the short story project


6 Undertow

Story 6 of PIECES, 1984

They reach the place they started from, the entrance to Renske Hall, and Moira has no reason anymore not to go back to her car. Ryan doesn’t seem like the person she knew. She can’t tell if seeing her has made any difference to him. He’s polished now, careful. And Greg has trouble shutting up. She’s been roaming the campus with her former classmates since the fundraising meeting ended, feigning interest in how their inner-city alma mater has expanded, like Jesuit creep, occupying blocks and blocks of the city.

Too warm for early May, the heat makes Moira’s hair heavy on her back, her necklace stick to her skin. Greg’s chitchat is getting tiresome, but she doesn’t want to be home. She doubts Ken has come through on his promise to get the rest of his stuff out, and she knows she’ll wind up regretting she hasn’t thrown it all on the lawn. Sean and Michael will be bored with their day by now, and whatever goodwill she earned with the new video game is likely used up. Since the separation, each day ends with a silent lamentation, a look on their faces that demands to know why she hasn’t fixed things yet. If Sean doesn’t pitch well in his game today, she’ll feel compelled to blame herself for that too.

Greg is going on about the guy who ran the meeting. “He’s full of shit,” he says, and turns 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 doesn’t care what Mark claims he’s done. She hardly recognized him at the meeting. Even Greg was a cipher until he spoke. She had to check his nametag to be sure it was him—his hair nearly all gray, no more sleeveless basketball jerseys. Uniformed in khakis and a sports jacket, he looked as homogenized as the other men on the committee. Business casual. Moira opted for a skirt, very snug, a guise she rarely chooses. The mirror reassured her it wasn’t provocative, but it made her wonder who she is anymore when she’s not in a business suit or loose-fitting sweats. She can’t remember the last time she thought twice about what to wear.

“I doubt Mark was the only one inventing things,” she says. “It was piling up pretty deep in there.”

Ryan stays out of it. He hasn’t said much since they left the meeting. His suit looks like a good one—a light gray fabric, some kind of blend—and it fits him well. No tie. A relaxed kind of trendy. Not as relaxed as he used to look in jeans, and not as sexy, but she’s mostly numb to that kind of attraction now. He seems as indifferent about the gathering as she is. She gets the sense—maybe because he arrived so late and had so little to say—that he was pressured to come. She wonders if he has connections that could bring in money. The family of a classmate killed trying to climb the Himalayas wants to establish a scholarship in his name. Moira remembers the guy at dances their freshman year, clumsy fool to the end. 

When Ryan walked into the meeting, she felt suddenly awkward, like someone who’d crashed a party, and the first silly thing she wondered was whether he wrote fiction anymore. She never bothers with it herself now. She thinks of it as a persona she tried on, a costume that called for lines she didn’t know. She hasn’t figured out yet why he volunteered for the committee. She suspects Greg was just hoping to get lucky. She isn’t sure why she signed up either.

The invitation would normally have gone into the trash, along with nearly every letter the school sends. But this one arrived only two months 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 spends more time with the boys now, but she’s otherwise mostly alone. She avoids her friends because she’s become their poster child for abandonment. At a loss for how to help, they’ve resorted to greeting cards that offer butterflies and wildflowers and messages imagining brighter days to come. Except they won’t. Not at her age. Not when your understudy is twenty years younger and you’re left wondering how you could have botched the job so badly.

“Why don’t we see if the lit office is open?” says Ryan, meaning the headquarters of Undertow, the college’s once-daring little literary journal. “It was in the middle of this block.”

Moira agrees. She wore heels and she’s ready to sit for a while.

Ryan leads the way. This was his turf, an office in the basement, just below street level, where radical ideas reigned. He was editor their junior and senior years and he crashed at the office now and then. Everybody did. This was the place they often ended the night when they were together—a time she has since tried not to think about, because she bungled that too and doesn’t know quite how.

“It’s open. Which means no one’s in there,” Ryan says. It pleases Moira that some traditions, at least, have lasted.

Ryan flips on a light, then the ceiling fan. The place looks as if the occupants had to evacuate midway through an attempt to outdrink each other. Paper cups are everywhere, softened by stale beer and rancid wine, no more than pools now for soggy cigarette butts. One cup sits tipped against the keyboard of an old Remington typewriter.

“Just like old times,” Ryan says. Greg laughs, though she doesn’t remember him being around that often. He was on the periphery. Jocks didn’t feel at home here. But he flops onto the beat-up leather couch as if he belongs. The mainstay among the Undertow’s literati then were followers of safe bets like Larry Levis, although a few on the fringe pretended to decipher the Language poets. She doubts Greg was in either camp.

He moves some stray copies of Undertow aside to make a place for Moira on the couch next to him, then thumbs through the spring issue and stops to read something. Ryan sits at the desk. It’s daylight but the blinds are closed and the ceiling light is flickering through the last stages of a slow death. Except for the abandoned drinks, the room is in every way cerebral. Books—too many for the shelves to hold—are piled on chairs and tucked into crevices, some stacked tall enough to block half the window. Years of posters are layered on the walls in a haphazard montage of writers and rock stars and political slogans.

“I’m betting they still keep some elixir hidden in that couch,” says Ryan.

Greg rummages under Moira’s cushion and comes up with a pint of whiskey, nearly full. “Jackpot,” he says.

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

Unused cups are nowhere, but Greg isn’t waiting for one anyway. He removes the cap and takes a mouthful. “Madame,” he says, offering the bottle.

“Don’t mind if I do.”

They laugh at the face she makes as it goes down. Ryan takes his turn quickly and it’s back to her without ceremony. It’s easier to swallow this time, and her performance earns her their applause. “Well done,” says Greg. She tries to pass on the third round but they scold her, so she obliges.

They talk about music, about the school, the way it was in the ’70s, drink more, too much more for Moira’s tolerance. She doesn’t feel drunk, but she’s happier than she has any reason to be. She’s here with two people who’ve become strangers, nothing at stake. And that suits her.

Greg turns a page in the journal. “Some of this isn’t that bad,” he says.

“Give it here,” says Ryan, and Greg tosses him a copy.

“Check out ‘Testament,’” says Greg.

Moira studies the posters, but they seem to be pulsating, floating, so she ponders Greg and Ryan instead, finds herself wondering about them. She plays at guessing what their daily uniforms are. They could be mailmen for all she knows. She arrived late, missed most of the greetings and catch-up. Ryan showed up even later. She sneaks glances at each of them. No wedding rings, no expensive watches, middles spreading and hair thinning, but not badly. Sizing people up this way is unlike her, but the whole encounter is so artificial, as if all three of them are cardboard cutouts, stand-ins for their former selves. She wonders what turns them on, now that they aren’t boys anymore. But maybe that never changes. It didn’t in her marriage.

“A Heaney knockoff,” says Ryan, tossing the journal onto the desk. She remembers how he scared her off when they were in school. He behaved as if he was certain of things, certain of her, that she’d want to read his first drafts, want to hear the things he shared with no one else—that his writing might be mediocre, that he’d stolen money from his father, more than once, a postal worker with two jobs and five children. His trust made her feel she had deceived him somehow.

“Good enough for me,” laughs Greg.

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

“Oh, let’s not do that,” Moira cuts in, because she doesn’t want to know. Career moves, smart or otherwise, invariably reveal the worst in people. And it won’t take much for her to lose interest in this little homecoming.  

“What? Talk shop?” says Ryan.

“Talk anything.” Moira fears she might be slurring her words, so she slows down. “Anything about whatever boxes we’re in.”

“You’ve got my vote,” says Greg. That doesn’t surprise Moira. Given his reaction to Mark earlier, she already has him pegged as professionally bruised.

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

“Or after,” she says, sipping the whiskey again before offering it to Greg.

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

“Or not,” says Moira, wondering why people insist on knowing things that can’t matter, at least not here.

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

“Maybe,” she says. “Some people wear them when they don’t want to be approached in that way.” She wore hers only because its absence might make people wonder, and she’s not sure she’s steady enough yet to deliver explanations.

“Or when they do,” says Ryan.

Moira doesn’t respond to that. More than five years ago, she asked old friends about Ryan, tried to find out where he lived, even checked with the Alumni Association—for no reason really, except that he’d remained in her mind like something nagging, like a question never asked. No one seemed to know what he was up to, and she decided it was better she didn’t know. Thinking of him was only an escape she allowed herself when her marriage first started to unravel, a way to pretend she had options. She doesn’t want Ryan to think she came today hoping she’d see him, because that’s not true. But she doesn’t want to have to admit what’s happened to her marriage, so she smiles at him as if she has nothing to hide.

Ryan is up, perusing book titles. He picks up a thin volume of poets from before World War I, maybe the very same one he read to her then. Greg cradles the Barton’s between his palms, telling Moira about a movie whose title he can’t remember. She tries to listen, takes her shoes off. Then Ryan holds one hand up as if everything needs to stop, as if he understands now why they’re here and she should too. “Here it is. ‘Blue Sky.’ ” He looks at Moira as if she’s the only other person in the room. “Listen,” he says.


“I do not like you like this;

but when the storm howls across your expanse

and when the clouds

rage through you like winter wolves,

ravenous and mute with hunger,

my agitation will show

how much I crave your freedom.”


She knows these lines, remembers resting her head on his chest, feeling his voice vibrating in her ear, the hum of vowels, the breathless admiration. He loved finding obscure poets. This one, Gustav Sack, wound up in a psych ward, traumatized by what he’d seen on the western front. When he was released, they sent him back again. Ryan’s delivery still has just the right attitude, the right mix of curiosity and conviction. He was puzzled when she didn’t love the poem as much as he did.

She closes her eyes, remembering how intense he could be, how easily he’d miss the point. He assumed she was in love with him, wanted more than he was ready to give. She didn’t, but she never set him straight. When it ended, she missed him, wished she had let him know that he’d been safe all along. She 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. She wishes she could do the same with the card Ken gave her after they told the boys they were separating, a flowery piece of wine-colored parchment, love and gratitude scribbled above his name, as if afterthoughts could balance the scales.

Greg passes her the Barton’s again. She takes another swallow, a longer one, her throat cauterized now, and the taste as it goes down doesn’t bother her at all. Greg is sitting closer. She leans forward to push her shoes aside and he moves his hand down the length of her spine until it rests on her bottom, like a question. It feels as shocking as a burn, as if pain will follow immediately. Instead a sharp excitement registers, as thrilling as it is repulsive. If she turned and looked at him, she’s sure he would remove his hand, but she doesn’t. So he leaves it there.

She imagines what she and Ryan must have looked like together in this room fifteen years before, flawless skin and smooth muscles taken for granted. But that’s all been swept away. She is directionless now, no longer vivid but not quite dulled, and the only thing to do is forget who she was before.

“Ryan,” Greg says, “what do you think of that pitcher the Mets just brought up?” Moira is sure the question is meant to draw Ryan away from the poem, to let him see where Greg has his hand. But Ryan ignores him, tells her to listen. She doesn’t want to do that, because if Ryan thinks he understands something about them, it’s too late.


“I do not like you like this,
not this cloudless braggart
whose boastful purity crushes me like one would crush a leaf.


“The first time I read that to you, you insisted he hadn’t finished it,” Ryan says. The poem seemed to her to be about a journey that begins but can’t be completed. She was young, didn’t know that much about poetry yet, or how resistant life was to being planned. She was already well acquainted with raggedness, the misshapen attachment to a parent who hurts you, but she rejected the idea that the odds of finding your way are so long.

She pretends to browse through an issue of Undertow open on her lap, and Greg places his hand in the narrow space between them, explores the fabric of her skirt, which she hasn’t bothered to keep from riding up. Crossing her legs raises the skirt higher, and he touches the skin she exposes.

She senses Ryan is watching them now and she looks up from the journal, makes sure he’s seeing this, then slowly uncrosses her legs. The decision makes her stomach loosen. Everything loosens. Greg seems to understand, shifts position so he can reach under her skirt. His fingers feel warm, deliberate. This is it, she thinks. This is what she needs, to accept that nothing that happens here can matter. 

Ryan drops the book on the desk, and it lands with a ping against the brass bell of a paperweight turned on its side, as if marking the end of a meditation, or the start. He comes and kneels in front of her, slips the journal off her lap, and holds her chin up, making her look at him. “Moira,” he says, as if calling her back. She doesn’t want that. She undoes a button on her blouse, the one that matters most, the way a rodeo clown distracts the bull. But the effect is not what she was looking for. “Don’t,” he whispers, his mouth close to her ear. He kisses her on the forehead, softly, and she has to keep her mind from racing toward beginnings, promises. He feels real.

She becomes aware of Greg again. “You’re wet,” he says, as if discovering she isn’t a mannequin, and she wishes she could slap his face, because that’s what she wants to be, an avatar.

She pushes Greg’s hand away, closes her legs.

Ryan stands up, takes hold of her hands to help her to her feet. She rises, puts a hand on his shoulder to steady herself and gets into her shoes.

“What the fuck?” says Greg.

She leaves without looking at either of them. Outside, it’s almost dark, the air chilled. She tries to walk quickly, but her balance is off. Her head feels weightless, as if it might detach. She tries to take long strides, but her steps seem so small. She’s losing ground. Two students pass her, so close one brushes her shoulder, but they don’t seem to see her. “Here’s what we should do,” one of them says, his head bent intimately, a conspirator. She wants to hear the rest, but they’re quickly out of range, and she’s gripped by a sense of loss so sharp she feels as if she’s been plucked out of her life and set down in a place where no one recognizes her, where she has nothing to prove she ever belonged. She thinks of Ken this morning, ringing the doorbell when he arrived to pick up the boys—absurdly requesting permission to be in their living room, like a delivery boy. He’d always entered their bathroom without knocking, ready to towel her dry.

She takes a deep breath, and the cool air tickles her throat, steadies her. Still, she can’t picture which street the school’s new parking lot is on, so at the corner she lets instinct take over and turns left.

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

Caught off guard, she almost smiles but then remembers the way he looked in the office, as if she’d spoiled something between them. She wonders why it takes people so long to see when things are broken. “Back,” she says, and then laughs at how that sounds. “Back home, I mean.” He’s close beside her now, an arm across her shoulders, and she feels something in his jacket press against her side. She’s afraid he’s brought the book with him.

“The parking lot’s the other way. I’ll walk you.” The skin at the corners of his eyes is etched with wrinkles, little white tracks in his tan, and up close he doesn’t look familiar anymore. Deeper creases frame his mouth like gentle parentheses. She’s alert for contempt, but it’s not there.

“Thanks,” she tells him, “but I can manage.”

“I know that.” He takes her elbow anyway, and the gesture makes her think of novels by Edith Wharton, where gentlemen believe it’s their job to spare a woman the dangers of real life, real choices. She tries to read his face, afraid of what he might want, but can’t be sure of anything.

“Listen,” she says. “Back there, I—”

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


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