It was a cold March night and they sat across the bar from each other, smiling over the fact that they both kept ordering Guinness. Silently they competed, in an attempt to drink each other under a table they didn't share. "You won," he told her later, on his way back from the toilet. He said his name was Carl and apologized immediately for being so fat. She told him it wasn't that bad, and really it wasn't. He expressed surprise that an American should have such a taste for the brown stuff, and Shayna said why shouldn't she, it tasted good.
Carl described himself as being no different from any other Irishman in London, working an office job he never would have found in Dublin and wishing he could go home, particularly when the natives got restless and it was Paddy this and Paddy that on the train platforms, at the kiosks, in the queues for sausage and chips. Shayna explained that she was on a work permit through her American university, earning high pay for her exceptional typing skills. When Carl asked her how it was that he had gotten so lucky as to meet her, she neglected to tell him that she frequently drank alone, and tonight was no different.
As the evening wore on, Shayna noted many fine qualities in Carl: generosity, humor, sportsmanship, the fine accent, the gray eyes. Quite simply, he meant her no malice and she appreciated it. When the pub closed they shook hands as a show of restraint.
Carl had told her who his father was, and Shayna had been careful not to mention her inability to get through the man's books. She decided the blame must lie with her since she was American and it was her heritage not to be able to pay attention. The next day she bought one of Niall Meara's novels, thinking the outlay of cash might make his writing more interesting. It didn't, but she spent some time manhandling the volume and dog-earing pages, in anticipation of a visit from the son.
Carl stayed at Shayna's place on their second date, the two of them having just seen a French film. It was a tiny room in North London, big enough for a twin bed, a dresser, and a freestanding wardrobe. The landlord had provided a synthetic pink bedspread, and as Shayna and Carl lay naked beneath it, he again regretted his size. "This weight," he said. "It's like when I came over on the boat, I never set my luggage down."
Shayna sucked in her stomach to help create an illusion of space. She and Carl lay facing each other, and now he studied her, concerned. "Breathe," he commanded after a moment, and she let her stomach escape her, nestling itself lightly against his own. "Try this," he said, turning away from her to lie on his side. "See if you have more room this way."
She curled up behind him and smelled his back, which was not at all dank or sweaty. Carl saw his father's book then, lying on the floor where Shayna had so carefully positioned it, and said, "You read this shite?"
Later he turned around and asked her to do the same, so that he faced her back. She did, and now he was smelling her skin, kissing it, gently separating her thighs. Throughout the night he awakened her, pressing up against her and asking quietly if she felt ready again. He said he had never known it could be like this, the woman facing away and enjoying herself, and Shayna was pleased. She had practiced for several years, training herself to like the things men looked at in pictures, and now she liked them. She thought men had it right, keeping things vaguely anonymous the way they did.
For their third date they decided on a German film. Shayna took the tube to Hampstead, a quaint area featuring ivy and pouring rain, and waited outside the theater until Carl never showed.
She bought a ticket anyway and watched the film from the back of the auditorium, standing there until her legs cramped and people began running into her on their way out to the rest rooms. When she finally took a seat, blocking people's views and irritating them with the cellophane of her candy bar, she couldn't seem to stop turning around. "Carl?" she called, as someone opened the auditorium doors, spreading light across the aisles, and a voice from behind her bellowed, "Forget it, love! He's not coming!" Others laughed and still others told them to hush. Later, walking the night streets beneath her dripping umbrella, all Shayna could remember of the movie was a sheet of filmy paper drifting listlessly through the air, a sickly man entranced by the spectacle of it.
She took the train to North London, not bothering to put her umbrella up on the walk from the tube station to her flat. The smell of clove cigarettes enticed her to stop in at the neighborhood pub, where another Irishman bought her drinks, and used his bar napkin to dry her hair and face. Normally she could be had this easily, but not tonight, not until she squared things with Carl.
The Irishman asked to walk Shayna home and graciously accepted her decline, though he proceeded to follow her at a short distance. She liked the sound of his boot steps quickening and then slowing with hers, and imagined he thought she was oblivious. This type of thing had happened to her before, and Shayna regretted not having the sense to feel worse about it, the instinct to protect herself.
But as she turned into her gate, he slowed, then walked on past the house. He had seen Carl before she did, waiting for her on the front steps, hands tucked inside his bomber jacket. "Shayna," he said, "I'm so sorry I was late tonight. But I was there, I swear." From his pocket he produced a torn ticket stub, candy wrappers, a scribbled summary of the film. Had Shayna stayed until the lights came up, she would have found him in an aisle seat not far from her own.
They hugged. Shayna sank into Carl's largeness and noticed that, like her, he had been drinking; like her, he was grateful for their reunion. And yet in the end, she believed he was better than she. She believed his father made him better, and that she would be made better, too, by an involvement with either one of them. Because there were things wrong with her: the way she brought home strangers, her drinking maybe, how she couldn't concentrate on books.
Carl and Shayna were married in June by the Borough of Islington Registrar. Carl refused to invite his father, citing an early novel disparaging of a fat son as evidence of the man's unworthiness. "What about your mother?" Shayna asked, and he dismissed her out-of-hand as a co-conspirator.
Shayna invited her own mother, who wanted to come but was afraid of crossing the Atlantic in a plane, and her father, who, as Paris bureau chief of an American newspaper, was relatively close by. However he declined, feeling awkward at events requiring physical contact, such as graduations or confirmations. Still, he was compelled by his profession to congratulate her on marrying into a literary family, and offered to wire money were she to name a reasonable sum.
After the ceremony, Carl and Shayna left their jobs and used her father's money to take an extended honeymoon on the west coast of Ireland. "Meara?" the spindly proprietress of their bed-and-breakfast asked when they gave their last name. "You wouldn't be related to himself now, would you?" Carl surprised Shayna by answering that they would. It was a small village, and once word got out that Niall Meara's son was there on his honeymoon, people stopped charging them for things. Not only did they get their bed and breakfast from Mrs. Riordan, but lunch and dinner as well. Drinks at the pub were on the house (though the barman fretted over Carl's intake affecting his "performance"), and a nearby shearer sent over a scratchy tartan blanket with many happy returns. The local paper took a photo of the newlyweds and wrote a small piece to accompany it, and they were generally assured by all that this was the least the village could do, Niall Meara having brought them so much pleasure over the years.
In the days that followed they froze themselves walking barefoot through the surf, then climbed any number of seaside cliffs to get their circulation back, Carl hauling the blanket over his shoulder. In the tall, fragrant weeds at the top they lay it down, then wrapped themselves tightly inside. The trick, Carl whispered, curved around her back and clearing any unnecessary clothing between them, was to look like they were just resting, like they had nothing to hide. She wore dresses to make things easier for him and, as they lay connected, listened to the hidden rustles of the children who followed them at a distance.
A phone call came as the honeymoon neared its close, and it was with great pride that, upon their return from the cliffs one evening, Mrs. Riordan announced she'd had the privilege of speaking with Niall Meara himself, all the way from Dublin. Carl thanked her for the message then turned to go upstairs. "Are you not going to ring him back?" she called after him, standing beside the telephone table in the foyer, but he ignored her.
In the bedroom, Carl tossed the tartan blanket onto an antique chair and sat down at the edge of their wood-frame bed. He was always a little flushed from their afternoons together, but today it seemed this was more agitation than love. "What should I do?" he asked Shayna, but she couldn't say. She only knew what she hoped he would do, and that might not have been the right answer. "You ring him," Carl said finally.
"Me?" Shayna said.
"Ring him and tell him you're my wife and you're beautiful and you could have had any bloke you wanted and you picked me."
"But I can't do that," she said.
"Well," he said, and he laughed in a choked way she had never heard before. "I guess you were bound to tell me no sometime."
Shayna was instantly stricken, and reached out a hand to steady herself on the bureau. It was a terrible error, a miscalculation. "You have to learn to say no," her housemates had told her back in college, but they were talking about all the strangers whose voices they heard through her door, not Carl, who was slowly making her feel like she could love a man who knew her.
He was on his feet now, taking her elbow and inching her toward the bed. He spent the night apologizing for various perceived infractions, wondering if she was pregnant, and making love to her from the front. In the morning Mrs. Riordan brought them a breakfast tray filled with black-and-white pudding, eggs sunny side up, and tomatoes silken with grease from the frying pan. At the center of the tray--propped against two mugs of steaming tea--was a telegram, something Shayna had never before seen. A smile escaped Carl as his eyes passed over it: READ OF YOUR WEDDING STOP WANT TO THROTTLE YOU FOR NOT TELLING US STOP WANT TO APOLOGIZE FOR BOOK STOP WANT TO KISS YOUR LOVELY BRIDE.
It was decided now that he was a married man, Carl would learn to drive. Mother, as Mrs. Meara instructed Shayna to call her when they hugged at the Dublin airport, would have to do the teaching. "I don't have my license," Niall explained as he drove them all home in a taupe Peugeot, and there was no laughter from the others to indicate this wasn't true.
Shayna sat beside Carl in the backseat of the car, staring at the back of her father-in-law's head. There was a bald spot at the center of it, and a crown of soft brown hair decorating the rim. Because Niall was taller than the rest of them, he drove with his head tilted slightly downward so as to avoid bumping the vinyl ceiling. Over the course of the ride Shayna met his eyes twice in the rearview mirror, each time catching the beginnings of his smile before she quickly turned away.
Mother was heavy and raven-haired like Carl. She wore a silky tank top revealing beautiful, poreless skin at the nape of her neck, and perspired discreetly under her arms. She too was losing her hair, but remained stylishly coiffed that afternoon with the help of ornamental combs and a light spray. "What's your hurry?" she demanded repeatedly of Niall, and he answered her with polite deceleration.
The Mearas lived in South Dublin, in a large brick row house across from the sea. It was a wealthy area, with many of the homes boasting the colorful Georgian doors Shayna had seen on postcards in the airport, and good-sized gardens both in front and back. The driveway Niall pulled into already held a Mercedes, and he didn't seem bothered by the light tap he gave its bumper before turning off the Peugeot. "We won't stay long," Carl suddenly warned his parents.
Once inside the house they separated, embarrassed. Mother headed for the kitchen, which smelled of roasting meat, and Niall for the living room directly off the foyer. Neither of them seemed to want to watch Carl and Shayna ascend the stairs together, Carl's hand resting purposefully on Shayna's bottom.
They stayed in his old bedroom, located directly above the living room and with a full ocean view. Carl got behind the chiffon drapes and opened the tall windows, then swore bitterly at the two twin beds his mother had made up. The walls were decorated with various paintings of Niall--some abstract, some realistic--and carefully Carl took all of these down, leaning them against the wall facing inward.
He unzipped himself then and sat down on an overstuffed chair in the corner, asking Shayna to come sit with him. She found him juvenile, romantic. She appreciated both his initiative and the regularity of his advances. It was becoming addictive, the gentle claim he had laid to her, not having to work so hard to belong to someone else.
Carl's driving lessons took him and Mother away from the house several afternoons a week. Shayna stayed behind as a favor to Carl, who confessed he was embarrassed that she already had her license. "I wouldn't laugh at you," she assured him, and he said he knew that, but didn't want to take any unnecessary chances.
Across the road, Shayna continued the walks along the coast she and Carl had begun on their honeymoon, mindful of Mother's edict that Niall wrote during the day and should not be engaged in conversation, not even if he were to provide an opening remark. She walked to the port where ferries from England docked and departed, noting the silence with which people left the country, the noise upon their return. She waved to strangers as they pulled away, and was even recognized on a couple of occasions as the Yank who had captured Carl Meara. "Will you take a photo?" people asked her, chuckling at how she held out her hand for their cameras instead of joining them for the pose.
Sometimes she ventured inland, buying treats along the way from sandwich shops with enticing window displays, corner markets selling candy bars from England. If her eyes happened to be bigger than her stomach on any given day, she would leave the untouched remainders outside the door of Niall's third-floor study: a sweet cheese bagel from a tiny Jewish bakery, a hunk of soda bread and a peeled tangerine on a tray.
He never mentioned her gifts at dinner. Instead, they all sat together at one end of a long, rectangular table in the dining room, Mother and Carl recounting the adventures of their travels: curvy back roads through County Wicklow, one-way bridges, sheep crossings requiring patience and a true ease with one's clutch. They told about an old farmer who leaned into the car to give them directions, flies swarming about his head and back; an American hitchhiker who spoke perfect Irish.
"When are you going to start showing this girl around?" Niall demanded one evening. He had just finished soaking up the last of his bloody roast beef with a heel of bread, and now punctuated his question by tossing a white serviette on the table.
"First of all," Carl began slowly, preparing to swallow a mouthful of food, "she's not a girl. By no means is she a girl."
"Semantics," Mother said to Shayna, looking to gather consensus.
"Second of all," Carl continued, "don't even think of suggesting I am neglecting my wife. I can assure you, my wife does not feel neglected." He looked to Shayna for confirmation, but she was too embarrassed to answer, worried he was referring to the sexual aspect of their relationship.
"All right, all right," Niall said. "Don't get your knickers in a twist."
"And third of all, you should consider yourselves bloody lucky we're here at all."
"Now hold on just one second!" Mother said, throwing her napkin on the table as well. "What about our excursions? Don't you lump me in with that man." She gestured loosely toward Niall.
"But we do consider ourselves lucky," Niall said quickly, turning first to Carl, then Shayna. "We consider ourselves very lucky. You must know that."
"Naturally," Mother said to no one in particular.
Carl tore into a multigrain roll. "I'll show her around when I get my license," he concluded. "So's I can leave the likes of you two at home."
Niall laughed, followed by Carl, and a reluctant Mother.
"Would you look at that one," Niall said, noting Shayna's own grin. "Silent as the grave, she is."
He winked at her, and she fixed her gaze nervously on the wineglass beside her plate. If she felt neglected it was only by him. That he would not come out of his room.
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