Concord 34

Sally Rooney

 

I was lying face-down on the sofa with my arms tucked up underneath my body when I heard the first text notification. I had my neck turned just marginally toward the TV so I could keep an eye on the film, and I knew it was only JP texting from the beach anyway. When I finally sat up to check my phone, it read:

 

playing fuck marry kill. libby says kill rob. robs not happy!

 

Onscreen, the detectives were interviewing a suspect who looked like a twelve-year-old. He was the piano genius character from earlier. I tried to text back using only one hand but eventually removed the other from beneath my body too. I typed out:

 

Are you still on the beach? Must be freezing.

 

All the lights in the house were off except for the TV. I was alone because my mother was at a staff birthday party.

 

everyones here. come out. its not that cold.

 

JP always thought I needed to get out more. I thought it was likely that Val had given him specific instructions on this point: Make sure she gets out of the house. Another text arrived, but it was not from JP. It was from my sister.

 

I see you’ve deleted your Facebook. Tried email but no reply. All ok?

The detectives put the pianist’s mother in handcuffs. I held down the power button on my phone until the display turned black. The phone felt heavier, as though it became a physical object only when switched off. Its weight impressed me.

 

I had moved home from Dublin in May. The day I arrived, my mother lifted a lock of my hair and shook her head. That’s in terrible condition, she said. Look at that. She asked if Val was bringing the rest of my things in the car, but one wheelie suitcase was all I had. No, this is it, I said. All my earthly possessions. She didn’t laugh.

My mother was still working full-time that summer, so in the mornings I had the house to myself. I regularly slept for periods of over twelve hours, and when I woke up I liked to put on my cotton dressing-gown and pad around in my bare feet. I sat on the floor with my back against a portable radiator until it started to burn me. The house wasn’t cold, I just liked the sensation.

A week after I got back, JP and Rob knocked on the living-room window and waved at me. I came out to the front door to ask what they wanted, crossing my arms over my chest.

You never told us you were around, JP said.

Were you sick or what? said Rob. You look like shit.

Few cans on the beach? said JP.

It was after sunset and the sky was ice blue, the colour of science fiction. There were some other people down on the dunes too, people I knew from school. I had no reason to be there and no reason not to be there. JP and Rob were telling me what everyone had been doing while I was away, sometimes pointing at the person in question while they spoke. JP gestured at a group sitting a few feet away and said: There’s Evan, he’s finished the Leaving now.

Your cousin? I said.

He’s like you, Miriam, Rob said. A social justice warrior. Can’t even make jokes about the fucking Polish in front of that guy.

I bundled my jacket up into a ball and lay my head down onto it. The sea sounded noisy like human breath.

I remember him pre-pubescent, I said. Possibly without front teeth.

JP called him over: Evan! Come here! To me, Rob added: He’s got his front teeth back, look.

    He came over then, a tall guy with very clear skin. I thought I probably didn’t remember him after all, maybe I had been thinking of someone else, but he remembered me. He knew my name was Miriam and that I lived in the yellow house. I offered him one of JP’s cans of lager, but JP said Evan didn’t drink.

He’s a good boy, Rob said. He does what mammy tells him.

Tell Miriam how much you love Karl Marx, said JP.

  Evan held his hands out as if to say: These people, right? I admired that in a teenager, now that I was twenty-five and extremely bored of myself. The guys started to talk amongst themselves, while a cloud of insects moved over the dune grass and I closed my eyes. It wasn’t late but I was tired already. I was always getting tired then.

 

JP and Rob called over to the house to see me most days after that. So as to avoid letting them into the house, which I feared would bring them into contact with my private psychological space, I brought magazines down to the beach and pretended not to listen while they told anecdotes about all the memorable things Val had done in school. It was clear to me that JP and Rob thought I was weird, but their loyalty to Val prevented them from ever admitting this, probably even to each other. As a result they struggled gamely to interest me in their discussions, as if convinced that the right conversational gambit would eventually lead me to reveal myself as a normal person after all. In the evenings Val often called me on the phone and asked how I was getting along with them, like we were new colleagues and he was our Project Manager. His parents had sold their house and moved to Spain when they retired, and he had no brothers or sisters in town. I was the only real reason for him to visit, and for a long time that summer he didn’t. At the time I thought he sensed my reluctance to see him, though now I wonder if he was just reluctant to see me.

When they tired of me, JP and Rob mostly liked to bully Evan. If he was at the beach it was just a matter of emptying a bucket of seawater onto his head; otherwise we all had to troop up to the video rental shop where he worked so they could tell him he was a virgin while he was trying to deal with customers. Evan acted aloof and sarcastic, but it was clear he didn’t have any real friends. For this reason he seemed to appreciate my addition to the squad. When I arrived at the beach one night, before he noticed I was there, I heard him asking Rob: Do you think Miriam is coming out? I enjoyed watching him get bullied. His embarrassment was touching, and he often flicked glances toward me, hoping that I hadn’t noticed what the others were saying about him, or else hoping that I tacitly took his side. He didn’t know Val, and couldn’t remember ever meeting him, even when JP said: Of course you’ve fucking met him. Val? Val Dolan. JP appeared to see Val as a sort of international celebrity, rather than a man who had been very popular in school once and was now nearly thirty.

We spent some evenings that summer in the caravan park, where Evan’s parents owned a mobile home. It had three tiny bedrooms and a rain-faded plastic plate beside the front door reading ‘Concord 34’. On the patch of concrete outside they had a small barbecue, which we used often. When it rained, we bought chips from the van outside the caravan park instead and sat inside to eat them and drink lukewarm beer.

One night we were sitting outside on the plastic lawn chairs, which left faint pink criss-crosses on my thighs. Something I said made Evan laugh so much that he spilled own-brand cola on his T-shirt and said ‘fuck’ under his breath. When he went inside to change, Rob said to JP: Your little cousin wants to ride Miriam, you know. Rob liked to scandalize JP by making remarks like this.

Fuck off out of it, said JP.

I’m not being funny, mate, Rob said. He has fantasies about it, I can tell. He’s in there now thinking about that little black swimsuit she wears.

  For some reason I laughed then. There was nothing whatsoever seductive about my black swimsuit. Actually it was ugly and one of the shoulder straps was frayed.

You’re mentally unwell coming out with that stuff, JP said.

  Rob and I both kept laughing, until JP went away down the path in a sulk and we stopped. JP had been Val’s best friend in school. Before I came on the scene he even got to ride in the passenger seat of Val’s car at lunchtimes, I remembered that. Together Rob and I watched JP down at the end of the road, lighting a cigarette. I’ll tell you that guy’s problem, Rob said. He’s a sidekick with no fucking superhero.

Evan came back outside then in a different T-shirt. I thought he did look a little flushed.

Here he is, Rob said. Tell us, Evan, what colour is Miriam’s swimsuit?

Evan glanced at me, perhaps to check that he had permission to answer. Then he looked out, away, as if the question belonged somewhere with the landscape.

  The one I’m thinking of is black, he said. But you might have more than one.

Rob cracked up again then, but I just said: No, that’s it. The black one. Do you want me to get you another glass of Coke?

 

Val and I had been in school together, but he was older. When we started seeing each other I was sixteen and he was twenty, and he would come home from university at weekends and drive me around in his car. It made me feel special, like the girlfriend of a mob boss. Val had been immensely popular in school, and I assumed that he was popular everywhere and women fell for him constantly. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why he spent his college weekends at home in the company of a sixteen-year-old. He was always complimenting my intelligence and then telling me to be careful not to show off about it. He said women in college were full of themselves and always showing off, and men hated that. Years later I realized he had failed to make any friends in university at all, that he longed to be back in school, and that he had never had a relationship with an adult woman. By then enough time had passed that I felt sorry for him, and even a little guilty, like I had discovered a secret he had been trying to conceal.

By the time I finished my Master’s, we’d been together nearly eight years. For a while after I graduated, I lived in his apartment in Dublin, which he shared with a friend of his called Derek. I didn’t have a job, so I washed the dishes every morning after they left for work, and every evening after we ate dinner. During that period I washed dishes so often that I became minutely attuned to the idiosyncracies of each individual fork and cup, and developed a robust and internally complex system for washing and stacking in particular orders. That was all very well while things were good, but if I went away for even one evening, dirty crockery would pile up to the extent that the system became unworkable. I would have to settle for stacking saucepans on top of glasses and things like that. Often I was so exhausted and frustrated by their failure to wash up in my absence that I cried to myself, with the kitchen door wedged shut and my tears running hot like dishwater. Housework, its impermanence and repetition, its continual undoing by others every day, became the concrete representation of every unhappiness in my life. Nothing I did stayed done.

In April I found out I was pregnant. My sister Clare lived in London and I went over to visit her for a weekend. Clare had a pull-out sofa and she let me sit in the bath as long as I wanted. The procedure didn’t hurt very much but afterwards I felt wrong. Clare told me my feelings were normal and not to blame myself for absorbing negative cultural messaging about female reproductive autonomy. On the plane back to Dublin I had a dream that my body was made of cells, and when I told Val about the dream he said: Miriam, your body is made of cells. What do you think it’s made of? I was standing in the kitchen, at the sink, and Val was in the doorway. You’re acting weird, he said. That was when I decided to move home.

 

Not long after the night when Rob joked about my swimsuit – it was probably July by then – we got invited to a house party outside town. A girl Evan knew from school was throwing the party, a sixteen-year-old called Libby. I had met her once in Milligan’s and she told me that she liked my jacket. Rob said her family was ‘Celtic Tiger rich’ and their house had a heated pool in the basement. My mother let me take the car so I could drive back the next morning. When we picked Evan up he was wearing an Oxford shirt and navy-blue chinos, which Rob and JP made fun of for the whole journey. You look like the CEO of a fucking start-up, Rob said. You look like you want to optimize the house party’s share performance. I thought about the other night, when he spilled the soft drink on his T-shirt. I think he looks nice, I said. And our eyes met in the rearview before I looked back at the road.

It was still light out when I parked up outside the party. Libby came out to the front step to see who it was, looking very skinny, like a piece of paper that could blow away. She waved at Evan and said: I didn’t know if you were coming! He glanced at me and then looked back and waved at her. JP, Rob and I went inside and left Evan and Libby talking.

Rob found a corkscrew for my bottle of wine. We sat at the kitchen table drinking and peeling the labels off things.

Are yourself and Val going to get married, or what? Rob said.

None of your fucking business if they are, is it? said JP.

How long are you together? Rob said. Six years or something.

Nine years, I said.

    Rob whistled and JP rolled his eyes. I swallowed a mouthful of wine, which tasted flat and tinny, and looked up through the skylight at the darkening sky.

You could have an eight-year-old by now, Rob said. Do you ever think about that? A little eight-year-old just giving you lip all the time.

I say we take a look at this pool, said JP.

  The pool was lit from underneath. There was a row of potted plants on one side of the room and two ladders down into the water. Some of Libby’s friends were already in the water, splashing each other or linking arms and whispering. I changed into my swimsuit in the downstairs bathroom and then sat at the side of the pool drinking wine and watching Rob and JP pretend to drown each other. They said things like: Drown, motherfucker! Everything echoed very hard. I felt drunk then and I kept laughing. I said: I actually hope you both drown. But no one could hear me.

After some time Evan and Libby came down to the pool. Libby was wearing a red bikini and smiling. Before I could meet Evan’s eye, I decided to submerge my entire body in the water. It was warm and broke into my ear. When I surfaced again, he was in the pool already. My hair was dripping water down into my face. I was drunk. I’m drunk, I said, but Evan couldn’t hear me. He came closer and said: You’re what? I could see Libby sitting with her friends at the side of the water.

She likes you, I said.

He didn’t look back at her, but he knew what I was talking about.

Yeah, I know, he said.

  We were looking into each other’s eyes a lot and the water felt closer and stranger. I had my back against the wall of the pool and over Evan’s shoulder I could see Rob and JP looking at me.

They’re watching us, I said.

  He looked over and we both waved at them. They waved back. I touched my nose, which was wet, and Evan looked into my eyes again in a slightly telepathic way.

Rob thinks you have a crush on me, I said.

Oh. Does he, okay. Did he tell you that?

You can’t trust him. He tells me everything.

  Evan was looking right at me but he didn’t seem to hear what I said. After a second he said: What? I laughed and splashed one of my hands in the water. Did you get distracted? I asked. He looked at me for a few seconds longer with a shy kind of smile on his face and said: No. Wait. What?

Then someone turned all the lights out, so the pool went black. We couldn’t see where anyone was anymore, and the girls were screaming these high-pitched screams which sounded artificial. I touched Evan’s arm with my hand. Everyone else was shouting to put the lights back on. Evan’s face was very close to mine and I could feel him breathe. His aftershave smelled slightly bitter along with the chlorine. At first we let our lips touch sort of innocently and then we kissed. I felt weak and even a little faint. I could hear myself sighing pleasurably.

I got back out of the pool just as the lights came on. I found a damp towel hanging up on a hook and started to wring out my hair. Evan was still standing there in the water looking up at me and I laughed and said: What? He shook his head and said: Nothing, what do you mean? That was good, I was glad he said that. Once my hair was dry I went upstairs to someone’s bedroom and fell asleep until the morning.

 

For the next few days Evan and I didn’t talk about what had happened in the pool. Instead he just looked at me a lot, like he was waiting for me to do something wild again. Whenever I came down to the beach with the others I could feel his attention move toward me like the tightening of a string that no one else knew about.

One night he had a barbecue outside the trailer and some of the people from his school came along. He sent me a text to ask if I was coming and I said yes. After exactly ten minutes he sent another text saying: Oh cool, see you then. When I arrived I noticed he was wearing a shirt again, which he smoothed down with his left hand when I said hello. JP and Rob and I smoked cigarettes together at the grill and talked about how young everyone was. Libby was there in a polka-dotted dress, and she kept touching Evan’s arm and laughing. I wondered if Libby ever felt cold from being so thin. Then I looked at Evan and sucked on my lower lip until Libby noticed he wasn’t listening anymore.

After his schoolfriends left, we went into the trailer to finish our drinks. It wasn’t late. Rob was planning a house party the following evening so none of us had been drinking very much anyway. The interior of the trailer was plasticky and there was an ancient television set that crackled when Rob switched it off. The lampshades were the colour of butter, and moths crawled up the outside of the windows. Evan was washing glasses in the sink and we were sitting on the sofas feeling lightheaded.

You should go for it, Evan, really, Rob said.

Evan didn’t look up from the sink, he was just pretending not to listen.

Is this the thing with Libby? I said.

She was getting very handsy earlier, said Rob.

Do you really want to go to college and still be a virgin? JP said.

Give him some life advice, Miriam, said Rob.

 I slipped out of the shoes I was wearing and pulled my feet up onto the sofa, with my arms wrapped around my knees.

Maybe he’s saving himself for someone he really loves, I said.

 He coughed at that, though he didn’t look up from the sink.

I’ll fuck her if you don’t, Rob said.

You do realize she’s sixteen, said Evan.

And you realize Miriam has a boyfriend, do you? Rob said. You’re not getting out of the friendzone on that one, trust me.

 Evan and I finally looked at one another then. He was drying his hands on a tea-towel.

Are you really a virgin? I said.

He is, said Rob.

   But we didn’t look at Rob, we just looked at each other. Evan started to smile this bashful smile, like I was telling a joke at his expense but he still found it humorous.

Why, are you into that? Evan said.

  JP swore loudly at this remark, while Rob started to laugh and slap his thigh. I put my index finger in my mouth and sucked on it consolingly. JP wanted Evan to apologize. I lay back on the sofa then and said I felt sleepy.

Are you not coming to Milligan’s? said JP.

I’m too tired, I said.

How are you getting home so? he asked.

I’ll walk.

   Rob got up and put his jacket on. I closed my eyes and turned my face into the sofa cushions.

Come on then if you’re walking, JP said. We’re not leaving you here with Romeo.

  I gave an amused, condescending type of laugh. It sounded very uncharacteristic but I didn’t think Rob or JP would notice.

Worried for my safety? I said.

Worried for his, said Rob. You’d make mincemeat out of him. Come on to fuck.

  I sat up and slipped my shoes back on. We said goodbye to Evan and he thanked us for coming. Outside the night was cool and humid and smelled of iodine. Our footsteps echoed off the trailer sidings, and JP lit a cigarette.

He does fancy you, Rob said.

  JP exhaled and then waved a hand through the cloud of smoke to disperse it, like it was distracting him. I watched this process coldly.

He’ll get over it, I said. I wouldn’t worry.

I wouldn’t mind but he knows you’ve a boyfriend, JP said.

  I sighed and took my phone from my pocket to indicate that the discussion was boring me. Idly I found myself scrolling to Evan’s name and selecting Compose Text.

He gets hung up on these older girls, Rob said. Who couldn’t give a fuck if he lived or died, usually.

  On my phone I tapped out the message: Are you still in the trailer or did you head home?

Yeah, he has a type alright, said JP. Fuck me.

  Evan responded: I’m still here. As we walked along the seafront, near the street where I would take a right turn and head back home, I closed my eyes briefly. My feet sounded very sturdy and I heard the tide licking the sea wall. When I opened my eyes again the darkness felt fuller and more physical. A satellite blinked green above the lighthouse. I typed out: I’ll be back in two minutes. Then I hit send.

I said goodbye to the others and turned to walk up the road to my house. I could even see the house appear in the distance, yellow like a false promise. Then I hopped over the unpainted fencing and ran down the sand dune into the caravan park. My blood was racing very quickly around my limbs, since usually I never hopped or ran or used my body to accomplish tasks of any kind. All the trailers looked the same, the same boxy shape and toothless front-facing stare, but some were newer and had double glazing. Evan’s was one of the old ones.

I knocked on the mottled glass and saw his shape blooming behind it. He opened the door and I went in. His skin was fair and slightly flushed. He said: Did you forget something? I tried not to grin or do anything too insane. I just worked on taking off my scarf and saying: No, I didn’t. Then Evan swallowed, although I knew he didn’t mean to.

Are you really saving yourself for someone special? I said.

  He looked at the carpeting intently, with a studious expression.

Not as such, I don’t think, he said.

Because I’ll take your virginity, if you want.

  He didn’t say anything at first and then eventually he looked at me. We stared at one another for so long that I felt like he could crawl inside my eyes, into my head, as though it were a hollow tree.

Yeah, he said. That sounds good.

  There was one double bed in the trailer. The sheets were damp and gritty with sand. I could tell Evan was nervous because he kept apologizing for irrelevant things. When he put his hand under my dress I heard my own throat make this kind of sighing noise, as if I wanted to swallow his entire body. I moved my mouth beside his ear and said: I really want you. And he just said: Oh God, okay.

The sex actually didn’t last very long, but that was alright. When he was inside me I felt so good that I pledged to be a different person for the rest of my life, a good person, and not the same one that I had always been before. Afterwards we kissed and kissed until we had to stop to breathe. Then I put my dress back on. Evan said thank you before I left. I paused at the door and thought: I’ll pretend I didn’t hear him, and then he’ll have to say it again. I waited for a second to see if I would really do it, but in the end I just left instead.

On my way home I felt the cold air wrap itself around me like a sheet. When I got back my mother was still awake, she was in the kitchen.

Were you swimming? she said. Cold night for it.

No, I wasn’t.

Oh? Your dress is inside out.

  I looked at the tag. The lights in the kitchen felt dizzyingly white and hygienic and I wasn’t sure if my legs were shaking or not.

That’s, like, a stylish thing now, I said.

  She laughed. She was making herself a cup of tea.

Clare was asking for you, she said.

Tell her I said hi.

She wanted to know how you were feeling. You could call her.

I said: Sure thing, I’ll call her. But I didn’t. I went to bed and slept until noon.

 

In London, Clare and I had bought tickets to go see a musical with some of her friends from work. When it came time to leave the apartment I was still being sick in her bathroom. She said she thought it would be good for me to get some fresh air. Go meet your friends, I said. Then I ran my second bath of the day and climbed inside. I felt tired like a dead person might be tired, after living an entire life all the way through and finally getting to be dead.

Everyone knew I had been sick. Even Rob knew. He said it he’d heard it from someone, which meant he’d heard it from Val. Rob and I were alone on the beach when he mentioned this, while JP and the others were in the water.

Isn’t that why you moved home? Rob said.

Because I was sick?

Yeah, you had one of these nervous breakdowns or something. Anyway, I won’t ask.

Okay, don’t, I said.

  He seemed a little cowed by this remark. He toyed with the drawstring of his swimming shorts contemplatively and then sighed. Rob struck me as someone attuned to his own limitations, and fundamentally maybe even a decent person. JP was squeamish and shocked by everything. He left the room at any mention of my illness, of the notion of mortality, or of blood or any other bodily fluids,.

It’s a hard old life I suppose, Rob said.

Just don’t.

No, I wasn’t. I won’t.

 

After what happened with Evan in the trailer, I had no plan. I didn’t hear from him the next day and I knew Rob and JP would hassle me if I didn’t go out, so I went over to Rob’s. He had a free house, it was noisy and very hot. I saw a lot of people I knew from school, and they all wanted to know what I was doing. I learned to say the word ‘nothing’ in a number of different voices. I felt like a stranger to myself, like I was no longer living my life but instead being propelled through it by interesting forces beyond my control. At one point JP made his way over to me, pressed a can into my hand and said something I couldn’t hear. Then he clapped me on the shoulder and left again. When I could get away, I went out to the back garden and lit a cigarette. It was cool outside and I was alone.

About halfway through my cigarette the kitchen door opened and Evan came out. He had already closed the door before he saw me, and then he seemed to hesitate. Oh, he said. I didn’t know you were out here. He glanced back at the door. My body felt wound up very tightly. I wasn’t following you or anything, he said.

I didn’t think so, I said.

  He nodded. The light from the kitchen door was mottled yellow and not terribly bright. Evan put his hands in his pockets and I dragged on my cigarette. Were you leaving? I said.

I was going to, he said. He coughed and added: Are we okay?

  I smiled, what I hoped was a brilliant smile. The idea of Evan trying to let me down gently was amusing to me, maybe because it was really so painful that I had to repress the pain to even think about it. I think so, I said.

He touched the back of his neck then like it hurt. He wasn’t looking at me. I realize I probably did everything wrong last night, he said. I think I was nervous. But I hope I didn’t do anything that hurt you, or whatever. Finally he looked up at me. His back was to the door and I could only make out the dim shape of his face, two glints that took the place of his eyes. My heart throbbed hard in my throat.

Oh no, I said. You didn’t do anything wrong. I had a nice time.

  He looked at me and then, seeing that I was sincere, he started to smile. I could see his teeth bluish-white. He looked away again.

That’s a relief, he said. I thought I must have done something bad. Maybe I should have texted you afterwards or something? I didn’t really know what to do.

I laughed then, with a nervous energy. Are you asking me for relationship advice? I said.

Kind of, he said. You know everything, so you’re the person to ask.

  I glanced at the door but there was no one watching. Quickly I reached to touch his hand and he felt for my wrist with his fingertips. A strange weakness came over me.

You know I have a boyfriend, I said.

Yeah, I know, said Evan. But that’s not really my business, I don’t think. I mean, I trust you to make your own decisions and all that.

That’s very thoughtful.

Well, not to brag, but I do think about things a lot.

  I smiled. He was still touching my wrist, and he watched me as if to study what effect his touch was having.

Will you be around later? I said.

Yeah. Why, do you want to meet up?

Will there be anyone in the trailer?

  He looked down at my wrist, silvery-white in the darkness. No, he said. Except for you and me, obviously. That made me laugh. He smiled then, pleased that I was laughing.

I’ll come over after this, I said. I guess we should avoid leaving together.

Yeah. And I should probably change your name in my phone, should I? In case anyone sees it, you know.

What kind of messages are you expecting?

  He let go of me to take his phone from his pocket. He had a bashful expression then, but he was still smiling. With you I honestly don’t know what to expect, he said.

After that we started to see each other almost every night. He told the others he was seeing someone in Ballina, so they thought he was out of town when really we were sleeping in his parents’ trailer. Sometimes we watched films together in bed, or discussed what we thought was the worst feature of JP’s personality. Evan thought it was the high sensitivity to perceived slights, but I said it was moral cowardice. Eventually Evan agreed. He tended to think I was right about everything. Sometimes he called me during the day to ask my views on various issues.

In bed Evan was very devoted and unselfish. After he made me come he liked to look up at me with an inquiring expression as if to say, Was that okay? To me his body felt impossibly lean and compact, like a tuned instrument. I wanted to know how badly he wanted me. I even asked him to tell me once, and he kind of shrugged and acted embarrassed for a while and then said he couldn’t look at my mouth when we were around other people because he liked it too much. Looking at my mouth makes you hard? I said. He covered his face and said: Yeah, a little bit. I don’t know. I bit his arm and then said: That’s good. Now say it again.

I felt differently about myself when I was with Evan. In bed Val liked to pinch the spongiest parts of my torso and say, What about that gym membership? He claimed he was joking but I knew he wasn’t. It made me defensive. In return I told outlandish lies like: The doctor says I’m actually underweight. With Evan I didn’t need to defend myself. I told him that I sometimes cried over the weird shape of my body, and he nodded and frowned at the time and then the next morning wrote me four long successive text messages about how pretty I was. He was like that.

Once I asked him: Do you like me? The question just came out. It didn’t even sound sarcastic. I was stunned by the sound of my own voice saying it. We were lying in bed in the trailer, with the damp green curtains pulled shut although it was daylight outside, and I could feel Evan’s breath on my lips. Yes, he said. I turned over onto my back and looked up at the frill of light on the plastic ceiling board.

Everyone already knows that anyway, I said.

Yeah. But I like you more than they think I do.

  Our hands touched under the blanket. I thought of him as a creature then, a sweet little antelope, and I pictured him gambolling off far away from me. In a moment of wildness I lifted his hand out from under the blanket and kissed it very hard, thinking: Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.

 

Val finally came down to visit for a weekend in August. We went for drinks together in Milligan’s, and JP was beaming and laughing at everything Val said. I sipped a gin and tonic through a straw and then fished out the piece of lime to chew on it. I thought I probably had some vitamin deficiencies, since I got these blisters inside my mouth all the time and my muscles were very weak. Eventually Val told me it was ‘sick’ to chew on a lime so I put it back in my drink, and JP laughed as if it was Christmas and everyone was happy.

Then Rob pointed at the bar and said: There’s your little spaniel, Miriam. It was Evan. He was wearing a denim jacket and tennis shoes. I felt a prickle of sweat under my arms.

Who? said Val.

My cousin Evan, said JP. He’s just finished the Leaving.

But what was that about him being a spaniel? Val said.

Oh, he just likes to follow Miriam around making sad eyes, said Rob. You know. Dog stuff. He’s in love with her.

Not really, I said.

  Val took a mouthful from his pint and observed Evan from across the room. I followed his eyes. The inside of Evan’s mouth haunted me, like the prospect of material wealth. Then Val swallowed.

He has a little crush on you, does he Miriam? said Val.

I don’t think so, I said.

  Evan turned and saw us then. I looked out of a window and felt my shoulders contract while Rob waved him over and slapped an empty seat. Sit yourself down, son, Rob said. Evan sat down and no one else spoke for a moment. I almost had to shut my eyes to avoid looking at him. Then JP said: You know Val, don’t you?

No, Evan said. I don’t think we’ve met.

  I felt myself starting to freeze up. Rob grinned and shook his head.

Val Dolan, Rob said. Val, this is JP’s cousin Evan.

Yeah, I’ve heard of you, said Val.

Oh really? Evan said.

  Val looked at JP and JP returned an apologetic grimace. Val took another drink and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He was smiling.

Yeah, he said. I heard you have a little crush on my girlfriend here. Is that true?

  I looked at the piece of lime in my glass. It had teeth marks on it.

Oh, are you Miriam’s boyfriend? Evan said. No, I don’t really get crushes.

You don’t like her? Val said.

I like her, we’re friends, said Evan.

Why, you don’t think she’s attractive? Val said.

  Val was grinning with barely-suppressed laughter, like his own joke was the funniest thing he had ever heard. I breathed very deeply into my chest then. I had read somewhere that if you breathed the right way, your ribs weren’t supposed to move at all, and only your stomach would swell out, like a balloon. I tried to achieve this effect while Evan and Val looked at each other.

Well, she has a boyfriend, Evan said. And everything. Obviously.

  Val laughed at that. He laughed and nodded like, okay. He picked up his glass and Evan tried unsuccessfully to make eye contact with every other person at the table in turn. I felt his gaze moving around like hot light which I had to avoid or I would die. Then I got up to go to the bathroom.

There was no one else in the ladies’ so I ran the tap and splashed cold water under my arms. I knew that Evan had just finished school and I was a grown woman with a Master’s degree in Classical Civilisations. I was old enough to be Evan’s teacher. In only slightly different circumstances they would put low-resolution photographs of me on the news and people would call me depraved.

When I got back upstairs, Evan was gone and JP had his hands in his lap like he was saying penance or sending an invisible text message. Finally Val swallowed the last of his pint and said: Let’s call it a night, shall we?

Val was staying in my house for the weekend. When we went to bed that night he rolled over on top of me and said: You’ve been very quiet. He was resting his weight on his left elbow, which was tugging hard on a lock of my hair, although I didn’t mention that. I said: Have I? His breath smelled yeasty and alcoholic. I had largely stopped drinking alcohol by then and found the scent sickly. Also his body felt too heavy for me.

After we had sex he told me I needed to relax. He sounded exasperated. In fact I was in some pain, so I just lay there trying to locate the exact source of the pain inside my body while he talked. He said I was ‘really tense’ and I apologized. There was some silence then, and though it was obvious that he was irritated, I did nothing further to soothe his irritation, which usually I would have. I said I was going to the bathroom, and I put my dressing-gown on and padded downstairs.

The house was dark and empty. I walked around the kitchen touching things: items of furniture, the knife block, a fridge magnet saying ‘Beautiful Lisbon’. I touched the soft, greasy plastic of the phone keypad and watched a car go by outside like a ghost. It’s not supposed to hurt, I thought. It was never supposed to hurt.

 

After Val left on Sunday, I went to meet Evan in the caravan. It was still light outside but getting darker, and I felt a mild fever, as if I was coming down with something. Evan sat on the edge of the bed while I looked into the mirror and unbuttoned my blouse. I could see his eyes behind me, large and innocent like fish.

So I have to ask someone to go to this Debs thing with me, he said.

  I didn’t say anything. I ran my thumb over the next button of my blouse, a small flat mother-of-pearl button that felt rough to my skin. I’d forgotten that he would have to go to the Debs. He’d never mentioned it, he’d never mentioned looking for a suit or anything.

And I guess I’ll ask Libby, he said. Because I don’t know that many girls, and I know she wants to come. Is that okay?

Why shouldn’t it be?

  He shrugged and placed the edge of a thumbnail into his mouth. He was still watching me. I slipped the blouse off my shoulders.

Are you going to fuck her? I said.

What? Jesus Christ. No. Why would you ask that?

  I could see peripherally that his expression was both hurt and accusatory, but I was looking at the bra strap on my right shoulder.

You can if you want to, I said.

I think it would be illegal. But I also don’t think of her in that way, at all.

  I didn’t answer. I reached my hands behind my neck and drew apart the clasp of my necklace. In the mirror I could see my own face round and cold like a letter in an alphabet.

I won’t ask her if you don’t want me to, okay? he said. I won’t even go, I don’t really want to anyway.

I don’t care what you do, Evan.

Well, alright. But I kind of want you to care.

  With the necklace loose in my hand, I turned around and looked down at him. I was near enough to the end of the bed that he could reach forward and touch me, but he didn’t. We just looked at one another.

You know in April this year I found out I was pregnant, I said.

  He stared up at me and said nothing. He had a canine kind of expression, like a desire to trust, but also an uncertainty, as if maybe I was testing him.

I never told Val about it, I said. I told him I was going to visit my sister in London.

  Evan nodded, a slow and very small nod.

Do you think that makes me a bad person? I said.

Obviously not. You know about my views on this.

I mean the fact that I didn’t tell him.

  I could see Evan’s gaze moving from my right eye to my left, as if he was trying to find something hidden inside me that would answer this question.

Why did you decide not to tell him? he said.

I don’t know.

Well, I think you had good reasons, even if you don’t know exactly what they are.

Are you in love with me? I said.

  For a moment longer we continued to look at one another and then I thought: No, I can’t. I started glancing hysterically around the room instead, and then down at my own hands, where the necklace lay in my palm like a dead thing.

I don’t know, he said.

  He pronounced this sentence as if it had a question mark at the end, as if what he was really doing was guessing what I wanted him to say.

It’s a stupid question, I said. Forget I asked it.

  I felt cold then, and shivered. I picked my blouse up from the back of the chair and started to put my hands through the sleeves, holding the necklace so tightly in my fist that it hurt me. I felt very ashamed.

Are you going? he said.

I think I should.

Oh, okay, he said. And he swallowed.

It’s just that sometimes you’re not that nice to me, he said.

  I finished getting dressed and then slammed the door shut on my way out.

Outside the air smelled of salt and wet dune grass. I closed the trailer door behind me and walked down the steps with my legs trembling. Then I put my forehead against the cool corrugated plastic of the trailer wall and felt my breath returning against my lips. I breathed in and out like that again and again, absorbing everything back into myself until I felt dizzy and my face was streaming wet.

Back in April, Clare had driven me to the airport herself, in her own car. It rained and we were stuck in traffic. I told her I felt empty and she said that since childhood I had always looked for external factors to validate my pre-existing feelings of emptiness. But it’s okay to feel empty, she told me. I guess I would have been the the world’s worst mother anyway, I said. And Clare looked out the windscreen and switched the wipers on and said: What you’re feeling is okay.

 

To read the rest of Dublin Review 63, you may purchase the issue here.