Short Story: On Cosmology, by Róisín O’Donell
Hennessy New Irish Writing – August’s winning story: A lecturer in astrophysics wonders about the ‘gooey, alien-like creature’ which may be growing inside her
A three-week old foetus, according to Google Images, is a gooey alien-like creature, soft as an oyster. If that in any way resembles you, could you please give me a sign or something? I know it’s too early for you to kick, unless you are a super-advanced space-age zygote. But if you could just give me some symptoms, then I’d know for sure. Zygote is a new word for me. I only learnt it yesterday, when I googled “three weeks pregnant”.
The early December air is festering with decaying leaves, the colours of a smashed-up sunset. A late autumn this year, they said on NewsTalk when I was driving to work this morning, because of the record-breaking heat this summer, which has caused abnormally high sugar levels in the leaves. The Christmas tree in Trinity front square has blown over and lies in a sparkling heap. I feel like Christmas is happening in another solar system from where I am. For three weeks, all I’ve thought about is you.
I suppose, little zygote, you’re wondering how you got here. Well that makes two of us. Your dad said our encounter was “passionate”. But I can tell you now, there was nothing “passionate” about the bruise the colour of cheese mould which he left on the inside of my thigh. If you do exist, I guess you’ll want to know about your dad. David is a six-foot-something game-designer from New York with natty brown dreadlocks and a deep voice. His shoes are spaceships. Even his hazel eyes are massive, magnified by black-rimmed glasses.
We met a month ago, at the opening of Cosmos, an astrophotography exhibition at the Dublin Science Gallery. Sipping free chardonnay in the echoing, glass-walled lobby, we lingered before a wall-to-floor image of a single hawthorn tree silhouetted against a mess of stars. David turned to me, “So Sinead, what do you lecture in?”
“Just first year stuff mostly,” I replied, “And the Periastron.”
“Shit,” he said, “the Peri-what?”
I laughed and took another sip from my glass, “Periastron, it’s just . . .”
“Cool,” David said, “You wanna go out sometime?”
I’d had a glass-and-a-half of the tangy yellow wine, and I was wearing tight stonewashed jeans which made me feel more confident than usual, so I said yes.
Two nights later, a Tuesday as I remember it, we sipped cokes and small-talked in the Gourmet Burger Kitchen, before going to see a French film about a blind contortionist who is trying to find his long-lost lover in the streets of Léon. David kissed me passionately in the back row. “God, you’re sexy,” he whispered.
As first dates go, it had been pleasant enough. But when I arrived home to my attic apartment in Phibsborough, I pulled off my purple snood to find an ugly bruise on my neck, the colour of summer fruit about to darken into sticky-sweet rot. I googled ‘how to get rid of a hickey fast’, and Google advised me to apply an ice-compress and to brush the area with a toothbrush to regain circulation. So, I found myself at 2.05am with a bag of Aldi frozen veg pressed against the soft flesh under my chin, an electric toothbrush in my hand. If you’d seen me, you’d have laughed.
Our second date should never have happened. After the love-bite, I had sworn I was never going to see your dad again. But I longed for the closeness of him. So, like an eejit, I waited at the spire one November night, shivering in a black mini-skirt, ankle boots and purple tights. And as I stood in the roaring neon-rush of O’Connell Street, I rehearsed all the reasons why I shouldn’t sleep with David:
1. He was clearly a player, who would finish with me as soon as we’d had sex.
2. At thirty, I had turned a corner and was now making Positive Life Decisions.
3. He was the type of man who was used to getting everything he wanted, and I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction.
But my body was a traitor, shouting to be caressed, my skin singing to be touched. The evening had a thunder-storm inevitability about it. And when we ended up naked in my bed, I don’t think either of us was all that surprised.
“Did that feel good?” David asked, pulling away. “Yeah,” I lied.
Then I noticed the shrivelled snake-skin of the condom by my nightstand. “Hang on. . . did you just . . .?”
“Yeah,” he grinned goofily, as if he’d been caught stealing cookies or spilling milk on the best tablecloth.
“But I’m not on the . . . And you’re not wearing the . . .”
“Don’t worry babe, there are pills for that.”
Well, little zygote, my eyes welled up. David hadn’t even asked permission before emptying himself into me. It took him a while to notice I was crying, and then he rolled away, complaining I was putting snot all over him.
Desolate is not a word we get to use very often. We lay under my blue, lily-patterned duvet with the TV on mute, and I stayed awake, staring at the screen long after David had started snoring. On the ads, Christmas families smiled so much, I thought their faces might break, shooting white polished teeth into each other’s cheeks. Glossy-haired couples held hands and frolicked in fake machine-snow.
Next morning, I awoke to the rattle of rain on the skylight, my fingers reeking of latex and sour sweat. We fumbled around for our clothes in the red-stained dark. I guess I could have turned on the light, or pulled the maroon-red blinds, but that didn’t occur to me. Or perhaps the blood-coloured shadows just suited my mood.
Wipers swished the silence back and forth between us as I drove my silver Yaris into the city. Pulling into the cycle lane, I dropped David off at a bus stop on my way to Trinity. “Don’t forget to go to the pharmacy,” were his last words, before he stooped out of the car.
“Yeah,” I said, “I won’t.”
After mumbling through my first lecture on Calculating the Periastron Using Infrared, I pulled on my leather jacket and hurried up Grafton Street, slicing a pathway through the crowds with my starry umbrella.
Boots pharmacy smelt of wet feet and spilt mouthwash. A squirrelly-haired pharmacist listened as I explained my predicament. “Did it happen within the last 24 hours?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, cringing at the loaded implication of the word it. The pharmacist’s face was so kind, I wanted to hug him and put spidery mascara stains all over his crisp beige shirt. After taking my blood pressure, he gave me a white tablet packaged in a sheet of orange foil. “Make sure you take this with food,” he said. Then he handed me a pink Emergency Contraception leaflet with an empty speech-bubble on the cover.
On my way to the till, I picked up a bottle of Lucozade, and a rapid-drying nail varnish in a shade called Flawless Nude. I paid by Laser and hurried back to Trinity, through rain that closed up behind me like the beaded curtains on my kitchen door.
Awkward with my bulging handbag and dripping umbrella, I locked myself in one of the Arts Block toilets, dimly lit by vein-concealing blue blubs. On the cubicle door, a postergirl daydreamed under the heading Have You Got Thrush? Generations of students had markered the plastic walls with logos. i live in hope, i sleep in rathmines. Ben + Jess did it here 19/3/2012. I just wrote on a wall, take THAT society. Shit happens : )
As I perched on the toilet lid with the pill on my index finger, the thought ducked across my mind “I could keep David’s child”. I studied the tablet, trying not to listen to the pissing from other cubicles. I could steal the child inside me and raise it as a single mum. Then I wouldn’t be alone any more. At least with you around, I’d have a bit of company. Stupid idea. I threw the thought away and swallowed the pill with a fizzy gulp of Lucozade. I don’t know why I expected that small white tablet to make me feel different emotionally.
And now it’s been three weeks. Technically, little zygote, you shouldn’t exist, because the morning-after pill has a 95 per cent success rate. But 5 per cent is still plenty of kids, and I have a feeling you might be one of them.
I’ve been living on packet soup for three weeks. The milk in my fridge is gradually changing itself into cottage cheese, while the lemons on my shelf are doing a fairly successful job of metamorphosing into powdery blue penicillin. I observe these changes as if through the wrong end of a telescope. When I’m not lecturing on the Periastron, or sitting in the Berkeley Library staring across the frozen cricket lawn, I spend most of my time at home on my laptop googling Early Signs of Pregnancy. But this is a farcical exercise; every time I read about a symptom, it immediately manifests itself in me. Increased saliva: my mouth waters. Abdominal pain: my belly aches. Swollen breasts: I unhook my bra to study the reflection of my breasts from multiple angles in the bathroom mirror, before concluding I have no idea what size/shape they were to start off with.
One night, close to four am, after three cups of black coffee and half a bottle of pinot grigio, I opened my laptop and googled “abortion clinics UK”. Friendly websites with discreet fonts rushed to my aid immediately, but when I clicked on one of them, my throat tightened. I closed the tab and deleted my internet history. It’s still too early for me to do a pregnancy test. For now, all I can do is wait.
You know, just the other day I had a text from your dad. Hey sexy. Howz it going? Maybe we could get 2gether sometime? ;)
What is this guy’s problem? Wasn’t our last encounter bad enough? Is he looking for a sequel? I’m baffled by the possibility that other people may have had even worse experiences of love than me. That we are all just floating around, colliding with each other, like asteroids thrown even further apart.
Driving home today after my lecture on Detectability of Exoplanet Periastron Passage in the Infrared, I realised I’d had enough. I couldn’t face going home to my empty flat, where I’d just be thinking about you, googling Early Signs of Pregnancy and trying not to text your dad. So, I turned left onto George’s Street and kept driving, onto the Rathmines Road, through the suburbs of Rathgar and Rathfarnham and out of the city. I kept on going until I was in the Wicklow Mountains, and I followed the brown-and-white tourist signs to Glendalough.
It was bleak out there. I mean, bleak. I parked at the upper lake, where a pack of gaudy-coated Italian teenagers slouched miserably around a coffee dock, as if queuing for the end of the universe. Squelching through puddles in my suede ankle boots, I followed the half-submerged pathway past the rippled tinfoil of the lake, across which a belligerent wind was howling. As I walked, the rain lifted a little and everything got very still under the moss-green pines. I’m not much of a climber. It must be over a decade since I really climbed anywhere. But on a mad impulse, I started up these wooden planks, nailed into long steps leading through dense forest, up the mountainside.
I struggled up the steep incline, overtaken by several actual climbers wearing actual climbing gear. “Grand day,” they called out to me, without slowing down. Halfway up, I thought I might die. Sweat steamed off me, and I stripped off my jumper and leather jacket, down to my baby-pink vest top. A creepy mist was coming down off the pines, and eerie bird calls seemed to sound from within the drizzle, but I kept climbing until I had a chink of sky to aim for.
Gasping, I struggled out of the treeline. And you’d want to see the view from up there, little zygote. Purple-mapped mountains in all directions. The lake, curved like a silver willow leaf. And I just stood there, breath catching like brine in my throat. Heart jabbing my chest. Looking down the valley towards where Dublin cowered in the dip of hills. And your dad, and Trinity, and the pharmacy where maybe next week I’ll buy a pregnancy test.
A Baltic wind whistled over my bare shoulders, and I remembered when my sisters and I used to swim in the Atlantic as kids. When we’d had enough of the icy water, we’d slipslap out of the waves and run up the beach, skins tinged a deathly-purple. And mam wouldn’t towel dry us straight away, but would let us shiver for a few minutes, because she’d heard on RTÉ that the shock of the towel-heat might kill us. Now I stood, trembling and burning and feeling my heartbeat steadying. Knowing I would have to head back down the mountain soon. Hoping I would make it through the forest before dark.
Roisín O’Donnell was born in Sheffield, with family roots in Derry. She studied English at TCD and graduated in 2006. Writing since a young age, her stories and poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in Britain, Ireland and the US. Recently her story How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps was published in Young Irelanders, a new anthology of contemporary Irish stories. Another of her stories will be published in The Long Gaze Back, a collection edited by Sinéad Gleeson, forthcoming in September 2015. Roisín has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she has been shortlisted for several international writing awards. In 2014, she received honorary mentions in the Bath Short Story Award and the Fish Flash Fiction Prize. She is the current recipient of an Arts Council bursary. Her debut short story collection will be published by New Island in 2016. She lives and teaches in Dublin.