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At some point things started going way too well for me. I was twenty-four years old, living in Boston, doing advanced research at the world's fifth-largest software company, and dating a woman who had rowed at Harvard and done postgraduate work at Oxford.
How had this happened? I didn't dare ask. I do not believe in God, but I do believe there is an order to things, an energy that holds the world together; and maybe somehow I had tapped into that. On warm autumn afternoons I would ride my bike along the Charles, past the rowers and joggers, past the cars caught in traffic, past the brownstones and boathouses and rusty bridges, past the stinking Haymarket fish stands and the shouting Italian fruit vendors and the shy Asian women who sold flowers in the street and suddenly, for no reason, I would burst out laughing. This was my life. I had to keep telling myself that.
I was raised an Irish Catholic, and the most central of our many self-defeating superstitions is the belief that when good things happen, bad things are just around the corner. So with each new stroke of good luck I grew a little more afraid. At night I woke shivering from a dream in which I was winched off the ground, higher and higher five hundred feet, a thousand and then dropped.
I kept thinking about those stories in Greek mythology where the gods play tricks on people. One day, I figured, I would step outside and see a meteor racing toward me, or a bolt of lightning, or a speeding car. Either that or Alan Funt and the crew from Candid Camera would step out of the bushes and explain the joke, and I would blush and try not to look too foolish. But somehow, sooner or later, the spell would break, and my good luck would explode and scatter like a clay pigeon, blown right out of the sky.
The key was faith. You had to have no faith at all. You had to keep telling yourself that this was all going to end tomorrow. You could not allow yourself to enjoy your good fortune, not even for a moment. This exercise required tremendous concentration of the juggling-while-riding-a-unicycle-on-a-tightrope variety. For a long time I managed to do it. But then I slipped.
This happened at Wonderland Park, a dog track north of the city. It was a Tuesday night in late October: a sharp wind with a taste of winter, thin clouds scudding across the sky. The track was Jeanie's idea. Her father used to take her there when she was a kid. She led me up to the back row of the grandstand. I can imagine the way others might have seen us: a young couple huddled together, their breath rising in little plumes, the woman red-haired and gorgeous, the man scrawny and bespectacled and out of his league, peering out from beneath a Detroit Tigers cap, blowing into his hands.
We were eating Wonderdogs, drinking hot chocolate. On the track, under the glare of the klieg lights, the greyhounds were restless, high-strung, tugging at their leads. I had placed a ten-dollar bet on a jet-black one-year-old named Coco. She was running in the first race of her life, at nine-to-one odds. When the gates burst open, Coco leaped into the lead and ran with such force that the other dogs looked as if they had been drugged. She ran the way you might run in a dream, with no effort at all. She flew. She won by thirteen lengths.
Everyone rose. A strange electricity hummed in the air. Then came the announcement: a track record. The monitors ran a replay. We all stood there, dumbfounded. The man beside us said that in forty years of going to the track he had never seen anything like this. "It's like the freaking Twilight Zone," he said. His breath stank. "A thing like this makes you want to go have kids, just so you can tell them about it." We laughed and said, sure, whatever you say, and ran off to collect. But I knew what he meant. Greatness is a rare thing, and you're lucky if once or twice in your life you get to bear witness to it. Those of us who saw Coco run could count ourselves among the lucky.
"How did you know?" Jeanie asked me. "You didn't place a bet all night, and then you put ten dollars on that clog. Why did you do that?"
We were out in the parking lot, trying to find her Saab. I could feel the ninety dollars in my front pocket nine crisp ten-dollar bills, folded in half, rubbing against my leg. The air was cold; it felt almost like snow, except that the sky was clear, and it was too early in the year.
"I liked the sound of her name," I said. "Coco. It sounded lucky."
She stopped. She put her fingers to my forehead, the way my mother did when I was a kid and she was checking my temperature. "You've got it," she said.
"What? The flu? The mark of the beast?"
"The chi." She brushed my hair away from my face. "Buddhist monks get it. They get in this zone where they're on a different plane. They can use their minds to control their body temperature. Some of them can fly."
I stood on my toes and flapped my arms. Nothing happened.
"Stop," she said. She pushed me against the fender of a Jeep, and pressed herself against me. "Reilly," she said, her voice going husky, "I don't know if I can wait till we get home."
On the way back into the city we put on the Cure, a band we both admitted with some embarrassment to having liked during our painful, angst-filled, adolescent loser phases. We spoke of those phases as if they had taken place years before, but in fact my depressed loser phase had extended all the way through college and had ended only recently, when I moved to Boston and met Jeanie; I didn't tell her that, though. We were driving over the Tobin Bridge and the song was "Lovesong," and when Jeanie sang, "I will always love you," I managed to believe that she meant it for me. Which proves, I suppose, that in fact my pathetic loser phase hadn't ended at all, because what kind of person finds meaning in the lyrics of a Cure song?
But there I was, drumming my hand on the armrest, grinning like an idiot. For the first time ever, I believed: My good luck was not luck, it was skill; I was not getting more than I deserved, I was getting my fair share. From the bridge I gazed down at the Navy Yard, where the lights spilled like dye into the inky harbor. Beyond that the Bunker Hill monument loomed over the rooftops of Charlestown. Suddenly my future was unfolding before me like some glorious movie landscape: I would become a millionaire, and marry Jeanie, and nothing bad would ever happen to me.
Of course this was ridiculous. About six months later things fell apart, the center could not hold, and Jeanie and I broke up. Strictly speaking, I broke up with her. But I only did it because she confessed that she had slept with Mort Stone, a vice president at our company, a man with degrees from Yale and Harvard and a summer house on Nantucket. I marched out of Jeanie's apartment on Beacon Hill, ignoring her apologies, telling myself that at least I had kept my dignity. But as I crossed the threshold a thread of fear tightened inside me: It occurred to me that Jeanie had tricked me, that in fact she had wanted to break up with me and had only pretended to be contrite. Yes, she had asked me not to leave; but there was something perfunctory about her pleas, as if she were reading them from three-by-five cards, or reciting them from memory.
For a moment I stood on the sidewalk gazing at the door I had just slammed, a shiny black Beacon Hill door with a brass knocker and a semicircular window above it that looked like a setting sun, and I felt like a kid who has run away from home and then panics when no one comes looking for him. I waited for the door to open, for Jeanie to come running out after me. She didn't. I started to knock, but then thought better of it. Instead, I peered in the window. She was on the phone, holding her hand to her face and gazing dully at the ceiling; she looked like someone who has just returned from having a pet put to sleep. I figured she was talking to Mort. "Love takes such a toll on us," I imagined her saying in a weary voice. This was one of her favorite expressions; she used it all the time.
It was May, a cool evening, the late sun going pink in the pale sky. Everyone on Beacon Hill was doing their spring cleaning. I walked down Hancock Street past boxes of junk: old records, worn-out shoes, sweaters so ugly even the Salvation Army wouldn't take them. And I couldn't help feeling that this was how Jeanie saw me, like some bit of clutter that had been taking up space in her life and now, at long last, she was rid of. My run of good luck was over. I had been shot down out of the sky, and now there was only the slow twisting descent, the engines coughing and sputtering smoke, the final fiery crash. On Cambridge Street a bus approached, and I had all I could do not to throw myself under the wheels.
Copyright © 1998 by Daniel Lyons