After the first time they had sex, Marianne stayed the night in his house. He had never been with a girl who was a virgin before. In total he had only had sex a small number of times, and always with girls who went on to tell the whole school about it afterwards. He’d had to hear his actions repeated back to him later in the locker room: his errors, and, so much worse, his excruciating attempts at tenderness, performed in gigantic pantomime. With Marianne it was different, because everything was between them only, even awkward or difficult things. He could do or say anything he wanted with her and no one would ever find out. It gave him a vertiginous, light-headed feeling to think about it. When he touched her that night she was so wet, and she rolled her eyes back into her head and said: God, yes. And she was allowed to say it, no one would know. He was afraid he would come then just from touching her like that.

In the hallway the next morning he kissed her goodbye and her mouth tasted alkaline, like toothpaste. Thanks, she said. Then she left, before he understood what he was being thanked for. He put the bedsheets in the washing machine and took fresh linen from the hot press. He was thinking about what a secretive, independent-minded person Marianne was, that she could come over to his house and let him have sex with her, and she felt no need to tell anyone about it. She just let things happen, like nothing meant anything to her.

Lorraine got home that afternoon. Before she’d even put her keys on the table she said: Is that the washing machine? Connell nodded. She crouched down and looked through the round glass window into the drum, where his sheets were tossing around in the froth.

I’m not going to ask, she said.

What?

She started to fill the kettle, while he leaned against the countertop.

Why your bedclothes are in the wash, she said. I’m not asking.

He rolled his eyes just for something to do with his face.

You think the worst of everything, he said.

She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch. Excuse me, she said. I must be the most permissive mother of anyone in your school. As long as you’re using protection, you can do what you want.

He said nothing. The kettle started to warm up and she took a clean mug down from the press.

Well? she said. Is that a yes?

Yes what? Obviously I didn’t have unprotected sex with anyone while you were gone. Jesus.

So go on, what’s her name?

He left the room then but he could hear his mother laughing as he went up the stairs. His life was always giving her amusement.

In school on Monday he had to avoid looking at Marianne or interacting with her in any way. He carried the secret around like something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he had to carry everywhere and never spill. She just acted the same as always, like it never happened, reading her book at the lockers as usual, getting into pointless arguments. At lunchtime on Tuesday, Rob started asking questions about Connell’s mother working in Marianne’s house, and Connell just ate his lunch and tried not to make any facial expressions.

Would you ever go in there yourself ? Rob said. Into the mansion.

Connell jogged his bag of chips in his hand and then peered into it. I’ve been in there a few times, yeah, he said.

What’s it like inside?

He shrugged. I don’t know, he said. Big, obviously. What’s she like in her natural habitat? Rob said.

I don’t know.

I’d say she thinks of you as her butler, does she?

Connell wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It felt greasy. His chips were too salty and he had a headache.

I doubt it, Connell said.

But your mam is her housemaid, isn’t she?

Well, she’s just a cleaner. She’s only there like twice a week, I don’t think they interact much.

Does Marianne not have a little bell she would ring to get her attention, no? Rob said.

Connell said nothing. He didn’t understand the situation with Marianne at that point. After he talked to Rob he told himself it was over, he’d just had sex with her once to see what it was like, and he wouldn’t see her again. Even as he was saying all this to himself, however, he could hear another part of his brain, in a different voice, saying: Yes you will. It was a part of his consciousness he had never really known before, this inexplicable drive to act on perverse and secret desires. He found himself fantasising about her in class that afternoon, at the back of Maths, or when they were supposed to be playing rounders. He would think of her small wet mouth and suddenly run out of breath, and have to struggle to fill his lungs.

That afternoon he went to her house after school. All the way over in the car he kept the radio on very loud so he didn’t have to think about what he was doing. When they went upstairs he didn’t say anything, he let her talk. That’s so good, she kept saying. That feels so good. Her body was all soft and white like flour dough. He seemed to fit perfectly inside her. Physically it just felt right, and he understood why people did insane things for sexual reasons then. In fact he understood a lot of things about the adult world that had previously seemed mysterious. But why Marianne? It wasn’t like she was so attractive. Some people thought she was the ugliest girl in school. What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it. She asked him if it felt good and he pretended he didn’t hear her. She was on her hands and knees so he couldn’t see her facial expression or read into it what she was thinking. After a few seconds she said in a much smaller voice: Am I doing something wrong? He closed his eyes.

No, he said. I like it.

Her breath sounded ragged then. He pulled her hips back against his body and then released her slightly. She made a noise like she was choking. He did it again and she told him she was going to come. That’s good, he said. He said this like nothing could be more ordinary to him. His decision to drive to Marianne’s house that afternoon suddenly seemed very correct and intelligent, maybe the only intelligent thing he had ever done in his life. After they were finished he asked her what he should do with the condom. Without lifting her face off the pillow she said: You can just leave it on the floor. Her face was pink and damp. He did what she said and then lay on his back looking up at the light fixtures. I like you so much, Marianne said. Connell felt a pleasurable sorrow come over him, which brought him close to tears. Moments of emotional pain arrived like this, meaningless or at least indecipherable. Marianne lived a drastically free life, he could see that. He was trapped by various considerations. He cared what people thought of him. He even cared what Marianne thought, that was obvious now.

Multiple times he has tried writing his thoughts about Marianne down on paper in an effort to make sense of them. He’s moved by a desire to describe in words exactly how she looks and speaks. Her hair and clothing. The copy of Swann’s Way she reads at lunchtime in the school cafeteria, with a dark French painting on the cover and a mint-coloured spine. Her long fingers turning the pages. She’s not leading the same kind of life as other people. She acts so worldly at times, making him feel ignorant, but then she can be so naive. He wants to understand how her mind works. If he silently decides not to say something when they’re talking, Marianne will ask ‘what?’ within one or two seconds. This ‘what?’ question seems to him to contain so much: not just the forensic attentiveness to his silences that allows her to ask in the first place, but a desire for total communication, a sense that anything unsaid is an unwelcome interruption between them. He writes these things down, long run-on sentences with too many dependent clauses, sometimes connected with breathless semicolons, as if he wants to recreate a precise copy of Marianne in print, as if he can preserve her completely for future review. Then he turns a new page in the notebook so he doesn’t have to look at what he’s done.

 

What are you thinking about? says Marianne now.

She’s tucking her hair behind her ear. College, he says.

You should apply for English in Trinity.

He stares at the web page again. Lately he’s consumed by a sense that he is in fact two separate people, and soon he will have to choose which person to be on a full-time basis, and leave the other person behind. He has a life in Carricklea, he has friends. If he went to college in Galway he could stay with the same social group, really, and live the life he has always planned on, getting a good degree, having a nice girlfriend. People would say he had done well for himself. On the other hand, he could go to Trinity like Marianne. Life would be different then. He would start going to dinner parties and having conversations about the Greek bailout. He could fuck some weird-looking girls who turn out to be bisexual. I’ve read The Golden Notebook, he could tell them. It’s true, he has read it. After that he would never come back to Carricklea, he would go somewhere else, London, or Barcelona. People would not necessarily think he had done well; some people might think he had gone very bad, while others would forget about him entirely. What would Lorraine think? She would want him to be happy, and not care what others said. But the old Connell, the one all his friends know: that person would be dead in a way, or worse, buried alive, and screaming under the earth.

Then we’d both be in Dublin, he says. I bet you’d pretend you didn’t know me if we bumped into each other.

Marianne says nothing at first. The longer she stays silent the more nervous he feels, like maybe she really would pretend not to know him, and the idea of being beneath her notice gives him a panicked feeling, not only about Marianne personally but about his future, about what’s possible for him.

Then she says: I would never pretend not to know you, Connell.

The silence becomes very intense after that. For a few seconds he lies still. Of course, he pretends not to know Marianne in school, but he didn’t mean to bring that up. That’s just the way it has to be. If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was a serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: Is it okay if I come in your mouth? With his friends he acts normal. He and Marianne have their own private life in his room where no one can bother them, so there’s no reason to mix up the separate worlds. Still, he can tell he has lost his footing in their discussion and left an opening for this subject to arise, though he didn’t want it to, and now he has to say something.

Would you not? he says.

No.

Alright, I’ll put down English in Trinity, then.

Really? she says.

Yeah. I don’t care that much about getting a job anyway.

She gives him a little smile, like she feels she has won the argument. He likes to give her that feeling. For a moment it seems possible to keep both worlds, both versions of his life, and to move in between them just like moving through a door. He can have the respect of someone like Marianne and also be well liked in school, he can form secret opinions and preferences, no conflict has to arise, he never has to choose one thing over another. With only a little subterfuge he can live two entirely separate existences, never confronting the ultimate question of what to do with himself or what kind of person he is. This thought is so consoling that for a few seconds he avoids meeting Marianne’s eye, wanting to sustain the belief for just a little longer. He knows that when he looks at her, he won’t be able to believe it any more.

 

 

Six Weeks Later (April 2011)

They have her name on a list. She shows the bouncer her ID. When she gets inside, the interior is low-lit, cavernous, vaguely purple, with long bars on either side and steps down to a dance floor. It smells of stale alcohol and the flat tinny ring of dry ice. Some of the other girls from the fundraising committee are sitting around a table already, looking at lists. Hi, Marianne says. They turn around and look at her.

Hello, says Lisa. Don’t you scrub up well?

You look gorgeous, says Karen.

Rachel Moran says nothing. Everyone knows that Rachel is the most popular girl in school, but no one is allowed to say this. Instead everyone has to pretend not to notice that their social lives are arranged hierarchically, with certain people at the top, some jostling at mid-level, and others lower down. Marianne sometimes sees herself at the very bottom of the ladder, but at other times she pictures herself off the ladder completely, not affected by its mechanics, since she does not actually desire popularity or do anything to make it belong to her. From her vantage point it is not obvious what rewards the ladder provides, even to those who really are at the top. She rubs her upper arm and says: Thanks. Would anyone like a drink? I’m going to the bar anyway.

I thought you didn’t drink alcohol, says Rachel.

I’ll have a bottle of West Coast Cooler, Karen says. If you’re sure.

Wine is the only alcoholic beverage Marianne has ever tried, but when she goes to the bar she decides to order a gin and tonic. The barman looks frankly at her breasts while she’s talking. Marianne had no idea men really did such things outside of films and TV, and the experience gives her a little thrill of femininity. She’s wearing a filmy black dress that clings to her body. The place is still almost empty now, though the event has technically started. Back at the table Karen thanks her extravagantly for the drink. I’ll get you back, she says. Don’t worry about it, says Marianne, waving her hand.

Eventually people start arriving. The music comes on, a pounding Destiny’s Child remix, and Rachel gives Marianne the book of raffle tickets and explains the pricing system. Marianne was voted onto the Debs fundraising committee presumably as some kind of joke, but she has to help organise the events anyway. Ticket book in hand, she continues to hover beside the other girls. She’s used to observing these people from a distance, almost scientifically, but tonight, having to make conversation and smile politely, she’s no longer an observer but an intruder, and an awkward one. She sells some tickets, dispensing change from the pouch in her purse, she buys more drinks, she glances at the door and looks away in disappointment.

The lads are fairly late, says Lisa.

Of all the possible lads, Marianne knows who is specified: Rob, with whom Lisa has an on-again off-again relationship, and his friends Eric, Jack Hynes and Connell Waldron. Their lateness has not escaped Marianne’s notice.

If they don’t show up I will actually murder Connell, says Rachel. He told me yesterday they were definitely coming.

Marianne says nothing. Rachel often talks about Connell this way, alluding to private conversations that have happened between them, as if they are special confidants. Connell ignores this behaviour, but he also ignores the hints Marianne drops about it when they’re alone together.

They’re probably still pre-drinking in Rob’s, says Lisa.

They’ll be absolutely binned by the time they get here, says Karen.

Marianne takes her phone from her bag and writes Connell a text message: Lively discussion here on the subject of your absence. Are you planning to come at all? Within thirty seconds he replies: yeah jack just got sick everywhere so we had to put him in a taxi etc. on our way soon though. how are you getting on socialising with people. Marianne writes back: I’m the new popular girl in school now. Everyone’s carrying me around the dance floor chanting my name. She puts her phone back in her bag. Nothing would feel more exhilarating to her at this moment than to say: They’ll be on their way shortly. How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive.

 

Although Carricklea is the only place Marianne has ever lived, it’s not a town she knows particularly well. She doesn’t go drinking in the pubs on Main Street, and before tonight she had never been to the town’s only nightclub. She has never visited the Knocklyon housing estate. She doesn’t know the name of the river that runs brown and bedraggled past the Centra and behind the church car park, snagging thin plastic bags in its current, or where the river goes next. Who would tell her? The only time she leaves the house is to go to school, and the enforced Mass trip on Sundays, and to Connell’s house when no one is home. She knows how long it takes to get to Sligo town – twenty minutes – but the locations of other nearby towns, and their sizes in relation to Carricklea, are a mystery to her. Coolaney, Skreen, Ballysadare, she’s pretty sure these are all in the vicinity of Carricklea, and the names ring bells for her in a vague way, but she doesn’t know where they are. She’s never been inside the sports centre. She’s never gone drinking in the abandoned hat factory, though she has been driven past it in the car.

Likewise, it’s impossible for her to know which families in town are considered good families and which aren’t. It’s the kind of thing she would like to know, just to be able to reject it the more completely. She’s from a good family and Connell is from a bad one, that much she does know. The Waldrons are notorious in Carricklea. One of Lorraine’s brothers was in prison once, Marianne doesn’t know for what, and another one got into a motorcycle crash off the roundabout a few years ago and almost died. And of course, Lorraine got pregnant at seventeen and left school to have the baby. Nonetheless Connell is considered quite a catch these days. He’s studious, he plays centre forward in football, he’s good-looking, he doesn’t get into fights. Everybody likes him. He’s quiet. Even Marianne’s mother will say approvingly: That boy is nothing like a Waldron. Marianne’s mother is a solicitor. Her father was a solicitor too.

Last week, Connell mentioned something called ‘the ghost’.

 

Marianne had never heard of it before, she had to ask him what it was. His eyebrows shot up. The ghost, he said. The ghost estate, Mountain View. It’s like, right behind the school. Marianne had been vaguely aware of some construction on the land behind the school, but she didn’t know there was a housing estate there now, or that no one lived in it. People go drinking there, Connell added. Oh, said Marianne. She asked what it was like. He said he wished he could show her, but there were always people around. He often makes blithe remarks about things he ‘wishes’. I wish you didn’t have to go, he says when she’s leaving, or: I wish you could stay the night. If he really wished for any of those things, Marianne knows, then they would happen. Connell always gets what he wants, and then feels sorry for himself when what he wants doesn’t make him happy.

Anyway, he did end up taking her to see the ghost estate. They drove there in his car one afternoon and he went out first to make sure no one was around before she followed him. The houses were huge, with bare concrete facades and overgrown front lawns. Some of the empty window holes were covered over in plastic sheeting, which whipped around loudly in the wind. It was raining and she had left her jacket in the car. She crossed her arms, squinting up at the wet slate roofs.

Do you want to look inside? Connell said.

The front door of number 23 was unlocked. It was quieter in the house, and darker. The place was filthy. With the toe of her shoe Marianne prodded at an empty cider bottle. There were cigarette butts all over the floor and someone had dragged a mattress into the otherwise bare living room. The mattress was stained badly with damp and what looked like blood.

 

Pretty sordid, Marianne said aloud. Connell was quiet, just looking around.

Do you hang out here much? she said.

He gave a kind of shrug. Not much, he said. Used to a bit, not much any more.

Please tell me you’ve never had sex on that mattress.

He smiled absently. No, he said. Is that what you think I get up to at the weekend, is it?

Kind of.

He didn’t say anything then, which made her feel even worse. He kicked a crushed can of Dutch Gold aimlessly and sent it skidding towards the French doors.

This is probably three times the size of my house, he said.

Would you say?

She felt foolish for not realising what he had been thinking about. Probably, she said. I haven’t seen upstairs, obviously.

Four bedrooms.

Jesus.

Just lying empty, no one living in it, he said. Why don’t they give them away if they can’t sell them? I’m not being thick with you, I’m genuinely asking.

She shrugged. She didn’t actually understand why. It’s something to do with capitalism, she said.

Yeah. Everything is, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

She nodded. He looked over at her, as if coming out of a dream. Are you cold? he said. You look like you’re freezing.

She smiled, rubbed at her nose. He unzipped his black Puffa jacket and put it over her shoulders. They were standing very close. She would have lain on the ground and let him walk over her body if he wanted, he knew that.

When I go out at the weekend or whatever, he said, I don’t go after other girls or anything.

Marianne smiled and said: No, I guess they come after you.

He grinned, he looked down at his shoes. You have a very funny idea of me, he said.

She closed her fingers around his school tie. It was the first time in her life she could say shocking things and use bad language, so she did it a lot. If I wanted you to fuck me here, she said, would you do it?

His expression didn’t change but his hands moved around under her jumper to show he was listening. After a few seconds he said: Yeah. If you wanted to, yeah. You’re always making me do such weird things.

What does that mean? she said. I can’t make you do anything.

Yeah, you can. Do you think there’s any other person I would do this type of thing with? Seriously, do you think anyone else could make me sneak around after school and all this?

What do you want me to do? Leave you alone?

He looked at her, seemingly taken aback by this turn in the discussion. Shaking his head, he said: If you did that . . .

She looked at him but he didn’t say anything else. If I did that, what? she said.

I don’t know. You mean, if you just didn’t want to see each other any more? I would feel surprised honestly, because you seem like you enjoy it.

And what if I met someone else who liked me more?

He laughed. She turned away crossly, pulling out of his grasp, wrapping her arms around her chest. He said hey, but she didn’t turn around. She was facing the disgusting mattress with the rust-coloured stains all over it. Gently he came up behind her and lifted her hair to kiss the back of her neck.

Sorry for laughing, he said. You’re making me insecure, talking about not wanting to hang out with me any more. I thought you liked me.

She shut her eyes. I do like you, she said.

Well, if you met someone else you liked more, I’d be pissed off, okay? Since you ask about it. I wouldn’t be happy. Alright?

Your friend Eric called me flat-chested today in front of everyone.

Connell paused. She felt his breathing. I didn’t hear that, he said.

You were in the bathroom or somewhere. He said I looked like an ironing board.

Fuck’s sake, he’s such a prick. Is that why you’re in a bad mood? She shrugged. Connell put his arms around her belly.

He’s only trying to get on your nerves, he said. If he thought he had the slightest chance with you, he would be talking very differently. He just thinks you look down on him.

She shrugged again, chewing on her lower lip.

You have nothing to worry about with your appearance, Connell said.

Hm.

I don’t just like you for your brains, trust me.

She laughed, feeling silly.

He rubbed her ear with his nose and added: I would miss you if you didn’t want to see me any more.

Would you miss sleeping with me? she said.

He touched his hand against her hip bone, rocking her back against his body, and said quietly: Yeah, a lot.

Can we go back to your house now?

He nodded. For a few seconds they just stood there in stillness, his arms around her, his breath on her ear. Most people go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.

 

Finally, after her third gin and tonic, the door bangs open and the boys arrive. The committee girls get up and start teasing them, scolding them for being late, things like that. Marianne hangs back, searching for Connell’s eye contact, which he doesn’t return. He’s dressed in a white button-down shirt, the same Adidas sneakers he wears everywhere. The other boys are wearing shirts too, but more formal-looking, shinier, and worn with leather dress shoes. There’s a heavy, stirring smell of aftershave in the air. Eric catches Marianne’s eye and suddenly lets go of Karen, a move obvious enough that everyone else looks around too.

Look at you, Marianne, says Eric.

She can’t tell immediately whether he’s being sincere or mocking. All the boys are looking at her now except Connell.

I’m serious, Eric says. Great dress, very sexy.

Rachel starts laughing, leans in to say something in Connell’s ear. He turns his face away slightly and doesn’t laugh along. Marianne feels a certain pressure in her head that she wants to relieve by screaming or crying.

Let’s go and have a dance, says Karen.

I’ve never seen Marianne dancing, Rachel says.

Well, you can see her now, says Karen.

Karen takes Marianne’s hand and pulls her towards the dance floor. There’s a Kanye West song playing, the one with the Curtis Mayfield sample. Marianne is still holding the raffle book in one hand, and she feels the other hand damp inside Karen’s. The dance floor is crowded and sends shudders of bass up through her shoes into her legs. Karen props an arm on Marianne’s shoulder, drunkenly, and says in her ear: Don’t mind Rachel, she’s in foul humour. Marianne nods her head, moving her body in time with the music. Feeling drunk now, she turns to search the room, wanting to know where Connell is. Right away she sees him, standing at the top of the steps. He’s watching her. The music is so loud it throbs inside her body. Around him the others are talking and laughing. He’s just looking at her and saying nothing. Under his gaze her movements feel magnified, scandalous, and the weight of Karen’s arm on her shoulder is sensual and hot. She rocks her hips forward and runs a hand loosely through her hair.

In her ear Karen says: He’s been watching you the whole time.

Marianne looks at him and then back at Karen, saying nothing, trying not to let her face say anything.

Now you see why Rachel’s in a bad mood with you, says Karen. She can smell the wine spritzer on Karen’s breath when she speaks, she can see her fillings. She likes her so much at that moment. They dance a little more and then go back upstairs together, hand in hand, out of breath now, grinning about nothing. Eric and Rob are pretending to have an argument. Connell moves towards Marianne almost imperceptibly, and their arms touch. She wants to pick up his hand and suck on his fingertips one after another.

Rachel turns to her then and says: You might try actually selling some raffle tickets at some point?

Marianne smiles, and the smile that comes out is smug, almost derisive, and she says: Okay.

I think these lads might want to buy some, says Eric.

He nods over at the door, where some older guys have arrived. They’re not supposed to be here, the nightclub said it would be ticket-holders only. Marianne doesn’t know who they are, someone’s brothers or cousins maybe, or just men in their twenties who like to hang around school fundraisers. They see Eric waving and come over. Marianne looks in her purse for the cash pouch in case they do want to buy raffle tickets.

How are things, Eric? says one of the men. Who’s your friend here?

That’s Marianne Sheridan, Eric says. You’d know her brother, I’d say. Alan, he would’ve been in Mick’s year.

The man just nods, looking Marianne up and down. She feels indifferent to his attention. The music is too loud to hear what Rob is saying in Eric’s ear, but Marianne feels it has to do with her.

Let me get you a drink, the man says. What are you having?

No, thanks, says Marianne.

The man slips an arm around her shoulders then. He’s very tall, she notices. Taller than Connell. His fingers rub her bare arm. She tries to shrug him off but he doesn’t let go. One of his friends starts laughing, and Eric laughs along.

Nice dress, the man says.

Can you let go of me? she says.

Very low-cut there, isn’t it?

In one motion he moves his hand down from her shoulder and squeezes the flesh of her right breast, in front of everyone. Instantly she jerks away from him, pulling her dress up to her collarbone, feeling her face fill with blood. Her eyes are stinging and she feels a pain where he grabbed her. Behind her the others are laughing. She can hear them. Rachel is laughing, a high fluting noise in Marianne’s ears.

Without turning around, Marianne walks out the door, lets it slam behind her. She’s in the hallway now with the cloakroom and can’t remember whether the exit is right or left. She’s shaking all over her body. The cloakroom attendant asks if she’s alright. Marianne doesn’t know any more how drunk she is. She walks a few steps towards a door on the left and then puts her back against the wall and starts sliding down towards a seated position on the floor. Her breast is aching where that man grabbed it. He wasn’t joking, he wanted to hurt her. She’s on the floor now hugging her knees against her chest.

Up the hall the door comes open again and Karen comes out, with Eric and Rachel and Connell following. They see Marianne on the floor and Karen runs over to her while the other three stay standing where they are, not knowing what to do maybe, or not wanting to do anything. Karen hunches down in front of Marianne and touches her hand. Marianne’s eyes are sore and she doesn’t know where to look.

Are you alright? Karen says.

I’m fine, says Marianne. I’m sorry. I think I just had too much to drink.

Leave her, says Rachel.

Here, look, it was just a bit of fun, says Eric. Pat’s actually a sound enough guy if you get to know him.

I think it was funny, says Rachel.

At this Karen snaps around and looks at them. Why are you even out here if you think it was so funny? she says. Why don’t you go and pal around with your best friend Pat? If you think it’s so funny to molest young girls?

How is Marianne young? says Eric.

We were all laughing at the time, says Rachel.

That’s not true, says Connell.

Everyone looks around at him then. Marianne looks at him.

Their eyes meet.

Are you okay, are you? he says.

Oh, do you want to kiss her better? says Rachel.

His face is flushed now, and he touches a hand to his brow. Everyone is still watching him. The wall feels cold against Marianne’s back.

Rachel, he says, would you ever fuck off?

Karen and Eric exchange a look then, eyes wide, Marianne can see them. Connell never speaks or acts like this in school. In all these years she has never seen him behave at all aggressively, even when taunted. Rachel just tosses her head and walks back inside the club. The door falls shut heavily on its hinges. Connell continues rubbing his brow for a second. Karen mouths something at Eric, Marianne doesn’t know what it is. Then Connell looks at Marianne and says: Do you want to go home? I’m driving, I can drop you. She nods her head. Karen helps her up from the floor. Connell puts his hands in his pockets as if to prevent himself touching her by accident. Sorry for making a fuss, Marianne says to Karen. I feel stupid. I’m not used to drinking.

It’s not your fault, says Karen.

Thank you for being so nice, Marianne says.

They squeeze hands once more. Marianne follows Connell towards the exit then and around the side of the hotel, to where his car is parked. It’s dark and cool out here, with the sound of music from the nightclub pulsing faintly behind them. She gets in the passenger seat and puts her seat belt on. He closes the driver’s door and puts his keys in the ignition.

Sorry for making a fuss, she says again.

You didn’t, says Connell. I’m sorry the others were being so stupid about it. They just think Pat is great because he has these parties in his house sometimes. Apparently if you have house parties it’s okay to mess with people, I don’t know.

It really hurt. What he did.

Connell says nothing then. He just kneads the steering wheel with his hands. He looks down into his lap, and exhales quickly, almost like a cough. Sorry, he says. Then he starts the car. They drive for a few minutes in silence, Marianne cooling her forehead against the window.

Do you want to come back to my house for a bit? he says.

Is Lorraine not there?

He shrugs. He taps his fingers on the wheel. She’s probably in bed already, he says. I mean we could just hang out for a bit before I drop you home. It’s okay if you don’t want to.

What if she’s still up?

Honestly she’s pretty relaxed about this sort of stuff anyway. Like I really don’t think she would care.

Marianne stares out the window at the passing town. She knows what he’s saying: that he doesn’t mind if his mother finds out about them. Maybe she already knows.

Lorraine seems like a really good parent, Marianne remarks.

Yeah. I think so.

She must be proud of you. You’re the only boy in school who’s actually turned out well as an adult.

Connell glances over at her. How have I turned out well? he says.

What do you mean? Everyone likes you. And unlike most people you’re actually a nice person.

He makes a facial expression she can’t interpret, kind of raising his eyebrows, or frowning. When they get back to his house the windows are all dark and Lorraine is in bed. In Connell’s room he and Marianne lie down together whispering. He tells her that she’s beautiful. She has never heard that before, though she has sometimes privately suspected it of herself, but it feels different to hear it from another person. She touches his hand to her breast where it hurts, and he kisses her. Her face is wet, she’s been crying. He kisses her neck. Are you okay? he says. When she nods, he smooths her hair back and says: It’s alright to be upset, you know. She lies with her face against his chest. She feels like a soft piece of cloth that is wrung out and dripping.

You would never hit a girl, would you? she says.

God, no. Of course not. Why would you ask that?

I don’t know.

Do you think I’m the kind of person who would go around hitting girls? he says.

She presses her face very hard against his chest. My dad used to hit my mum, she says. For a few seconds, which seems like an unbelievably long time, Connell says nothing. Then he says: Jesus. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.

It’s okay, she says.

Did he ever hit you?

Sometimes.

Connell is silent again. He leans down and kisses her on the forehead. I would never hurt you, okay? he says. Never. She nods and says nothing. You make me really happy, he says. His hand moves over her hair and he adds: I love you. I’m not just saying that, I really do. Her eyes fill up with tears again and she closes them. Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she’s aware of this now, while it’s happening. She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.

 

 

Photograph © Maia Flore / Agence Vu/ Camera Press, from Situations2012

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