From the kitchen, where we’ve been talking about Greece and sunshine for the past hour, searching for flights and browsing indulgently through photos of villas and hotels, we hear the boy’s return. We listen to the rattle and clunk of the turning lock, the unlubricated screech of the front door and the dull thud of schoolbag on carpet, followed by his adolescent clomping through the house like some sort of pre-neolithic, booted simian.
I have been missing this simple thing, this dependable confluence of sounds. Now that I am around to hear it, it becomes more intriguing each time; I am beginning to get a sense of the things I don’t know exist, that do.
“Hi, Sweetheart,” his mother calls.
She is cradling a giant mug of coffee in both hands, as if for warmth, sitting beside me at the table, our upcoming holiday plans immediately relegated by the boy’s return, overridden by maternal concerns. Mark is just fifteen and, naturally, the sun around which his mother orbits. In this respect I am like the moon.
I watch June as she watches the empty doorway of the kitchen, waiting. The look I see is one of patience, devotion, and vague concern, the concerned aspect falling away once Mark wanders in and a visual assessment of his well-being can be made. She smiles then and nods almost imperceptibly, as if part of her was expecting a limb to be missing, or his face to have changed. He makes no eye contact as he moves purposefully towards a cupboard and reaches inside.
“How was school?” she asks.
“Fine,” he manages, but barely, the utterance just enough past guttural to be considered a word. “Any mass shootings?” I say, and my question-cum-joke goes either ignored or unnoticed by Mark, receiving only the faintest of eye-rolls from his mother.
This type of humour is of a kind which, until recently, would have produced a guffaw from the boy. Or at least a faux-exasperated eye-roll like his mother’s. But even my best material these days seems to go unacknowledged. Lately my relationship with Mark, which has always been congenial and pally, and often delightfully conspiratorial, has seemed strained—somehow lessened or fractured or dulled. I sense a brooding behind his eyes when he looks at me, or when he deliberately doesn’t.
“You’re thinking too much, getting hung up on things,” his mother says when I mention this in the intimate darkness of our bedroom, the location of our most serious and confiding moments. (It amazes me, this very particular blackness, its allowance of an openness not quite possible by light, eye to eye.) And she is probably right. Currently I have too much time on my hands, and far more of this time than I would like—or than I’ve been told is healthy—is spent considering things which shouldn’t be considered so intensely, such as my step-son’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude regarding Yours Truly this past while, and how long it might last or what it might mean. I think of other things too, like global social unrest and climate change and general extinction. I try not to take it personally.
“He’s just at that age,” his mother says, and I try to remember how it felt to be fifteen. But I find my recollections involve only people or places, and not any corresponding emotions. My memories all seem to be nouns, when what I need are adjectives. If this has always been the case I am only noticing it now.
But the simple sound of June’s voice is always soothing, and as a result I am not yet at the stage of losing sleep. In truth I have lately been sleeping soundly and easily, which is surprising given the typically inactive nature of my days—and the more active nature of my anxieties—since I stopped going to work.
My job merits only the barest of descriptions. Enough to say that it provides satisfactory and reliably incremental remuneration, but little in the way of emotional or moral nourishment. Whether I am simply bored with my work or searching for the aforementioned nourishment is a good question. In any case, I have neither escaped the former nor achieved the latter, though it is still early days and I have high hopes, vague as they are. And I have time, too. My job is there when I choose to go back, they tell me. The term used was “non-specific temporary sabbatical,” which is fine with me. I’ll be missed, they insist, but they’ll manage. Of this I have no doubt.
The boy hunches himself over a bowl of cereal, his entire body involved in the act of devouring it as quickly and completely as possible. His mother and I watch him eat. It is an impressive thing to witness, culminating in a two-handed raising of the bowl almost above his head, the dregs poured straight down his throat in one last go. It reminds me of a bird feeding its chick, or a priest drinking from a chalice. The act is both animal and holy.
“Make sure you get all of it,” I say, and he grunts as he swallows.
A man with a clipboard and an agreeable face tries to sign me up to a new electricity provider. Standing at the threshold of my house in my dressing-gown, listening to his spiel (nodding where appropriate, looking interested and occasionally raising an eyebrow) I am conscious of the fact that we are both wasting each other’s time, but that he doesn’t yet understand this. The man becomes more enthusiastic the longer I let him continue. I don’t do so to be cruel but because these late-morning hours—when June is at work and Mark in school—are dull and empty times. The complete stillness of the house is something I remain unaccustomed to, and it is strangely difficult to relax within. Sitting alone sometimes in this stillness I feel like I am outside my own body, like I am watching a tiny and compressed version of myself from a position in the sky or in space, flattened to a mere dot on the landscape.
It strikes me that in allowing the man to go on I am behaving like one of those poor souls with nothing better to do. When finally he finishes and I tell him that I’m sorry, but I don’t live in this house or know anything of the homeowner’s electricity needs, he looks confused for a moment, and then disappointed. That light in his eyes visibly dims: Why would I let him go on like that?
I apologise again, and I mean it. Why I told him I wasn’t the homeowner is another good question.
I have started telling little lies. Mostly the kind of lies which have no real effect on anything, and serve no real purpose. This is something I didn’t do before, and it is now something I don’t set out to do but find myself doing nonetheless. Not all that often, but sometimes. There is no advance warning. And it is another of the things I have lately been wondering about: What might it mean?
This trip to Greece is June’s idea, of course.
I was expecting a more jaded response to news of my non-specific temporary sabbatical, but “Perfect” was the first thing she said to me, with no hint of sarcasm. For some time now I have been supplying worthy and bottomless excuses with regards to a holiday. The idea of it—of flying, of heat, of new surroundings, of enforced relaxation—produces an ominous sensation in me that is as strong as it is baseless. But I now have no excuses left, and am attempting a positive outlook: June is all excitement, and for that alone it is worth it.
Mark is due to stay with his father—his biological one—while we’re away. I have an absurd recurring vision of father and son spending two weeks’ worth of evenings reclining in fireside armchairs, engaged in heated philosophical debate, sharing their deepest feelings and moral centres, smoking cigars and sipping expensive brandy like two old men. I am aware that this vision is obviously wide of the mark (and even more baseless than my trip-related disquiet) but still it is there in my mind with all the other things, drifting around like malevolent icebergs.
Henry is, probably, the type of man I would end up watching sports or drinking a beer with if it wasn’t for our shared situation. As it is we act meek and apologetic, and are almost spookily accommodating of each other. We have an unspoken understanding about things—about the boy, and about what’s best for him when it comes to us. There is such a genuine lack of animosity that it is June who seems most uncomfortable on those occasions we are all in the same room, when really it should be me or he that feels awkward and threatened; after all, our many similarities are not necessarily simple or coincidental ones. As parents—and husbands—I suspect we have a lot in common.
What these similarities might or might not mean is a question I am familiar with, but thinking about it is not the answer.
At the supermarket I see a young mother gently weeping in the cereal aisle. Her baby watches her curiously, possibly stumped by this reversal of roles, or possibly too young—and too overloaded by the screaming rainbows of packaging and general sensory excess—to even understand. I look at her for just a second. A stranger’s sadness could mean anything. Maybe the father has left them, or died; or maybe she is simply having one of those days, and cereal reminds her of the unfairness of the world, and of motherhood. I turn and walk the other way, leaving her to it.
I spend much longer than I need to in the baked goods section. I stand staring at a wall of bread, basking in the smell. If oxygen smelled like this it would be okay with me. I stay standing there, closing my eyes until I sense someone nearby and, upon opening them again, see a security guard watching me. I smile guiltily and move on.
There are eighteen different types of mustard here, an entire aisle of vari-plyed and bewildering toilet-paper, enough cheese to pave a street; there are deals and discounts and quagmires of nutritional information. Maybe the sheer range of choice is the cause of the woman’s tears—I could understand that. Food shopping is one of the tasks I have volunteered for, now that I have time on my hands. June appreciates the sentiment, but we are both silently aware of my lack of supermarket aptitude. I don’t know how she navigates it all so easily. “Just stick to the list,” she says, but there is nothing simple about this place.
June works four mornings a week. After she finishes each day, and before the boy arrives home from school, she has a little window of time that I never thought to ask about before. She shops, she tidies, she reads; she gets nails done, meets friends for lunch, goes to yoga, has a nap. Now that I am home during this window I find myself eagerly awaiting a detailed recounting of what, on any given day, she has been doing. She humours my odd enthusiasm with confused eyes.
I am fascinated by these new things I am learning, this new time I am discovering, this new universe I didn’t know existed. It is thrilling and monotonous at the same time.
And I find myself fascinated, too, by the boy’s homecoming each day, those sounds he makes, the same sounds being made in countless other homes at almost exactly the same time—yet still original somehow, hums and echoes solely his own. But I worry I am intruding on something, that maybe this particular time of the day—which until a month or so ago I was absent from—is a sacred stint of bonding between mother and son, one now somehow altered by the mere fact of my presence. Perhaps this has something to do with the boy’s gloominess, or perhaps not.
At the checkout I see the woman with the baby again. There are ancient people here, hunched and hawk-eyed, shrunken; there are bored employees filling bags and mopping spills; there are barcode scanners beeping and light so unnatural it attacks the eyes.
No one else is crying.
The air in our kitchen is dense with scents of breakfast. In my dressing-gown I feel underdressed. June watches Mark ingest several slices of toast with a minimum of chewing. I watch mother and son and feel both comforted and anxious. Lately, as I watch over them at breakfast, or while I drive the boy to school, or as I search for the correct type of detergent or yoghurt in the supermarket, a thought has been infiltrating my thinking: What if they both died? What then?
It goes without saying that the answer is not even approachable, not something I could even begin to imagine. But the question itself is the problem: Why would I think such a thing?
My head is in my hands, fingers applying pressure to my lidded eyeballs. I hear a desperate sigh that could only be the result of—or precursor to—some terrible psychic catastrophe, and when I look up I see two sets of eyes staring back at me, and realise the sigh was my own.
“Are you okay?” says June.
The boy, with a piece of toast frozen now midway between plate and palate, looks at me with a kind of disbelief. Or suspicion. Or maybe just curiosity. His face has become difficult to read.
“I’m fine,” I say, displaying my artificial smile, attempting an airy and light-filled nonchalance.
“Just sleepy,” I say, though I am wide awake.
Cars are places to find things out, to discuss and divulge, to share. There is no escape route, no television to distract or bedroom door to hide behind: We must engage.
“Any lady friends on the scene?”
His response is more a brief rumble of vocal cords which implies the negative, or the none-of-your-business.
“Huh?” he says.
These short lifts to school, or to friends’ houses, or to other adolescent engagements, have traditionally been opportunities for me to connect with the boy, to subtly inquire about new goings-on in his hectic life, or about particularities of the modern teenage zeitgeist. Opportunities for him to tell me things he might not tell in the presence of his mother, and opportunities for me to dispense advice—solicited or not—on a vast array of topics (from girls, to smoking, to European history) which may or may not be of any use to him, but which at least make me feel more active as a parent, and make him feel (I hope) as important to me as he truly is.
Because I worry that Mark, as he continues his voyage towards adulthood, will begin to question my legitimacy: as parent, as husband of his mother. I worry that he might look at me some day and think: Who is this man, and what is he doing in my life? I worry that his mother might do the same.
I am paranoid, I know, but these are the things I think about. The icebergs.
He fiddles with the radio dials, flicking through a hundred stations before settling on one and turning the volume up several notches too loud. I take it he is not amenable to further discourse. From the speakers comes a man’s strained, breaking voice, full of very weighty, undoubtedly contrived emotion.
Though it pains me to conform to the cliché, I find most modern music indecipherable and devoid of any real meaning. Whatever happened to real music? The Stones, The Beatles, The Clash…
When did it all go wrong?
June arrives home. I am recumbent, stagnant on the sofa. I listen to the noise. The rattle and clunk, the screech, the setting-down of handbag on table, the contented sigh. Hers are delicate sounds, the breeze to the boy’s squall.
My day so far has consisted of little more than a lethargic (and unsuccessful) crossword attempt. The final clue eludes me.
“Busy day I see,” she says, not unkindly, and joins me on the sofa.
“Tumultuous,” I say, and I am only half joking.
We lie there together in warm silence for several minutes. Her breaths become deep and relaxed, and my own breathing syncs to hers. There is a weightless comfort in these minutes unlike any other.
June, eventually, raises herself from the sofa, kissing me lightly on the top of my head. “Augur,” she shouts over her shoulder as she makes her way to the bathroom. “To divine or predict. Six across, five letters.”
My eyes fall to the coffee table where the newspaper is spread, butchered by pencil lead.
“Ah,” I say.
Beside the crossword lies her phone. Without thinking I find myself picking up the device and scrolling through call histories and text messages.
I feign a sort of indifference to myself, as if I am just passing time, as if I might as easily be flicking through a magazine about gardening, or motor boats. I have never done this before—it has never occurred to me. I don’t know why I am doing it now, or what my doing it signifies. I stop myself.
What am I doing?
When he was just a little younger, Mark would arrive home from visits to Henry with excited tales of what they did and where they went, brimming always with new wondrous factoids about the world, the universe, people: birds are dinosaurs; two thirds of people have never seen snow; dung beetles navigate by the Milky Way; humans are 1cm taller in the morning than in the evening. Each new fact punctuated by a triumphant: “Did you know that?”
“Surely not,” I would say each time, and he would beam and say, “Yep.”
Henry is a good man, a good father, responsible but fun, and as disjointed family units go the boy has a solid and loving set-up, from all angles. We are highly functional, as a sum if not individually.
But now the boy stays largely silent about his bi-monthly weekends and once-weekly evenings with his father. In truth he says little at all about anything anymore—to me, at least. I am lately resigned to finding things out via his mother. Things about school, about Henry, about the universe.
“He’s just at that age,” she keeps saying. And if June isn’t worried, that should be enough. But my thinking has become somehow deeper and more sensitive this past while. The inner workings of my mind are at times frenzied and inescapable, and at other times insurmountably inert. Each insignificant occurrence seems important. Omens abound. Every nothing seems like something.
“How are you feeling,” she keeps saying too, and it is another good question; the simplest are always the hardest, and can only be avoided so long. She says it cautiously, half-concerned and half-casual.
“Fine,” I reply each time, hoping my eyes don’t betray my smile. It feels alien, this new rictus of mine. It feels other. It brings to mind the kind of derelict expressions sometimes seen on the faces of luckless souls recovering from skiing accidents, or high-speed car-crashes.
Things have turned strange.
Sun will fix me. My anxieties will loosen in the heat. I will relax and have a wonderful time with my wife, whom I adore. Everything else will recede, and in this way I will recover my previous unburdened self.
This is the wisdom, and it makes sense.
June cajoles me when my inner reluctance about this holiday—about doing something rather than nothing—overwhelms my attempts at optimism. We replay the same little dialogues over and over.
Q. Can we afford it, now that my income has been temporarily sabbaticalised? Is the timing right?
Q. What about the boy, shouldn’t he come too? Two weeks is a long time. He hasn’t been himself lately.
Q. Do you still love me?
She rolls her eyes at this last question like it’s the stupidest I’ve ever asked: Of course she does.
She is incredibly patient, and for that—along with everything else—I love her more than I can say.
We are idling at a red light. The erratic vibrations of the car (there is some new thing wrong with my engine) make the loose change in the cup-holder jangle and rattle. The sound is hypnotically irritating. The light seems to be stuck on red.
Apropos of nothing the boy turns to me and says: “Did you get fired?”
There is a note of defiance in his tone. His eyes search my face, as if the true answer is more likely to be found there than in any verbal reply. The boy is smart and gets only smarter; that he is not yet at the stage of knowing his own intelligence is sublimely endearing. This is the first time he has mentioned my employment situation in my presence. It is, in fact, the first direct question he has asked me in longer than I like to think about.
“No, of course not,” I say, feigning minor shock at the notion, glad that he is at least making conversation, but saddened by the nature of it.
He shrugs and stares out his window. Surely he has asked his mother this same thing, and surely she has given him the same answer I am about to.
“I’m just taking a break. What’s called a temporary sabbatical. My job is absolutely still my job.”
I say this last bit a little too forcefully, or maybe not forcefully enough—it’s difficult to know what tone I should aim for. I wonder what Henry might say if he were in this position (though I have a sense he never would be) and aim for that. This is something I do from time to time, when it comes to dealing with Mark. Partly because I think there should be consistency across the board when it comes to how the men in his life (his two dads, in essence) behave around and towards him; also partly because I know Henry is a good, practical person, and I imagine he more often than not gets this kind of thing right; and partly (possibly mostly, especially lately) because I often feel like I have no idea what it is that I’m doing, or what I’m supposed to do.
The light turns green, finally, and I stall the engine. In response to the unnecessary honking of a horn I emit a variety of curse words, and salute the honker with a ubiquitous digital gesture. It is a while since I have used my fingers in such a way.
We drive on in that particular kind of silence only a traffic-related over-reaction can produce. After a while I say: “You shouldn’t ever curse. It makes people think less of you.”
I hope this isn’t really true; the boy says nothing.
I tell the doctor I feel like a new man. Yes, the medication seems to be doing the trick. No, I haven’t noticed any side-effects. I tell him I am energised by my recent break from work, and am looking forward to getting right back to it after the holiday, which I am also tremendously excited about. I tell him (as I have told him each week for more than a month now) that the incident in work was just a blip, an aberration, some sort of cosmic righting of the scales. A mountain of a molehill—and doesn’t everyone get overwhelmed sometimes? The word I use repeatedly is “emotional.” Whether he believes me or not is hard to say, and probably it doesn’t matter.
I tell him it has all been a blessing in disguise, this recent turbulence—just what the doctor ordered. I tell him about the previously unknown tranquillity of an empty house. I tell him about the supermarket, the smell of baking bread. I describe to him as best I can the joy to be found in the sounds of a child returning home from school.
I don’t mention the sense of doom I sometimes feel alone at home, or the neon confusion of the supermarket, or the crying. I don’t mention the persistent invasiveness of certain icy thoughts. The doctor looks at me for a long time—his gaze could mean anything. It is an impressive countenance, and I wonder how many years of practice went into getting it just right. It is a stare loaded with important information—but information which it simultaneously conceals. A stare that knows things its recipient does not.
The tablets remain in their packaging, in the glove-box of my car. Stashed is the correct word for them, though I can feel their presence, their weight, the same way the presence of an unasked question can sometimes be felt, or a long-held secret; the tablets will stay there until I start taking them, or until long after I don’t. The doctor talks about stress, about triggers. “It sounds like things are improving,” he says eventually. “But it’s important to keep on top of these things. Important you stick with the medication, okay? Let’s meet again on Tuesday.”
I ask him about going back to work, and he stares at me again, then says something about carts before horses. I note that Tuesday is a mere four days from now, and that our previous appointments have all been spaced a full week apart. I don’t know if this is some sort of scheduling anomaly, or if it implies something more. I don’t ask; either way, I have decided this latest visit will be my last.
I leave his office and sit in my car in the near-darkness of a deserted underground car park. The concrete here, the almost-silence, the unfilled, flattened space: this is a desolate place, a new kind of lonely.
Later, June casually enquires about my day.
I hear the strange pitch of my voice as I tell her it went great.
“It went great,” I say, a little too loudly.
I concentrate very hard on June’s eyes as I tell her this. I’m searching for hints of either acceptance or doubt, and end up seeing both.
I tell her the tablets were just a temporary measure, and then I hug her—because I feel like it, and because she is looking at me too intensely. “I’m fine,” I say again.
When the hug ends she holds my face in her hands.
I have never before noticed how much information there is in an eye, how much data; in a single unsure eyeball there is an entire world of meaning, of hidden doubt and suspicion, of fear and resignation and love. I am once again smiling like a fool, knowing even as I do that from June, from this one person in the world, my smiles can hide nothing.
There are passports to be located and dusty suitcases to be retrieved from the attic; there are tickets to be printed and appropriate holiday attire to be folded just so; there are spare keys to be given to neighbours and high-factor sunscreen to be stowed. There is great upheaval in our usually sedate household, the storm before the calm. I take precise and continuous instruction from June, who is a woman possessed. She seems to be in every room of the house at once.
The boy lounges on the sofa, immune to the chaos. Teenage boys are not well known for their organisational skills, and Mark is no exception, but on this occasion his bags have been packed for a full 24 hours. They sit patiently by the front door, like overnight queuers for a rock concert. I am glad of his gladness to be getting away for a while. His baggage is neat and self-contained.
June is in the process of fitting two suitcases worth of clothes into one, and it falls to me to drop the boy to Henry’s. Once in the car a change comes over him. These last weeks (or is it months?) of moping, of silence, of unspoken weariness, are suddenly expunged. Replacing them is a buoyancy, an excitement manifesting itself physically as he bounces around on his seat, looking out his window, looking at me as I drive, looking at the road spread flat out ahead. He is talking too, and though what he says is of no importance (chatter about school, about Henry, about everything in general and nothing in particular) it feels to me like so much more.
This openness, this excitement: it is unexpected and surprises me, absent as it has been. And though I understand it is not really meant for me—that it is simply an overflow of his eagerness to get away, to be with his father—I can enjoy it nonetheless, and I do. All his young worries and unsureties have evaporated, and how easy it seems.
“We might rent a boat and go fishing,” he tells me.
“That’s really great,” I say. “I’m glad.”
And as I speak I realise I mean them, these five useless words, more than any others I have spoken in months.
I angle my face away from his.
We sit at the departure gate, waiting. There is a general air of nervousness here, travellers both tired and excited, suspicious fingers clutching handbag straps and luggage handles, passports and duty-free.
June’s head rests on my shoulder. Her hair itches against my cheek.
Baggage should not be left unattended, says the omniscient intercom.
“Honey,” she says, and there is a pause then, and by the way she says the word, and by the length of the pause, it is clear a serious question is coming: this is the universal precursor to solemn conversation.
As I wait for what comes next I look at the people here. With the great weights they carry, their docile resignation, they are like emerging refugees.
“Are you okay,” she says, “really?”
With nothing to say I say nothing.
The boy, by now, will be knee-deep in whatever fun activity Henry has thought up for him. Paintballing or go-karting or fishing, or maybe something more outlandish, like the time they rode in a hot-air balloon. “It looks like a map,” he said to us later, meaning the landscape, the earth, from above. “Like everything’s been flattened.”
The simplest questions are the hardest, and I have no good answer for June. She cannot see my face. My eyes are trained on information screens and airline personnel, searching for hints of the imminence of flight.
I have no good answer.
I have no good reason to feel anything but happy.
Chris Connolly was born in Dublin in 1983. His fiction has appeared in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The New Guard Review and the Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, 2005-2015, among others, and has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio. He was the recent winner of the Roberts Short Story Award. For more information visit chrisconnollywriter.com.