It was necessary to get out. Absolutely necessary. I couldn’t take it anymore, the freezing cold, dirty house, every mug in the place overflowing with ash. Even my friends had started to grate on me; they were either too boring, banging on about their boss who put his hands on their shoulders when they were looking at a spreadsheet together - as if that was interesting, as if that was news - or else they were just too much, wafting into my bedroom at weird times of the day to ask if 10 of their mates can crash in the living room tonight, or tell me that they’re in debt to their cousin slash dealer and they need to borrow a fiver. I couldn’t hack it. My nerves were at me. I needed out.
‘You’re leaving?’ Saoirse whined, when I told her I was going backpacking.
‘Yes, miss,’ I replied, looking out the window of the cafe at a few junkies tottering along the pavement outside, a man trailing a sleeping bag, a young girl with lips out to here having a shouting match with her boyfriend. Saoirse looked sad, her chin drooping down into her chai vanilla latte. I couldn’t understand - did she not see the same Dublin that I was seeing? Did she not understand that eventually all this menace, this darkness, this negative energy, would seep into her bones and make her miserable, as it was already doing to everyone around us?
‘Ko Pha Ngan, babe,’ I said, ‘Beaches. Sexy expats. I can smoke hash out of a mango. Why don’t you come with?’ I said this, knowing full well how she would react.
‘I just started my new job, you know…’ she bit her lip. With her shiny brown hair parted in the middle she looked like a little girl.
‘I know. It’s ok.’
‘Maybe we could do a holiday another time,’ she gives me a watery smile. Poor little piglet. ‘You’ll be ok, won’t you - going by yourself?’
‘We can and I will,’ I replied, dipping a finger in the foam of her latte and putting it in my mouth. ‘I’ll be back before you know it.’
But I haven’t been back, and as more time passes I’m not sure I can.
Saoirse has always been my best mate, but she’s a different creature to me. I’ve seen her bookshelves - historical novels about independent women constrained by the circumstances of their time, forced to endure unhappy arranged marriages and traumatised by losing their virginity. When we’re bored with our lives we all like to think it’s because of our responsibilities, our lack of choices, the way our parents crippled us emotionally - but that’s bullshit. I want to shake Saoirse and tell her to stop being so fucking weak and unsure about everything. I want to tell her to clear her bookshelves, stop with the middle-brow pseudo-intellectual pseudo-feminist nonsense and open her mind for once.
Just before I left I had been reading a lot of Camille Paglia, Viriginie Despentes, Kathy Acker. They’ve helped me way more than any self-help and healing Instagram post, definitely more than any therapist, with their squinched up and sympathetic faces and reluctance to just tell me how to live my life for fucksake. What else am I paying for?
‘What do you think is driving this restlessness, Vivienne?’ Lorna asked, doing that characteristic thing with her hands, balling her fists and moving them back and forth like she’s pulling a rope, or doing a cringey dance move.
‘I’m young,’ I replied, re-crossing my legs in the squeaky black chair. ‘Am I not supposed to be restless?’
‘There’s a difference between being adventurous and being restless.’
‘Well… I’m just bored of my life. I’ve been down every street in Dublin, I’ve stepped on every piece of dog shit the city has to offer. I need a change. Is that so crazy?’
‘It’s not crazy at all,’ Lorna replied, pursing her thick, plum coloured lips, ‘and we don’t use that word in here.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘I know what you’re going to say, you’re like everyone else who tells me I can’t stick with anything, can’t keep a half-decent job or stay fucking the same guy for more than 2 weeks - and that for some reason means I’m fundamentally flawed as a human being. I lack ambition, in the classical sense.’
‘Who says that?’
‘My mam. My imaginary friends. Everyone.’
‘Do you feel you lack ambition?’
‘I have plenty of ambition. I want to be a pirate. I want to travel around like Candide and live in a cave and figure my shit out.’
Lorna leaned forward expectantly, waiting for me to elaborate.
‘If that isn’t a life’s work,’ I said, ‘I don’t know what is.’
I was thinking about this as I went through my stuff, trying to reduce the pile of crap to something I could reasonably shove in the wardrobe while I was away and subletting my room. The old Thomas Hardys, second-, third- and fourth-hand books on tarot, Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Anger. I didn’t want anyone touching them. Onto the top shelf they went.
I was sitting there in a nest of clothes and bags and crumpled letters when Sean knocked on the door - or rather, pushed open the door and entered the room.
‘Vivienne,’ he said, picking his way around me to go and lie on my bed, ‘the absolute state of the place. Your mother would be horrified to know she raised such a durt burd.’
‘I’m taking an inventory, Sean. For the purposes of packing.’
‘So you’re not losing your mind?’
‘Definitely not,’ I replied, opening a heart shaped tin and rummaging among the receipts, pantyliners and sentimental train tickets therein. ‘I’m being productive.’
Sean - long and blonde and skinny like an afghan hound - leaned over to pick up a postcard on the floor. It was a retro pin-up, a woman dressed in cruelly curving heels with a smile to match. He frowned at the writing on the other side, unable to read the scrawl, before tossing it aside and looking at me with a smile.
‘You look very cute like that you know,’ he said, ‘sitting there in the middle of your girly stuff, cross legged and misty eyed.’
‘I am cute Sean,’ I replied, tossing my hair, letting the curls fall in my face.
He reached out a long arm and took my jaw in his hand. On my hands and knees I shuffled closer and kissed him. His scratchy face, scent of rollies and incense and unwashed t-shirt.
‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone, you know,’ he murmured into my cleavage.
This was another reason I had to leave. Fucking your roommate is very convenient until they start wanting to make an honest woman out of you.
In a way I like it better here, not knowing anyone. I don’t have to worry about turning a corner and getting roped into a conversation about what I’m doing with my life, or find myself at parties listening to hot takes about the Government from people who can’t spell “Taoiseach”. The worst of it here is teenagers trying to sell me weed, which I’m more than capable of handling.
Dublin is like an old coat, comfortable and stained with all kinds of mysterious fluids. It has the charm of a scruffy, dirty old wino that veers just on the right side of creepy. It’s perfect for doing a useless arts degree and living the high life on SUSI grants. Less perfect for scraping by on gigs slinging overpriced coffees to indigent hipsters who, like you, cannot afford them but cling to habits that convince them they are part of the city’s petit-bourgeoisie. Sex, drugs and on the dole. 4.50 Vietnamese iced coffees and 7 euro pints of Guinness and living in a squat with a bunch of hippies who can’t stop fucking each other. What a life.
But it wasn’t just the price of things, or acquaintances with their grasping hands and chaotic energy that seemed to follow me everywhere. I seemed to sense a kind of miasma in the air, something that put me on edge and made me fearful. I felt like people were giving me funny looks in the street, like they’d been ripped-off and wanted an outlet for their revenge. I would walk everywhere at a very fast pace, my hands permanently mottled blue and orange like I had some disease. I felt like I had a disease, heart palpitations in the dead of night and dizzy spells throughout the day. I tried to remember, have I always felt like this? Is this actually a normal state of being or am I seriously, severely unwell?
‘You don’t look great,’ Matt said to me, eyeing me in the dim light of the snug. I was meeting him to tell him the news of my imminent departure which promptly turned into a long session of moaning about the state of the nation and the price of chicken fillet rolls and the slim prospects for home ownership for individuals of our benighted generation. Matt could moan for Ireland, he was such a perfect example of this particular aspect of the national character it was almost patriotic.
‘Thanks a bunch,’ I replied.
‘I just mean you look tired. You look unhappy.’
‘I am unhappy. But not for long.’
Matt blinked at me. His grey eyes were small and shrewd behind his specs, two laser beams inside his lumpen, comfortingly soft face. He looked the same as he did when we were 12.
‘You’re not going to kill yourself, are you Viv?’ His voice was more jocular than sentimental.
‘No, Matt,’ I rolled my eyes. ‘I wish everyone would stop asking me that, it’s almost as if people want me to off myself. I am going travelling. I am going to Thailand to feel the sand between my toes and lie in hammocks and take acid and have orgasms.’
‘That’s your plan.’
‘Yes that’s my plan.’
‘How are you paying for the trip?’
‘I have money.’
‘I’ve been saving.’ I chose not to tell Matt I had taken out a loan. He didn’t believe in free money for people who needed it.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Well done.’ We sipped our drinks, vacantly looked at the tv screen off at the other end of the bar.
‘I just wouldn’t like to see anything happen to you, Viv. The last time you were like this...’
‘Last time was completely different.’
‘Can you not at least bring someone with you? What about Saoirse?’
‘Saoirse has her own life, Matt. And you know that a trip like this isn’t really her thing… Do you want to come with me?’
Matt made a face.
‘Yeah that’s what I thought. I’m a liability.’
‘What does your mam think?’
‘Oh for god’s sake. Mam will get over it.’
We left the bar, gave each other a hug, and went our separate ways - me to the quays to catch the long bus back to the squat and him on foot to the King’s Inn. It felt good to see him, I’ve always believed childhood friends keep you grounded, but I wished he would stop with the worrying. Like I was some kind of patient, liable to go loopy if left unsupervised. I wished people weren’t so on edge around me, waiting for me to fuck up again, reminding me of my own inability to keep it together and get a grip for fucksake.
It’s a weird thing, losing your mind. It’s like in a dream when you know something is wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. You don’t realise it’s you - you are the creepy element that’s turning your life into a nightmare.
Locked in your cramped attic bedroom, surrounded by dirty dishes and empty yoghurt pots, looking at the door terrified of what might happen if you open it, of what might get in. You don’t realise that being alone with yourself is the most dangerous place you can be.
Nobody has seen you at college for a couple of weeks. Where is Viv? With her big hair and her gappy smile and her boundless energy for a session, for starting a new zine of erotic art, for doing everything badly but with a certain panache…?
It’s mid-term and your flatmate is away. Left to your own devices you are left - left alone the way you want to be, only you’re crawling the walls, like mould, you feel like you’re rotting, you can see your skin turning grey already… when your mother comes to find you, Matt trailing along behind like an ineffectual bodyguard, you barely register it. Stop shouting, don’t wake me up. Can’t you see I’m dead?
Back at the house, the night before I left, Sean and I were sitting on the living room floor, gazing into the fire as we passed a joint back and forth.
‘It’s not nice when people think you’re damaged,’ I said, telling him about my conversation with Matt. ‘I don’t want to be a fuck-up.’
‘I don’t think you’re damaged, I think you’re amazing,’ Sean replied, giving my knee a squeeze. ‘Besides,’ he cocked his head to one side, ‘everyone has issues, some are just less obvious than others. When people see a person who is quote unquote damaged it allows them a point of favourable comparison. I might be fucked up but I’m not that fucked up. Then you have the do-gooders who love to act all solicitous and caring, just to build up their own ego and tell themselves what a fantastic person they are. And don’t forget the ones who like a bit of proximity to damage - it makes them feel like their lives are more interesting, except they don’t actually have to suffer any consequences.’
‘You’ve thought about this a lot.’
‘I have. I have,’ he nodded. The firelight on his face carved out all the clean lines and hollows, the elegant curve of his long nose making him look like a mystic. ‘My point is that nobody else knows what’s going on inside your head. Your identity isn’t fixed at a certain point in time. We’re always changing, and not everyone needs the same things in order to be happy, stable - undamaged. Whatever the fuck that means.’
‘Now you’re going to start talking about Japanese pots repaired with gold and all that shite,’ I elbowed him in the ribs.
‘Ow! No - for fuck sake, don’t turn me into one of those everything happens for a reason wankers,’ Sean took a deep, meditative puff. ‘I just mean that you don’t have to go along with the narrative other people have about you. You don’t need to internalise that shit.’
‘But what if I really am damaged and can’t look after myself and I’m going to have to watch out for my whole life that I don’t accidentally go insane or jump off a cliff or otherwise fuck things up?’
Sean looked at me, a half-smile on his face, ‘Then you’ll just have to deal with it, won’t you?’
Sean’s words went round in my head as I shuffled through queues, knocked back overpriced whiskeys and tried to sleep on the hard floors of departure gates. Disappearing into the clouds above the Irish Sea, I experimented with the idea of missing him.
Now I’m here, I think he had a point. Away from the damp, cloying air of Dublin everything feels different. I feel different. My hair is heavy with salt, my skin is freckled and golden. I clench my fist around the new tattoo on the palm of my hand. Standing in the surf, feeling the sand drain away around my feet I feel a sense of vertigo. I might wash away with the next big wave. I might swim until I reach the place I’m looking for. A small crab washes up next to me and I ask him: what happens next?