I dreamt last night that it was Christmas Day and that my mother died in a car accident on her way home from the post office, though she hasn’t worked there since I was a child. In my dream the day grew hotter until the edges of it seemed to catch flames. There was some glitch in that dream’s design. My mind was given the image of a white sun but could only provide the sense of heat for it, couldn’t reconcile it with winter’s frost. Well, she’s probably as well off, said my father when I told him that she had died. He shrugged and smiled with his chin in his hand, talking through his fingers, self-conscious about his toothless mouth. Good of her to pick today. What else would you be doing on Christmas, anyway? It’s a very long day, isn’t it? You only end up sitting around doing nothing and eating too much just for the sake of it, he said. The death and the weather and his response were surreal, but in a way it would actually be typical of him to think that no one does anything on Christmas Day and that all the arrangements happen of their own accord. In reality, no one in our family died on Christmas Day but we sat around talking about the celebrities who had. There were music videos on the television and if it were quiet one of us would go, God, yeah, he’s dead now, to guide us safely out of the silence. My mother would try to answer when someone asked who they had been married to and my father would say no, no that’s not who it was. Aoife, go on and look it up there. And in fairness to her, she would actually be right most of the time but that wouldn’t matter to him.
At breakfast he was sat there smoking and talking about getting redundancy and going on a cruise even though he barely had the money to tax the car because wasn’t Mam out on unpaid leave for so long during her stint on the ward in St Pat’s. Then his head shot up because there was something stinking and burning in the old and broken toaster and he was cursing it. Smoke from the bread and his cigarette swirled about his face and he squinted against it. Fuck it, no rest for the wicked. We’ll have to replace this thing too. Does it ever end, at all? And he threw what couldn’t be salvaged with the scrape of a knife at Sam the dog. Yeah, there you are now pet, Happy Christmas.
On St Stephen’s Day, I went for dinner with my friend Michael and his family in town for his mother’s birthday. Michael’s sister Anna had booked the restaurant for the wrong day and she nearly had her husband killed looking for another place to eat. The poor man was white and damp with sweat by the time he met us back in the pub where we were waiting, everyone drinking and pretending to think of an alternative. A fat tear escaped from Anna’s eye and her head snapped indignantly toward Michael, who had been teasing her. I couldn’t hear her retaliation but it came through gritted teeth. Michael’s father warned him to not say another thing to her but was then distracted by the shortage of seats. Michael’s brother and Anna’s husband pretended not to notice the last stool because neither of them wanted to take it and look rude. Michael’s father was puzzled by this pointless civility and asked them did they not see the seat before them and they both looked at it as if they hadn’t a clue what it was for. Oh, here, said Michael and he sacrificed his own like he was the only one in the whole place with any sense. He threw his skinny legs over my stool because we’re both the same size and I felt happy to have him wedged so tightly against me. We were content enough with what was on offer in that pub and more drinks were ordered, all of us quietly hoping that no one would suggest persevering in the search for a restaurant. I had been meant to get home to my own parents ages ago. But I was delighted with myself sitting there, being able to enjoy another person’s family, which seems to be the only category of family most people can tolerate at Christmas. Michael’s mother is Irish and his father is Chinese. He went from Shanghai to Liverpool to work in chip vans, then on to Dublin at twenty. When he met his wife Margaret, her mother decided that his name wasn’t Kun-Yin anymore, it was Eamon. He is as affable a man as you’ll ever meet. He’s been walking around introducing himself as A-men for the last thirty-five years, smiling as if it were a very amusing detail and of no relevance or consequence anyway. He always looks like he’s fallen from the sky. I wonder is there anyone in Shanghai looking for him.
That night, Margaret talked to me across Eamon’s lap and his ochre-coloured fingers tapped the veins on her hand, like Morse code. She said she worried that Eamon’s English was deteriorating. As Michael and his siblings have grown and left, Eamon has had less reason to interact with neighbours and teachers. I felt uncomfortable being told this in his presence, not wanting to be complicit in embarassing him. But he wasn’t listening. Instead, he had sat back to create the space Margaret needed to lean closer to me. He moved his head from left to right, watching the multiple conversations happening around him, looking like the least self-conscious person in the room.
Margaret told me Eamon watches Chinese television and reads Chinese newspapers, exclusively. He once asked Michael why he has friends. He has retreated further into his garden where only Margaret can meet him. I think he exhausts all his English with her, there’s none left for anyone else. Everything they say is funny to each other. They laugh and call each other old and fat and speak over one another. I hear what she says but he’s always too late to add anything, he can’t beat her to it. He says, Ahh, ahh, ahh, never getting to continue because she does it for him.
Margaret’s face turned from mine then to speak to her sister. Eamon stayed facing me but his hand was still resting on Margaret’s. Her unexpected absence created a sudden vacuum between us, the two outsiders of the family. I was only Michael’s housemate and nobody was entirely sure of where Eamon came from. This is nice, he said, to fill the silence. I prefer this. He waved his hand before him, meaning the pub food and the cramped seating. This was the closest we had ever come to having a conversation that wasn’t navigated by Margaret. I felt suddenly that I needed to say something and resented the strange intimacy. He leaned behind me to shake Michael’s shoulder. Ahh, my boy, a good boy. He called Michael gorgeous, a word provided to him by Margaret, used to convey his own pleasure, and I felt touched. I know, Eamon, isn’t he just? I said, because I did know what he was getting at, and he likes me to join in on the act. But he’s cuter than you’d think because he knows as well as anyone that it wouldn’t matter how stuck for the ride I was, Michael only does that with men.
But Michael is so beautiful that I wouldn’t mind his hand stroking the length of my side, his fingers drawing spirals across my belly before bearing down between my legs. I like to lean on his back and wrap my arms around his shoulders while he sits at our kitchen table. I smell his neck and feel an unbidden urge to bite into him. He’s a real performer, whether you’re able for it or not. One night I opened the door to our long and cramped hallway in Fairview to see him lying on his back at the bottom of the stairs with a wooden spear jammed into his heart. His legs were propped up on the bottom few steps. Once I scrambled past the bikes and bags choking my path, I saw it was just a broom handle that he was holding rigid in his armpit. There wasn’t a lunatic on the landing waiting to prise the spear from Michael’s chest and plunge it in mine but the reptilian part of my brain had already reacted, flooding my body with adrenaline. My horror was too much for Michael. He rolled over to his side, cackling. The broom handle fell away and I ran past him, with my hands covering my cheeks, into the kitchen. I ran out of ground when I reached the sink and turned to face him. I was laughing too but my eyes hadn’t copped on yet and there were tears on my face. He hugged me and rocked me and kept laughing and saying: Sorry, sorry, sorry. That was lousy, here, here, I am sorry. My hand was trapped between my mouth and his shoulder. You bastard, you absolute bastard, how long were you lying there? You fucking psychopath. But I was hugging him too and the pair of us were swaying side to side, together in the dim and dirty kitchen.
He’s a right contortionist. Our bedrooms aren’t close enough. I like to lie across the dusty carpet on our landing and watch him dart around his room, the open door like a frame for him. The glass corrupts the sunshine to make it warmer and brighter and the light of it is so white it does away with the floor beneath him altogether and he looks like he’s levitating. I think he’s magical. So I believed him when he sat on the stairs and presented me with the small jade stone he keeps beside his bed and told me it was ancient and charmed, that old Kun-Yin won it in China. I was on my back in my pyjamas, open mouthed and completely enchanted by this green veiny orb and the link I imagined it offered Michael to his heritage. I fantasised about a trip to China, where I would facilitate a meeting between him and his paternal grandparents who would offer him a calm but warm greeting in Chinese, as if they had known this day would come all along. Whenever Eamon speaks to Michael in Chinese, they end up looking at each other in complete despair. But Michael would instinctively know what to say to his simple and decent mountain-dwelling grandparents, probably because he can access the power of this authentic relic, luminous with mysticism.
This went on and on until he became outraged with incredulity that I would believe him. He even accused me of veiled and unintentional racism. You might not know it or mean it, he said, but you’re a racist. Do you honestly believe my Dad had to kill a mountain lion to get this stone, as part of some oriental village tradition? Fucking hell, he’s from Shanghai. But don’t let that get in the way of your devotion to Eastern sorcery, whatever you do. He was holding the thing above my face. I went to swipe it from him but he yanked it away. You think my Dad is this wise and refined being just because he’s elderly and Asian. Poor old A-men, he’s only quiet because he’s tired and doesn’t speak English. He put the stone between us. Against the faded and flattened carpet, it had lost the lustrous glow and become an inert lump. It’s a paperweight, you idiot. My Dad got it in one of those pokey little market shops in Spain. You know them, the ones that keep dirty videos next to children’s toys and incense. By then I was helpless with unrelenting laughter. It eased to breathlessness before erupting again when he said: I mean, for God’s sake, there’s a Made in China sticker on the bottom, Aoife. You’re having me on. Did you actually think it was real?
But I always believe in the wrong things anyway. Pliable and easily led, I never trust or know what’s right and what’s real. I had only been going out with David for few months so I was delighted when he bought me tickets to the stage version of my favourite book. At the time it was important to me, because in the book the protagonist’s wife was constantly upset and puzzled by her husband’s cold and indifferent behaviour. But in the end you got to see he adored her, really and truly. He was just a troubled introvert, unable to express warmth, no culpability required or demanded. Not from me or from her. It simplified my relationship with David, giving me permission to tolerate and forgive any distance or withdrawal. A stupid little part of me thought that was why he gave me the book, to let it communicate to me what he could not. He had never even read it, it didn’t mean a thing to him. That didn’t strike me as important at the time though.
On the night I was unsettled by the actor. He wasn’t what my mind had invented. The coldness his wife endured wasn’t tempered by any hidden tenderness. There was nothing throughout that led you to expect an explanation, nothing that belied the cruelty. This wasn’t the story I had read, the actor on stage wasn’t the man in the book nor was he the man I was sleeping with. But given David was sat beside me clutching my folded knee, that wouldn’t have been possible. Not that I hadn’t accused him of duplicity in the past, before backtracking on myself, doubting my own perception. Sure, I always nursed a fear that he was just pacing his own stage when we were together.
He didn’t do the book a bit of justice, I said to David and he laughed at me for believing everyone should live up to my expectations. It’s your world, we’re all just living in it, he said. But isn’t that the biggest problem with relationships? We all decide what we know about a person. We love them enough, too much, so we don’t demand or need reassurance. And never you mind the worry that burgeons within your coiled gut; it only offers a sense that you may be owed it. And what use is that?
Any honesty and confidence between us was only found when we were shrouded in the privacy of darkness and the duvet. But that night I didn’t speak so neither did he. I fell asleep to the unintelligible whisper of his legs shifting and rustling restlessly against the old and stiff sheets. I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling his hardness sawing up and down my back. I peered at him over my shoulder and he kissed my cheek before turning me on my stomach. His palm flattened against my back, pressing hard. There was pain and resistance and I counted one, two, three and more to myself rather than doing anything else. My ear was turned into the pillow and I could hear the sea. The rise and roar of it continued until I heard a short cry from him as he pulled away to spill himself on my thighs and back. Then there was only the sound of breath and blood pumping and he reached across to the radiator and grabbed a towel to dry me. He kissed my cheek again and silence was restored.
I was nervous and excited because his mother was coming to Dublin the next morning. We had been to the Phoenix Park the day before and I had paid stupid money for a bag of fudge from the market because he told me once she was mad about the stuff. If he guessed why I was buying it he never said. We left to meet her at Busáras where she had gotten the coach to from Derry. At a set of traffic lights his hand landed on my leg. That was some going last night, he said, biting his lip and smiling at the car in front of us. Jesus, you were well able for it. He turned to me then, still grinning and I was ashamed of myself for returning the smile, for wanting him to be so pleased with me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, to have felt that way, but there must be something. It didn’t occur to me until later that he might have wanted to hurt me, just a little bit, but then I wasn’t sure why.
We reached the junction at Christ Church before carrying on across to the quays. Where’s handiest to leave you off? He looked at me, then back at the road. I was going to say that we didn’t need to decide that now, that it could wait until after we collected his mother but I realised my mistake before the words left my mouth. Sure I can leave you on Eden Quay, you can jump on a 27 from there, am I right? he suggested before I answered. I made a noise that resembled agreement. Mammy’s very awkward, he said, which was sad because I knew then he understood I had expected to meet her. I felt retrospectively foolish because he must have been anxious about dealing with it since we left the house and there I was without a clue. He was squinting against the glare, weaving the car closer to the path to leave me off. I felt childish and embarrassed for causing him the hassle because I didn’t own a car and anyway I couldn’t even drive. He got lucky at a red light and I was scrambling to gather my bags and my coat before he had to drive off. I nearly had the door closed when he said, Oh, don’t forget your wee bag of sweets. The woman is wild for those, she’ll have them gone from you. He tossed the brown bag at me and I bolted, not wanting to hold him up. But I needn’t have bothered rushing because he was ages sat in traffic beside the bus stop. I ducked into a newsagent’s to save us having to avoid eye contact.
Whatever Michael says, he believes in what suits him, too. The big trick in life is that it’s very difficult to apply the wisdom you’ve acquired to yourself. He’s no different to anyone else. On his nineteenth birthday, we were both twisted on wine that tasted less like hairspray the more you drank of it. I brought him home to my single bed in my student house where I didn’t have any friends because I hardly made the effort to find them. We lay facing one another. My hands were tucked under my chin between us. He had been subdued that first year in college. In school we’d had high expectations for living independently of our parents. It was disappointing how little we’d seemed to change as individuals once this came to pass. I felt overwhelmed and self-conscious. I assumed he was having a similar experience but we rarely spoke about these kinds of anxieties with each other, they were too vague to vocalise.That night, I went to kiss him but his face was wet. I felt a tear burst on my hand. I didn’t turn on the lamp or move to hug him. Is it because you’re gay, Michael? I asked, stupidly. He gave a weary sigh so I knew it was the wrong question. I lay still and mute, afraid to disturb him, as if he were talking in his sleep. Michael’s neighbour had only been a teenager herself at the time. Michael was still a boy but his parents saw no harm in this friendship, and they were right because none existed, she doted on him. The two might have naturally parted ways had they only ever slept in Michael’s house. One night, Michael lay prone in his friend’s bed and woke to see the father of the girl sat over his daughter, his body coiled tightly so not to draw noise from the mattress or floorboards. The flux of fear was heightened by Michael’s lingering, childish belief in spectres. He knew this man was his friend’s father but some nocturnal metamorphosis had rendered him sinister and unrecognisable.
I thought of Michael as a ten-year-old, whose understanding of the world was still defined by the supernatural, good and bad, of how this understanding had been ruptured. I was crying harder than he was then. He didn’t even bother closing the bedroom door, he said, he knew I wasn’t going to say a thing, that I wouldn’t be able to push him away. Michael laughed suddenly at the idea, thinking it was maybe ridiculous. He probably knew I wouldn’t even try.
I’ve never felt as small and as wretched as I did the next morning. I pretended to sleep while Michael gathered his clothes to leave. On his way out, he shut the door quietly and completely. My best friend, imagine that. It was months before I spoke to him about it again and by then he must have been hurting worse than anything. We were in my bed again and there had been a lot of drink. He had fallen asleep but I couldn’t. I shook him awake, selfish person that I am, seeking forgiveness. I asked him about it with the kind of temerity that only a lot of drink allows for. The only time in my life I’ve ever shown any courage, wasted because I could barely put one word before the other in a tactful manner. I was met with sleepy confusion and then a belligerent denial. I sought his hand beneath the sheet and worried the knuckle of his thumb between my fingers like a rosary bead. I tried offering the kindest words and reassurances I could summon. Michael, please pet, I’m sorry. Please, I am so sorry. His own response was a plea too but a watery one so I closed the space between us and cast it from my mind, out of compassion, out of shame. And he was glad of it too, I think. He had revealed an irretrievable harm and could do no more than that, and I would not move him to disturb it further, if that was what he wished. In the absence of anything else, this was a small comfort for him I hope, especially during the night, when he lay alone. I can do nothing about it either, until he asks me otherwise. I’d like if that were to console him, like an artefact of childhood. A small and reassuring weight; a cold jade stone to hold close to him as a shield, torn from the mouth of a jealous lion.