Fairy tale

He played the Irish prince, I played the fool.


Gretchen Scherer
November 5, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

I heard the wind rioting the trees, their branches scraping
against the window and sensed, before opening my eyes, that it was almost
dawn. No rain hitting the windowpane -- yet. There was always a
possibility of rain in Ireland.

Morning in Maynooth was another word for gray. Until living
there, I never knew it came in so many shades: the bark on the trees the
color of granite, the streets like wet ash, the sky a leaden
blanket. During my year studying at the liberal arts college there, I
spent much of my time in a two-story row house, the first house on Convent
Lane. I sometimes contemplated the irony of that name as John snored
softly next to me. Even though I had been raised Catholic, the excitement
and intensity I felt being with him left no room for guilt. Our affair
had begun unexpectedly, and sometimes I still felt a slight thrill of
surprise at seeing him in the bed.

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Now, a four-lane highway passes through Maynooth, but when I studied
there in 1988 it was a village, with one main street that was just another
stretch on the "Dublin-Galway Road." At one point, Maynooth had been one
of the spiritual centers of Europe, with its large seminary. But in the
late 1970s a secular "arts block" was added to the college, and the town
was inundated with less religiously minded students. Every morning, the
train deposited a swarm of them, wearing black Doc Martins and toting
sage-colored canvas backpacks. Just as many more, like John, lived in
accommodations in town.

If not for the college, Maynooth might well have
withered. Instead, there was an appealing bustle to Main Street and a
great deal of activity at the Quinnsworth supermarket, around
the corner from Convent Lane -- especially on auction day, when we
occasionally heard cattle lowing from the market behind it.

My last morning in Ireland, I was up early and restless in
the single bed. Rather than wake John, I slid out the end, threw on a
T-shirt and socks and went down to the kitchen. Because I was leaving,
everything around me was weighted with significance. A bluish light
filtered in the window, and I paused on the stairs, imagining John and his
friends sitting in the chairs, cans of Foster's in their hands, a halo of
smoke wreathing their heads. They were singing "Where Do You Go to My
Lovely?" and taking turns making up verses. I sat in a scratchy green
chair, remembering the late-night after-bar gatherings that would now go on
without me.

I didn't feel ready to go. I was afraid of losing this person
I'd become, this person singing songs and drinking lager in the living
room. But I had to go, had to return to my small, Catholic college in
the Midwest. Many years would pass before I realized that a part of me was saved by leaving.

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It's a fairy tale every girl knows: The prince sweeps you off your feet, and
you want to be with him so badly you would -- and sometimes have
to -- sacrifice too much.

The wind was blowing the day I met John, which in itself was
nothing special. Wind fills my memories from the year I spent studying in
Ireland, whipping my hair around my face, shaking windows. The sound of
it in my ears, deafening me, is as real and constant as the vivid, green grass.

Now, I struggle to write anything about that first meeting that
is not clichid. I would like to say that his eyes were the same gray as
the sky. That he stood like James Dean and looked up with a sidelong
glance. I can say that the day I met him I still thought I was in
love with someone else. Someone kind. Someone whom parents always hope
their daughters will fall in love with -- a law student who had never taken
my breath away. Not like John did.

Ireland went straight to my head and I wanted desperately to make
myself belong. With John, I thought I did. The student union was hung with a thick
web of smoke, and the windows were fogged over from body
heat. We sat at the bar, both clutching a Guinness, our bodies
turned toward the large screen at the front of the room. Packy Bonner
and "the lads" were playing Spain to qualify for the World Cup. I was
wedged between Irish college students, my lectures completely
forgotten. Ireland scored with three minutes remaining and the place
erupted. Everyone jumped up with a roar, sloshing beer as they hugged the
body, any body, next to them. John downed his pint, wiped his mouth with
the back of his hand, kissed me hard and nodded toward the door. His
mother had gotten us tickets to the Gate Theatre in Dublin and we had
plans to hitchhike in. As we hurried across campus, another roar spilled
from the union. I was flushed and excited and I wanted us to return to
the crowded pub. I had become one of them, if only temporarily, and
leaving was like breaking a spell.

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But then we were at the Gate Theatre watching "Twelfth Night," a
Joe Dowling interpretation set in the 1930s. Although the setting had
changed, the ending did not. As with all of Shakespeare's romantic
comedies, everyone ended up with his or her true love. It was just that
simple -- love prevailed and everyone was happy. It was just that simple.

Coming home that night, John and I sat on the top of a green
double-decker bus, the 67a, which took the long way home through
Leixlip. As the bus careered through the darkness, large old trees
suddenly loomed and scraped their branches against the bus windows as if
trying to claw their way in. In the top of the bus we swayed and rocked
as it barreled through the twists of that narrow road. It felt like a
carnival ride, exhilarating and terrifying, but without the
promise of a simple ending. It was a feeling I became accustomed to that
year with John.

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In Ireland it seemed as if I never slept. I nearly gave up
attending lectures, but still felt full with the things I was learning.

In the middle of the night, side by side in the bed, John read
Yeats to me and explained the Celtic references, the myths I did not
know. "The Song of the Wandering Aengus" was my favorite because of this
line: "I went into the wood/because a fire was in my head." This was how
I felt those days, as if I had a fire in my head. When he read "Adam's
Rib" I imagined myself as Maude Gonne sitting in my garden at Coole,
calling W.B. Yeats "Willy."

As John read, I would trace the sparse, black hairs on his
chest, the two splotchy, brown scars: a result of a childhood fall from a
slide.

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At dawn, I would go home, smug and full with
happiness. Walking with long, sure steps, I'd hum "Rare Ol' Times" as
his flat grew smaller behind me. Sparkling dew hung like a halo over the
hedgerows. I knew his wounds, I would think, and felt sure there was
nothing more than this, this sharing of secrets.

But this is when you should be careful. When you have given into
trust and love so completely you no longer own yourself entirely. This is
when the other person could suddenly steal off when you least expect it,
taking a piece of you with him.

All the men who have ever left me have done it in the same way --
they haven't. They have hedged and hinted, undermining my confidence,
until the only way I could preserve my self-respect was to leave them,
something that I, for many years, didn't have the guts to do. But John
was the first one, the first time, and I didn't know how to interpret the
signs. I wasn't willing to see them.

One night, I arrived in the pub and found John sitting next to a
tall redhead named Orla. I had seen her around campus, but wasn't aware
that she and John were acquainted. Despite my presence, several of John's
friends nodded in their direction and wondered out loud what the "bold
John" was up to. In their voices, I heard admiration, and when John left
with her, everyone avoided looking at me. I was about to suffocate.

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Later, he came back. How long? I'm not sure. Maybe it wasn't
long enough, maybe it was. He smiled at me and called me Chicken, which
sounded glorious in his mouth. A long, wiry strand of black hair hung
down over his right eye. There was something about him that seemed
vulnerable, and despite my best instincts or any good sense, a part of me
rushed in to fill it up.

What is important in this story? Only this: It was with John
that my journeys began. It was because of him that I started to believe
that there were things to discover, that I was at risk of being a very
ordinary person if I didn't start living life more deliberately. I knew
almost nothing about myself then, but I did know that I didn't
want to be ordinary. Of course, it never occurred to me that I could be
the source of my own extraordinariness. I believed I had been too
dulled by my suburban upbringing. Instead, I sought to be wonderful by
extenuation, clinging foolishly, and almost desperately, to John, my
"Dublin lad," my brooding poet.

In Ireland, everything seemed exotic and everything exotic seemed
wonderful. Now I realize I was romanticizing hardship and
heartbreak. But I was also flailing against an insecurity that was the
most real thing about me. And it would take many more years before I
could trust my own ability to make my life. It wasn't until I could put
some distance between myself and the many bleary, smoky nights in the pub,
after I had shaken my addiction to the red curve of his mouth and the
sudden animation of his face when he smiled, that I realized I still knew
nothing about living deliberately.

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It was still not fully light when John shuffled into the kitchen
that last morning. He fumbled for corn flakes and milk. I counted his
scoops of sugar. He wanted to know why I was up. "I'm leaving," I wanted
to say, as if that should be enough for both of us. But it wouldn't carry
the same weight for him, so I simply shrugged instead. There was a drop
of milk like a white tear on his stubbly beard. He placed his hand on the
top of my head. Come back to bed. There is still time, he said. Just
like Prufrock, I thought. Waking is like drowning today.

John meant time to sleep before I had to catch the bus to the
airport, but that was nothing now; I knew that I was almost out of
time. Still, I followed him back to bed and lay awake as he slept again. I
promised myself to remember that his hair smelled like ashes and
rain. And I felt like Cinderella waiting for the clock to strike midnight
when the fairy tale would end. How effortless this narrative had become.

That morning, I thought I would like to stay there forever, stay the
person that I'd become for at least a few more years. I didn't yet know
her as well as I wanted to, I thought, when in actuality, she was not at
all who I thought she was. This was a country of fairies and tales of
mythical lands of youth. I arrived eager for a legend, whatever the cost,
and didn't believe the last page had yet been written.

He didn't volunteer to come to the airport, and trying to look
independent, I didn't ask him to. He left me on the sidewalk and made
promises about coming to Minneapolis that I foolishly
believed. Persistent, the wind struggled with our hair, drew
tears to my eyes. The noise of it buffeted my ears, and I felt like I was
standing in the open hatch of an airplane deciding whether to jump.

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I watched him walk away until he reached the corner. In the air,
I smelled peat smoke, mellow and earthy. During the year, I had learned
to build fires with peat or coal, which burned more hotly. It took
months, but I finally learned how to bank the fire at night so that there
would still be smoldering coals in the morning. Before anything else in
the morning, my roommates or I would huddle in front of the fire, prodding
and blowing. Life seemed so much more tactile here: Milk was delivered
to our doorstep; warmth was dependent on making a fire. This made
living seem more real.

At the corner, John stopped once and waved. He yelled something,
but the words were snatched away before they reached me. I wanted to wave
back to him, but wasn't able to lift my arm.

This was when I still believed in fairy tales with happily-ever-after endings. And now, though years have passed, sometimes when I dream, the years are all compressed into something neither past nor present, something so real, so urgent, my heart occasionally feels seared by need.

In these dreams, John and I suddenly meet again, and although
neither of us has been searching, we both realize we have found what we
were looking for all along. I know this is my dream, not his. In my
dream, he still smells like rain and wind and he takes hold of my
face. So carefully, he leans in and places his lips on the ridge just
below my eye, where my smile crests, where I am most beautiful.

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This is my fairy tale.


Gretchen Scherer

Gretchen Scherer teaches composition at the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis with her fiancé.

MORE FROM Gretchen Scherer

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