Authors: Maureen Gibbon
Swimming Sweet Arrow
First published in the United States of America in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
First published in Great Britain in hardback in 2010 by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
Copyright © Maureen Gibbon, 2010
The moral right of Maureen Gibbon to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with
the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s
imagination and not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely
First eBook Edition: January 2010
An imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd
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Things are always different from what they might be.
The Portrait of a Lady
BEFORE I MET ALPHA BREVILLE
, all I knew about Stillwater, Minnesota, was that antique shops and a cloying quaintness filled its downtown. I’d gone there
once on a Prozac-induced spending spree and come home with an ink-stained quilt, a book of Jesse Stuart stories, and about
thirty old photographs I’d stolen from various stores and shoved past my jeans into my underwear. The photographs were worthless,
but Prozac made me compulsive, and I couldn’t stop myself from falling in love with the old-time faces.
My favorite photo, the one I framed and hung on the wall beside my bed, was of a man who looked to be in his forties, and
who struck me as being a country preacher. He wore a dark suit and limp string tie, his expression was patient and sorrowful,
and in spite of careful slicking back, his hair sprouted cowlicks at his fore-head and above each ear. Across the bottom of
the dirty cream slip that held the photograph, someone had penciled
. It was partly that misspelled word that made me fall in love with the photo, and I wondered who had labeled the man: a family
member who judged and banished, or the thief himself, giving himself penance by owning up to his misdoing. I decided it was
the latter, but
probably only because the photographer had tinted the cheeks of the man a faint red, and the color looked like hot shame.
I met Alpha Breville after he (along with a grave digger and an engineer) answered a personal ad I had placed in a weekly
paper. When his letter came to me with his prison number as part of the return address, I thought it was laughable that a
convict believed he had something to offer me in terms of dating, and I questioned how an inmate at Stillwater state prison
even got the $2 the paper charged to forward responses. I thought about throwing away Breville’s letter, but it was somehow
impossible to do. Even with the return prison address, the airy white envelope held the promise that all letters held. So
I read the thing, and after I did, it seemed the joke was on me, because the letter Alpha Breville wrote to me from Stillwater
state prison was no different from the other letters I’d received in response to my ad. There was an explanation of why he
had chosen to write (my headline “Great kisser, good listener” caught his eye), followed by a short personal history and accounting
of years, a series of questions for me, and a conclusion expressing hope that I would write back. An ordinary letter. I don’t
know why that surprised me so much— after all, there is only so much that can go into a letter, and it was in Breville’s best
interests to make himself sound like any other man. But it was the ordinariness of his letter that startled me. If what a
convict wrote was no different from what other men wrote, maybe he himself was not so different.
Yet something was different. In explaining that he came from a town in western South Dakota, Breville wrote that though he
missed his family and the land, he did not miss living there with its isolation. It was a thoughtful observation and one that
meant something to me, since I’d spent time in South Dakota and knew how it could feel. But the part of Breville’s letter
that really got my attention was the part that came next, his description of a sunset:
summer, the sun is the color of orangeade and fierce when it sets. You think it’s going to stay burned in your eyes forever.
It was just a couple of sentences— strings of words. But he was absolutely right. The summer I was out there, the sun really
didn’t look like anything natural on this earth, and if I watched it too long as it slowly set behind the flat line of the
horizon, I would be blinded to all color for a long time after. Of all the things men had written in their letters— paragraphs
about seeking “friendship” or “that special someone,” or clever descriptions of what they liked to do in their spare time—
nothing struck me more than Breville’s words about the nuclear-looking South Dakota sun.
Of course, in that first letter Breville didn’t tell me the most important detail: why he was in Stillwater. The omission
itself seemed damning, but even as I thought that, I also understood his choice. Either his incarceration would repel me so
much it wouldn’t matter what he’d done, or else I would write back and, in doing so, give him an opportunity to explain. It
was the only decision he could make, the only gamble he could take, and anyone smart enough to construct a very normal letter
would be smart enough to take that chance. After all, I told myself, Rochester didn’t come right out and tell Jane Eyre he
had a crazy wife in the attic— he didn’t tell until he had to.
The book was still on my mind because I’d finished the school year with it, teaching it to the seniors. When we got to the
section where Bertha’s presence at Thornfield was revealed, most students said they could understand Rochester’s decision
to conceal the truth. They believed almost to a person that Jane would never have even “given him a chance” if he’d revealed
everything at the outset. When I pressed further, though, and asked them if they didn’t think that such an omission was a
type of lie, they uncomfortably agreed it was.
, they’d said.
In any case, I suppose it was partly because of
decided to take things one step further and write back to Breville. And it wasn’t because I had some romantic notion that
I was Jane and Breville was Rochester. It’s just that thinking of
made me remember I had enough of my own secrets to know they couldn’t be the first things told.
I’d always been interested in black sheep and underdogs. When I was a young girl, I liked boys with wolfish faces, who had
a bit of the hoodlum in them, and my tastes still ran that way. My most recent relationship started when I saw a man get off
a bus on Lake Street, and he saw me see him. We circled each other on Hennepin until he came up and began talking to me. I
didn’t care that he worked as a dishwasher. I liked his face and his body, and I was glad that he liked mine. Even in my job,
where I played the role of maiden aunt, I often went out of my way to help delinquent boys and wayward girls. I saw in those
students pieces of myself, but more importantly I tried to see them
as they were
, with dignity. I believed each of them had a voice and a story, and at least some of them reflected that belief back to me.
For instance, last year Danielle Starck wrote on the back of her school picture,
Your class was the reason I came to school
. The following semester, when she wasn’t my student, she tried to kill herself. I’m not saying I could have stopped her—
I was only an English teacher— but maybe I could have helped her. I do know I would have tried.
It was that kind of thinking, in part, that made me give Alpha Breville a chance.
THOUGH I WAS INDICATING MY OPENNESS
by the very act of writing back to Breville, I thought it would be best if I sounded guarded in my reply. So after my greeting
to him, I wrote, “I’m not sure why you answered my ad. I’m looking for someone to date, and you can’t offer me that. Frankly,
I don’t know what you can offer anyone. But perhaps we can exchange a few letters. You seem like a thoughtful enough person.”
Even that slight compliment seemed like a risk, however, so I followed it up immediately. “While I understand why you might
be reluctant to tell me why you’re in Stillwater, you must know you have to,” I wrote. “I expect complete honesty. Surely
you can see the need for it. I have to know how you came to be in prison. If you can’t tell me that, I would prefer you didn’t
write back at all.”
I didn’t bother to say that I could find out anything about him I wanted— it was true, even in those days before the Internet.
Whatever Breville had done was a matter of public record, and I was sure he knew it. Then I sent off my letter, an ink-jetted
copy as de-personalized as I could make it. If he wanted to respond to my question, he could, and if he didn’t, I stood nothing
When I didn’t hear back for a week, when no plain white envelope with the Stillwater return address showed up in my mailbox,
figured my price— honesty—had been too high for Breville to pay. And I thought it was for the best. What ever the reason was
for Breville’s incarceration, I didn’t need the drama. I’d come up north to a rented lake cabin the day school let out, and
in the days after I sent my letter to Stillwater, I did all the things I’d driven four hours north to do: I swam, I went for
walks around the lake, and I watched birds— loons and eagles, and a great blue heron that crossed so low over the water I
could hear its wing-beats. In the afternoons, after the worst of the sun’s burning was over, I took a small pillow down to
the dock and slept on the hard boards. I never thought I would be able to sleep in the light and sound and breeze of the day,
but I always did. And when I woke— groggy and hot— I’d climb down off the dock and slip into the deliciously cold water. It
amazed me that I felt so at ease in a place I’d never been before. Part of me wanted to tell someone about how the days felt,
but another part of me wanted to keep it secret. Mostly I just wanted to go on feeling the way I did.
The lack of response from Breville gave me time to think, and I began to believe that my willingness to write to him was just
another sign of being adrift. While my work life was stable and pleasant enough, pieces of my personal life were in their
usual disarray, and I was glad I hadn’t told any of my friends about writing to Breville, since I knew what their reactions
would be. My friend Kate would rush on to another subject, trying to be nonjudgmental yet judging all the time, and Julian
would castigate me. He knew everything that had gone on this past year, and why I’d decided to move out of my apartment and
put some space between me and my old life in the Cities. “What is wrong with you?” I could hear him asking. “You just got
rid of one dangerous asshole. Do you need to invite another into your life?”
To a certain degree he would be right— I did love danger. Adventure. There was a part of me that was content being an English
teacher, living in book-lined rooms, writing poetry, hanging out with friends. But sometimes those things didn’t satisfy me,
and like most
people, I led a double life— and at times even a triple life. I was one person during the week, another with friends, and
someone entirely different on weekends when I went out. I said I wanted a healthy relationship with a man, but I did nothing
to find one. Instead, I patched together half-relationships and weekly assignations. I did nothing to unite the disparate
pieces of my life. But as I always pointed out to Julian, I didn’t want to marry any of the men I dated— I only wanted to
kiss them and fuck them. I knew how to draw the line. I also knew writing back to Breville had probably been foolish, and
I knew it without any loving, meddlesome friend pointing it out to me.