The first is efficient, mature: ‘Hey xx i have a free house Friday … Wanna come over ?’
It only took you four drafts.
The second text is written five minutes later, after chewing on the edge of your baby finger, after stomping downstairs and peering into the fridge and cupboards, after retrieving the phone from where you had flung it on the carpeted floor. It is blasé, indifferent, shitting-itself: ‘If u want to.’
You press send without looking and immediately a structure bends in the gooey pit of your stomach and you turn off the phone and turn it on again and pace your box room and hate yourself deeply and wait and wait and wait.
Of course, you’ve kissed others. At discos, or in the front row of the cinema, or while standing on a broken pallet behind Lavelle’s; your tipsy right hand ambitiously hiking up inside the zipped tight fleece. At a house party over the Christmas you even managed sex with a red-cheeked college home-comer named Hannah Heron. An exhausting ten minutes spent flexing your calves to stone and thinking how the plastic snowflakes dangling across the fireplace looked more like rotting teeth than glistening snow. When Hannah asked if you could get off her now please, you pretended to come at that exact second of instruction because, you guessed, it would be rude otherwise. It would be bad form otherwise. But Emily, you tell your sticky private self, is different. She is the first girl you’ve kissed more than once, kissed when it wasn’t dark or sweaty-walled or thrumming with noise. Special, you’ve decided she is special.
It started when an informer let it be known that she—somehow—fancied you. She was a year younger, fresh, and you were aware of her from narrow corridors and assemblies. In reply to the news, you had only shrugged and muttered sounds like, ‘whatever’, ‘yeah?’, and ‘who?’ You then spent the rest of the week strategically clomping past her locker, roundish belly sucked in and chest tensed, in the pretence of checking the football corkboard. You couldn’t talk face to face, obviously, so you messaged her online, chatting with shattered punctuation and three-quarters spelling. Eventually, you arranged to meet down the laneway by Keel beach. A Sunday in February, smoky and dry with copper hinted beneath cloud, and you were early, apparently calm, apparently collected, and her arms were crossed as she turned the corner and you said, ‘Emily,’ and it seemed then you were playing a game to discover who could avoid eye contact the longest. You talked vaguely about school, the Leaving, weekend jobs, school again, all the while marching towards the cover of the playground, where, pressed against the climbing wall, you finally licked the face off one another. Afterward, walking home, your chest echoed dully like evidence, your skin glowed.
Since then you’ve been meeting her semi-regularly after school in the basketball court. She’s not your girlfriend, technically, but for the last five weeks you’ve been with her. That distinction has been sealed. You know nothing much about her other than that her skin is the colour of streetlamp against wet pavement, and that when she cracks a proper smile a suicide-edged snaggletooth peeks out. You presume this is all you need to know about her, this is how it works. When together, when between kisses, you act as if you’re interviewing for a job you don’t truly want, securely jailing all mentions of PlayStation games, the music you actually listen to, your tabletop Elven army, your membership of an online forum for divorcees.
Sometimes, alone, you fantasise about putting yourself in physical peril for her safety, of being wounded in front of her (preferably a superficial gash, preferably because of her idiotic mistake), but mostly, alone, you hate the thought of others pairing you together, you hate the thought of admitting you view her as something precious. You’re ashamed in case she doesn’t measure up in their estimates. You’re scared that she isn’t good enough, though, you’re not exactly sure who she isn’t good enough for. You insist these are normal fears. This is normal behaviour.
It isn’t till the next morning—a Thursday—that you receive her answer to your invitation: ‘maybe.’
Followed quickly by another rumble: ‘But ask in person next time!!’
You breathe again. Life can be so very beautiful. Before the first class of the day, Maths with Conroy, you compose a steely reply, ‘will do,’ and then daring yourself add a ‘;)’. It feels like a significant weight has been lifted. It feels like a significant weight has been piled onto your shoulders.
At lunchtime, you roost with the lads as normal. By the far far wall, defaced by chalked names, its slim crevices treasured with crisp packets. Cigarettes are shared, tabs of Coke cans tssked, gelled skulls bob, and abuse bleeds over silence. The crew’s currency is what you have done versus what you haven’t. Alcohol, smoking, petty drugs, and the laddersteps of sex grant privilege. Allow you to escape slagging, nicknames, being pathetic at sports. But that means you have to cash in when presented with an opportunity. That means you must tell them about her and the free house.
Throughout lunch, you loiter in the borders of conversation. Laughing only at the safe jokes, agreeing heartily about who is a wanker and who isn’t, and, when possible, siding with Mitch—the leader. As wrappers are tossed down by dandelions, as chat swings to the burden of afternoon French, you feel your stomach tighten, this clench between ribs, and you decide it would be best to stall, to tell them when you hear the bell. Less time, you figure, for interrogation. For mockery. And when the bell eventually sounds—wide and strangely chirpy and too soon to your ears—and the lads crank their shoulders and begin the theatrical process of strolling towards class, you blurt it out. Blunt as a mirror in the morning.
‘Yeah, so,’ you say, scuffing the ground with a heel drag. ‘Yeah, so, she’s coming over tomorrow.’
Faint sunlight on your neck.
In the surrounding trees crows squabble and beyond the glazed windows, the dreary screech of chairs hauled out from under desk.
Within the group a moment of headtilts, sniffy nostrils, tetchiness, as the lads turn inward and reflect quietly on this information and on their own wet failures, their own staleness in comparison, a moment thawed only when Mitch pucks you on the arm and winks: ‘Fuckin Casanova here! You kept that one under your blanket.’
The rest pile in then. Voices bright and filled with taunts, best wishes, and professional advice. ‘Nice one,’ ‘fair play,’ and ‘johnny.’
Modestly, you fend off their enquiries. You spit out a dangling web and it lands on your own runner, but you’re unfazed. ‘Might as well, like,’ you say.
The lads whoop. They call Emily names. Cruel names, but you don’t correct them. No. Instead you snigger along as triumph knocks heavy in your chest.
When you arrive home that evening, your mother is sat in front of the box. By her feet are three or four stacked mugs. The only light in the room is the intermittent blink of the television.
In the same breath you cry hello, you wonder about dinner.
She says there is risotto on the counter.
You thank her and retrieve a pizza from the freezer.
Over the last three months, you’ve noticed how the cuffs of your mother’s woollen jumpers have become flecked with hardened chips of paint, how her hair, unkempt and long, has started to grey. MammyMayo, a regular on the forum, often says that your general appearance is important, both for immediate healing and, in time, for a new vibrant future.
After setting the oven, you check the fridge and wearily count the three cartons of milk. A glass windchime sings, the curtains aren’t pulled closed.
From the doorway, you ask what’s on the telly, though you know the answer.
She swivels, smiles at you with squared teeth: ‘Judge Judy.’ She has every series recorded and watches the episodes nightly in three-hour blocks. ‘It’s a good one, too,’ she says.
‘You went to the shop?’
The back of her head nods.
Your fingernail picks absently at the wooden doorframe, the cream paint wrinkled and crunchy, as you fumble with the next question: ‘Did you get much work done today?’
‘Not today,’ she responds cheerfully. ‘No, not today.’
The TV gets louder.
‘The cases are real,’ a voice booms, ‘The people are real.’
Rarely now does she venture out to the glasshouse, her studio, disordered with clay and plastic buckets and woven sacks. Rarely now does she seek your approval of her creations, casts of women with bull horns. You understand from the forum that neglecting your work is not a great sign. You’re reminded of what Debbie67 says about bad days. Bad days can morph into bad months if you’re not careful. You could be experiencing a spell of the sorrys without even realising it. The sorrys, Debbie67 writes, are not an example of positive defiance. The sorrys are, in fact, the opposite of positive defiance.
Hunched on the stairs, you eat the pizza and watch your mother watching the TV. The house is free tomorrow because she is heading to one of her hippie conventions. Where flocks of twig-heads gather in a field to pound on African drums, hum communally, purchase crystals and beeswax soap, and stretch out their glutes. She invited you along last summer. To Clare. Where you munched a veggie dog, had your face painted, flirted badly with a mother of four, smoked a joint that tasted of paraffin, and then spewed up as everyone clapped around a fire. In the car, you pleaded food poisoning. She narrowed her eyes and asked, ‘Do you think I’m stupid?’
When she mentioned she mightn’t attend this one—it was such short notice, she said, I have nothing planned—you reminded her how much she loved these weekends, how all her friends would be there, that you’d be fine on your own, that she must go. Your intentions only partially selfish. Okay, she said with a convinced tut, okay, okay, okay. She was happy, you were both happy, until a question, an impulse, slipped from your lips: ‘Sure, Dad could be around anyway?’ Instantly you regretted the question. Her face grew slack like an unmade bed.
‘We’ll see,’ she replied after what felt an age. ‘Maybe. We’ll see.’
While rinsing the plate, you decide tonight you want to watch TV with her. Keep her company. You want to keep her company. Or maybe you want to quell the itch of doing something without her permission. But what difference does motive make here? She smiles when you perch beside her. ‘Howdy partner,’ she whispers inexplicably.
During the last case, involving a buck in a fat-collared lime shirt and his former partner, your mother starts to chuckle dryly, grinning. They are disputing over rent and a VCR and she says: ‘Please, don’t ever end up like them anyway.’ You let out a smirk and glance at her and then your phone. She is running her bauble necklace between thumb and forefinger. ‘Listen to him,’ she says, skitting. ‘Judy has him figured. Wait now. She’ll eat him in a minute.’
On cue the lime shirted man struggles over the particular date of a particular payment and Judy explodes.
You produce a single, conforming ‘Ha.’
‘What did I tell you?’ your mother says.
You offer another laugh.
‘You must think I’m desperate,’ she says then, without looking at you. Her voice is uneven and you hold your breath, command yourself to stare directly ahead, only at the screen. Your right hand withers into a fist. You want the TV to blow, the walls to crumble, the roof to buckle.
The credits finally flash, the rose-gold titles staining the carpet to rust, and you hurry to excuse yourself, declaring that you’d better head to bed. It’s late. It’s a school night. You have study to do.
Your mother nods, pains a smile, and you can see her tongue, bunched as it is between upper and lower teeth. A quirk of hers. ‘There, there,’ she says.
After hesitating for a moment, you peck her cheek, night, and then go upstairs. You wonder: why can’t she be dignified?
In your room, you try to distract yourself by hitting on the PlayStation. Find a reprieve in guns and car-jacking. But thoughts tickle the inside of your head. You recall your mother, drunk at her fortieth, saying she should have flown back to Frankfurt, should have gone back to real art. You recall your father pinching the bulge of his nose as you drove home from Mass at Christmas and the peculiar, tight silence in the car. Were these signs you should have been able to read? Should it have occurred to you earlier? You shut off the PlayStation and walk to the bathroom. There, you turn on the hot tap and drown your face for a minute at a time. Steam ghosts the mirror, your cheeks appear rashy as if nettle-stung, but the water seems to you mild. In bed, you toss about the sheets until you feel numb, drained. You text Emily then, the green of the lit screen softening, soothing. You send messages like ‘Xxxx’, ‘WUA’, ‘:)’, and ‘hahah.’
Over breakfast, your mother goes through the protocol for the free house, marking each on a separate finger:
Lasagne will be made.
Just-in-case money will be under the fruit bowl.
A spare key will be left by the backdoor.
A phonecall will arrive at half-nine and it will be answered at half-nine.
She concludes with warnings against parties, shadowy gallivanting, and the potential dangers of the hob, using words like ‘don’t’ and ‘dare.’
You nod when appropriate, spooning more cornflakes into your gob. Your mind whirring. Already savage. Already horny.
In school, your Friday is focused on avoiding her. At short break, you sag from the group when you reckon she might be over at the shop. During the stroll between French and History you perform an anti-clockwise loop to dodge her leaving English. You can’t face facing her. But during the afternoon you clock her figure fifteen feet ahead, braced against a discoloured radiator. You’re beside Dicey, plodding towards Miss Nolan’s class, a bag slung on one shoulder. You realise immediately there is no alternative backroute, no chance to reverse and hide by your locker until she saunters past.
You have to continue forward.
The hallway is echoes and yells and the rubber-squeak of runner. The two-minute turmoil between classes, the smell of mint gum, lozenges and cloggy, afternoon underarm.
A light blazes in from the window, graphing the floor into squares.
In your head you rapidly prepare greetings, visualise yourself opening your mouth and saying ‘Hello, what you at?’ Maybe giving her a thumbs-up. A thumbs-up would be cool.
You then glance at her.
Her navy cotton socks stretch below the face of her knees. She is holding a purple folder to her chest. Her hair is loose, clearly straightened. Her converse are untied, the left foot arched just so.
You bite hard the inside of your cheek and, passing her, choke out a scrawny, ‘Howya.’ No eye contact, of course, but you do flinch a sharp, gentlemanly nod.
‘Hey,’ she says, smiling without showing teeth. A nearly imperceptible smile.
You pretend not to hear her friend’s teasing squeal as you wheel into the classroom, you pretend not to feel your face boil to scarlet as girls in your year gawk at you and then her, and as you lurch down to your desk, you tell an oooing Dicey to shut his fuckin hole quickish.
After school, you hitch a lift with a neighbour, jangle out key from flower pot, sling bag under the stairs, and remove lasagne from the oven.
Despite feeling no hunger, you gouge down a banana.
Upstairs, you model in front of the floor-length sliding mirror, slanting your hips to gain more impressive angles while diligently picking apart your faults: the crusted pimples on your chin, the blackheads pocked on your snout, the unfixable shitness of your hair. You put on a navy T-shirt and then take it off and put on a plain white T-shirt and then take it off and put back on the navy T-shirt. The thought strikes that perhaps this is some elaborate prank, organised by the lads. That it’s some sick game. You laugh this off, it’s a ridiculous notion, comical, and then, via the spare room, you scan the garden for cameras or bodies cowering in the shrubs. This is normal behaviour.
Your phone vibrates, mooing against the woodgrain desk. For a moment, you freak—she is early, why is she early—but unlocking the phone you discover it’s only from your dad. A picture message: a sleeping bag curled beneath a table, alongside a space heater, a chunky cord lead, and the mini-radio you helped pick out last weekend. It reads: ‘Cosy with my new radio !’. For six weeks solid, your dad has been camping in his dentistry in Castlebar. At first, he said it was to avoid the morning traffic. But then week nights spilled into the weekend and everyone acted as if nothing had changed.
You reply with a smiley face. There is nothing else to say.
Preparation: You brush your teeth, guzzle your mother’s mouthwash, slap your face with your mother’s moisturiser, smother yourself in Lynx Africa, and then conclude that now would be the optimum time to trim your pubes. With the vibrating blade, you scud along the curly dark lawn and then skim the fluffy, bally base. When you’re done, your groin is gritty with black stitches, full of wayward corkscrews, and your dick isn’t ten times larger. You clean some of the noticeable blood, curse your handiwork, and then curse the squiggle patches of hair on your chest, the question marks around each nipple. When you were nine you wanted to shave your newly fuzzy legs. Your father burst into hysterics when you requested a razor. ‘You’re becoming a man,’ he exclaimed with arms akimbo, ‘you’ve nothing to be ashamed of.’
There is something very wrong with you.
You strip posters from your bedroom walls, a staff-wielding Gandalf, the boys walking across Abbey Road. With a shovel-edged hand, you breeze away the creases on your quilt before worrying because said quilt is decorated with teenaged turtles. You hope she won’t notice or, better yet, that she won’t notice you. You long for her to not even look at you. That perhaps she might shut her eyes throughout and you would guide her and it will happen without effort on your part. That it will run smooth as water along glass and when it’s over, neither of you will be able to pinpoint how it exactly happened. But, also, neither of you will be able to pinpoint where it spun wrong. It will just have occurred. You feel like a serial killer thinking this.
You instruct yourself to relax. You change into a maroon jumper. You spray more Lynx.
Your phone goes off again and you lunge for it and then almost fling it against the wall when you glimpse ‘dad’. A text this time: ‘new radio courtesy of my son !’
Who else is he sending these messages to?
You don’t reply and you delete both of his messages with only a smudge of shame, arguing that you need to conserve memory, battery.
In the half hour before she’s due to arrive you position the untuned guitar against the radiator in your room, you construct a stable route of conversation in your head, you count and recount the condoms in the drawer. At six, you hear a car, squint at the sulphur flash of headlights through your window. You wait for the text, the rasp on the desk, and pound the stairs when it comes: ‘here x’.
Outside, the sky is the colour of damp denim. The dark of oncoming night has already begun to taper the corners of the world but Emily shines clean as she steps from her sister’s Toyota. She talks through the passenger window, her posture hunchbacked, her sister glaring in your direction. By the interior light her face is pink, pinkish, and she turns briefly around—are you supposed to wave?—before resuming her discussion with the sister.
You listen to the arid mechanics of your own body, the rattle of your lungs, the stammered breath, the swooning in your chest.
Then Emily glides towards you as if it’s simple. The car grudgingly reverses.
She has done it before. With an older boy, she told you after you pushed. Forehead pressed against her bunched knees, she confided in you about being drunk and dumb and not being able to say no. You listened with deliberately timed sighs. When she wept, you patted her shoulder, reassured her it was okay, all okay, despite rank jealousy caking your tongue. ‘I wish I hadn’t,’ she said then, ‘I really wish I hadn’t. He was a fucking asshole.’ Later you will think again about this, about her first time, and fury will flame and you will call her a slut. It was her story and yet you will manage to gouge yourself with it. You will deduce that it ultimately really scalds you more.
At the door, Emily says hey and then eases by you. You forget how to say hello. She peels off her jacket—the fabric whistling free from her arms. She is in her uniform still and you feel wholly unprepared as you lock the door.
She treads behind as you give a tour of the house. She touches things and asks fleeting, incomplete questions like ‘When did you…?’ ‘Is that…?’ and ‘Who is…?’ You answer swiftly, jumping close to the item in question, consciously brushing nearer to her.
In the sitting room, she drifts along the corner table, her finger skimming photo frames. Swirling alive dust motes. You watch her pick up a photograph, tilting it towards her.
She laughs, softly, and shoves it at you.
It’s a family portrait: the three of you arranged like unpacked Russian Dolls against a fading backdrop, black to wine to muddy gold. It was taken ten years ago, when you were seven and had the physique of the Michelin Man.
She says, ‘Your mom’s really pretty.’
You reply after a moment, ‘She’s a fuckin hippie.’ The aggression a surprise to you.
You replace the photograph.
Her nose wrinkles. ‘Don’t say that,’ she says.
‘Well,’ you shrug, ‘it’s true.’
She doesn’t reply, goes instead to the couch. You join her, contorting your legs so your thighs don’t touch. Not yet.
You begin to flick through the channels, stopping at the news—you don’t want anything too stimulating. ‘This alright?’
She crosses her legs but says nothing. A heat radiates from her. You try to smile normally, sit normally, but your body is fidgeting, fighting, you find a new rickety variation in how you exhale. The mood is unexpectedly formal, dangerous. You recall jokes—bad, sappy jokes—and tell them and in return she only gifts you this pinched-mouth, no-teeth smile. It could be a frown, you suppose, hard to split the difference between them, but you assure yourself, nipping your jumper from your stomach, it was a smile. Not to worry about it, you reason, it had to be a smile. Not to analyse it, it must be a smile.
Nothing is said. A minute, then another, crawls by.
On the TV, Obama is speaking. You point with the remote. ‘He’s great, isn’t he?’
She nods, seems to consider something more, something deeper, but only answers, ‘Yep.’
Why is it difficult now?
‘Yeah,’ you say. ‘Obama’s sound. He’s a sound man.’
She leans forward and rummages in her handbag and then sits back.
You can count how many buttons are undone on her shirt and you do count and suddenly you feel yourself get a horn, a judging heat, and you fold your arms and jut out your chest. So, Now You’re A Man, the paperback left clandestinely on your pillow for your twelfth birthday, suggests visualising doing the gardening to rid yourself of any pesky, undesired erections. You do this now, you envision clipping the hedges but then she hums and readjusts a leg and you are trampled. You surely can’t fuck this up? And yet here you are, fucking it up, dreaming about hedges. You beg yourself now to do something, to act, and start imagining potentially enticing actions—a hand on her thigh; an arm dipped sensually over her shoulder; a proposal to show her your guitar, maybe strum a G chord or two—and you’re thinking about all this when she turns, smiles with teeth, and kisses you.
Her tongue is sugary. You store your hands by your side and kiss and kiss and kiss until she pulls away. Everything is amplified; the cushions rustles like woodlice, the TV nags. You feel empty, delightfully empty. With a lifted chin, you motion upstairs. She says something, nods, gathers her bag and then decides to leave it on the floor. In your chest, there is a gasping, squashed excitement. You stand and your hands are shaking so you slot them into your pockets and claw at the inside fabric. You study the ceiling as you lead the way, noting precisely where the paint is wonky, not quite inline.
She sits on the bed, a knee hugged under her chin. You draw the curtains. From the corner of your eye, you watch as she inspects a spot on her knee, working her thumbnail against it before rubbing the spot with the heel of her hand. You like this. You punch off the lights, deeming darkness, partial invisibility, a valuable ally. On the bed, you cockroach near her, maintaining a forearm’s width between you both.
The air feels trapped and impure and somewhere in it there is the fragrance of cinnamon.
Mellow light burns beneath the doorframe.
Her leg drops to the floor, she grabs her upper arms as if cold.
You take long breaths through your nose to shush the thump and throw of your body and then, while thinking about it an incredible amount, you take her hand and face her. It throws you for some reason that she stares back—what did you expect?—and then you lean in and clatter into her front teeth.
You apologise and she apologises and you both reshape, hunching toward one another—you feel her fingers guide your jaw and then feel how her lower lip is chapped. Cautiously, you let your hand cup the hurl-head of her hip. Loving it. You fall sideways together and bump together and the duvet is cumbersome. The air becomes thick like you could pack it in a bag. With assistance, the clip of her bra is unhooked. Her hand, her left hand, lies on your stomach and you will it to go down.
Your finger spiders open the zipper of her skirt and you graze, with the flat of your thumb, the bristles around her slit.
‘Go easy,’ she whispers.
You open your eyes to make sure this is real and say sorry.
‘It’s okay,’ she says, and then, close to your ear, asks if you have condoms.
You nod. ‘Yes.’
‘Well,’ she says, ‘just go easy remember.’
You say sorry again.
You reach for the drawer, grasp a square of cartoon-blue foil. On bended knees, you chuck your jumper and then awkwardly shimmy off your pants. Socks are forgotten. You shrug the condom on and race on top of her once more, kissing her now, moving with her, and, on a sexy spur, you lick her collarbone.
‘What are you doing?’ She is laughing.
You sputter another apology. Eroticism is live and learn. She grabs you then, bends you, and it starts to be good.
As you work together, your limbs aren’t silky, they aren’t naturally posed to one other’s range, but rather they work like levers. A jerk, a pull. A certain stubbornness of muscle, friction. You feel the tingle of her hot skin, the sweat. Her breath catches. The business is hurried and not slowed or savoured or graceful, it is done as if a timer is beeping somewhere. As if you’re both on the verge of being found out.
You roll apart afterwards. No comments are exchanged, no critiques or acknowledgments. You lie as far from one another as possible on a queen-sized bed. Is there ever any pleasure in this? Your body is unfamiliar, gangly as if you have grown.
You stare at the ceiling, the curtains.
There is nothing to say.
She’s probably pregnant now, you think.
On the divorcee forum, lynn62 recommends new actives, hobbies, trips. You’ve got to keep yourself busy. She uses phrases like Positive Thinking, the half-full glass, show the world what they’re missing. So you encourage your mother to go to hippie conventions, apply for residencies, you ask questions about art and her fave Bernini. You tell your dad that you want to learn to drive, that you love teeth and dental hygiene. You WhatsApp him possible movie outings years in advance—‘New Batman 2020’. He dings an immediate reply, ‘I’m on it’ as if it were a challenge, as if he were tipped to direct.
Emily begins mapping the birthmarks and moles on your shoulders, on the hairless topmost section of your arm. It feels like she is touching tendon, bone and all. The tantalising sensation of an oncoming storm. Slowly, she engraves her name and then yours and you wish that one moment could last.
It’s then the car crunches up the driveway.
She puts a hand to her lips and her voice says things like, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Shit,’ and ‘Where’s my?’
A key is jammed into the lock, the scuttle of letters being fished from the wicker basket. You recognise the weight of the footsteps.
She sweeps up her clothes and for the first time you see her frightened, pissed off—her voice spiky, her gestures accelerated.
‘Wait here,’ you tell her, lugging on pants. You’re the hero.
You pad down the stairs, a hand caressing the banister as a show of nonchalance, and spy him drinking milk straight from the carton in the kitchen. He isn’t wearing his glasses. He hasn’t shaved the goatee.
‘Oh, you’re here?’ your father says. ‘I thought you’d be at a pal’s house.’
‘Mam’s gone to one of her hippie things.’ You pause on the threshold to the kitchen. He already knows she is away, you understand that. He scoffs at the word hippie, says it to himself while placing his key on the counter beside the worn, peeling gym bag. There is a delay in your father’s movement, a dilemma: should he keep drinking from the carton or pour himself a glass?
‘You’re home?’ you say.
He sort of smiles, folds bridging his mouth. ‘Not quite.’ He takes a long gulp from the carton, puts it back in the fridge, and snags hold of the gym bag. You should scramble for the handle too, make a scene. Pull a tantrum. Call him a dickhead, a traitor. Scream nonsensically: you’re not my real Dad! But you don’t react. ‘Need to re-supply,’ he says. ‘But I will be home soon. Once work quietens.’
He lifts the bag. ‘Is it just you here?’
Together you pack towels, shampoo, five shirts, three jumpers, Speedos, facial creams, two polos. You carry his shirts on hangers to the car, fold his pants onto the backseat, and neatly stash his shoes in the boot. It takes twenty minutes. You grin at your father’s predictable gags and he listens as you describe the High-Elf archer set you’ve ordered. He acts impressed, regurgitates information he swiped from a manual. ‘Increased range,’ he says with a raised finger. He has only shown interest in the game because you play it and this, even now, makes you glad.
When everything is packed, he mentions Sunday. ‘That new superhero is out, isn’t it?’ He clicks his fingers. ‘The Iron Man.’ He climbs into the car and says in a mock, deepening voice, ‘Be good for your mother, son.’
You tell him: ‘Stall a sec.’
You rush inside and, without thinking, shoddily wrap in tinfoil the lasagne. It is somehow essential, this offering, though you can’t decipher why.
‘Mam made you this,’ you say, you lie. You hand him the still-warm dish through the car window.
‘Oh. That was very nice of her.’ He places the lasagne in the passenger seat and then has to buckle it in when a sensor starts beeping. You can’t decide whose turn it is to speak, and before you can come to a conclusion, he gestures a thumbs-up and closes the window. Neither of you thought to switch on the outside light, the pale-blue solar bulbs which flank the driveway, so in darkness you wave goodbye. He beeps once. For some time you stand there.
Back in the room, she is dressed and insane with questions. Her phone is beside her, alive with texts from friends who always suspected you were a weirdo. ‘Who was it?’ she says, ‘Did you tell them I was here?’ You notice she has made the bed and this astonishes you. ‘You said no one would be home. For fuck sake, John.’ Her face is screwed up and you don’t say anything until she shifts close to you, closer to you, and then you clutch her hand and utter words like: ‘please,’ ‘don’t,’ ‘go.’
She doesn’t and it’s only months later, as summer begins, that you fuck it up, that you let her go. You’re official by then, girlfriend and boyfriend with an x assigned by her name in your phone. But at some shitshow of a disco you will kiss someone else, tussle with a foreign tongue. And during Emily’s break-up speech, you will pretend that you’re sad, depressed even, producing moody, music-video faces. On the same day you break up, you will go meet the girl you cheated on her with. And before the end of the summer, you will beg Emily to take you back—the lust for the cheating girl long dust at that stage. You will say you were a fool, a mong, you will plead, you will even cry and it will be no act this time. And Emily will say no, she will take supreme pleasure in saying no, and you will inform your friends that you don’t care, she was a dirt anyway, and then egg her house in a drunken stupor of weepy hate and weepy love. No charges will be brought but her older brother will thump open your nose on New Year’s Eve. When you ship off to college you will forget her for the most part, her name only cropping up on Facebook when you’re drunk and nostalgic. You will message her once, during second year as essay deadlines pile up, asking how’s she getting on. She will click on the message and you will tell yourself she only forgot to reply. And years later, when your mam and dad have met other people, when you celebrate two Christmases, when you have scampered off to the States to get lost in a sea of navy suits, you will tell friends the story of your first time during a party. A wine bottle pointed in your direction, you will tell your new friends and the new girl who has the x by her name about that free house, about slanting your guitar in a bid to impress her with artistic flair in the same way you will now stack books by Benjamin and Borges and Woolf in an ordered messy pile in your apartment, about the colliding of front teeth, about your jangling nerves, about it being your first time. The friends will howl, your new girlfriend will feign envy with a pout, and you will spin the bottle and laugh as it points to somebody else. And at that moment, you will believe it was your first time, truly believe that she was your first real time.