Undertow

map Undertow

by Mary Ann McGuigan

Published in Issue No. 221 ~ October, 2015
Photo by Daniel Cane

Photo by Daniel Cane

They reached the place they started from, the entrance to Renske Hall, and Moira had no reason anymore not to go back to her car. Ryan wasn’t much like the person she remembered. He seemed polished now, careful. And Greg had trouble shutting up. The three had been roaming the campus since the fund-raising meeting ended, feigning interest in how their nondescript inner-city alma mater had grown. Maybe that was all Moira had in common with these two, a degree from a mediocre school that had opened the door to the kind of job that topped out at mid-level and left you wishing you’d tried your luck with a hot dog stand.

The heat made her hair heavy on her back, and her necklace stuck to her skin. The chitchat was getting tiresome, but she didn’t want to be home. She doubted Ken had come through on his promise to get the rest of his stuff out and she knew she’d wind up regretting she hadn’t thrown it all on the lawn. Sean and Michael would be bored with their day by now, and whatever goodwill she’d earned with the new video game was likely used up. Since the separation, each day ended with a silent lamentation, a look on their faces that demanded to know why she hadn’t fixed things yet. And if Sean hadn’t pitched well in his game that afternoon, she’d feel compelled to blame herself for that as well.

Greg was going on about the guy who ran the meeting. “He’s full of shit,” he said. They slowed down and he turned to look at Moira, as if she might disagree. “He told Brightman he did all the communications for the CMC merger. I know the firm that did that work. Mark had nothing to do with it.”

Moira didn’t give a crap what the guy claimed he’d done. She hardly recognized him at the meeting. Even Greg was a cipher to her till he spoke. She had to check his nametag to be sure it was him. “I doubt he was the only one making stuff up,” she said. “It was piling up pretty deep in there.”

Ryan seemed as indifferent about the gathering as she was. She got the sense—maybe because he’d arrived so late and had so little to say—that he’d been pressured to come. Maybe he had connections that could raise money. The family of a classmate who’d been killed trying to climb the Himalayas wanted to establish a scholarship in his name. She remembered him, clumsy fool to the end.

“Why don’t we see if the lit office is still open?” said Ryan, meaning the hangout and headquarters of Undertow, the college’s sad little literary magazine. “It was in the middle of this block.”

Moira agreed. She’d worn heels and was ready to sit for a while. She couldn’t figure out why her two companions had signed up for the committee, maybe just hoping to get lucky. She wasn’t sure why she had either. The invitation to join would normally have gone into the trash, as did nearly every letter the school sent. But this one arrived only a month after Ken moved out, on a day with too many things to do. It felt like a dare, like a game online she could play incognito. She was never by herself anymore, but she knew how alone she was. She avoided her friends. She’d become their poster child for abandonment. At a loss for a way to explain a world where a cheating husband came out victorious, they had resorted to greeting cards offering butterflies and wild flowers and messages imagining brighter days to come. Except they wouldn’t. Not at her age. Not when your understudy was a college girl, and you were left wondering how you could have botched the job so badly.

Ryan led the way. This had been his turf. He’d been editor their junior and senior years and people said he crashed at the lit office now and then. But everybody did. It was the place they wound up the night she was with him—a night she always tried not to think about, as if she’d bungled something and didn’t know quite how. She watched him walk into the meeting and wondered if he wrote fiction anymore. Or was it poetry? She never bothered with it herself now. She thought of it as a persona she’d tried on, a costume.

“It’s open. Which means no one’s in there,” Ryan said, pleased that some traditions, at least, had lasted.

The place looked as if the occupants had had to evacuate mid-way through an attempt to outdrink each other. Paper cups were everywhere, softened by stale beer and rancid wine, no more than pools now for soggy cigarette butts. One cup sat on a laptop’s keyboard, tipped against the monitor.

“Just like old times,” Ryan said. Moira laughed, though she hadn’t come here nearly as much as he had. Maybe Greg had been a regular. He flopped onto the beat-up leather couch as if he belonged. The mainstay among the Undertow’s literati had been followers of safe bets like Larry Levis, although a few on the fringe pretended to decipher the Language poets. Greg didn’t seem like either type. Whatever he was then, he looked as homogenized now as Ryan, in their khakis and sports jackets. Moira had opted for a skirt. Very snug, a look she rarely chose. The mirror reassured her that it wasn’t that far over the top, but it made her wonder who she was anymore without her business suit or loose-fitting sweats. She couldn’t remember the last time it mattered to anyone but a client how she looked.

She wondered what Greg and Ryan’s daily uniforms were. They could have been mailmen for all she knew. She had arrived late, missed most of the greetings and catch-up. Ryan showed up even later. He was the brighter of the two, not as talkative.

Greg moved some stray copies of Undertow aside to make a place for Moira on the couch next to him. He thumbed through one, then stopped to read something. Ryan sat at the desk. It was daylight but the shades were drawn and the ceiling light was flickering through the last stages of a slow death. Except for the abandoned drinks, the room was in every way cerebral. Books—too many for the shelves to hold—were piled on chairs and tucked into crevices, some stacked tall enough to block half the window. Years of posters were layered on the walls in a haphazard montage of writers and rock stars and political slogans.

“Some of this isn’t that bad,” Greg said.

“Give it here,” said Ryan, and Greg tossed him a copy.

“Check out ‘Testament,’” said Greg.

Moira looked at each of them, comparing, wondering. No wedding rings, no spreading middles, thinning hair, but not badly. She’d never done this, calculated this way, but this whole encounter seemed artificial, as if they were cardboard cut outs, stand ins for their former selves. She wondered what turned them on, now that they weren’t boys anymore. But maybe that never changed. It hadn’t in her marriage. The closest they’d come to candor was Ken’s confession about wanting her to wear knee socks.

“A Heaney knockoff,” said Ryan, tossing the journal onto the desk. His expression made her remember how he’d scared her off when they were in school. He’d behaved as if he were certain of things, certain of her. And it made her feel she had deceived him somehow.

“Good enough for me,” laughed Greg.

Ryan said, “So the work your friend did for CMC, is that what you do? Communications?”

“Oh, let’s not do that,” Moira cut in, because she didn’t want to know. Career moves, smart or otherwise, invariably revealed the worst in people. And it wouldn’t take much for her to lose interest in this tryst.

“What? Talk shop?” said Ryan.

“Talk anything. Anything about whatever boxes we’re in.”

“You got my vote,” said Greg. That didn’t surprise Moira. Given his reaction to Mark, she already had him pegged as professionally bruised.

“So no specifics about what we do nine to five?”

“Or after,” she said.

“We can make it a game, try and figure it out,” said Greg.

“Or not,” said Moira. Why did people insist on knowing things that couldn’t matter?

“Well, you’ve got a wedding ring on,” he said to her. “So we know that much.”

“Maybe,” she said. “Some people wear them when they don’t want to be approached in that way.” She’d worn hers only because its absence might have made people wonder.

“Or when they do,” said Ryan.

Moira didn’t respond to that. She had looked him up on Facebook several years ago, for no reason really, except that he’d remained in her mind like something nagging, like a question never asked. It seemed he wasn’t very active on the site, which she was glad about. She didn’t want to think of him posting updates on his feelings for the day. But the Facebook searches were over now, an escape hatch she’d jump into when her marriage first started to unravel, a way to pretend she had options. She didn’t want Ryan to get the wrong idea now, didn’t want to have to explain herself, so she smiled at him as if she had nothing to hide.

“I’m betting they still keep some wine under the couch cushions,” said Ryan.

Greg rummaged under Moira’s cushion, making her smile, and came up with a pint of whiskey, only half gone. “Jackpot,” he said.

“Very Old Barton,” said Ryan. “Nothing changes.”

Cups were nowhere, but Greg wasn’t waiting for one anyway. He removed the cap and took a mouthful. “Madame,” he said, offering the bottle.

“Don’t mind if I do.”

She hated the taste, but it was fun. And they laughed at the face she made as it went down. Ryan took his turn quickly and it was back to her without much ceremony. It was easier to swallow this time, and her performance earned her a round of applause. “Well done,” said Ryan. She tried to pass on the third round but they scolded her, so she obliged.

They talked about music, about the school, the way it was in the ’90s, drank more. Moira didn’t feel drunk, but she was happier than she had any reason to be. She was here with two people who’d become strangers, nothing at stake. And that suited her.

Ryan was up, perusing book titles. He picked up a volume of Ginsberg and stood still, absorbed. Greg cradled the bottle, telling Moira about a movie whose title he couldn’t remember. She tried to listen, took her shoes off. Then Ryan held one hand up as if everything needed to stop, as if he understood something now and they should too. “Cezanne’s Ports,” he said. “Of course. That’s it.” He looked at Moira. “Listen,” he said, and read her the poem.

 

Ryan’s voice had just the right attitude, the right mix of curiosity and conviction. Moira closed her eyes, remembering how intense he could be, how easily he’d miss the point. She had sent him a postcard from Spain after graduation—almost a year after they’d been together—an impulsive, urgent note filled with feelings he must have suspected would cool by the time they crossed the ocean. Six months later he sent her a poetry journal containing a poem of his about longing. She tossed it.

Greg was sitting closer now, a distraction. She leaned forward to push her shoes aside and he moved his hand down the length of her spine until it rested on her bottom, like a question. It felt as shocking as a burn, as if pain would follow immediately. Instead a sharp excitement registered, as thrilling as it was repulsive. If she’d turned and looked at him then, she was sure he would have removed his hand, but she didn’t. So he left it there.

She imagined what she and Ryan must have looked like together on this couch fifteen years before, beauty taken for granted. But that wasn’t part of this canvas. They were in that directionless state now, no longer fresh but not quite dulled, when the only thing to do is mimic who you were before. Ryan kept reading. But Greg wanted his attention, asked him something about football, about how the Giants looked, a question meant to exclude her, she thought, meant to draw Ryan away from the poem. Greg had lots to say about what kind of season the Giants would have and as Moira browsed through an issue of Undertow open on her lap, he moved his hand to the narrow space between them, explored the fabric of her skirt, which she hadn’t bothered to keep from riding up. Crossing her legs raised the skirt higher, and he touched the skin she exposed.

She sensed Ryan was watching them now and she looked up from the magazine, made sure he was looking at her, then slowly uncrossed her legs. The decision made her stomach loosen. Everything loosened. Greg understood, shifted position so he could reach under her skirt. His fingers felt warm, deliberate. This is it, she thought. We won’t pretend that anything matters.

The football talk stopped, and Ryan came and knelt in front of her, slipped the magazine off her lap and held her chin up, making her look at him, said her name. She didn’t want that. She undid a button on her blouse, the one that mattered most, the way a rodeo clown distracts the bull. But it didn’t work. He kissed her on the mouth, slow, and she had to keep her mind from racing toward beginnings, promises. He felt real. She almost forgot about Greg, until he was impossible to ignore. “You’re wet,” he said, as if he’d discovered she wasn’t a mannequin, and it made her angry because that’s what she wanted to be, an avatar. She pushed Greg’s hand away, closed her legs. “There’s no foolin you, Sherlock.”

Ryan stood up, maybe sensing what was about to happen.

Moira rose, put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder to steady herself and got into her shoes.

“What the fuck?” said Greg.

“Where’s that Ginsberg?” said Moira. She found the book on the desk and tossed it at Ryan. “This guy was always a trouble maker.”

She left without looking at either of them. Outside, it was almost dark. She tried to walk quickly, but she rarely wore heels and her balance was off. She felt heavy, tired of losing. She couldn’t picture which street the school’s new parking lot was on, but at the corner she let instinct take over and turned left.

“Where are you going?” It was Ryan, just a step or two behind her.

She turned. Caught off guard, she almost smiled but then assumed he’d only come looking for more. She wondered why it took men so long to see when things were broken. “Back,” she said, and then laughed at how that sounded. “Back home, I mean.” They really should keep that door locked, she thought. After a moment, she hoped she hadn’t said it out loud.

“The parking lot’s the other way. I’ll walk you.”

He took her elbow, and the gesture made her think of novels by Edith Wharton, where gentlemen pretended to be kind. She tried to read his face but couldn’t be sure of anything. “Listen,” she said. “Back there, I—”

“Be quiet,” he told her. “You’re in no shape to be alone.”

 

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Mary Ann McGuigan’s short fiction has appeared in The Sun, Image, Grist, Perigee, and other literary magazines. Her young-adult novels, one a finalist for the National Book Award, have been ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her latest novel is Crossing Into Brooklyn. To learn more about Mary Ann’s fiction, visit www.maryannmcguigan.com.