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Last night I told Bridget I’d always fancied her.
I turn over and press my face into the pillow. Why did I do that? Why God? Tell me why I did that?
I no longer wish to think about last night.
To escape these memories, I open my eyes. There is pain, a ringing in the ears, a taste of ass in the mouth.
I open the curtains and blink out at the day. I feel odd like I’ve just been born.
More memories come as I sit on the edge of my bed. Horrible fucking memories about the things I have said and done. I give a little chuckle. Some of them are quite funny in a sort of we’ll–all–be–dead–fifty–years–from-now kind of a way. Some manage a kind of pissing-in-the-sink charm. I sigh. Most of them, though, are not funny under any circumstances nor allowed any passage of time.
Indeed, long after the heat death of the universe, I suspect that these memories will persist, floating in the black void of nothing, the lifeless remnants of our galaxy orbiting their terrible gravity.
The hangover is bad. Two, maybe three days of feeling like utter shit lie ahead of me.
I rub my temples. “What year is this?” I ask the empty room. I shuffle like a used up junkie into the kitchen and ask my wife, “What year is this, Mary?”
Mary ignores me aggressively. “How long have I been out? Who’s the president?” She slams the cutlery drawer shut, and then she is gone to see about the child crying in the back garden. Thank fuck, her vibes were terrible. I sit at the kitchen table in my underpants and drink her coffee.
“The past is the past,” I say. I say this kind of thing often. “Soon, we will all be , and none of this will matter.”
Things are bad, I can’t deny that, and it is still early. The hangover has not yet arrived in earnest. The hangover with its leather boots and studded denim jacket, its hanging wallet chains and scabby eyebrow piercings.
I am still a bit drunk, and traces of piss and vinegar linger yet inside me. The hangover is only now nibbling at the nape of my neck, whispering in my ear about how pretty I am. So pretty, it whispers.
Soon I will ask the hangover to stop, and that’s when things will turn ugly.
But for now, there is still some good whiskey in my head, wedging its foot against the door while the nightmares press their weight upon it.
The good whiskey is roguish and says things like, “What year is it?” to my already livid wife.
“Ah, whiskey, you incorrigible scamp, you’ve ruined my life,” I chuckle. “Ho ho ho.”
When I was small, I wrote a letter to God. I was full up of notions as only a little boy after his first holy communion can be. I felt pristine, immaculate. So I wrote the letter. I can’t remember it verbatim, but the gist of it was this: I thanked God for my family, and for my friends, and for the house we lived in. I told him that I loved him, and I asked him to help me to be good, and to help me to be holy.
After I wrote it, my mind was quiet. I imagined God smiling down at me, nodding in approval.
I swore I could feel Him all around me. There was a feeling of fullness. It was a gentle hand on my cheek, an acceptance. I often think back on it. I marvel at the innocence of the child who wrote that letter, and I wonder what happened to him.
I finish my wife’s coffee and feel a good bit less mad.
I proceed, quite urgently, to evacuate my bowels, holding my head in my hands, breathing heavy and open-mouthed between my knees. The shit falls out of me like a dead bird from a nest. I am unwell. I am ill.
The boy, two and a half years old, pushes the door open. He toddles in to show me his new toy car.
“Is that your, hnng, new car?” I say.
The child holds the car out shyly and tells me that, yes, it is his new car.
“Wow. Does it go really fast?”
He says that it does.
I wipe the sheen of sweat from my forehead. A wave of nausea rises up in me. The boy lingers a while, trying to think of something else to say, but there is nothing. And I can offer him nothing. So he trots back out to his mother in the kitchen.
He’s not really mine. Everyone knows it. The dog on the street knows it. It’s the blonde curls and blue eyes that give him away. Mary thinks I don’t know, but I know. Rory Murray was Mary’s supervisor at the bank, and the boy is his. Plain as day, the boy is his.
It’s not the boy’s fault, though. The boy is nothing like him. The boy is gentle and shy, and some days I forget to remember he’s not mine.
I stand in the kitchen doorway in my Y-fronts, shivering like a stray dog. My wife will not look at me, and then all of a sudden, she is looking right at me, looking into me.
“What the fuck did you say to Bridget last night?.”
I stiffen as my body shoots panic chemicals into my brain. “Ugh, nothing,” I say.
“She text me this morning. She wants to meet for coffee. She says we need to talk.”
“You have a problem, Noah. You need help.”
“I know, pet. I know.”
“You look like shit.”
“Ugh, God, I know,” I say.
“Is it bad?” she smirks because it is her curse to love me.
“Ugh,” I say again, trying to shudder the skin off my body. I feel light, as though I only barely exist.
“What did you do, Noah?”
“Ughh, don’t ask me these things, not now.”
“Uuhh,” said the two year old behind me.
I snort a laugh, and for a second there, it’s not so bad. Things might be okay. But then, almost immediately, they are not okay.
“Uhh,” says the two year old again, fishing for more laughs. I toss him another chortle, but he’s overcooked the gag.
I cock my head to one side and try to get a sense of what is wrong with me. I stand there, like a wisp of smoke, like a faded watermark, a gossamer imprint of my real self. The little boy looks up at me, not saying anything, but watching me very carefully.
Things are bad.
Sometimes, when things are very bad like this, I’ll pop b12 vitamins and chug blue Gatorade, as though these things can fix whatever vital deficiency exists within me. Whatever lack it is that sends me running out into the night in search of mollification.
And now, staring down the barrel of a three-day hangover, there can be no codding. There will be no Netflixing my way out of this one. No, that dog simply will not hunt.
“That dog won’t hunt, Mary!” I shout at my wife, but she is gone from me, if she was ever really here at all.
No, a hangover like this will eat me alive if I turn my back on it. I must face it. Action is required.
I get dressed, and leave the house without goodbying my family.
Not long after my holy communion, I had another spiritual experience. My canoe capsized on our school tour, and I got stuck underneath. The instructor told me it was only ten or twenty seconds max, but it felt like much longer. Long enough to feel God’s presence. It was the same as before. A fullness, a gentle hand on my cheek, an acceptance.
After that, whenever I thought about God, I also thought about death. God and Death, Death and God. You could not have one without the other.
On the drive over to the hotel leisure centre, the whiskey seeps out of my skin, and my whole body starts to contort and shrivel. I hunch over the steering wheel, my back arched like the curve of a question mark, my head bowed by whatever force it is that presses in on me from all sides. My bearing is that of an abused dog, some wretched animal whose life amounts to little more than a perpetual flinch.
In the pool, I practice holding my breath underwater. It feels safe underwater. No sound. No voices. A different world with different rules. I curl up tight into an egg, hugging my knees. I imagine that this must be how a baby feels, safe in the womb, completely new, without a past, without even a name.
When I surface for air, the pool is full of voices bouncing off the walls and echoing from the ceiling. The voices carry opinions and pretensions and are tainted with the piss and shit of the living world.
The way I see it, the whole stinking social dynamic of humanity is based on a tier system. You are born, given a few years to get your shit together, and then told to get out there and find your place in the pecking order of this seven billion strong troupe of monkeys.
The only way to find your place in the mess of it all is to get out amongst the other monkeys and interact. Find out where you slot in by learning who is above you and who is below you.
I have learned that every sentence, every gesture, every nod and wink serves a purpose to this end. It is all part of the grotesque machinery of leverage. We are all cogs grinding against one another in an attempt to further our social position. Or to maintain it or regain it. And if we cannot rise up ourselves, we must ensure that neither can those around us.
Now I think of these interactions in terms of castles. We build the castle of ourselves out of words and actions. Every sentence is a strut placed against the outer wall that keeps the enemies at bay—every word a brick added to the fortifications, and every interaction a skirmish for position and rank.
Exhausting is not the word. Because defending the indefensible lie of our own lives using nothing but more lies is beyond exhausting.
I take a breath and duck back under the water for another minute of foetal floating.
Even as a teenager, I never stopped believing in God. But whenever I thought about my relationship to Him, it was always with a kind of embarrassment. It was something akin to still believing in Santa Claus. So whenever I spoke about God or religion, it was only to mock or to disparage as was in keeping with the mores of my peers. Everything back then was saturated in irony and mockery. And I was terrified of being found out, not just about God, but about everything. All the time, I was terrified.
The red wine and whiskey hangover sloshes around in my body as I climb from the pool. I am visibly shaking, utterly poisoned, as I make my way to the Jacuzzi.
The Jacuzzi is warm and full of bubbles, a physical white noise to distract me from the tinnitus of my life. I stare at the ceiling, muttering curses, threats and entreaties to myself and to whatever else might be willing to listen, pleading with the florescent lights in the ceiling, please, please help me to change.
I spot a man walking across tiles toward me, another castle to be battled. I’m not able. As he gets closer, I recognise the face. It’s Rory Murray. Of course it fucking it is; sure who else would it be. This is what I get for lusting after my wife’s friends. This is karma. Oh, sweet baby Jesus, please leave me alone, Rory, you fucking placard.
Last I heard, he had gone off to see the world, find himself, etcetera. I had half hoped he was dead, overdosed on wet Dublin cocaine, but here he is with his asinine grin, his big blue eyes, and a few tufts of his famously curly blonde hair popping out from under his swimming cap.
I could tell him. I could just tell him everything. I could just say, Rory, I have your son, but he’s mine now.
Rory nods at me and says, “OH, that’s hot,” as he lowers himself in.
I nod off to the side and muscle out a mutilated smile. “Yeah, yeah, it’s hot-hot alright.”
I lower my chin a bit in an attempt to approximate a normal posture, but it is no use. I am beyond repair. All positions feel blatantly contrived, my every fucking breath a pandering lie.
I manufacture a cough and narrow my squint at the clock on the far wall as though deeply considering its design, or perhaps even the very concept of time itself. I do not look at Rory Murray. I do not look at him with such an intense and pervasive scrutiny that he starts to shift uncomfortably, perhaps registering for the first time the depth of my … unwellness.
Rory thumbs his nose, sniffing with disdain. He has triumphed in the contest of existence simply by sitting next to me.
I Gollum my way out of the water, my brow still furrowed in study of the perplexing mechanics of time.
I slop boneless onto the steam room bench and let out a cat-like whimper. I take some deep breaths. I say, “hommmm,” a couple of times and try to step outside my crumbling castle for one goddamn minute.
I have to stop my homming immediately as the steam room door opens. Christ, give me strength, I whisper. And even as I speak, I can’t tell if I am taking His name in vain or if I’m genuinely petitioning Him for aid. I do notice that the older I get, the more earnest my blasphemy is becoming. Ambiguity creeps. Its tendrils snake through every aspect of my life now. Who am I? What the fuck is going on? These are the questions that make up my personality.
I scoot back inside my castle as quick and as quiet as a mouse; my shoulder braced against the main gate for the first jolt of the battering ram. But when I open my eyes, I see that it’s just some young wan. I relax a little, clocking the bikini, the breasts, and the long slim legs. She is beautiful, and, more importantly, she is not Rory Murray.
I meet her eyes; they are alert, intelligent, wary, and vaguely angry. She is aware of her body and of her beauty, and she is aware that I am aware. This knowledge appears to irritate her as if our biological compatibility were somehow my fault.
I smile that kind of weak horizontal half-smile that belongs to middle-class white people. It is a watery proclamation of toothless emasculation.
I do my best to adopt a posture of platonic disinterest by staring straight ahead, eyes front, eyes front.
She sits in the far corner, her back straight against the wall, her head tilted up. I shift a little in my seat because the woman is so very beautiful, and my want of her is bloated desire that does not sit comfortably within me.
I focus my attention away from her. The tile pattern on the opposite wall suddenly becomes very interesting. Is that some kind of early Corinthian pattern? Certainly a derivative. Fascinating. I continue to not look at her tits and legs for at least another minute or two, but there they are, floating in the soft haze of my peripheral vision.
I bask in the distraction of her body, no longer considering the infinite vagaries of the Rory Murray situation nor any of the universe’s other cruel mysteries. The very texture of my thoughts transmogrified into something much more urgent, thoughts that throb with the immediacy of a newborn baby’s cry.
The shining effectuation of my misery blunted by the hot rush of blood.
I crane my neck as though to stretch out the muscles there and even manufacture a slight grimace, as though some twinge of pain has disturbed my platonic train of thought. I steal a furtive glance while pretending the stretch. Nice big milky white tits. Bigger than average, but not too big, they are tits like baby bear’s porridge. A tattoo on her ankle too, a scythe or something.
I begin to rotate my head around, just stretching out my neck muscles like. She spins in my peripheral vision like a fairground Ferris wheel. Like the earth orbiting the sun, only the earth is my penis, and the sun is her tits.
I look at the ceiling, the wall, the floor, the wall, the ceiling. And with each tilt, crane and stretch, I edge her closer to the centre of my vision. I swallow a gob of spit. I am thirsty. Still, I do not look directly at her. But, good lord in heaven, is that a belly button piercing? My mind is clammy and full of sweaty mouth-breathing thoughts.
She lets out a loud tut, gets up from her seat, and leaves without looking at me. I hear her mutter “fucking pervert” under her breath.
The door closes behind her, and I stop rotating my head like a muppet.
I sigh and slide a hand down my shorts to rearrange my semi, giving the shaft a quick squeeze while I’m down there. It’s political correctness gone mad is what it is. Then I say, hommmmm.
But it doesn’t work. It is impossible to attain inner peace with blue balls. “Slut,” I say to the empty steam room and immediately feel better.
Later, after jerking off in the men’s toilet, I reflect on the nature of the male gaze. It is such a hopelessly inevitable fact of maleness. A fact that no amount of woke rhetoric can intellectualise away, an unfortunate and immutable truth that both sexes are stuck with. I clean the jizz off the toilet seat and flush it. Men are pigs. We look at tits. I shrug. We just do.
In the glow of my post-wank serenity, I consider the possibility that I may be autistic. On the spectrum for sure, but what did that even mean exactly? Isn’t everyone on the spectrum?
How exhausting it is to be alive.
I sit in the car and think about Rory Murray. The thought of going home depresses me. I think about my own father, that mad old bastard. Then I know what I have to do. I start the engine and head for the coast.
It was 2015, Stephen Fry had just lambasted God in an interview with Gay Byrne–only stupid people believed in God, everybody knew that.
Was I stupid? Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris. Look at the evidence. Flying spaghetti monsters, and paedophile apologists, misogynists and homophobes. Was this the kind of man I wanted to be? I tried to tell people that it wasn’t that simple, but they assured me that it was.
The world did not want me to know God, but then, I never was one for listening to the world. The world was fucked, and full of idiots.
I still turned to Him when I had nowhere else to go. On bad days, you could find me kneeling in the shadowed corner of an empty church. Shaking and sweating, sick from drink and life. My head bowed as I whispered my slutty bargains, my desperate deals. And despite it all, there He was. A feeling of fullness, a gentle hand on my cheek, an acceptance.
When I get to the beach, I park up and sit for a while. The rain comes down in sheets upon the windscreen.
The day is dark and grey, as though all colour has been banished from the world. What little light remains seems only to exist tenuously, as though it might, at any point, begin to flicker and go dark.
The sea is wild. It tosses and roils and casts about the place like a spazzing teenager. The sea does not give a single fuck about me and my castle. It has zero shits to give for my existential hangover. The sea spits its curses at the land and at the living.
It dares me to enter. It double dares me.
Be still my heart.
Death stands outside the car and looks in at me, wondering what I will do next.
Fear rises in me like heat.
The beach is empty, and the ocean calls to me by name.
I undress in the car. I do so very slowly, undoing each shirt button with great deliberation. I fold my clothes in a neat pile on the passenger seat and sit naked for a while, listening to the rain pelting off the car.
When I step out into it and make my way to the shore, the surf is misting on the wind, and I can smell the brine in the air. Jesus Christ, what a powerful sensation that is.
The rain falls like tiny pebbles on my flesh. The wind fills the hollow caves of my ears as I step naked into the foam and the waves.
My body screams its reluctance, begging reprieve, absolution. It has done no wrong. It is sorry, it will never drink again, it will never look at another woman– but the body is a whore and a liar. I will not go back inside my castle. I keep walking. The waves splash on my shins. My penis shrinks up in anticipation, retracting inside me like a slug reducing into its shell.
The water stings my feet, scalds my calves, my knees, my thighs, my balls. “Sweet Jesus Christ almighty, my balls!”
Again, the line between blasphemy and genuine prayer is blurred. I think perhaps the distance separating the two was never as large as I supposed it to be.
There was a quote from Mother Teresa that my father liked to throw at me whenever I badgered him about his own ascetic tics, the fasting, the barefoot pilgrimages, the silences, the winter swims. “A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves. Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your weakness.“
Irritated, I would ask him what that was supposed to mean.
He said, “It means that the only way to achieve true sacrifice is with violence. Violence is required to defeat yourself. Violence against yourself, against your own weakness. This is how you defeat the world.”
“But why?” I asked. “What does God want with our suffering?”
“I offer it up to Him freely. He does not demand it. I do it for myself. Renounce the world, deny yourself. It’s how you find peace.”
“Jesus Christ, Dad, it’s like you’re still living in the dark ages.”
He would just smile and say something infuriating about it not being my time. My time would come.
“Fuck you all, you fucking Fucks!” I roar.
The water is cruel, but on I step without hesitation. “Jesus Christ!” I shout again. “Lord above!” This is the sacrifice. “Christ in heaven, it’s freezing!” I drive myself into it with the violence required.
“MERCY! HAVE MERCY!” The sound of my voice barely audible above the sovereign scream of wind.
I wade in further. The waves crash against my torso and the fat shock of cold ricochets around inside me like an echo. I do not think about my castle or my hangover or Rory fucking Murray. I burn these thoughts away with violence. I tear them apart with my will.
I am once more without a past, without a future, finally alive with the sublime agony of living. I open myself to it. I welcome it. I eat my own death, and the fear is gone.
I live now in my animal skin. A creature of the moment quickened to its true purpose under the point of a knife. A sound erupts out of me, a long keening wail, something comparable to the scream of a fox. My father told me that this is the winter call and that when it fills your belly, you should let it out. Let the ocean have it. It is at once a wail of submission and defiance.
A large wave rises before me, and I dive into it. The cold swallows me up, squeezing my skull in a vice. Submerged, the sound of the storm is muted and replaced by the boil and gargle of bubbles. I surface again. Another wave comes at me. I dive under it, swimming a few meters underwater, pulling the ocean apart with my hands, counting each stroke as I venture out farther and farther still, out past the breakers and into the eyrie swell. Seven, ten, fourteen, twenty, and then I am up gasping on the surface, as alive as any man on the face of the earth.
My bones hum with the cold.
The rain lashes down all around. In the sky, a flash of lightning. I smile.
Have you ever swum in a mad sea amongst the crazed waves and the demented howling of wind while arcs of light dance back and forth above you? Strength floods my body like divine knowledge. Time passes unnoticed.
When I feel my limbs begin to tire, I stop to look about, straining to see the beach. Then I rise up on a big swell and catch a glimpse of the shore. I’ve come quite far out. Farther than I thought. I feel my limbs getting stiffer as the heat leaves my body.
Overhead: more thunder, then another flash burning the grey out of the world for a brilliant second. This is it. It’s far enough. I consider the distance back calmly.
A wave crashes over me, and I go under. I don’t panic but stay very still and let myself rise to the surface naturally, bobbing up just in time to catch another one in the face, this time swallowing a lungful of seawater. This time I do feel a sharp thrill of panic.
Okay, I think, spluttering and coughing on the surface. Okay. It’s the little boy’s face that flashes through my mind now. What the fuck am I doing? What the fuck am I ever doing? I turn and turn, pivoting on the surface like a broken compass trying to find the shore. But the waves are too high now. I’ve gone too far out. I’m going to die. I’ve killed myself, and I don’t want to die. And then I see it, yes there, thank you, Jesus, it’s the beach. Its horizon a sad straight line, the unsmiling mouth of a disappointed mother.
I pull myself forward, plunging under every now and then, coughing and gasping on the surface. I pull at the water clawing myself out of it. I go under again. The face of the boy is so clear to me. He is asking for me, asking where I am and when am I coming home. Reality is fractured, it’s unclear how much time has passed, but I am close to exhaustion.
On the surface, I hear myself shouting, “Help! Help me! Help!”
I go under again. This time it takes me longer to re-surface. I’m drowning. This is what drowning feels like. I am drowning to death, splashing and batting at the waves like a child, raking my fingers through the water, scrambling for purchase, all technique gone. I am swimming for my life. “Help me!” I roar again. Desperately. Dumbly. Who will hear me? No one. No one will hear.
I imagine my face on the front page of the newspaper. Local man drowns himself to death. I imagine my wife crying into some strange man’s shoulder. But no, it is not a stranger; I know the face, it’s Rory Murray. I imagine him raising my shy little boy. I see Rory criticising him for being too meek, forcing him to play rugby and become an accountant.
I kick and haul and heave myself forward through the water with everything I have left. I spit and cry and scream and pray and pray and pray, reaching out with arms wide, asking for help without a trace of shame or doubt.
I’m getting tired now. Please. Please let me live.
A feeling of fullness.
Let me live for the boy. Let me live for my son. Please. I think I see it. Is that it? Is that the beach?
A gentle hand.
Please. For my son.