Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013
I shuffled in my bedroom smoking one of the last cigarettes in my pack while the light drew train tracks on the ceiling through the slats of my blinds. I didn’t want a cigarette but knew I would later, once the pack was empty, and somehow this fulfilled that future want. I walked around my bed, coughed, and brushed some dust off of the empty bureau. Just slightly beyond the window the sky was about to spit daggers at the sidewalk. We never had winter in London, not properly, just freezing cold rain once or twice a day. Half-open, uneasy umbrellas fluttered about, not wanting to seem presumptuous. The lights came on early, not letting darkness rest on the streets for even a moment. Echoing sirens tried to escape the city, only to hit the gray undersides of all the clouds and be thrown back down at the pavement like high-rise suicides.
Two days earlier I’d received a letter from my mother:
Siofra has killed herself. The funeral is on the 30th.
Siofra had been, in some respects, my first girlfriend. I sat down. I reread the letter a few times and put some water on the stove for tea. I walked to the window and looked out at the sky. I stood there until the water in the pot had boiled away and I could hear the sound of the metal cracking tensely against the heat. I had already called my landlord to tell him I was leaving, left a message for my mother, packed my things into storage, and bought a ticket to Dublin.
I had a few hours before I needed to leave for the airport. I lit another cigarette and went for a walk to see the city I’d be abandoning. Unable to land anything permanent, I’d only worked temporary office jobs in the year since I graduated university, and the apartment was a week-to-week rental. I had few friends and didn’t feel like I was leaving anything behind. I walked the damp streets of London and pictured it as a lung, coughing up garbage and rotting fish with each of the ground’s belches. I could see my breath and tested, a few times, blowing into gusts of steam expelled from the city’s basement. I inhaled deeply and exhaled as soon as the thick air shot up out of vents in the sidewalk. I made a game out of watching my cloud meet the breath of the city. Two teenage girls sat on the street in front of a closed Tesco and passed a brown bag back and forth: so cold and thin and half my age. I could see ribs and nipples under their tatters of shirts. I caught myself and looked away. I tried to imagine Siofra killing herself.
Something had always been off about our neighbor Siofra. When I was very young my father left. My mother and I moved in with my mother’s family: my aunt and uncle, a few cousins, and my grandmother. Siofra lived next door with her mother. I remember her having dense, curly hair and wearing shapeless clothes. As children we would laugh at her when she came over for tea with her mother. My uncle gave us looks that would stone a priest silent, and we would go outside to amuse ourselves. Siofra never did anything particularly strange, but the feeling of the room changed when she entered. Everything got fragile and tense. We kids grew silly as a counterpoint to my mother and aunt, who seemed to become overly polite. We didn’t see Siofra often. Sometimes she sat in her backyard next door, in a bright yellow wicker chair and, more often than not, her mother came to visit alone.
Something happened once my cousins and I hit our teens. We were different now, teenagers, if only thirteen, and Siofra became a mystery to us. Five years older, she was the only person any of us kids saw who was of the age that separated us from our parents. She sat in our parlor next to her mother, never saying a word as the adults chirped about this and that. She never seemed to grow bored of listening and would sip her tea in silence as we watched her. It was as though in understanding something about her we would understand some fundamental step to becoming an adult.
When you watch the sun rise at 30,000 feet it seems like you’re looking down on it. As soon as I got on the plane I ordered a whiskey. The air hostess gave me a startled look, it being barely dawn; still, she quickly brought me the drink and a packet of airline crackers. I sat sulking and wondered what ever happened to airline peanuts when the girl napping next to me suddenly woke up and reached toward me. I jumped back.
“Sorry. Weird dream,” she said.
“That’s alright. Bit of excitement.” She was an American and pushed her straight black hair back behind her ear. “On vacation?” I asked.
“Sort of, I guess. I inherited some money and thought I’d go to Ireland. How about you? Visiting home?”
“I am, in a way. I’m going to a wake.” What a strange thing to say out loud. Why a wake? Will the dead wake up? My mind buzzed with sleeplessness and alcohol.
“I’m sorry.” She seemed to regret asking.
“It’s alright. I barely knew the deceased.” I finished off my whiskey and motioned to the air hostess for a refill.
When we landed all the liquid in my eyes felt thick and made me stumble. My body felt both slimy and dried out, like a newly stretched animal skin hanging above the tent of some fierce, ancient chieftain. Despite the shortness of the flight, I had been awake long enough to already feel more sober than I was. In the rental car, everything was about two inches to the right of where I imagined it should be and I could barely get out of the parking lot. The quick turns made me quickly park. In a small village between the airport and the city, I battled my way through most of a pot of coffee and not very much of a plate of rashers and eggs. Back on the road, I made good time.
Once I’d dropped off the rental and walked the couple of blocks to the funeral home it was after noon. Family and friends dotted the room in mourning, some with black armbands that made me think of fascists. I tried not to mingle. Caleb, the cousin who looked like a buck-toothed Tom Cruise when we were children, swaggered over toward my corner. “It’s a sorry reason to visit the family,” he scolded me.
“It is, yeah. A shame, so. I was planning on coming back this winter for a while, actually,” I lied. “So I just sped up my plans. It gives me a chance to see Mum too. Come to think of it, where is she?”
“Wandering around somewhere with Mamo. I was sorry to hear about yer Da.” Caleb touched his upper lip to his nose in a way that looked as though he was searching for a kiss.
“It’s alright. We weren’t close. Thanks, though.” There was a silence.
“You’re here for a bit then? Living, like?” I say that I am, not having any actual plans. I tell him I’m going to get a place in the west and find something to do for a while, maybe teach.
“Bit of a midlife crisis, then?” he smirked.
Caleb and I had almost finished the pint of Powers I’d bought on the way. My eyes took on a fuzz, and the room seemed particularly hot in the soggy Irish winter. As I folded my glasses and put them in my pocket I spotted my mother at the casket talking to a strange old man in a dark green velvety suit.
“How’re you, Mum?” I said, hugging her. She looked slightly older around her eyes, but, as she continued to dye her hair, didn’t seem as old as she should.
“Sad, but good, considering.” She gave an odd look to the man in the suit and told me, “It’s not a happy reason to get a visit.”
“It isn’t, no. How is everyone taking it?” I asked.
The small man in the velvet suit piped in, “I’ll just absent myself now. I think I could use a drink.” He tipped his hat and walked off.
“And who the hell was that?” I asked.
My mother scolded me for swearing in front of a casket and told me the man was Siofra’s father, who had been living overseas her whole life.
“That seems to be pretty common with fathers around here.” I kept smirking.
“Let’s not bring your father up now, not so soon after his passing, and not at another funeral. I’m going to go and be with Siofra’s mother now. You should pay your respects alone.”
I leaned over the coffin. Under a death mask of makeup her face was brighter than it had been in life. She wore the thin glasses that I’d only seen on special occasions. Her hands were ashen and clasped over her crotch in a way that seemed both lewd and touching, like a little angel in a Christmas choir under the eyes of a pedophile. The flush in my face grew as I leaned over the dead Siofra. She wore a strange smile in death: sarcastic, like she knew a secret. I felt suddenly dizzy and stood up to take a deep drink from my bottle.
Just before the service that followed the wake, all the men gathered outside the church door speaking Irish and looking at their newly shined shoes in the slight rain. The women ticked and crowed around the cars. The smells of aftershave, hairspray, and leather softener all mixed with ocean mist and burning turf so that, by the time we were sitting, all the intentions of the morning clung to the insides of our nostrils. Slumped into cheap wooden pews, the eyes of wide-knuckled men danced up and down the thick calves of Irish womanhood while my cousin Fiachra ran to vomit a bout of morning sickness. I watched and felt spinning from the whiskey and stood, pretending that I was making a trip to the bathroom before the service began. I opened the thick wooden door of the church and stumbled down enormous stone steps. They could have been monoliths left over from some ancient culture. I took two steps on each huge slab of stone to get down and set off in a random direction, fingering a bottle out of my pocket.
I didn’t know Dublin as well as I thought I did and ended up spending the next few hours of evening aimlessly wandering. I followed the smell of dirty surf that combined with garbage and my own bad breath and found myself at the beach. I sat on the wet sand watching uninteresting ships move in and out of the bay. I tried to think about my father, who’d been absent most of my life, and my mother, or mothers in general, or about Siofra or Ireland in general. I couldn’t force a moment of significance to happen and when I stood the ass of my pants was wet.
I knew my mother would be furious with my running out on the service so I rushed to the house and hid myself in my old bedroom before any of the family got home. I laid on my old bed, in what was now a guest room. I remembered the first time I was alone with Siofra. It was during dawn Mass. Once my father wasn’t there to make me, I never went to Mass. My aunt and uncle clucked their tongues at my lack of religion but felt that it wasn’t their place to say anything. While they were away at church I had the house to myself. I’d walk from room to room poking through all the drawers in the bedrooms and my uncle’s study. In his desk I’d found an antique magnifying glass with writing around the handle and held it over one eye, swinging around a letter opener like a pirate’s cutlass. In a large wooden box with gold trim and my uncle’s initials carved on the top I found an ancient pocket watch. It was buried beneath some cuff links, a medal on a fraying purple ribbon, and a small telescope. I lifted it away from the other artifacts and held it up to the light. It had no chain, and the glass was scratched to the point of making the numbers impossible to read. I was holding it up to the light in the middle of my uncle’s study when the doorbell rang, jarring me. In fear of being caught I quickly put the box back on the shelf, closing its lid with a loud snap, and slipped the watch into my pocket.
At the door was Siofra. “I never go to Mass either. I thought I’d see who was here,” she said.
“Just me. Everyone leaving woke me up so I’ve been sitting around,” I said, thinking that she somehow knew I’d put the watch into my pocket and had come over to work a confession from me.
We sat in the dribbling early morning light working at a silence. I remember staring at her like she was a specimen or a painting. I kept my hand solidly in my pocket holding the watch so it wouldn’t slip into her gaze.
“What is it?” she asked, suddenly.
“It’s a watch. It was in my uncle’s study. I didn’t mean to pinch it. You just scared me with the bell so I put it in my pocket.”
She smiled and punched me in the arm. “I meant what’s bothering you. You seem scared.”
“You didn’t know?”
“No. How could I have?”
We sat like that a while longer while I realized I’d given myself up and wondered what Siofra would do with the information.
“I didn’t mean to steal it.”
“I promise I won’t tell,” she said, and smiled.
We sat for a moment longer. I reached over without thought and put my hand on her right breast, still looking forward. With my right hand angled across my body it was an awkward motion and I had to turn to face her. Her body was stiff and her eyes forward, as I sat watching my motionless hand sit on her large and shapeless breast. “Not here,” she said, and went down the basement stairs.
I followed her. There was a couch, a TV, and a few bookshelves, lit only by light bulbs dangling a few paces apart. Siofra was round, standing naked next to the couch. Her curly red hair caught all of the light from the bare bulb behind her. Not knowing what was next, I undressed and walked to stand in front of her. She told me to lie down and set about straddling me: making my body ready. I felt a tingling like I had to pee when she put me inside her and, terrified of wetting myself, whimpered, flailing my thorny kid’s arms to push her off, but she moaned “no” and held my hands down on her thick thighs, beginning to sway on my lap. After a moment, just a few seconds of swaying, and with a cry, I came. I didn’t know if I had peed in Siofra or something else. The feeling of it was a mix of urination, pain, and a strangely satisfying unknown pleasure very low in my body.
She quickly ran upstairs saying she had to pee. I sat with my knees pressed to my chest on the beaten black couch we’d just soiled. The sun started to rise outside and drained through the one small window. In the painting on the wall, Christ looked a challenge over his shoulder to Noah. I replaced the pocket watch in my uncle’s study and waited in my room, pretending to be asleep.
For two or three months, we continued to be together each Sunday while our families were at Mass. Each time I would put something of my uncle’s in my pocket and she would ring the bell. We never spoke about it. Each time I would let her in and we would go silently downstairs. She would absent herself to pee afterwards and let herself out of the house. After she had left I’d return the token I’d stolen from my uncle. One day I just didn’t answer the door when she rang. I walked around the house and couldn’t find anything interesting, no matter where I snooped. From then on we didn’t make eye contact when she came to the house with her mother. I never spoke of it to anyone and avoided her in the neighborhood. I didn’t see her on the few short trips I made home after leaving for England and university.
From behind my closed door I could hear my family come home. I heard tea being made and steps toward my room. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. There was a light knock at my door and it opened a crack. There was a sigh and my mother said lightly, “Right then. Safe and sound.” The footsteps went back to the kitchen.
I woke up after midnight and stood outside my family’s house while they slept inside. I lit a cigarette and tried my best to not cough, not wanting to wake anyone. I closed my eyes and took a step toward Siofra’s house. I walked around the back and saw her chair sitting in the middle of the slightly overgrown yard. I opened the back door and put out my cigarette. I looked into the darkness of the open space and turned on the light.
Siofra’s mother was staying with friends and clearly hadn’t been home since she had found the body. I took a step farther into the house and kicked the receiver of the phone. I picked it off the floor and replaced it in its cradle. I sat on the couch, then stood up. I looked at my watch but couldn’t focus on the numbers. I did the dishes in the sink and wandered around the rooms, opening Siofra’s mother’s jewelry box, emptying a few ashtrays in the living room. I stood next to Siofra’s bed and tried to cry. I willed my eyes but nothing would come. I wiped my dry eyes on Siofra’s nightgown, which had no scent. I put my last, nearly full, pack of cigarettes on the living room table and walked from room to room turning off each light.