Story — From the February 2014 issue

The Mighty Shannon

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Marie was the Spanish teacher at Gunner’s school. Our thing began, I think, at a parent-teacher conference, as she leaned over her desk and spoke softly of Gunner’s progress. He’s a nice young man with an unusual gift for his age, an ability to be polite most of the time and to act as a mediator — she used the word “mediator,” I’m sure — when conflicts arise — she used the word “arise” — between other kids. A wonderful boy, she added, and then she gazed at me while her hair, flamboyantly curly, roiled around her face, which at that moment (I was feeling a fatherly sense of remove) looked beautifully young. Spread out on the desk, her hands, with long, professional fingers, were perfectly still. There wasn’t a hint of flirtation or even erotic energy. That stayed, I now see, bound up in the building itself, the dull gray-blue cinder-block walls, the pale acoustic tile overhead, and the window behind her desk framing a view of the athletic field, chalked with lines, smothered in spring dusk. Nothing attracted us to each other, but then, a few weeks later, down at Hook Mountain State Park, I was sitting in my car reading the paper and smoking a cigar, and I called out to her as she passed, wrapped tight in jogging tights, her brow dappled with sweat, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She was still jogging slightly as she leaned down to exchange pleasantries. Hey, Miss Lorca. Hey, Gunner’s dad. (Keenly aware of the code of public conduct between teacher and parent, I from that point avoided mention of Gunner.) Looking back, I think one thing that sparked our relationship was her awareness of my avoidance, and my awareness of her awareness, which fed a mutual effort to keep the two arenas separate, opening up a glorious no-man’s-land, a pure space, unbinding and wild. I asked her about running and heard her say she was going to run a half marathon in Central Park. I offered her a tip on training. Do a few hills every other day, run backward uphill to strengthen your back, and then run forward downhill. Run wind sprints to get your legs used to going anaerobic when you kick it in at the finish. Don’t go out too fast. You’ll be inclined to push it hard and go with the crowd in the first mile, I might’ve said. But it’s better to hold back, to be nuanced, to have a sense of what you can and can’t do over the long haul, so check your splits during the first mile and resist the impulse to go with the flow — because for God’s sake they’ll be surging with an adrenaline flash and going out way too fast, beyond their capacities, except for the elite, and if you pace yourself you’ll catch a lot of those who passed you initially, and they’ll look like a bunch of stumbling fools, and you’ll enjoy the hell out of it, I assure you. (Later I’d talk to her about carbo-loading and the way it felt to lead the Cleveland Marathon for a mile, far out ahead of the pack, feeling the terrible struggle of humanity behind me while a void opened in front of me, a pocket of silence — a windswept and pristine city street emptied of traffic for my own fucking sake, and my sake only — through which I plunged as if breaking the sound barrier. It’s a feeling that never leaves you, I said. You carry it with you for the rest of your life. You long for it every minute of your existence, I think I said.)

She stopped jogging outside the car and put her forearm on the window. Her eyes seemed wet with concern, and seeing them I remembered that at the parent-teacher conference Sharon had been unusually polite to her, coolly reserved, and had held herself straight in the chair as if facing an adversarial presence. I now see that her taut-shouldered stance had been forming for weeks. In other words, the brisk way Sharon moved from teacher to teacher that night — taking our fifteen minutes, listening to positive and negative feedback, looking at test-score sheets — was a manifestation of her discomfort at being trapped with me in the evenings following afternoons in which she had walked with her lover hand in hand through the smell of spring as it mingled with the cool smell of the stone wall along the east side of Central Park. All this to say, when Marie leaned down and listened to my running advice, with her wonderful hair damp around her cheeks, I think she was responding not only to my words but also to the vibration of betrayal she had felt emanating from Sharon during the parent-teacher conference.

From that moment at Hook Mountain until the moment in the bedroom, in the postcoital quiet, with the tink of halyard coming across the water from the boat (mysterious in origin) that someone had moored twenty yards offshore, everything moved in a jaunty, quick way. Stories about classroom exploits — tales of the nose pickers and those with vomit breath, sweetie pies and bullies, kvetches and moralists, wide-eyed believers and cynics, towheads and freckle faces, snot noses and pencil eaters, the fainthearted and the lionhearted — joined the tattoo above her belly button, her orgasmic yelp, the tuck of her ass, her landlocked gaze, our paired singsong cries, the painful and the pleasurable grunts, and the weird warp of time (no other way to describe it) I got when she sneaked over during her lunch breaks — extended by a fifth-period planning slot — and stood in the doorway knocking (an endearing formality, why shouldn’t I admit it?), waiting as I stood inside and scanned the street for anyone who might happen to be passing. Everything seemed to squeeze into that bright instant before she crossed the threshold into the house. Behind her, the trees across the street heaved into the heat. Inside my house, I felt not only the guilt and fear you’d expect but also the same brooding sense of myself I’d get two years later at our annual holiday cocktail party, standing at the window and looking out at the cold, wintry street while behind me someone shook a shaker with an icy sound, like a comet flying through the din of chat, and I stared outside for a few beats beyond civility and felt, behind me, the party I was hosting awaiting my return. One more man staring out his window, feeling the weight of his obligations shove him into a loneliness that was almost, but not quite, beyond comprehension. To push further: When I was a wee — yes, wee — boy of about nine, I stood in the upstairs bedroom window of Grandfather’s house, in Michigan, with my nose pressed to the glass, looking out at the wintry street, and had the exact same sensation in a more youthful form as I heard, rising up through the hardwood floor and then through the gray wool carpeting, the murmur of a bridge game being played in the front parlor (as Grandma called it) on folding tables, and I felt completely separated from earthly reality while at the same time erotically entwined in it. To push further: I would feel this sensation when, on a kind of second honeymoon trip to Ireland, at Mizen Head, on the edge of the continent, as close to the United States as we could get, with the wind whipping Fastnet lighthouse, a small stub of human ingenuity on a spit of rock in a raging sea behind us, Sharon and I embraced and held each other as if in grief, and my eye went out over the water to someplace far, far beyond, and I felt our solitude and companionship combined for just a few seconds while, at the same time, Sharon’s hair, smelling sweet from the shampoo she’d bought in Paris, tangled around my lips. To push further: Years later, with Gunner grown up and off on his own, when we were back in Ireland for what I guess you might call our third honeymoon (but also to visit Sharon’s mother in Tralee), at a place called Carrick-on-Shannon, we walked into town from the train station after the trip from Dublin. The weather warm and sunny, Sharon and I were happy to be moving again, rolling the suitcases along the sidewalk. The mighty, mighty Shannon, one of us said as we came to the bridge and to the river itself, not small but not large, either, by Hudson River standards. We sat and looked at the river while on the bank racing sculls dried in the sun, and the pock of a tennis ball came from a public court, and the narrow river sluiced, clean and glossy, out of the cold, ancient arch of the bridge, and then, right then, we began — because we were both thinking about the same thing — to laugh, both of us, her soft flutter and then my own throat throwing out a laugh in return, until we were in hysterics. Here you are, the laugh seemed to be saying, with the years behind you, the years gone, after all that child rearing, after your own fuckups, sharing a laugh together in a country where the collective survival tactic is to twist pain into language, to make a joke over a pint of Guinness with an edge that comes from having no other recourse but to take a brute reality — famine and subjugation to distant authority — and turn it into a punch line that seems to be, but really isn’t, at the expense of your own national identity.

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is the author of Assorted Fire Events, The Secret Goldfish, and The Spot. His most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, “The Blade,” appeared in the April 2009 issue.

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