One little thing had started to irritate me about her. Before we met, she had managed to get through a dozen boyfriends, all from this city. Thus as I walked through crowds on Grafton Street, I was intensely aware that any man amongst them might be a guy who once had sex with my wife.
I had seen, from a distance, one of these ex-boyfriends. The rest were a list of first names and no more. I did not know them but it was possible that some of them knew me. Perhaps as I stood in the taxi queue at Stephen’s Green her first ex was the man half-smiling in my direction. Giving a little wink, thinking to himself…
‘I have had sex with your wife! Before you! Your entire sex life is now spent retracing my steps over skin I mapped fifteen years ago. There is nowhere that you can place your hands, your tongue, still less your penis but I haven’t already been.’
Plainly this notion was preposterous. My wife had better taste. The man was podgy, with ugly sticky out ears and he was too old. Nevertheless and despite the first spatters of rain, I decided to walk home. Up along Harcourt, I glared at passing strangers.
This uneasiness began a few days before. My wife and I were at the Gate Theatre to see some old Beckett thing. At the interval my wife went out to the Ladies while I remained in my seat. Idly, I turned around to survey the rows behind. A man standing in the aisle, who by his attire seemed to be some sort of usher or assistant-manager, winked at me. Startled, I looked away. Then I wondered had he really been winking at someone else and looked at him again. He winked once more. This time there could be no doubt. Although a total stranger to me, he was smiling directly at me and had one eyebrow raised quizzically. Astonished, I turned away. An announcer called everyone to return to their seats and the lights were dimmed. My wife sat down and the play recommenced.
Later when the lights were up and the crowd all leaving, I pointed the usher/manager man out to my wife and asked did she recognise him.
‘Yes, actually,’ she said breezily ‘that’s Eric, an old boyfriend of mine.’
It was quite a bloody shock. I had theorised that perhaps he was some kind of simpleton and his winking a harmless foible. This news cast things in an altogether different light. Plainly he had recognised my wife and extrapolated that I was now her husband.
‘And when you say boyfriend,’ I asked my wife, ‘you mean, don’t you, that he is someone you had sex with?’
‘Well… yes’ she said, surprised at my uncouth questioning.
‘How many times?’ I continued.
‘Oh come now,’ she protested, ‘I don’t know. A few, I suppose.’
‘A few?’ I said. ‘How many times is a few?’
‘You are being ridiculous,’ she said, ‘I don’t know! It was twelve years ago. Maybe seven or eight times. Ten maximum.’
Feck, I thought. You could fit a lot into ten times. You’d be way past the missionary position. This Eric guy had probably had my wife every which way. And now twelve years later he was winking at me. Feck!
We shuffled along the row and made our way down onto the street. There was no further sign of Eric but still I was troubled. As we went to retrieve our car in the Rotunda my wife noticed.
‘So now you’ve gone into one of your sulks,’ she accused. ‘I’m not sulking!’
‘Well, what are you then?’
‘I’m just thinking, that’s all.’
‘Thinking! Right, so what are you thinking?’
‘I’m thinking, to be honest, that I do not like the thought of that smirking idiot Eric ever having been intimate with my gorgeous wife.’
‘Oh, come on, I can’t believe your immaturity,’ she blustered, ‘that was years ago. You’re being silly.’
I did not reply. I snorted.
‘Well, then,’ she said, as she hit the central locking, ‘if you’re going to throw a big sulk over seeing some usher guy who I briefly dated years ago then maybe we should just avoid the Gate Theatre entirely and never ever come here whatsoever ever again.’
She was being sarcastic. I wasn’t.
‘I wholeheartedly agree.’
So we would never again darken the door of the Gate Theatre, that much was settled in my mind. Precious little else was though. As I lay awake at 2am, unwanted visions of Eric floated at the top of my thoughts. An image of his grinning visage had been burned into my eyeballs and was on constant replay.
Beside me, my wife was sleeping soundly. With no nightie, naked, her upper body was out from the quilt.
‘Goddamn this filthy cockroach Eric,’ I murmured, ‘who has trespassed so grievously upon MY WOMAN’S BREASTS.’
Yes, I was being irrational. Eric was nothing new. He had long since existed and I had long since been told. He was one of a list of names that my wife had gradually recounted four years ago when we were courting. When we were in the ‘getting to know everything about each other’ phase. But.
But back then my wife was not yet mine. Whom she had slept with before was of no relevance. What was relevant was that she was gorgeous. What was relevant was would she sleep with ME? And then how often?
‘But now she is mine,’ I murmured. ‘And now one of the theoretical names gets a face.’
And this face had made love to my wife on at least ten occasions. That was a substantial number. It raised some questions, some terrible torturing questions. I concocted answers.
Did my wife enjoy sex with this Eric?
‘I suppose… yes, obviously. She hardly just lay there letting him do stuff to her.’
Did she have huge piercing orgasms? Which rolled and tumbled onwards and inwards for several minutes? Did the fabulously rhythmic Eric always hit the spot?
‘Only she can know that. But she’ll never tell.’
And did she relish the sound of Eric’s rising excitement. In the bucolic bliss of his sweaty aftershocks did she, despite herself, let slip a tiny whisper of ‘I love you.’
And now years later, whilst doing ‘conjugal duty’ with her husband, when she’s bored, not particularly turned on, does her mind drift back to thoughts of Eric?
‘I said Stop.’
Or worse! When she IS turned on, IS about to orgasm, is it because she’s just visualised Eric’s massive throbbing…
‘I do not like this line of thinking.’
To break the sequence I went for a piss. I was too agitated to hit a target so I did it sitting down while another irritating detail from earlier came back to me.
‘Who broke up with whom?’ I had asked her in the car on the way home.
‘When are you going to cop on?’ she replied with a sigh. ‘I don’t know, it was all a long time ago. I think he dumped me because he was going to work in America for the summer and wanted no ties.’
So this idiot had sampled my wife and found her wanting. How dare he? The fecking fecker. Jesus! I wanted to kill him. Or at the very least find him tomorrow and punch his lights out.
1) For his bloody nerve in winking at me.
2) For his bloody nerve in having shagged my wife, even if it was in the distant past.
3) For his bloody nerve in making me lose sleep thinking about the possible dimensions of his penis.
Yes, tomorrow I must make it a priority: surf the internet, scour the telephone directory, loiter outside the Gate Theatre, whatever it took. Tomorrow I would systematically search this city of one million souls until Eric was unearthed.
Or not, as it transpired.
I came across him by accident again, first thing in the morning, before I was even fully awake. Bleary-eyed after a sleepless night, I took the Luas for a meeting with clients in Sandyford Business Park. When it stopped at Kilmacud, I glanced over at the far platform. There stood Eric. Fidgeting with his mobile, texting someone, he was too engrossed to notice me as I leapt from my seat and went to disembark. In a matter of thirty seconds I would have crossed the footbridge over to his side. Then before he knew what was happening, he’d be getting his jaw broken. Then…
‘But then what will happen?’ I asked myself.
Maybe he’ll hit you back. Are you ready for that?
‘…Yes. Feck him! Let him have a go. I’ll repay every blow with interest.’
Ok, so you win the fight, what then? Do you really think that’ll be the end of the story?
No doubt with so many witnesses the cops will nab you. ‘A totally unprovoked attack, guard! I saw everything!’
‘So I have to pay a fine, spend a day or two in custody. It’d be worth it.’
While your wife finds out what you did? Says ‘I can’t believe his immaturity!’ While she feels duty bound to visit poor injured Eric in the hospital with grapes and a bunch of flowers…while he says, ‘Wow, you look fabulous, babe… what a fool I was to let you go…’
All along the train, doors slid shut with a hiss. I was still aboard.
Many times over the next few miserable days I repented of my reasonableness, my prudence, my cowardice. Rattled by two random ex-boyfriend sightings in as many days, I began to imagine such creatures everywhere. In the queue at the ATM, busking down South King Street, winking at me slyly in the aforementioned taxi queue on Stephen’s Green.
Later that evening, after eating only half my dinner, I lay soaking in the bath. My wife came upstairs.
‘Yes?’ I said, unable to switch to thinking about anything, anybody else.
‘Are you still stupidly moping about seeing Eric, four days later?’ she asked.
‘Yes.’ I said ‘But I also saw him again the next day on the Luas. That was only three days ago.’
‘And what did you do?’ she said, looking alarmed. ‘Abuse him? Attack him?’
‘No, I did nothing, said nothing.’
‘Thank God,’ she said. ‘That was surprisingly mature of you.’
She turned to straighten one of the guest towels which was an inch askew. Seeing her from behind gave me an idea.
‘Hey,’ I said laughing mischievously. ‘Since I’ve been so mature maybe you’d like to demonstrate your approval. By joining me in here.’
‘You want me to have a bath?’ she chuckled ‘That’s a very strange way of me showing you approval. Perhaps you’d prefer a cup of tea.’
‘No, no tea.’
‘Not even with a chocolate biscuit?’
‘No, none of the above, just you, right now, in this bath.’
‘Well alright then,’ she said and began to peel off her top. ‘In honour of the fact that you now accept my past, that it did occur. But is over.’ She undid the zip in her skirt and that too fell to the floor while she continued talking. ‘In honour of the fact that you refuse to allow your mental state be dictated by some random guy who I dated years ago.
‘In honour of the fact…’ my wife kept on talking but as her underwear was cast aside I was too busy lusting to be listening. I was, though, fervently believing. From now on, I would indeed be a better, more mature person.
Two minutes into our post-coital bliss I began to backslide.
‘But twelve! How did you manage to get through twelve boyfriends?’ ‘Look,’ she said with a sigh, ‘I first had sex when I was 16. I met you when I was 29. Is one a year really so many? Is it really so sluttish? Some were one night stands, some relationships which didn’t last, the longest was six months. Believe me, there were long periods of having no sex at all.’
‘Ok,’ I said. ‘Next question, now that I’m taking a mature outlook. Could you explain specifically why you went out with Eric?’
I wanted her to tell me he was an unfortunate mistake. That he turned out to be useless in bed. That she never loved him.
‘Well, Eric could be very charming when he wanted to be.’
‘Mmm.’ My heart is prodded by a particularly sharp dagger.
‘He had a great sense of humour, fairly good-looking. A lot like you really.’
‘Mmm.’ The aforementioned dagger starts to make slices diagonally.
‘Yes. But obviously I prefer you.’
‘Mmm. Why exactly?’ I have no heart. Only strips of meat remain.
‘Well, you’re much more sincere, more considerate. Usually anyway. Kinder.’
Feck that! I don’t want to be picked for being sincere. For being kinder.
What would you like to be picked for?
For having a wider penis.
I did not share these thoughts with my wife.
‘It’s just,’ I told her, ‘what unsettled me about Eric is he makes OUR love seem contingent on time and place, the age we were when we met. Nothing to do with being some sort of special connection. You could just as easily have married him.’
‘Well,’ she replied and unleashed an ambush, ‘what about that girl Audrey you went out with for seven years? Don’t you think that’s a bit intimidating for me?’
‘She was just a mistake. I’ve always made that clear,’ I countered.
‘Oh come on! How did ye stay together for seven years if the relationship was so bad? You must have loved her. You must have had quite a bit of sex with her too. Well?’
I did not answer. I harrumphed and switched off my bedside lamp to signal that I now wanted to sleep. But yes. While my wife spent her twenties flitting from short term relationship to one night stand, I had used up 6 3/4 years with just one woman. And admittedly yes, I did love her, and have lots of sex, for the first five years at least. As my wife switched off her lamp I closed my eyes and pondered Audrey for the first time in an age.
We had probably had sex about a thousand times. Jesus! It sounds massive doesn’t it? But six years and nine months is 2465 days. At the start we did it at least daily (once four times in twenty-four hours!). Then by Year Three it was down to every second day, then twice weekly, then weekly and then for that last sad period almost never. By then we were living together, hoping that would fix our problems.
Another thing about Audrey. Like me, she was a virgin when we began going out. Nor was she ever unfaithful to me as far as I could tell. The last I’d heard of her was two years ago, when she was still single according to some mutual friends. I wondered was she attached now, four years after our split. Surely, yes. Yet, if by any chance she’d not met another man then… no, it couldn’t be, no matter how much she was concentrating on her career… but if so… then I would therefore be the only man to have ever possessed her.
The next day I ran into Eric again, while having lunch at my favourite eatery, T.P. Smiths. I was at the side counter, choosing between confit of salmon with smoked garlic cream or gratin of prawn tails and tortellini. Not only did Eric walk in, but he strolled up and sat onto the high stool right alongside me. Admittedly the place was packed; admittedly seats were few and far between. Still, I could not credit his cheek.
‘I’ll have the steamed cod,’ he shouted to my waitress and proceeded to make himself comfortable, hanging his jacket on a knob. Then he turned in my direction, acted as though he’d just noticed me for the first time and nodded. I braced myself for some verbal follow-up but none came. Instead he fished his mobile from his pocket and got down to text -messaging. Our orders arrived. The lunch, though mercifully free from any attempt at conversation, was far from being a comfortable experience.
While I tried to eat, Eric’s elbows were at an angle clicking off mine, as his thumbs twiddled on the tiny console. To complain would have meant opening up communication between us.
While I tried to eat, his phone bleeped constantly, alerting incoming messages. To complain would have risked a conversation which could lead anywhere.
While I tried to eat, I was inches away from a moronic jackass who had sampled the pleasure of sex with my wife.
Finally, having gobbled his rations with the enthusiasm of a pig, Eric got up to leave. He put his jacket on before leaning to whisper in my ear.
‘And please give my regards to your wife, won’t you?’ He paused. ‘If memory serves, she was a quite a goer between the sheets.’
‘WHAT?!!’ I shouted in outrage but Eric had already started moving towards the door. I stumbled off my stool and pursued him but became entangled in a waitress carrying three plates of potato wedges. By the time I got to the street he was out of sight. I tried running towards the Jervis Centre but there was no sign. I jogged left to Capel and all the way down. Nothing either. ‘Feck him!’ I shouted at the river. ‘FECK HIM!’
I was still murmuring those two words to myself, over and over, later that night at home in bed. In a vicious mood demanding of decisive action, I considered the position. Plan A for dealing with this situation had been the simple expedient of avoiding the Gate Theatre. Plan A, it was fair to say, had failed utterly. Time for Plan B.
It was not, I’ll readily admit, a nice plan. Which is why I had kept it in reserve, hoping never to have to implement it. Simply put, the time had arrived for me to have sex with another woman. Only in this way could I restore some balance to the situation between me and my wife (She who had had far more lovers than I). The absolutely ideal scenario for poetic justice would be if I could go out to Kilmacud, seek and seduce Eric’s current girlfriend or wife.
Or, alternatively, it could just be any woman I managed to pick up at a nightclub. (I’d tell my wife it was drinks for a guy leaving work. When I’d gotten a woman, we could use a hotel room and I’d be home by 2am, 3am at the latest.)
Or, and this seemed the easiest, cleanest option, I could just go around to my ex-girlfriend Audrey’s last known address and…
I had hardly pressed the doorbell when I saw a silhouette approaching through the frosted glass. I heard the Chubb lock turn and then a triple Yale before the door cracked open to the width of a short chain. Grimacing suspiciously, squinting out into the sunlight, it was Audrey. I said ‘Hello, remember me,’ and she softened to a smile. The chain was unhooked and I entered.
Upon entering her rooms I said ‘Nice place you have’ but that was utterly untrue. It was a dimly-lit basement flat which comprised bed/living room, tiny kitchenette and a tinier toilet. The carpet was hideous.
Greyish white underwear overflowed the laundry basket and the only table was home to a laptop swamped by the surrounding clutter of folders and loose A4 pages.
‘My thesis for the MA,’ she said apologetically. ‘Sometimes I wonder will I ever be finished.’
Big box files were piled precariously on one of only two chairs in the flat. I went to sit on the other one while Audrey put on the kettle for tea. No. It had only three good legs. In the end, I pushed aside a radio alarm and a copy of Possession, perching myself on the edge of her locker.
As tea was poured I took in one other detail I hadn’t previously grasped. I’ve a terrible sense of smell but even I could plainly make out the whiff of cat. Or cats. There were none visible but the window was open. Out on the sill were an assortment of feeding bowls and a tray of sand. That, no doubt, was supposed to be their toilet. I suspected the cats did not always do as they were supposed.
Audrey brought over the tea, correctly two-sugared without asking and sat on the bed. As I turned to really look at her I noticed that the top two buttons of her blouse had somehow come undone. While I was looking down into her ample cleavage she bounced back up off the bed and was suddenly in my face with two pouting lips. I kissed her. I grabbed a hold of her bottom, pulled her close and we kissed again with tongues twisting slowly.
‘Oh God,’ she said pulling away for a breath. ‘That is so good. Give me more.’
Audrey, I thought to myself, does not compare me to other lovers. I am truly the best she’s ever had. But perhaps she is trying too hard?… My wife NEVER EVER tries too hard… For a moment, I was confused. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a brown cat sneaking towards the kitchenette. As Audrey dived into our next kiss, I wondered was it such a good idea to go ahead with this tryst.
Audrey knelt down on the hideous carpet and unbuttoned my jeans. My penis, it emerged, was not wondering. He sprang out, ready to go.
But this trip to Audrey’s, you will perhaps have guessed, was a dream. When I awoke at 2:11am there was a damp patch on my underpants. I was still in bed with my wife.
The actual attempt to implement Plan B took place later at 6pm that evening. I went along to the address in Grove Park which did look vaguely like the one in the dream. I pressed the doorbell for Flat 8 several times but there was no reply. Then I rang Flat 7 and a Polish guy came out to the door.
‘Yes,’ he answered me, ‘there is a dark-haired woman living in Flat 8 but I don’t know her name.’
I questioned further.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied more testily, ‘it’s not my business whether she has a boyfriend.’
So I came away not knowing if Audrey still lived there or if she had a partner. As I closed the front garden gate, two cats stared at me coolly from their cubby -hole in the corner. This may or may not have had any significance.
Maybe I should have pursued it but I lost enthusiasm for Plan B. I went back to Plan A, in a new and improved version. It now demands my avoidance of not only the Gate Theatre but also the Luas (Red line—as far as I know the Green is okay) and Smith’s hostelry. Initially, I’ll admit, these strictures seemed cumbersome but in no time I discovered perfectly adequate alternatives for each; a different theatre, a different restaurant, a brand new impetus to take the healthy option and walk into town.
My reward has been four months now without a single sighting of Eric. My reward has been a gradual reduction in sulking with my wife and scowling at strangers; in summary a less distracted mental state.
I am optimistic that I can keep a lid on my jealousy but a sinister threat hovers over the horizon. Eleven other ex- boyfriends are still out there, each with his own workplace, own favourite bar, each his own daily pathway through this city. To the men I know only from her chronological list—David, Michael, Brian, Frank, Liam, Sean, Ger L, Anthony, James, Ollie and Ger O— my silent prayer, indeed my violent prayer, is that you all stay… out… of… my… life.