Seaside village, North County Dublin, Ireland, 1993
Her first boyfriend used to kiss her after coffee and oranges. It was a strange taste. But she got used to it. They’d sit behind the harbour wall smoking and supping vodka from a Coke bottle. Braced as they were from the breeze, he’d reach across while she was drinking and start opening her jeans with his free forefinger and thumb and she’d listen to people passing by above heading down to the rocks to toke with the others. Someone would have brought a ghetto blaster and she’d listen to the reggae bumping off the rocks. His hand would reach across to her belt buckle. She’d pass the bottle back. He’d have to take it with his free hand. He wasn’t able to reach for the bottle and keep his smoke in the dark. Then he’d pass the bottle of Coke again and start threading the belt out of its teethed trap. She wouldn’t lean back to make it easy for him. He’d just about get it out of the jagged bit when she’d tip him with the bottle again. She knew he knew why she was doing it.
He’d had patience. She gave him that.
Another tug and she’d be free of the belt.
She’d sit there dreaming up disasters on how to delay it. Fantasising about the sea rolling in next to the wall and the surf swallowing them up whole and lifting them off their perch. She’d hit a few rocks, crack a few ribs, and maybe break her face a bit too. But it’d be worth it to stop him. To stall him. To put it off, a long way down the shore and onto a crabbing boat that could inch and pinch its way way way out to sea. And they’d be like an owl and a pussycat going far from here.
She’d open up her cigarettes then and offer him one and he’d laugh and say he’d be as well to be breathing in air as to be breathing in Silk Cut. But he’d reach over and touch her hair to locate her face then draw his fingers down her cheeks until he’d get to her mouth and make a cup with his hands to shield her. She’d light up her smoke and he’d smile at her and she’d smile back and that would be their nice moment done and over with.
Then it’d be dark again and she could feel him near her but not close, and the hole in her throat would be opening into her chest and oozing down to the space where her organs once were and she would feel hollow in the top half of herself and heavy as lead in the bottom; and maybe he’d smoke again too and she’d sit there waiting on him. Then he’d scoop a well in the sand in which to place the Coke bottle and with his other hand he’d take her newly free hand and rest it on his inside right leg, and she’d leave it there and start counting to 10 in her head forwards and then backwards in every language she knew. He’d move her hand until she was somewhere. She’d let him move it. And move it. Back and forward. Forward and back. She’d unscrunch her eyes and start counting the stars and thinking of distance and how something could be seen and yet untouchable and she’d imagine herself a million zillion light years away on an ocean of stars in the sky and how she’d like herself there and in that way and they’d keep going on like this over his clothes until he’d cough and sit up and turn his body over and away from her, and he’d do something she could not see and did not know if she wanted to either, making the slightest noise like he could be a distant star exploding in a galaxy light years from this one because he made it like he didn’t want her to hear it but she always heard him make it just the same.
She’d still be aware of the the music bouncing across the top of the rocks carrying clinking voices tinkling and saying what they’d dare and double dare each other to do and no one would be listening to either of them down the back of the wall anyway.
Then he’d take a few moments and reach for his school bag and take out a Thermos of coffee and hand her a cupful and start peeling an orange and she’d suck on the segment once he gave it to her and they’d sip and suck and slurp on the sand until one of their friends shouted over the wall come if you’re coming if you haven’t come already. And they’d laugh, and he’d help her up and kiss her – his coffee and orange kiss – their only kiss of the evening. Then they’d make their way back to the rocks where the others would be and the radio would have eaten up all the batteries so someone with a voice would start singing their own song, and that’d be the best part of the night, and she would be relaxed with his arms around her and no hands to be watching out for, into the dark, until next time.
At summer’s end when the night was still and the moon was on her she could feel him next to her watching her in a way she did not know she wanted to be watched. As he slid his hand over and undid her belt buckle he could see if she moved or kept herself hunched making it harder for him. So she leant back slightly and he kept on going then he put his smoke out and put the Coke bottle away. He popped her button out with ease in the light and tugged her zip lower than she knew it could go. He placed three fingers under the fold and moved them left, then down and right. His hangnail was digging into her inner leg and it caught in the elastic line of her knickers that made her inside thigh red. She reached for his hand and tugged, pulling it up against his will into her mouth, taking the finger and biting the rough bit of skin off. He looked at her with pure delight. Then he nestled his hand in the crook of her neck and wrote her name with his index finger in the joins of her collarbones and traced his full name down the centre of her breastbone and kept on going back to where he had been. And she let him. And the feeling of letting him was almost the feeling she had when she played a song on her guitar just right. The feeling of letting him was a feeling of letting herself, and himself, of themselves go; and the let of it and the want of it kept giving her more happy feelings and she wanted them all over and around her now. He had his hand back down where it should or shouldn’t be and she knew what was next so in the moonlight with the waves washing she slid her jeans down to show her readiness and he moved his hand to hold the whole side of her arse and squeezed his fingers and she felt alive. And they moved back and he undid himself and in the undoing of himself she knew he soon would be undoing her and she wanted to be undone right there in that moment she wanted to be undone. He reached over and took the thing they needed to do this thing and put that thing on his thing and then his thing moved closer to her thing and they were made a new thing with both of their things.
Then he was looking at her like no one had ever looked at her, like looking at someone was something you so carefully did, as if looking at someone could be all you have to need or want to be. And she looking back and every part of her looking at him and him at her and this new thing that wasn’t him or her but them, and she felt it. Love. And it didn’t hurt like she’d thought it would, and she enjoyed it for the time it lasted, and at the end of it when he put his hand back on her arse as it was before and pushed and breathed into her and she to him and then he did that little cough thing but louder and into her ear so she could hear it and it was their noise now for her to keep and they lay like that for a while.
Until it was time to be two separate things again and no longer him on top of her and her under him as a joined thing and they moved apart and he slowly bent down and started taking off his shoes which she thought such an odd thing to do in that moment. And he rolled off his socks and jeans then his Adidas top and T-shirt all in one whoosh and he was standing before her near naked. He looked at her like she was special then he raced down to the shore and into the sea and she saw him there washing himself, and she was thinking what would he do with his boxer shorts all wet like that and thought he’d probably throw them away, until she couldn’t see him anymore and hunched herself back up with all her clothes back on and she looked and looked and couldn’t see him anywhere. So she let out one pealing scream hoping that he’d scream back, but nothing.
Then everyone was down to where they were and they were all panicked looking at her and looking at the pile of clothes and asking her question after question after question. She knew they looked like people she knew and she wanted to tell them the answer but she couldn’t find the way to make her mouth work that way to make the words and she realised that she couldn’t tell them because it was then that she noticed her mouth was still opening and the scream she’d been screaming was still going and that was the noise in her ears and they knew then he was in the sea and they were running around frantic and someone was running up to a pub around the way that would still have a lock-in until now and maybe one person or two slapped her face very hard because it seemed to come at her from both sides at once and the noise stopped and the silence was infinitely worse.
And in the cooler nights they’d all still go down to the beach when in other years they wouldn’t have bothered and they kept going down there until the rain got too bad to be out to all hours and the cold took them back indoors. She would sit in their spot and no one would disturb her or talk to her and she loved them for knowing that she didn’t want to talk but knowing too that she didn’t want to be down there on her own. And the music had changed from reggae to overtures and symphonies, and there was talk of starting a band with a maximum of 10 members; because they weren’t The Commitments but they didn’t want to leave any fucker out. And the softer music it skimmed across the water, up the rocks and into her lap, and it warmed that place there where her soul now lived. And she’d join them when the singing started and she’d sit there toking on the smoke and being one part of a part of something more than one part less a part of nothing; and she knew at 17 in this village she would always be that tragic loner girl, and she wanted to stay like this forever because it was her identity now. It had been the biggest thing to ever happen to her and the best and the worst and no one even knew what it was because there’d been no time to tell them and she didn’t think it right to bring it up after. And she loved that she had been offered this safe place in the life of the village that she could keep and wear like a raincoat and no one would be so unkind as to take it off and leave her standing in the rain underdressed alone, and no one would expect anything more from her than to be delicate and shattered forever. And she wanted that feeling of belonging to never end, that people were nice to her and knew her name now when she’d always been floating halfway out to sea herself before all this. She wanted to remember him forever because his was her identity now. So she did every morning, before half past seven, with coffee and oranges.
Lauren Foley is Irish, and Australian (enough). Her short story Squiggly Arse Crack appeared in the 2014 Margaret River Press Anthology. She was shortlisted for the Overland Story Wine Prize, and for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award, 2015. Lauren won the inaugural Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, 2016. She was awarded a 2016 Varuna residential writer's fellowship for her short story cycle in progress, Polluted Sex. She lives in Skerries. laurenfoleywriter.com YearinSouthOz