Molly McCloskey short story: 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

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.

*

It is said that every novel educates us as to its own conventions, teaching us how to read it as we go along. The same, surely, can be said of people. They teach us how to desire or love them, schooling us in themselves. Those oddities and predilections that had at first seemed so alien and off-putting slowly work their way into us, until we’ve crossed a line without noticing, and one day realize that we have no idea whether we need to wake up and shake ourselves free or whether we aren’t, in fact, bigger people than we’d realized, so big we can love without judgment.

I’m not referring to anything horrific. We agreed on virtually nothing, but he wasn’t evil. I mean he had a way of eating that was somewhat savage – very fast and with an air almost of panic. As though he hadn’t eaten for days, or as though he were an animal, hunched over some prey, trying to get his fill before a larger beast appeared. I’m exaggerating. But it could certainly be said that he wolfed his food. It repelled me at first, then I grew fascinated, and finally, on occasion, aroused. That naked display of appetite. Not that he was rough around the edges; in fact, he was quite presentable. He loved Thomas Pink shirts and a good hand-stitched leather. To see him fingering ties in Brooks Brothers, you’d think he was a different kind of man entirely.

As for his skin, there was so much more to the story than the small red-raw blotches I’d spied at dinner that first night. On his elbows and knees were patches of psoriasis that were raised and rough as coral. When I ran my hands over him I thought of those relief maps we had in elementary school, mountain ranges like blisters on the page. But the condition, like so much about him – his nocturnal tortures, the framed photos of right-wing heroes on his wall, his shadowy past in various trouble spots – came to seem normal. He said to me once, of a certain West African change of government (smiling slightly as he said it, half to get a rise out of me and half because the memory actually did stir in him a warm glow), ‘It was a good coup.’ I grew used to it all, and with a speed that surprised me, as though I had only ever known such skin, such men, such true believers.

*

My students amazed me, with their complicated traumas and their hungry innocence. One had had a sister who’d OD’ed on a drug I had never even heard of, and another’s father had run off with his sixth-grade teacher, who was a man. At least two were in recovery from cutting. They worked these things into their assignments, with an inventiveness I had to admire. They had all been born after I’d left America, and I had the feeling, sitting with them, that I’d been asleep for two decades and had woken to a changed world.

One afternoon in class we were reading ‘The Lady with the Dog’, reading it through the lens of totalitarianism. I was talking about the value of secrecy, the inviolability of the private and the unshareable. I wanted them to think about the political dimensions of the inner life, even – or especially – if its particulars were never spoken. A student raised an index finger. He said, Okay, fine, but between two people in love, nothing should be unshareable. When it came to his own girlfriend, he wanted to know everything about her, every thought and fear, every shame and desire. He said, his eyes narrowing, that if you didn’t want that, that unabridged knowledge, if what you wanted instead was to know only what was convenient or attractive, then how could you say you really loved someone?

I laughed, nervously, unsettled both by his sudden declamation – he was not one of my more vocal students – and by his desire to take ownership of his girlfriend’s mind. I said, ‘Not only can’t you know her to that extent, but why would you want to?’

I waxed rhapsodic then on the enigma of the other, the mystery that keeps us coming back and that we want both to breach and to keep sacrosanct. I said that you weren’t rejecting someone by allowing her her privacies.

I said, ‘We don’t even know ourselves that well,’ and the whole class looked at me like I was deluded, or middle-aged.

I thought of my own romance, how the secret corners of his psyche were given literal boundaries by a high-level security clearance. For a moment I thought of posing the scenario to the class, without naming the protagonists, as a thought experiment. What better way to concretize the abstract, to make the metaphor explicit?

Thankfully, the impulse passed.

When I got out of class, there was a text from him. You & me, 7pm.

On the phone or in person, he was large, expansive, gob-smacked, as though life – for all its violence and misery – were one big hoot. But his written communiqués were terse. Their very succinctness thrilled me, as though I were taking instructions in an emergency. Oh, I was high as a kite those days.

I texted back, Yes, and looked around, feeling illicit. There I was, bedding a Republican, and not just any Republican but an officer, and one who did a sideline with Homeland Security, who disappeared the odd weekend to an underground bunker somewhere beyond the Beltway to monitor existential threats to America.

We met that night in Georgetown. He wolfed his beef adobo. We went to a movie in which some Navy Seals battled some Taliban and hardly anyone survived. A few times, during the carnage-making, he jerked in his seat, as though shot. Afterwards, he was unaccountably cheerful, while I felt peevish and queasy. ‘It was like watching porn,’ I said, and he gave me that loopy smile of his, and said, ‘I thought you’d never ask.’

We stayed the night at my house. The following morning, after he left, I found such a sea of flakes on my bedroom floor I had to get out the vacuum cleaner. It was strange, hoovering him up like that, as though he had actually disintegrated right there beside my bed. I imagined that one day I might bid him goodbye at the front door and go back upstairs to find an entire epidermis lying crumpled on my floor, still holding the shape of him. Later I told him I liked the idea. ‘I could inflate it,’ I said, ‘and have a blow-up doll of you.’

He laughed, one of those great big laughs of his. But the image of the shed husk stayed with me. I thought of tails and fins again, I thought of different kinds of men. I wondered whether he wasn’t the sort of man whose time has been, and been and been and been, and was finally going, and I worried about that. I looked around me at the boys in Adams Morgan, with their shopping bags and their skinny jeans, and thought: Who will stay steady through our wars? Who will shepherd us through our emergencies?

I became fascinated by soldiering. I read a book on the surge in Iraq in which a young marine said that to be in a platoon on active duty was to fall in love, over and over again. Another guy said there was no sexier feeling than coming under fire. I began to envy the intimacy of men, and to pity them that too, because they didn’t know what to do with it after, with all that big, big love. And so they sat there in shambles in those bleak towns, full of grief and guilt, shocked by what they’d seen or done but also by what they hadn’t seen coming: the wreckage they’d become after war.

On the surface, he was not a wreck. He was robust, punctual, direct. He had a way of arriving at my house that made even the most mundane of assignations seem urgent. He would knock, two short, sharp raps, and I would open the door and before he was even over the threshold he’d take my face in his hands and kiss me; then, all business, he would slip off his overcoat, hang it on the coat stand, and stride into my living room, where he would collapse into the armchair and unlace his brogues and fall back as though he had traversed continents to reach me and must catch his breath. Everything with him was large, declarative, certain of itself. He entered my house with the air of someone planting a flag. To witness such casual conviction filled me with awe, as though I were in the company of a man incapable of concerning himself with alternatives. I imagined a mind of planes and angles, surfaces that held up under the fiercest strain.

The one locus of disorder in his life was his apartment. It looked ransacked. I pictured myself spelunking through it in search of him. It was on the eighth floor, across from the Cathedral and we could see the clock towers rising up out of the tree-tops, like a lost city emerging. We could hear the church bells, which pleased us both, though atheism was one of the few things we agreed on.

The bedroom had a big window that slid open to the night, and I used to imagine, lying under it, that we were in a high-rise in a sprawling African city, some wild urban nightmare teeming away beneath us. The trill of the cicadas and the tree frogs’ squawk, and all those sirens. I had never lived in a city in which signals of distress were as common as birdcall; it was like we were in the midst of a perpetual communal crisis. I tried to tell him once how sirens used to make me feel, back in the days when I lived in cities of moderate alarm. I said they reassured me because they meant someone was in control; someone was in trouble, yes, but someone else was dealing with it, and the audible enactment of that equation, the call-and-response of distress and succor, was deeply comforting. Here, though, the relentlessness of the sirens was overwhelming.

He said, ‘I learn what to tune out.’ He meant he sorted all stimuli, every hour of the day, into threat and non-threat.

I said. ‘It’s not about tuning out. It’s about the emotional resonance. It’s about what it does to our lizard brains.’

He pointed two remotes at the television and did something complicated. We were stretched out on his king-sized bed, watching end-of-days stuff, which he liked almost as much as war movies. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. A biological attack. Toxins in the water supply. An electromagnetic pulse detonated by a nuclear weapon that would wipe out the grid. His favorite program was Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel. I laughed, uneasily, at his stash of Spam and his bolt cutters. It didn’t help that anyone prepping for doom looked like a Hell’s Angel, only angrier, and that not a single one of them seemed possessed of a communitarian spirit. It was all about having enough guns, keeping your neighbor from stealing your freeze-dried food or your woman.

I said, ‘I’d rather die than live in a world populated only by those people.’

‘Trust me,’ he said, ‘when the time comes, you won’t be saying that.’

We watched an episode where millennials in the Bay Area were reduced to animals after two days without water, a storyline he found particularly gratifying.

‘Three square meals from chaos, kiddo.’

It was as though he lived there already in his head, in the aftermath. He lived at a level of honesty about human nature that was bracing. In a cold clear air free of delusion and sentimentality. Sometimes I thought it was our only hope, and other times it sounded like martial law waiting to happen.

Later that night, rutting on his sofa, I looked up and noticed a framed photo of him shaking hands with someone I considered a criminal, and thought: Who am I? Have I no compass? He owned a gun, probably several, and though I never saw him hold it, I thought of it. I thought of him with his gun, and I felt the most distressing sense of safety.

One Sunday evening we headed out for dim sum. He had just come back from the bunker, about which he told me very little. I pictured him sitting in a swivel chair, all night long the sizzle of threats across a screen, picked-up chatter, infrared footage, however it all got monitored, it was out there. The only thing he’d say was, ‘You have no idea.’

When we got to the restaurant, he took note of the exits. He said, just by the way, that in an emergency I should always text, not keep trying to call, because when the network comes back the text will be delivered. ‘You know that, right?’

I didn’t know that, though it seemed obvious once he’d said it. ‘I should text you.’

There was the briefest beat of silence, and though his hesitation had little to do with us, and everything to do with the homeland, whatever I needed to know was in that silence. It hadn’t occurred to me – and this was foolish, of course – that if something happened, he wouldn’t come for me. He had a higher calling.

‘I’d try to contact you,’ he said. ‘But I could be anywhere.’

Feeling irked, I said, ‘You’d like it, wouldn’t you? If something happened.’

He turned the page of his menu and, still scanning it, told me about all the chemical weapons sensors that were in the city, all the unseen ways I was being protected. My naïveté was becoming a theme with him. Something in his tone made me feel ashamed, like when I was a child and my mother would remind me, in moments of exasperation, how hard she worked for my pleasures and my privileges, how oblivious I was.

‘I’ve been there when something happened,’ he said. ‘It isn’t a thing you can like.’ Then he closed his menu and dropped a hand under the table, wedged it hard between my thighs, and said, ‘The pork ribs here are amazing.’

One week later, as if on cue, the city went into lockdown. All transport, schools, and businesses shut down. We were told to shelter in place. Initially, I couldn’t help it, it felt personal. Like one of those simulations he worked on to test the system’s preparedness, only now it was a test of what we’d talked about. Was I ready? Of course I wasn’t. My refrigerator was its usual unstocked self: organic condiments, a bag of triple-washed arugula, two slices of left-over flatbread. Had the water been cut, I would’ve been left drinking olive oil.

Two improvised explosive devices had been found that afternoon. The first, at Union Station, had caused a fire, and several people were in the hospital. By the time the second one ignited at Gallery Place, the metro system had been emptied of people. On top of this, two men had been shot near the Convention Center, and no one seemed to know whether or not this was related to the bombs.

I locked all the doors and emailed family and friends in other places to tell them I was safe. Then I wandered around my big house, not knowing what to do with myself. We were the capital, we were the nerve center, there was a chance that something huge was happening. I pressed my head against the upstairs wall beside the window and stared out at the street. A few times squad cars rolled purposefully by. The throb of helicopters was constant. I heard sirens coming from various directions.

I made tea and tried to read a novel, as though it were a normal evening, which only made me more jittery. Shouldn’t I be keeping my eye on the ball? Doing my citizen part? I gave up on the novel and scoured the internet, then turned on CNN, which made me feel less isolated, in a way the internet did not, but all of it was disconcerting. Because the city was right outside my door and yet inaccessible to me, it was as though it no longer existed in any concrete sense but only as broadcast simulacrum. On CNN, a journalist so flawlessly good-looking he was disconcerting to behold reported from a deserted street on the periphery of the city; the police were going door-to-door, and I couldn’t understand why the media was there. Surely the bombers could see what I saw? But maybe that was the point, maybe it was a ruse, and the real action was taking place in another neighborhood entirely. The scene, I now noticed, had a hyper-real quality to it. There were a few trees behind the journalist and their leaves shivered dramatically in the wind, like props in a children’s play. The journalist’s face was a strange hue, and because of the unusual circumstances and the need for quiet, he was standing too close to the camera, as though in an amateur YouTube video. A man in uniform materialized hugely in a headlight and then vanished again in the dark. I marveled at my mind’s ability to turn a straightforward city street into something mildly hallucinogenic. And then I thought: But how do I know what’s actually going on out there? Oh, I didn’t think, really, that the airwaves or the internet had been taken over and that these feeds had been concocted to distract me while a military coup unfolded or everyone of a certain kind or color was rounded up, but wasn’t my very skepticism about the possibility of such a scheme a necessary condition for its enactment?

They were looking for two young men. As soon as they put a number on them and posted those furry images, I glanced around me in a new way. It was as though they’d been incorporeal till then – an idea of violence. Now they were bodies moving about the city. I got up and checked the door locks.

All my archetypal terrors were coming home to roost.

And still I didn’t hear from him.

I thought of him out there in the city, or in a bunker, or in some office, in a tank rolling through the streets – I had no idea of the role he was playing. I texted him, but only once. Even then, I thought: don’t be needy.

On the afternoon of the second day, one guy was arrested in Baltimore, and later that night, the other was found in his sister’s house in Hyattsville, hiding in the boiler room. Their faces appeared on the front pages. They had the sleepy, tousled look of teenagers. No one had said yet to what, if anything, they were connected. The shooting, it seemed, had been just another shooting.

Two days after normal life resumed, he texted me. That wasn’t a test, he wrote. And then a big-eyed emoticon that managed to convey several things at once: that he knew I knew it wasn’t a test, that he was stressed out and tired, that he wanted to see me.

That Friday night, he came over to my house. He didn’t arrive with the usual flourish; he didn’t exclaim himself. There was instead an intensity about him, something peremptory. He pushed me up against the wall in the foyer and kissed me hard, and I wrapped my leg high around his thigh and pressed into him for all I was worth. We stayed like that for a minute, grinding into each other, until he took me by the hips and backed me into the living room, where we fucked on the sofa, the curtains wide open behind us.

Afterwards, I had to stop myself from weeping. There was some kind of need in me, something I wanted and that I knew I was never going to get from him. I don’t mean his heart, or his devotion. What I needed was so much bigger and more complicated than that, and I didn’t even know if it existed anymore.

With what felt strangely like sorrow, as though all that heat and ravenousness had occurred under the cloud of a bereavement, we reassembled ourselves without a word. Once we were dressed, he gave me a wan half-smile and said with a lightness he clearly didn’t feel, ‘Are we hungry, kiddo?’

Dinner was an already roasted chicken, and while I made a complicated salad – the elaborateness of it suddenly embarrassed me, as though I’d overdressed for some occasion – he loitered in the kitchen, watching me, his mind somewhere else entirely.

While we ate, we talked about what had happened, or at least aspects of it. He didn’t tell me where he’d been during those two days, or what he’d been doing, and I didn’t ask. He wouldn’t say what he knew about the two young men. He told me about a woman in southeast who’d starting firing out her back window at what turned out to be a cat.

He said, ‘Any excuse to lose it.’

I didn’t answer. I thought every reaction could seem laughable in hindsight.

Around eleven he said he needed sleep, and though I was lonely and a bit shaken, I didn’t ask him to stay the night. I didn’t think he would. While he finished the beer he was drinking, I watched him, intently, without pretending I wasn’t. He didn’t squirm, or even say, What? He just looked right back at me. And there we sat, staring each other down. I had never seen him more defiantly himself than at that moment. I had never liked him less, or understood more clearly the divide between us. We both knew, in our own way, the world we were living in, and we knew too that if the time came – I mean if something truly horrific befell us – that he would be part of an apparatus that swept aside the concerns of people like me in order to preserve a structural order, and that once that was accomplished, my world, if I was still around to see it, would look very different indeed.

Before he left, we said we’d line something up for following weekend, and though we swapped a few guarded texts during the week, he never called, and I didn’t call him, and that was the end of that.

*

In a novel, I read: ‘We have all kinds of ways to talk about life and creation. But when guys like me go and kill, everyone’s happy we do it and no one wants to talk about it.’ The character who’s speaking is a Vietnamese man who’s spent his war killing Viet Cong. He says that every Sunday, before the priest talks, a warrior should get up and tell people who he’s killed on their behalf. He says listening is the least people can do.

When I read that, I thought of him. I wanted to phone him up and read it to him, to ask what he made of the idea, of people being forced to hear about the killing done in their names. I remembered a morning he strode out the door in his shined brogues and crisp button-down and said in a tone of sardonic affection, ‘I’m off to protect an ungrateful nation.’ I remembered him, one evening, pausing on the corner of R Street and Florida Avenue. He took a deep breath and looked around him as though he were standing on a mountaintop, and said, ‘I love this country. Pathologically.’ It was in response to some comment of mine, we’d been having the sort of quarrel that had become a feature of our date nights, endless variations on the question of what forms caring about your country could take, and of the relationship between what was moral and what was legal and who got to decide that. Our own relationship was becoming one long, running argument, the particulars of which are mostly lost to me now. That line I won’t forget, though. You’d think there might’ve been menace in it, a whiff of patriotism about to run amok. But what I heard in his tone was something sensual. I saw the gleam of the erotic in his eyes. He had done things that could only be hinted at – things, he would remind me, to safeguard my freedom to stand in judgment of him; things I had no doubt would appal me. And yet – does it sound strange? – I envied him. I looked at that love of his, and it seemed a comic-book kind of love, all bold-faced caps and a belief in superheroes. But I couldn’t deny it: it was a love that moved me.

I didn’t get the job I wanted, but I got another job, and I stayed. I think I decided to stay during those hours I spent locked in my house. Something in me fell for the city then. Something in it felt human, and mine. I had drifted fretfully through the rooms of my house imagining people all over the city moving about their own homes, imagining it all in great detail, what they were cooking, what they said to one another, whether they were afraid. Back then, there was no one I was close to here, apart from him, and so I had no hierarchy of concern or attentiveness; every unseen person in the city had the same claim on my curiosity, and my fellowship. Never had I felt so isolated, and yet so deeply a part of something.

Now I have a small apartment. From the roof of my building, where I sometimes go at dusk, I can see the curved concrete flank of the Hilton, the one where Reagan was shot. The city – unfurling, low-rise, before me – feels oddly muted, as though it’s been reduced to a smoking ruin. I like to watch the planes floating into view as they descend toward National, looking, in the deadness, like they’re ferrying supplies to somewhere cut off and in trouble.

I had a fantasy once: to be with him in some malarial war zone, making sweat-slicked love inside a mosquito net while death pressed in all around us. I wanted him to call me from unexpected places, I wanted a mental map with colored pins in it. But he never called me from anywhere surprising, just his sixth-floor office with the big window overlooking the Potomac.

To be honest, the best times of our affair were moments we weren’t even together. It was the aftermath I liked, that odd repose that followed an encounter, as though I had survived something perilous and demanding. Weekday mornings I’d leave him to his own bus stop, then take the 31 home, down Wisconsin to the city’s lower elevations where I lived, journeys far sweeter in my memory than the crude dawn couplings that preceded them. There was something intensely pleasurable, and also melancholic, about being on the bus at that hour with all the commuters, the smell of him still on me, the morning fugginess of the crowd, the vehicle’s slow spasmodic lurch. Being delivered back to humanity like that, after the dire isolation of sex. I have heard of people who claim to feel connected to all of creation when in the act, but I’m not one of them. I feel like the last person left alive, or someone flung to the far reaches of the galaxy. But then I’d board the bus and I would feel it, everything rushing to meet me, each one of us teeming with worlds. I felt enveloped, in the throes of an indiscriminate love, as though I had travelled a great distance and seen many things and was home now, and earth, I can tell you, had never looked so good.
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

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