It’s late when he gets back to the apartment.
In his car, gliding back across the East Link bridge, his mind clicked over the nothings they’d said to each other; where he looked, how close she stood. So that when Jenny asked, he wouldn’t stumble. He’d spell it out cold, forensic. Like a crime scene.
Though there had been an alternative.
He could have kept her in the dark, just one more time. He could have come up with something, made it sound fresh. Believable.
Work drinks maybe, or training…
He roared; slammed his palm against the steering wheel. The emphatic horn blast as it sounded off into the void.
His grunt of thanks and sorry and goodbye as Isobel handed him the box.
How it passed between them, their fingers entwining.
How she asked him to stay, just for an hour, so they could end it properly.
But not how he hesitated.
Not how he leaned into her face, felt the heat of her bare shoulders.
How he might have taken her in his arms.
How he would have taken her in his arms, if they hadn’t been so full of the things she thought they shared.
A shoe box full of trinkets:
One onyx cufflink, a battered ipod nano, two coverless Garcia Marquez paperbacks, a book of matches from The Leeson Hotel, a copied CD of arm’s length photos, an oversized t-shirt with Full Moon Party-Ko Phanagn peeling across the front, and a thin carpet of souvenirs whose origins he couldn’t recall.
Memories he could do without, and one office USB key he could not.
How their dry lips had all but touched.
But it did the job.
Isobel swallowed a sob, just one, then steadied herself and turned back into the bedroom. His hand stroked the doorknob for a beat. He let himself out.
Eighteen months ago, the bank manager had smiled at Jenny and explained that with their combined incomes, a guarantor would not be necessary.
“Not necessary at all.”
The place wasn’t cheap, but then what was? And there was the ladder. They’d be the first ones on, the first to climb up.
To grow up.
He’d turn up to the pub late, in his charcoal Armani suit, and buy a round just to hear the chorus of ‘moneybags over here’ from the lads still nursing pints and masters and unpaid internships. And box rooms in family homes.
They couldn’t stay that way forever though. And there were plenty of apartments still available in his building.
Their housewarming went on for two days straight; egged on by the fine weather. Dave, Scott, Brenno, Sarah, Tom and Sal, Nick, Donal, Marie, Sully, Sully’s brother Sean, Elaine, Doireann, Robbie, Paddy, all Jenny’s girls from the Pres, even a crew from his office who turned out to be pretty decent guys after a few drinks. And another dozen or so who appeared in spells, excusing themselves for weekend shifts before rushing back, eight hours later, when they heard the party still had legs.
Everyone strolling through near-bare rooms in shorts and sleeveless dresses and flip flops; slurping Corona bottles with their elbows pressed out over the balcony, passing lazy pillow joints back and forth when the sun got low in the sky. And people got rowdy and subdued and rowdy all over again but there was nothing to break so it didn’t matter.
He remembers staring out the window at all those coloured cranes, arms dragging steel girders across the horizon, and wonders where they’re being stored now.
Traded in for ‘To Let’ signs almost a year ago.
The Luas tram stations on either side still call themselves ‘Future Stops’, though this future, now with a small ‘f’, has long since slipped into the past.
He winces as he turns the key, pushing the pad of his thumb against the gap, hoping she might finally be sleeping. Each evening the rings around her eyes glow redder, puffier. Tomorrow will be Jenny’s fifth sick day, and with no note he wonders what they’ll say when she goes back in on Monday. If she goes back in. Cutting her hours any more would be pointless, embarrassing even as a suggestion, this close to the end.
He met Isobel about half way through the migration, the pair of them up on high stools at The Odeon bar that bit earlier than everyone else. Tearing up beer mats, grinding their teeth at the prospect of yet another Going Away session. He asked her if she had any plans to up-sticks herself, and she said the closest she’d be getting to Oz in the next year was watching Neighbours in her bikini.
“So what should we drink to?”
“Um…to turning off the lights?”
“Ha, perfect. Cheers”
Jenny didn’t come into town that night.
She didn’t really like Dave she said, which was news. Thought he was obnoxious and prone to telling stories from the past that no one had the stomach for anymore.
She was down to a couple of days a week in ClearView, the green energy P.R firm on the edge of the industrial estate. The top of its blue-green logo was visible from their balcony’s far corner. They’d represented the Corrib gas protestors out in North Mayo until the country lost interest and the media opportunities dried up. He’d heard talk that the place would be lucky to make it to Christmas, though this wasn’t something he planned to share.
“What’s the problem, Jen? I have money.”
“Oh for God’s sake, I don’t want your money. I want to stay in for once so I can figure out how to make my own money. So that when CV collapses in on itself in six month’s time, I might just have another option that isn’t the fucking dole!”
“It’s not gonna-“
“Just leave it, please. Go out. Have fun. Try not to get too pissed this time.”
So he went and drank, and got maudlin with Dave when it was his turn to slot in under the arm. But most of the night was spent outside, slow smoking with Isobel at a far table, the only one obscured by a heat lamp. The pair of them crouched low behind one of the courtyard’s fat stone columns, giggling like summer camp runaways while the others gave up searching and stumbled across Harcourt Street to Coppers in twos and threes.
Jenny’s voice calls down the hall for Aoife, her sister.
The way he turned the key. Can’t win.
Aoife has been coming over at night since she moved back in. The two of them watch 90s Rom Coms while he makes himself scarce on long walks around the neighbourhoods that border their complex, staring through lit sitting-room windows at couples on couches.
Sometimes he ghosts through the industrial estate and waits under old car dealership signs for emaciated foxes to appear.
Other nights he doesn’t even leave the building. Just picks a floor, then a hallway, and lies down in the centre of a darkened bedroom.
In the first few weeks, this was the ultimate turn on.
They would down Captain Morgan’s from clear plastic cups, wedged in close together underneath a fort of cardboard boxes, and go door to door in their underwear, trying the handles. There were bright, blurry mornings when they’d jolt awake and have to sprint up four flights of fire stairs.
“Just me,” he sends back, announcing himself too cheerily and then waiting for the silence. His fingers draw the hum of the fridge through its cold chrome. He takes a steadying breath, waits in the kitchen while she does the same, before picking up the shoebox. He wants his footsteps on the hardwood floor to sound purposeful, manly; like he has nothing left to hide.
But with every approaching boot-heel thud he can feel her, willing him away.
For a moment he imagines that the box is heavier than before.
That it houses something glaring and skeletal and terrifying.
A fox carcass with wild, widening eyes.
He places the shoebox at his feet and sits down softly on the chair, three seats over from her spot, curled up on the corner of the couch, feet tucked tight under a duvet.
Cameron Diaz’s face appears on the muted television.
He’s looking across the room at her, hoping she’ll ask a question he’s ready for, but she says nothing. Just stares at an ember burning itself out on the black marble step of the fireplace.
“Did you fuck her?”
All that comes out is half a syllable, an ack noise that means nothing to either of them.
“Of course not.”
Monotone. Hold eye contact.
This is the first time in weeks she has really looked at him and his chest tightens at the cracks of blood swarming around her deep brown irises.
They texted on and off for two weeks before he drove over. She was saved in his phone as ‘Jack- Office’, even before the messages got careless.
He warmed up an old argument, then told Jenny he just needed to get out of the apartment for a while. She stood in front of the door, twisting her blonde ponytail between her fingers, and said she was sorry.
Said she was just stressed about work and the girls all heading over to London at the same time.
Said it was a rough month but that things would turn around soon.
“Christ, Jenny. You can’t just take your fucking moods out on me whenever you feel like it.”
At midnight, she woke to the sound of the shower running. He called in sick to work the next morning and made her French toast for breakfast. They spent the day under a wool blanket watching Mad Men dvds until Don Draper’s face appeared in the blackened window wall.
Hours later, he fished a crumpled cigarette packet out of a pair of jeans and smoked in his boxers on the balcony.
Slowly, each one down to the filter.
She pushes, asking why not, once more for old time’s sake even. Says that she would never have found out, that he could have fucked her like crazy and gotten away with it, gotten it all out of his system, y’know, until he figures out what part of the world he wants to run off to. Says she hears they’re mad for it in Canada, why doesn’t he go there? Why doesn’t he book his flight now in case he can’t control himself on the drive to work tomorrow? She’ll help him pack. He can leave in the morning.
Isobel was a waitress and, on occasion, a ballet dancer. Sometimes on the drive over to her cluttered docklands apartment he spoke to himself in bullet points. The reasons why:
She wore tribal ankle tattoos.
She covered her lamps in red fabric.
She had no curtain on her shower.
She knew almost nobody in Dublin anymore.
Splayed out across the foot of her futon, they weighed down sentences with heavy inflections so that every goodbye was tinged with melodrama. Only towards the end did he realise how little they actually knew about each other.
Though she looked hurt when he put it to her this way.
He tells Jenny that he’s not like that. That he’d never do that to her, that he’d never want to. She laughs, but it’s bitter and ugly. And real.
When she turns away he pulls her close to his chest before she can shrug loose.
For hours he pours apologies into the dead air, twisted and folded over squeaked excuses. Until eventually his voice only pierces in small, sporadic pin pricks.
At the last, he asks her a question.
Outside their window, an empty tram speeds past.
The track rattle echoes as it disappears.
She lies and says she still loves him.