A story by Oisín Fagan

I had found myself shortening pleasant conversations just for a break, but by then I was beginning to repeat myself anyway. Everything was already finished, but the first taste was always new. I attended meetings without ever having any intention of quitting because I just wanted somewhere to go that wasn’t a bar or a church, and then one night I put my location in the local WhatsApp group, saying it was urgent, asking if anyone was around. Sometimes I couldn’t manage to make myself sick at the right moment, so it just went on that little bit too long. People went by outside, in the street below, but it didn’t make any sense. The faces had gone blank, like they were all surfaces, flowing away. I was looking at everything with one eye closed when she arrived, and I couldn’t believe someone like her was standing in the doorway. It was a studio, and I was laid out on a mattress that took up most of the floorspace. There was a window almost as big as the door, but just the little bit at the top of it opened. She sat in the only chair, her face almost invisible in the sunlight from this window, smoking Menthols, and the smell made me feel sad. After I had quit cigarettes, I discovered the urge to smoke would always pass, but it left some portion of grief in its wake.

‘How much did you have?’ she said.
‘A little.’
‘Why did you give up in the first place? Try and remember. Keep your eyes open.’

I had intermittently given up everything, although never alcohol for more than a week at a time, but I didn’t want her to know, so I thought up something that was mostly true.
‘There was this girl, her name was Jessie. She wanted me to stop, so I did. I never really had a great time anyway.’

I began to close both my eyes, and my head dropped to the side.

‘No, wake up,’ she said. ‘Tell me more.’
‘Do you remember Farmville?’ I asked.
‘The old Facebook game?’
‘I’d just drink whiskey, do lines and play Farmville with the curtains closed and all the lights on for maybe three days straight. When she’d start to cry, I’d lock myself into the bathroom and play Farmville on the toilet until I ran out of battery.’
‘Do you want me to look her up? Sometimes that works.’
I laughed but no sound came out. It felt like my mouth was very far away from my throat.

‘Tell me why you stopped,’ I said.
‘I was with a boy. Juan was his name. He was from Barcelona. I actually liked him a lot. I was more than three weeks late, and I did a test. I had this feeling I couldn’t explain. I just knew I was pregnant, and I was getting ready. I felt it, felt it here.’ She touched the left side of her stomach. ‘Anyway, the test was negative, and I knew I couldn’t stay another moment with him. I left the same day, the same hour, almost.’
‘That’s why you stopped?’
‘Why I started.’
‘But why did you stop?’

She blinked in the sunlight, as though she had just noticed it was there, and put the cigarette out in a cup of takeaway coffee I had been too tired to finish yesterday. Then she put another cigarette in her mouth, but instead of lighting it, she crossed her legs. ‘Two years ago, twenty-six months now, I woke up in a room, opposite this corpse that looked like it was falling out of bed. It was slouched over, its head almost on its knees. I didn’t recognise the person, but underneath me was this other man I knew called Alex. His cock was inside me, and he was still dying. It took a long time for him to stop breathing and I watched him, hiding behind the couch. Then I stopped everything.’

I tried to stand up to go to the toilet, but I couldn’t. ‘Then I stopped everything,’ I repeated.

She watched, not helping me get up. She looked a little older than seemed natural to her, like her face had been surprised by what time was doing to it. She was very thin, with a long, aquiline nose, sallow skin, unkempt eyebrows, no breasts to speak of. I would have liked to have fallen in love with someone like that. No matter how much you lose, you still have your preferences.

‘Sometimes there are these little blasts of truth,’ I explained, realising I had just gone blind. It was a soft blindness, like a cooling film settling over my eyeballs. In this milky space, objects kept moving backwards, but only when I wasn’t looking at them. I kept talking, almost enjoying myself, trying to catch them moving out of the corner of my eye.

‘Incredible thoughts I can never recall. Sobriety is like being on bad speed with nowhere to go. I don’t get it. Sometimes I just sit here on the bed, wanting a drink so much the tears just roll from my eyes. I’m waiting for it to end, but it doesn’t really end, does it? Sometimes I just forget. Sometimes I will have said no to a drink in my mind for so long that I think I deserve one, and it will only have been a few hours. Sometimes I like not seeing anyone.’

‘Where are you from?’ she asked.
I told her.
‘Do you believe in God?’ she asked.
‘Tell me something.’
‘When I lived in Sweden I used to pray every morning,’ she said. ‘I’d wake up and say: Please God, please don’t let me die in Sweden.’
‘No, tell me something else, something good.’
‘This is not Sweden.’
‘Something else.’
‘I have a cat called Thomas. He sleeps on my bed when I’m at work. He has a pink nose, like you.’
‘Thank you. You can go. I’ll be fine now. I didn’t actually take anything. I just wanted to.’
‘I’ll wait a while, and then I’ll go.’
‘Thank you.’

When I woke up, I realised my eyes had never been fully closed and I wasn’t blind anymore. I kept jolting back to my senses and slipping away again, spiralling upwards into some awareness I did not want. There was a fly in the room, and I just stared at it for a long time, and whenever it moved, I was filled with an enormous fear. I didn’t have a TV or a laptop back then, and for some reason my phone was in my jeans in the cupboard above the sink, so I took one of the books from beside my mattress and read two pages. It was a second-hand book, and the previous owner had underlined certain words in pencil, but I didn’t understand why they had underlined those particular words. On one page ‘pea soup’ had been underlined, also ‘I suppose,’ and ‘as though you.’ On the next page ‘so naïve,’ ‘with the,’ and ‘nevertheless’ had been underlined. I didn’t know what was going on. I went to the title page and saw that even some of the words there had been underlined, and for the first time in my life I started feeling truly suicidal.

A metallic feeling blossomed in the very front of my brain, right behind the centre of my forehead, and I was not sure if it was pain or if it was just something unfamiliar, but what I did know was that it must stop immediately. Whatever was in my head had to be removed, by force if necessary, and I would be the one who would have to do it. The feeling went on a little bit longer than I thought I could bear, and then it went away. It was not sadness. Sadness is in your chest and your throat. This was something different.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked.

She was still there, on the chair, and I hadn’t seen her, though I had been awake for a long time. She was drinking a glass of lemonade with ice, which meant she must have seen everything in the fridge. The light from the window was not on her face anymore. It was above her head, a slanted yellow imprint against the wall, fading because of some distant cloud. Her hair was now tied up in a high ponytail, but some shorter strands, wisps almost, had escaped and were loose around the back of her neck. These little bits of hair made me feel very fond of her, and I didn’t understand why. For a moment, I saw her as a child playing in wet sand on a beach. The waves rushed over her sandcastles, collapsing them, and she laughed. It felt like a memory, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t one of mine, anyway.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Call me Kathryn.’
‘What’s your full name, though?’
‘Kathryn, would you help me to the toilet?’
‘Did you piss yourself?’ she asked.

She helped me into the toilet, and I sat on the closed-down cover looking at the hand towel, and I noticed the hand towel’s surface was made of thousands of tiny loops, and then I began to think of all the loops in a single roomful of towels and then I thought about all the loops on all the towels in a city or a country, and then the world, and finally I began to think of the time before all the machines when women sowed all the towels with their fingers and I thought of all their fingers and all the scars running up and down them, and all these generations of scarred hands, and I began to cry. I turned the shower on so Kathryn wouldn’t hear me, and I lay on the ground, my cheek against the tiles.
‘Is it unlocked?’ she asked.

She pushed the door ajar with her foot just as I was crawling under the shower because the water seemed so clean, but it didn’t make anything different.

‘I wanted,’ I shouted, my head under the water. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I wanted. I just wanted so much. I wanted to be. All I do is want. I wanted to be. I wanted people to always be thinking about me, looking at me. I never really could do anything. I thought they’d love me. This body hurts. I can’t. I can’t do this anymore. This can’t be it. I want so much, but I just hurt. There are these faces, you know. They go by, and I am not them. I am not with them. It can’t be just this. It has to stop. There has to be something else. I can’t. It has to stop. You know what it’s all about? Kathryn, are you there? I am haunted by unfucked women. So many of them, all at once. It’s all about one summer, or even a few moments, where you thought something was possible, and what was possible was always fucking some woman. Did it matter? Did any of it? Please, make it stop. Please. Do you even like me?’
‘I do,’ she said, and I noticed she was holding me up from behind. ‘You’re OK,’ she said. ‘I like you. I do like you.’

I tried to turn off the shower, but I couldn’t manage it. I saw I was still fully dressed, and I started to slide down the wall tiles, the wet clothes dragging me to the ground. She caught my weight again, pulled me out of the shower and guided me by the shoulders so I was sitting on the toilet again. The walls were dim, covered in panels of shade that kept swinging out from the objects that threw them. She turned off the shower, and the shadows kept falling. The bathroom had grown darker. I started to panic.
‘Did you change the lightbulb while I was having a shower?’ I asked.
‘Why would I do that?’
‘Please tell me the truth.’
‘Of course not.’
‘Do you swear it?’
‘No one knows I’m here,’ I said.
‘I know.’
‘No family, no friends.’
‘I know you’re here.’
‘If I die no one knows. I’m like a free-range chicken.’
She laughed.
‘What’s so funny?’ I asked, but I was on my own again, looking at the walls with wide eyes and all the little marks on them were shocking. Bits of wall were coming away right in front of me, long strips of paint peeling away, and then she came back in with some clothes, and started undressing me and drying my whole body, and then she dressed me. She dried my hair and I could feel her fingers, through the towel, against my scalp. By the time she was finished the wall had stopped moving.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ she said.

I made it to the bottom of the stairs and then I had to sit down because my chest was shaking so much. She kept pulling my arm, not letting me fall asleep again until we were sitting in a little triangular park near my building. There were all these teenage boys looking at us, smoking cigarettes and drinking Red Bull. It was midday; the city felt decompressed, listless. It was some older people’s dream. There was no point to it; it looked like everywhere else, anonymous, stupid, the same. Neither of us was from here, but we may as well have been.
‘My hands never know what my face is doing,’ I told her.
‘That’s enough of that.’
‘It’s true, though. They never know, my hands. They do things, and later I pretend I know why, and I say I did them, and I smile with my face.’
‘That’s enough.’
‘That doesn’t mean anything,’ I said.
‘Yes, it does. Your hands and your face are fine. You are fine. That’s enough now. Let it go. Let go.’
‘Thank you for this.’
‘That’s all right.’
‘I like you.’
‘You don’t really know me.’
‘All right. I do like you, though.’
‘Don’t worry. Just relax. I like you, too.’
‘All right.’

Next to a stone fountain covered in a cloak of pigeons, a heroin addict swayed in a drooping jack-in-the-box motion. A silver thread of drool ran uninterrupted from her lip to the flagstone like it was all that kept her tethered to earth. Her mouth was dark and circular as a child’s cartoon. The pleasure was obscene, enviable, and for a moment I was certain she was the only one in the whole history of the universe who had ever actually enjoyed herself.
‘Why do I feel like I’d be reconciled to existence if I had a drink?’ I said.
‘You wouldn’t, though.’

Kathryn was smoking another cigarette, but it wasn’t a Menthol. It was a different kind, and it made me wonder how long we’d been sitting there. I couldn’t see where the sun was, somewhere low, behind some buildings or trees.

‘What would you do if I told you I was an alien?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. Maybe ask you to take me away with you.’
‘What if I was from here?’
‘Still, take me with you to wherever here is.’
‘If I was an alien would it make you like me more or less?’
‘About the same.’
‘About the same?’
‘I’d still try to get your number.’
She laughed. ‘I’m an alien and we don’t have numbers. We don’t have WhatsApp, either. We don’t come twice. You’re going to be fine.’

She squeezed my shoulder, buttoned up her overcoat, and left. Later, the teenagers left, too. The addict was asleep on the ground, her back slouched against the fountain. I stayed in that park till nightfall on my own. That was three years ago now, and I haven’t seen her since. I never really did stop drinking for any length of time, but whenever it goes bad I think about Kathryn. Sometimes, the pieces that make me up fall away, one by one, until everything is gone, and at these moments what stands between me and nothing is her – the thought of her, out there, somewhere else.