Story — From the February 2014 issue

The Mighty Shannon

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The pain began in my hips, as far as I remember, and then moved to my lower back, and from there to my shoulders and then to my neck — while the shoulders continued to hurt. Then — and again, I’m doing my best to remember — it went back to my hips and, at the same time, struck my shoulders — this might’ve been a week or so later, and then it moved down to my heels while remaining in my hips, neck, and shoulders. Not my forefoot, where I’ve had pain before, or the plantar fasciae, where I’ve had problems from running, but both heels, I said, and then I watched while Dr. Zuck, thin and limber-looking, most likely a runner himself, leaned forward again, ran his fingers along the film, and once again examined the X-ray of my neck. He’d heard it all before from me. We were starting to circle around a potential diagnosis. I’m sure we both felt it. He gave me a nod that said as much and put his finger to his chin. It was my third time in his office, and he had ordered blood work. He kept his finger on his chin and turned away, looking out the window as he spoke in a condescending voice and explained to me, again, that shadow pain migrating from one point to another might be indicative of any number of conditions, from fibromyalgia to Lyme disease — the latter admittedly unlikely given the two negatives on the Western blot, he said — to, well, certain types of cancer. Frankly, he said, cancer’s also unlikely. But of course it is possible. As for a differential diagnosis, I’m not ready to make one yet, he said, and then he began to speak in general terms while his face stayed immobile, because he was the kind of doctor who struck deeply authoritative poses that kept dissolving to leave him looking absurdly young. Well, he said, we’re starting to go around and around, which makes me inclined — granted, we need more blood work — to consider your stress levels, because it’s very possible that some of this musculoskeletal pain, given everything we know so far, is related to your emotional life, he said, and then he instructed me to lie back on the table (I felt cold and vulnerable as I stood in my underwear before a floor-to-ceiling window while my own reflection — of course — came back at me: a blunt, broad-shouldered man pretending the best he could that he wasn’t closing in on middle age while a barge navigated through his belly and the buildings of Fort Lee, New Jersey, stabbed through his breastbone). I lay back on the table while the doctor took a pin and pricked my toes (a faint itch), worked up to my heel (faint prick) and to my ankle (sharp, thorny prick), and then up my shin (jab). With each prick, he drew his breath through his nose and cleared his throat as if to speak, a little cluck of air coming from his mouth while the vents overhead hissed and through the glass came a single horn call from the tug pushing the barge — a familiar sound that transported me up the river to my house for a moment — and, when that died off, barely audible, the thrum of traffic on the West Side Highway and, pushing through it, the spongy, soft thump of my heart whiling away my life.

Photographs by Sandi Haber Fifield, whose monograph After the Threshold was published last year by Kehrer.

Photographs by Sandi Haber Fifield, whose monograph After the Threshold was published last year by Kehrer.

I did not want to acknowledge that one way or another my so-called migrating pain was connected to what was going on at home, not only with Sharon, who at that time was in the middle of her affair with her colleague at the firm, but also with my own thing with Marie, who was at that time my lover but also, in truth, a responsive gesture (as Dr. Haywood would later call it). I’m not sure, but I believe now that in Dr. Zuck’s office, just after he pricked my shin, I was filled with foreknowledge. This young doctor would not be able to nail down the cause of my pain, and I would go off to specialists at the Mayo Clinic — the beehive of clinical intensity inside while outside the thick summer heat glazed the Minnesota sky — and then the Cleveland Clinic, with all that corn-fed medical teamwork. I’m not saying that after each prick I knew a little bit more about what was coming, but lying there, wincing as he got beyond my shins, I was, I now think, aware that my physical condition, my pain, was prying my body from my mind. Even there on that crinkling sheet of paper, with sweat beading on my brow, listening to Dr. Zuck breathe while the light outside faded and the light inside, fluorescent and shrill, pressed the glass, I had a sense that whatever was going on with my body was eventually going to find a way to relate itself to the extremely tactile facts of my life, my son, the house, the yard, as they, in turn, would relate to vague, nebulous, cloudy sensations that surrounded love, desire, loneliness, need. Then, as I stood (as instructed) on the cold tile and struggled to touch the floor, as Dr. Zuck stood back and watched, saying, Keep those knees straight, I felt exposed, small, fragile, like a core of chewy softness that had once been at the center of a hard shell, and for a second — with my hands yearning toward the floor — I became keenly aware of my predicament as it would unfold in the next few months, with bouts of intense pain and visits to figures of medical authority until, finally, the story of my pain — as Dr. Haywood would describe it — would merge with the story of my relationship with Sharon and our simultaneous assured destruction in the form of two affairs, although even now, years later, I have trouble apportioning blame equally between us because I’m still sure — from that tidy vantage of retrospect — that Sharon was the first to betray me, the first to stray off the map of our relationship, so to speak, and I was responding in kind, although I can admit — and I do admit! — that because I’m telling this from my vantage, the whole unseemly thing was ultimately on my shoulders.

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.

In the doorway with Marie that afternoon — this was in the middle of July, with sunny days succeeding one another, the grass brown, the river low, with a band of tidal wash exposed on the wall at the end of the yard — before she crossed the threshold into my arms, I had a premonition. I’m not saying I saw over the edge of time in a prophetic sense or anything like that, but I’m pretty sure I knew what was coming as I felt the twinge in my neck, or the tweak in my hip, or maybe the electrical tingle I got along the undersides of my wrists. By that point I had a suspicion that Sharon was having an affair, a suspicion sparked by a single incident. (No hair clips in the bedroom, no hairs on the pillow, no smell of unusual cologne on her dresses, no weird physical tension — although she had seemed distant that summer, and most of our conversations had had to do, in one way or another, with Gunner. We’d found a way of draping everything with his needs: the fury of our parenting patter like the indeterminate cloud of electrons orbiting a nucleus, a shell created out of our frantic concerns. Often our concern was that we were being too concerned and that we’d somehow interfere with some natural physics. At all costs we wanted to avoid instructing from above, or hovering, or helicoptering.) One afternoon, my cell phone began to twitter and Sharon’s name came up on the screen and I heard, when I answered, the distinct tonality of a pocket dial, an accidental portal. I felt, as I stood in the back room and looked out at the water with the phone to my ear, my face in her purse, tucked against her wallet. I could smell the leather and feel the intricate arabesque tooling. I could feel it brush against my ear. There was the far-off throb of a man’s voice, and a muffled exchange — along with the sound of footsteps, and I was sure that she was walking with someone in Manhattan. The air was charged with the clicking heels of commerce and noontime release. (Later I’d imagine they were strolling near his apartment, at 81st and Lexington, or along Central Park, or sitting together on the top step at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, holding hands, enjoying the conversation, totally unsuspecting that I was, thirty miles upstream, inside her purse, listening.) On the phone I heard banter, a bump of voices — I think — and then, suddenly, a burst of sound, bright and pure and sustained, arriving in a digitized sizzle. It was her highest and most delighted utterance. I knew it, hearing it, right off. It was the giggle she made — and I knew this, I swear — only in response to something said in the most intimate terms. I stood and listened until it died away, and then, finally, overcome with a sense of helplessness, I shouted: Hey, hey, I’m here in your purse, Sharon. I’m right here. I’m in your fucking purse. Even now, years later, I’m ashamed of having been privy to a moment in her life from that vantage. It was as if I’d gone behind her face for a moment and stared out through the bright blood spume of her eyelids.

Much, much later I would combine the shame I felt hearing the pocket dial, which came from the fact that a link had been unintentionally opened up between my world at the window, looking out at the river, and Sharon’s world somewhere on the East Side, walking and talking with someone, with the shame I felt when she told me that she often went for walks with him during lunch down Madison all the way to the Flatiron Building, and then up Fifth Avenue as far as time allowed, and that it had been during those walks that the banter and office talk had deepened, becoming serious, intimate and loving, an exchange of private information, while between the words, between the phrases and the confessions, a void had opened up into which love rushed. (At least that’s the way I see it.) As I imagine it, they felt that clandestine sense of New York isolation as they walked down Madison, following the slight decline — a hill, a Manhattan hill! — keeping their eyes as far ahead as possible over the bob of heads. Lovers look far ahead to the end of the landscape as they hold hands, I suppose. Lovers fix their gazes as if to approximate a location for the heart. The violet, arboreal haze from the park. The sidewalk luring itself toward the museum. Again, the smell of the park commingling with the wet of the wall and the warm smell from the pavement. Later, I’d imagine them going down the stairs into a restaurant for lunch, down a short flight of concrete stairs, holding a wrought-iron handrail. A little French bistro, ready-made for secret lunches. I’d imagine them steeped in that wonderful incognito sense of being together below street level, with the murmur of table talk around them. I’d never really know, but I’m sure he was the sort of fastidious guy who dabbed daintily at his chin or upper lip with his napkin. Dabbed absently, obsessively — a habit attached to a shadow memory of a long-gone college mustache. I imagined he was tall and formal, with a narrow chin and big, greenstone eyes. He had an old-school dignity and wore suits tailored snug around his shoulders so that when he shifted, which he rarely did, there was a starchy rustle from his shirts. All I really knew about him, all I would ever know, was that he was an upstanding, deeply thoughtful soul who somehow — at that particular time, under those particular conditions — had wooed my wife, who in turn had wooed him, and for a few months they had puzzled together something that resembled love, although she’d later tell me, again and again and again and again, that it really wasn’t love but rather a lonely lust born of, of, well, you know what, she said, because I had also explained to her that Marie wasn’t an object of my love (although she was) and was simply a stand-in for an idea of something I couldn’t pin down except to say — and I did say, again and again and again — that it embodied itself in her sweet response to my pain. (She was lonely, I was lonely. What else can I say? I hurt, she soothed. We were mutually consumed in a mutual loneliness, I said, I think.) Even now, when I try to imagine him, I see his fingers, nimble and thin, with downy brown hair on the knuckles, gently pinching his napkin into a point and padding it softly along his lip. I see a flat-footed dignity, spit-shined shoes, and a Chicago-born (because he was from Chicago) sense of exchange value based on the relationship between the hinterlands and the city. I still imagine a prairie wind ruffling his razor-cut hair to reveal his scalp. I can see her reaching up and ruffling his hair the way she had so often ruffled Gunner’s hair. In the same way, I imagine that she imagines Marie tending to me after the fit of pain struck — and it did strike — before or after one of our own trysts. I imagined, and still imagine, that she imagined, and still imagines, Marie, with her brown skin and her long fingers and her teacherly attention, gently touching the places I told her hurt me, or putting her hand flat between my shoulder blades and rubbing vigorously, as instructed. I imagined that Sharon imagined, and still does imagine, a woman with a slight accent quoting García Lorca, saying, “No duerme nadie por el cielo. Nadie, nadie,” while she stood in her panties at the window and sunlight bathed her hips, knowing that I was looking at her and getting, standing there, that sense of self-awareness that fed itself back from my looking to her knowing.

In the doorway that afternoon — with Marie pausing ceremonially on the other side of the threshold, waiting a few seconds for me to formally beckon her inside, sustaining the tension for the fucking pleasure of it in her yellow dress, her shoulders exposed, a dapple of freckles — I shook the tingle from my hands and waved her in, casting a glance outside to make sure all was clear, and it was, only the hiss of cicadas, and the street, beyond the driveway, empty and quiet. The outside world was quiet and the inside world was quiet and there was, before I closed the door, as we stood together in the vestibule, a moment similar to the abovementioned moments with Sharon. I remember how, just before the door closed, the summer light became a small sliver that seemed to struggle against the rubber seal and then was gone, sucked away, and it was just the two of us, standing in the air-conditioned air, our feet shushing on the cold tiles in the vestibule as we moved against each other and the tingle in my hands migrated to my elbows and then to my shoulder blades, foreshadowing what was to come: it would hit again, as it had the other times. Then she’d tend to me and I’d respond, saying, higher, lower, spread your hand out and use the flat of your palm, more to the left, a little bit more to the left, right there, right there, right there, perfect. And even if the pain continued — and it always did — I’d give a long moan and make a show of feeling better, straightening up, pulling on my pants. Then I’d offer her a cup of coffee or tea and we’d sit in the kitchen or on the back patio relaxing while she spoke lovingly and with joy about her students and I imagined her moving around seductively in the smell of chalk dust, the polished floors beneath her heels, the clunk of chairs. Then she’d say she had to go, and she’d kiss me and be on her way.

On the penultimate day, as I now think of it, the point through which the rest of my life with Sharon would seem to bow, or, rather, bend, so that everything that transpired after that afternoon seemed to lead to the day when Sharon confessed to me, admitted that, yes, she had been seeing X, but that she had broken it off with him, let go of him, was how she put it — on that day, Marie sat in the wrought-iron chair on the patio, leaning down into a compact mirror and applying lipstick as she spoke, saying, Look, I’m not the nursemaid type. The truth is I just don’t think I’m up to the task. And I said, But you’re good, you’re really good. You’re making me feel better. If it helps, I won’t talk about the pain. I’ll keep it to myself, I said. And she snapped the compact shut and looked up at me and said, I’m not a nurse. It’s not in my blood. It was in my mother’s blood until she met my father. When she met my father she was a nurse in a small town called Carboneras. She worked for the only doctor in town until my father turned her into a full-blown nurse, if you know what I mean. And I told her, I don’t know what you mean. And she explained to me that certain men are in need of constant care. I’m not that woman to give that kind of care. Then she went on to explain that her father had been injured in a fishing accident off the coast of Almería. Something about a winch, some rope, his fingers, and a dislocated shoulder. I went to the edge of the patio and stood looking out while behind me, over the hill, the dog days of summer approached. Was it that bad? I said, and she said, Well. Yes. Yes, it was that bad. (Often I’d complain of some pain as a way of getting her touch, guiding her hand to certain places, but on that day in July, as we had released each other, sweating slightly, my back had tightened and a second later, as I swung my legs and began to lift myself up, my body had been lassoed by spasm. I had gone through the motions of standing up, stretching, making a swimming motion with my hands, fending the pain off as much as I could, saying, It was just a tweak, just a little tweak, and she had said, If that’s a tweak I’d like to see a twinge.)

A few minutes later I walked her to the front door and took a peek outside to make sure the coast was clear. Nothing but the trees across the street casting pools of shade. Nothing but a quiet street. Inside, with the door open, we hugged each other one last time, and then I watched as she walked quickly down the sidewalk. The cold air rushed past me as it streamed out of the house. There is a complicit, accusatory nature to this day, I think I thought, watching her leave, and it seems to me now that the way the trees suddenly quivered and shifted, and the way, a few minutes later, when I was in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, popping an oxycodone, thinking about the upcoming appointment with Dr. Zuck, trying to recall the exact path the pain had taken, the sky darkened and the surface of the river — which I can now admit I spent obsessive amounts of time observing — became stucco with wind; something in all that told me Sharon and I would end up in an office on Madison Avenue (and we did) with some shrink, most likely a surprisingly young woman with the habit of tweezing her earlobe while she listened to me explain that it was the physical pain that led me into the situation with Marie. The pain was in need of a nurse, of a certain kind of touch, I’d explain (and I did). She was good with the pain, I imagined I might say, and I did say. And Sharon would say, and did say, You’re full of shit. No woman could stand your complaining. You moaned and bellyached from the beginning. I remember your twisted ankle when we lived on Greenwich Street. Your bum knee on Claremont Avenue. Your ankle at Rockefeller rink. Your hamstring in Michigan. Not to mention your hip — I think it was a stress fracture — in Vermont. I won’t even go into that. You’ve always verbalized every single fucking pain, no matter how minor. I mean for God’s sake, you never drew a line, she would say, I imagined, and she did say. And I’d say, and I did say: I’m not claiming that what Dr. Zuck is now calling migrating inflammation points were a direct response to your betrayal of our wedding vows. That’s speculation on my part, although it makes perfectly good sense. I’d argue — and I’m going to stick with this defense for the rest of my life — that one reason I began the thing with Marie, one huge factor, was the way she was sympathetic without being judgmental. I mean she really seemed to care, I’d say, and I did. She was an epic nursemaid. She even said once, and I’ll quote: I’m what you’d call a nursemaid type. I’m a teacher, sure, but I’m also a hell of a good nurse. End quote. Then in the shrink’s office there would be, and there was, a dull, subdued pause. That’s bullshit, Sharon would say, and did say. That’s pure bullshit. No woman would tolerate your bitching and moaning in the early stages of a relationship — even a fling. You didn’t tell her about the pain because you didn’t have the pain until long after you started fucking her, she said, as Dr. Haywood raised her palm flat in the air, as if pushing against something, and adjusted her hair and tossed her head slightly in what seemed to me, again, an unprofessional way, and then, from that point, began to explain her theory of establishing a safe zone between our two arguments, a kind of no-man’s-land from which we could each wave a white flag. Her voice rose and fell as it tried to establish an intimate formality, working hard to sound responsive to our specific situation. She told us that Gunner had to be considered first, and that whatever we did or said, no matter what happened, we’d have to make sure that we kept him front and center. We’d have to create a safe zone where we could wave white flags at each other. That’s about all I can remember. White-flag waving. No-man’s-land. A safe zone. Putting Gunner first. And the way a tissue came out of the box on her desk, a single O’Keeffeian bloom, pure and bright.

Jesus, Dr. Haywood and her safe zone and white-flag waving, I said to Sharon, months after that session, sitting out on the back deck, talking quietly with drinks in hand. Night was falling. It was midsummer and there was a slight briny smell in the air. The yard was dark. We sat for a few minutes, holding hands across the table in an anticipatory quiet that came from years of being together, half knowing what the other might say, half not knowing. I would talk a little more about Dr. Haywood’s fluty, high-strung voice, and the way she held her hand up like a referee when she wanted us to stop shouting. Then we began to laugh together, softly at first. A light, summer-evening laugh. (To push further: If you were hiding in the bushes on the north side of the yard, or behind one of the pines, or even deep in the Thompsons’ yard, you’d hear the hugely intimate, forgiving sound of it as it started in Sharon’s throat, a series of thin, brittle wheezes, and then my response, a single bark, and then in response her fluttery laugh combined, a half second later, with my own weird he ha, he ha, until we fed each other into an entwined sound that was very likely — although I’m certainly pushing too far here — like a Bach counterpoint: two themes working together in a helix of motion, twisting around a dark heavenly void that might be where God, if he lives, lives. Hearing it, you’d be able to tease out the story that had produced the laugh, because we were both remembering the way I had fallen to the floor of Dr. Haywood’s office, the pain in my back striking unusually fast, so that I ended up pumping my legs, trying to ease it, and then — you’d almost be able to get this, listening — the way I refused assistance, saying, I’m fucking fine, nothing hurts at all, I don’t feel a thing, and I stumbled out of the office, through the sound of the two white-noise machines, down the stairs, and onto Park Avenue. If you listened with enough sensitivity, you’d hear in our laughter the way Sharon had caught up with me near Grand Central and scooped me from behind in what would, much later, seem to me the first hints of a playfulness that is, if you’re lucky, the wonderful byproduct of forgiveness.)

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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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