You've read Cat Person, now read this Irish bad-sex short story
'What Feminism Is': the 2017 Séan Ó Faoláin Competition winning piece by Louise Nealon
Louise Nealon: winner of the 2017 Séan Ó Faoláin Competition
Our sweaty skins are stuck together in my single bed. I make myself smaller than him, sneak under his arm and trace the tattoos on his biceps. I ask about them and he gives me a lazy answer. He got them when he was young and stupid. They make no sense. Every girl he sleeps with probably asks the same. I have a compulsion to do something weird in case he thinks I’m boring, so I poke my finger in his ear.
“What the fuck?” He stares at me while I roll around the bed cackling. “The fuck you do that for?”
“I wanted to see how you’d react,” I shrug. They all act as if they have been violated. I don’t even go that far in. All I have to do is stroke the tiny white fuzz on the outside crevices, or maybe lean my little finger against the inside of the tragus. I like to watch their eyes for the moment of realization.
The hairs on his chest are smoother, more innocent than the curls on his head all crispy from hairspray. I can picture him sprucing himself up inside the frame of a mirror, pursing his small mouth and flirting with his own eyes. Whenever I try to visualize men with no clothes on, they’re mostly Ken dolls, but he carries himself so well that I could imagine it before I saw him naked. That’s how I knew I was attracted to him.
As the tempo of his breathing gains momentum in one ear, I hear my mother’s voice in the other telling me not to look at him: A watched kettle never boils
The sex is supposed to make me feel better. I close my eyes and wait for him to bash me into the corners of my head, but it feels like he’s trying to shove a sleeping bag into the corner of a hot press and it keeps sagging and falling out. As the tempo of his breathing gains momentum in one ear, I hear my mother’s voice in the other telling me not to look at him: A watched kettle never boils. My eyes stay closed. I’m finally beginning to take my mother’s advice. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the phrases that are written under the red and white tear-off calendars she keeps on the window ledge of her kitchen and enjoys applying them to my life whenever I’m in the midst of an existential crisis.
I pretend to enjoy myself until it’s over and I get what I really want: a chance to fall asleep listening to the waves of somebody else’s breathing, his arms wrapped around me like a bouncer guarding my dreams.
He keeps fidgeting. I play dead, knowing that my only hope is to bore him into going to sleep. He jigs my shoulder and whispers loudly, “Any chance of a few tins?”
I bend over and reach under the bed to fish for two cans of Heineken that have been rolling around there for God knows how long. He spanks my backside and I wince, embarrassed.
We push open our tins and slug down the warm suds that bulwark us from thoughts of the morning. He examines my collection of postcards and quotes I have scrawled on scraps of paper and blu-tacked to my bedroom wall. This makes me feel more exposed than if I whipped the duvet off the bed and gave him a lap dance, but I’m glad he notices them.
“Why are there so many women writers who stop?” He looks at me with his big brown eyes until I realize he expects me to answer him. I whip down the postcard of Heath Ledger playing the Joker in The Dark Knight and hold it over my face as a mask. “Why so serious?” I ask. He laughs.
His desert island book is Anna Karenina. There’s a quote from it stuck on the headboard of his bed. I was too drunk to read it the last time I ended up back in his house, so he read it out to me.
“There are no conditions to which man cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way.” He cracked open a can of fancy craft beer and said, “It’s good, innit?”
I wanted to ask if all translations say man and not people, or he and not they. I think it’s ironic that in a story about the differences between men and women sleeping around, it’s translated that way.
I already know that I’m repeating unhealthy habits, but I get sick of being lonely and well-behaved, waiting for sexy Godot. I don’t fit into his life, but I’ll try anyway, an ugly sister masquerading as Cinderella, hoping he won’t see my butchered feet. He plays along and says cute things, ramping up his singsong Belfast accent and slagging my provincial one. I never described myself as being from down south until I moved here, and it makes me feel exotic. My family slag me off that I’m going to lose my accent, but if anything, I exaggerate my culchie status because it makes people like me more. He throws his head back on the pillow like a dog howling to exorcise his republican alter ego: “Do you accept euros?” I laugh and he starts to tickle me. The tips of his fingers dig until they find giggles that aren’t fake.
He kisses me goodbye the way a happy husband pecks his wife before he leaves for work. I’m annoyed that he’s leaving me alone with my thoughts as if they’re unwanted visitors I have to entertain by myself. As soon as he’s gone, I roll yellow rubber gloves over the sleeves of my pyjamas. You can tell a lot about my sex life by looking at my bathroom. Within twenty-four hours of a one- or two-night stand, I’m attacking the enamel of the tiles with the same gusto a kid uses to scrub their teeth before a dentist appointment. I soak in the bath until my skin shrivels up, change into a fresh pair of pyjamas, dress the bed in new sheets and swaddle myself in a cloud of duvet with a cup of tea and the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice lighting up my laptop screen. By the time Elizabeth is walking across the field at dawn to meet Darcy, I feel clean again.
Five days pass and he isn’t messaging back. I tell myself that he is busy with his PhD. My mother’s voice wafts into my head like a draught: Patience is a virtue, have it if you can. I message him three, four, five times in a row before deleting the conversation from my phone.
I see him again, a week later. He is holding hands with his friend. She rests her head on his shoulder. We are at the launch of a literary magazine they have co-edited together. They are standing side by side like proud parents at a graduation and I can’t believe I shaved my body from head to toe on the off chance that he would want me again. He squeezes my shoulders hello as if to squash me back into the friend zone and now I know how psychopaths are made.
“How are you?” He grins.
“I’m great.” I smile to stop my lips from trembling.
“You’re not bothered, are you?” my gay friend asks as we make our way to the bar.
“Of course I’m bothered. It’s rude.”
“I suppose,” he says. “But what is he meant to tell you? He’s riding someone else?”
“Yes! That’s exactly what he’s supposed to do.”
“That’d be a bit awkward, though.” He pauses. “Are you thick with me for saying that?”
“You’re thick with me.”
“No I’m not, just leave it.”
She has been published in every literary journal on campus, despite parading her mental illness around on social media. I think it’s unfair that she is able to be both sick and successful at the same time
I’m angry with myself for losing the conversation when I clearly have the right to take the moral high ground. I look around the room and notice the girl he had been flirting with the night he went home with me. She is wearing a white t-shirt which has a drawing of boobs on it, like huge cartoon eyes with dots of nipples staring out of her chest. She has been published in the magazine. She has been published in every literary journal on campus, despite parading her mental illness around on social media. I think it’s unfair that she is able to be both sick and successful at the same time. I want to hold them out to her like a mother in a shop and ask her to choose between them.
I nod in her direction. “Emma Clarke hates me.”
My friend rolls his eyes. “Why?”
“Because if I hadn’t been there that night he was flirting with her, he would have gone with her instead.” I don’t say that I’m glad he chose me over her.
“And, she would be in the position you are in now. So you’ve probably done her a favour.” He realizes what he’s said. “What I mean is, you’re overreacting.”
“I feel like apologizing to her,” I say.
“Jesus,” He squeezes my hand. “Don’t do that, pet. That’s crazy talk.”
He tells me to just be nice to the girl the next time I see her. I wonder if that’s what feminism is.
As the pints flow, I don my vigilante cape on behalf of the casually jilted women of Belfast. It isn’t that I like him, I insist. I am happy that he is in what seems to be a loving and caring relationship only days after sleeping in my bed. It would have been completely fine if he granted me the courtesy of letting me know. It would have been all gravy, I say, using the phrase that was considered cool among my secondary school friends three years ago. I accost randomers in the queue for the bathroom to inform them of the offence committed against me. They rub my back and agree that men are bastards. I brush up against them like a satisfied cat. I don’t tell anyone about the nude pictures he has of me on his phone. I’m not half as humiliated about them as I am about the short story I sent him that is still sitting in his inbox, lonely and unread.
My friend puts me into a taxi, gives the driver an extra fiver, and shouts, “Make sure she gets into the house, ok?” Then he slams the door.
I wave the taxi man goodbye like he’s a long-lost uncle. The next morning, I wake up early and begin to wrap my thoughts around a story. I email the story to him, along with a note of explanation proclaiming madness, fobbing insanity off as a quirky personality trait. The story could be good enough to publish, I think. I fantasize about reading it aloud at the launch of the next issue of his literary journal. I do a heel-click on my way out to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, giddy at the thought of revenge.
He messages back three days later. He tells me with the composure of a priest that he’s glad I am writing about it, but he can’t fathom what would possess me to send it to him. He has already apologized. He could have handled the situation better, and he should have said sorry without me having to prompt him. Most of all, he’s pissed off at how I describe the sex: “I don’t understand why you’ve skipped over the sheer amount of sex we had. We had a lot of sex, morning and night, and both of us were very much involved in that respect.” I don’t remember having that much sex. I’ve blocked out the other attempts he made to knock the numbness out of me, the one time it worked and I felt the hot pain of nothing rising up in my throat, surfing on a wave of relief. I couldn’t let him see me cry so I squeezed my legs together and rolled over. He threw a towel at me to wipe away the dampness down there. I used the corner of it to wipe away tears.
My mind and body have a silent understanding that if I ever get pregnant, I will kill myself. The process will be long and drawn out. I think I will have the abortion first. Unsex myself. I’ll turn up on the doorstep of Positive Options like a lost child hoping to make the idea of murder feasible. Then I will get on the inconvenient flight to England and after it’s done, I’ll wander around for a bit, bored and inhuman. I’ll have nothing to do with this decision since I have lost control of my thoughts. Sometimes, I make a half-hearted attempt to reassert authority over them like a mother trying to find her misbehaving children in a jungle gym. Most of the time, it feels like there’s not enough of me left to argue with them.
It has been two months since my last period. The app on my phone that keeps track of my monthly appointments informs me that I have a forty per cent chance of pregnancy. I start imagining my own funeral.
I decide to read my story to the woman who my family pays fifty pounds an hour to listen to me. My woman. That’s what I call her if anyone asks me where I’m going on Saturday mornings. If I use the word therapist, I say it ironically with a wry smile and make a joke about being in a Woody Allen movie. She is a soft-spoken, older lady who looks like she shops in Marks and Spencer and smells of talcum powder and scented candles. She always asks me how I am when I sit down in the chair opposite her, and I smile and say, “I’m grand, how are you?” as if to trick us both into thinking it’s a normal conversation.
I read the story aloud from trembling pages. I’m nervous because I don’t want her to think that I’m a slut, so I demote having sex to a kiss. I’ve rehearsed the reading so many times that I skip over the words with the bravado of a kid who is good at hopscotch. The crease lines on her forehead bow in sympathy and she speaks to me in hushed tones as if I have suffered a bereavement. I was expecting this. She is being paid to take my side. I need more from her though. The wrinkles on her forehead scrunch together, crippling the lines of sympathy.
“I don’t understand why you are relating your situation to feminism,” she says, pursing her mauve Clarins lips. I notice a white crust around the corners of her mouth that might be dry skin or toothpaste. “Feminism has always struck me as a very strident position to take.”
I am flushed and embarrassed, the way I used to be in primary school when a teacher corrected me. It takes me a moment to steady myself. I spend the rest of my forty minutes attempting to explain what feminism is, until my time is up and she is forced to squash the conversation. She wraps up the vomit of my thoughts in psychological rhetoric and gives them to me to take home to fish through later, like a doggy bag from a restaurant. She opens the window, repositions the box of tissues on the coffee table and refills my glass of water so that the room is fresh for the rest of her clientele.
I went to a poetry reading once, and listened to an old man tell us in a seal-proof narrative about the time he was lectured about women’s rights by a nineteen-year-old student in the common room of a hostel in Prague. It was a funny poem. I remember laughing. He listened to her with the bemusement of a grandfather indulging his granddaughter in a wrestling match. He congratulated himself on his performance. She didn’t know that he was letting her win.
Louise Nealon is a 26- year-old writer from Co Kildare. She studied English literature in Trinity College Dublin, and then completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast in 2016. She lives on her family farm where she divides her time between reading, writing and milking cows. This is her first published story.
The healing power of island life on Inis Oírr, an Irish Times travel piece by Louise Nealon
Read the other shortlisted stories chosen by The Good Son author Paul McVeigh
Louise Nealon on winning the Séan Ó Faoláin Competition
When an email with the subject title, “You Won the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize,” lands in my inbox, I think it’s spam. My life isn’t particularly adventurous so I enjoy hearing from FBI agents, or lotteries that I didn’t enter but apparently won. This spam has no spelling mistakes. It is concise, well-written correspondence that asks me to phone a number to confirm I have received the news. The first thing I say to Patrick Cotter – the director of the Munster Literature Centre and the voice at the end of the phone – is: “It can’t be me. I haven’t even been published before.”
Two weeks later, I’m having breakfast in the Maldron Hotel in Cork, eating a slice of watermelon with a knife and fork. I amuse myself by trying to match the faces of the fellow guests with writers I admire, like a nerdy version of Guess Who. I’m giddy at the thought of what I could do. I know that I can’t really interrupt David Means while he is eating a croissant to inform him that I know who he is but it’s thrilling to have to restrain myself from doing so.
I have been invited down for the week of the Cork International Short Story Festival. I sit in on Claire Keegan’s creative writing workshop every morning and after class we go across to the English Market for lunch. The evenings are spent at various readings organised by the festival, including the wonderful Fiction at the Friary hosted by Danielle McLaughlin and Madeleine D’Arcy. It is not quite possible to say how happy this makes me – imagine Harry’s first day at Hogwarts.
I read my story at a prize-giving ceremony in Cork City Library. I get my photo taken with Liadain O’Donovan, Frank O’Connor’s daughter. Danielle McLaughlin shakes my hand. I watch my family and friends taking turns to thank the judge, Paul McVeigh. There’s too much happening to be happy – that will come later. For now, I feel the same sense of relief that I felt when I passed my driving test, that moment before I left the driving centre and, overconfident of my parking skills, crashed the car in an underground car park. I know that winning a prize won’t make me a better writer anymore than getting my full license made me a better driver, but it’s nice to think that every now and again, when someone reads a sentence that I string together, it might pass the test.