Short Story // The Best of It
We still found space to laugh that year.
I remember how often your eyes held sadness in them. Like great containers for the tears of some forgotten travesty. They held pain so others didn’t have to feel it. In your sleepy, half-closed eyes I could see an ocean of broken hearts. You had a habit of keeping hold of someone’s gaze for too long, staring right into the soul, or whatever lay beyond it. I remember not knowing what to do with that in the beginning. I could only look away and say something half stupid, half funny. I was never nervous around you either, which terrified me.
There was little happiness to grasp at that summer. Happiness was the furry seeds of dandelions in a windy garden. It was a surface too flat to climb. There was nowhere to reach out and hold onto. We kept slipping further away from it, more and more exhausted by each attempt. Eventually we stopped trying altogether. Instead, we sat in living rooms damp as tea towels, smelling of old men’s coats, and we licked our throats with flimsy rolled cigarettes.
We told one another things could be worse and you laughed at the idea of it. Your laugh was as deep as a well and had no business coming out of you. You’d suck on a rollie like you couldn’t breathe without it and then remark about how nice your own eyebrows were. There was a madness inside of you which I couldn’t pinpoint, and it burned electric. It was like staring into the abyss. I was scared of you and enticed all at once, like the call of death in the lonely hours of blue midnight.
We never took notice of the fires blazing around us. They’d heat our faces to pulpy pinks and cause our minds to race like heartbeats, but we pretended they didn’t matter. Death filled the air like smoke and people panicked behind their veils of solidarity. One evening we passed a lone father and his two children and you told his kids to shut the fuck up. There was no method to any of it and your giggles rang a sadistic chime.
The protests that came in the mild autumn, and again in the colder winter, were self-righteous hues of horrible green and they smelled of sickly saltwater. The world felt like it had decided to end its life, like people so often do, and maybe it had and all. But we didn’t care. If the world was dead then we went on like we had no knowledge of it.
You’d stir next to me on mornings when the rain crackled like beach fires against the slanted windows above us. The wood panelled roof was criss-crossed with ancient spider webs, a tapestry of tiny epic journeys. The scent of dust was the smell of rundown libraries which hadn’t seen visitors in months. You’d turn with the crust of sleep still in your eyes and kiss me full on the lips, despite the rancid taste of sleep inside our mouths. You’d curse me in the same moment, saying I was awful to sleep next to. I was a virtual radiator, you’d say.
We were invisible to the world, buried away from the brutal onslaught of the mundane. Ours was a fever dream, allowing nothing and everything to make sense. We didn’t love each other, but we were a toxic comfort to one another. We were each other’s indulgence. The sin of gluttony painted on our faces in thick smiles. You injected me with madness and I dosed you with adoration. None of it was safe though, and it slowly coerced us into illness.
The world never ended. It droned on like a stubborn old woman defying death, just because. The turmoil churned away, a vicious and brooding storm, and we watched it from our island out of harm’s way. Some days we’d want nothing at all to do with one another. One would go off the other like fad diets and we’d accept our time together as a fleeting memory. One to look back on during lonesome Friday evenings when there’s nothing on the telly, and you feel pathetic for being in bed so early.
But we’d always be drawn back. Like rats to well-baited traps we’d come. Knowing it would end in fire, we’d arrive all the same, and we were as dreadful as any of the substances we’d put into our bodies. We devoured each other on sunny afternoons. Stained sheets and the tangy scent of sweat were regular themes. We might not see the sun for days on end despite its intensity. It was a brutal sort of paradise.
We turned sad times into good days in our own way. How rare good days were then. Forgetting our phones, and to call our ageing parents, we spent time like we had it to burn. The state of the world was pushed back in our minds as far as they’d allow. But it would never fully disappear. It would hang just out of awareness like the guilt of study hangs over students who spend time doing anything but.
Making the best of it.
That’s what you had said as we walked alongside the length of the river in Spring, with the abandoned stadium looming over us, a shadow of the past. It was all colourless like faded photographs found in attics. The yellows of the streetlamps on the far bank reflected on the river and appeared as if underwater. We’re making the most of it, you said, and then you leaned in to kiss me, only to pull away at the last second like a speeding car averting tragedy, with a whisper of mischief appearing in the faintest smile.
The sun died on the far end of the river like it was drowning itself in the pale greyness. When the darkness came, first in hues of tame violet and then a confusing blue, you told me you felt more comfortable. The city’s lights were orange specs in your eyes then, and for a few moments there was not a single other place on earth that existed. When it started raining you wished you’d brought a jacket and I was happy enough to have brought mine.
Christ, we were a potent sadness. Maybe it was only me who was, and I projected it onto you like a great cinema screen, hoping we were the same. I think you just reflected me. We’d inhale terrible thoughts from one another and breathe them out like trees converting carbon dioxide into good air. We were this world’s detoxifiers. We mended a sickly planet, thought by thought. Each night we revelled in a new discovery and each morning we forgot all about what we’d learned in the hours before finding sleep. You told me that you’d only ever marry me if I was Canadian and you were in need of citizenship. I wasn’t Canadian and told you I probably never would be.
It was never clear to me whether our time flowed fast like sand timers, or whether it percolated through the membrane of our reality like the filter coffee you despised so loudly. The time slipped away like the memories of dreams upon waking.
The last day we spent together was a Sunday. Sundays always have the habit of feeling like the last day of summer before school began. You wore your hair in a long ponytail, and the turquoise plaid of your shirt turned your eyes to a piercing blue. You smelled of something calming, like lavender, but also like something else, something like rain.
It was the only time you’d ever avoided eye-contact, like you couldn’t bear to look at me. As if looking at me would cause you to perish on the spot, like you’d have to face the truth if you looked in my eyes. Eye contact in that moment would have made you disappear.
My name still sounded misshapen coming from your mouth, in an accent that didn’t belong to any of the Irish counties exactly. You said something about our time always having been limited and I couldn’t argue with that. I did ask you though, whether anyone has unlimited time for anything. You called me a weirdo and then you called me your pal, and that word pal stung more than anything else. There was an awkward shaped hug, that felt formal, before you turned and left. You always walked around as if you had nowhere to be, meandering like a river and staring up at everything.
The next time I saw you after we parted ways, seemingly for good, the summer had come around again, and you had your hair dyed bleach blonde. There was a new stranger hanging on your every word. He was handsome but he looked nothing at all like me. We smiled and said our hellos but neither of us stopped to chat. We were wise to the strange air stopping would conjure up. I decided you wouldn’t want the new recruit, with hair that was better than mine, to ask questions.
It began to rain as I took longer than usual to walk home, the same way you might have. There was no urgency to my steps. I just floated. Both feeling and unfeeling, interested and disinterested. I had your eyes instead of mine on that single walk home.
I felt my heart in my chest like pneumonia. We’d never said that we loved each other, and you even made me promise one day that I didn’t love you. It had been important to you that I didn’t hold any space for you inside me, and I really believed I didn’t.
It was only after I met you when your hair was brighter than the sun that I knew I’d been lying.
Daragh Fleming is a short fiction writer from Cork in Ireland who uses a conversational style to delve into complex themes which emerge in everyday life. He has two collections of short stories published by Riversong Books; The Book of Revelations (2019) and If You Are Reading This Then Drink Water (2020). He also has short fiction appearing in Idle Ink Magazine and Small Leaf Press.
Of the short story included in this edition, Daragh states:
‘This story is motivated by the utter rapture of ecstasy we tend to feel in the beginnings of relationships. It delves into our tendency to block out the negatives, and the red flags, and the problems when we are enthralled with infatuation and desire. However, the toxic and problematic parts remain and over time they become too prominent to ignore any longer. I think it fits with the theme of Ecstasy in many ways. The story explores our ability to ignore the badness when we are overjoyed, but it also reflects the use of the drug, ecstasy which is characterised by a euphoric beginning followed by a harrowing come down.’