SOMETIMES THEY SCARE ME, the intense feelings you can have for a stranger. The sudden rush of affection for a kid in a supermarket hiding from his parents, or for an old man in a coffee shop, blessing himself after finishing a muffin.
Sometimes it’s a pointless rage: towards the teenage girls on the bus with the mocking laughs, or the guy who asks you for a light when you’re sitting outside a café having lunch with your friends. Yes, you’ll light his fag, and he’ll lean in and cup your hands so it’s weirdly intimate, but all you want to say is: ‘Call yourself a smoker?’
By the next day you’ve forgotten these people, but for a few moments they overwhelm you, short the circuit boards of your brain.
Right now, I’m on the train going from Logan Airport to the Back Bay. I’m in the standing space, trying to shrink, make my suitcase look smaller than it is. Passengers trying to get past keep stumbling over me. I wait for the sighs of impatience, the muted glares, but the people here don’t go in for that much.
If I was anyone else on this train I would hate me.
I’m sitting on the broad back of my suitcase in Copley Square. If I tilt my head back as far as it will go, I can just about see the top of the John Hancock tower, looking like a beaker filled with lagoon water. It’s autumn, hot, and I wait, feeling my skin heat up and harden, watching teenagers ollie past No Skateboarding signs.
I’m waiting for Orla, who is seventeen years older than me, four inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter. She offered to meet me at the airport, but I like Boston. I want to experience some of it alone.
I see Orla when she’s about fifty yards away. We experience that awkwardness where you sight someone from far away, and have to maintain the enthusiasm until they’re right up to you. When is the right time to wave, to call out? Twenty yards? Ten?
‘Hey Jules!’ she yells from fifteen yards. She always knows the right time.
She is wearing all black on a scorcher of a day.
Her smile would be a beautiful one, if not for the stains. It’s the smile I’ll probably have in twenty years. I have a sudden wish to have Orla around all the time, just for that smile: it’s the one thing that could wean me off smoking.
We cross the square to a café where Orla knows the owner ‘quite well.’ Sure enough, we get a complimentary bottle of wine. She looks across the table at me, sizing me up in some way. To avoid the eye contact, I check the bottle’s label. ‘06 Rioja. It means nothing to me, but Orla seems put out by the wine’s vintage and origin. She fusses and apologises, and pours large glasses, adding ‘I’ve got better stuff at home.’ I’m buoyed by her slight discomfiture, and don’t bother to tell her that my rough palate makes no distinction between seven euro swill from Spar and a swanky restaurant’s house wine.
I should point out that I am not a bad person. I want her to come away from this visit believing that we bonded. I just hope it doesn’t take too much out of me.
After we order, Orla clasps her hands and sighs in a way that is meant to evoke deep satisfaction. ‘So!’
‘So,’ I reply, dutifully.
‘How is Niall?’
‘Good form. You know Dad, like.’
‘Yes. Irrepressible.’ She rolls her eyes, trying to disguise it by leaning forward to sip her wine. ‘And—oh, who was that charming friend of yours at your eighteenth? Dermot?’
‘Diarmuid. Yeah, can’t wait to get back to college. We’re gonna be living together again this year.’
She stops sipping. ‘Ooooh. Are you sleeping together?’
‘Oh God, no.’
‘Why ever not? He’s cute. And you, honey, you’ve got that certain appeal.’
‘It isn’t like that.’
‘This is gorgeous.’ I spear some of my prawn salad, and offer her some, but she just looks at me, and won’t let me take the conversation off on the tangent I want it to go. ‘Thing about Diarmuid is, he sleeps with everyone he knows,
except me. It’s like his mark of respect or something.’
‘Is he gay?’
She smiles again, briefly flashing those nicotine teeth. I should photograph those teeth.
‘I thought so,’ she says, dropping her voice. ‘At your party, you know, we both went to the back kitchen to fetch your cak … oh it was nothing really, a silly thing, the candles wouldn’t light and he made some stupid joke… but I thought he was flirting with me.’
I am reminded that, though I don’t see her too often, and though we are often mistaken for sisters, these are not the reasons I sometimes forget she’s my mother.
We get the tram to Cambridge, to her new place. She moved out of Latest Boyfriend’s apartment last month and she’s a little sketchy on the details. I quite liked Latest Boyfriend—what I heard of him, anyway. She seemed less jokey and apologetic about him than the others. She was breathless and fretful, and it astonished me that someone could make her that way.
We walk down a broken pavement that’s littered with blue and red frat party cups. I kick them out of the way. The wheels of my suitcase get stuck in the cracks on the path. She doesn’t help me haul it out.
‘Here we are,’ she says, fumbling with keys. ‘I have to warn you, it isn’t much.’
I guess I could have anticipated that Boston apartments don’t come furnished.
We have a glass of the ‘better stuff’, which I secretly enjoy less than the café bottle, and lean against the counter, chatting intermittently. Eventually I cry jetlag and retire to my room. The windows don’t have curtains yet, so I know I’ll be woken in a gust of sunlight at 7 a.m. Best way to adjust the body clock, I suppose.
I climb onto the inflatable mattress in the corner and curl up.
I wake at 3.30 a.m. There is clearly no talking to my body clock. My throat feels shrivelled—I need water. The mattress hisses and writhes as I stumble to my feet.
In the kitchen, I put a glass under the tap.
‘Oh—you’re here,’ comes Orla’s voice, dully.
I jump slightly, turn and see her outline, a lotus position in a corner of the dark living room. Her face is lit eerily by the glow of the computer on her lap.
‘Hi,’ I say. ‘Just wanted a drink.’
I know I have to ask why she’s awake and on her computer at half three. I go and stand beside her, but I feel huge and imposing so I get down on my knees.
‘Everything okay?’ I ask. Her eyes are huge and very black.
‘Just got an email,’ she says, fingers flexing on the keyboard. ‘From Mark. He’s back with his ex.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. I know I was told Mark’s name, but it’s as if I’m hearing it for the first time.
‘Yeah. He’s pretty… to the point.’ She sighs. ‘I had high hopes, you know? I’m not getting any younger and… it felt like a chance to settle down. Start over.’
There it is, then. She wants another go at family life. I don’t say anything.
‘Do you have a guy you love, Jules?’
‘You ever been in love? There’s so much I don’t know about you. We should talk about these things, really.’
I have a sudden rush of panic. She forces out a giggle.
‘Hellooo? Earth to Jules? Ever been in love?’
‘Sadly, no,’ I sigh dramatically, going along with the jollity.
‘Course not. You’re too smart.’
I bristle slightly. I’ve been called smart before, though not always in a complimentary way.
‘I do have feelings, you know,’ I say, and I’m surprised at how petulant that sounds, the only full sentence I’ve spoken.
Her face crumples in the greenish laptop light. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I didn’t mean—’
‘No, it’s okay,’ I say, embarrassed for us both. I want to change the subject before I end up apologising too.
‘I’m sorry… I don’t always know how to talk to you, honey,’ she says, her voice smothered in unshed tears. ‘It’s hard—we’re not around each other much.’ She laughs a tiny laugh. ‘You even call me by my first name, for God’s sake.’
‘You don’t have to explain.’
We sit there a while, my leg going to sleep under the weight of me, no sound except the low gossipy noise of late-night traffic on the street below.
She says: ‘I remember the last time you called me ‘Mam’, actually. You were nine. I was visiting you and your father for a few weeks, and Kitty Kiernan— you remember her?’
‘Course I do.’
‘Yes, well, we were sitting outside, on that bench that used to be at the gable end. Really hot day for once, we needed the shade. And Kitty Kiernan got a hold of a mouse, just a few metres away from us. She was playing with it. Letting it go, and the mouse’s little legs going, trying to carry itself away. And then Kitty Kiernan would just pounce on it again. Do you remember?’
I don’t, but I say: ‘I think so.’
‘Anyway, you started crying, burying your face against me. You said ‘Mam, how can Kitty Kiernan be so cruel?’ I was at a bit of a loss. I just babbled away. Eventually I said: “Oh honey, it’s just nature, you know? Like in the Serengeti,” and of course that got your attention, ‘cause you were all into David Attenborough at the time. Like I said—smart.’ She paused. ‘You stopped crying then, and you got brave enough to watch the whole thing, wide-eyed. And Kitty Kiernan finally finished the mouse off, and your little body just gave this heave of relief.’
We’re quiet for a while.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, because it’s all I can think of to say.
She shakes her head. ‘For what?’
I know that maybe I should have called her ‘Mam’ just now. It would have been a meaningful moment. But a part of me cringes and balks at those moments that most people, maybe rightly, regard as being the stuff of a good life.
Still, I look at her face—honest now, not trying to project anything—and I feel ashamed, remembering my resolve to cruise through this visit on autopilot.
I should maybe hug her, but it’s too awkward in this dark unfurnished room. I’d be groping into a corner, losing my balance, hitting edges.
‘Do you—want a cigarette?’ I ask, lamely, trying to find something we can share. I remember I left my handbag on the kitchen counter. I jump up and pull out a cigarette and light up, wishing I hadn’t, knowing my shaking hands are making the lighter’s flame hover in the air, like an uncertain bug.
‘No thanks, honey,’ she says. ‘I’ve quit.’
I laugh nervously. ‘Congratulations.’ I take a drag from mine, letting the smoke dribble from my mouth, then impulsively go to the sink and stab it out.
‘Go back to bed, Jules. You need your rest.’
‘Okay. See you in the morning?’
‘See you,’ she says, sounding strangely loud, as if closer than she is.
I climb back into my bed, bury my face in the pillow. I want to drop off, but I’m filled with a longing I can’t name and I can’t get comfortable. I try a few positions, on my belly, even the foetal position, but my body just aches. I finally flip onto my back and try to keep my spine stiff and straight.
I stare at the ceiling till the light spills in: sunrise.