I've been gut-sick for three days. Three days is two days too many for me to pretend it's anything other than what it really is. So I won't.
When a thing ends, even when it ends well, ends right, it is still more than a little sad. Knowing all along that it would end and that there would be no hard feelings, no acrimony, no doors slamming or desperate, angry phone calls somehow offers less consolation than it should.
Let me tell you a few more things about this girl Milly. First and foremost, she is happiest when in motion: she travels, she runs, she works like a mule that has been granted the precious gift of opposable thumbs. I'm not suggesting she's unique in this way -- there are plenty of people in the world who are energized by being active. The point is that she falls firmly into that category, and one quality most of that ilk share is the urge to prolong their capacity to engage in such pursuits by maintaining something I'll simply call good health. Don't get me wrong, she'll dabble in the occasional self-destructive binge, smoking a few too many cigarettes, downing a few too many cocktails and so on, but on balance . . . well, on balance, she seeks balance. And regardless of whether or not that is necessarily for everyone, it is nonetheless admirable -- not because it's the right way for a person to live her life, but because Milly understand it's the right way for her to live hers. She also possesses the kind of integrity that allows her to walk away from something she otherwise loves but that doesn't fit the larger picture, rather than muddling through indefinitely in the no-man's land between trying to force the situation to change to suit, and compromising her principles.
One remarkably consistent trait of contentious relationships, to my mind, at least, is the ongoing struggle to reshape the person we claim to love above all others into somebody other than who he or she actually is. It's a remarkable phenomenon, don't you think? We fall in love with a person, we consider that person to be more important than everyone else in the world, and still we can't just be happy with who he or she is -- we still have to fuck with it. You're too this, not enough that, you smother me, you don't pay enough attention to me, your feet smell, you don't like my friends, all your friends suck . . . and on and on and on. The part that baffles me most about this is not that people do it, it's that they too often don't seem to recognize that's what they're doing. I'm not suggesting I have an answer to any of this, won't even pretend to offer advice. I just know it's out there, see it every day, and point it out only as stark contrast to this thing that was Milly and me.
I'm the guy to whom friends and random acquaintances quite regularly offer unsolicited observations about my lifestyle. I smoke like Bogart, drink like a Scot and eat whatever the hell I like. The only exercise I get, other than walking around town (because I don't own a car), is in bed. And I currently live in a windowless cave with no shower. There is, admittedly, room for criticism. But here's the thing about criticism that too few critics appreciate: go fuck yourself. By which, of course, I mean feel free to offer me your thoughts and suggestions, but don't ever assume your sense of the right way to do things entitles you to tell me the right way for ME to do things. I'm not your kid and I'm not your fix-it project. I'm a person who is entirely comfortable living with the consequences of my own choices. Even when one of those consequences includes losing Milly.
Which brings me to why I'm not the least bit bitter about this ending: Milly has never once tried to push or steer or coerce me into being someone other than who I am. She's never tried to get me to skip the next cigarette, eat a salad, leave the bar early, or change my ways in any fashion. The delightful irony of that approach is that, in the seven and a half months I spent with her, she got me to look at some of the world differently -- not by insisting, but simply by showing it to me and letting me draw my own conclusions. That's the right kind of person to have in your life, whether as a friend or as something more.
And we are friends and always will be. But she knew the something more was never going to pan out the way she wants her something more to go. And she had the guts to say it to me, with no mollycoddling, no guile, no bullshit. If I didn't love her before, I would certainly love her for that.
But I am gut-sick still, I'm sad for myself because I don't get to be that guy. It's the kind of sad for which there is no immediate cure: there is no replacement part like another girl, or string of girls, no magic elixir like two days of solid drinking, no soothing release like an hour in a therapist's office or an afternoon talking it out with your best friend. It mellows in time, then goes away, if not entirely, then enough. And someday soon I'll be sitting on a bar stool beside Milly, we'll eat BLTs with extra-crispy bacon (mine with extra mayonnaise, because I really do thumb my nose at the army of tantalizing raiders determined to destroy my body), sipping mudslides and making each other laugh. I look forward to that day. Today, though, I'm sad as shit, with apologies to no one.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Here's a draft of a story that is loosely based on a girl I used to know. She fell in love with her teacher. It's a little long.
“This will never do,” Jack O’Shea announced.
Katie sat quiet and perfectly still across the dining room table from him. She had asked him to read the story she wrote for her ninth grade English class. It was a story about the day she and her sister had disobeyed their father’s explicit order not to come into the exam room. He was always issuing orders like that back then, orders the two girls almost never managed to follow, and in Katie’s experience there had never been any actual consequences to their actions – she had yet to see anything she thought she shouldn’t have seen, and their father, when he happened to notice, never punished them with anything more than a stern look and a click of his tongue. That day, however, as she and Sophie poked their heads through the partially opened door they were greeted by the apparently sleeping form of a full-grown Rottweiler stretched out on the examining table and their father standing back-to a few feet away. When he turned around, Katie saw that he held a hacksaw, and a moment later he was using the saw to cut through the dog’s throat. Katie knew the dog. His name was Percy and he belonged to Phyllis, who tended the flower gardens around the clinic and baked cakes and cookies and pies for Katie and Sophie.
It was Sophie who gave them away, gasping and then screaming as Percy’s nearly severed head lolled to one side. Katie tried to clap a hand over her sister’s mouth but it was too late. “Get out of here!” Jack O’Shea shouted, his gloved hands still holding saw and dog’s head.
That had happened four years ago when she was nine and Sophie was seven. Later that day, their father explained to them that Percy had bitten someone and that he might have had rabies, so he had to be put down, and his brain tissue needed to be tested to see if he had indeed been afflicted with the disease. Katie took the information in and, because her faith in her father was still thoroughly intact, she managed to put it in a place in her mind where it didn’t seem like what it had looked like. Not Percy, she thought. That was not Percy. In that way, Katie continued to follow her father into the clinic while he examined people’s sick pets, while he spayed cats and inoculated dogs. Sophie, however, never went near the clinic again, and shortly thereafter lost all interest in animals of any kind, engrossing herself instead in piano lessons and endless hours in her room with her eyes closed, a pair of headphones over her ears.
“We need to get you some help,” Jack O’Shea announced, tossing the story on the kitchen table.
Katie sat with her elbows on the table, trying to look her father in the eye. Instead, she stared down at the discarded story, plucking at her left eyebrow with her thumb and forefinger.
“Don’t bother doing anything if you’re not going to do it well,” her father said. When she didn’t respond, he asked, “Do you want to write well?” After a few seconds she nodded her head slowly. “Do you want to write stories?” he asked her. “Is that what you want to do with your life?”
Again she nodded, but this time she raised her eyes and looked into her father’s face. He was frowning.
“Well,” he finally said, “we need to find you a tutor.”
George Murphy pedaled his bike to work, not because he was an enthusiastic bicyclist or avid environmentalist, but because his car, a 1979 Volvo sedan that had once been vibrant yellow but was now various shades of pale and rust, had chosen this morning to refuse to start. Standing on the pedals, pumping up the one long hill between home and work, he reflected that, at nearly thirty years of age, he should be getting closer to something like comfort by now, not further away.
He was teaching high school English at his third school in six years, this time in a small but affluent community on the coast of Maine. Like him, most of the parents of his students drove Volvos; unlike him, they were all likely sitting behind the wheels of their cars right now, warm air blowing from the heater vents to cut the chill of the mid-October morning. He flexed his hands, one at a time, when he reached the top of the hill, then pedaled into the parking lot and up to the side door of the school.
To make matters worse, of course, this had to happen on the day he had an appointment right after school, a first meeting with a thirteen-year-old girl who thought she wanted to be a writer. Her father, a veterinarian, had gotten George’s name from one of his clients, a woman whose son’s college essay George had essentially written himself because, when it came to the written word, the boy was utterly hopeless. He was going to college to play lacrosse anyway, George reasoned, and why not help him get there so he could spend at least a few years enjoying the one thing in life at which he would ever be truly good? George took these gigs because the extra money didn’t hurt, but mostly because he purported to be a writer and, in spite of a notable lack of published or even finished work, when word of his writer status made its way swiftly through these small communities, invariably a handful of parents would inquire as to whether or not he’d be willing to offer Tucker or Ashley some much needed pointers, and be paid, of course, for his troubles.
George was pouring himself a cup of coffee in the teachers’ lounge when Betsy Chasse walked in. Betsy also taught English but, unlike George, she was destined to be a lifer. She taught because she wanted to teach, not as a temporary means to her own ends. Until recently, she had been dating a handsome, square-shouldered lobsterman who made her laugh and teased her for reading books when there was cooking and cleaning to be done. She stopped laughing when she came to realize that was only half a joke and, at twenty-seven, she resigned herself once again to the possibility that her happiness did not lie in that direction. She and George were not the only unattached members of the faculty, but they were by far the youngest. They had spent the first two months of the semester resisting the temptation to drift together, less for the sake of professionalism than because it seemed so patently obvious as to be the worst sort of cliché.
“Did I see you struggling up the hill on your bike?” she asked him, holding out her mug for him to pour.
“Yeah,” he said, “thanks for stopping and offering me a lift, jerk.”
“Baby,” she said.
They had fifteen minutes before first bell and, the room being otherwise unoccupied, they took seats at the small round conference table.
“When are you going to give up on that heap?” she asked.
“Gertrude Stein?” he asked. “I think she has a few more miles in her.”
“I think you’re right,” Betsy replied. “She has a few miles in her. Exactly a few.”
“Well,” he said, “just so you know, I’m not too proud to accept a ride once in a while.”
She smiled and took a sip of her coffee. “I’m glad to hear that,” she said. “Pride is my second least favorite vice.”
“Really?” he asked. “What’s the first?”
She leaned back in her chair and propped her legs up on the chair next to his.
“Sloth,” she said.
“Actually,” George began, “you could really help me out if you’re free after school today.”
“I am,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“I have to get to Topsham,” he told her.
“Date?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, “with a precocious thirteen-year-old girl who dreams of becoming Virginia Woolf.”
“Well,” Betsy said, “what kind of a teacher would I be if I stood in the way of a young girl’s literary aspirations?”
“I’ll make it up to you,” he said.
“Yeah?” she asked. “How?”
“I’ll buy you dinner,” he said.
“Aren’t you the guy who’s too broke to get his car fixed?”
“I’ll make you dinner.”
“Do you cook?”
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll wash your car.”
She laughed and looked at her watch, then sat up and put her feet on the floor.
“Gotta go,” she said, rising. “Let’s do this,” she continued, “you drop me at my place, go teach young Virginia Woolf how to get to the lighthouse, then come back to my house, and I’ll make you dinner.”
“I like the way this is working out,” he said, following her into the hallway. “You do me a favor, and in return, I let you feed me. Sometimes selflessness feels really good.”
She said something but her words were drowned out by the ringing of the bell. In another instant the hallway was teeming with students, and they went their separate ways to class.
That afternoon he threw his bicycle into the back of Betsy’s truck, dropped her at her house and then drove the six miles to the home of Jack O’Shea. He found the house without any trouble, the large blue-lettered sign out front advertising the veterinary clinic visible for more than a hundred yards. He pulled into the driveway and parked next to a Saab that was angle-parked near the clinic’s entrance. The house was a sprawling Colonial with the clinic located in what appeared to be a recently refurbished ell that connected it to a sizeable barn. He walked around the front of the house, climbed the steps and knocked at the door. When no one answered after several minutes he knocked again. Finally it occurred to him that here in Maine, almost no one used the front door. He retraced his steps to the side of the house where he’d parked. Standing in the doorway watching him walk toward her was a tall, thin girl he guessed must be Kate O’Shea.
“Kate?” he asked, smiling.
“Guilty,” she said, holding out her right hand and offering him a firm shake. “Welcome,” she said very officially, stepping aside and gesturing for him to step inside.
“After you,” he said.
“I insist,” she said. He was struck by the way she said it and didn’t move for a second, then shrugged, said, “Thank you,” and proceeded ahead of her into the house. Once inside, he had no idea which way to turn. There were four doors – the one on the right obviously leading to the clinic, but the other three could have taken him anywhere. He took a step toward the middle of the mudroom to let her past him, but she stepped up right behind him as though he was in charge. Finally he turned to her and said, “I’ll let you be the guide. This is my first time.”
She blushed and he realized what those words probably sounded like. He quickly said, “Where’s a quiet place where we can sit and talk about your writing?”
She brightened and, gesturing to the middle door, said, “Right this way.” This time she took the lead. She led him into the farmhouse kitchen. He noticed the dish drainer full of recently washed dishes. In one corner stood a vacuum cleaner, and except for that, not one thing looked out of place, not a single errant slip of paper or a book or pencil left casually on a countertop. George had the impression that if he were to open any of a number of cupboards, an impressive array of typical household detritus would cascade onto the floor. Katie pointed to the rough oak table in the middle of the kitchen. He seated himself at on one side of the table, and she chose the seat directly across from him.
“Will your dad be joining us?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” Katie said. “He’s working.”
George nodded and folded his hands together in front of him on the table. He noticed her looking at his knuckles, which, for his entire life, had always been strangely red. Not an unhealthy red, just noticeably so.
“So tell me about your writing,” he said.
“It isn’t very good,” she replied immediately.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“It just isn’t,” she replied flatly.
He nodded his head, frowned slightly and said, “Okay then, let me take a look. Do you have something I can read?”
She looked at him for a long moment, then nodded her head and said, “Excuse me, please. I’ll be right back.”
She opened a door in the corner of the room and climbed the stairs to the second floor. He could hear her bare feet slapping across the pumpkin pine floorboards overhead, heard her throw open a door, heard the obvious sounds of her rooting around. He sat and considered her odd mannerisms, the formality that was uncharacteristic these days even for someone much older. There had been no mention of the mother, and no obvious signs of her in the house. He was wondering about that when Katie came charging down the stairs, crashing into the wall as she hit the bottom landing. When he looked up he expected her to seem embarrassed, but instead she was beaming as she came toward him, her arm extended.
“Here,” she said.
He took the pages from her and smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
She sat back in her chair and watched him as he began to read. The story, about a Mexican immigrant family living somewhere in the American southwest, featured a young female protagonist whose little brother had drowned in an aunt’s pool while the aunt was supposed to be watching the children. He read at first with the usual diminished expectations of someone who has read so many overwrought versions of this story that they all blend together. Almost immediately, though, he realized this was something else entirely. This wasn’t the usual story of a traumatic event and how it ruined the narrator’s thus far young life. The diction in places was a bit overblown, vocabulary-test writing, or attempts to sprinkle in unfamiliar words she’d stumbled across in books and in the stories she read in the New Yorker which, he would later learn, she circled in pencil and returned to after she’d finished the story, opening her big table-top dictionary to learn what the words meant. Katie’s heroine was an observer, almost a voyeur, chronicling in fearsome, insightful detail the mannerisms of her family before, during, and after the drowning. Even the ending, which included an account of watching the character of the older sister being raped by a boy the narrator had worshipped was told in such a way that made it absolutely clear that the narrator didn’t know exactly what she was witnessing . . . and yet the writer clearly did.
“Did you write this?” he asked when he finished.
She looked at him, seemingly unsure of what to say.
“It’s amazing,” he told her. “Truly amazing. You really wrote this?”
She bit her lip and smiled and nodded. When almost a minute went by and he didn’t say anything more, she jumped up from the table suddenly and blurted, “Do you want some water?”
His mind was still turning over what he’d read, reconciling the story with the thin, strange, awkward girl who had written it. He nodded his head and murmured, “Please,” without processing what he was agreeing to. A moment later she set a glass of water in front of him. He stared at the glass for a moment before taking a long swallow. He set the glass aside and looked up at her. She was standing at the head of the table, her leg nearly touching his knee.
“I can help you, Kate,” he said, almost in a whisper.
She smiled again, and this time her eyes smiled too. She took a deep breath and let it out in a wild rush, as though she’d just come up from several minutes under water.
He looked at her now for the first time. She had shiny auburn hair that fell just past her shoulders and just slightly over one eye, eyes that were pale green with splashes of amber. They were eyes that opened up when she smiled. He noticed a slight cant to her left lateral incisor, which nearly gave the impression of a chip or a gap but somehow flowed nicely with the rest of her lovely mouth. As he was taking all of this in he saw that she was looking past him over his shoulder and then he heard the sound of heavy feet crossing the mudroom. He stood and turned toward the door.
Jack O’Shea stepped into the kitchen, nodded to him and asked, “Did you offer our guest a drink, Katie?”
“Oh,” she said, fumbling in her pockets and half-turning in the direction of the sink.
“She did,” George said. “Thank you.” He extended his hand and said, “I’m George Murphy, sir.”
Jack O’Shea shook his hand and said nothing.
“You have a remarkable daughter,” George said.
“Indeed,” O’Shea replied. “Can you help her?”
George considered for a moment that it was possible he and Jack O’Shea had different ideas about what would constitute helping his daughter, but he said, “Yes, I can. She already has talent, and I think I can help her take it somewhere.” He heard those words, so familiar because he used them with all his pupils’ parents, but this time he was struck by how different his voice sounded when he actually meant them.
“When will you see her again?” O’Shea asked.
“Whenever she likes,” George replied. “My evenings are unencumbered.”
“No wife?” O’Shea asked. “No kids, no girlfriend, nothing like that?”
“Nothing like that at the moment,” George said evenly.
“Thursdays,” O’Shea said. “Same time.”
“Perfect,” George replied.
“Fine,” O’Shea said. He reached for George’s hand again and said, “Good evening.”
George shook the man’s hand and then turned to Katie.
“See you next week, Kate,” he said.
She shuffled uneasily from one foot to the other but didn’t say anything. He raised his eyebrows in a silent question, and so she asked, “Do you have an assignment for me?”
“Of course,” he said. “Write me a story.”
Betsy was stirring a pot on the stove and holding a glass of wine in her other hand when he walked into the kitchen. She looked his way and smiled, then saw his face and asked, “That bad?”
He took a seat at the table. She put down the spoon and her wineglass, poured a glass for him and carried both to the table.
“To easy money,” she said.
He raised his glass. “Easy money,” he said.
“So is she adjective crazy? Unicorn friendly? Lovestruck and lovelorn?”
He shrugged. “They’re all the same, right?”
She patted him on the head.
“You’re a good man, George,” she said, then turned back to the stove. “I hope you like chicken.”
They ate dinner and chatted about nothing of consequence. It was a pleasant evening, at the end of which they climbed into bed together. When he awoke in the morning he kissed her on the forehead, told her he would bike home to shower, and be ready for her to pick him up in an hour.
“Sure,” she said, “but be warned, I’m dropping you off a quarter mile from school.”
As he rode his bike home in the chilly morning air, he couldn’t shake the question of why he hadn’t told Betsy about the girl’s story. Why in the world had he lied?
The following Thursday at four-fifteen Katie O’Shea stood before the full-length mirror in her bedroom wearing jeans and a white bra with a tiny rosette where the cups joined, a blouse on a hanger in each hand, holding first one and then the other in front of her, trying to decide. All the while she kept casting glances toward her printer, which was very slowly printing the story she had completed just five minutes before. Eleven pages, she thought. How long does it take to print eleven pages?
In the mirror she could see the reflection of her sister standing in her doorway watching her.
“What do you want, worm?” she asked more calmly than she felt.
“You’re taking an awful long time to choose a shirt,” Sophie said.
“That is not your concern,” she said, holding the flowered top against her chest.
“Just put one on,” Sophie said. “It’s not a date.”
“You don’t even know what a date is,” Katie said, peering out of the corner of her eye at the printer, which was coughing up the final page.
“Do so,” Sophie replied. “Kissing and such.”
Katie rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help marveling yet again that her eleven-year-old sister might very well be the most sophisticated person she knew.
“This is no such thing,” she informed her sister. She settled on the red blouse with the pleated front. “It is simply important to look one’s best. It’s impolite not to,” she concluded.
“Whatever,” Sophie said. “When does the man arrive?”
“Again, worm,” Katie said, “not your concern.” She turned and leveled a finger in her sister’s direction. “You are to stay in your room for the duration. Is that understood?”
“I don’t speak English now?” Sophie asked. “Of course it’s understood.” She turned away and strolled in the direction of her own room, whistling loudly, then said, “Obeyed is another question, though.”
“Brat!” Katie shrieked and stormed after her sister, who had closed her door and thrown the bolt. “Show your face and die, maggot!” she shouted.
Just then she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. She ran back into her room, dove under the bed, found one, then two shoes, slipped them on while hopping across the room toward the door, remembered the story, spun and pulled it off the printer, then paused for a moment as she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She stood straight, pulled her shoulders back. Smiled. Smiled again. Took a deep breath, and headed for the stairs.
He stood on the back stoop when she pulled the door open.
“Good evening,” he said.
She smiled. “Welcome,” she said, waving her hand for him to come inside.
She let him walk ahead of her into the kitchen. He walked to the seat he had occupied the week before, in front of which she had placed the new story.
“Ah,” he said when he saw that she had done her homework, “good kid.”
She winced imperceptibly, then nodded her head and asked, “Something to drink?”
“Water would be great,” he said. “Please.”
He seated himself and began reading without another word. She reached into the cupboard for a glass, turned on the tap and while the glass filled she watched him over her shoulder. His face was very nearly expressionless, his mouth still. She watched his eyes glide back and forth across the page like a slow waltz.
The story she had given him to read was about the time her father took them to Bermuda when she was eleven. They took a glass-bottomed boat out to the reef and went snorkeling. Katie had paddled along the reef just below the surface, diving low at times to follow a fish that had caught her eye. She had just returned to the surface for a breath of air when she peered down and saw the eel slide out of its hole and begin to swim down the reef. She dove after it and crept along the bottom, following it, as it turned out, toward deeper water. The next time she hit the surface, no one was in sight: not her father or sister, not the other snorklers, not even the boat. She treaded water in an easy three-sixty, but all she could see in every direction was open water. She didn't understand how she could have swum so far in such a short time – and underwater, no less. More than that, though, what she remembered most about that moment was a complete lack of fear or concern. Part of her understood that this was potentially life-threatening, that she might well drift out to sea and never be found. To her surprise, she felt perfectly calm. She considered that her lack of worry might be the result of her unbridled faith in her father – in spite of his failings, he was not the kind of father who would let his oldest daughter die in the open ocean. She thought about that and decided that, although it was true, it wasn’t enough to explain how peaceful she felt, how completely she accepted that, whatever happened next, it was fine with her.
In the story, her protagonist considers the lives of the people she loves, her father and sister, Phyllis the gardener/baker, and an unnamed boy who she describes as “modestly dashing and remotely accessible.” In what she feels may well be her final moments, she imagines how their lives will turn out: not as a function of her disappearance, but simply because she’ll never know for sure and so she gives them the lives she would hope for them.
George turned over the last page and set the story back on the table in front of him. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Katie felt her breath catch in her throat and for a moment thought she might cry.
“How long have you been writing, Kate?” he asked.
She started to answer him but her voice was unsteady as she struggled to catch her breath. He patted the seat beside him and she sat.
“You’re very good,” George said. When she didn't respond, he put his hand on her shoulder. “Kate,” he said. She looked into his face. “I mean it. You’re a wonderful writer.”
She knew she was smiling but her face felt funny, like the corners of her mouth were being tugged by strings.
“Mr. Murphy . . .” she started.
“George,” he said. “George.”
She nodded, then looked down at her lap. She wanted to smile but could feel the corners of her mouth twitching. She wished she could cry.
“You don’t really need my help,” he told her.
She looked at him, her eyes wide. For an instant she thought she might get her wish as a single tear started to form in the corner of her eye.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She glared at him. “But you said I don’t need your help.”
“You don’t need help,” he replied. “But you do need an audience. I’ll be your audience if you’ll keep writing me stories.”
She felt an overpowering urge to say something perfect, but all she could manage was a vigorous nod of her head.
“Good,” he said. “Now let’s talk words.”
The following week he arrived ten minutes late. He had wanted to bring a book for her to read, but halfway through the day he decided his choice – Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – ended in such a devastating fashion, he wasn’t sure she was ready for it. He drove home after school and scanned his shelves for a book that would express some of what he wanted her to know. When his eyes fell upon the spine of To Kill a Mockingbird, he knew he’d found what he was looking for. He pulled the tattered paperback from the shelf. It was the copy he’d had since he was twelve.
He had just raised his hand to knock when Katie pulled the door open, nearly falling over in doing so.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said.
She stepped away from the door, letting him close it himself. “Oh,” she said as she walked ahead of him into the kitchen, “are you late?”
He smiled at her as she walked away.
“I hope you have a story for me,” he said.
She pointed to the table, walked to the sink to pour him a glass of water. When she turned he was staring at her, not reading. She carried the water glass to him and set it on the table.
He smiled at her. “That's a pretty blouse,” he said. “Here, sit.”
She wore the floral print this time, the one she had decided against the previous week. She smiled and said, “Thank you,” then took the seat beside him.
He put his hand on the pages in front of him.
“I’m not going to read this now,” he said. “I’m going to take it home with me so I can read it a few times. Can I get copies of the other two stories you’ve shown me?”
“Of course,” she said. Before he could stop her, she’d bolted for the door that led upstairs. When she pulled it open, Sophie tumbled onto the floor from the landing.
“Jerk!” Sophie shouted.
For a moment it looked as though Katie was about to throttle her younger sister, but instead she turned and said, sweetly, “This is my little sister, Sophie,” she said. “Please forgive her manners. She is terribly uncouth.” She turned back to Sophie, who still sat slumped on the floor. “And dumb!” Then she stomped her foot and pointed to the stairs. Sophie pulled herself to her feet, waved to George, and sprinted up the stairs.
George heard heated whispers from above, then a door slammed, feet shuffled across the floor, then another door slammed and Katie bounded down the stairs. She dropped the stories in front of him and sat back down.
“I brought you something,” he said. He pulled the slim paperback from his pocket and handed it to her. “Have you read it?”
She took it from his hand and looked at the cover. “No,” she said.
“Sorry, it’s a little marked up,” he said. “I have a tendency to scribble in the margins and underline passages I love.”
She set the book on the table in front of her and flipped through it, pausing when she saw red marks. He watched her eyes play over the sentences he’d underlined, saw her pause where he’d written in the margin so long ago, he realized, Kate hadn’t even been born yet.
“You have two assignments for next week,” he told her. “Another story, of course, and that.” He pointed to the book. “Pay attention to the ways in which she establishes mood. Okay? Oh, and think about the sorts of images she employs.”
Katie nodded and smiled, then bit her lip and said, “May I ask you for something?”
He sat back and looked at her. “Of course,” he said.
“May I read something you’ve written?”
He raised his eyebrows and half-frowned.
Finally he nodded slowly. “Yes, of course.”
“Excellent,” she said. She sat up a little straighter in her chair and grinned. “Good. Now it feels even.”
He thought about that for a moment. If he was the tutor and she was the pupil, why would it need to be even? Then it occurred to him what she meant. He nodded his head.
“I’ll have a story for you next week,” he said. “Promise.”
She still beamed at him.
“That’s it for tonight, though, okay?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “of course.” She worried the cover of the Harper Lee between her thumb and forefinger.
“I’ll have notes for you on all three stories next week.”
“Plus a story,” she said.
“Plus a story,” he replied. “And you’ll have another story for me. And we’ll talk about the book.” Then he leaned toward her and whispered, “Don’t be afraid to underline. I won’t mind. Just use a different color ink.”
Before his taillights had even disappeared from the end of the driveway, Katie was digging through every desk in the house, the drawers in the kitchen, the closet in the living room, searching desperately for a pen that was neither red nor black nor blue. She had nearly given up when it occurred to her to check the clinic.
Her father was the only one there at that time, and he was out of sight in the examining room in back. She tiptoed to the receptionist’s desk and very quietly opened, one by one, the three drawers on the right side of the desk, then the three on the left side, but to no avail. Again she was about to give up, when she noticed the center drawer just beneath the desktop. She pulled it open slowly and immediately found what she sought: a green ballpoint pen. She slipped it into her pocket and backed out of the room without a sound.
The book still sat where she’d left it on the table. She looked around the kitchen and tried to remember what it was that she ought to be doing, but the room seemed suddenly strange to her, as though she were a guest in that place. She carried the book to her bedroom, closed the door behind her and stretched out on the bed, pen in hand.
The opening two pages left her a little confused, and before she’d even finished the second sentence she was reaching into the drawer of her night table for a pencil. She circled the word “assuaged” – very lightly because she wanted to be able to erase it with ease later – and continued reading. In no time she was consumed by the story, in the trance inspired by the voice of Scout, a girl just enough like her, but also different, that she found herself wanting to know everything Scout had ever known or done. In the back of her mind as she read, she tried to hear the story as George had heard it in his own head. She pictured him lying in his own childhood bed, just as she was doing now, reading late into the night. She read the first line he had underlined: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it,” and made a mental note to find a subtle way to find out in what sort of town he had grown up.
She went on like this for hours, circling unknown words in pencil, seeking the moments in between the many that had moved George as a boy to scratch shaky red lines across the page, something of her own. She finally glided across the lines she wanted at the beginning of Chapter Twelve, and before she knew it she’d underlined the entire first two paragraphs. She paused for a moment and stared down at the already dry green ink. She felt her face flush as she imagined what George might think when he witnessed her childish extravagance. “Nothing to be done,” she heard herself say, somewhat wistfully, aloud. She read on. Toward three in the morning her eyes fluttered closed of their own volition, and she sank into deep, satisfied sleep with her cheek pressed against the yellowed pages.
That night as Betsy slept beside him, George lay awake staring into the dark. In his mind he scrolled through the countless stories in directories on his computer, the hard copies in folders in the file cabinet in his apartment – no, not countless: eighty-five, exactly, all of them unpublished, most of them never submitted. What would he put in front of Kate? Which one would make him seem to her least like the fraud he’d started to feel he was?
He felt Betsy’s hand on his arm, heard her ask in a slow, sleepy voice, “What’s on your mind, Murphy?”
He exhaled and laid his hand on hers. “Writing,” he said.
“Hmm,” she said, “that’s right, you’re a writer.”
“Allegedly,” he said.
“Allegedly indeed,” she agreed. She propped herself on one elbow and said, “Show me?”
“Sure,” he agreed.
“Right now,” she said, rolling over and turning on the light.
George groaned and rubbed his eyes. Betsy smacked his thigh and said, “Up. Go get your laptop.”
He slid out from under the covers and padded across the room to where his shoulder bag lay under the pile of his discarded clothes. He removed the laptop and climbed back into bed. While the computer powered up, he asked, “What kind of story would you like to read?”
“Not read,” she said. “Hear.”
“Ohhhh,” he said, “I’m doing all the work tonight.”
“Hey,” she replied, “they’re your words, you make them sing. Plus,” she lowered her eyes and said, “I like listening to your voice.”
When his desktop appeared, he clicked on the directory titled “Drafts,” then scrolled through until he found the subdirectory labeled “New.” He chose the story “Alice.”
“You asked for it,” he said, and he began.
When he’d finished, she reached over and touched his hand, then ran her fingers slowly up the length of his arm. He heard her take a deep breath, and then a moment later she was rolling over and climbing on top of him. He barely managed to lower the laptop to the safety of the floor in time.
Gertrude coughed and sputtered and expired just as he rolled to a stop in the school parking lot. George turned the key several times but the engine wouldn’t turn over. He sat quietly for several minutes, staring at the dashboard, the heels of his hands resting on the steering wheel. Betsy parked beside him and walked up to his open window.
“I hate to tell you this, but you will not win a staring contest with your car, Murphy.”
“She might be dead,” he said.
“My condolences,” she replied.
“I’m going to need to borrow your truck again,” he said.
“Is it Thursday already?” she asked. “I guess it is.”
After school she drove him to her house.
“Come in for a minute,” she said. “I have a present for you.”
He looked at his wrist as though he expected to find the time there, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t worn or even owned a watch since high school. He thought about the story he carried in his bag. It had been a risk just to write it, and now, so close to giving it to her, he felt every nerve in his body tingling. “Grace,” it was called. It was about a girl.
“Don’t worry, Murphy,” she said, “it’ll be quick.”
He followed her inside, tapping his fingers against his thigh. She walked slowly ahead of him, her hips swaying. She was humming a tune he didn’t recognize. He stopped just inside the door and watched her cross the kitchen.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, “I didn’t wrap it.”
Still with her back to him, she reached down, grabbed the hem of her dress and flipped it over her waist. He saw that she wasn’t wearing underwear. She put the palms of her hands against the countertop and purred, “Come get your present.”
Absolutely everything went through his mind in the next few seconds, but nowhere was there a concrete thought that he believed would get him out of this moment without doing great damage. And so he crossed the room, undid his pants, and accepted her offer. It took almost no time at all.
Immediately afterward he put his lips against her neck, kissed her softly, and said, “I have to go.”
“Of course you do,” she said without turning around.
He drove too fast, trying to make up the time he’d lost. Twice he nearly failed to negotiate a turn. It was twenty past when he pulled into the driveway.
She didn’t greet him at the door, and the kitchen was empty when he went inside.
“Hello?” he called.
A few seconds later the sound of footsteps came from above his head, and a moment later Katie opened the door to the stairwell.
“I’m sorry, Kate,” he said.
She held up a hand and shook her head. She crossed to the table, gestured for him to sit and took the seat across from him.
“I respect you, George,” she began.
“I know you do, Kate.”
“Don’t take me for granted,” she continued. “I may be a kid,” she paused, considering, “but if we are to continue doing what we’re doing, I need you to treat me like an equal. I need you to treat me like a friend.”
Her eyes never wavered as she said this, and he held her gaze without saying a word. Finally he spoke.
“It won’t happen again,” he said quietly. “Promise.”
She continued to stare into his face, then nodded solemnly and said, “Okay. Okay.”
He pulled her latest story from his shoulder bag, as well as the one he had written for her. Yes, he thought, for her. He slid his story across the table to her. She picked it up and read the title out loud.
“I hope you like it,” he said. “It’s . . .”
She held up a hand. “Don’t tell me.” He watched her eyes move across the opening lines. “I love all your writing, George.”
She smiled, her eyes still on the page in front of her. Then he saw her wrinkle her nose and look at him over the story.
“I know it’s terribly rude of me to say so,” she said, “but you smell funny.”
“Funny?” he croaked.
“Awful, really,” she said. “Sorry.”
He sat very still and watched her read.
Katie wrote a story, without fail, every week in time for her Thursday evenings with George. Between that first meeting in mid-October and the last week of school, there were only two weeks when she didn’t see him: the ten days around Christmas when her father took them to Toronto to visit her aunt and cousins, which encompassed two Thursdays. She believed she would die the entire time. When spring break came along and Jack O’Shea had made plans to take his daughters to Key West to fish, Katie feigned illness and stayed home, spending the week with Phyllis, and not missing a chance to spend Thursday evening with her teacher.
In the six days between meetings she read and reread the original stories he had shown her. As she read, she imagined she could see him as a young boy hiding from the babysitter behind a set of drapes, as an altar boy at Sunday mass, as a sad, lonely tenth-grader, as a broken-hearted college student . . . and in each story she saw herself between the lines, holding his hand, taking him home, saving the day, offering him everything.
Two weeks before school ended, she handed him the story she had been writing in secret for months, coming back to it every few days to savor it a scene at a time in the spaces in between composing the stories she had shown him, week by week, since just after Christmas. As he reached to take it from her, she very nearly pulled back her hand. She felt her heart pounding in her chest, the familiar tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“I look forward to reading it,” he said.
Her eyes held fast to his and she couldn’t speak.
“One more week,” he said softly.
“I know,” she croaked.
“But I suppose we can talk about that next week,” he suggested.
She nodded her head, then felt something in her stomach that she knew wouldn’t go away.
“Excuse me,” she blurted, and then was gone, up the stairs.
Sophie found her on her knees over the toilet bowl.
“Geez, kid,” she said.
“Don’t call me that,” Katie mumbled between spasms.
Sophie sat on the edge of the tub and put her hand on Katie’s back. The next instant a great sob burst from her chest, and the tears came with fierce resolve. Sophie knelt beside her, her hands on Katie’s shoulders, trying to stop her from shaking. Then Sophie leaned close and whispered in her ear.
“I’ll tell him you’re sick, okay?”
Katie couldn’t speak, just nodded and shook and sobbed.
She heard Sophie walking down the stairs, not with her usual two-at-a-time hop, but a slow, solemn descent that hinted at the gravity Katie felt. She heard her sister’s voice, “I beg your pardon, George . . .” Katie cringed as she heard her sister use his given name, “. . . but you’ll have to excuse my sister. She’s a bit under the weather all of a sudden.”
Good kid, Katie thought. All the times the two of them had butted and battered each other, but in the end, they were and always would be each other’s other halves.
“Nothing serious I hope,” she heard George say.
No, George, wonderful George, she thought. I am only dying.
“Oh, not at all,” she heard her sister say next. “She just has the runs.”
On his way out, George knocked at the door of the clinic. He heard a gruff, “Enter.”
“Mr. O’Shea,” George began.
“I beg your pardon?” George asked.
“I’m a doctor,” O’Shea said without looking up. “And I happen to treat the sort of patients that need a very particular kind of attention because they are not able, like you or I, to tell anyone where it hurts.”
“I see,” George said. “Of course. Doctor O’Shea.”
O’Shea glanced up from his paperwork and peered at George over his glasses.
“I’m leaving early,” George said. “Kate is apparently sick.”
“That’s fine,” he said. When he said nothing more, George went on.
“I wanted to tell you I’ll be around this summer,” he said. “I’d be happy to keep working with Kate.”
O’Shea removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and said, “That won’t be possible.”
“I’m sorry?” George said.
“She’s going to Ireland,” O’Shea replied. “Intensive academic program. She leaves the week after classes end.”
George took this in silently, then said, almost to himself, “I wonder why she didn’t mention that.”
“She doesn’t know,” O’Shea said.
“You’re shipping her to Ireland in two weeks and you haven’t told her?”
O’Shea put his glasses back on and leveled his eyes at George.
“That’s really not your concern, is it, George?”
For a moment he considered responding but realized in time that whatever he thought he might say would likely cost him even one more chance to see her.
“I don’t suppose it is,” he said. O’Shea had returned his attention to the papers on the desk in front of him. George left without another word.
As he had every Thursday night for months now, George drove to the lone intersection in the town after he left Kate, pulled into the parking lot of the gas station, turned on the overhead light and read the latest story she had written, the last he would see for a while, perhaps the last he would ever read as her tutor and sole audience. He set the pages against the steering wheel and read the title: “The Teacher.” There was a dedication below and to the right of the title: For G. M.
He tried to read it slowly, as he always did, but found he reached the end as though no time had passed at all. He wasn’t even certain he had taken a breath the entire sixteen and a half pages. Sixteen and a half – exactly as many pages as the years that separated them. Exactly the age he had been the first time he had found himself in the naked embrace of a girl just his age – just a bit older than Kate. He stared at the final line, his left hand balled into a fist, pressed firmly against his lips. The hand that held the manuscript shook so that he couldn’t focus on the words in front of him, but it didn’t matter because that last line had sunk into his mind and would never be gone, he knew, as long as he lived.
“And she gave him, finally, the last piece of herself, and carried him across the final divide to a place where she could save him and bury him in something called home but better than sticks and bricks and mortar would ever dream to be.”
He leaned forward and rested his forehead against the steering wheel, felt two long lines of tears slide down his cheeks to land on the girl’s story.
“What are we doing here, Murphy?” Betsy asked him that night. It was a question she had asked in one form or another many times over the previous five months.
“Something,” he replied this time. “I definitely think it’s something.”
She looked at him for a long, hard minute, then asked, “You don’t want to try to narrow it down at all?”
“Do you need me to?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I think, generally, people like to know about these things.”
“I’m happy,” he said. “Aren’t you?”
Again she looked at him, and then she shook her head.
“Murphy,” she finally said, “you might very well be the least obviously happy person I’ve ever met.”
He looked down at his hands, then looked at Betsy and said, “I don’t know what that means.”
“You’re sleepwalking,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she continued. “You take nothing and you offer nothing. You cherish nothing and you risk nothing. You want nothing and you reject nothing.”
“That’s not true,” he said.
“It is,” she assured him. “Ask me how I know.” Again he didn’t respond and so she went on. “I know because I offer you everything but you don’t take it. I risk myself for you every day but you don’t cherish me or the gifts I bring. I’m a catch, Murphy – I am a whole lot of wonderful, and yet you don’t have the decency either to want or to reject me.”
Again he found himself looking down at his hands. She continued to talk, but he heard her only vaguely, as though she were speaking to him from two rooms away.
“Okay?” she asked.
“Okay?” he echoed.
“Goodbye, Murphy,” she said. She walked out of the room and he heard her close the bedroom door behind her. He sat there for several minutes, wondering if she would come back. When she didn’t, he picked up his shoulder bag and left.
The last night with Kate he drove the roads to her house as though he’d never been on them before: he was startled by corners he’d rounded many times, assaulted by the shapes of houses he’d grown accustomed to as the weeks went by in the developing evening light from winter to spring. He felt himself easing off the accelerator well before the sign for the veterinary clinic came into view, well before he would turn in at the end of her driveway.
As he pulled to a stop he realized he had forgotten the one thing he’d kept reminding himself of all week: he wanted to bring her something, a going away present. Something she could carry with her to Ireland. Something perfect. He cursed himself as he unbuckled the seatbelt and started to get out of the car, but suddenly his eye was drawn to the little pendulum still swaying just above the dashboard. It was his St. Christopher medal, slung from a long silver chain. His grandmother had given it to him when he was Kate’s age, and he’d carried it with him everywhere he went. When he bought Gertrude Stein, he wrapped the chain around the rearview mirror, hoping to ward off the inevitable. He reached up and unlooped the chain from the mirror, slipped it in his pocket and climbed out of the car.
She was opening the door slowly as he climbed the steps. She wore a light summer dress, white with tiny purple flowers. Her hair looked as though she had just spent an hour languidly running a brush through it. She smiled and stepped aside, following him into the kitchen. He turned as she closed the door to the mudroom behind her and took a step toward him. Her eyes darted from him to the chair at the end of the table, but when she looked back at him he was still gazing into her face. She held his eyes with hers, and they stood like that, neither of them speaking, for a long, long time. Finally she took another step toward him, and another until she was less than an arm’s length away.
“Ireland, eh?” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “he told me.”
“So this is it.”
She smiled. “For a while, yes.”
He reached into his pocket.
“This is for you,” he said.
He reached for her hand, turned it over and slid the medal on its long chain into her palm. She held it up and looked. She smiled.
“Perfect,” she said. She unclasped the chain and hooked it around her lovely neck, pointed her chin at him and asked, “How do I look?”
He reached out his hand again and, only barely, touched hers. She wrapped her fingers around his hand and smiled.
“It’s beautiful, Kate,” he said. “The story.”
She looked down, lifted his hand to her face. “Such nice hands,” she said, and she kissed his dark red knuckles.
He shook his head.
“It can’t be,” he said. She was still smiling, still squeezing his hand. “Kate,” he said, “it can’t.”
She stepped closer, until her hips were nearly pressed against his thighs, and she tipped her head back, the smile on her face breaking slightly into something more. He felt a quiver in his chest, and then he leaned down, just slightly, until his mouth was almost upon hers. She pushed herself up onto her toes, and their lips met.He didn’t know how long they stood like that, how long they kissed, but at one point he opened his eyes. Hers were still closed, her bangs falling to the side. He saw the tiny freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose, smelled her hair. As he considered this wonder of wonders who had somehow found him in a life so devoid of real wonder, his eye caught a slight movement off to the right. There in the crack of the partially open door to the stairway stood Sophie O’Shea, one eye peering at him as he held her sister in his arms, his hand against the small of her back. Not a word or gesture passed between them, and yet as he gazed at the unblinking eye watching him from across the room he knew, and he knew she knew, that nothing would ever be the same for any of them again.