I used to be a passenger in Laura’s car. I think that was when I was happiest, though you can never be sure about these things. When she wasn’t there, her boyfriend and I would drive around instead. Back then I would reach my head out the window and whistle or bark at women who were walking on the side of the road. Shane soon picked up the habit and we became known around town as troublemakers, though we rarely ever stepped out of the car, the car being our sanctuary. I had picked up the habit during my year in Boston when I worked on the sites, labouring for a virile bunch of men who I liked so much I continued wolf-whistling at girls when I returned home. Every time I leant my torso out the window and screamed at a young woman I would recollect fondly the time I spent with those men. But when Laura and Shane were together in the car it was different. It was then that I would lie down on the backseat, just smoking cigarettes and listening to their constant, vicious arguments. I would feel dazed and think maybe hell was just repetition and that when fire bites your heels it is not the burning that hurts, but the fact that there is nothing new in the flames. On good days though, there were no better people to be around. Then we would go anywhere. We would go to Funderland in Bettystown and I would watch schoolgirls who were on the hop crashing into each other in bumper cars, or we would go to Howth and sit on the pier in the wind and eat expensive, vinegary chips, or we would go to Trim castle and climb on the ruins of the old churches and sit on the soft grass on the banks of the Boyne and lie there for hours. Of course it came to an end soon before I went to England looking for work.
The end came one day when we were in the Tesco in Maynooth, sitting in the car park sharing a strawberry milkshake and listening to Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s Greatest Hits was the only album Shane had in the car and we had never listened to anything else, though it was really only me who liked the album. Laura had just begun to shout at Shane over some spilled ash on the floor when I saw a girl I was interested in walk by going into McDonald’s, still dressed in her school uniform.
Checking the dashboard, I made the time out to be two o’clock, which meant she was mitching. I whistled at her loudly, forgetting Laura was in the car. The girl’s older sister’s boyfriend, who I used to go to school with, had told me she’d turned seventeen that February, so there was no risk. She didn’t turn around the first time I whistled, so I stuck my fingers in my mouth and whistled again, even louder this time. She still didn’t turn around, but just went on through the glass doors into the restaurant. Laura, distracted from her burgeoning argument with Shane, turned to me and said, What the fuck are you doing? I looked from her to Shane. Nothing. What are you talking about? Do you think it’s okay to do that? she asked. I could hear the spite in her voice. Ease up, Shane said. Here, I said tiredly, don’t be at me as though you’ve nothing of your own worth harping on about. What? said Laura What did you say? Laura, Shane pleaded. Go easy, he’s heading soon. I could see out of the corner of my eye the girl idly eating chips just inside the McDonald’s window, slowly stirring each chip in a shallow pool of ketchup on her tray. Shane and Laura had started arguing about how Shane always sided with me in arguments because I was a man. This might have been true, but she always sided with me against Shane whenever I disagreed with him. I don’t know why, but it must have something to do with relationships, which I’ve never been much good at. At some point, after I stopped listening to them, Laura turned to me and said, You’re both pieces of shit. Fuck you, Laura, I said. Whoa, said Shane. Laura was shocked; usually I was quiet during their outbursts. I had gone too far and I could see Shane would have to take issue with what I said, so I made it easy for him. Fuck you both, I’ll see you around. And then I pushed the door open and slid out, leaving them both speechless. I was careful to slam the door, and as I walked away towards the McDonald’s I could still hear the muffled sound of Bruce Springsteen’s voice.
When I went into McDonald’s I was careful not to go straight up to the girl so I ordered a coke at the till and sucked at it through the straw for a while, leaning against the counter and watching her from behind. Her name was Jessie and she was in fifth year. I think so anyway. I waited there for about five minutes and then she turned around at last. She saw me and smiled. She walked towards me, teasingly sauntering past to put her rubbish in the bin. Underneath her long school dress, I could see she was wearing a pair of high heels that clacked off the large diamond-patterned tiles. She looked over her shoulder and called at me, grinning: You still acting the pervert, Jim? Watching schoolgirls from a distance? Oh, nothing like that, I was just passing by and thought I might of recognised you, I said, still slurping on my coke. For some reason, I felt good and free. You still riding bitch with your faggot friend? she said. Ha, I laughed back sarcastically. No, that’s all done with now. So, you got your own car, then? she asked, in a way that gave me pleasurable shivers on my neck. Not yet, I answered. But I’m working on it. She was closer to me now and, as though her confidence had vanished in proximity, she had begun to look at her feet. We can still have a gander up the canal, if you’d like? I suggested. Sure, she said. Just give me a minute while I pop off to the loo. Grand, I said, grinning. She walked off and I quickly went to the window, to see if Shane’s car was still there. It was, but because of the way the sunlight hit off the windscreen, I couldn’t tell if anyone was still inside.
Still peering through the window, I didn’t notice Jessie coming up behind me. She pinched my ear. Are you coming? Of course I am. When we went out I put my hand on the small of her back to guide her to the left so we wouldn’t be walking past Shane’s car. She offered no resistance, so I slipped my hand around her waist. It felt small and warm underneath my hand, even through her blue school jumper. We walked like that down the canal, which was very pretty at that time of year, though Jessie just looked at her feet most of the time. A few times she looked up at me as though she were struggling for something to say. I could tell she wanted to kiss me, but was too afraid, and I began to lower my hand, almost imperceptibly, down her back. Then, before I got too low, she whispered, Do you want a joint? Sure, I said, only slightly surprised. Have you tobacco? Uh-huh, I nodded. Let’s sit down here, I said, motioning to the grass beneath us. She lowered herself onto her knees, spreading her skirt before her as a flat surface for the rolling. I lay on my back, looking around me.
The grass around us was warm and sweet-smelling. Between us and the canal were lengths of tall rushes that had grown in the shallows of the banks where a solitary swan drifted by from time to time, going back and forth, its gracefully arched neck like a question mark. The only other breathing thing in sight was a middle-aged man in an overcoat sitting on a deckchair further along the canal casting a fishing rod. Both sides of the canal were bordered with ash trees, spaced haphazardly enough to give them the misleading appearance of sprouting up of their own accord without human interference.
I looked at Jessie beside me. She was hunched over so her hair fell in swathes across her small face looking for skins in her breast pocket. I leaned forward and brushed her hair away and kissed the back of her neck. She shivered and I saw gooseflesh appearing on her skin. I guided her cheek with my fingers so she was facing me. Her mouth hung open very slightly and her breath had quickened. I eased her back onto the grass and then I brushed her cheek again with the back of my hand. She closed her eyes and swallowed and I began to kiss her. She worked her tongue slowly at first, but soon her movements quickened against mine. Kissing her was as pleasant as I had imagined it to be, although I was annoyed by her flesh-tinted make-up rubbing off my nose and my eyelashes. Slipping my hand underneath her jumper and shirt, I could feel the small arch of her hips and the slenderness of the white skin on her belly, like the underside of a cat. With my forefinger, I traced playful patterns across her abdomen, each one getting lower, until I could feel the buckle of her skirt, the clasp of which I took between my thumb and middle finger. She giggled and pushed me away, whispering that it tickled. I grinned and, leaning forward again, bit her ear, squeezing the lobe softly between my teeth. She squealed and laughed. As I was about to put my hands beneath her skirt again, approaching from beneath the hem this time, she once again pushed me away, this time more forcefully. Stop, she said. I sighed and sat up, gazing at the canal and resting my chin on my knees. She rearranged her dress and started rolling the joint. I gave her a cigarette without speaking or looking at her. Neither of us said a word. The silence lasted for a few minutes and in that time I saw the man down the canal catch a medium-sized fish, possibly a trout. The fish danced upon the line in its death throes like a haywire puppet on a string. This lasted for a few seconds before the man finally got a firm grip on its slippery body, but only after its oscillations had defied him several times and left him grasping at air foolishly, making him look like a frustrated shadow boxer. Then, rather than unhooking the fish, he ripped the hook out of its mouth violently, so that he must have rent the lower half of its mouth in two. He beat the fish’s head off the ground for so long that its body must have been near disintegration. Then, strangest of all, he threw its limp corpse back into the water carelessly, before casting out again. It made me nervous wondering how long he had been doing this, repeating this redundant, violent procedure.
While I was still wondering, I noticed that Jessie had already lit up and inhaled several times. I looked at her and saw she was an inexperienced smoker. She gulped the smoke like she was drowning or trying to prevent herself from vomiting. After she was finished, she handed me the slim joint, burning end first, and lay on her back in the grass. I smoked for a while, staring at the small ripples on the edge of the canal made by the haze of insects that treaded the surface of the water, until I saw that Jessie was staring at the sky with one eye closed and tracing clouds with her finger. She giggled softly from time to time and I thought how she seemed very young now. At the same time, I noticed that with her knees drawn, and laying on her back, her dress had slid up enough to expose a sliver of white underwear. I was about to put my hand on her thigh again, but I thought better of it and went back to staring at the canal. At some point, she asked me: Do you do this often? What? Smoke? I said. Yes. No, she said. Do you do this with girls often? No. I shook my head. You’re the first. She craned her neck to look at me. One of her eyes was still closed and there were some blades of grass tangled in her dark hair. No. I mean with girls from school, she said. No, I repeated. The grass in her hair made her look feral and I couldn’t stop looking at it. Well, she continued, Stacey says you were going with her a while and you went with a load of ones from sixth year. Well, Stacey’s a little slut, I said, and I wouldn’t fucking touch her. Okay, she nodded placidly, almost happily, and began to look back at the sky. Stretching her hand out, she said, Give us that. I handed her the ends and she sucked on them deeply and began to cough. I waited until she had finished coughing and I asked, Jess, are you a virgin? What? she said, surprised. I said: Are you a virgin? What do you think? she snorted and put her hands behind her head. I think you are, I said. She laughed falsely. I’m not, though it’s none of your business anyway. I think you’re full of shit, Jess, I said, pulling a tissue out of my pocket to blow my nose. Fuck you, she said. I laughed and then we were quiet again for a while. She closed her eyes, which had begun to redden, and began to breathe deeply and slowly. I watched her while she lay there on her back, almost asleep, and I lit another cigarette, grinning to myself. Then she began to talk to me again, but it was as though her words were directed at herself, and my presence was incidental. Draping her hands over her face like a fan, she peered through her fingers at me. I don’t know why this, along with the slip of her underwear visible and the grass in her hair, excited me as much as it did. And when she began to talk I thought she was opening up to me, which these young girls usually do before they commit themselves to me. They act as though their secrets are the price for their bodies and they feel safer once they’ve spoken, as though the act of giving makes the receiver as complicit as the giver. But I see through the hypocrisy of it. They know they’re lying to themselves. They’re lying to themselves through the truth and through me. But I don’t mind, because at least what I want is on some level honest, and that’s enough. But Jessie was different, or maybe she was just stoned. She started speaking while still peering out through her fingers, as though her fingers were a door and her eyes were peeking through the keyhole.
You used to go to school with Damien? she asked. Yeah, he was in my year, I answered. You know he’s going with my older sister. Uh-huh, I nodded. Well, he used to pick me up from school after basketball training. He had a car. Okay, I said, prompting her to continue, though not really interested. She hesitated for a moment. Well, one night, last year. It was raining, I remember, and he was waiting for me outside the gates, opposite the Protestant church. I remember he seemed weird because when I came out he was holding the steering wheel and looking at it, like he was thinking, and usually there’d be music playing in the car, but that night he was sat on his own in the dark, looking at the steering wheel and I knocked on the window and asked him to let me in and he unlocked the passenger seat. I was soaked and it was really dark because the lights were broke so I kept standing in puddles in my tennis shoes cause I couldn’t see the puddles at all. You know, because it was so dark? Okay, I said, not knowing where this was going. Well, she went on, I got in and we drove along and neither of us talked. I thought he must’ve been in a mood or something or maybe he was just concentrating and I didn’t mind. I could stand it cause the trip isn’t too long. It’s like five minutes, cause I live just behind the Glenroyal and there was no traffic so it would of took even shorter. But when we were passing the station he said to me, real quiet, he said, I’m gonna rape you and I don’t care. I’m gonna fuck you whether you like it or not. I’m going to open your legs and rip off your skirt and fuck you right here in this car. What do you think of that? And I began to shake and I had to hold the sides of the seat to stop my hands shivering and I just said nothing. But he kept talking anyway. He wouldn’t stop. He was like the buzz of a machine that won’t stop and he kept saying things like, I’m gonna fuck you from behind and you’ll drink it. You’ll fucking swallow it. You won’t like it at first, but you’ll fucking love it later. And if you don’t, I don’t give a fuck. I’ll show you. When we reached the house he pulled up outside the drive and I could see my mam in the kitchen window washing the dishes or something. She hadn’t noticed us cause he had killed the lights and even when he killed the engine he kept talking with his hands on the wheel, staring at it. I’m gonna fuck your tits till you bleed and you’re not gonna tell anyone and if you do I’m gonna fuck you again till you shut the fuck up. I’m gonna fuck you so hard you’ll never speak again. I didn’t get out of the car. I was shaking so much I couldn’t even move. I just looked at the house again and my mam in the window doing the dishes and I began to cry. I covered my eyes, so he wouldn’t see and I just cried and cried. I cried for ages and when I looked up he was looking at me and his eyes were sad and he said, I’m so sorry, Jess. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it, but I could reach for the handle now I was empty of tears and could move again and I ran out of the car. I didn’t even shut the door behind me and I ran up to bed, making sure nobody seen me and I just lay in bed for ages just thinking and not sleeping. I don’t know what I was thinking but I promised I’d tell nobody and I’ve not spoke a word till now and I don’t think I’ll tell anyone else, cause there’s no need.
She stopped at this point and pushed herself up to a sitting position and stared at the canal. She straightened out her dress and I saw that she seemed calm now, tranquil almost. Jesus, Jess, I said. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. No, it’s grand, she said and gave me a wan smile. You don’t get it, she said. You don’t get what I’m trying to tell you. I was silent for a while and looked at my shoes. Then she continued in a different tone of voice as though she were taking a different tack: No, the only thing that gets me is that I see him all the time and neither of us says anything, but I’m always thinking. Thinking of what? I asked, trying to seem genuine. I’m always thinking, she said, I’m always thinking, well, will he do it again? And if he would, would it be so bad? What? I said. Would it be so bad, she repeated. Jesus Christ, I said. What the fuck? She looked at me and I could see her soft eyes and her mouth hanging open. My stomach clamped itself into a knot and my heart was hammering my ribcage as I closed my eyes, fighting down a surge of nausea. Look, Jess, I said, swallowing drily in between words, this weed isn’t the best and it’s working on me something awful. I’m going to head. Are you not going to walk me home? she asked, almost pleading. I waved my hand at her. No, I’ve got to go. Please, she said. Please. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… No, no it’s grand, I said, standing up. It’s just I’ve got to. I’ll see you soon. Bye. I turned around and she called my name, but I had already started walking away.
By the time I reached McDonald’s I had stopped twice to kneel down, thinking I was going to vomit, but my retching had produced nothing except for a vile taste in my throat and on the back of my tongue. I felt relieved when I saw Shane’s car, still parked where I had seen it last, but when I got up to it I could see the passenger seat and the driver seat were empty and that Shane and Laura had left. I had no keys, but I circled the car again and again, knocking uselessly on the windows. The inside of the car was cloaked in shadows and I thought if I kept looking at the shadows, my friends would appear. I thought about breaking in a window so I could lie down in the backseat and smoke, but instead I lay on the bonnet and smoked a cigarette. Afterwards I started to circle the car again, knocking on the windows and whispering, Laura. Let me in. Laura. Laura. Let me in. I finally stopped. I leant my head up against the window in defeat, my nose and cheeks pressed ghost-white against it, like a flower compressed in a book. Then I whispered one more time, Let me in, before I walked through the empty car park alone, looking for loose cigarettes in my pocket and trying to empty my mind of everything it had ever held.