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Authors: Luanne Rice

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BOOK: How We Started
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“You should see it there,” he said. “Ponds, woods, cliffs. Lots of different birds—not just sparrows and pigeons, like here.”

“What kinds?” I asked. He had my full attention now.

“Every kind,” he said. “Cardinals, finches, hawks, whip-poor-wills, warblers.”

“I didn't know you liked birds.”

“Yeah,” he said, staring at me. It's weird; I still remember the feeling, as if his gaze were a laser, and he could see everything I was thinking. We were two bird lovers up in a tree, and we'd just saved a sparrow.

“Clare!” my mother called. She and Anne were back, standing at the foot of the tree. My thirteen-year-old sister, the school beauty, grinned up at me in a way she never had before, and I knew it had to do with Paul, not the bird.

Suddenly I felt embarrassed. I started down the tree, scrambling away from him with speed I didn't know I had. There was a long drop from the bottom branch to the ground. Next thing I knew, he dropped straight past me, landed on his feet, and reached up to grab my ankles as I let myself down, crashing into him as we fell into a heap. He held my hand to help me up.

“Sorry,” I said, but I was too rattled to look at him.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Well, thank you for breaking her fall, Paul,” my mother said.

“She would have done fine without me,” he said.

“Where's the baby bird?” my mother asked, a little sharply. “Are you going to tell me it
flew
back to its nest?”

“Paul put him back,” I said. Saying his name made my face hot, a brand-new, wicked, and exciting sensation.

“Way to go, Traynor!” Anne said.

My mother shot me an unusual Mom-look, and it gave me a sharp feeling of wishing for something I didn't usually have. Sometimes Anne said she was like a mother imitating being a mother—it came from her being so absorbed with our father and his waywardness. Our mother knew the words but not the music: like it was classic New York City mothering to forbid touching a filthy city bird. Seeing that glint in her eyes, knowing that she realized I was a bird girl and had to save the baby sparrow made me think she knew me better than I'd thought.

“Who wants an ice cream?” my mother asked. “Paul, I'm treating. Just go wash your hands first. You can use our garden hose.”

“That's all right,” he said. “I already had one. Thanks though.”

But he waited while I crossed West Twenty-Second Street and rinsed my hands off with the hose we used to water the roses and boxwood hedge. My eyes stung, and I was glad he couldn't see. Sun dappled through the trees that lined the street and made patches of gold on the sidewalk and our wide steps. When I looked over, the sun was in my eyes, but I knew he was watching me. Anne ran across the street.

“You should thank me,” she said.

“Why?”

“You think I really wanted an ice cream? I was just trying to get Mom out of there so you could do what you had to do.”

“Rescue the bird? Thanks.”

“No, idiot. Meet your future husband.”

“You're crazy, I'm never getting married, and besides, you didn't even know he was going to ride his bike over.”

“I heard his bike, Mrs. Paul Traynor,” she said. “You'll thank me some day.”

“He's going out with Lynn.”

“Not for long,” Anne said.

We crossed the street, and now it was even harder to look at Paul. My stomach was doing flips, and the last thing I wanted was ice cream. But my mother bought me one anyway, and I ate it there on the street, thinking about what my sister had said.

What Happened Next

He didn't break up with Lynn. They kept going out in an eleven-year-old way, which entailed her wearing his clunky chrome link bracelet and sitting together but not talking at lunch. Lynn's blond hair, cute turned-up nose, and flirty laugh made me feel ugly, and I figured Paul's and my time in the tree was a coincidence having to do with his interest in birds, not in me.

But when we were thirteen, and he'd broken up with Lynn to go out with Patty Colby, he asked me to be his science partner. It was February, and we decided to write a report about migratory and winter resident water birds that frequented the ramshackle piers along the Hudson River from Fourteenth to Twenty-third Streets.

These piers were where the ship carrying many of the
Titanic
survivors had berthed after the disaster, and we felt their ghosts nearby as we crouched on crumbling wood-and-iron pilings to observe buffleheads, cormorants, common mergansers, and ruddy ducks fishing the brackish water.

“Hear that?” he asked, pointing out the jetty creak beneath us.

“Yes,” I said. “It's the spirit of Mrs. Astor telling us it's freezing and we should go home.”

The sun had started setting across the river, behind the buildings of Hoboken. It cast eerie burnished light on the Hudson, clogged with big chunks of ice drifting down from the north.

“They're still feeding,” he said, nodding at the rafts of birds. “We should stay till they stop.”

My teeth were chattering, and I was shivering so hard I felt like I could fall into the water. But there was no way I was going to let Paul see weakness, so I hunkered down, attempted to make myself as compact as possible, and watched a merganser descended into the darkly golden water come up twenty yards away. I struggled to write the observation in my notebook, but my frozen fingers were as stiff as clothespins, and I dropped my pen into the river.

“Way to pollute the water,” Paul said.

“Maybe you should dive in and get it,” I said.

“Yeah. I think I'd better do that,” he said.

He pretended to unzip his jacket, but I stopped him. When he looked down at my hand on his chest, I immediately pulled away. My nose was running, and I was sure my face was bright red. I'd jammed a yellow beret over my ears, and tufts of black hair had fallen loose. I felt like a clown. I thought of Patty Colby, his beautiful, sophisticated, always perfectly groomed girlfriend, and felt even worse.

“You're really cold,” he said.

“A little.”

“Here.” He unwound the navy blue wool scarf from his neck and wrapped it around mine, tucking the ends into my jacket. The fabric was warm from his skin, and even though his black leather gloves made him clumsy, I'd never been touched that way before, and I had to bite my lip to keep from gasping.

We stayed on the icy pier another half hour, until it was too dark to see. He walked me home, and although the temperature was falling by the minute, I wanted the block-and-a-half walk to last forever. We stopped by my stoop under the streetlight.

He looked up at the windows, warmly lit behind the lace curtains. Smoke curled from our chimney, and I knew my mother had the fireplaces going. As always, some part of my mind wondered whether my father would be home that night, as I was wishing our family could be a way it never had and never would be.

“It looks nice,” he said, nodding toward my house.

I hesitated for a moment. I wanted to ask him in but felt embarrassed about my father. If he was home, he'd be too friendly and jolly, and gesturing with his cigarette as he told inappropriate stories to get Paul to think he was a great guy. And if he wasn't home, there would be a pall over the house, the tension that came from my mother, Anne, and me waiting for the phone to ring or the door to open, my father reporting in or showing up with some lie about where he'd been. But I didn't want Paul to leave.

“Do you want to come in?” I asked.

“You mean now?”

“No, tomorrow. Yes, now. We could work on our report.” Usually we sat in an empty classroom or sometimes the library. We'd never been in either of each other's homes, but that wasn't unusual. He was a boy.

“Or maybe you've got to get back for dinner,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“No one fixes dinner,” he said. “I'll get a slice on the way.”

“What about your mom?”

“She's into her wine,” he said.

We never talked about our families. A lot of people in our neighborhood drank, and it might be whispered about after church or at the bodega, but no one ever said it straight out. I stared at him, eyes stinging in the biting wind.

“My father stays out,” I heard myself say. “He says he's working late, but he's not.”

“What is he doing?”

“He has affairs.”

“My dad did too, before she kicked him out.”

“Your father doesn't live with you?” I asked. Kids at school and people at church whispered about Paul's parents.

“No,” he said. “But it's okay. It's better this way.”

We were standing so near to each other, I could feel the white vapor of his breath, felt drawn by energy pouring off him. We leaned closer but did not touch. Taxis and Jersey commuters sped up Tenth Avenue; the bus rumbled by. Bare branches clicked overhead and in the cement park across the street, where we'd saved the baby sparrow two years earlier.

I thought of my father and his handsome face and expensive suits and tweed jackets. I thought of his Cadillac and Mark Cross briefcase, and how he'd given Anne and me birthstone rings, and how he promised we'd get Burke family crest gold rings when we turned twenty-one, and how he'd given my mother a necklace with a diamond-and-ruby cross, and how I hated that jewelry because it felt like nothing but a payoff to make us forget he loved other women more than us.

I wanted my father to be better. I stared at Paul, and knowing his family was something like ours made me feel brave for a minute. His closeness made me forget, just for a second, the constant longing for my father that I felt at all times. Anne suffered from his absence too, but she killed the pain by making boys fall in love with her. Poor Harrison Thaxter. He wound up getting kicked out of Groton, then Deerfield, all in the cause of pursuing Anne. She hated herself for it—I know she did. Her penance was remaining friends with him—something she rarely did with boys—and writing him letters at Avon Old Farms, his latest school.

“Don't go inside,” Paul said, and I felt shocked when he reached for my hand.

“What would we do?” I managed to say.

“Go to Central Park,” he said. “There's this place I know; it's out of the wind and pretty warm, and if we're lucky, we'll see the owls.”

By then I'd spent time in the park with Anne—but not in the winter and never at night. Now she was too busy for me, currently involved with Charlie Grant, Harrison's old roommate from Groton. I couldn't swear that there wasn't the tiniest glimmer of intention to torture Harrison, but I hoped there was not. I glanced at our front windows, feeling torn. My mother was expecting me home for dinner. The rule was “home by dark,” and I was already half an hour late.

“You want to,” he said. His eyes held me with a wicked intensity, daring me.

I nodded because I couldn't speak. What was going on here? I'd never told anyone outside the family about my father. Paul was staring at me as if he could read my thoughts, and I didn't even care.

“So, come on,” he said.

Was looking for owls and adding those sightings to our report the reason he wanted to go? He had a girlfriend. I was just his science partner. But if that was true, why was he slowly putting his arms around me, bending his head so his lips met mine?

Our first kiss. His lips were cold, but they parted and I felt his tongue hot on mine, like lighting a match and setting my blood on fire. I clung to him because my legs were shaking, my whole body trembling.

I heard the front door open, and we pulled back just before my mother stepped onto the top step.

“Dinner's ready, Clare,” she said. “Hello, Paul.”

“Hi, Mrs. Burke,” he said.

“Mom, can we”—I hesitated, but the lie came easily—“go to the library to keep working on our report?”

“Not tonight,” she said. “Come inside.”

I heard everything in the weary tone of her voice: my father wasn't home. I felt sad and embarrassed that she hadn't invited Paul to dinner. When I looked at him, he smiled.

I tried to smile back, but it wasn't happening. Would he get a slice of pizza, take the subway to the park? He had no idea how much I wanted to go with him, and there was no way I could say it out loud. I started to take his scarf off, to give it back to him, but he stopped me.

“Keep it,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“You need it to stay warm,” he said.

He walked away before I could force him to take it. I barely slept that night, a combination of reliving our kiss and worrying about him freezing while he searched for owls in Central Park.

The next day in school I wore his scarf over my uniform. I couldn't wait for study hall, so he could tell me whether he'd seen owls. But when I got to our study table, he told me he hadn't gone uptown after all.

“So you went home?” I asked.

“I went to Patty's house,” he said.

“Oh.” My stomach sank I'd been awake all night imagining something that wasn't there. I stared down at the oak table, focusing on swirls in the wood grain so he wouldn't see the look on my face.

“To break up with her,” he said.

It took me a long time to raise my eyes. We sat there, not speaking in words. Even at thirteen we were learning how to read each other. He gave me his bracelet that day, but my hand was too small, and it slipped off, so I kept it in my pocket.

The Nest of Nests

We waited until we were seniors, one warm night in May. The following September I would be staying in New York to go to Columbia, and Paul would be heading north, to attend the University of Maine. After so much time together, he would leave, and it was already tearing me apart.

My sister's nickname among boys in private schools in Manhattan and throughout New England was “Bod of Bods,” and her attitude of lust, indifference, and a hint of self-destruction was so alluring that every man wanted both to sleep with her and to save her. I don't want to say she drove Harrison to drink, but after a rocky road through a series of boarding schools, he'd spent one year at Mitchell College (surely not his father's first choice for him) before “retiring” to Martha's Vineyard, where, supposedly, he spent his time and trust fund fishing and drinking beer and mooning over Anne and another girl, Rory McCarthy. Anne knew this, because they still wrote letters to each other. She'd regale him with the tales of her sexual circus, clearly designed to drive him crazy because, although she wouldn't admit it, she felt jealous of Rory. She liked being a man's one and only obsession.

BOOK: How We Started
13.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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