I mean yes, we spoke, but we didn’t really get down to it until she pulled onto the motorway. The big, new, wide road made us open up a little, I guess. We were trying to pack a couple of weeks of getting to know each other into a four hour drive. Just on the right side of forcing it.
-Ok, so we each get ten questions. She tilted her head as she said it, as if I was going to argue with the rules I just made up.
-And three vetoes.
-And three vetoes. But once they’re gone, they’re gone, right?
-Should we get, like, a super special extra veto that you only use if you really don’t want to answer? She asked.
-I think that’s called ‘me getting out to hitchhike’.
She tossed the cigarette into the wind and rolled up the window tight. We no longer had to shout.
-You go first, I said.
-Fuck. Ok. I wasn’t thinking. Um.
-I can go first if you want.
-Nonono, I’ll go first, I’ll go first. Um. Ok, ok: worst break up.
I pause a second. The head tilt is infectious. There’s always a certain amount of theatrics in these things, if done right.
-Worst ‘being broken up with’ or worst generally?
-’Being broken up with’.
-Well, the last one wasn’t great, but we’ll get to that.
The self-destructive in all of us wants to talk endlessly about past relationships. I grew up with everyone else, you want to say, I haven’t spent the last few years watching daytime television and eating cereal in a dressing gown. The game lets it be fun, a competition instead of a moratorium.
A small pause this time, then I remembered all at once.
-Um. Ok. First year college, went out with her for three months, she did organic chemistry.
-Niamh. I wasn’t one for the school relationships, so this was the first big one. I met her through a guy I’d honestly barely nod at if I saw now.
-Eh. I had a bit of a thing for grand gestures. Told her I loved her on the Sunday. She ended it on the Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday weren’t great either.
-Did you love her?
-Yeah. At the time. It’s hard to bring back how intense it was. It always is though, right?
-Yeah, no it is, usually. Like, this is weird but I read somewhere that you can’t remember pain properly. That’s why people can have loads of kids. Same thing.
-Yeah. I think she was just having a ‘good first year’, if you know what I mean. She didn’t need some idiot deciding she was ‘the one’?
Met her at a party. Mutual friend. Function room above a bad pub. Come on Eileen and Don’t Stop Believing. In the smoking area, in the deep down dark of Dublin’s January, we decided to take a break. The kind of connection you get from mutual, irrational distaste for people: petulant, dramatic and more reflective of you than them. A promise you think will dissolve somewhere on the way home, fading with the drunk high and burning up when dawn comes. Imagine my surprise when she turned up the next morning, leaning back on her Golf, having the first cigarette of the day.
We were most of the way through a long, repeatedly extended hike. The sort you’d complain about if you were 13, and with your parents, but you relish now in a way that makes you wonder if you’re getting old. The house was just visible across the bay; the windows glowed on the ground floor like we were coming home to a reception. In the west, over the Atlantic, the sun had left. Fading light makes everyone so attractive, and soft-spoken, and sombre. We were maybe twenty minutes from home, and she spoke quickly, as if she knew that the destination would bring a change of mood, and subject.
-When was the last time you saw her? She asked.
-Saw her or spoke to her?
-I got a text about three weeks ago, saying ‘Hope you’re alright. Talk soon?’
-Nah. Last time I saw her was before Christmas. November. It was uh, a 22nd thing. Rob’s.
-Don’t think you know him. He’s engineering. Third year.
-Rob Murphy? She asked.
-Nah, Rob McCullough.
-No, I don’t know him.
-Well she’s his mate like. I probably shouldn’t have been there.
-Was it bad?
-Nah, like, it was fine. We just had a bit of a chat.
-But ‘she hopes you’re alright’?
-I may have had a few drinks. I didn’t say anything to her though.
-Who did you say it to?
-Ahh, I kind of dumped it on Barry afterwards. Not a man for keeping secrets.
-Who’s this now?
-He’s just a mate like, you wouldn’t know him.
3 A.M. In front of a burning down fire. The mood a little darker. I had just told a lengthy, exhausting story; cyclical and weary. She raised her glass in toast and drank the last of the vodka. I reached down to the hearth and picked up the cheap bottle, the final third rolling in the bottom.
-What about you? I asked.
-What about me, now?
-I mean, what was the story with your boyfriend?
-What d’ye mean?
-Which breakup, like? We’d a half dozen or so. She sighed as she said it.
-Give me a sample.
-Well. The first time he said he needed to focus on his coursework. He does a fucking arts degree but we were 18, I suppose. Then he cheated. Then I went away for the year. Then we both cheated, as it turned out.
-Time line on all this?
-Well, what day is it now?
-I actually don’t know.
-Neither do I.
There was a short pause to find a bottle of coke. We weren’t quite at the point of drinking straight. The lull allowed the question to lapse, mercifully.
-This one the last one? I asked.
-Probably. I dunno. It’s bad, like, as you might have noticed, but...
-But I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t getting something out of it.
-No, I suppose not.
I wake, alone, in a pile of blankets. My head rings with odd fragments of the last few days. Still pictures of firelight and dusk. Questions and stories. Another drink? Where’s the lighter? Why didn’t he just go along anyway? How do you come back from that? Your parents aren’t supposed to understand. I thought she was angry at me. No one gets it right.
For a second I consider that maybe I’m alone. Maybe I’m just sleeping in someone’s empty house, deep in an unfamiliar countryside. Without the context that another person brings, who are you? But her side of the bed is still warm, and impressed.
The morning is purple, and absolutely, unconditionally still. Across the frigid black flagstones the door is slightly open. Down the gravel, down the hill, down by the sea she’s sitting on a dry stone wall, just back from the water. As I climb up next to her she flicks the bottom of a pack of camels with her middle finger and takes the jutting cigarette with her front teeth, igniting it with a bic in a long practiced process. I copy her ritual thoughtlessly. We sit silently for a minute, or a little less.
-Hey. I say
-I...yeah, I know, no phones right? That was the rule?’ She brandishes the glowing handset in front of her.
-It wasn’t a...we didn’t have rules, it was just...
-I know, I just, he’s a fucking prick. Like, I know he is. I’m not in denial about what a fucking prick he is. Well not even that. Like he’s not even that bad, just we, we are bad.
-Yeah. Yeah and like we called it off last time for good. It was supposed to hold this time.
-What happened? I ask.
-Nothing. I dunno. He’s texted me and there’s a few missed calls. I dunno if I want to ring him or fuck the phone into the sea.
-I can’t tell you not to.
-Can you not, no? Why not? Fuck, I know like “it’s my decision” and all that but sometimes I wish someone would actually just take it out of my hands and break all contact. Lets be fucking realistic here, me and him are not going to be friends after. We’re not friends now. We were never fucking friends.
-This is a stupid question, I know, but like with all this said, why do you still want something with him? I ask.
-Because. Because it should fucking work. Because it was great. Like it was fucking fantastic before. Cause like the two of us actually had something and like when you’re in something you know when it’s...something.
-And you know when it’s not.
-Yeah I know what you mean.
There’s a deep silence.
-You really had something? I say, for lack of anything else.
There’s another pause. She pulls on the cigarette long, a tiny orange cone flaring and spitting slightly at the tip.
-Yeah. We had this one day, like, it was just perfect. Skipped lectures, went to Dalkey. Spent the whole day just walking around, planning our future, half-jokingly. Kids names, pointing out which houses we’re going to live in, that kind of thing. And we get to marriage and he says he wants a church wedding. We have a little fight over that. I can’t see why it’s getting serious until I realise that we’re actually planning. Like not for that week or anything but it’s actually true. I’m willing to discuss it. And so it matters. It’s actual plans. It’s an actual fight. And we go silent for a bit, looking down at this little cottage on the sea. And he takes my hand slightly and just says: “But y’know, like, we could. We actually could.”
-Doesn’t happen every day.
-No...No and every time we break up. and he texts, I think of that moment and I wonder, what if I fucked up? What if that’s the one you get? Surely like I’m not so stupid as to let a few minor fucking fights interfere with this fucking...like this...
-Yes! Yes exactly! And I’m back in it. Always. And like it’d be easier if I actually hated him. Anger and hate can keep you safe for a while, long enough to forget how it felt. But I don’t. I don’t hate him. It’s worse than that. When we’re together, we make each other feel like there’s nothing else in the world. Then like there’s nothing in the other. And every time, you come out of it winded, gasping for air, barely breathing. But you can’t remember pain. You can remember sadness, and loss, and grief, but not pure pain.
The phone’s screen is black, the cigarette burned down and out. She stares off alone into the erasing morning fog. For a minute, I’m not even here. A tiny bead of dew forms on her face.
Are you going to text him? I ask.
She finally looks at me, her hair backlit by a weak sun. There’s a mix of expressions there that I can’t parse this early in the morning. A tiny flash of gratitude briefly covers them all and is gone. She relights the end of the near-wasted smoke.
-I don’t know. But it’s time to go home.
You’d expect the drive home to be quiet, in the circumstances. It is, but only for a while. The morning is a lonely place. Stuff that scared you last night looks like unfortunate shadows on a bright, clear noon in a car full of embarrassing stories and Beach Boys tracks.
-First kiss and worst kiss. She throws the challenge down with a quick smile.
-Aww, no, I hate these games.
-C’mon, first and worst.
-Ok, ok, ok. First was Anna-Maria. Met her on holidays in Spain with my parents and-
-Fuck off, you did not.
-Nah. Name was Ciara. Friend of a friend.
-Sixteen. I know yeah, I’m a loser.
-Nah, that’s lovely. Mine was Mikey. Mikey was a year older.
-And he had his own skateboard. Proper one, like, not some piece of shit you bought in Argos.
-You were about 14?
-Jesus, he sounds like a catch. D’ye still have his number?
-I’ll have you know he’s a very successful club promoter these days.
-Not typically words you put together, but ok.
-What’s young Ciara up to?
-Haven’t a clue. Thought I was in love with her at the time though.
-A recurring theme? She asks.
-Definitely a recurring theme.
-Ok, I’m going to win this one.
-Like fuck you are.
-Oh no like, just wait.
Outside the countryside is giving way to suburbs and tiny, absorbed villages. We’ll be in the city in half an hour, but right now there’s just the way back.