The Man With the Lapdog

He heard his wife lifting herself from the bath water, and he knew that when she came out she'd get into bed beside him, damp in a way he'd once found so erotic that it nearly choked him

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

ALMOST every morning, as Lyle was getting ready to take the dog for a walk along the bay, his wife would ask, "Are ye down the prom, then?" They had met and married thirty years before, in Vermont, when she was Mary Curtin and he'd thought her a happy combination of exotic and domestic. At sixty, after their life in the States, she still called herself a Galway girl; at sixty-seven, after two years of retirement in Galway, Lyle still considered a prom a high school dance, not two miles of sidewalk beside the water.
So he would say, "We're going to walk along the bay," and hope she'd leave it at that. When they had first come to Ireland, the exchange had had a bit of a joke to it, but he felt it now as unwelcome pressure. He had no intention of taking up Irish idioms -- he'd have felt foolish saying "half-five" instead of five-thirty, "Tuesday week" instead of next Tuesday, "ye" for you. "Toilet" instead of bathroom was unthinkable. He called things by their real names -- "pubs" bars, "shops" stores, "chips" French fries, and "gardai" police.

He didn't love the talk, and he didn't love the Irish people, who always stood too close and talked too fast, and he had trouble, still, understanding what they said. He had frightened and embarrassed himself trying to drive on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, and had given it up. He disliked the weight of pound coins in his pocket, and he didn't care for Guinness.

And yet, somewhat to his surprise, he liked a lot about Ireland. He liked keeping the small garden in front of their house, the way things simply grew and thrived in the steady cool dampness. He liked the stone walls that surrounded every yard and separated one person's place from another's. He liked the little coal-burning fireplace in the sitting room. After forty years as an accountant for a hardware chain, he liked living in a place where people went for walks, and he liked going for walks. He liked the dog, a long-haired dachshund, a pretty, girlish little thing. He liked the opinionated newspapers, and he liked being a foreigner.

One day in early March, walking along the bay, he saw a couple he probably wouldn't have noticed among the other tourists if it had been summer. They stood arm in arm looking out over the water, the woman dark-haired and attractive in an unglamorous way, the man thin and frail, apparently very ill. Lyle heard her say, "Yes, County Clare -- I'm sure of it," her American accent clear; he nodded as he passed, and they nodded in response. The next day their walks crossed at about the same place, and all three smiled in recognition. That evening something on television about pre-season tourists reminded him to say that he'd met an American couple.

"Have you?" his wife said. "Where are they from?"

"I don't know," he replied, sorry already that he'd said anything.

She tilted her head as if she was being playful and said, "So did ye talk about the weather, then?"

"Yes," he said. "We talked about the ugly weather."

On the third day, when they met again, Lyle gave the leash the small tug that told the dog to sit and said, "It's a beautiful day, isn't it? -- good to see the sun again."

Something rippled between the man and the woman and came out as a quick laugh in her answer. "It's glorious," she agreed. "And you're American!" she said.

"I am," he said.

The man, too, seemed amused as he put out his hand in introduction. "I'm Mark; this is my wife, Laura. And we, too, are Americans."

"Lyle," he said. He shook Mark's thin hand. "Are you here on vacation?"

"For three weeks," Laura said, as if three weeks were a long, luxurious season. "And you?"

The dog was sitting patiently. "I'm retired, and my wife is Irish, so we came back here to live a couple of years ago."

They said where they were from, and how old their children were, and that this was their first trip to Ireland, long dreamed about, and then Laura reached out and put her hand lightly and briefly on the sleeve of Lyle's coat. "I have to tell you: we'd seen you walking here, and we made up a life for you -- "

"We assumed you were Irish, of course," Mark said.

"I suppose it's because everything is so exactly as we expected it to be," Laura said. "The stone walls in the fields when we were coming over from Shannon, the pretty shops, the thatched roofs. We even saw a rainbow our first day here. So we just put you into the picture, the Galway gentleman, and when you turn out to be American, it's quite a joke on us." Her eyes sparkled.

Her eyes were very fine, her face strong, and Lyle admired even the simple way she held her dark hair in her fist to keep it from blowing across her face. She was coming into middle age with none of the artificiality of so many American women.

"So I've spoiled your postcard," he said, and all three of them laughed. When they parted, he kept the picture of himself her words had made: his overcoat and hat, his kindly aging face, the tidy small dog, obedient at the end of the leash. And he kept, too, the swift pleasure of her hand on his coat.

They met again the next day and the next, stopping to talk for a few minutes. Lyle would recognize them at some distance by Mark's brimmed hat and the bright shawl Laura wore over the shoulders of her coat. They walked in the mornings, she said, before the wind got too strong, because the wind tired Mark. He had lost his hair, and his face was swollen, but Lyle could see that in health he had been a handsome man. They always walked arm in arm, and she often seemed to be supporting him, more as a matter of balance than of strength, but something in the way they looked together led Lyle to believe that even before Mark's illness they had often walked this old-fashioned way, side by side, along streets or through parks. Lyle could almost remember the pleasure of that -- the hand a warm pressure in the bend of his elbow, the wrist between his arm and his ribs eloquent and secret, the publicness of the linking.

THE next evening his wife asked about his Americans, and he told her they were from Idaho, where Mark taught high school and Laura raised their four teenage children, who were with grandparents for these three weeks.

"A teacher," his wife said, wondering. "An expensive holiday for a teacher -- and during the term."

"They have those deals," he said. "Two-for-ones. Off season." They were eating spaghetti, and he watched how she poked around among the strands, looking for something in particular.

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