Molly McCloskey short story extract: Life on Earth
Longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award: a love affair across an ideological divide
Molly McCloskey: Irish-American author of When Light is Like Water. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In the mornings, my bed was littered with skin. It was like sleeping with a moulting thing, or a being that had passed the night evolving. I thought of tails or fins buried in the bedclothes. After he left, I’d shake the sheets out the window and send flakes of him over the bricked patio, carried on the breeze into the grass quad adjacent to my house. There were students down there – there were students everywhere, flawless and blank-eyed, plumped on fructose and a feeling of entitlement to they weren’t sure what – and I loved the thought of it, the run-off of last night’s friction, the acid rain of middle age drifting down on them.
The first time he stayed the night, I couldn’t tell what was happening. I don’t mean the sex, I mean after. He slept vehemently, violently, as though he were undergoing something, electro shock or the return of buried memories. One minute his breathing sounded like a small motor, then silence, then a sudden snorting. He would kick, shudder, flip himself over suddenly and completely, as though someone had turned him with a spatula. It looked exhausting. In the midst of all that action, I slept hardly at all, and rose the next morning bleary-eyed, while he woke rested and refreshed. Apparently, it was not exhausting.
He was a year back from Afghanistan when we met, one of those wars Americans had begun to lose track of, so that people sometimes forgot whether we were still fighting it, or just advising others who were fighting, or pretending to advise them while we fought it, in secret, ourselves. He had just turned fifty, which seemed old to me for combat, but he was on the medical side of things more than the front line. Not that there was a front line, as such. Or maybe there was, in a way. What did I know about how battles were fought? I was an English professor who’d spent my entire adult life abroad. I had once worked with a colleague in England designing what she’d called a ‘vet-friendly curriculum’, which had prompted me, for a time, to think about the mental lives of people who go to war and about what literature might owe or could offer them. But that wasn’t like knowing them. It wasn’t like finding flakes of one in your bed, having him flop like a fish next to you all night long.
He said that when he came home from Kabul, they’d put his unit in some anonymous hotel in a flyover state to decompress. He lay on his bed with the AC maxed, drinking beer after cold beer and watching the shopping channel, where an ad for doggy steps showed elderly and disabled pooches ascending to luxurious beds.
‘Fucking doggy steps,’ he said, and laughed with a strange sort of joy. ‘I knew I was home then.’
I wasn’t long home myself when we met. I’d been gone twenty-five years. I had left for graduate school, then gotten a teaching job in Dublin. Now I had taken a one-year visiting gig at a university in D.C., and I was half-hoping they would offer me something permanent. A ten-year relationship in Dublin had ended. Every winter felt drearier than the last. And I was tired of being foreign, tired of the performance of my foreignness, which largely consisted of trying to underplay it without seeming apologetic or too imitative of the locals.
I was given a house in Foggy Bottom for the year. It was the tail end of summer when I arrived, and the city felt tropical and fetid and buttoned-up. I couldn’t get a sense of it. Some mornings I walked the length of the Mall, and monuments appeared in my path, as though I were living in a pop-up book. My neighborhood sat at the city’s lowest elevation, where the heat hung like in a bayou and the rats were bold. One night I watched two of them fighting on the sidewalk outside a restaurant. They rolled and tumbled like cats, like cage fighters. I couldn’t tear myself away. It seemed the most savage thing I’d ever seen. On our first date, I described it to him, in exaggerated, gratuitous detail. I was trying to impress him. I wanted him to think of me as someone who wasn’t easily fazed, who would look squarely at whatever was in front of her.
We met on the Internet. A photo of him in cammies dripping medicine into the mouth of a young boy in Kandahar. Another of him dancing at an embassy party, solo, with obvious abandon. One smoking a cigar. One in uniform, looking crisp as a cracker. I knew immediately it was going to go one way or the other: I would either loathe him or I would be in deep, fast. His speciality, in the civilian world, was continuity in emergencies, which I knew must mean something very specific but which suggested, in its broader application, a person one could count on.
At dinner, after the rats, we talked about science fiction, which we both loved. About free will, and human engineering, and computer-generated pleasure – whether believing you were having a pleasurable experience was in any way distinguishable from actually having one.
He said, ‘What pleasurable experience are you imagining right now?’
Dear God, I thought, and rolled my eyes. We were halfway through the meal and I was teetering in a big way. On his left pinky he wore some kind of signet ring, and his hand flamed shyly with psoriasis. I felt sorry for him, and then for myself. I thought of calling it a night as soon as the plates were cleared, but something tugged at me to wait.
The restaurant was a few blocks from where I was staying, and by the time we’d finished our meal, I had decided to invite him back for a drink. The sort of thing you shouldn’t do on a first internet date, but if I could tell anything about him, it was that he wasn’t crazy.
He paused at the bottom of the steps leading up to my front door and cocked his head. ‘Is it crooked or has one beer done me in?’
He was right. The house was on the historic register and to save it from demolition, it had been moved from another location and re-assembled, which accounted for its slightly drunken look; the door jambs were at an angle, several of the floors were raked like stages.
Inside, I got him a bottle of beer from the fridge and some water for myself. It was mid-September, perfectly temperate, and we went out back to the bricked patio, where we sat in the gentle roar of the AC units, which seemed to come, at all hours, from everywhere and nowhere.
He clinked his bottle to my water glass and said, ‘Nice place, kiddo.’
It was, actually. It was the nicest place I’d ever lived. Even the great whooshing, it was like living next to a waterfall or a stormy sea.
I took a swallow and put my glass on the cast iron table and turned in my chair so I was facing him. He was sitting with his legs splayed and the beer bottle held loosely in two hands, resting atop his crotch like a little rocket he was about to launch. He saw me taking him in and I caught the twitch of a smile. Without looking away from me, he put the bottle on the table and slipped a hand around the back of my neck and with a quick tug on my hair, kissed me.
Molly McCloskey was born in Philadelphia and grew up in North Carolina and Oregon. In 1989, she moved to Ireland, spending 10 years on the west coast before moving to Dublin. She is the author of two short story collections, Solomon’s Seal and The Beautiful Changes, and a novel, Protection. Her first work of non-fiction, Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother, appeared in 2011. Her new novel was published by Penguin Ireland in 2017 as When Light is Like Water. Her work has appeared in The Irish Times, Dublin Review, Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She has taught writing at universities in Ireland and the US, serving as writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Dublin, University College, Dublin, and George Washington University in Washington, DC. She has also worked in international development in the UN’s Kenya-based Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia. She lives in Washington, DC, and recently served as a judge for the DC-based PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction