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Vol. 4, No. 2

Lass
by Alicia Erian

~

Carl did not show Shayna around after getting his license. Instead, he explained to her that touring the countryside with his mother had led him to conclude he could never return to a land so vile as England, and that somehow he would have to make his own way at home. He proceeded to rehang all the paintings of his father in their bedroom--done by various artist friends--then sit on the twin beds he had pushed together and study each of them intently, trying to pick a style he felt most capable of emulating. He had not previously taken art classes, but was certain some kind of creative gene must run through him, and that the fine arts were as good a place as any to try and locate it.

At first he attempted nude portraits of Shayna, but had difficulty with the human form and could not restrain himself from interacting with his subject. Landscapes were easier, but only when she was not lying lazily beside him in the grass, her summer clothing shifting this way and that. He feared he would have to do this alone, he told her, and suggested that since they had settled on staying, Shayna should start searching for her own talent. She had sewn buttons and tears in his clothing quite impressively, Carl offered, so why not apprentice herself with a seamstress, or even a costume designer at the Abbey? She agreed this was a good idea and dressed herself one morning to look professional, though she never made it out the door. As she was gathering her résumé in the bedroom, Niall summoned her from the third floor, gave her a typing test, and immediately hired her as his secretary.

 

~

He had begun a new book about a beautiful mute who falls in love with a concert violinist. He wrote everything out in longhand on yellow legal pads, and it was Shayna's job as his secretary to type this into his computer, correcting any spelling or grammatical errors she found along the way. She found none.
    They worked together in his office on the third floor, she at a table facing the paneled back wall, he at a desk overlooking the sea. Because they sat with their backs to one another she could not see him, and so often worried where his eyes fell in those moments when the scratch of his fountain pen subsided. She began sitting up straighter in her chair and, in the mornings, meticulously styling the hair at the back of her head.
    Sometimes Niall laughed covetously over what he had written, other times he cursed his inactivity lyrically, poetically, as if to prove he had not lost all command of language. Occasionally he would write very, very quickly, and these passages were always the most difficult for Shayna to decipher the following day. Even in the privileged position as his secretary, she continued to find his work dull.
    They broke for lunch daily at one. At first she retreated to her bedroom, leaving Niall to eat with Mother in the kitchen. Shayna used this time to examine any new work Carl had left behind, with notes attached, such as "Credible resemblance to poplar?" or "Superfluous orange? Please advise." He often left the house before dawn to take advantage of the morning light, which he described as "fundamental" and "shattering." He felt similarly about sunset and so rarely returned home before eight or nine o'clock. Then he wanted to make up for lost time and so kept Shayna in bed with him for the rest of the evening, encouraging her not to stifle her noises, particularly when he had a sense of Niall in the living room below, reading one of his literary journals from America.
    Then one afternoon, after returning to the office, Niall asked Shayna, "Is there some reason you won't join Mother and me for lunch?"
    The answer was that Shayna felt Mother was on to her; understood her daughter-in-law was capable of loving her son and coveting her husband, all in one breath.
    "I'm asking you a direct question, Shayna," Niall said, impatient. "Maybe Carl prefers the silent type but I'm perfectly happy to have you exhibit symptoms of a personality."
    "I have an answer," she said dimly, looking around the room at more glaring portraits of him, framed book jackets, the antique bric-a-brac Mother must have had a hand in. They were both standing by their respective chairs, she and Niall, and now he sat down in his, eyes still pinned on her. Finally she told him she was trying to give him and Mother some time alone.
    He laughed. "Do Mother and I seem like we need time alone? I don't think so. Really, Shayna. All those days out there "--he gestured toward his window and the shore beyond--" pacing the country and looking positively enlightened, and this is the dreck you're storing upstairs?" He tapped the side of his head with his index finger.
    She cried instantly, which seemed to make him happy. "Here," he said, removing a kerchief from his corduroy pants pocket. "These are Mother's idea. I'm supposed to offer them to ladies in distress."
    Shayna came forward and took the pressed linen cloth from him.
    "Are you in distress?" he asked her.
    She blew her nose.
    "Who taught you to be quiet?" he said.
    "I did," she said.
    "That's a lie," he said, and he picked up his yellow pad and began scribbling.
    The next day she followed him downstairs for lunch. Mother said it was delightful to see Shayna, then spoke to Niall in Irish for the better part of an hour. Later, back in his office, he said he would be happy to translate every word if Shayna thought she had any interest in Mother's recollection of a phone call with her eye doctor.
    "Will Mother's vision be all right?" Shayna asked Niall, and he laughed, declaring her manners "novel."
    More and more, Shayna spoke. She told Niall about the night she first met Carl, how he had refused to take off his jacket, saying it was the only thing protecting Shayna from his stomach. She remembered a small, green leaf in his hair. She even talked a little about college, and the anthropology teacher who had called Shayna her most promising student in years.
    "Do you read my books?" Niall asked.
    "No," she said plainly, causing him infinite delight.
    He asked her other questions which she could not answer: Why don't your parents ever call here? Does my son plan to take you out of this house? Where did you get that scar on your back?

Unlikely sounds were beginning to emanate from his study, they both knew: a ballet of office chairs squeaking across planked floors, the unbecoming giggles of a grown man, loud conspicuous silences during which nothing--neither Niall's fountain pen, nor Shayna's manicured nails across the keyboard--moved. One day Mother took a broom handle to the ceiling below them, like a disgruntled neighbor too lazy--or afraid--to make the trip upstairs. "Make some noise will you, so I know you're still alive!" she demanded. She was right to disturb them. Though nothing official had yet taken place, they had begun contemplating zippers, buttons, hooks and eyes. Unabashed stares passed between them. With increasing frequency, they spent their afternoons in the same chair.

 

~

Carl took Shayna to a pub in town one night to show her off to his old college mates. She wore a black summer dress and he a fine linen shirt given to him by Mother, who had recently put herself in charge of his new style. For painting had somehow caused Carl to lose weight--had given him a marvelous tan--and friends and strangers alike told him what a handsome figure he cut.
    Shayna had previously talked some politics with Niall, and so took the opportunity that night to repeat much of what he believed to Carl's friends, who instantly pronounced her a genius. Later, having missed the last bus, Carl led her inside the stone walls of Trinity College and onto a green littered with several anonymous couples. There, with very little moon to expose them, they performed something so expert and efficient, it would appear not to have happened at all.
    During the two-hour walk home, Shayna took the opportunity to reveal to Carl that she believed him to be talented, and he said it had to be true, didn't it, since he had never once heard her compliment anyone before. He had no urge to go inside when they finally arrived home. "Sit with me on the beach," he begged her, tugging lightly at the fabric of her dress. "I like the sound of your voice."
    They stayed out all night, discussing his paintings, his father's new book, their recent cessation of any contraception. They watched the sun come up and Carl described the different shades of orange and yellow passing over Shayna's face, telling her exactly how much yellow, red, and white it would take to recreate from a tube. "Do you like Dublin?" he asked her hopefully. She nodded and reminded him of something one of his friends had insisted upon earlier that night, that you couldn't walk through the city center without running into someone you knew. "I want to stay here until that happens to me," she said.
    At a little after six, Niall brought them mugs of tea and asked how his son planned to paint that day, having had no rest the night before. Carl assured him it could be done and left immediately to get cleaned up. Niall, still standing, claimed the vacant spot beside Shayna, and she cuffed an arm around his ankle. "And how about you?" he asked her, looking down. "How do you plan to be my secretary today?"
    But she was not his secretary. He had never once paid her, and there had not been work for days.

 

~

An hour later Mother had French toast sizzling on the griddle, and the four of them ate together at the round, mosaic-topped kitchen table. Mother had recently hung many of Carl's paintings in the living room in anticipation of a party she had planned for that evening. It was an occasion both for Carl to reacquaint himself with his parents' artist friends and for Mother to ascertain whether or not his talent was too big for Dublin. On this point Niall, who was careful to agree that Carl's talent was indeed large, begged to differ, saying an Irishman with talent belonged strictly to Ireland. Of course, of course, Mother agreed, but how about some formal training in Florence or Paris first? Paris, after all, where Shayna could be closer to her father.
    Now Mother wanted to know everyone's plans for the day, saying her caterer and the maid would not appreciate stragglers underfoot. "I'm painting," Carl said, downing his third cup of tea.
    "We're writing," Niall said, nodding toward Shayna.
    Mother, who was still wearing her cooking apron, raised an eyebrow. "Is that so, missus? You're a writer now, too?"
    Shayna shook her head.
    "Of course not," Mother said. "You're the muse, I gather. You inspire."

"Does she inspire you, Da?" Carl asked his father.

"She types," Niall said. "She's a brilliant typist, and she catches all my mistakes. If that isn't inspiration, I don't know what is."
    "Then I guess you don't know what is," Carl said, pushing his chair away from the table.
    "She's quiet anyway," Mother said warily.
    "No she's not," Carl and Niall said at the same time, and it was embarrassing to them all that Shayna should have become the center of attention.
    Later in his study, Niall and Shayna stood side by side looking out the window at the shore. The water was gray from nearby harbor traffic but the sun shone down on it nonetheless, as if to assure them that even the polluted was worthy of a little beauty.
    All at once Shayna's fatigue struck, and she leaned into Niall, who made no immediate move for her in return. Instead he spoke quietly, asking which pub she had gone to the night before, how she had found Carl's mates, did she know she still carried the sea in her hair? She answered him carefully, thoroughly, relieved that she was capable of doing so after her silence at breakfast. When he too was satisfied that the girl he liked best had not vanished, he suggested they get out of Mother's way and go swimming. Did she know how, he wondered? Did she have togs, healthy lungs, the appropriate amount of body fat to protect her from the chill of the Irish Sea? She let him pinch her waist gently, then hug her, then pull her onto his lap. There he petted and kissed her, murmuring over how soft she was, how tidily she fit across his legs. She could feel him beneath her but he seemed disinterested in garnering any personal attention, catching her wrist as she reached for his trousers. "Never mind that," he whispered, as if he had become a nuisance to himself, as if right and wrong still existed between them.

 

~

The Peugeot curved along the Vico Road, bordered on one side by rocky cliffs leading down to the sea, and on the other by higher cliffs into which pale, glass-fronted homes were intermittently pressed. At the top of a rise, Niall pulled onto the shoulder beside a pea-green sign reading NO SWIMMING. The wind forced tall weeds against his and Shayna's bare legs as they stepped from the car, and flattened their T-shirts against their chests. "Here?" she asked him, unsure of how they would make their way down to the water, while Niall offered his hand.

They helped each other over a waist-high concrete barrier once designed to keep people from irradiating themselves in the contaminated sea (though Niall assured Shayna the danger had long since passed), and descended rocks so civilized as to hint at being stairs. They dug the heels of their tennis shoes into slippery patches of peat, braved the odd crevasse, and, when all else failed, encouraged one another to jump. Always Niall went first, testing each step, instructing Shayna on how to avoid the scratches and bruises he had sustained at the helm. They traveled too slowly, too cautiously. It was a journey fraught with the minor yet repeated heartache of having to drop hands each time the terrain forced them more than an arm's length apart.

At last they reached a plateau littered with towels, apple cores, and a few sleeping sunbathers. To their right was a small cave painted thick with graffiti--a changing room, Niall informed Shayna--while further below an old metal diving board jutted out over water so wrongfully green that surely it must still have held chemicals.
    "Niall Meara!" a man with a silver schnauzer called out.
    Niall waved but did not approach the man. "Do you know him?" Shayna asked.
    He shrugged and dropped her hand. "It's possible."
    On a nearby rock, they laid out the towels they had been carrying around their necks. Niall stripped down to a yellow Speedo with a small black emblem, then removed a pair of doughy-looking plugs from his shorts and stuffed them in his ears.
    "Take them out," Shayna said, worried he would not be able to hear her should she decide to speak, and after briefly considering this request, he did.
    Shayna's own swimsuit was a plain black one-piece with thin straps that crisscrossed in the back. Before meeting Carl she had swum almost every day at an indoor pool in London, dizzying herself both from exercise and routine collisions with the concrete at either end of her lane.
    "There it is," Niall said, pointing. "That's where we're headed." Shayna followed his index finger out across the water until she saw the peninsula, a cliff crumbling bit by bit into the sea. "Think you can make it?" he asked.
    She nodded. It was no more than an hour's swim away.
    "Mother never had any trouble," he said.
    "What's Mother's name?" Shayna asked.
    Niall looked at her, confused. "Kathleen," he said, turning back to the peninsula now, scanning it from left to right as he would a line of text. "Kathleen Sleeth," he added.
    "Oh," she said.
    "My God," he said, shaking his head sadly as he walked off toward the diving board. "I'd nearly forgotten."
    Once there he tested the spring, shook his arms out like a competitor, and reached down to touch his hands to his toes. There was not a wrinkle on him, Shayna noted, though he was easily sixty. The casual atrophy of his muscles hinted gracefully at his former physique. Shayna couldn't see the bathers beneath him, but their calls of Niall Meara! Brace yourself, Niall Meara! The water's bloody freezing! rang in clearly at the shore.
    He looked back at her once before executing a clean dive. Shayna then made her way toward a mossy rock beneath the diving board from which she planned to push off, all the while listening to scattered applause for Niall's performance. When she reached the rock, she saw him treading water near a small group of young women. "What's your latest book about then?" one of them asked him. She pronounced book to rhyme with spook.

"It's a romance," Niall told her, fixing his gaze on Shayna, who had yet to submerge herself. "Something for the ladies."

"Well that's grand," the woman said, following Niall's eyes to the shore when he failed to make polite eye contact with her.
    "My daughter-in-law," he explained.
    The woman nodded then quickly rejoined her friends. Niall began swimming backward then, away from the shore, away from Shayna. She panicked and quickly thrust herself forward into the water.
    It was very, very cold. Immediately Shayna felt injured and in need of medical care, but she pushed on toward Niall, who was putting greater and greater distance between them. She thought of the parents in the swimming pool in London, always moving backward through the water with their arms extended, in an effort to get their kids to swim just a little bit farther. And soon she began to feel grateful, for her desperate strokes had begun to warm first her extremities, then the cushy parts of her that were less temperature-sensitive. She had still not caught up to Niall, but was satisfied to have at least cut his lead.
    All the while he kept his eyes on her as they swam, smiling sometimes, or spouting water from his lips. Shayna alternated strokes, showing off, silently daring him not to compliment her abilities when they reached the peninsula. Fish slithered between her feet and she did not scream. Her swimsuit abandoned her in several places, and she didn't bother to fix it.
    Niall reached the shore first, but by the time he had calculated the sequence of rocks that would lead them out of the water, Shayna was beside him, pinching mucus from her nose. "Most impressive," he told her before heaving himself onto land. He then turned and offered his hand, pulling her up with a rush of ocean. It was afternoon and she understood they would find a place to be private.
    Niall led Shayna carefully over fallen boulders, continuing to warn her that he had just stubbed his toe, or to mind any particularly large gaps. They traveled partway up the jagged ramp of the cliff, then down again into a hollow of geometric stone, a place where the sun still reached, but not likely the human eye. It was clearly a popular place--filled with bottles, cans, wrappers, cigarette butts, used condoms--and Niall breathed a sigh of relief to find it empty. He declared with utter certainty that the closest person to them right now was at least an hour away.
    Here, on a flat rock made smooth by previous visitors--including, Shayna supposed, Niall and Mother--he was comfortable kissing her, holding her in his lap, rearranging her bathing suit so that it covered the delicate parts of her. "No," she said, not wanting to be covered, but he insisted, and she knew this was as close as he would allow himself to get.
    Later he found the scar on her shoulder, the one her summer dresses sometimes revealed: a slim, raised sickle. "Who made this?" he asked again, running his fingers over it carefully. "I did," she said, and before he could tell her she was lying, she described an aftermath on a fraternity-room floor, a broken bottle she had rolled onto as she patted the rug for her blouse.
    They sat together for a long time after that, until their swimsuits dried and their skin temperatures elevated. Beneath her, Niall hardened and softened, and she felt unsure of who she was if she wasn't there to relieve him. But she did not try, instead studying him closely: the sleepy eyes, the slightly barreled chest, the old-man fingernails splayed across her legs.
    As the sun began its descent into the west, Niall jerked awake. "I can't go back in," he suddenly confessed to her, his ears alert to the encroaching tide. "I've lost my tolerance and I can't go back in." He was calm again in an instant, but for the dark moment that had just passed she whispered assurances of warm water, and kissed him everywhere she could think that was decent.

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