Fiction · 08/30/2012

It wasn’t the suit

It wasn’t the suit, exactly. It was his ease in it, the fact that the cuffs of his white shirt exposed neither an expanse of pale wrist nor a mother optimistic for a growth spurt. You see some of the boys in suits, unchanged. It has only something to do with height and breadth. The rest is confidence, maybe, or perhaps a certain sense of obliviousness. You could tell — I could tell — he didn’t know that he looked handsome, like a man.

And after that, well. Well, what else was there to do but to fall in love with him?

+

It was at a wedding, the suit.

“Raymond, how are ya!” I said, when our paths crossed at the reception. I was coming back from the ladies’ during that pre-food hovering bit. It was my sixth wedding that year, I was getting to be a pro.

He didn’t run away when he saw me, no awkward shuffle or aversion of eyes. He did a very grown-up thing, returning my greeting and then leaning in for a light kiss on the cheek. My right.

We established connections: groom’s cousin, in college with the bride.

I wanted him to lean in again.

+

Nothing happened at the wedding, it wasn’t that sort of — this is not that sort of story, where we found each other late at night and I was sobbing over being the last single one of my college friends and he smoothed back my hair and said earnestly that I was the most beautiful woman in the room that night.

He was on the dance floor a bit, part of that whole gang of cousins, but by the time all those circles merged into one for the Irish dancing part he’d gone home. At least I presumed that was it.

+

The thing you need to understand is that there is a world of a difference between when they come in at twelve and leave at eighteen. I always got annoyed at the papers or on the radio when they talked about “children” doing exams or homework or being in trouble and then it turns out the so-called children are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.

He was eighteen. Or at least he was two months after the wedding. And nothing happened.

It still wasn’t the kind of thing you told people, though, if they were asking about who you fancied. (They did.)

+

I shared a flat with my friend Margaret and on a Saturday night maybe six weeks after the wedding, her boyfriend Jack came over and we all watched a DVD. Not that unusual for a weekend, except this time they were asking, in that way cosy couples do, if there was anyone I was “interested in”.

I deflected with clichés. “Sure, there’s no good men out there,” I said, and then a little later, “I’m focusing on me right now” which sounded like I’d swallowed one of those American self-help books.

That week I’d just noticed: his eyes were green.

+

Raymond was taller than I was, which is not terribly unusual when you teach sixth years. They don’t mention that, either, when they say “children”. There were students you wouldn’t want to encounter in dark alleys or even in empty classrooms, at our school. But there were also the nice ones. They can be nice, you know, teenage boys. Gentlemanly, even.

Once in class someone threw out one of those standard insults, after I’d asked him to take his headphones out — “bitch” maybe. I was only half-listening.

“Don’t be a dick,” Raymond muttered to him.

Now that. That I heard.

+

He turned eighteen the same day I turned twenty-eight. I did not tell him this, when he appeared in the classroom that morning and a gang of his friends insisted on informing me, “Miss, Miss, Raymond’s birthday’s today you know.” Or maybe they said “Doyler’s”. Raymond Doyle, that was his full name.

“Happy birthday,” I said, and I smiled. “Eighteen, is it? How’s it feel?”

I left off the “to be all grown up” part, sensing that might fall into the category of deeply inappropriate.

They hadn’t needed to say anything, I’d checked. It felt weighty, important, this shared date.

+

That weekend, in town, I saw him with a girl. She had long red hair, freckles, the kind of girl who might be self-conscious about how she looked. They weren’t quite holding hands, but they were facing each other. Him saying something, her laughing. He could be very funny — this much could be admitted in the staff room. There was less scope for it in my class, but his history teacher had recounted an anecdote the other day that had made me smile, nod in recognition, and then busy myself with my lunch, letting my hair fall into my face.

+

I never did this usually, but as the exams approached I made arrangements to see them each individually. We were two months away from the almighty Leaving Cert; the principal approved. I set past exam questions for them to work on in the library.

He was the last one scheduled to traipse in.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Grand.” Said to reassure me, not to escape. I knew he was grand. Heading for an A1.

“What are you focusing on?”

We went through last year’s paper, pointing and debating. I breathed in his deodorant, shampoo, hair gel, heat.

+

The thing about developing a crush on someone precisely ten years younger than you is that it is very similar to having feelings for anyone you want in a way you are not supposed to want. Like the friend’s boyfriend you share an in-joke with, or the cousin’s new husband who strikes you suddenly as astonishingly, movie-star handsome. You try not to look at them too often in case anyone suspects, but your heart still lifts when they’re in the room, like when the band comes on stage after the warm-up act and a wait. It’s what you’re there for.

+

In May, there was an engagement party for Margaret and Jack in the flat, and I had half an eye out for anyone who might want to take her room over when Jack’s friend from work approached and said we were running low on beer. “D’you want me to pop to the off-licence?” he offered.

I went with him, even though it was only around the corner, and once we’d made the turn he leaned in and kissed me. His hand on the back of my neck was heavy, and his stubble scraped my cheek.

I let him at it.

+

I’d started going to pilates, which several of my friends swore by for flattening tummies. Before and after class, I stood in front of my mirror, sucking in my belly before letting it release again.

I wasn’t fat, but somehow in the last few years it had happened: everyone my age had started exercising, started needing to.

I thought about the redhead every time I lifted a tired leg in the air or gracelessly rocked back and forth on the mat. I was supposed to be focusing on my breathing, but it did the job. Stretch. Hold. Up. Down. Out.

+

Sometimes I was convinced he knew, that he had to. Other times I imagined him bursting through the doors of my classroom after everyone had gone home, with something to tell me. “And I know that it’s wrong, you’re my teacher,” he’d say, matter-of-factly. The maturity there, you see, in recognising that — that’d be what would make me lean in and kiss him. I’d let out a shaky little breath first, and then do it. My mouth on his.

It never went any further than that. I couldn’t imagine him naked, for example. At least not with me, there, then.

+

I did imagine what he might do in the presence of his own home, a bedroom with dark walls, perhaps, or in a locked bathroom — his hand slick with saliva, rocking it back and forth, and me, possibly in that day’s carefully-selected outfit, behind his eyelids.

This was not something I was allowed think about in school, only in my own home. In that day’s carefully-selected outfit, with him behind my eyelids. I always locked the door to my bedroom, even though I was still down a roommate. Afterwards I unlocked, sometimes pausing another moment before turning the key counter-clockwise.

+

He presented the school talent show. This was a fortnight before the end of the school year, time speeding up the way it always does that time of year, and it was an unexpected treat to see him up there on the stage. He was out of uniform, in a white shirt and dark blue jeans. I laughed along with everyone else at the punch lines, and something inside me sang when I heard the chants: “Doy-ler, Doy-ler!”

And I felt — oh, it’s difficult to explain.

Except it isn’t at all.

I wanted him.

I wanted him.

I wanted him.

+

That friend of Jack’s had found me online, the way you do. There was an ongoing conversation about when we’d meet up for a drink.

There was very little of Raymond Doyle on the internet. At one stage I thought I was on to something, a photo blog sort of thing, but it turned out to be some middle-aged Canadian interested in gardening and philosophy and from the looks of it abusing apostrophes. There was a local news story, a bunch of the kids after they’d got their Junior Cert results, but the photo was tiny. Probably just as well.

+

“You coming out tonight, Miss?” one of my sixth years asked on their last day. There was a gang of us on staff that always went out with them to the nightclub after the formality of their early-evening graduation ceremony.

“Maybe, we’ll see,” I said. Playing it cool, like a girl who’s just learned she’s supposed to.

“Ah, you have to, Miss,” someone else said.

I gave it a moment, waited to see if there would be any response from that desk, second from the back on the left. Then I smiled at them all. “How’s the study going, lads?”

+

I could see it clearly. We wouldn’t be dancing — no, he’d be out the back, about to light up a cigarette. I’d slip out, and he’d look sheepish before offering me one. We’d have a moment or two of companionable smokers’ silence, then he’d start telling me about the girl he was into, who he wanted to make a move on but couldn’t.

I’d say, “Is she with someone?”

“I don’t even know,” and he’d gesture here, adorably, “but she’s — off-limits.”

“Off-limits how?” I’d ask, with a knowing quirk of my lip.

His eyes would widen, embarrassed at his obviousness.

+

And actually it was very like that, in the end, except that he’d already made a move on the girl he was into. It all spilled out in an anxious tangle of words and tears, how he’d never thought that this could happen to him, and what was he going to do, and he wanted desperately to do the right thing but he didn’t even know —

And I stood there, the cigarette dissolving between my fingers, and said all the things you say, and he hugged me tightly and thanked me. Later they sent me a photo of the kid.

+

I ran into them outside the supermarket, the other day. Jenny’s a year old now. She has her mother’s red hair. Apparently she’s supposed to take after Raymond in everything else, but I couldn’t see it. I never can when they’re that age.

He was pushing the trolley, all loaded up with nappies and toilet paper, and I had a bag with a bottle of wine and a jar of olives swinging from my arm. “That’s your night sorted, then. I can’t get away with that anymore,” he said, cheerfully, and I blushed like a girl, like a foolish child.

+++

Claire Hennessy lives in Dublin, Ireland, where she writes and teaches creative writing workshops. She has had several young adult novels published with Poolbeg Press and recently received bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland and South Dublin County Council to develop a short story collection. She studied at Trinity College Dublin and can be found online at: www.clairehennessy.com