“Nebraska” by Patrick Fitzgerald

For days, you have rehearsed, revised this careful wildness. ‘I can’t explain it any better than that- is what frightens me,’ you say, finally, your voice caught like a clutch of rushes in your throat.

She is a Canadian whose doctoral research concerned post-traumatic stress amongst survivors of the 7/7 bombings. After a moment in her habitual pose- head tilted back to the right, eyes lightly closed, as though in communion with the psychotherapeutic gods- she asks simply, ‘Do you really feel that?’

‘Yes.’ You may be a danger to yourself. The process, the experience, hasn’t stopped, you say; it’s not all done and you’re afraid of what the last of it might involve. Until now, to this woman, you have portrayed yourself as something of a battler. A government-in-exile, perhaps, but a government nonetheless.

You, you, you. Stiffly gauging the telemetry as it emerges. Like one of those NASA analysts in the movies, stubbing out cigarettes in polystyrene coffee cups.

And from there to here- the doctor’s surgery. Which isn’t a problem. He’s a born prescriber, this hereditary local doctor. You saw the same look on his face when Stephen’s mother was near the end, a justified, leaping Hippocratic abandon with the morphine. You are a teacher, well respected. A community spirit. Last week you were in the paper with the school debating team, the best in Wexford. Meaning he takes you seriously. He makes some comments about how well you seemed to have been doing and looks at you guardedly, as though deciding that this should have been the gravest of warning signs.

‘You know your VHI will pay for a stay in St John…’

‘Is that necessary? My sister is going to come and stay with me for a while.’

‘You really can’t be alone,’ he says, but perhaps this is just a verbal disclaimer. He is already reaching for his pad.

He tells you about a new anti-depressant he is going to try you on. One daily, before bed. All you hear is the damp clicking of ballpoint on paper.

‘It will help restore your sleep patterns, you body’s circadian rhythms. And,’ he adds, ‘it’s a marvellous yellow colour. Like a sunrise. Which I’m surprised someone hasn’t thought of before.’

You wonder if this is condescension, if he has you down as one of the cries for help, one of the what-do-you-call-them suicides. Which you must be. You have no intention of dying. You want to know, for instance, how Eimear Renne, your most promising History student, does in the Leaving this summer. And if Eimear Renne ought not feel so like an act of grace, then that, perhaps, is a good enough reason to be here.

Waiting to pay at reception, clutching the private prescription, examining its discreet Victorian plainness, you find yourself beside a man and his teenage son. You are drawn to this man’s nose, which is so large that it casts a shadow over his lip. His son resembles him- dark hair, full bottom lip- in every respect except his own nose, which is as sharp and flared as the nib of a fountain pen. You imagine this man’s genetic essence, his subconscious, whatever it was, seeking in every female face the proper corrective other.

**

You have no sister. Apart from a mother and a mother’s endless, ruinous understanding, nothing. You are a throwback to the last generation of teachers who moved, like Guards, away from home. Lately, you have begun to see students you taught five or six years ago take their places in the staff room. You are only thirty-six. You are already thirty-six. This lie about a sister might wind you up in the hospital, you suppose, were the doctor to find out. He does phone you, after lunch, but it’s a formality, a reminder to come back to the surgery for a blood test.

‘We’ll have to monitor liver function on a weekly basis for six weeks.’

‘How long…’

‘You should start to feel something after a fortnight.’

You are at the tennis club for your usual Thursday night game with Marie when Stephen calls. You let it ring out, hearing the high, thwarted note of a voicemail as you put your jacket into the locker. He is living with his brother, in the flat they built for their mother.

Marie talks about her son, Paul. An upcoming rugby game.

‘Just make sure the brains don’t get knocked out of him,’ you say. ‘I might need him for the regionals.’

‘What’s the topic?’

‘Oh,’ you say, ‘That our mania for high-definition will bring about the obliteration of the imagination. We’re speaking in favour of the proposal.’

‘When did debates get so modern?’ Maria asks, laughing. ‘It certainly makes a welcome change from the old debates about the two and a half party Civil War system.’

The floodlights are switched on; the air fizzes, cleanly. Marie plays tennis as though it’s an individual pursuit, like swimming or jogging, tipping virtuously around the court. Ireland will never produce a champion tennis player. At the end of the fifth game, after fishing the ball from beneath the net, she straightens and looks at you.

‘You’re so strong,’ she says, simply. ‘I don’t know how I’d be doing.’

This is a comment that’s best unanswered, absorbed. It’s like Marie to sympathize with you by drawing attention to herself. You are angry with her, with yourself for wanting to believe her sincerity, for falling short.

Stephen’s message is brief.

‘I would appreciate it-’ he stops for something- ‘if you would stop putting it about that I left you.’ You are almost amused by his peremptory tone.

Another pause.

‘I’m not for a minute trying to play down what happened. But I was prepared to work, to do whatever- whatever- was necessary to salvage us.’

Another pause. ‘I love you.’ Something squeaks in his voice, something delicate and involuntary and genuine all the way to the bottom.

Marie asks you over for dinner tomorrow evening. You protest, twice, that you don’t want to intrude. You don’t want to learn too quickly the ballistics, or experience too soon the unreadable courtesies extended to the solitary. Against that, you see your bed as you left it this morning- books, a newspaper, a laptop, a dinner plate, deepening strata of distraction flickering beneath a wall-mounted TV. All the wrong kinds of not caring. And after the second show of reluctance, you accept.

Returning to Ballymoney as night thickens, you turn at the sea. The tide is drawing in with a long, gentle, toying patience. On this strand, twenty-five or more years ago, Stephen strolled with his father, tossing old halfpenny pieces into the sand. It was at the time of the Derrynaflan chalice find, he said, and the metal-detector craze was at its peak. This was their sport, coming back on a Sunday, to watch the disappointed treasure hunters stooping and digging, growing baffled and angry.

**

You assumed, when you did think about it, that it was a hardy, romantic, sexual camaraderie- something faced with honour. He gave no sign that you were not the centre of his world. That it was there from the start you saw as a something he had stoically endured, a kind of distance that cursed him in spite of himself. Who knew what were its roots? Remote parents, and God knew his mother was a cold old bird, a critical, gleaming tragedian. A weak father, perhaps, long dead. Who knew? You borrowed all the clichés, the paperback psychologies, and brought them to bear on his case. You were patient; you felt he had earned these simple words. But now, you suspect that you were greedy for this automaton who shared your bed, uncomplaining- mute, even- when it came to his own needs. You lay with him in splendour. His head on your stomach, the coolness of his shoulders between, beneath your thighs, like a grown man to whom you had just calmly given birth.

‘Whatever I want most in life,’ he murmured, ‘I want with you.’ And you, imagining the want and the want and the want. ‘You’re not alone,’ said the therapist when you told her these barest facts. ‘Many men suffer from these compulsions,’ she said. ‘These addictions.’

**

Marie and David both teach at the Community School. Maths and Economics. Paul is watching a movie in the living room. The television is hanging in an alcove.

‘It’s the remake of The Poseidon Adventure,’ he says. ‘A crappy remake of a crappy original. I’m watching both of them to see if anything occurs to me for the debate.’ He is your substitute, your fourth man.

‘Language, Paul,’ his mother admonishes. The eponymous ship looms on the screen; the camera zooms, pans to the deck. Three of the living room walls are painted; the alcove is papered with a heavy puce floral pattern. You don’t know whether to envy their bickering contentment, their magazine-filched interior design, or pity them for what they do not know. You mention Metropolis by Fritz Lang as an example of early special effects. Paul composes an interested, note-taking face.

Sitting down, you are surprised by the strength of your dismay at finding that Marie has served for starter a wedge of goat’s cheese, leaking from its broken skin, and a couple of oatmeal crackers. There is nowhere to hide on the plate, no redeeming counter-pungency of any kind.

‘I’ve never been convinced, myself,’ David says, nodding towards the television, ‘by that computer generated imagery.’

You peer across at the screen. ‘Well, it has to be better than the old toy-ships-in-bathtubs special effects.’

‘I’m not sure,’ he says. ‘At least the imagination had to do some work with that.’

David and Marie start to argue about Avatar, which they saw a couple of weeks ago. Paul has flicked over to a snooker match; Steve Davis is in the studio. You haven’t seen him in years; on the liquid expanse of screen his features appear to have been violently shucked downwards, ruined by looking.

Tentatively, you try a piece of cheese and feel your soft palate fan out, cobra-like, in revulsion. A sip of wine helps. You think of the idea of a goat. The hair, the dense hooves, the sensitive, accursed eyes. Surely human tastes cannot be this varied, this elaborate. The thought is out before you know it; you lift your head slightly as though to grasp at its floating hem.

And what is it exactly that these people do not know?

That there is a woman in Nebraska, for instance, whom you do not know, with whom your husband has been corresponding and talking for over a year, on a website called ourthing.com. That she says, for the benefit of anyone who chances on her public profile, that your husband is her Master. That she is forty-four and until she made your husband’s acquaintance she had lived a professionally successful but privately empty life. You cannot say what she looks like. She spends as much free time at home as possible, zipped into a leather hood. Her ambition for 2010, she wrote in her last update, is to spend a week in this state. At what point in the future, you wonder, does the heart become annealed against such a fact- how may it be protected against the scabs and scars of recovery, should that ever come?

Marie lights a cigarette, you gladly accept one, feeling the first drag hit your throat with a gentle thok. They are talking about a gallery they visited in Venice last summer. Never mind high definition, you think, I could give them a proper subject to debate. That this world, more than any world before it, has done new and terrible things to language, to communication. How many marriages fall apart with the short shudder of a misdirected text message, an undeleted browser history, a remember password on this computer? With old-fashioned carelessness, gone airborne.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Marie is saying, ‘There must be about fifteen hundred of those Resurrections of Lazarus.’

You watched him for an afternoon, monitored him, feeling in a distant way the insult of his deceit. And then feeling, oddly, that by knowing all this for three hours you were deceiving him. You confronted him as he stood in the bathroom, his shirt off. He was flossing his teeth. Later, you found traces of his bloody saliva in the sink and felt like an inept assassin.

‘It was just the look on their faces,’ Paul says, ‘Very modern. And Christ with his serene, fuck-the-consequences smirk.’

You try to follow but the smoke or the cheese makes you feel sick. In the toilet you vomit, without interest, shutting your eyes.

‘I’ll have to call it a night,’ you say, begging a paracetemol from Marie for a migraine. You stop and pretend to guess at its cause, as though it’s a vital concern.

‘It could hardly have been the cheese, so soon,’ you say, puzzled.

In her face you see the flicker of courteous scepticism. You linger on your walk home, drawing into your lungs the mentholated sap that hangs damply in the air around the sawmill between your house and Marie’s.

**

You do a couple of chores, taking out the rubbish and feeding the dog, a rangy brown mongrel called Abbey whose keening in the shed always seems to transmit at the frequency of useful thought, jamming it. You stroke her coat, briefly stilling her quick, panicky affections. Perhaps dogs feel it too- a kind of imprecise, fluctuating mourning. You straighten and are momentarily blinded by the low sun on the kitchen window. Behind it is the soft darkness of the house within. There must be a formula, you think, a calculus, to determine how many times you can go in there and re-emerge in a form that is in any way recognisable. The best you can do, when you enter, is wait until the kettle has boiled before turning on the laptop, locating with your little finger the yellow tablet in the corner of your jeans pocket.

Her eyes, from what you can see, are a light blue. Stephen deleted his profile the morning after you confronted him. On his faceless profile was a simple line of verse,

Only among the thorns can patience weave a bower where the mind can make its bed.

The woman in Nebraska- his slave- has not posted anything since Stephen left. You have created a profile for yourself, that of a submissive female from Wicklow. You wonder if Stephen is still here, somewhere, moving towards the actual, the near-at-hand. You spend your evenings sorting through the unsolicited mails that arrive, by the dozen, from men who range from the plainly damaged to the hauntingly normal. And waiting for new profiles to emerge, sifting them. You are glad you said nothing to the therapist about the specifics of this teeming, simultaneous world. Only the paperback psychologists would agree that his profile name, Seeker– with its yearning and optimism- was the hardest part to consider. You do not need an expert to pronounce upon your own addictions. You touch your pocket; the tablet is still there. You imagine it already beneath your skin, in your system, its discrete payload travelling to your heart. The right kind of not caring. Tomorrow, maybe. An information bar on the side of the screen tells you that there are 12 new profiles in Ireland since yesterday.

 

Biographical Note:

Patrick Fitzgerald is from Ballymoney in Co Wexford. His work has previously appeared in The Dublin Review and he is currently writing a novel.

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