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Conversations with Friends

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A sharply intelligent novel about two college students and the strange, unexpected connection they forge with a married couple.

is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college
student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the
mind--and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best
friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now
perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named
Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa's orbit, Frances is
reluctantly impressed by the older woman's sophisticated home and tall,
handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural
evil--and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential,
looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation
seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them
expect. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships
increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and
unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile
herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances's
intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and
disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

Written with gem-like precision and probing intelligence, Conversations With Friends is wonderfully alive to the pleasures and dangers of youth."
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Conversations with Friends

In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.



Title Page




































About the Author




Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together. Melissa took our photograph outside, with Bobbi smoking and me self-consciously holding my left wrist in my right hand, as if I was afraid the wrist was going to get away from me. Melissa used a big professional camera and kept lots of different lenses in a special camera pouch. She chatted and smoked while taking the pictures. She talked about our performance and we talked about her work, which we’d come across on the internet. Around midnight the bar closed. It was starting to rain then, and Melissa told us we were welcome to come back to her house for a drink.

We all got into the back of a taxi together and started fixing up our seat belts. Bobbi sat in the middle, with her head turned to speak to Melissa, so I could see the back of her neck and her little spoon-like ear. Melissa gave the driver an address in Monkstown and I turned to look out the window. A voice came on the radio to say the words: eighties … pop … classics. Then a jingle played. I felt excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s home, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.

The house was a semi-detached red-brick, with a sycamore tree outside. Under the streetlight the leaves looked orange and artificial. I was a big fan of seeing the insides of other people’s houses, especially people who were slightly famous like Melissa. Right away I decided to remember everything about her home, so I could describe it to our other friends later and Bobbi could agree.

When Melissa let us in, a little red spaniel cam; e racing up the hall and started barking at us. The hallway was warm and the lights were on. Next to the door was a low table where someone had left a stack of change, a hairbrush and an open tube of lipstick. There was a Modigliani print hanging over the staircase, a nude woman reclining. I thought: this is a whole house. A family could live here.

We have guests, Melissa called down the corridor.

No one appeared so we followed her into the kitchen. I remember seeing a dark wooden bowl filled with ripe fruit, and noticing the glass conservatory. Rich people, I thought. I was always thinking about rich people then. The dog had followed us to the kitchen and was snuffling around at our feet, but Melissa didn’t mention the dog so neither did we.

Wine? Melissa said. White or red?

She poured huge, bowl-sized glasses and we all sat around a low table. Melissa asked us how we’d started out performing spoken word poetry together. We had both just finished our third year of university at the time, but we’d been performing together since we were in school. Exams were over by then. It was late May.

Melissa had her camera on the table and occasionally lifted it to take a photograph, laughing self-deprecatingly about being a ‘work addict’. She lit a cigarette and tipped the ash into a kitschy-looking glass ashtray. The house didn’t smell of smoke at all and I wondered if she usually smoked in there or not.

I made some new friends, she said.

Her husband was in the kitchen doorway. He held up his hand to acknowledge us and the dog started yelping and whining and running around in circles.

This is Frances, said Melissa. And this is Bobbi. They’re poets.

He took a bottle of beer out of the fridge and opened it on the countertop.

Come and sit with us, Melissa said.

Yeah, I’d love to, he said, but I should try and get some sleep before this flight.

The dog jumped up on a kitchen chair near where he was standing and he reached out absently to touch its head. He asked Melissa if she had fed the dog, she said no. He lifted the dog into his arms and let the dog lick his neck and jaw. He said he would feed her, and he went back out the kitchen door again.

Nick’s filming tomorrow morning in Cardiff, said Melissa.

We already knew that the husband was an actor. He and Melissa were frequently photographed together at events, and we had friends of friends who had met them. He had a big, handsome face and looked like he could comfortably pick Melissa up under one arm and fend off interlopers with the other.

He’s very tall, Bobbi said.

Melissa smiled as if ‘tall’ was a euphemism for something, but not necessarily something flattering. The conversation moved on. We got into a short discussion about the government and the Catholic Church. Melissa asked us if we were religious and we said no. She said she found religious occasions, like funerals or weddings, ‘comforting in a kind of sedative way’. They’re communal, she said. There’s something nice about that for the neurotic individualist. And I went to a convent school so I still know most of the prayers.

We went to a convent school, said Bobbi. It posed issues.

Melissa grinned and said: like what?

Well, I’m gay, said Bobbi. And Frances is a communist.

I also don’t think I remember any of the prayers, I said.

We sat there talking and drinking for a long time. I remember that we talked about the poet Patricia Lockwood, who we admired, and also about what Bobbi disparagingly called ‘pay gap feminism’. I started to get tired and a little drunk. I couldn’t think of anything witty to say and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humour. I think I laughed and nodded a lot. Melissa told us she was working on a new book of essays. Bobbi had read her first one, but I hadn’t.

It’s not very good, Melissa told me. Wait till the next one comes out.

At about three o’clock, she showed us to the spare room and told us how great it was to meet us and how glad she was that we were staying. When we got into bed I stared up at the ceiling and felt very drunk. The room was spinning repetitively in short, consecutive spins. Once I adjusted my eyes to one rotation, another would begin immediately. I asked Bobbi if she was also having a problem with that but she said no.

She’s amazing, isn’t she? said Bobbi. Melissa.

I like her, I said.

We could hear her voice in the corridor and her footsteps taking her from room to room. Once when the dog barked we could hear her yell something, and then her husband’s voice. But after that we fell asleep. We didn’t hear him leave.


Bobbi and I had first met in secondary school. Back then Bobbi was very opinionated and frequently spent time in detention for a behavioural offence our school called ‘disrupting teaching and learning’. When we were sixteen she got her nose pierced and took up smoking. Nobody liked her. She got temporarily suspended once for writing ‘fuck the patriarchy’ on the wall beside a plaster cast of the crucifixion. There was no feeling of solidarity around this incident. Bobbi was considered a show-off. Even I had to admit that teaching and learning went a lot more smoothly during the week she was gone.

When we were seventeen we had to attend a fundraising dance in the school assembly hall, with a partially broken disco ball casting lights on the ceiling and the barred-up windows. Bobbi wore a flimsy summer dress and looked like she hadn’t brushed her hair. She was radiantly attractive, which meant everyone had to work hard not to pay her any attention. I told her I liked her dress. She gave me some of the vodka she was drinking from a Coke bottle and asked if the rest of the school was locked up. We checked the door up to the back staircase and found it was open. All the lights were off and no one else was up there. We could hear the music buzzing through the floorboards, like a ringtone belonging to someone else. Bobbi gave me some more of her vodka and asked me if I liked girls. It was very easy to act unfazed around her. I just said: sure.

I wasn’t betraying anyone’s loyalties by being Bobbi’s girlfriend. I didn’t have close friends and at lunchtime I read textbooks alone in the school library. I liked the other girls, I let them copy my homework, but I was lonely and felt unworthy of real friendship. I made lists of the things I had to improve about myself. After Bobbi and I started seeing each other, everything changed. No one asked for my homework any more. At lunchtime we walked along the car park holding hands and people looked away from us maliciously. It was fun, the first real fun I’d ever had.

After school we used to lie in her room listening to music and talking about why we liked each other. These were long and intense conversations, and felt so momentous to me that I secretly transcribed parts of them from memory in the evenings. When Bobbi talked about me it felt like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time. I also looked in actual mirrors more often. I started taking a close interest in my face and body, which I’d never done before. I asked Bobbi questions like: do I have long legs? Or short?

At our school graduation ceremony we performed a spoken word piece together. Some of the parents cried, but our classmates just looked out the assembly-room windows or talked quietly amongst themselves. Several months later, after more than a year together, Bobbi and I broke up.


Melissa wanted to write a profile about us. She sent us an email asking if we were interested, and attached some of the photographs she had taken outside the bar. Alone in my room, I downloaded one of the files and opened it up to fullscreen. Bobbi looked back at me, mischievous, holding a cigarette in her right hand and pulling on her fur stole with the other. Beside her, I looked bored and interesting. I tried to imagine my name appearing in a profile piece, in a serif font with thick stems. I decided I would try harder to impress Melissa next time we met.

Bobbi called me almost immediately after the email arrived.

Have you seen the photographs? she said. I think I’m in love with her.

I held my phone in one hand and zoomed in on Bobbi’s face with the other. It was a high-quality image but I zoomed until I could see the pixellation.

Maybe you’re just in love with your own face, I said.

Just because I have a beautiful face doesn’t mean I’m a narcissist.

I let that one go. I was involved in the zooming process still. I knew that Melissa wrote for several big literary websites, and her work circulated widely online. She had written a famous essay about the Oscars which everyone reposted every year during awards season. Sometimes she also wrote local profiles, about artists who sold their work on Grafton Street or buskers in London; these were always accompanied by beautiful photographs of her subjects, looking human and full of ‘character’. I zoomed back out and tried to look at my own face as if I were a stranger on the internet seeing it for the first time. It looked round and white, the eyebrows like overturned parentheses, my eyes averted from the lens, almost shut. Even I could see I had character.

We emailed her back saying we’d be delighted, and she invited us over for dinner to talk about our work and get some additional photographs. She asked me if I could forward some copies of our poetry and I sent her three or four of the best pieces. Bobbi and I discussed at length what Bobbi would wear to the dinner, under the guise of talking about what we should both wear. I lay in my room watching her look at herself in the mirror, moving pieces of her hair back and forth critically.

So when you say you’re in love with Melissa, I said.

I mean I have a crush on her.

You know she’s married.

You don’t think she likes me? said Bobbi.

She was holding up one of my white brushed-cotton shirts in front of the mirror.

What do you mean likes you? I said. Are we being serious or just joking?

I am partly being serious. I think she does like me.

In an extramarital affair kind of way?

Bobbi just laughed at that. With other people I generally had a sense of what to take seriously and what not to, but with Bobbi it was impossible. She never seemed to be either fully serious or fully joking. As a result I had learned to adopt a kind of Zen acceptance of the weird things she said. I watched her take her blouse off and pull on the white shirt. She rolled up the sleeves carefully.

Good? she said. Or terrible?

Good. It looks good.


It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted. Eventually I opened my blinds, read the news online and showered. My apartment had a door out into the courtyard of the building, which was lavish with greenery and featured a cherry blossom tree in the far corner. It was almost June now, but in April the blossoms were bright and silky like confetti. The couple next door had a little baby who cried sometimes at night. I liked living there.

Bobbi and I met in town that evening and got a bus to Monkstown. Finding our way back to the house felt like unwrapping something in a game of pass the parcel. I mentioned this to Bobbi on the way and she said: is it the prize, or just another layer of wrapping?

We’ll catch up on that after dinner, I said.

When we rang the bell, Melissa answered the door with her camera slung over one shoulder. She thanked us for coming. She had an expressive, conspiratorial smile, which I thought she probably gave to all of her subjects, as if to say: you’re no ordinary subject to me, you’re a special favourite. I knew I would enviously practise this smile later in a mirror. The spaniel yapped in the kitchen doorway while we hung up our jackets.

In the kitchen her husband was chopping vegetables. The dog was really excited by this gathering. It leapt onto a kitchen chair and barked for ten or twenty seconds before he told it to stop.

Can we get you both a glass of wine? Melissa said.

We said sure, and Nick poured the glasses. I had looked him up online since the first time we met him, partly because I didn’t know any other actors in real life. He had mainly worked in theatre, but he’d also done some TV and film. He had once, several years previously, been nominated for a major award, which he didn’t win. I’d happened on a whole selection of shirtless photographs, most of which showed him looking younger, coming out of a swimming pool or showering on a TV show that had long ago been cancelled. I sent Bobbi a link to one of these photographs with the message: trophy husband.

Melissa didn’t appear in many photographs on the internet, though her collection of essays had generated a lot of publicity. I didn’t know how long she had been married to Nick. Neither of them was famous enough for that kind of information to be online.

So you guys write everything together? Melissa said.

Oh God, no, said Bobbi. Frances writes everything. I don’t even help.

That’s not true, I said. That’s not true, you do help. She’s just saying that.

Melissa cocked her head to the side and gave a kind of laugh.

All right, so, which one of you is lying? she said.

I was lying. Except in the sense of enriching my life, Bobbi didn’t help me write the poetry. As far as I knew she had never written creatively at all. She liked to perform dramatic monologues and sing anti-war ballads. Onstage she was the superior performer and I often glanced at her anxiously to remind myself what to do.

For dinner we had spaghetti in a thick white-wine sauce, and lots of garlic bread. Mostly Nick stayed quiet while Melissa asked us questions. She made us all laugh a lot, but in the same way you might make someone eat something when they don’t fully want to eat it. I didn’t know if I liked this sort of cheery forcefulness, but it was obvious how much Bobbi was enjoying it. She was laughing even more than she really had to, I could tell.

Although I couldn’t specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtlety of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole set-up, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn’t interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed.

After dinner Nick cleared all the plates up and Melissa took photographs. Bobbi sat on the windowsill looking at a lit candle, laughing and making cute faces. I sat at the dinner table without moving, finishing my third glass of wine.

I love the window thing, Melissa said. Can we do a similar one, but in the conservatory?

The conservatory opened out from the kitchen through a pair of double doors. Bobbi followed Melissa, who shut the doors behind them. I could see Bobbi sit on the windowsill, laughing, but I couldn’t hear her laughter. Nick started to fill the sink with hot water. I told him again how good the food was and he looked up and said: oh, thanks.

Through the glass I watched Bobbi remove a dab of make-up from under her eye. Her wrists were slender and she had long, elegant hands. Sometimes when I was doing something dull, like walking home from work or hanging up laundry, I liked to imagine that I looked like Bobbi. She had better posture than I did, and a memorably beautiful face. The pretence was so real to me that when I accidentally caught sight of my reflection and saw my own appearance, I felt a strange, depersonalising shock. It was harder to do it now when Bobbi was sitting right in my eyeline, but I tried it anyway. I felt like saying something provocative and stupid.

I guess I’m kind of surplus to requirements, I said.

Nick looked out at the conservatory, where Bobbi was doing something with her hair.

Do you think Melissa’s playing favourites? he said. I’ll have a word with her if you want.

It’s okay. Bobbi is everyone’s favourite.

Really? I warmed to you more, I have to say.

We looked at each other. I could see he was playing along with me so I smiled.

Yes, I felt we had a natural rapport, I said.

I’m drawn to the poetic types.

Oh, well. I have a rich inner life, believe me.

He laughed when I said that. I knew I was being a little inappropriate, but I didn’t feel too badly about it. Outside in the conservatory Melissa had lit a cigarette and put her camera down on a glass coffee table. Bobbi was nodding at something intently.

I thought tonight was going to be a nightmare, but it was actually fine, he said.

He sat back down at the table with me. I liked his sudden candour. I was conscious that I had looked at shirtless photographs of him on the internet without him knowing, and in the moment I found this knowledge very amusing and almost wanted to tell him about it.

I’m not the most dinner party person either, I said.

I think you were pretty good.

You were very good. You were great.

He smiled at me. I tried to remember everything he had said so I could play it over for Bobbi later on, but in my head it didn’t sound quite as funny.

The doors opened and Melissa came back in, carrying her camera in both hands. She took a photograph of us sitting at the table, Nick holding his glass in one hand, me staring into the lens vacantly. Then she sat down opposite us and looked at her camera screen. Bobbi came back and refilled her own wine glass without asking. She had a beatific expression on her face and I could see she was drunk. Nick watched her but didn’t say anything.

I suggested that we should head off in time for the last bus and Melissa promised to send on the photographs. Bobbi’s smile dropped a little but it was too late to suggest we should stay any longer. We were already being handed our jackets. I felt giddy, and now that Bobbi had gone quiet, I kept laughing at nothing on my own.

We had a ten-minute walk to the bus stop. Bobbi was subdued at first, so I gathered she was upset or annoyed.

Did you have a good time? I said.

I’m worried about Melissa.

You’re what?

I don’t think she’s happy, said Bobbi.

In what sense not happy? Was she talking to you about this?

I don’t think she and Nick are very happy together.

Really? I said.

It’s sad.

I didn’t point out that Bobbi had only met Melissa twice, though maybe I should have. Admittedly it didn’t seem like Nick and Melissa were crazy about each other. He had told me, apropos of nothing, that he’d expected a dinner party she’d arranged to be ‘a nightmare’.

I thought he was funny, I said.

He hardly opened his mouth.

Yeah, he had a humorous silence about him.

Bobbi didn’t laugh. I dropped it. We hardly spoke on the bus, since I could see she wasn’t going to be interested in the effortless rapport I had established with Melissa’s trophy husband, and I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about.

When I got back to my apartment I felt drunker than I had been at the house. Bobbi had gone home and I was on my own. I turned all the lights on before I went to bed. Sometimes that was something I did.


Bobbi’s parents were going through an acrimonious break-up that summer. Bobbi’s mother Eleanor had always been emotionally fragile and given to long periods of unspecified illness, which made her father Jerry the favoured parent in the split. Bobbi always called them by their first names. This had probably originated as an act of rebellion but now just seemed collegial, like their family was a small business they ran cooperatively. Bobbi’s sister Lydia was fourteen and didn’t seem to be handling the whole thing with Bobbi’s composure.

My parents had separated when I was twelve and my father had moved back to Ballina, where they’d met. I lived in Dublin with my mother until I finished school, and then she moved back to Ballina too. When college started I moved into an apartment in the Liberties belonging to my father’s brother. During term time, he let out the second bedroom to another student, and I had to keep quiet in the evenings and say hi politely when I saw my room-mate in the kitchen. But in the summer when the room-mate went home, I was allowed to live there all on my own and make coffee whenever I wanted and leave books splayed open on all the surfaces.

I had an internship in a literary agency at the time. There was one other intern, called Philip, who I knew from college. Our job was to read stacks of manuscripts and write one-page reports on their literary value. The value was almost always nil. Sometimes Philip would sardonically read bad sentences aloud to me, which made me laugh, but we didn’t do that in front of the adults who worked there. We worked three days a week and were both paid ‘a stipend’ which meant we basically weren’t paid at all. All I needed was food, and Philip lived at home, so it didn’t matter much to us.

This is how privilege gets perpetuated, Philip told me in the office one day. Rich assholes like us taking unpaid internships and getting jobs off the back of them.

Speak for yourself, I said. I’m never going to get a job.


Bobbi and I often performed at spoken word events and open mic nights that summer. When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a ‘real personality’, but she said she meant it as a compliment. Mostly I agreed with her assessment. At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.

Melissa sent us the image files from the dinner party a few days later. I’d expected Bobbi to dominate the photo set, along with maybe one or two token photographs of me, blurry behind a lit candle, holding a forkful of spaghetti. In fact, for every picture of Bobbi, I appeared too, always lit perfectly, always beautifully framed. Nick was in the photographs also, which I hadn’t expected. He looked luminously attractive, even more so than he had in real life. I wondered if that was why he was a successful actor. It was difficult to look at the photo set and not feel that he was the primary presence in the room, which I definitely hadn’t felt at the time.

Melissa herself didn’t appear in any of the images. As a result, the dinner party depicted in the photographs bore only an oblique relationship to the one we had actually attended. In reality, all our conversation had orbited around Melissa. She had prompted our various expressions of uncertainty or admiration. She was the one whose jokes we were always laughing at. Without her in the images, the dinner seemed to take on a different character, to go spinning off in subtle and strange directions. The relationships of the people who appeared in the photographs, without Melissa, became unclear.

In my favourite picture, I was looking straight into the lens with a dreamy expression, and Nick was looking at me as if waiting for me to say something. His mouth was a little open. It looked like he hadn’t seen the camera. It was a good photograph, but of course I had really been looking up at Melissa at the time, and Nick simply hadn’t seen her come through the doorway. It captured something intimate that had never really happened, something elliptical and somehow fraught. I saved it to my Downloads folder to look at later on.

Bobbi messaged me about an hour after the photographs arrived.

Bobbi: how good do we look though?

Bobbi: i wonder if we can use these as facebook profilers.

me: no

Bobbi: she says the piece won’t be out till september apparently?

me: who says

Bobbi: melissa

Bobbi: do you want to hang out tonight?

Bobbi: and watch a film or something

Bobbi wanted me to know that she had been in touch with Melissa when I hadn’t. It did impress me, which she wanted it to, but I also felt bad. I knew Melissa liked Bobbi more than she liked me, and I didn’t know how to join in their new friendship without debasing myself for their attention. I had wanted Melissa to take an interest in me, because we were both writers, but instead she didn’t seem to like me and I wasn’t even sure I liked her. I didn’t have the option not to take her seriously, because she had published a book, which proved that lots of other people took her seriously even if I didn’t. At twenty-one, I had no achievements or possessions that proved I was a serious person.

I’d told Nick that everyone preferred Bobbi to me, but that wasn’t really true. Bobbi could be abrasive and unrestrained in a way that made people uncomfortable, while I tended to be encouragingly polite. Mothers always liked me a lot, for example. And because Bobbi mostly treated men with amusement or contempt, men usually ended up liking me better too. Of course, Bobbi made fun of me about this. She once emailed me a picture of Angela Lansbury with the subject heading: your core demographic.

Bobbi did come over that night, though she didn’t mention Melissa at all. I knew that she was being strategic, and that she wanted me to ask, so I didn’t. This sounds more passive-aggressive than it really was. Actually we had a nice evening. We stayed up talking and Bobbi went to sleep on the mattress in my room.


That night I woke up sweating underneath the duvet. At first it felt like a dream or maybe a film. I found the orientation of my room confusing, as if I was further from the window and door than I should have been. I tried to sit up and then felt a strange, wrenching pain in my pelvis, which made me gasp out loud.

Bobbi? I said.

She rolled over. I tried to reach out of the bed to shake her shoulder, but I couldn’t, and I felt exhausted by the effort. At the same time I was exhilarated by the seriousness of my pain, like it might change my life in an unforeseen way.

Bobbi, I said. Bobbi, wake up.

She didn’t wake up. I moved my legs off the bed and managed to stand. The pain was more bearable if I hunched my body over and held onto my abdomen tightly. I went around her mattress and out to the bathroom. It was raining loudly onto the glazed plastic wall vent. I sat on the side of the bath. I was bleeding. It was just period pain. I put my face in my hands. My fingers were trembling. Then I got down onto the floor and put my face onto the cool rim of the bath.

After a while Bobbi knocked on the door.

What’s up? she said from outside. Are you okay?

Just period pain.

Oh. You have painkillers in there?

No, I said.

I’ll get you some.

Her footsteps went away. I hit my forehead against the side of the bath to distract myself from the pain in my pelvis. It was a hot pain, like all my insides were contracting into one little knot. The footsteps came back and the bathroom door opened an inch. She slid through a packet of ibuprofen. I crawled over and took them, and she went away.

Eventually it got light outside. Bobbi woke up and came in to help me onto the couch in the living room. She made me a cup of peppermint tea and I sat slouched holding the cup against my T-shirt, just above my pubic bone, until it started to scald me.

You suffer, she said.

Everybody suffers.

Ah, Bobbi said. Profound.


I hadn’t been kidding with Philip about not wanting a job. I didn’t want one. I had no plans as to my future financial sustainability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything. I’d had various minimum-wage jobs in previous summers – sending emails, making cold calls, things like that – and I expected to have more of them after I graduated. Though I knew that I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt that my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy. I’d checked what the average yearly income would be if the gross world product were divided evenly among everyone, and according to Wikipedia it would be $16,100. I saw no reason, political or financial, ever to make more money than that.

Our boss at the literary agency was a woman named Sunny. Both Philip and I really liked Sunny, but Sunny preferred me. Philip was sanguine about this. He said he preferred me too. I think deep down Sunny knew that I didn’t want a job as a literary agent, and it may even have been this fact that distinguished me in her eyes. Philip was plainly pretty enthused about working for the agency, and though I didn’t judge him for making life plans, I felt like I was more discerning with my enthusiasms.

Sunny was interested in the question of my career. She was a very candid person who was always making refreshingly candid remarks, that was one of the things Philip and I liked most about her.

What about journalism? she asked me.

I was handing her back a pile of completed manuscripts.

You’re interested in the world, she said. You’re knowledgeable. You like politics.

Do I?

She laughed and shook her head.

You’re bright, she said. You’re going to have to do something.

Maybe I’ll marry for money.

She waved me away.

Go and do some work, she said.


We were performing at a reading in the centre of town that Friday. I could perform each poem for a period of about six months after I’d written it, after which point I couldn’t stand to look at it, never mind read it aloud in public. I didn’t know what caused this process, but I was glad the poems were only ever performed and never published. They floated away ethereally to the sound of applause. Real writers, and also painters, had to keep on looking at the ugly things they had done for good. I hated that everything I did was so ugly, but also that I lacked the courage to confront how ugly it was. I had explained that theory to Philip but he’d just said: don’t be down on yourself, you’re a real writer.

Bobbi and I were applying make-up in the venue bathrooms and talking about the newest poems I had written.

What I like about your male characters, Bobbi said, is they’re all horrible.

They’re not all horrible.

At best they’re very morally ambiguous.

Aren’t we all? I said.

You should write about Philip, he’s not problematic. He’s ‘nice’.

She did air quotes around the word nice, even though she did really think that about Philip. Bobbi would never describe anyone as nice without quotation marks.

Melissa had said she would come along that night, but we didn’t see her until afterwards, at maybe half ten or eleven o’clock. She and Nick were sitting together, and Nick was wearing a suit. Melissa congratulated us and told us she’d really enjoyed our performance. Bobbi looked at Nick as if waiting for him to compliment us, which made him laugh.

I didn’t see your set, he said. I just got here.

Nick’s in the Royal this month, Melissa said. He’s doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

But I’m sure you were great, though, he said.

Let me get you both drinks, said Melissa.

Bobbi went with her to the bar, so Nick and I were left alone at the table. He didn’t have a tie on and his suit looked expensive. I felt too hot, and worried I was sweating.

How was the play? I said.

Oh, what, tonight? It was okay, thanks.

He was taking his cufflinks off. He placed them on the table, beside his glass, and I noticed they were coloured enamel, art deco-looking. I thought about admiring them aloud, but then felt unable to. Instead I pretended to look for Melissa and Bobbi over my shoulder. When I turned back he had taken out his phone.

I’d like to see it, I said. I like the play.

You should come along, I can hold tickets for you.

He didn’t look up when he spoke, so I felt certain he was being insincere or would at least forget the conversation quickly. I just said something affirmative and non-committal. Now that he wasn’t paying attention to me, I could watch him more closely. He really was exceptionally handsome. I wondered if people just got used to being so good-looking and eventually found it boring, but it was hard to imagine. I thought if I was as good-looking as Nick I would probably have fun all the time.

Sorry I’m being rude, Frances, he said. This is my mother on the phone. She texts now. I should tell her I’m talking to a poet, she’d be very impressed.

Well, you don’t know. I could be a terrible poet.

He smiled and slipped his phone back in his inside pocket. I looked at his hand and looked away.

That’s not what I’ve heard, he said. But maybe next time I’ll get to decide for myself.

Melissa and Bobbi came back with the drinks. I noticed that Nick had dropped my name into conversation, as if to show that he remembered me from last time we talked. Of course, I remembered his name too, but he was older and somewhat famous, so I found his attention very flattering. It transpired that Melissa had taken their car into town, and so Nick had been forced to join us after his show to get a lift home. This arrangement did not seem to have been drawn up with his convenience in mind, and he looked tired and bored for most of our conversation.

Melissa sent me an email the next day saying they had put two theatre tickets aside for us next Thursday but that we shouldn’t feel bad about it if we had made other plans. She included Nick’s email address and wrote: in case you need to get in touch.


Bobbi was going out to dinner with her father on Thursday, so we offered Philip the spare ticket to the play. Philip kept asking if we were going to have to talk to Nick afterwards, and I didn’t know. I doubted if he would come out especially to talk to us, so I said I was sure we could just leave as usual. Philip had never met Nick but had seen him on TV and considered his looks ‘intimidating’. He asked me a lot of questions about what Nick was like in real life, none of which I felt qualified to answer. When we bought the programme, Philip leafed straight to the actor bios and showed me Nick’s photograph. In the dim light it was really just an outline of a face.

Look at his jaw, he said.

Yeah, I see it.

The lights came up onstage, and the actress playing Maggie came on and started yelling in a Southern accent. It wasn’t a bad accent, but it still felt like an actor’s accent. She got out of her dress and stood there in a white slip, like Elizabeth Taylor’s white slip in the film, though this actress looked both less artificial and also somehow less convincing. I could see a care label bunched inside the seam of the slip she was wearing, which destroyed the effect of reality for me, although the slip and its care label were undoubtedly themselves real. I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.

Finally Nick appeared, out of a door on stage left, buttoning up a shirt. I felt a sting of self-consciousness, as if the audience had all turned at this moment to observe my reaction. He looked very different onstage, and spoke in an unrecognisably different voice. His manner was cool and detached in a way that suggested sexual brutality. I breathed in and out through my mouth several times, and wet my lips repeatedly with my tongue. The production in general was not very good. The other actors had off-key accents and everything onstage looked like a prop waiting to be handled. In a way this just emphasised how spectacularly beautiful Nick was, and made his misery seem more authentic.

When we came out of the theatre it was raining again. I felt pure and tiny like a newborn baby. Philip put up his umbrella and we walked toward his bus stop while I sort of grinned manically at nothing and touched my own hair a lot.

That was interesting, Philip said.

I thought Nick was probably a lot better than the other actors.

Yeah, it was stressful, wasn’t it? But he was pretty good.

I laughed much too loudly at this remark and then stopped when I realised nothing about it was funny. A light, cool rain feathered the umbrella and I tried to think of something interesting to say about the weather.

He is handsome, I heard myself saying.

To an almost off-putting extent.

We reached Philip’s bus stop and had a short discussion about which of us should take the umbrella. In the end I took it. It was raining heavily and getting dark. I wanted to talk more about the play but I could see Philip’s bus was about to pull in. I knew he wouldn’t want to talk much more about the play anyway, but I still felt disappointed. He started counting out his fare and said he’d see me tomorrow. I walked back to my apartment on my own.

When I got inside I left the umbrella by the courtyard door and opened up my laptop to look at Nick’s email address. I felt I should send him a short thank-you message for the tickets, but I kept getting distracted by items in the room, like a Toulouse-Lautrec poster I had hanging above the fireplace and a particular smudge on the patio window. I got up and walked around for a while to think about it. I cleaned the smudge with a damp cloth and then made a cup of tea. I considered calling Bobbi to talk about whether it would be normal to send an email or not, but I remembered she was with her father. I wrote a sample message, and then deleted the draft in case I might accidentally hit send. Then I wrote the same thing over again.

I sat staring at my laptop screen until it went black. Things matter to me more than they do to normal people, I thought. I need to relax and let things go. I should experiment with drugs. These thoughts were not unusual for me. I put Astral Weeks on the stereo in the living room and slumped right onto the floor to listen. Though I was trying not to dwell on the play, I found myself thinking about Nick onstage yelling: I don’t want to lean on your shoulder, I want my crutch. I wondered if Philip was similarly preoccupied, or was this more private. I need to be fun and likeable, I thought. A fun person would send a thank-you email.

I got up and typed a brief message congratulating Nick on his performance and expressing gratitude for the tickets. I moved the sentences here and there, and then seemingly at random I hit the send button. Afterwards I shut my laptop and went back to sitting on the floor.

I was expecting to hear from Bobbi about her dinner with Jerry and eventually, after the album was finished, she did call. I was still sitting slumped against the wall when I answered the phone. Bobbi’s father was a high-ranking civil servant in the Department of Health. She did not apply her otherwise rigorous anti-establishment principles to her relationship with Jerry, or at least not with any consistency. He’d taken her to a very expensive restaurant for dinner and they’d had three courses with wine.

He’s just trying to emphasise that I’m an adult member of the family now, Bobbi said. And he takes me seriously, blah blah blah.

How’s your mother holding up?

Oh, it’s migraine season again. We’re all tiptoeing around like fucking Trappist monks. How was the play?

Nick was really good, actually, I said.

Oh, that’s a relief. I felt like it might be terrible.

No, it was. Sorry, I remember your question now. The play was bad.

Bobbi hummed a kind of tuneless piece of music to herself and offered no further remark.

Remember last time we visited their house, and afterwards you said you thought they were like, unhappily married? I said. What made you say that?

I just thought Melissa seemed depressed.

But why, because of their marriage?

Well, don’t you find Nick sort of hostile toward her? said Bobbi.

No. Do you?

The first time we went over there, remember he went around scowling at us and then he yelled at her about feeding the dog? And we could hear them arguing when we went to bed?

Now that she said that, I did remember perceiving a certain animosity between them on that occasion, though I didn’t accept that he had yelled.

Was she there? Bobbi said. At the play?

No. Well, I don’t know, we didn’t see her.

She doesn’t like Tennessee Williams anyway. She finds him mannered.

I could hear that Bobbi said this with an ironic smile, because she was aware that she was showing off. I was jealous, but I also felt that because I had seen the play I was party to something Bobbi didn’t know about. She still saw Nick as a background figure, with no significance other than as Melissa’s husband. If I told her that I had just sent him an email thanking him for the tickets, she wouldn’t understand that I was showing off too, because to her Nick was just a function of Melissa’s unhappiness, and uninteresting in his own right. It seemed unlikely she would see the play now, and I couldn’t think of any other way to impress her with Nick’s personal significance. When I mentioned that he was planning to come and see us perform sometime soon, she just asked if that meant Melissa would come too.

Nick replied to my email the next afternoon in all lower case, thanking me for coming to the play and asking when Bobbi and I were next performing. He said they were running a show in the Royal every night and matinees at weekends so he would almost certainly miss our set unless it started sometime after half ten. I told him I would see what I could do, but not to worry if he couldn’t make it. He replied saying: oh well, it wouldn’t be very reciprocal then, would it?


Over the summer I missed the periods of intense academic concentration which helped to relax me during term time. I liked to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’. I mostly forgot to eat on days like this and emerged in the evening with a fine, shrill headache. Physical sensations reintroduced themselves to me with a feeling of genuine novelty: breeze felt new, and the sound of birds outside the Long Room. Food tasted impossibly good, as did soft drinks. Afterwards I’d print the essay out without even looking over it. When I went to get my feedback, the notes in the margins always said things like ‘well argued’ and sometimes ‘brilliant’. Whenever I got a ‘brilliant’ I took a little photograph of it on my phone and sent it to Bobbi. She would send back: congrats, your ego is staggering.

My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was. When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasised that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before, a genius hidden among normal people. It made me feel like a spy. As a teenager I started using internet messageboards and developed a friendship with a twenty-six-year-old American grad student. He had very white teeth in his photographs and told me he thought I had the brain of a physicist. I sent him messages late at night confessing that I was lonely in school, that the other girls didn’t seem to understand me. I wish I had a boyfriend, I wrote. One night he sent me a picture of his genitals. It was a flash photograph, zoomed right in on the erect penis, as if for medical examination. For days afterwards I felt guilty and terrified, like I had committed a sick internet crime which other people could discover at any moment. I deleted my account and abandoned the associated email address. I told no one, I had no one to tell.


On Saturday I talked to the venue organiser and got our set pushed back until half ten. I didn’t mention to Bobbi that I had done that, or why. We had smuggled in a bottle of white wine which we shared from plastic cups in the downstairs bathrooms. We liked to have one or two glasses of wine before performing, but no more than that. We sat on the sinks refilling our cups and talking about the new stuff we were going to perform.

I didn’t want to tell Bobbi I was nervous, but I was. Even looking in the mirror made me nervous. I didn’t think I looked awful. My face was plain, but I was so extremely thin as to look interesting, and I chose my clothing to emphasise this effect. I wore a lot of dark colours and severe necklines. That night I was wearing a reddish-brown lipstick and in the weird bathroom light I looked sick and faint. Eventually the features of my face seemed to come apart from one another or at least lose their ordinary relationships to each other, like a word you read so many times it makes no sense any more. I wondered if I was having an anxiety attack. Then Bobbi told me to stop staring at myself and I stopped.

When we went upstairs we could see Melissa sitting alone with a glass of wine and her camera. The seat beside her was empty. I cast around but it was clear to me, from something about the shape or the noise of the room, that Nick was not there. I thought this would calm me down, but it didn’t. I licked my teeth several times and waited for the man to say our names into the microphone.

Onstage, Bobbi was always precise. All I had to do was try and tune in to her particular rhythm and as long as I could do that, I would be fine too. Sometimes I was good, sometimes I was just okay. But Bobbi was exact. That night she made everyone laugh and got a lot of applause. For a few moments we stood there in the light, being applauded and gesturing to each other, like: it’s all her. It was at this point I saw Nick enter from the door at the back. He looked slightly breathless, like he had taken the stairs too quickly. Instantly I looked away and pretended I hadn’t noticed him. I could see that he was trying to catch my eye and that if I returned his gaze he would give me a kind of apologetic expression. I found this idea too intense to think about, like the glare of a bare lightbulb. The audience continued to applaud and I could feel Nick watching us as we left the stage.

At the bar afterwards Philip bought us a round of drinks and said the new poem was his favourite. I had forgotten to bring his umbrella.

See, and people say I hate men, Bobbi said. But I actually really like you, Philip.

I swallowed half my glass of gin and tonic in two mouthfuls. I was thinking about leaving without saying hello to anyone. I could leave, I thought, and it felt good to think about it, as if I was in control of my own life again.

Let’s go find Melissa, Bobbi said. We can introduce you.

By then Nick was sitting beside Melissa and already drinking from a bottle of beer. I felt very awkward about approaching them. The last time I had seen him he’d had a fake accent and different clothes, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear his real accent again. But Melissa had spotted us already anyway. She asked us to sit down.

Bobbi introduced Melissa and Nick to Philip, and Philip shook their hands. Melissa said she remembered them meeting before, which delighted him. Nick said something about being sorry he’d missed our performance, though I still wasn’t looking at him. I drained the rest of my gin and tonic and then knocked the ice from side to side in the glass. Philip congratulated Nick on the play and they talked about Tennessee Williams. Melissa called him ‘mannered’ again and I pretended not to know she had made the observation before.

After we bought a new round of drinks, Melissa suggested we go out for a cigarette. The smoking area was a little walled garden downstairs and it wasn’t particularly full, since it was raining. I hadn’t seen Nick smoking before, and I took a cigarette too although I didn’t want one. Bobbi was doing an impression of one of the men who had performed before us at the reading. It was a very funny though also cruel impression. We all laughed. It was starting to rain harder then, so we gathered underneath the shallow ledge projecting from the window. We talked for a while, Bobbi mostly.

It’s cool you’re playing a gay character, Bobbi was saying to Nick.

Is Brick gay? he said. I think maybe he’s just bisexual.

Don’t say ‘just bisexual’, she said. Frances is bisexual, you know.

I didn’t know that, Melissa said.

I chose to drag on my cigarette for a long time before saying anything. I knew that everyone was waiting for me to speak.

Well, I said. Yeah, I’m kind of an omnivore.

Melissa laughed at that. Nick looked at me and gave an amused smile, which I looked away from quickly and pretended to take an interest in my glass.

Me too, Melissa said.

I could tell Bobbi was enthralled by this remark. She asked Melissa something I didn’t listen to. Philip said he was going to the bathroom and left his drink on the windowsill. I stroked the chain of my necklace, feeling the alcohol warm inside my stomach.

Sorry I was late, Nick said.

He was speaking to me. In fact it seemed that he had waited for Philip to leave us alone so he could address this sentence to me. I told him I didn’t mind. He held the cigarette between his index and middle fingers, where it looked miniature compared to the breadth of his hand. I was aware of the fact that he could pretend to be anyone he wanted to be, and I wondered if he also lacked a ‘real personality’ the same way I did.

I arrived in time for the wild applause, he said. So I can only assume good things. I’ve read your work actually, is that a terrible thing to say? Melissa forwarded it on to me, she thinks I like literature.

At this point I felt a weird lack of self-recognition, and I realised that I couldn’t visualise my own face or body at all. It was like someone had lifted the end of an invisible pencil and just gently erased my entire appearance. This was curious and actually not unpleasant, though I was also aware that I was cold and might have been shivering.

She didn’t tell me she was going to forward it to people, I said.

Not people, just me. I’ll send you an email about it. If I compliment you now you’ll think I’m just saying it, but the email will be very flattering.

Oh, that’s nice. I like getting compliments where I don’t have to make eye contact with the person.

He laughed at that, which gratified me. It had started raining harder and Philip had come back from the bathroom to shelter under the ledge with us again. My arm was touching Nick’s and I felt a pleasant sense of illicit physical closeness.

It’s weird knowing someone just casually, he said, and then later finding out they’re observing things all the time. It’s like, God, what has this person noticed about me?

We looked at one another. Nick’s face was handsome in the most generic way: clear skin, pronounced bone structure, the mouth a little soft-looking. But his expressions seemed to pass over it with a certain subtlety and intelligence, which gave his eye contact a charismatic quality. When he looked at me, I felt vulnerable to him, but I also felt strongly that he was letting himself be observed, that he had noticed how interested I was in forming an impression of him, and he was curious about what it might be.

Yeah, I said. All kinds of bad things.

And you’re what, like, twenty-four?

I’m twenty-one.

For a second he looked at me like he thought I was kidding, eyes widened, eyebrows raised, and then he shook his head. Actors learn to communicate things without feeling them, I thought. He already knew I was twenty-one. Maybe what he really wanted to communicate was an exaggerated awareness of our age difference, or a mild disapproval or disappointment about it. I knew from the internet that he was thirty-two.

But don’t let that get in the way of our natural rapport, I said.

He looked at me for a moment and then he smiled, an ambivalent smile, which I liked so much that I became very conscious of my own mouth. It was open slightly.

No, I couldn’t possibly, he said.

Philip told us he was going to get the last bus, and Melissa said she had a meeting the next morning and she was planning to head off too. Quickly after that the whole group dispersed. Bobbi got the DART back to Sandymount, and I walked back along the quays. The Liffey was swollen up and looked irritated. A school of taxis and cars swam past and a drunk man walking on the other side of the street yelled that he loved me.

While I let myself into the apartment I thought about Nick entering the room while everybody applauded. This now felt perfect to me, so perfect that I was glad he had missed the performance. Maybe having him witness how much others approved of me, without taking any of the risks necessary to earn Nick’s personal approval, made me feel capable of speaking to him again, as if I also was an important person with lots of admirers like he was, as if there was nothing inferior about me. But the acclaim also felt like part of the performance itself, the best part, and the most pure expression of what I was trying to do, which was to make myself into this kind of person: someone worthy of praise, worthy of love.


After that we saw Melissa sporadically and she sent us occasional email updates about the profile piece. We didn’t visit her at home again, but we ran into her now and then at literary events. I usually speculated in advance about whether she or Nick might attend a particular thing, because I liked them, and I liked having other people observe their warmth toward me. They introduced me to editors and agents who acted very charmed to meet me and who asked interested questions about my work. Nick was always friendly, and even praised me to other people sometimes, but he never seemed particularly eager to engage me in conversation again, and I got used to meeting his eye without feeling startled.

Bobbi and I went along to these events together, but for Bobbi it was really only Melissa’s attention that mattered. At a book launch on Dawson Street she told Nick she had ‘nothing against actors’, and he was like, oh thanks Bobbi, that’s so generous of you. When he attended on his own once, Bobbi said: just you? Where’s your beautiful wife?

Do I get the sense you don’t like me? said Nick.

It’s nothing personal, I said. She hates men.

If it makes you feel better, I do also personally dislike you, said Bobbi.

Nick and I had started to exchange emails after the night he missed our performance. In the message he’d promised to send about my work, he described a particular image as ‘beautiful’. It was probably true to say that I had found Nick’s performance in the play ‘beautiful’, though I wouldn’t have written that in an email. Then again his performance was related to the physicality of his existence in a way that a poem, typed in a standard font and forwarded on by someone else, was not. At a certain level of abstraction, anyone could have written the poem, but that didn’t feel true either. It seemed as though what he was really saying was: there’s something beautiful about the way you think and feel, or the way that you experience the world is beautiful in some way. This remark returned to me repeatedly for days after the email arrived. I smiled involuntarily when I thought of it, like I was remembering a private joke.

It was easy to write to Nick, but also competitive and thrilling, like a game of table tennis. We were always being flippant with each other. When he found out my parents lived in Mayo, he wrote:

we used to have a holiday home in Achill (like every other wealthy South Dublin family I’m sure).

I replied:

I’m glad my ancestral homeland could help nourish your class identity. P.S. It should be illegal to have a holiday home anywhere.

He was the first person I had met since Bobbi who made me enjoy conversation, in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music. He made me laugh. Once, he mentioned that he and Melissa slept in separate rooms. I didn’t tell Bobbi about that, but I thought about it a lot. I wondered if they still ‘loved’ one another, although it was hard to imagine Nick being that unironic about anything.

He never seemed to go to bed until the early morning, and we increasingly emailed one another late at night. He told me he had studied English and French at Trinity, so we had even had some of the same lecturers. He’d majored in English and had written his final-year dissertation on Caryl Churchill. Sometimes while we talked I typed his name into Google and looked at photographs of him, to remind me what he looked like. I read everything about him on the internet and often emailed him quotes from his own interviews, even after he asked me to stop. He said he found it ‘super embarrassing’. I said: stop emailing me at 3.34 a.m. then (don’t actually). He replied: me email a 21 year old in the middle of the night? i don’t know what you’re talking about. i would never do that.

One night at the launch of a new poetry anthology, Melissa and I were left alone in a conversation with a male novelist whose books I had never read. The others had gone to get drinks. We were in a bar somewhere off Dame Street and my feet hurt because I was wearing shoes that I knew were too small. The novelist asked me who I liked to read and I shrugged. I wondered if I could just remain silent until he left me alone, or if this would be a mistake, since I didn’t know how acclaimed his books were.

You have a real coolness about you, he said to me. Doesn’t she?

Melissa nodded but not enthusiastically. My coolness, if I had any, had never moved her.

Thanks, I said.

And you can take a compliment, that’s good, he said. A lot of people will try to run themselves down, you’ve got the right attitude.

Yes, I’m quite the compliment-taker, I said.

At this point I could see him try to exchange a look with Melissa, who remained disinterested. He seemed almost on the point of winking at her but he didn’t. Then he turned back to me with a smirking expression.

Well, don’t get cocky, he said.

Nick and Bobbi rejoined us then. The novelist said something to Nick, and Nick replied with the word ‘man’, like: oh, sorry about that, man. I would later make fun of this affectation in an email. Bobbi leaned her head on Melissa’s shoulder.

When the novelist left the conversation, Melissa drained her wine glass and grinned at me.

You really charmed him, she said.

Is that sarcastic? I asked.

He was trying to flirt with you. He said you were cool.

I was very aware of Nick standing at my elbow, though I couldn’t see his expression. I knew how badly I wanted to remain in control of the conversation.

Yeah, men love telling me I’m cool, I said. They just want me to act like I’ve never heard it before.

Melissa really did laugh then. I was surprised I could make her laugh like that. I felt for a moment that I’d misjudged her and, in particular, her attitude toward me. Then I realised Nick was laughing also, and I lost interest in what Melissa felt.

Cruel, he said.

Don’t think you’re exempt, said Bobbi.

Oh, I’m definitely a bad guy, Nick said. That’s not why I’m laughing.


At the end of June I went to Ballina for a couple of days to visit my parents. My mother didn’t enforce these visits, but lately when we spoke on the phone she’d started saying things like: oh you’re alive, are you? Am I going to recognise you next time you come home, or will you have to put a flower in your lapel? Eventually I booked a train ticket. I sent her a text telling her when to expect me and signed off: in the spirit of filial duty, your loyal daughter.

Bobbi and my mother got along famously. Bobbi studied History and Politics, subjects my mother considered serious. Real subjects, she would say, with an eyebrow lifted at me. My mother was a kind of social democrat, and at this time I believe Bobbi identified herself as a communitarian anarchist. When my mother visited Dublin, they took mutual enjoyment in having minor arguments about the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes Bobbi would turn to me and say: Frances, you’re a communist, back me up. And my mother would laugh and say: that one! You may as well ask the teapot. She had never taken much interest in my social or personal life, an arrangement which suited us both, but when I broke up with Bobbi she described it as ‘a real shame’.

After she picked me up from the train on Saturday, we spent the afternoon in the garden. The grass had been cut and gave off a warm, allergenic smell. The sky was soft like cloth and birds ran over it in long threads. My mother was weeding and I was pretending to weed but actually just talking. I discovered an unforeseen enthusiasm for talking about all the editors and writers I had met in Dublin. I took my gloves off to wipe my forehead at one point and didn’t put them back on. I asked my mother if she wanted tea and she ignored me. Then I sat under the fuchsia bush plucking little fuchsias off the branches and talking about famous people again. The words just flew out of my mouth deliciously. I had no idea I had so much to say, or that I would enjoy saying it so much.

Eventually my mother stripped her gloves off and sat on a lawn chair. I was sitting with my legs crossed, examining the tips of my sneakers.

You seem very impressed with this woman Melissa, she said.

Do I?

She certainly introduces you to a lot of people.

She likes Bobbi more than she likes me, I said.

But her husband likes you.

I shrugged and said I didn’t know. Then I licked my thumb and started scrubbing at a little fleck of dirt on my sneaker.

And they’re rich, are they? said my mother.

I think so. The husband is from a wealthy background. And their house is really nice.

It’s not like you to get carried away with posh houses.

This comment stung me. I continued scrubbing my shoe as if I hadn’t noticed her tone.

I’m not getting carried away, I said. I’m just reporting what their house is like.

I have to say, it all sounds very odd to me. I don’t know what this woman is doing hanging around with college students at her age.

She’s thirty-seven, not fifty. And she’s writing a profile about us, I told you that.

My mother got up from the lawn chair and wiped her hands on her linen gardening trousers.

Well, she said. It’s far from nice houses in Monkstown you were reared.

I laughed, and she offered her hand to help me up. Her hands were large and sallow, not at all like mine. They were full of the practicality I lacked, and my hand fit into them like something that needed fixing.

Will you see your father this evening? she said.

I withdrew my hand and pocketed it.

Maybe, I said.


It had been obvious to me from a young age that my parents didn’t like one another. Couples in films and on television performed household tasks together and talked fondly about their shared memories. I couldn’t remember seeing my mother and father in the same room unless they were eating. My father had ‘moods’. Sometimes during his moods my mother would take me to stay with her sister Bernie in Clontarf, and they would sit in the kitchen talking and shaking their heads while I watched my cousin Alan play Ocarina of Time. I was aware that alcohol played a role in these incidents, but its precise workings remained mysterious to me.

I enjoyed our visits to Bernie’s house. While we were there I was allowed to eat as many digestive biscuits as I wanted, and when we returned, my father was either gone out or else feeling very contrite. I liked it when he was gone out. During his periods of contrition he tried to make conversation with me about school and I had to choose between humouring and ignoring him. Humouring him made me feel dishonest and weak, a soft target. Ignoring him made my heart beat very hard and afterwards I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. Also it made my mother cry.

It was hard to be specific about what my father’s moods consisted of. Sometimes he would go out for a couple of days and when he came back in we’d find him taking money out of my Bank of Ireland savings jar, or our television would be gone. Other times he would bump into a piece of furniture and then lose his temper. He hurled one of my school shoes right at my face once after he tripped on it. It missed and went in the fireplace and I watched it smouldering like it was my own face smouldering. I learned not to display fear, it only provoked him. I was cold like a fish. Afterwards my mother said: why didn’t you lift it out of the fire? Can’t you at least make an effort? I shrugged. I would have let my real face burn in the fire too.

When he came home from work in the evening I used to freeze entirely still, and after a few seconds I would know with complete certainty if he was in one of the moods or not. Something about the way he closed the door or handled his keys would let me know, as clearly as if he yelled the house down. I’d say to my mother: he’s in a mood now. And she’d say: stop that. But she knew as well as I did. One day, when I was twelve, he turned up unexpectedly after school to pick me up. Instead of going home, we drove away from town, toward Blackrock. The DART went past on our left and I could see the Poolbeg towers out the car window. Your mother wants to break up our family, my father said. Instantly I replied: please let me out of the car. This remark later became evidence in my father’s theory that my mother had poisoned me against him.

After he moved to Ballina, I visited every second weekend. He was usually on good behaviour then, and we got takeaway for dinner and sometimes went to the cinema. I watched constantly for the flicker that meant his good mood was over and bad things would happen. It could be anything. But when we went to McCarthy’s in the afternoons, my father’s friends would ask: this is your little prodigy, is it, Dennis? And they asked me crossword clues from the back of the paper, or how to spell very long words. When I was right, they clapped me on the back and bought me red lemonade.

She’ll go off and work for NASA, his friend Paul said. You’ll be made up for life.

She’ll do whatever she likes, my father said.

Bobbi had only met him once, at our school graduation. He came up to Dublin for the ceremony, wearing a shirt and a purple tie. My mother had told him about Bobbi, and when he met her after the ceremony he shook her hand and said: that was a grand performance. We were in the school library eating triangular sandwiches and drinking glasses of cola. You look like Frances, Bobbi said. My father and I looked at each other and he gave a sheepish laugh. I don’t know about that, he said. Afterwards he told me she was a ‘pretty girl’ and kissed my cheek goodbye.

In college I stopped visiting so often. I went to Ballina once a month instead, and stayed with my mother when I was there. After he retired, my father’s moods became more erratic. I started to realise how much time I spent appeasing him, being falsely cheerful, and picking up things he’d knocked over. My jaw started to feel stiff, and I noticed myself flinching at small noises. Our conversations became strained, and more than once he accused me of changing my accent. You look down on me, he said during an argument. Don’t be so stupid, I replied. He laughed and said: oh, there we have it. The truth is out now.


After dinner I told my mother I would visit him. She kneaded my shoulder and told me she thought it was a good idea. It’s a great idea, she said. Good woman.

I walked through town with my hands in my jacket pockets. The sun was setting and I wondered what would be on television. I could feel a headache developing, like it was coming down from the sky directly into my brain. I tried stamping my feet as loudly as I could to distract myself from bad thoughts, but people gave me curious looks and I felt cowed. I knew that was weak of me. Bobbi was never cowed by strangers.

My father lived in a little terraced house near the petrol station. I rang the doorbell and put my hands back in my pockets. Nothing happened. I rang again and then I tried the handle, which felt greasy. The door opened up and I stepped in.

Dad? I said. Hello?

The house smelled of chip oil and vinegar. The carpet in the hallway, which had been patterned when he first moved in, was now walked flat and brown. A family photo taken on holiday in Majorca was hanging above the telephone, depicting me at age four in a yellow T-shirt. The T-shirt said BE HAPPY.

Hello? I said.

My father appeared out of the kitchen doorway.

Is it yourself, Frances? he said.


Come on inside, I was just eating.

The kitchen had a high mottled window onto a concrete yard. Unwashed dishes were stacked up by the sink and the bin was spilling small items over the lip of the plastic and onto the floor: receipts, potato peelings. My father walked right over them like he didn’t notice. He was eating from a brown bag propped on a small blue plate.

You’ve had dinner, have you? he said.

I have, yeah.

Tell us the news from Dublin.

Nothing much, I’m afraid, I said.

After he was finished eating I boiled a kettle and filled the sink with hot water and lemon-scented washing liquid. My father went into the other room to look at the television. The water was too hot, and I could see when I lifted my hands they had turned a glaring pink colour. I washed the glasses and cutlery first, then the dishes, then the pots and pans. When everything was clean, I emptied the sink, wiped down the kitchen surfaces and swept the peelings back into the bin. Watching the soap bubbles slide silently down the blades of the kitchen knives, I had a sudden desire to harm myself. Instead I put away the salt and pepper shakers and went into the living room.

I’m off, I said.

You’re away, are you?

That bin needs taking out.

See you again, my father said.


Melissa invited us to her birthday party in July. We hadn’t seen her for a while and Bobbi started worrying about what to buy her, and whether we should get her separate gifts or just one from both of us. I said I was only going to get her a bottle of wine anyway so that was the end of the discussion as far as I cared about it. When we saw one another at events Melissa and I increasingly avoided making eye contact. She and Bobbi whispered in each other’s ears and laughed, like they were in school. I didn’t have the courage to really dislike her, but I knew I wanted to.

Bobbi wore a tight cropped T-shirt and black jeans to the party. I wore a summer dress with tiny, fiddly shoulder straps. It was a warm evening, and the sky was only beginning to darken as we reached the house. The clouds were green and the stars reminded me of sugar. We could hear the dog barking in the back garden. I hadn’t seen Nick in real life for what seemed like a long time, and I felt a little nervous about it, because of how droll and indifferent I had pretended to be in all our emails.

Melissa answered the door herself. She embraced us in turn and placed a powdery kiss on my left cheekbone. She smelled of a perfume I recognised.

No gifts necessary! she said. You’re too generous! Come on in, get yourselves a drink. It’s great to see you.

We followed her into the kitchen, which was dim and full of music and people wearing long necklaces. Everything looked clean and spacious. For a few seconds I imagined that this was my house, that I had grown up here, and the things in it belonged to me.

There’s wine on the counter, and spirits are in the utility room at the back, Melissa said. Help yourselves.

Bobbi poured herself a huge glass of red wine and followed Melissa into the conservatory. I didn’t want to tag along so I pretended I wanted spirits instead.

The utility room was a cupboard-sized space through a door at the back of the kitchen. Inside were maybe five people, smoking a joint and laughing loudly about something. One of the people was Nick. When I came in someone said: oh no, it’s the cops! Then they laughed again. I stood there feeling younger than them, and thinking about how low my dress was cut at the back. Nick was sitting on the washing machine drinking from a beer bottle. He was wearing a white shirt open at the collar and I noticed that he seemed flushed. It was very hot and smoky in the room, much hotter than in the kitchen.

Melissa said the spirits were in here, I said.

Yeah, Nick said. What can I get you?

I said I would have a glass of gin while everyone stared at me in a peaceable, stoned-looking way. Other than Nick there were two women and two men. The women weren’t looking at one another. I glanced at my own fingernails to reassure myself they were clean.

Are you another actress? someone asked.

She’s a writer, Nick said.

He introduced me to the other people then, and I immediately forgot their names. He was pouring a large measure of gin into a big glass tumbler and he said there was tonic water somewhere so I waited for him to find it.

I’m not being offensive, the guy said, there are a lot of actresses.

Yeah, Nick has to be careful where he looks, said someone else.

Nick looked at me, though it was difficult to tell if he was embarrassed or just high. The remark definitely had sexual connotations, though it wasn’t clear to me precisely what they were.

No, I don’t, he said.

Melissa must have gotten pretty open-minded then, someone else said.

They all laughed at that, except Nick. I knew at this point that I was being interpreted as some kind of vaguely disruptive sexual presence for the sake of their joke. It didn’t bother me, and in fact I thought about how funny I could make it sound in an email. Nick handed me the glass of gin and tonic and I smiled without showing my teeth. I didn’t know whether he expected me to leave now that I had the drink, or if that would be rude.

How was the visit home? he said.

Oh, good, I said. Parents well. Thank you for asking.

Whereabouts are you from, Frances? said one of the men.

I’m from Dublin, but my parents live in Ballina.

So you’re a culchie, the man said. I didn’t think Nick had culchie friends.

Well, I grew up in Sandymount, I said.

Which county do you support in the All Ireland? someone asked.

I inhaled the second-hand smoke through my mouth, the sweet rancid taste of it. As a woman I have no county, I said. It felt good to belittle Nick’s friends, although they seemed harmless. Nick laughed, as if to himself at something he had just remembered.

Someone out in the kitchen yelled something about cake then and everyone left the utility room except for us two. The dog came in and Nick pushed her out with his foot and closed the door. He looked shy to me suddenly, but maybe only because he was still very flushed from the heat. That James Blake song ‘Retrograde’ was playing outside in the kitchen. Nick had mentioned in an email how much he liked the album, and I wondered if he had chosen the music for the party.

I’m sorry, he said. I’m so high I can’t really see straight.

I’m jealous.

I rested my back against the fridge and fanned my face a little with my hand. He held up his beer bottle and touched it to my cheek. The glass felt fantastically cold and wet, so much that I exhaled quickly without meaning to.

Is that good? he said.

Yeah, that’s incredible. What about here?

I shifted aside one of the shoulder straps of my dress and he rested the bottle against my collarbone. A bead of cold condensation rolled down my skin and I shivered.

That’s so good, I said.

He didn’t say anything. His ears were red, I noticed that.

Do the back of my leg, I said.

He moved the bottle to his other hand and held it against the back of my thigh. His fingertips felt cold brushing my skin.

Like that? he said.

But come closer.

Are we flirting now?

I kissed him. He let me. The inside of his mouth was hot and he put his free hand on my waist, like he wanted to touch me. I wanted him so much that I felt completely stupid, and incapable of saying or doing anything at all.

He drew away from me after a few seconds and wiped his mouth, but tenderly, as if he was trying to make sure it was still there.

We probably shouldn’t do that in here, he said.

I swallowed. I said: I should go. Then I left the utility room, pinching my bottom lip with my fingers and trying not to make any expression with my face.

Out in the conservatory Bobbi was sitting on a windowsill talking to Melissa. She waved me over and I felt I had to join them although I didn’t want to. They were eating clean little slices of cake, with two thin lines of cream and jam that looked like toothpaste. Bobbi was eating hers with her fingers, Melissa had a fork. I smiled and touched my mouth again compulsively. Even while I did it I knew it was a bad idea, but I couldn’t stop.

I’m just telling Melissa how much we idolise her, Bobbi said.

Melissa gave me a levelling glance and took out a packet of cigarettes.

I don’t think Frances idolises anyone, she said.

I shrugged, helplessly. I finished my gin and tonic and poured myself a glass of white wine. I wanted Nick to come back into the room, so I could look at him across the countertop. Instead I looked at Melissa and thought: I hate you. This idea just came from nowhere, like a joke or an exclamation. I didn’t even know if I really hated her, but the words felt and sounded right, like the lyrics to a song I had just remembered.

Hours passed and I didn’t see Nick again at all. Bobbi and I had planned to stay the night in their spare room but most of the guests didn’t leave until four or five that morning. By that time I didn’t know where Bobbi was. I went up to the spare room to look for her but it was empty. I lay on the bed in my clothes and wondered if I was going to start feeling some particular emotion, like sadness or regret. Instead I just felt a lot of things I didn’t know how to identify. In the end I fell asleep and when I woke up Bobbi wasn’t there. It was a grey morning outside and I left the house on my own, without seeing anybody, to get the bus back to town.


That afternoon I lay on my bed smoking with the window open, dressed in a vest and my underwear. I was hungover and still hadn’t heard from Bobbi. Through the window I could see the breeze rearranging the foliage and two children appearing and disappearing from behind a tree, one of them carrying a plastic lightsaber. I found this relaxing, or at least it distracted me from feeling terrible. I was a little chilly, but I didn’t want to break the spell by getting dressed.

Eventually, at three or four in the afternoon, I got out of bed. I didn’t feel like writing anything. In fact I felt that if I tried to write, what I produced would be ugly and pretentious. I wasn’t the kind of person I pretended to be. I thought of myself trying to be witty in front of Nick’s friends in the utility room and felt sick. I didn’t belong in rich people’s houses. I was only ever invited to places like that because of Bobbi, who belonged everywhere and had a quality about her that made me invisible by comparison.

I got an email from Nick that evening.

hi frances, i’m really sorry about what happened last night. it was fucking stupid of me and i feel awful. i don’t want to be that person and i don’t want you to think of me as that person either. i feel really bad about it. i should never have put you in that situation. i hope you’re feeling ok today.

I made myself take an hour before responding. I watched some cartoons on the internet and made a cup of coffee. Then I read his email again several times. I was relieved he had put the whole thing in lower case like he always did. It would have been dramatic to introduce capitalisation at such a moment of tension. Eventually I wrote my reply, saying that it was my fault for kissing him, and that I was sorry.

He emailed back promptly.

no, it wasn’t your fault. i’m like 11 years older than you and it was also my wife’s birthday. i behaved terribly, i really don’t want you to feel guilty about it.

It was getting dark out. I felt dizzy and restless. I thought about going for a walk but it was raining and I’d had too much coffee. My heart was beating too quickly for my body. I hit reply.

Do you often kiss girls at parties?

He responded within about twenty minutes.

since i got married, never. although i think that might make it worse.

My phone rang and I picked up, still looking at the email.

Do you want to hang out and watch Brazil? Bobbi said.


Do you want to watch Brazil together? Hello? The dystopian film with the Monty Python guy. You said you wanted to see it.

What? I said. Yeah, okay. Tonight?

Are you sleeping or something? You sound weird.

I’m not sleeping. Sorry. I was looking at the internet. Sure, let’s hang out.

It took her about half an hour to get to my apartment. When she did, she asked if she could stay over. I said yes. We sat on my bed smoking and talking about the party the night before. I felt my heart beating hard in the knowledge that I was being deceitful, but outwardly I was a capable liar, even a competitive one.

Your hair is getting really long, Bobbi said.

Do you think we should cut it?

We decided to cut it. I sat on a chair in front of the living-room mirror, surrounded by old pages of newspaper. Bobbi used the same scissors I used to cut open kitchen items, but she washed them with boiled water and Fairy liquid first.

Do you still think Melissa likes you? I said.

Bobbi gave me a little indulgent smile, as if she had never actually ventured that theory.

Everyone likes me, she said.

But I mean, do you think she feels a particular connection with you, in comparison to other people. You know what I mean.

I don’t know, she’s difficult to get a read on.

I find that too, I said. Sometimes I feel like she loathes me.

No, she definitely likes you as a person. I think you remind her of her.

I felt even more dishonest then, and a sensation of heat crawled up into my ears. Maybe knowing that I’d betrayed Melissa’s trust made me feel like a liar, or maybe this imaginative connection between us suggested something else. I knew I was the one who had kissed Nick and not the other way around, but I also believed that he’d wanted me to. If I reminded Melissa of herself, was it possible I reminded Nick of Melissa also?

We could give you a fringe, said Bobbi.

No, people mix us up too much already.

It’s offensive to me how offensive that is to you.

After she cut my hair we made a pot of coffee and sat on the couch talking about the college feminist society. Bobbi had left the society the previous year, after they invited a British guest speaker who had supported the invasion of Iraq. The society president had described Bobbi’s objection to the invitation as ‘aggressive’ and ‘sectarian’ on the group’s Facebook page, which privately we all agreed was total bullshit, but because the speaker had never actually accepted the invite, Philip and I had not gone so far as to formally renounce our membership. Bobbi’s attitude toward this decision varied greatly, and tended to be an indicator of how well she and I were getting along at a given time. When things were good, she considered it a sign of my tolerance and even self-sacrifice to the cause of gender revolution. When we were having a minor dispute over something, she sometimes referred to it as an example of my disloyalty and ideological spinelessness.

Do they have a stance on sexism these days? she said. Or are there two sides to that as well?

They definitely want more women CEOs.

You know, there’s a distinct lack of female arms dealers, I’ve always thought.

We put on the film eventually, but Bobbi fell asleep while we were watching it. I wondered if she preferred sleeping in my apartment because being near to her parents caused her anxiety. She hadn’t mentioned it, and she was usually pretty free with the details of her emotional life, but family things were different. I didn’t feel like watching the film on my own so I switched it off and just read the internet instead. Eventually Bobbi woke up and then went to bed properly, on the mattress in my room. I liked having her sleeping there while I was awake, it felt reassuring.

That night while she was in bed I opened up my laptop and replied to Nick’s last email.


After that I went back and forth on the question of whether to tell Bobbi that I had kissed Nick. I had, regardless of my ultimate decision, meticulously rehearsed the way I would tell her about it, which details I would emphasise and which I would leave out.

It just kind of happened, I would say.

That’s crazy, Bobbi would reply. But I’ve always kind of thought he liked you.

I don’t know. He was really high, it was stupid.

But in the email he definitely implied it was his fault, didn’t he?

I could tell that I was using the Bobbi character mainly to reassure myself that Nick was interested in me, and I knew in real life Bobbi wouldn’t react that way at all, so I stopped. I did feel an urge to tell someone who would understand the situation, but I also didn’t want to risk Bobbi telling Melissa, which I thought she might do, not as a conscious betrayal but in an effort to weave herself further into Melissa’s life.

I decided not to tell her, which meant I couldn’t tell anyone, or no one who would understand. I mentioned to Philip that I had kissed someone I shouldn’t have kissed, but he didn’t know what I was talking about.

Is it Bobbi? he said.

No, it’s not Bobbi.

Worse or better than if you had kissed Bobbi?

Worse, I said. A lot worse. Just forget about it.

Jesus, I didn’t think anything could be worse than that.

There wasn’t any point in trying to tell him anyway.

I once kissed an ex at a party, he said. Weeks of drama. Ruined my focus.

Is that so.

She had a boyfriend, though, which complicated things.

I bet, I said.


The next day there was a book launch in Hodges Figgis and Bobbi wanted to go and get a copy of the book signed. It was a very warm afternoon in July and I sat inside for the hour before the launch pulling knots out of my hair with my fingers, pulling them so hard that little broken strands of hair tangled and snapped out. I thought: probably they won’t even be there, and I’ll have to come home and sweep up all these strands of hair and feel terrible. Probably nothing of import will happen in my life again and I’ll just have to sweep things up until I die.

I met Bobbi in the door of the bookshop and she waved at me. She had a row of bangles on her left wrist, which rattled elegantly down her arm with the waving gesture. Often I found myself believing that if I looked like Bobbi, nothing bad would happen to me. It wouldn’t be like waking up with a new, strange face: it would be like waking up with a face I already knew, the face I already imagined was mine, and so it would feel natural.

On our way up to the launch I saw Nick and Melissa through the staircase railings. They were standing next to a display of books. Melissa’s calves were bare and very pale and she was wearing flat shoes with an ankle strap. I stopped walking and touched my collarbone.

Bobbi, I said. Does my face look shiny?

Bobbi glanced back and scrunched up her eyes to inspect me.

Yeah, a little, she said.

I let the air out of my lungs quietly. There wasn’t anything I could do now anyway since I was on the stairs already. I wished I hadn’t asked.

Not in a bad way, she said. You look cute, why?

I shook my head and we continued up the stairs. The reading hadn’t started yet, so everyone was still milling around holding wine glasses expectantly. The room was very hot, though they had opened the windows out over the street, and a cool mouthful of breeze touched my left arm and made me shiver. I was sweating. Bobbi was talking about something in my ear, and I nodded and pretended to listen.

Eventually Nick looked over and I looked back. I felt a key turning hard inside my body, turning so forcefully that I could do nothing to stop it. His lips parted like he was about to say something, but he just inhaled and then seemed to swallow. Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overheard.

After a few seconds I was conscious that Bobbi had stopped talking, and when I turned to see her she was looking over at Nick too, with her bottom lip pushed out a little, like: oh, now I see who you’re staring at. I wanted a glass to hold against my face.

Well, at least he can dress himself, she said.

I didn’t pretend to be confused. He was wearing a white T-shirt and he had suede shoes on, the kind everyone wore then, desert boots. Even I wore desert boots. He only looked handsome because he was handsome, though Bobbi wasn’t sensitive to the effects of beauty like I was.

Or maybe Melissa dresses him, said Bobbi.

She was smiling to herself as if concealing a mystery, though her behaviour wasn’t in the least mysterious. I ran my hand through my hair and looked away. A white square of sunlight lay on the carpet like snow.

They don’t even sleep together, I said.

Our eyes met then and Bobbi lifted her chin just barely.

I know, she said.

During the reading we didn’t whisper in each other’s ears like we usually did. It was a book of short stories by a female writer. I glanced at Bobbi but she kept looking forward, so I knew I was being punished for something.

We saw Nick and Melissa after the reading was over. Bobbi went to meet them and I followed her, cooling my face against the back of my hand. They were standing near the refreshments table and Melissa reached over to get us both a glass of wine. White or red? she said.

White, I said. Always white.

Bobbi said: when she drinks red her mouth goes like, and she gestured to her own mouth in a little circle. Melissa handed me a glass and said: oh I get that. It’s not so bad, I think. There’s something appealingly evil about it. Bobbi agreed with her. Like you’ve been drinking blood, she said. And Melissa laughed and said: yes, sacrificing virgins.

I looked into the wine, which was clear and almost greenish-yellow, the colour of cut grass. When I glanced back at Nick he was looking at me. The light from the window felt hot on the back of my neck. I was wondering if you’d be here, he said. It’s nice to see you. And he slipped his hand into his pocket as if he was afraid of what else he might do with it. Melissa and Bobbi were talking still. No one was paying us any attention. Yeah, I said. You too.


Melissa was working in London the following week. It was the hottest week of the year, and Bobbi and I sat in the empty college campus together eating ice cream and trying to get a tan. One afternoon I emailed Nick asking him if I could come over so we could talk. He said sure. I didn’t tell Bobbi. I brought my toothbrush in my bag.

When I arrived at the house all the windows and doors were open. I rang the doorbell anyway and heard him saying come in from the kitchen, he didn’t even check who it was. I closed the door behind me anyway. When I got inside he was drying his hands on a tea towel, like he’d just finished washing up. He smiled and told me he’d been feeling nervous about seeing me again. The dog was lying on the sofa. I hadn’t seen her on the sofa before and wondered if maybe Melissa wouldn’t let her sleep there. I asked Nick why he was nervous and he laughed and made a little shrugging gesture, though one that seemed more relaxed than anxious. I leaned my back against the countertop while he folded the towel away.

So, you’re married, I said.

Yeah, it looks like it. Do you want a drink?

I accepted a small bottle of beer, though only because I wanted something to hold in my hand. I felt restless, the way you feel when you’ve already done the wrong thing and you’re anxious about what the outcome is going to be. I told him I didn’t want to be a homewrecker or whatever. He laughed at that.

That’s funny, he said. What does that mean?

I mean, you’ve never had an affair before. I don’t want to wreck your marriage.

Oh, well, the marriage has actually survived several affairs, I just haven’t been involved in any of them.

He said this amusingly, and it made me laugh, though it also had the effect, which I guess was intended, of making me relax about the morality side of things. I hadn’t really wanted to feel sympathetic to Melissa, and now I felt her moving outside my frame of sympathy entirely, as if she belonged to a different story with different characters.

When we went upstairs I told Nick I had never had sex with a man before. He asked if that was a big deal and I said I didn’t think it was, but it might be weird if he only found out later. While we undressed I tried to seem casual by keeping my limbs still and not trembling violently. I was afraid of undressing in front of him, but I didn’t know how to shield my body in a way that wouldn’t look awkward and unattractive. He had a very imposing upper body, like a piece of statuary. I missed the distance between us when he’d watched me being applauded, which now seemed protective, even necessary. But when he asked me if I was sure I wanted to do all this, I heard myself say: I didn’t really come over just to talk, you know.

In bed he asked me what felt good a lot. I said everything felt good. I felt very flushed and I could hear myself making a lot of noise, but only syllables, no real words. I closed my eyes. The inside of my body was hot like oil. I was possessed by an overwhelming and intense energy which seemed to threaten me. Please, I was saying. Please, please. Eventually Nick sat up to take a box of condoms from his bedside locker and I thought: I might never be able to speak again after this. But I surrendered without struggle. Nick murmured the word ‘sorry’, as if the several seconds I had been lying there waiting constituted a minor wrong on his part.

When it was over I lay on my back shivering. I had been so terribly noisy and theatrical all the way through that it was impossible now to act indifferent like I did in the emails.

That felt kind of okay, I said.

Did it?

I think I liked it more than you did.

Nick laughed and lifted his arm to place a hand behind his head.

No, he said, you really didn’t.

You were very nice to me.

Was I?

Seriously, I really do appreciate how nice you were, I said.

Wait. Hey. Are you all right?

Little tears had started slipping out of my eyes and down onto the pillow. I wasn’t sad, I didn’t know why I was crying. I’d had this problem before, with Bobbi, who believed it was an expression of my repressed feelings. I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show that I wasn’t invested in the crying. I knew I was embarrassing myself badly, but there was nothing I could do about it.

This happens, I said. It wasn’t anything you did.

Nick touched his hand to my body then, just under my breast. I felt soothed like I was an animal, and I cried harder.

Are you sure? he said.

Yeah. You can ask Bobbi. I mean, don’t.

He smiled and said: yeah, I won’t. He was stroking me with the tips of his fingers, like the way he petted his dog. I wiped at my face roughly.

You’re really handsome, you know, I said.

He laughed then.

Is that all I get? he said. I thought you liked my personality.

Do you have one?

He turned over on his back, looking up at the ceiling with a bemused expression. I can’t believe we did this, he said. I knew then that the crying was over. I felt good about everything I could think of. I touched the inside of his wrist and said: yes, you can.

I woke up late the next morning. Nick made French toast for breakfast and I got the bus back into town. I sat at the back, near a window, where the sun bore down on my face like a drill and the cloth of the seat felt sensationally tactile against my bare skin.


That evening Bobbi said she needed somewhere to stay to get away from the ‘domestic situation’. Apparently Eleanor had thrown away some of Jerry’s possessions over the weekend, and at the height of the ensuing argument Lydia had locked herself in the bathroom and screamed that she wanted to die.

Deeply uncool, Bobbi said.

I told her she could stay with me. I didn’t know what else to say. She knew I had an empty apartment. That evening she played around with my electric piano using my laptop for sheet music and I checked my email on my phone. No one had been in touch. I picked up a book but didn’t feel like reading. I hadn’t done any writing that morning, or the morning before. I had started reading long interviews with famous writers and noticing how unlike them I was.

You’ve got a notification on your instant message thing, said Bobbi.

Don’t read it. Let me see it.

Why are you saying don’t read it?

I don’t want you to read it, I said. Give me the laptop.

She handed me the laptop, but I could see she wasn’t going back to the piano. The message was from Nick.

Nick: i know, i’m a bad person

Nick: do you want to come over again some time this week?

Who’s it from? Bobbi said.

Can you relax about it?

Why did you go ‘don’t read it’?

Because I didn’t want you to read it, I said.

She bit on her thumbnail coquettishly and then got onto the bed beside me. I shut my laptop screen, which made her laugh.

I didn’t open it, she said. But I did see who it was from.

Okay, good for you.

You really like him, don’t you?

I don’t know what you’re talking about, I said.

Melissa’s husband. You have a serious thing for him.

I rolled my eyes. Bobbi lay back on the bed and grinned. I hated her then and even wanted to harm her.

Why, are you jealous? I said.

She smiled, but absently, as if she was thinking of something else. I didn’t know what else to say to her. She went back to the piano for a while and then she wanted to go to bed. When I woke up the next morning she was already gone.


I stayed with Nick most nights that week. He wasn’t working, so he went to the gym for a couple of hours in the morning and I went into the agency or just wandered around the shops. Then in the evening he made dinner and I played with the spaniel. I told Nick I didn’t think I’d eaten so much food in my life, which was true. At home my parents had never cooked with chorizo or aubergine. I had also never tasted fresh avocado before, though I didn’t tell Nick about that.

One night I asked him if he was afraid of Melissa finding out about us and he said he didn’t think she would find out.

But you found out, I said. When she had affairs.

No, she told me.

What, really? Out of the blue?

The first time, yeah, he said. It was very surreal. She was away at one of these book festivals, and she called me at like five in the morning and said she had something to tell me, that was it.


But it was just a one-off thing, they didn’t keep seeing each other after that. The other time was a lot more involved. I probably shouldn’t be telling you all these secrets, should I? I’m not trying to make her look bad. Or at least I don’t think I am, I don’t know.

Over dinner we exchanged some of the details about our lives. I explained that I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive. Nick told me he was ‘basically’ a Marxist, and he didn’t want me to judge him for owning a house. It’s this or paying rent forever, he said. But I acknowledge it’s troubling. It sounded to me like his family was very wealthy, but I was wary of probing the issue, since I already felt self-conscious about never paying for anything. His parents were still married and he had two siblings.

During these discussions, Nick laughed at all my jokes. I told him I was easily seduced by people who laughed at my jokes and he said he was easily seduced by people who were smarter than he was.

I guess you just don’t meet them very often, I said.

See, isn’t it nice to flatter each other?

The sex was so good that I often cried while it was happening. Nick liked me to go on top, so he could sit back against t