Growing up, the joke in my family was that I could sleep on broken glass if I had to. Back then, I often slept for 11, 12, 13 hours at a time. If I woke to a quiet house I would turn over and go back to sleep, no matter how long I’d been in bed for. If I woke again and it was still quiet I would go downstairs to see if my father had killed my mother in the night, or the other way around.
I stopped sleeping some time before my final year in school, when I was 16 or 17. I can’t remember exactly when. At first I was bemused by it. I would lie in bed and wait patiently for sleep to come. I burned vanilla scented candles and read huge novels, The Count of Monte Cristo, Great Expectations, War and Peace, Middlemarch. Nothing worked. When I realised I was never going to sleep again I was furious. What had I ever done? So I stopped trying. I drank hot chocolate late into the night and wrote stories about girls who were dying to be saved, but in the end just died. Afterwards, I ripped them into tiny pieces that my mother wouldn’t be able to read when she was going through my waste basket and searching under my bed.
I’ve tried all the cures for insomnia – counting sheep, counting numbers, warm baths, hot showers, warm milky drinks, chamomile tea, sleeping pills, magnesium, going to bed at the same time every night, herbal remedies, massage, sex, drunkenness – but the only thing that really works is to stop being miserable.
As a rule, I don’t do well at parties, but I went along with it to seem good humoured and young, or at least as young as I was pretending to be. I’d been searching for somewhere to live for weeks when Kate’s ad appeared. ‘If you like books and music, we’ll get along’, it said, ‘Must like cats.’ I’d read hundreds of ads by then and was sure no one in Dublin wanted to live with a 37-year-old proofreader, not even the 37-year-olds. In my reply to the ad, I subtracted five years from my life and added music to my list of interests. To be sure I wouldn’t slip up, I wrote my new date of birth on a small piece of paper, which I folded behind the store cards in my purse. I wrote down other, altered milestones too – the year I finished college, bought my first mobile phone, started freelancing and rented my first dingy bedsit in a converted house on Pembroke Road. I rehearsed the new, contracted, story of my life and was exhilarated by its efficiency. The five years I spent sorting clothes in a basement stockroom were, finally, erased from history, if not memory. I felt revitalised but circumspect – it’s the little things that give you away.
By then I’d been living in the maggot flat for five months. The smell from the bedroom on the morning of the viewing told me no good would come of it, but I was leaving the poet in a hurry and had nowhere else to go. There were only maggots once and they were confined to the sink in the ensuite so it’s probably disingenuous of me to call it a maggot flat. The real problem was the mushrooms growing in the ceiling and the mould, sometimes green, sometimes black, growing everywhere. It suited my tendency towards self-pity and an artist must have her garret, I thought. I might have stuck it out too if it wasn’t for the relentless green phlegm that began filling my lungs. And, besides, I’m no artist.
At the height of my search for somewhere to live, during one of my compulsory visits to my parents’ house, my mother burst into tears. ‘What’s wrong?’, I asked. We were alone in the freshly painted sitting room. Up to that point, she had been studiously applying herself to a game of candy crush saga and ignoring my attempts at conversation. ‘This level is impossible’, she muttered, before flinging her tablet onto the cushion beside her.
‘What’s wrong?’, I asked again, hoping she would say ‘Nothing’ and go back to her game.
‘He’, she said instead, meaning my father, ‘said it’s my fault you never amounted to anything.’
‘It’s not your fault’, I said evenly, noticing a bruise the colour of amaranth flowers on her upper arm.
‘Would he’, meaning the poet this time, ‘take you back if you asked him?’
‘I don’t want him back’, I said.
‘But would he take you?’
The night before the party, I had a glass of wine with dinner. These days, I often drink a glass of wine, or two, with my meals. Kate says I have a drunken housewife vibe, which, she assures me, she likes. She often uses words like ‘vibe’, ‘totally’, ‘millennial’ which always strike me as incongruous when said in an Irish accent. When the house is warm enough, which isn’t often, I wear a silk turquoise dressing gown instead of the poet’s torn corduroy jacket. The belt’s gone missing so it hangs open and billows behind me as I wander from room to room sipping chianti and talking to people who aren’t really there. If Kate’s not in, I can spend hours like that, walking around, up and down stairs, making tea, mixing drinks, thinking, talking, reading. I was wondering whether the poet still lived in our old house, which incidentally was just up the road, when I slipped on the stairs, bending my foot at an angle muscle and bone don’t normally accommodate. The pain was considerable, but nothing was broken. Later, my mother called and I mentioned my accident. She asked if I’d been drinking, which I resented.
‘No’, I lied, ‘of course not’.
‘Desmond’, she called out, ‘Nina fell down the stairs.’ I imagined myself twisted and broken on the downstairs landing, heaped against the front door so that Kate wouldn’t be able to push it open from the outside. I heard the cat yowling over my corpse. I often have these kinds of imaginings.
‘She says she wasn’t’, she said, theatrically. ‘Hello, are you there?’, her voice louder than before.
‘I’m here’, I said.
‘I’m thinking of getting a new porch. To match the new door.’
‘You got a new door?’
‘I had to. They chipped the old one when they were carrying the sofa out.’
‘You got a new sofa?’
‘Yes, I didn’t like the leather one. I’ve never liked it.’
‘Then why did you buy it?’
‘I thought it would be easier to clean.’
‘I just didn’t like it, Nina’, she said, sharply.
‘Well, I hope the new one has a happier ending.’
‘We all want a happy ending, Nina. But I never got mine.’
I was in charge of crudités and hummus, little snacky things for people to nibble on. I bought four types of hummus and one bottle of sauvignon blanc which I fully intended to share. I bought carrots and organic cucumber and celery but I never got around to chopping them. I tried, but there was no room for me in the kitchen because Kate and her friend Rachel were preparing the mushroom stroganoff. Rachel is 5’10’ and has a tattoo of a rose on her neck. Rachel doesn’t like me because she wanted to move in when Kate’s sister moved out. I don’t like Rachel because she drinks green smoothies and sleeps on our sofa three nights a week. She buys treats for the cat.
Excluded from the kitchen, I drained the end of a bottle of prosecco I found on the sideboard and drank it before going back upstairs. I dressed all in black and combed my hair forward to cover the lines on my forehead. The first guest was two hours late and three more arrived soon after that. They were much younger than me – five or six years if I was the age I was pretending to be, but in real life, at least a decade. More people arrived until Rachel said there was no point closing the front door and there were no seats left and people sat cross-legged on the floor or stood around the table or leaned against the back of the sofa. I closed the front door and then I didn’t know what to do with myself so I started to panic. I opened my bottle of wine and drank the first enormous glass in about seven minutes.
By 9 o’clock the room was full of strangers, and there were coats and hats and scarves strewn about the place. I had forgotten everyone’s name. I pretended to be interested in several conversations at once, shifting in my seat, nodding, scratching my nose, thinking of things I could say. Kate’s friend Simon appeared, hugged her, got himself a drink and sat on the edge of the sofa and because he wasn’t as young as the rest of them I sat down next to him and drank another huge glass of wine. The cat forced its way onto my lap.
The cat is the other lie I told. Kate had a notebook for taking notes on prospective housemates. Do you have a partner? No. If you did have a partner how often would you have them to stay? I promised her I was a confirmed bachelor. But if you weren’t, how many times? Two, three? How do you feel about cleaning? Do you have friends over a lot? Can you cook? Do you have a bike? What time do you leave for work at? What time do you come home at? What time do you go to bed at? How do you feel about living with a cat? To that last question, I said I didn’t mind because even though I was lying I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to pretend affection and, besides, I was in no position to be fussy.
I ate some mushroom stroganoff from a bowl on my lap followed by a slice of vegan almond cake, washed down with another glass of wine. Kate passed me a gin mixed with pink lemonade and I sipped on that for a while.
‘What do you do, Nina?’ Rachel asked, even though she knew. She leaned against the fireplace, back arched, so people would look at her. She was pretending to be friendly. She was the kind of woman the poet would leave me for every couple of years, long blonde hair, roots showing, skinny legs, before impecunity forced him back again.
‘Check spellings’, I said with a churlishness I wasn’t expecting.
‘What do you check them for?’ It was a deliberate provocation.
‘To make sure they’re right.’
‘Fascist’ said Rachel.
‘Things aren’t fascist just because you don’t like them.’ I said.
‘It’s not that I don’t like them. I’m just no good at them.’ She was laughing her tinkly little laugh. ‘So you’re like the spell-checker on Microsoft Word’, she said, not looking at me. I took a sip of wine and said nothing. I checked the time on my phone. Half an hour and I could go to bed.
Simon stretched his arm across the back of the sofa and I sat forward on the edge of the cushion so I wouldn’t forget he was there and lie against his arm and then not want to seem disgusted by his arm so leave my head there with his wrist digging into my skull, both of us feeling awkward until he coughed and dragged it out from under me. Sweat was seeping out of me and into my clothes and I wanted to sniff my armpits to make sure they didn’t smell. I leaned my head on my shoulder and sniffed. I smelled faintly of sweat and citrus health shop deodorant. Wine swelled out of my glass and spilled on my chest. I felt like I was sliding around inside myself and I realised, with the clarity of a drunk, that I would never be anything other than what I was right then. Nearly 40, I thought. Too old for housemates. Too poor to live alone. Too single for a mortgage. I looked around the room at their smiling faces and smooth foreheads. I considered the dregs of the stroganoff. A huge hole opened up in my belly. I was starving.
Simon told me he was an artist and invited me to the opening of his exhibition. I wasn’t sure if he thought I wanted to be invited or whether he wanted to make up numbers because he was worried people wouldn’t show up. He said there would be pizza. My mind carried on without me. I said some things and thought some things and Simon said some things and I imagined the rest for him. That is how it always is with me. Sometimes my lips move when I’m talking to people in my head. Sometimes I laugh. Often I cry and then yawn or pretend to sneeze to legitimise the tears. The people I talk to are real. They’re always real. It’s just my relationships with them that are imaginary. I know I’m not mad because I know none of it’s actually happening. When I was in college, I had an imaginary relationship with my friend Sheila’s boyfriend for a whole year. I even felt guilty about cheating on her and we drifted apart because of it but then I went to France for the summer and forgot about him. He had a small scar over one of his eyebrows. I forget which.
The pain in my foot was back and I felt drowsy. Simon told me about the self-portrait he was making with cigarette butts. He said he couldn’t smoke enough to keep up and was considering alternatives. I asked him where he got the idea from and he said out of his head. He had the same look the poet did when he was questioned about his art – supercilious, contemptuous. I found it compelling. He asked me if I smoked and seemed disappointed when I said no. He pulled a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his pocket and shook them once or twice before kneading his knee with the pack. His jeans were ripped and his legs, filleted by skeins of thread, were yellow under the light or possibly everything was yellow because I had somehow managed to find and open another bottle of wine. His knees were covered by a pale fuzz of hair, thick and matted. I wanted to touch his skin. In my head, I already was. I pushed my finger through one of the holes in his jeans and felt his skin, warm and slightly moist. He made a noise – half grunt, half moan. He offered me a cigarette. I couldn’t remember whether I had said I didn’t smoke out loud or in my head. Sometimes when I speak it’s too quiet for people to hear.
The poet smoked Marlboro Reds too, endlessly sucking and exhaling, so much so that whenever I try to picture him he always has a cigarette pinched between the bitten, bloody nailbeds of his middle and index fingers. We had a small yard that was half covered with a sort of plastic canopy and he used to sit out there and smoke. His smoking moved indoors when we stopped having sex. One night, I followed him upstairs as I always did. He was being unusually affectionate, pausing half way up to turn, kiss my forehead, and pull my blouse up under my arms. He squeezed my nipples hard, painfully. When we reached the landing, I stopped and instead of turning right into the bedroom we shared, I walked straight and got into the bed in the spare room. The next morning he shrugged and said he didn’t care about the sex, but how was he to get any work done if I was sleeping in his office, which is how he thought of the spare room.
I was worried about the nicotine staining the walls of the house and the floorboards, which were all varying shades of off-white. Mostly, I was worried about my €1,200 deposit. Excuse me, he said, when I tried to discuss it with him, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, the soles of his boots squeaking. Soon after, he stopped talking to me completely. If I walked into a room, he walked out. If I spoke, he stared at a point above my head and hummed.
You should move out, I said.
Excuse me, he said. And that’s how I ended up in the maggot flat.
Simon linked his arm through mine and held tightly, pulling me to my feet. He wanted to smoke outside. It was getting very late. I couldn’t find my phone. I brushed my hand off his forearm as if by accident. His hand gripped my hip and I stumbled because I wasn’t expecting it. The cat, which had been using my feet as a pillow, hissed when I moved. He led me towards the side door, through bodies and empty bottles and dirty plates, and when I stumbled again Kate said ‘Be careful, Nina’ and Rachel repeated ‘Be careful, Nina’ but she definitely didn’t mean it. Simon didn’t let go of my arm. I wanted to shrug him off but I also wanted him to keep talking so I stayed like that, prone almost, latched on, pretending I liked it.
We stood in the patio area, next to the bins. He smoked and I stared up at the plush navy sky trying to make out the shapes of clouds or something else or maybe I just didn’t want to look him in the face. I swayed pleasantly as damp seeped into my fluffy socks. I said it’s such a beautiful night but not out loud. I balanced on my heels because I hate that squelching feeling on my toes. There was a full glass of wine in my hand and both wine and hand seemed to belong to someone else, some other me. I took a big sip and let it pool on my tongue before I swallowed it. I was dazzled by the light from the streetlamps, numinous and fringed, and when I closed my eyes curlicues of amber light danced around my eyeballs, fizzing. I thought and I said I’m much older than I’m pretending to be and I laughed and there was Rachel standing in the doorway. And I hate cats. Rachel said ‘You’re such a fake’ and turned away. And that is the last thing I remember in the traditional sense of the word.
There are images and vast blanks of white light and grey and nothing. Simon’s hands on my lower back, pushing me or supporting me up the stairs, I don’t know which. More vegan almond cake crumbled on a plate. A fork too small to operate successfully. Wine poured. A crack in glass. Cat. People leaving. Vomit. Feet. Feathery ropes around necks. Pulling. The cat on the stairs in front of me. Through my legs. Simon’s hands again. This time around my waist, the grip harder. He tells me he needs to piss before he leaves but he closes my bedroom door and stands against it smoking. My head swims and I am floating. The smoke billows around him. His lips are dry and cracked. I moisten mine with my tongue. I need water. The lights are on and off again. I’ve taken my contact lenses out but can’t find my glasses. Shadows in the gauzy lamplight. I’m blind. The door opens and closes again. A stream of liquid against ceramic, harsh and aggressive. A light comes on outside my window. Voices. Hands on my stomach. Skin. Lips. Vomit. The sound of keys. Coughing. Nothing.
I wake to footsteps on the stairs. When I lived with the poet, he would wake early and I would stay in bed for a while, sometimes reading, sometimes looking out over the rooftops. I would hear him rattling around in the kitchen, making his thick black coffee, viscous and unpalatable. He could never turn the stove on first try so I would always hear the click, click, click of it as he tried to get the gas to light up. After about 20 minutes he would lumber back upstairs, stepping in all the creakiest places. The door of the spare bedroom would slam shut and I knew I wasn’t to disturb him.
In the evenings, we would make pasta and vegetables and he would read aloud all he had written that day. Occasionally, he wrote something unusual, something that made me think and I would say you should write more like that and he would say what’s wrong with the other stuff and I would say nothing, I just prefer this, and he would use my hair to drag me backwards and I would grab my neck because it was hurting and he would say you know nothing about anything and turn me around and spit in my face. Later he would say I was only trying to toughen you up, you’re too sensitive, Neen, and I would cry and he would stroke my hair and say I hate to see you cry and we would eat the cold pasta and I would sniffle and he would say you should do something about those allergies.
I know it’s Kate on the stairs and not some ghost from the party but I can’t face her. I am convinced there is disaster lurking in the blanks, sure Rachel has told her of my lies, that she hates me, that she’s going to ask me to move out. In my head, she does ask me to move out, over and over again, and sometimes I go and sometimes I plead and it goes round and round like a toilet being flushed over and over again until I stop it. I crawl along my bedroom floor, heaving. When I’m sure she’s downstairs I go to the bathroom, vomit, quickly and efficiently, and go back to bed. There’s a stale taste in my mouth, bilious, uncompromising. The top of my bedside locker is stained black where two cigarette butts have been stubbed out. I slide a book across to cover the stains, knocking the butts onto the carpet in the process. I look around the room for things I could vomit into if I had to. I don’t fall asleep again until midday and when I wake up I am damp with sweat and have kicked the duvets off.
I sleep on and off until the next day, fitfully, dreaming and daydreaming and recycling conversations from the night before. I am funnier and more self-assured when I am inside myself like this, wrapped up. It’s morning when I go downstairs to drink cup after cup of cold water. The house is empty and the detritus of the party has been cleared away. I have a lukewarm shower that quickly turns cold. I tell myself I deserve it that way. I notice for the first time the speckles of black mould all over the door, the ceiling, the walls, behind the cistern of the toilet. I scrub at myself with lavender shower gel and count out loud in my head to stop myself thinking.
I dress quickly, fill my backpack – book, notebook, water, pen, pencil, scissors – and walk towards the main street. My feet are cold and my ankle aches. I want to sit somewhere warm and drink a coffee and write something down and think but instead of continuing straight I turn, turn again and there it is. Our old house. The blinds are pulled down in every window, which is normal for us. A red and white ‘For Sale’ sign sticks out at an angle over the front door. As I walk towards it, I imagine him sitting at his desk in the spare room, peeking under the blind and seeing me down below.
My brain fast forwards and the air around me feels gluey and heavy and is saturated with the smell of horse shit. I see him smiling widely. He says I wondered when you’d be back and I feel his hand on the small of my back as I step into the hall and reach up and kiss him and tell him I wish I’d never set eyes on him. He says it’s nice to see you too, it’s been a long year, and I make my hands into fists and lie them on his stomach and he says I’m glad you’re back, Nina, and I know he means it because he never says my name like that unless he means it.
I knock and when there’s no answer I ring the doorbell. Footsteps. A shadow in the glass panel. A baby crying. A woman opens the door, a bit older than me, crease between her eyebrows as if straining to see. She looks at my face and then down at my arms and I see that I have slid my bag off my back and onto my stomach and folded it into a hug across my body.
‘Is Nate there?’ I ask.
‘Nate?’ Her voice is timorous, objectionable. I pity her. I hope it shows in my face. The baby cries again and she turns towards the living room, which has been painted blue.
‘Nathan’, I say. ‘Is he here?’ Someone coughs in the kitchen. A hacking cough. A smoker’s cough. I expect him to appear behind her any second now. Introduce her. Mention, casually, the baby.
‘Nathan’, she calls out. ‘Hold on’, she says and disappears. They exchange whispers in the hallway behind the living room, where the pantry cupboard is. I don’t look up until he is in the little hallway. He’s wearing a new corduroy jacket, the same colour as the old one, mid brown. He looks at me evenly. His beard is greyer than before.
‘Whatever you’re selling, we’re not interested.’ He says, barely moving his lips, which is unlike him. ‘Excuse me’, he says, and the door clicks shut.