bent on being independent. I relish the time after two a.m. when there’s no laminated information about where I should be and I’m suddenly free. But I’m also drunk, even after puking and/or snacks, and terrible at fending off my own boy-infestation—I wake with them lying on top of me, breathing into my mouth.

This is what eating leads to. You start recklessly putting things into your body and you just become permeable. When I become a dolphin, I will eat only raw fish, catching them in my teeth as they swim by.


Even though all the kids in the private dorm have a list of the easiest classes the university offers and enroll en masse for Scandinavian Literature in order to meet their Comm B requirement, I care about learning and do not care about Scandinavia. I am a rebel in this small way. So spring quarter I enroll in a class called Integrated Liberal Studies, which promises to “imagine a method of critical thought that produces writing with the potential to change the world.” This is exciting—I’ve been discovering the pleasure of getting stoned and writing in my journal under the covers—and secretly I guess I do want to change the world, to make it void of money and boys at least.

For the first day of Integrated Liberal Studies, I wear my edgiest outfit, a kelly-green minidress over jeans, and let my hair dry wavy instead of flat-ironing it. Still, I feel like an impostor, an obvious JAP, when I see the other looks in the lecture hall—dreadlocks and pants held together by patches; cropped hair dyed yellow. Leaving class, I see Sasha, in a gray V-neck and skinny jeans, putting a notebook into her brown leather bag, which looks like the kind the professors have. Sasha’s hair falls to mid-back, straight without being flat-ironed, just a few choppy layers in the front. She looks like a celebrity photographed at Starbucks in the “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” section but also like a serious philosophy student.

“Hey,” she says. “How’s it going?”

I have never been someone who knew how to answer this question. I nod enthusiastically.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” she says. “I didn’t know you cared about philosophy. No offense.”

“I don’t know,” I reply.

“Wanna get lunch?” Sasha asks. I do. I text the Sarahs: Have to meet with my TA; I’ll see you guys later, but I worry that they’ll wait at our meeting spot anyway, so I lead Sasha down a side street where we’ll miss them. We walk to the Mediterranean place where you get a plate of whatever combination of vegetarian things they’re serving that day for $5: spinach pie, olives, hummus, rice, cucumbers. We start arguing about the thinkers from class. I love Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wants us to live free of society, to throw off our JAP-y chains and roam wild like bears or geese.


On Sale
Mar 8, 2022
Page Count
224 pages

Sam Cohen

About the Author

Sam Cohen was born and raised in suburban Detroit. Her fiction is published in Fence, Bomb, Diagram, and Gulf Coast, among others. The recipient of a MacDowell fellowship and a PhD fellow at the University of Southern California, Cohen lives in Los Angeles.

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