Writer in Residence · 03/09/2011

Cold Cuts

Jules has no idea how much she looks like I used to. Part of me wants to tell her, but I’m afraid of her reaction. Her face has touches of her father, but something in the defiant cast of her chin, in the way her eyes flit rapidly, taking in my small apartment – it’s my adolescence mirrored back at me.

I was thinking of my own mother, earlier. At Charley’s on Newbury Street, I heard an old woman asking for “an extra fork,” rolling the ‘r’ extravagantly as only a Kerrywoman could. For a moment I felt sure it was her, as if breast cancer hadn’t taken her ten years previously.

Taken her. Now I’m talking like her. No one ever died in my mother’s conversations. Of my father she would always say he went early, as though it happened that morning and, regrettably, she’d slept through the whole thing.

+

I broke my diagnosis to the men who’d bracketed my life: my first partner, and my last. Niall first, since we had Jules in common. He was shocked – politely, distantly so, at the end of the phone in Dun Laoghaire. He directed his worry towards Jules, which was where I wanted it. When we hung up, I was wistful, and thought about him all day, imagining him on a moody walk along the pier, head down against the wind, scattering the seabirds.

Doug, on the other hand, turned into a reverent, rehearsed stranger. When I glanced at him he would switch on a smile like a refrigerator light. I became hysterical, and yelled that I was not an invalid; he left. He hasn’t been back since.

+

I’m sitting in the kitchen sipping coffee, waiting for Jules to get up. She’s only here for four days, and then she’s back to Dublin, to college. A life I’m jealous of, in all my dysfunction.

“Hey.” She walks gingerly towards me, her toes curling at the cold of the tiles. She shivers in her tank top and drawstring pants.

“Sleep well?”

Jules stretches, winces. “Not really.”

“I’m sorry. I know that bed’s not the most comfortable. If you like, you know, we could swap. Or maybe –”

Jules shakes her head quickly. Her hair is longer than mine was at that age, limper. Our hair’s not suited to long styles. “It’s okay. It’s just jet lag.” And we look at each other, eyes flitting.

“What do you feel like doing today?” I ask. “There’s the Prudential of course, or the aquarium, you loved that last time –”

“Last time I was fourteen.” Her mouth is caught in a protracted yawn, and she’s rooting in her bag for the first cigarette of the day.

“Right,” I say, “I’ll make you coffee,” before realising I don’t know how she takes it, or if she takes it at all.

+

In my mother’s village I worked at the deli, back when deli was an exotic word. There was the whirring blade that cut the meat – a vibrating, ungainly machine that I was inducted into with horror stories of truncated fingers. I remember those plastic gloves that pooled sweat, the sticky orange skin on the lumps of ham; the way it was springy and watery, like it might bounce. The people who came in every day, who seemed to live on corned beef. The small pay packets that I spent in the second-hand bookshop next door, on Fear of Flying, on The Story of O, on Forever, on Giovanni’s Room. The books were dog-eared; they fell open on their sex scenes. I read them under the covers, squirming, mind feverish.

My small library disappeared from under my bed one day. I asked my mother where they’d gone, furious and mortified in equal measure. “They’re much too rough for a girl your age,” was all she’d say.

Niall worked at the deli too, but he was older. Twenty-four or five – in my memory I can’t decide, though I could work it out. He was cheerful and efficient in a way that seemed exhausting to me. My mother liked him, as most people did. She was relieved to see me “doing a line” with someone, a proper way to behave, not “huffing and puffing under the covers with that filth.” (She meant Erica de Jong. She meant Judy Blume.)

Niall wasted no time. At least he used protection, sheathing himself with the same quick amiable way he had with clingfilm at the deli counter. That first time: for a few seconds it felt impossible, but apparently I did okay because afterwards he put his face to my neck and said “So you like it rough then, pet.”

Months later, telling him I was pregnant, I expected to be handed some folded notes and put on a boat. It threw me so much when he smiled, rested his hand on my still-flat belly, and started to talk about our indefinite future. I managed five years, in the end.

+

Jules and I settle on a trip to Faneuil Hall, shopping and eating being compromise activities. The aquarium is a few hundred yards away in case she changes her mind.

She wants something middle eastern, so I get it too to be agreeable. The server is tall and skinny with a blinding smile, one of the city’s legion of students.

“Sisters, right?” he says, whipping our food together with a fluid laziness that reminds me suddenly of Niall.

“I’m her daughter actually.”

He grins. “Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, hon!” He laughs, and so do I, politely. Jules remains staunchly unamused.

We sit down outside – it’s bright, if not quite warm, in the late fall sun. She casts about, taking the street performers in, telling me about the kebab I’m about to eat. She’s making an earnest effort. Her face gives little away, though. Smiles are carefully measured and dispensed. She holds my gaze and I always blink first.

It’s the strangest feeling when your child is suddenly older than you were when you had her. You feel leapfrogged. The dynamic is changed, if only in your own head. It feels surreal to be sitting here quietly with her, when some of my most vivid memories of motherhood involve sitting at cafes, just like this one, Jules tiny and crying. I’d tell myself – it has to stop soon. I would play little mental games – it’ll stop when I reach the end of this article, of this sandwich. It was no more deluded than thinking I could shush her or hug her or rock her into silence. The other customers shuddering, almost subconsciously, at the ragged, scraping scream. I’d feel bad – there were so many women sipping tea who’d come to escape their own kids, only to be assaulted by mine. There was an attractive middle-aged man sighing, trying to read. A year before, I’d have gone up to him, all smiles; started a cheeky conversation about the classics; knowing I could have him every which way. Just the right balance of intellectual intrigue and respectful ignorance. Never seem as smart as you are, that was my code – these old boys didn’t want someone sharper than they were. I had youth, and they needed to prove they had something to compensate for their age. But with little Jules shrieking, I was invisible. Heard but not seen. Just another too-young mother in over her head.

Now it’s Jules the urbane older men are eyeing up, but she doesn’t smile or shoot glances the way I used to. She harrumphs. She glares. She practically seethes.

+

Niall rang the other night, to check in before Jules’s arrival. He paused delicately before asking, “And do you know how you’re going to tell her?”

“No, not yet.” I pause. “There’s no good way to say it, is there?”

“Don’t be worrying. She’s tough.”

“Is she? I wouldn’t know.”

I wasn’t being petulant, just honest, but I could almost hear him throw his eyes to heaven. “She didn’t lick it off the stones,” he said. “Oh, and don’t let her smoke.”

+

I am in front of the mirror, practising. I feel sixteen years old again, scared, my body busy dividing cells, working its own will. If I can tell my reflection the bad news, I can tell Jules. Oh, how easy it would be to let her go home without saying anything, and how unforgivable.

My mother didn’t overthink. She called things as she saw them. What she said was: “I have to have an operation. They’re going to take off the breast.” I thought of the deli, the rotating blade.

I will say this better than my mother did. I hold onto that thought for strength.

As I am telling Jules, I forget my speech and it all comes out in a torrent. When I finally shut up to allow her in, what she says is “That’s what killed granny.” I see her mentally connect the dots, the lines and signals that pass from daughter to daughter, and I sense that she’s afraid for herself, too. I take her hand and tell her gently that nothing’s set in stone. But the fact is we’re thinking the same thought, the same message anyhow, my version of which is: don’t be like me, Jules, don’t be like me.

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Eimear Ryan was born in 1986 in County Tipperary. She studied journalism at Dublin City University and has lived in Boston and New York, where she interned at Grove/Atlantic Press and Conjunctions literary journal. Her short fiction has been published in The Sunday Tribune, The Stinging Fly, A Modest Review, Horizon Review and elsewhere. She was the winner of the Hennessy Award for First Fiction 2008 and was shortlisted in the inaugural RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition last year. She currently works as a bookseller in Dun Laoghaire and is a contributor to Inis magazine. She blogs at eimearryan.blogspot.com.

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posted by Ethel Rohan