“The Man in the Moon” by Mary Costello

Don’t go falling in love with me, she said.

Why? Are you afraid or something?

She wanted the lamp on. She became feline, her hair covering her face so that I had to keep pushing it back to see her.  Hers was pure selfish abandon. Eyes always closed.

We met in a bar.  She was with friends and this guy was talking to her.  She reminded me of someone, a singer.  The song was in the charts a few years before, and the lyrics jumped into my head as soon as I saw her face.  It keeps coming back to me. I’ll be lifting a pint and I’ll see a girl pass and think of that singer and then her, with her dark fringe. She laughed when I told her that –that she reminded me of the singer –and she kissed me on the cheek and said I love you already.

The bar was crowded and she’d been sitting on the back of my chair when I got back from the loo.  That’s my chair, I said. She stood up and faced me.  Is it now? Then she turned back to her friends and said, That’s his chair.

I watched her after that. Wished I’d left her on the fucking chair. Wished I’d turned my back on her and left her where she was. I don’t go out with women anymore. They wreck your head.  China hearts indeed!   I went out with a girl in college for ten months. She dumped me because she didn’t like my swallow. The sound of my swallow.

What did she want? What do women want? When I was a kid I read a story in school about the time King Arthur’s knight was tested with that question. What do women want? He pushed Gawain at the old hag, and Gawain got himself a beautiful maiden in the end. Because he gave her the choice, he let her have her way, and because he was patient. And because people can change. I came home from school that day and looked at my mother in her apron lifting the dinner out of the oven, and then across at himself with the glum face on him. I think that was the day I knew there are men and there are women and they’re completely different.

She kept me hidden.  She brought me to tiny back-street bars and clubs, and always in the dark, never in the daylight or early evening. Are you ashamed of me? I asked.  No, of me, she said.

The second night she said, Make love to me. And I did.  Because she said so, she just said the words and I knew how.  The next morning she sat across the table looking at me.

You asked me to marry you last night, she said.

I must have reddened or something because she grinned and turned her head and said, It’s okay, I won’t hold you to it.

I sort of knew I was playing with fire.  I knew the second my insides bellied-up that first morning when she sent me packing and said, We probably shouldn’t see each other again. Why not? I asked.  Oh, you know why!

She sent me off at the front door. I saw her scanning the street for her neighbours. I hadn’t the nerve to ask for her number.

I told her she was just using me to smoke my spliffs.  We’d share one when we were out, then have another back at her house.  She paid for everything else, she had too, I was always broke by the weekend.  It took a lot to get her stoned.

She ran down the street after me that first morning she threw me out. I heard her heels clicking and I turned. I thought she’d changed her mind.  I said nothing this time, just looked at her.  We shouldn’t see each other again, she repeated. I looked at her the way my father used to look at my mother when she’d complain.  A frown crinkled her brow and I wanted to put my hand up and press on it, iron it out or something.

In case we start to fall for each other, she said.

I got rat-arsed that night.

She had this bowl of fruit on her table.  Are they real? I asked.  She looked at me. Are they real? she repeated slowly, and shook her head a little. I picked up an apple – I’d never seen such a perfect apples, even in those posh supermarkets where they’re all piled up in glossy pyramids – and bit into it.  I thought she might flinch but she looked at me steadily as I chewed and then I smiled at her again. A big stupid grin on me.

She rang my office the following Tuesday.  See, I said, I wasn’t bull-shitting you about where I worked.  (Actually that wasn’t the first thing I said.  I said something like, Shit, hello.) I hope you weren’t bull-shitting me about anything, she said.

What do women want? What the hell do they want? I played it cool- I wasn’t eager, I wasn’t anything. The first few nights in the pub I could hardly look at her, there was such a racket going on in inside me. Her arms were bare and she had small hands. She had an old fashioned pearl ring on her finger that she kept touching with her thumb and her faced changed every few seconds and sometimes I thought I knew her all my life, that I’d been with her all my life, inseparable.  I couldn’t think of a thing to say for a long time when I was with her. Constantly scanning my mind, then scanning her mind with my scanner.  I keep remembering and thinking about those nights a lot, and the thing is, I want to think about them, bad and all as they were. I should have just got up and walked out. I should have known that wasn’t normal, to be mute like that. I think when she turned her eyes on me she took all my talk away.

She was confident, Jesus, so confident.  She tried to beat me at arm-wrestling.  I knocked her thin white wrist flat on her wooden table in two seconds.  She wasn’t everything she said she was.  We ran down the street at four in the morning and I let her win.  She ran and ran in her backless sandals with the open toes and I imagined her painted toe-nails curling and gripping the sole. I was afraid she’d fall over and hit the hard pavement so I ran close behind, just in case. To take her fall. Even from behind I knew her brow and eyes and mouth would be all scrunched up, her shoulders tight, everything in her pushed into this run and I let her on and let her win and I would have followed her on my knees, to the ends of the earth even then.

D’you not get lonely living here all alone? I asked her. She sat across from me on her sofa with her feet on my lap and a cigarette in her hand.  She exhaled slowly, just looking at me.  She frightened me when she looked at me like that.  She asked me hardly anything about myself and I figured she must be making me up as she sat there.  Maybe giving me a far more interesting life than the one I had.  And while I was with her, there in that house I didn’t mind, she could do anything, make me anyone, just so long as I could be there. Because leaving –just thinking about leaving –was unbearable. As soon as I walked out that front door and down the footpath I felt a hole open up inside me.  I’d have to fight an urge to turn around, crawl back to her door.  I’d have done anything to stay, to have her blue eyes on me –I  don’t know, she made me right, she put something back, made something right inside me.

I love being alone, she said.  It’s really the most honest way you can be.  That’s bullshit, I said. That’s selfish. Don’t you want a family, a husband, kids?  She smiled. You proposing again?  I could never pin her down.  One night walking out of town along a street she stopped in front of one of the red brick houses and pointed at the number on the door. Thirty seven. What?  I said.  That’s how old I am, she said.

There was a photograph on her mantelpiece of her, sitting with a man and a child.  A boy about four or five, sitting between them.  I never asked about it. It was at one end of the mantelpiece half hidden by cards and candles. It got so that every time I was in that room that photo swelled up and muscled its way into my head and pushed out all other thoughts and words. There was a lot I couldn’t ask.

Why don’t you eat? she’d ask. She’d have mugs of coffee and toast and croissants with butter and jam. I never got breakfast, could never face food first thing in the morning.  Especially then, after a night with her, just being there with her make me feel sick and tense and edgy.  But half dead if I wasn’t.  But there she’d be, smiling broadly, her even white teeth chewing her toast. How can she eat, I’d be thinking, how can she eat at a time like this? But that’s the thing. There was nothing special about that time for her. She’d sit at the table with one leg under her, sigh deeply and stretch her arms behind her head and moan a little like a kid waking up and I’d see the whiteness of the skin under her arms and nearly have to leave the room.

Her phone would ring sometimes and she’d walk around talking to whoever called.  She’d talk away, her eyes on me, smiling even, or mouthing words to me while I pretended to read the paper or browse her bookshelves or stand at the back door staring out at the garden like I knew what I was looking at.  Or she’d come and sit on my lap and keep talking, and stroke my hair like I was a little boy. Her mother or Susan or Richard or Tom –I remember the callers’names. I started to imagine them, especially the men. Once she turned all of a sudden and walked out the hall and up the stairs, hardly saying a word into the phone.

I wish I’d asked questions. I wish I’d been a bit reckless. I wish I’d raged and forced a few answers and let out a bit of the craziness inside me. But I never thought I had any right. She never let me believe I had.  I knew what I was to her.

You know what I think?  I think she was trying her damnedest to keep something hidden, to keep herself hidden.  I don’t know, there was something about her silence too. I’d be there sitting with her, not talking, but plenty was getting though. We could read each other and I think we both knew it. We were a fit. She had a few freckles on the bridge of her nose. I kissed each one. I felt each one of them on my lips, the little rugged circles they made.  I saw her eyes, I saw farther than her eyes when I held her face in my hands and kissed her. She let her eyes open fully then and I saw something further back, way back.  Then the frown would come again and she’d bring her face close up against mine and hide from me. But I saw what I saw.  I heard the pounding of her heart against my chest, her deep breathing struggling to fight me, to fight herself and all that might happen, all that might escape if she raised her face and let me see her.  I was there – I know the truth.  I held her in my arms and felt her fight and held her anyway. Until she put her hands on my chest and pushed me away and said, way too merrily, Time to go, then.

Sophie.  That’s the singer’s name. They hardly ever play her on the radio now, she’s gone from the scene. Late at night when I close my eyes I still feel the freckles on my lips.

She told me I was a great kisser.  I think she meant – for a young guy. I kissed her mouth, her ears, her hair, her neck, her collar bone, every bone. She pretended not to care about much, about what people thought, about me.  She cared.  She pretended to be brave when all along she was terrified. I felt it in her fingers when we walked the dark city streets and the way she’d freeze if some guy up ahead suddenly turned round. I think that’s how she lived. I think she walked around waiting for something terrible to happen at every turn.  I don’t know why she thought she had to be so brave, why she had to pretend to be immune all the time like that.  I told her that deep down she was paranoid.  She laughed and stroked my arm and said My Thomas. She went serious for a second then and leaned in and whispered You know we are all weak. You are, too. The wind can bring us. Then she turned away and sighed with a sigh that was like a howl that she couldn’t stifle. And the look on her face, like she’d seen a glimpse of hell for a split second. I thought she was about to break, that the moment had come. I would have helped her, I would have saved her.  I’d have brought her back.  Junior and all as I was.  I’d have gone without sleep for a thousand nights, propped up on my elbow keeping watch, I’d have climbed inside her lungs and put my own oxygen there. She was wrong –I  was a million years her senior.

I went by her house once.  It was autumn by then.  Just found myself out there after work one evening, not spying or stalking or anything, just drawn there by the warm September evening and the summer’s end. I walked out of the city with other office workers, girls in skirts and flat shoes, guys in suits stopping to buy an evening paper and milk along the way. The canal water was still and murky and the ducks took no notice of any of us. I was there before I knew it, on her street with her house less than twenty steps away. I leaned against the park railings with the trees leaning low and lit a cigarette.  I love standing under trees now. Her blinds were open and her lamps were lit.

What did I expect?  That she’d see me from her window and come skipping down the steps like in the movies?  That she’d need something from the shop at that very minute, something small for her dinner –an onion or a carton of cream –and she’d come out and I’d see her in the ordinary evening air and I’d be changed, cured or something. That I’d see her and think, What was I thinking?

I ground my cigarette out on the footpath and turned and exhaled and then the door opened and there she was, walking out with a child in her arms. She stopped and turned back and said something and I saw her back, I saw her white t-shirt and her back.   Then a man came out and they walked down the steps and he raised his hand and zapped her car alarm. They leaned into the back seat, one on either side of the car and strapped in the child. I waited for the car to reverse and I watched them drive past me with him at the wheel. She was wearing sunglasses.

I bought an umbrella the other day for walking home in the rain. The streets are like rivers some evenings, silent black rivers moving along slowly with the lights rising up out of them.  Sometimes the thought of summer clears my head. The winter ahead with the streets full of lonely workers in coats and freezing rain falling straight down under street lights and dirty snow on the footpath and her face behind her window presses down on top of me and makes me shut my eyes tight and gives me the urge to run fast and run blind out of here.

Maybe it was a brother, a cousin, a friend. Maybe it was the man in the moon. What was I to her? For ages I used to imagine running into her, where I’d smile and be vague and distant, act like I had trouble remembering her name.  I had a dream the other night. The singer’s face was on hers and then her face broke through. Clara. She was wearing a long red dress and open-toe sandals and her arms were wet and she was running –singing and running –through the dark streets in the pouring rain. And there were sirens screaming and blue lights flashing against the glass windows and I was crying and calling out to her, and my tears became a black river and flowed over the hem of her red dress and over her feet and I kept calling her, trying to reach her, to tell her to stop and wait, because she might slip, and the city streets were dangerous at night. Wait, wait for me, I was calling, wait for me or you’ll fall.


Biographical Note:

Mary Costello, originally from Galway, lives in Dublin. Her stories have been published in New Irish Writing and The Stinging Fly. A collection of her stories, entitled The China Factory will be published by The Stinging Fly Press in April. She will read at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Friday 23rd March as part of the Friday Lunchtime Series.

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