"It makes you ashamed to be of Irish descent," spit out Thin Lips. He was no longer looking at Oona but glancing rapidly about the room, for other ringless women no doubt, she thought.
"And the Irish are not shy about giving you their opinion," the first man continued. "It's like they can't wait to tell you off."
Thin Lips was listening intensely, gripping his glass. He moved in closer. He said he had it on good authority that Bush had made the speech to launch the war, giving Uday and Qusay 48 hours to surrender, on St. Patrick's Day as a sort of tribute to the FDNY since so many of the dead firemen were of Irish descent. He sputtered his summation, "And then they've got the balls to be against the war."
The first man said, "They're not just against it. They revile it."
"Well, I guess the Irish have had some practice in seeing how well violence goes." Oona thought she'd spoken lightly enough. Well, in keeping with your typical private party-in-the-back-of-a-bar hubbub with people milling, drinks in-hand, or winding through bursts of shouts and laughter, drinks in-hand. And the last bit about St. Patrick's Day struck her as so preposterous that Oona felt calm in her dismissal. But suddenly Thin Lips' words were sailing on top of the racket, "You know what they call people who don't support their President in a time of war? Traitors!"
Men with their wives and girls, but mostly men stood listening, the instinct to gather and watch the kill asserting itself.
"Oh, really, I thought that was the whole point of being an American—that you could disagree." But Oona could hear the faltering in her own voice. She looked around to find Jack. This thin lipped man was unnerving her. Jack was at the bar, looking straight at her. Oona beckoned him forward with her finger, but he didn't make a move.
She started to walk down the bar. The man followed her, saying, "I wanted to join up."
Oona turned around. Thin Lips was so close that he stepped on her heel and her shoe fell off. She fumbled, putting it back on. But Thin Lips was oblivious. "The Twin Towers are nothing. People like you will be sorry. The Iraqis have nukes." His tone was nasty but his eyes, so close, held Oona's, entreating her to understand the terrible truth.
The people in the backroom were still watching Oona's exit but no one tried to call off Thin Lips. Oona made one of those instantaneous decisions that seems like courage at the time but actually qualifies as stupidity. She spoke into a wet spot on the man's bottom lip rather than into his wasted eyes. "I told you; my brother-in-law died in the North Tower. My husband was a lieutenant in the Marines during Viet Nam. But violence still begets violence."
"Traitor!" The word hit her back as she turned. He followed her again and blew words onto her neck, sending thrills down her spine. "That makes you more of a traitor!"
"So go. Go to Iraq if you're such a true believer. Who's stopping you?"
"I'm too old," he said as his eyes filled with tears.
On the ride home Oona said to Jack, "If he had hit me, not one person would have intervened."
"Now you're exaggerating."
"Oh, yeah. Why didn't you get up?"
"From where I was sitting it looked like a regular conversation."
"A regular conversation where a man lurches after a woman down the length of a bar? He knocked off my shoe... You're the big protector of everyone but me."
"Oona, you of all people should know those guys are all mentally depressed."
"You should've defended me."
"Do me a favor and don't argue with drunks. Or with firemen who've picked up body parts. "
"Vengeance won't help. It's ugly. And why couldn't I say that?"
"You can say whatever you want but then you've got to be a big girl and take your lumps."
"So I did. I feel like I was the one who was brave tonight, Jack."
Jack began to drive fast. His blue eyes were burning through fog scraps that rose up steadily from the road. Oona held the image in her mind, even afterwards; it was like they'd caught out the expressway in its secret act of night-breathing.
They were passing trucks and cars huffing steam. Then it seemed they were alone, the only car piercing through the road's vaporous unfurlings. They might've been proceeding through a dreamscape. There was that sense of disconnect.
It seemed like all that had passed had been a dream, anyway. And, as in a dream, what was to come next, impossible to control.
Jack was speaking faster than he drove.
"You're brave? How about naïve? People want vengeance. Maybe vengeance is justice. I don't know. But we've gone through this already—you don't believe that. I could take that as an insult to my brother's memory, but I won't. And I don't need to go around convincing anybody of anything. The only duty I have is to keep this city safe. Even for assholes like that guy..."
He put his hand on her thigh. "Let's not fight with each other." And the way that he said each other, she knew that he meant the world was bad enough.
He turned to look at her. And his eyes, so blue, said that, unlike her, he would never accept an iota of complicity for how the world might have gotten that way.
Oona ended by apologizing, but when the alcohol wore off she saw with perfect clarity how it was: Jack's need to appear a hard-ass to his dead brother's friends trumped her need of defense. She saw, too, how she would have to forgive Jack his weakness. His courage, she realized now, had always only been physical bravery. Not a small thing in and of itself, but not the thing she'd honored.
Maura Candela's poetry has been included in Our Little Catastrophes, published by the Women's Studio Center, Long Island City, New York.
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