a story by rebecca ivory
In June 2005, I couldn’t fit into my clothes anymore. Shorts I had worn the previous summer could not be zipped up, t-shirts strained across my chest and arms. I was fifteen and my breasts had grown larger, suddenly and painfully. I imagined myself to be too broad in the back and graceless in my movements. There was a new smell that came from between my legs when I sat down, of rust and bread. I spent much of that summer with my friend Tara, who had always been slightly larger than me. My self-disgust triggered in her a new awareness and she was prompted to join me in examining the spread of my thighs and stomach, in comparing the width of my hips with the circumference of my waist. We agreed that this developing femininity was excessive, that an overall reduction might help to counteract it. We experimented with a diet of popcorn and chicken and fruit and salted crackers. We twisted and craned in front of bedroom mirrors, to confirm how pale and expansive and odd our bodies appeared to other people and how best to conceal this. We positioned bra straps and waistbands carefully to prevent our flesh from bulging over. We informed one another when we sat or stood or walked in an unflattering way. This shared criticism couldn’t be reversed simply because one of us felt bad, that would have been dishonest. It was casual and cruel and intimate, and I thought about it all the time.
After six weeks, we had lost weight but mostly from our faces. When Tara stopped holding her breath, her stomach still hung over the waistband of her underwear and so did mine. Our upper arms were still pimply and red and soft. She remarked on the similarities, things she found amusing. Privately, I was offended. I had assumed I would always look better than she did. My disgust for the both of us deepened. I expressed anger towards my body in ways that embarrassed me: alone in my room, I cried in frustration while tugging and scratching violently at my flesh. I started to pound at my stomach with my fist if I experienced hunger pains, as if the hunger would defer to violence. Once I calmed down, I was stilled by crystallised shame; as well as being disgusting, I was hateful and bizarre.
In August, Tara was due to leave Ireland for a three-week retreat to Spain with her family. Her parents were deeply religious, and the purpose of the trip was to undertake a pilgrimage all together. Before leaving, she was agitated; there would be very little privacy or time to plan for meals.
‘There will be so much walking every day, you’ll just burn off everything you eat,’ I said casually, as she packed her suitcase. Tara only rolled her eyes in response.
I knew if I was in her place that I would be equally as worried, but I would not admit this to her. I decided to take this three-week break as an opportunity to overtake Tara’s progress. Once she left, I began to exercise intensely, in an attempt to create an acceptable gap between us once more. I pedalled my mother’s stationary bike every evening and ran loops around the village early in the mornings so people wouldn’t see me. I restricted what I ate even further, spitting chewed up food into a napkin. Ten days into Tara’s trip away, I received a postcard from Cadíz, a place I had never heard of. She only wrote two lines followed by a smiley face: ‘Having a good time but missing you. See you when I get back.’
After two weeks, I had lost another seven pounds, which was less than I expected. I didn’t grow downy hair or develop poor circulation, but I was cold and undeniably smaller. My body did not look good naked; I still considered it pale and blemished and misshapen. But this didn’t matter to me because I was closer to achieving the androgynous aesthetic I felt most comfortable with. In moments where I felt my commitment wavering, I imagined that Tara would return home as her previous self, after three weeks of eating greasy, indulgent food, larger than I ever was. The idea of this itself appealed to me more than the optics of weight loss.
At that time there was also the matter of my mother, a retired musician who still taught students from our home. She could no longer perform professionally due to arthritis in her hands and wrists. We both paid little attention to housework and mealtimes and she spent most of her free hours reading at the kitchen table. Because she was often in pain, she was often irritable. Our house was a cramped mezzanine and from my bedroom up the stairs, I heard her at night muttering to herself, cursing the pain, the broken appliances, the money. I heard splashing liquids and slamming glasses and bitter talk that grew more confused and accusatory. Other than this, the house was quiet.
Tara arrived home the last weekend in August. We were due to start third year the following Monday. We planned to meet on Sunday afternoon at my house. We usually hung around hers, but she wanted a break from her parents and younger brothers after three weeks together. I was edgy and restless all morning for two reasons. I was conscious that my mother would be home and that she might find our teenage chatter and excitement obnoxious and agitating. She didn’t like Tara, who was unaware of this. I was also anxious about how Tara might react to my changing body. Even my mother, who was largely detached from anything beyond the provision of shelter and food, watched me over the pages of her book and remarked that I should be careful, skinny people get sick more frequently than larger ones. My sudden weight loss felt like a betrayal rather than a triumph now that I was faced with seeing her again.
On Sunday morning, I paced the house, pausing to check my reflection, wishing that I could look fuller again. At two o’clock, I heard Tara’s mother’s car pull up and I rushed to open the door. There was immediate excitement from the two of us and she wrapped her arms around my neck for a hug. My smile kept contracting and wobbling. She shouted hello to my mother who pretended not to hear her and carried on upstairs without waiting for me. In my room, Tara sat cross-legged on the bed. I was acutely aware of how I moved my body and could not let my hands lie still. I settled for leaning on the windowsill and crossing my arms over my chest.
‘Are you happy to be home?’ I asked her, my voice high-pitched.
‘You look very thin,’ she replied quickly, ignoring the question. Her voice was cheerful in a way I thought might be sarcastic.
I didn’t know how I could respond because as I expected she had put back on any weight she had lost. I feared that saying otherwise might provoke explicit anger.
She tilted her head to the side and cocked her jaw, considering my appearance.
‘You look good, but I don’t like that eyeliner. Your eyes are too small, it doesn’t suit you,’ she said before adjusting the pillows and lying back.
Throughout the day, Tara ate more than I did. She kept requesting snacks from the kitchen. I brought her rice cakes which she refused, asking for biscuits instead. She quickly ate five in a row, talking with her mouth full and spraying wet crumbs onto my duvet. I had green tea. We went to the newsagents where she bought coke and crisps and chocolate, things we would have eaten together earlier that year. Rather than feeling disgusted with Tara’s indulgence, I felt guilty for not joining in. When her mother arrived to pick her up at six o’clock, I was relieved to see her go.
While we spent most of our summer together, in school we formed a foursome with two other girls, Erica and Maria. We had very little in common but had all attended the same primary school and so they seemed like natural allies when we joined secondary school. Tara and I were interested in music and art. Erica considered all creative pursuits to be worthless and embarrassing. This was a belief instilled in her by her parents, who helped wealthy people manage their money. Over the summer, Erica’s acne cleared up, and her braces were removed. That September, she returned to school with a boyfriend – a popular fourth year student who lacked any sense of humour. We formed an odd little group with his friends during lunch and although we rarely spoke, gradually decided who ought to pair off. Maria ended up with a very stupid but gentle boy. I had been assigned to a boy named Luke, who initially didn’t seem that interested in me. Tara showed no interest in any of these boys. In return, they quietly mocked her bad breath and constant, absent-minded singing and humming.
Within the first couple weeks of school, I could already tell that Maria and Erica were losing patience with Tara. She could be both volatile and remote, erupting with goofy, unbidden laughter only to stare blankly at any boy attempting to engage her in a friendly way. In these moments, I felt wholly responsible for her and looked at my shoes or turned away, not wanting to witness the ways in which she alienated herself.
‘She needs to stop following us around, she’s embarrassing us,’ Erica told me in early October.
‘She’s embarrassing herself,’ Maria added, her small face wilting with pity.
Instead of insisting that Tara be included and accepted, I began to maintain my own friendship with her separately. I never explained to her what Erica had said and watched with growing anxiety as she trailed along behind us, becoming more and more uncertain of her peripheral position in our foursome. I kept myself busy talking to Erica and Maria and lingering near the boys, aware of how rarely anyone acknowledged Tara. I felt guilty and wished she would just go away.
When Tara and I were alone, I hoped we might be able to pretend it wasn’t happening, that she might meet my conciliatory tone. She refused to accept it and would punish my disloyalty by criticising my efforts to please Luke and his friends. I laughed at Luke’s jokes which were largely regurgitated from Will Ferrell movies. They weren’t funny and I was mortified that Tara should draw attention to my pandering when it was just the two of us. She scolded me for skipping lunch, telling me I looked awful, that maybe I’d lost some weight but now my hair was dull and my skin too pale. I was nervous to be alone with her but didn’t have the courage to cut her off completely. Our relationship started to feel more and more like stumbling and skidding down a hill of thorns, I avoided impact where possible but couldn’t control its trajectory.
Throughout the winter, I continued to eat very little. I learned how to be subtle and precise when applying make-up and styling my hair. This was time consuming and I lost interest in reading and music and anything else outside of myself. Erica gave Luke my mobile number and we texted each other constantly. I kept chewing and spitting my food and exercising at five o’clock in the morning. Rather than feeling weak or depleted, I took deep satisfaction in this erasure of my body and mind. It was not the polished exterior that I valued so much as the secrecy of my discipline. There was a private and remote space within myself where I could visit to feel superior and resilient.
I still spent my Friday nights with Tara to keep her happy. The tension between us could be temporarily relieved during our sleepovers at her house, where I slipped quietly into a chaotic, messy and happy sort of atmosphere. She lived on a dairy farm. Tara’s mother was an elegant woman whose refinement surprised me as her house was so untidy. I found Tara’s oldest brother very attractive. Tara regarded him with such reverence and admiration that I sometimes wondered if she did too. The only family member who left me feeling uneasy was Tara’s stepfather, Jack. He owned the farm and was at least ten years older than Tara’s mother. He was short and compact, with thick dark hair on his head, hands and arms. He was so playful and inquisitive; he could easily embarrass me by listening intently when I spoke, by expecting me to contribute honestly to adult conversations. To counter this, I developed a heightened sense of self-consciousness around him; it was uncomfortable and tiring, like wearing a flattering but constrictive dress.
There was a private and remote space within myself where I could visit to feel superior and resilient.
Tara and I had our last sleepover together in December. Their mother went to bed early, as she usually did. Her older brother was out with friends. The two younger children fell asleep on the couch in front of the television and were coaxed upstairs by Tara and me. The youngest one circled his arms around my torso, declaring he wanted me to sleep in his bed. I smiled with a benevolence that I didn’t truly feel. Tara shooed him away and by eleven o’clock, it was just us and Jack. He offered us small, brown bottles of beer which tasted like medicine. Their television showed an American news show. Jack shushed us every so often in order to hear what the news anchor had said. He condemned American politicians I had never heard of, saying that things weren’t much better here. Jack believed quite seriously that all politicians, conservative and liberal, were inherently evil, as were many celebrities. I was drawn to his solemn certainty and devotion, but I didn’t believe a word of it. His arguments were flimsy and regurgitated and for this I pitied him. After about half an hour, our bottles were empty, and Jack pulled himself out of his chair to get another. Identifying a natural break in his monologue, Tara suggested we go to bed now too.
‘Deserting me once you’ve had your drinks, that’s lousy!’ Jack objected. He was standing, shaking his head
I was embarrassed and, in my uncertainty, I sat back down on the couch, my cheeks burning. Tara protested but also joined me. Jack laughed triumphantly and walked toward the kitchen.
‘Well, you needn’t think I’ll be giving you anymore, either way,’ he said, carrying one bottle for himself back to the couch.
He sat down and searched for the remote before retrieving it from under a cushion and muting the television. He lifted an index finger and resumed his stream of complaints about the destruction of community, the erosion of traditional values and an appreciation for God. His hands moved in circular motions before his face as he spoke. The only pauses were for him to incline his head slightly to identify the next words. We were expected to wait patiently. I am certain that if we interrupted, we would have been ignored. The outdoor sensor lamps were activated intermittently and cast a cold column of light through the dark room. When he eventually concluded, his expression was one of serious reflection. Perhaps he waited for my response, but I didn’t know what I ought to say. Tara tore at her fingernails with her teeth intently, spitting them to the ground once removed.
After a moment, Jack turned to regard me with a broad smile.
‘I have to say, Sarah, you’re very good with the children. An unusual talent for an only child. You’d be an excellent mother.’
I looked at Tara, who rolled her eyes but otherwise seemed unconcerned.
‘Have you thought about whether you want children yet?’ he asked me, softly.
‘Stop Jack, that’s such a weird thing to say.’ Tara intercepted before turning to me, ‘You don’t need to answer that.’
‘What?’ he asked, feigning innocence.
‘You don’t mind, do you?’ he shifted his torso to me and without looking at Tara, held a palm up to instruct her to be quiet. ‘You’re very sweet to them. That’s all I meant.’
I smiled to let him know I understood, and he winked at me.
‘You should come and see the new calves with their mothers.’ He pointed his beer bottle at me before taking a large mouthful and swallowing. ‘They’re only a few days old.’
‘That might be nice,’ I looked to Tara, hoping she might assert herself once more in this exchange. She only looked dully back at my stupid, smiling face.
‘Well, come on, let’s get you some boots, then.’ Jack stood up and walked to the patio door where there was a mess of runners and boots.
‘What? You want to go right now?’ I asked.
He turned and threw a pair of boots caked in muck at my feet.
‘Yeah, come on. Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,’ he said, squeezing my shoulder briefly.
‘No, Jack,’ Tara said wearily, ‘it’s too dark and cold.’
He sat back down to lace up his own boots.
‘I have a torch,’ he said, yanking the laces tight, ‘anyway, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to, Tara.’
I searched both Jack and Tara’s faces, waiting for instructions. Jack laughed, hurried out to the hall to get two coats. Tara sat up and tucked her legs beneath her, watching him leave the sitting room.
‘This is ridiculous,’ she said, ‘why are you entertaining him?’
I didn’t know the answer to her question. I wasn’t sure who held the power in this situation, but I wanted him to like me, to like looking at me. I don’t think he knew I was aware of this and I suspect he preferred the idea of me being oblivious.
‘Right,’ Jack said, returning to living room. ‘Let’s go.’
He threw a coat onto my lap and I pulled it on, feeling stiff.
‘You’re not seriously going, are you?’ Tara said as I stood to join Jack at the door.
I ignored her and followed Jack in the oversized boots across the grass and I looked back at the house, expecting Tara to rush out after us. Instead, she stood at the patio door with her arms crossed, watching.
We reached the shed within a few minutes, his torch offering a blurred and failing light. He pulled his hat down over his ears and slid the steel door open. The torch flickered along the length of the wall as he searched for the light switch. He pressed it and the space inside illuminated, gradually. The shed was long and narrow, and the cows were penned in to one side. The walls were damp, the floor brown and red. The cows shifted and moved away from us, bobbing their heads and shooting strings of mucus from their nostrils with each exhaling breath. At the very end of the shed was a separate pen with two cows and their calves, lying on a pile of wet straw. Their coats were still damp and shiny and curling around their ears. They trembled as the mothers sniffed and licked their heads. I leaned against the gate and spoke to them in a babyish voice, exaggerating my excitement because I hoped to please Jack. They stood up unsteadily, disturbed by our visit. Wet and matted straw clung to their backsides and their movement carried with it the smell of blood and shit. Jack stood right behind me, gripping the top of the gate. I could feel him breathing heavily on my neck, but I pretended to be unaffected by this. After a moment or two, I had run out of things to say about the calves and turned around, expecting him to make space, but he stayed standing there and when my hip brushed his leg there was something so nakedly adamant and curious in his expression that it frightened me. He watched me and smiled with his mouth open, the way you might while waiting for a joke to be told. When I couldn’t find the next thing to say, the next thing to do, he let go of the gate and coughed and spat on the ground. He told me he wanted to check in on the mothers while we were here, and I stood waiting with my sleeves pulled over my hands. Despite the boots, water had seeped in and my feet were wet. In the pen, he handled the mothers’ stomachs and backsides roughly and cursed them for protesting. I felt anxious in case one should charge and crush him and I would have to run back to the house and find help, but they only resigned themselves to the examination. Even from where I stood, I could see their still bloody openings. Jack was unnecessarily harsh and thorough in his probing and prodding and even then I recognised his impermissible anger, the performance required of him to hide it.
We didn’t speak on the way back to the house. As soon as we returned, Tara jumped off the couch and announced we were going to bed. I pulled the boots off and apologised for getting mud on the floor.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Tara said impatiently.
‘Can I get a kiss goodnight, Tara?’ Jack held his arms out expectantly, his good mood almost completely restored.
‘Good night,’ she said sternly as she walked past him and toward the foot of the stairs.
‘Ah, now, what’s this? You’ll give me a kiss, won’t you Sarah?’ he leaned forward, tilting his cheek toward me.
I pecked his cheek and turned to see Tara still standing at the stairs, her face tense and still.
I lay on my side on the bottom bunk with Tara above me. It wasn’t unusual for us to fall asleep in the same bed but that night, she climbed the ladder to the top bunk bed silently.
‘Tara, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,’ I whispered.
She only sighed impatiently and eventually, her breathing became deep and regular and I sensed she had fallen asleep. I could not sleep. I was nervous that Tara would not speak to me other than to tell me directly all the ways in which I had failed as a friend, failures I could not deny. I was disturbed too by my experience with Jack in the shed. Every time I thought about it, my face flushed with fresh embarrassment and fear. I couldn’t tell how responsible I was for what had happened. And yet I was excited by the certainty that Jack desired me. My mind wandered to images of Jack examining my body, running his hands along my cold limbs and down my navel and over my hip bones and being turned on by how young and thin I was. I thought about the wiry hair on his coarse hands which would cup my crotch before slipping inside. It was disgusting and desirable and these two things weren’t necessarily in opposition to one another. I pictured Tara and Erica and Maria finding out what Jack and I had done. Initially, the idea of this revelation horrified me but as the fantasy evolved my friends took an active role, bearing witness to the imagined intimacies and this became something I wanted. I replayed the images on loop, compelled to see how much I could fabricate before fear and revulsion and instinct superseded this desire and pushed me away again.
The following morning, Tara gave me cereal with milk from their farm which made me sick as it was unpasteurised. I spent the rest of the morning doubled over with cramps in her bed. Her little brother brought me toys and laid them out in a semi-circle around the bed like small gifts. He stood beside the toys poking my face.
It was disgusting and desirable and these two things weren’t necessarily in opposition to one another.
‘Yuck. Your skin is so greasy. And you have so many little red spots,’ he said.
I asked him to go get Tara.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asked flatly, tugging a hairbrush through her wet hair.
‘Awful. Do you think your mum could drive me home?’
‘Fine. Oh, be careful getting out of bed,’ she said, pointing to the arrangement of toys on the floor. ‘He likes to leave little soldiers and Lego on the ground like that, so you’ll stand on them and hurt your feet.’
I slept much better in my own bed. I woke in the late afternoon feeling well enough to exercise and then threw my clothes into the washing machine to get rid of the smell of Tara’s house and their animals. I showered and spent the evening in my room, aware of how quiet my home was, how nice it was to be left alone.
The following Monday, I met Maria and Erica at our lockers before a tutorial. Tara wasn’t in yet, she always arrived minutes before the bell rang.
‘How was your sleepover?’ Erica asked. Her voice was whiny, she was mocking me.
‘It was fine, boring, really,’ I said. It’s what I always said.
‘Well, you must enjoy them. You go every week,’ Maria said
Erica was texting now, distracted.
‘I’d feel bad if I didn’t,’ I said defensively. ‘Anyway, I don’t think I’ll go again.’
Erica looked up with renewed interest. ‘Why? What happened?’
Normally, I wouldn’t say anything that might implicate Tara and cause a further rift. This now struck me as pointless. I didn’t want to be her friend any longer. I had been waiting for a reason to bring things to an end, and here it was.
‘Tara’s stepfather is so creepy,’ I said, leaning in to give the details to Erica and Maria. Their eager reaction only encouraged me and by the time I had finished the story, the good-night kiss was forcibly applied and wet. I could have carried on talking about it, adding further embellishment, exaggerating the ways in which he touched me, but I stopped once I saw Tara approach as the bell rang.
‘Hi Tara,’ Erica said brightly.
Maria laughed nervously and Tara’s face fell.
‘What’s going on?’ Tara asked.
‘Nothing. Maria’s just hyper,’ I said. ‘I have a tutorial, so I’ll see you later.’
I spent the rest of the day trying to convince myself I had done nothing wrong. I replayed the conversation with Erica; sorting out the truth from the lies, wondering to what extent Erica would distort my already false claims and how long before it made its way around the school. As for Tara, I was deliberately distant with her during our Art class, but my confidence faltered when I saw how much it bewildered her. Part of me had hoped she might still be angry. At least then it would have been a mutual falling out. But she was good humoured and even managed to laugh when Luke’s friends lifted the back of her skirt with a stick during the walk between classes. I felt a mounting anxiety all morning, imagining her reaction when she found out what I had said. Rumours and suspicions were circulating around her and she had no idea. Despite wanting rid of Tara, I hated myself for lying, not just because I had been cruel but because I was careless and clumsy in telling Erica, of all people, who could not be trusted to handle this information sensibly or subtly, to smear Tara’s reputation while preserving mine. Until that point, I hadn’t considered myself as a person with such foolish tendencies.
Tara didn’t approach until after the final bell. I knew from her urgent, determined expression that she had heard about what I said. I found I was relieved.
‘Have you been telling people that Jack is a pervert?’
Even the use of the word, how crude and exaggerated it seemed, mortified me.
‘Who told you that?’ I asked, stupidly.
‘Erica’s been telling everyone that he forced you to kiss him. What did you say to her?’ Her voice broke and I wanted to pull her to me, to take her outside and explain.
‘I was there for the whole thing,’ she continued, ‘you didn’t have to kiss him goodnight. I didn’t kiss him. No one forced you.’ She stepped closer to me. ‘Why did you say that?’
Things probably could have been salvaged had I responded differently to this. But I find apologies cumbersome and draining. I prefer to bear down and ride it out. Besides, it would have been too awful to admit I had lied, too shameful.
‘Well, in fairness, Tara, I did feel forced into it.’ I had hoped to be certain, but the words came haltingly. ‘He knew I was uncomfortable. The whole night was weird.’
I stared at the padlock on my locker, running my finger over its ridges to comfort myself. This will be over soon, I thought.
‘Oh, come on Sarah, you loved it,’ she said evenly. ‘You’re desperate for attention. That’s the only reason you never eat.’
Conversations around us trailed off as people waited to see what would happen next.
‘You’d love it if someone tried to molest you, for the sympathy if nothing else,’ Tara said.
There was a flicker of violence inside my throat, something provoked by her speaking so directly, some fear that she was right. With surprising clarity, it occurred to me that Tara was more intelligent than I was.
‘Just leave me alone, Tara. Go fuck off back to your paedophile stepdad.’ I pushed past, shouldering her as I went. She pushed me in return, and I stumbled from the force of it but hurried away, too frightened to look back.
Obviously, it was awful. Once our parents found out, the school had to get involved. It was so embarrassing, I had to admit it wasn’t true or else they’d rope social services into the situation and then there would have to be a proper investigation. They didn’t force me to apologise but I did see Tara’s stepfather leaving the administration office after a meeting with the principal. I was due to go in afterwards with my mother. He didn’t even seem angry. Tara and her mother hurried past us, but Jack slowed his pace and gave me a brief, tight smile. He could afford to be nice to me, given I was a proven liar. I thought at the time that he might have even felt sorry for me. I wondered if he felt he had overestimated me, that I had mishandled something that deserved care and discretion and maturity and as a result, I had disappointed him. I was probably wrong; he probably thought nothing about me and hardly remembered the interactions between us. I smiled at his shoes as he walked by with his hands in his pockets.
By this stage, Erica had started making up stories about me. Rumours circulated that I had tried to seduce Jack, that we had sex and that I was pregnant. I didn’t care because I now spent all of my time with Luke, who didn’t seem to mind either way. I was completely obsessed with him. I stopped getting what I needed from dieting. We spent three years fighting and having sex and promising not to fight again and he was the only thing I could think about until I went to college and cheated on him with the first boy who showed an interest in me.
When I was twenty-two, my mother told me that Jack had left Tara’s mother. She and my mother had both started attending the same support group for single parents.
‘That predator,’ as she insisted on calling him, ‘couldn’t manage the responsibility of marriage and children. He abandoned the farm and lives alone in a little flat now. He got what was coming to him.’
Since starting the support group, she had stopped drinking, and this only made her mood worse. Her caustic remarks about Jack made my skin crawl and I couldn’t fully understand why.
‘I don’t think she’d like you telling me this. Isn’t it supposed to be confidential?’ I said.
‘What would you know about it?’ she snapped, fixing me with a narrow and critical look.
I left it there. I lacked the courage needed to challenge her. My mother’s scorn left me with an impotent, exaggerated sort of anger, a kind that made me slam doors and hold a pillow to my mouth and scream.
Ten years later, I had a boyfriend who hit me four times and often threatened to wring my neck. I found myself squaring back up to him during these furious moments, to make things equal. We were ridiculous. He was a tall and grey man from Finland. An academic. He was ugly and sexy at the same time which is what I like. Eventually, he landed me in hospital. We were in the garden, arguing. He pushed too hard and I knew it was an accident on his part. His hands were shaking so badly he could hardly hang on to the steering wheel when he drove me to A&E. I was remarkably calm and watched him while pressing a wet face cloth to my bloody forehead. He held his fingertips to his mouth and would let out a groan of despair every time he looked at me. I had to suppress the urge to laugh. He was afraid he’d get in trouble. His fear was disgusting to me. What had he expected?
Before all that, we did stupid, incongruent things like go to galleries and museums and book shops together. Once, he took me to see a play in Dublin. In the dark theatre, he held my knee still. The stage was bare. The play relied heavily on monologues. Most of the actors played multiple characters. Before it was halfway through, I realised that one of the actors on stage was Tara. She had put on weight and dyed her hair purple. She dressed in black and played three different characters but, essentially, they were all the same. She didn’t strike me as particularly talented, but I got a kick out of watching her. I had been working in Human Resources for three years and had never pursued anything that I could maintain a meaningful interest in.
Afterwards, in the car on the way home, I told my boyfriend that I had gone to school with one of the actors and that I had done something awful to her. He was driving through an awkward junction and didn’t respond right away. Then he only shrugged, said he didn’t know which actor I was talking about. I tried to describe her, to help him remember. I kept describing her. Frustrated now, he said he had no idea who I was talking about. Don’t be so obsessive, he told me, cutting a hand through the air, what does it matter anyway? Could I really think he cared about something that happened between two stupid teenagers? Things escalated from there, shouting, screaming, a hassle for us out of nowhere, a problem I didn’t predict or ask for.
And in moments like these, I return to my private and remote place, a room situated somewhere behind my eyes. I fail often in my relations with others and each time, the space expands, its edges harden and sharpen. There are no windows anymore and the entry point has narrowed. I imagine at some point I will be unable to move freely in and out.
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