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Authors: Luanne Rice

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In reaction to Anne, I had remained a determined virgin. The night of the May full moon, with migration at its peak, Paul met me at the Twenty-third Street station, and we took the C train uptown. The train was half-empty, but there were a few other high school kids on their way to end-of-the-year parties. Paul carried our binoculars and a bottle of Korbel champagne in a backpack. In some ways, it felt like just another night of birding in the park, but we both knew it was going to be more than that.

Migrants fly south at night. They navigate from the boreal forests down to South America by the stars and ancient knowledge programmed into their DNA, stopping to rest at stretches of green along the eastern flyway. Central Park, right in the middle of New York City, was 843 acres of lawns, woodlands, and bodies of water—one of the greatest places in the world to find migratory birds.

Paul and I got off at 103rd Street, crossed Central Park West, and headed into the North Woods. We'd been keeping track of nocturnal birds passing through: whip-poor-wills and other nightjars, and a black-crowned night heron at the Harlem Meer. A great horned owl ruled the Great Hill with its ghostly call, feeding on rats and field mice. Most often Paul and I stationed ourselves in the branches of a particularly tall and majestic red oak, where we seemed to have our best luck spotting the owl.

But not that night. The winter of our first kiss, when we were thirteen, Paul introduced me to the blind he had dug out and built.

You have to imagine the North Woods. They are deep and thick, the way I imagine forests in Canada to be. There are sections without man-made paths. Birders have since discovered it, but back then it was one of the only places in Manhattan left alone by humans. Even the muggers stayed away because there was no one to mug.

Paul had cut a trail: narrow, curving, and completely hidden. We made our way through the wildflower meadow, around the ravine, and finally into the woodlands to the path we knew by heart. We passed the massive American beech, sweet gum trees, London plane trees, and two red oaks so massive we believed they had existed—alone among the trees here—before 1857, when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had designed Central Park.

This was our magic, Paul's and mine: our own private arboretum, nature in the middle of the city. We heard traffic and sirens, but the deeper we walked into the woods, the more muffled the sounds. When we got close to his blind he held my hand, and we squeezed through the trees and shrubs together.

We crouched down and entered our sanctuary. In the lee of a sloping ledge of Manhattan schist, out of the wind, he'd built a lean-to under a thicket of laurel. Moonlight came through the glossy green-black leaves, filling our woodsy tent with dancing silver light. Usually we sat in here with binoculars, peering at birds, our body heat, closeness, and down jackets keeping us warm on even the coldest days. But that spring night was balmy. We wore T-shirts. When he brushed against my bare arm I felt electricity shoot through my body.

Paul spread a bedsheet he'd snagged from home, and we eased each other down. Beneath the sheet was a nest of soft leaves. We held each other, and I stared into his bright eyes, my heart pounding hard against his.

He touched me more gently than ever. Not just because it was going to be our first time, but because he knew me so well, and realized that having a father who didn't come home had created a condition of cellular yearning, and I was already afraid of saying good-bye. My knowing that Paul would be going to Maine in September had been more than I could bear from the day he received his acceptance.

“Clare de Lune,” he said, touching my cheek.

“‘Lune' as in crazy?” I asked.

“‘Lune'” as in beautiful.”

“It doesn't mean that.”

“It does now,” he said, and we kissed. I closed my eyes, and the silver light was bright against my eyelids, shadows moving as the leaves overhead rustled in the breeze, and Paul's mouth felt hot and everything about him was so dear and he was mine and I was his.

We'd done plenty, but had waited nearly six years for this. I knew how to undo his worn brown leather belt with one hand, work open the front of his five-button Levis. He unzipped mine, eased them down. Finally we touched each other.

I was on birth control. Anne had instructed me to tell the doctor I had bad cramps, and next thing you know I was filling a prescription for Ortho-Novum at the New London Pharmacy on Eighth Avenue. My parents knew I took the pill, it was all on the up-and-up, but the reality was Paul and I had been planning this moment for months—the night of the last full moon before we graduated.

“Are you sure?” he asked now, touching me. I was so wet, that was my answer, and I laughed because he had to know.

“A little sure,” I said. “What about you?”

He felt so hard in my hand, and he nodded, and all he said was my name, and I guided him into me. We were together, eyes open, not even wanting to blink or miss a second. We moved together, my legs around his waist, arms around his neck. If there had been a way to climb inside of him, I would have.

I closed my eyes. Instead of blocking him out or missing anything, I entered a realm of pure feeling, not my own, but ours. All of a sudden I wasn't yearning or longing; he wasn't going away, this night was never going to end. I felt as if I'd been made for this, to be part of Paul forever.

It was at once the easiest and most impossible moment of my life. I forgot myself—how is that possible? Raised with sorrows and worries, I felt myself disappear in that shadow-dappled moonlight, replaced by someone so loved by Paul it was as if we'd created another—not new, but
other
—person entirely.

“I love you,” he must have said, because I felt it so strongly.

“I love you,” I must have said, because I meant it with everything I had.

But I know—there were no words spoken. Everything came from our hearts and skin, the way our bodies fit, the night breeze and the distant call of our owl, and the sounds of our breath.

There is only one first time. It's a line of demarcation and the secret code to so much of what will follow in life. I look back on that night as my North Star. When we were finished, Paul and I lay in each other's arms and would have fallen asleep if the ground didn't suddenly start to feel hard. Night's chill seeped in, and we had to move a little. Sitting up, we kissed and realized we'd forgotten to drink the champagne.

Paul had brought it because he'd thought we might be nervous. We were underage, but he was tall and looked older than seventeen, and had had no problem walking into the package store on Fourteenth Street and buying a bottle. Now, instead of drinking to loosen up, it seemed like an even better idea to toast and celebrate what we'd just done.

He started peeling the foil and untwisting the wire around the cork, but I stopped him.

“Not here,” I said.

“Out and up?” he asked because he could read my mind.

“Yeah,” I said.

We followed the path to the oldest, tallest red oak. Our rope ladder was hidden under ground cover at the base of the tree. Paul unfurled it, threw the grappling hooks over the lowest branch. He let me go first, as usual, and I led him up our tree.

He carried the Korbel in the backpack. We stayed close to the trunk, climbing high into the wide, seemingly endless canopy of leaves, using the branches as if they were bars on that jungle gym of so long ago.

When we reached the top, the part where the branches began to bend, we settled ourselves in the crook of the tree with a fine umbrella of oak leaves overhead. The lights of Manhattan glittered everywhere, skyscrapers to the south, apartment houses lining the park. It was our city, and as much as we loved to escape it into nature, it was also our home and the place that had brought us to this moment.

Paul popped the cork.

“To Clare Burke,” he said.

“To Paul Traynor,” I said.

“To us,” he said, and then we drank straight from the bottle.

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“About you,” he said.

“Like what?” I asked, smiling and wanting to hear more.

“How am I going to do it?” he asked.

“Didn't we already . . .”

“Not that,” he said. “How am I going to leave you?”

The tree swayed, I felt myself falling. Our life together—spending every day at school, every free moment in the park, days and nights kissing and watching birds in the woods and by the river—would come to an end in September.

“What do you mean, ‘leave me'?” I asked, afraid of his words.

“I mean go to Maine.”

“We'll still . . .” I began. But still what? What would we be?

“I know,” he said, stroking my hair. “Forever. But far apart, at least for four years.”

“You're not leaving till September,” I said. I wanted to tell him he should rip up his acceptance forms, go to school in New York like me. But the truth was he'd applied to Columbia and NYU, and not gotten in.

His love of the wild didn't translate into good grades—he hadn't found, or even wanted to find, a way to incorporate nature poems and essays into English class, his meticulous eye and observations of birds and habitat into biology and chemistry, his understanding of tree climbing and nest building into physics.

Paul's love of nature was pure, not applied. He'd been accepted to the University of Maine because they had a wildlife management program, and he'd aced the interview with tales of birding in Central Park and by telling them his ambition was to become an urban park ranger when he graduated.

“I know it's not till September,” he said, staring into my eyes as if he wanted to memorize everything about them, about me. “But it's going to come fast. I want you to be okay.”

“Me?” Why hadn't he said “us”?

“Yeah,” he said. “I want you to prepare yourself.”

“Why are you being this way?”

“Because I know you, Clare. I know how you are. You miss me even when I'm kissing you.”

“I didn't tonight.”

“I know. I felt it.” He held my face in his hands and gazed at me so intensely my heart ached. “I want you to know that it's real. It's how we are.”

“I do know that.”

“I'm not your father, I'm not my father.” He looked away when he said that, staring up at the sky. Was he trying to convince himself?

“You never could be,” I said.

He touched my long dark hair; it looked almost blue in the moonlight. The tree held us in the nest we'd built. He slugged champagne, then offered it to me. We were happy that night, but we also heard the bass notes. Maybe we'd recognized, somewhere inside, that we both did that because we couldn't save our families the way we wanted to.

“Look at the moon,” I said, gazing up. “We'll have three more full moons before you leave.”

“I know,” he said.

“And we'll be together forever.”

“I know that, too,” he said, and when I turned my gaze from the moon I saw he was staring at my face. “But do you?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling, touching his lips with my finger, as if I really believed what I was saying.

I hold on to the memory of that smile.

It's only through time, and the seasons in the park, and the full and crescent and new moons, and the fledglings that leave the nest and raise families of their own, who return to the same trees year after year, that a person can begin to try or pretend to understand the concept of “forever.”

Or maybe it takes being locked up.

The way I am right now: in prison for a crime I knowingly committed. I tell myself I did it for my sister, and I know that is true. I dream of Paul, and beg him to forgive me. In the end, as much as I feared him leaving me, I'm the one who left him. I'm here, aren't I? I stepped outside the bounds of our life together, and in one act burned it to the ground.

Miss Martha's Vineyard

1994

Harrison calls me “Miss Martha's Vineyard,” and he is the only one. Four generations of his family owned property here, so he is considered an islander. These distinctions are not petty. The Thaxters are Boston Brahmin blue bloods, but his father burned through the money, and Harrison got kicked out of every school he ever attended. Ever since the family had to sell the big captain's house in Edgartown, he has lived year-round in impoverished splendor in a series of ramshackle rentals.

I should marry him.

Not just because I love him, which I do, but because I hate my fiancé. Saying yes to Jeremiah was possibly the stupidest thing I ever did. Never get engaged for passion hoping it will become true love. If you do, you're guaranteed heartbreak.

I am in, what my English grandmother calls, “a state.” Jeremiah is on Timmy Tyler's Bermuda 40, supposedly doing the Marblehead-to-Camden regatta, but I don't trust him. Maybe he's on the boat, but I'll bet anything Timmy's got girls on there, too.

Talking to my older sister Dar about my suspicions is what started the fight between us. She didn't seem sympathetic at all, so I yelled at her that she didn't know love, and her heart belonged more to Cutty Sark than to Andy Mayhew. She'd given me the mildest stare possible along with a small, sad smile, and told me I was interrupting her work and could I please leave.

I'm so fucking pissed at her, but even more, I'm so worried I can hardly breathe. Even when she's holding it together and not slurring her words, I can see her trying to focus on my face, unable to keep her eyeballs from drifting in their sockets.

I said, “Sure, Dar. You want to be alone with your bottle of scotch.”

“I do want to be alone,” she said. “That's true.”

“I'm engaged to a guy who's probably sleeping with half the cocktail waitresses in Maine, and you don't care.”

“Rory, I care,” she said. “You deserve someone who loves you. It's just, what can I do about Jeremiah? I have to get back to work, okay?”

“Yeah, working. Tell yourself that. Writing and drawing. What you really want is to shut the door so you can drink.”

That's when she made the comment about James Joyce and his binges, and gave me that line she always quoted from
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
: “‘He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life
.
' We're Irish,” she said, and walked away.

What the fuck? Our father was Irish born and bred. “
We're Irish
.” I take her words as a cry for help. Our father abandoned us when we were children, and Dar was the last to see him go. She suffers for it. She's an alcoholic, I swear.

I couldn't sleep after that exchange. I kept thinking of her alone in her room, writing and drawing and boozing it up, and I wanted to cry. Then I thought of her words,
You deserve someone who loves you
.

Harrison is handsome in a large-scale, elegant yet, well, fat, way, but I like hot boys, and there was only one year when my sisters and I would have considered him that. He and I were fifteen—Dar was seventeen, Delia thirteen. When we'd said good-bye to Harrison at the end of that summer, he was his lovable, overweight self. But when we saw him that Christmas—we'd all taken the train into New York for the Gold and Silvers, a fancy charity ball at the Plaza for private school kids—he had somehow shot up four inches, lost thirty pounds, and looked gorgeous.

Harrison and I had always been each other's go-to person. For me it was based on friendship and knowing he adored me. That's ugly to admit. I pretended I didn't know the depth of his feelings just because I loved his company, and if I didn't have a better date, I enjoyed being on his arm. He was hilarious and made everyone laugh. But that night at the Gold and Silvers, I wondered if it might be possible to fall in love with him. My interest was enhanced by jealousy, I admit: Anne Burke, that black-haired Manhattan bitch, had singled him out of the rich-boy pack and was draping herself all over him. She would go on to ruin his life in at least fifty well-documented ways.

The next summer, his growth spurt had ended and the weight had piled back on. He was back to having rolls around his waist and dressing from the big boy's department. But I'd seem him trim and dashing in New York, and something in my terrible heart, previously having gone only for textbook-cute boys, had cracked open for him. The fact that Anne continued to fuck him over from afar made me more determined to let him bring out the best in me.

“I'm fat again,” he said, when we reunited that summer, drinking beer in a dinghy we'd tied to a random mooring in Edgartown Harbor. I sipped one Heineken while he'd already gone through five. His eyes were pale blue-green, the color of rare sea glass that comes from old Coke bottles.

“You're just right with a little left over,” I said.

He held the bottle top between his thumb and middle finger and snapped it so it sailed ten yards across the water, landing with a splash. That was his way of telling me he knew I was lying. Kids called him “Fattison,” “Chubbison,” all kinds of names. But Harrison affected savoir faire indifference, as if he knew that all the truly great people were rotund.

“I'm going to Nueva,” he said, code word for New York, by which he meant to see Anne.

“Go at your own peril,” I said.

“Peril? There will be none of that!” he said, pulling a perfectly rolled joint from his pack of Marlboros. He lit it, took a whopping lungful, and passed it to me; I enjoyed a good hit of his always excellent pot.

“You know it will suck,” I said. “She'll tell you she'll meet you at Trader Vic's. Then—whoops—something will come up, and she'll be an hour late. You'll be sitting there with your Scorpion Bowl and two straws all by yourself till closing.” He'd also have used his father's credit card to book a room in the Plaza Hotel, just upstairs, with fantasies of Anne and her sex-spells dancing in his head.

“If I didn't know better and hadn't seen you with Jeremiah last night, I'd say you're jealous.”

“Protective, not jealous,” I said. “She is bad for you.”

“She writes me love letters.”

“To keep you on the hook.”

He looked hurt.

“Because she could never actually like me, right?” he said.

Harrison was so funny and cuddly, always ready with a comeback, that I sometimes forgot how sensitive he was. Back then his family had tons of money, or at least they seemed to. My sisters and I had a long-lost working-class father, but our English granny was a grande dame who owned a sprawling house and acres of waterfront land up-island in Chilmark, so I had some idea of how it all worked. Money was a magnet for the evil and insecure who walked among us. Like Anne Burke.

“Of course she likes you,” I said. “In her own way, she probably loves you—how could she not? But not the way you want her to because she doesn't have it in her.”

“We must agree to disagree,” Harrison said.

“Whatever you say.”

“It's because I'm fat, right?”

The dinghy rocked in the wake of a passing sailboat. I leaned my elbows on my knees and peered at him through white light reflecting off the harbor.

“You're wonderful, Harrison,” I said. “Just pure and plain wonderful.”

He smiled, and we finished the joint. Getting stoned with Harrison was a summer ritual, and it usually softened every hard edge of emotion. But that day I felt pricked by a thought, one I hated. How different was I from Anne Burke? Harrison had loved me before she'd come along, and if I'd ever give him the time of day, she wouldn't be in his life tormenting him.

What was wrong with me, that I couldn't love and be loved by the nicest guy I knew? I'd see my sister Dar with her carpenter boyfriend Andy and watch the way he looked at her: his love was true and solid. Dar was creative and eccentric and needed lots of solitude, but he was the love of her life, if only she'd let herself realize it. Like Harrison, he was family.

My lot was to love Jeremiah, island stud, and know that it wasn't that he didn't like me—it was that he didn't
mind
me. Sometimes I swear he'd put that ring on my finger just because he was bored. Delia, our youngest sister, had been dating Jim for two summers. He was a good guy like Andy, but in this case Delia was giving in to the goodness. At least one of us had a well-adjusted relationship.

That day in the dinghy took place years ago, and Anne wound up moving on to other men and for the most part leaving Harrison alone. The years have not been kind to him; I worry about his health. What would I do without him? How selfish am I to ask that question, but I try to imagine my life if he wasn't in it. I call him for everything.

Last September and October, the island's most golden and beautiful months, he lived for free at the Smiths' West Tisbury home, house-sitting while they went to Rome. He passed the holidays living in the carriage house of his family's former neighbors in Edgartown. Winter was spent in a Menemsha house with no heat, but a huge hearth in which he burned fallen branches, cannel coal, and garbage.

When summer rolled around again, and all his standby places were either occupied or leased out for top dollar, he rented a drafty old lobster shack near the Edgartown Yacht Club—to which, thanks to his father having paid dues years in advance, he still belonged.

That's where I visited him this sweltering July day, needing to talk about Dar. Approaching the weather-beaten shingled shed, I couldn't help noticing the windows and doors were shut tight. That seemed odd, considering it was ninety degrees. I thought he must have gone out—maybe someone had invited him sailing for the day. But the shack looked so resolutely closed up—faded blue shutters clamped over the windowpanes—for a moment I was afraid maybe he had left forever and neglected to tell me.

As I knocked, I caught the faint whiff of pot smoke and felt a flood of relief. The door opened, and there stood the Buddha himself, dressed in a maroon velour robe and black velvet slippers.

“Be still my heart! A visit from Rory McCarthy,” he said, hauling me inside, slamming the door behind me.

“Wow, transformation,” I said. Last time I'd been here he'd had a twin bed illuminated by a single light powered by a line he'd run out the window to steal electricity from the restaurant next door. Now the tiny space was crammed with a queen bed that took up every free inch of floor space and an old Sony Trinitron TV mounted opposite the bed, tuned to the Military Channel. A ten-inch hole had been bored into the back wall, and icy air blasted through a silver hose.

“Well, sweetie,” he said, pulling me beside him on the bed because there was nowhere else to sit. “It seemed a little bare before, didn't it?”

“Slightly. But what's with the AC?” I asked. I knew he couldn't afford his own electricity bill, much less enough icy air to cool a movie theater.

“My buddy Ralph manages the restaurant, and he let me splice the hose and run an extension in.”

“Really.” Harrison was the least handy person I knew.

“Well, Andy actually did it.”

I nodded. That made sense. Andy could rig or fix anything.

“And the bed and TV?”

“Andy's remodeling the Harbor Inn.” So he'd snagged some creature comforts for our friend. I smiled—good old Andy.

“And you have cable.”

“That's on a need-to-know basis,” he said in a stern voice. “Some might call it illegal, but I call it borrowing. Let's leave it at that.”

“You're the only person in Edgartown wearing velour, that's for sure. It's ninety on Main Street.”

“That's why I'm not on Main Street, sweetie,” he said, pointing the clicker at the TV, switching from a program about Pearl Harbor to
Wheel of Fortune
. “What brings you here?”

“Dar's losing it. Did Andy say anything?”

“You know gentlemen don't discuss their lady friends.”

“Bullshit. What did he say?”

Harrison's onyx pipe had gone out, so he relit it with his vintage gold lighter, one of his father's few remaining heirlooms. He took a long draw, offered it to me, but I wasn't in the mood.

“Well, he mentioned that she's in drawing mode and hasn't come up for air in a few days. And that she seems to be living on scotch.”

“She is! Exactly! She's doing some bizarre Japanese kind of graphic novel about, I swear to God, a girl who wears a coat of thorns because she couldn't stop her father from leaving the family, and she can't see any connection between cartooning that painful shit and wanting to stay loaded all the time.”

“There's nothing wrong with escape,” he said, taking another hit.

“I'm worried about her,” I said.

“You can't do anything about it. If she wants to drink, she will.”

I stared at Harrison. What was I doing, bringing this problem to a man who had plugged the chinks in his rough-wood walls with tinfoil to keep the smell of pot smoke from wafting onto the street? Harrison was scared shitless of the real life his family money had once insulated him from, and Dar bore the scars of watching our father sail away forever.

“She seems so sad,” I said.

“Whenever I see her, she's a happy drunk.”

I hated hearing him call my sister that. But it takes one to know one—Harrison had no illusions about who and what he was. His goal in life was never to rock the boat. That's why I called him the Buddha—he'd found a way to let the waves of life's heartache wash over and around him without being upset.

“Maybe I should take you to AA,” he said.

“First, I'm not the one with the problem, and second, I didn't know you went,” I said, shocked.

“Sure,” he said. “‘I'm Harrison, and I'm an alcoholic.' I've said it plenty of times at the morning meeting. You should come with me.”

BOOK: How We Started
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