We started talking in the summer. I sent all my Tinder matches the blowing-a-kiss emoji one night. He was first to reply, sent back the horny devil emoji a minute later.
Every day I wrote and ate and then I went swimming. I would get home late and rub moisturiser into my cool, full breasts, still damp and salty from the sea. My stomach was strong, held up with a smooth layer of fat over muscle. I put on black silk short shorts and a rust-coloured bra with lace half-cups and satin straps. All the salons were closed; my long dark hair curled and coiled over my shoulders and all down my back. I was still young. At 10 or 11, when the high summer sun went down, I sent him videos, the WhatsApp tone ringing in the background as he texted more commands. When I drag my laptop across the sheets to change the angle, the noise is deafening.
After a while I started to like him. It was still mechanical, but something affectionate had crept in. I looked forward to his messages so much. My screen time reported that I used WhatsApp for over six hours a day. I texted him pictures of the shrimp tacos I had made. He told me to take pictures getting ready to go out. I sent a picture of me in a dress, smiling. He liked some angles more than others.
We met outside Grogan’s on Christmas Eve. I smelled him before I saw him. A lot of aftershave; mint and faint alcohol on his breath. Nervous. But it was too late to go home now. He had spotted me.
“Well Eva, what’s the craic?”
He kissed me on the cheek. I was glad he recognised my face.
“This is where I’d have met you anyway if things were normal!” I said brightly. Grogan’s had been closed for almost nine months now and town was dead without it.
“Oh ya? Do you, eh… do you come here often?”
He was funny and better looking than his profile pictures. He wore black straight jeans and the denim jacket with the fluffy collar. I realised I hadn’t seen him clothed since we matched.
“Did you come up to Dublin just to meet me?!”
“No, it was for the shopping and prostitution as well.”
I hadn’t heard his voice the whole time we’d been texting. He was from the West. I knew he would sound like he was from the country but this was next level.
“So you didn’t have any other plans on Christmas Eve?” he asked.
“I mean, I wanted to meet you. We’ve been chatting for months!”
“Sorry about all the cancellations and putting it off for so long,” he said. “I was a bit nervous.”
“Yeah, me too. It’s a weird time to be meeting up with strangers.”
I probably went on 15 walking dates during the first summer of the pandemic. This one would be great because it was him. We walked down South William Street, as quiet now as it had been in March during the first weeks of lockdown. A taxi cruised past, the driver raising a slow index finger at me. No-one else was here. After the manic shopping rush of the last few weeks, town was empty again, like Dublin always is on Christmas Eve, after everyone has had their last afternoon pint and gone home with their shopping, or off to Busáras or Connolly or Heuston. This year there were no Italian tourists in duvet coats, no girls crying because they left their bag in one of the 12 pubs. No brothers-in-law, no screaming fights, just quiet.
The streets were so beautiful. Everything shone on the wet ground as we walked together. Flat Perspex screens in front of all the bars and cafes around Castle Market and Fade Street reflected the bright white chandeliers and draping diamond necklace lights, hanging down between the squat carparks and red brick spires. Behind the glittering plastic booths were piled wicker chairs and tables, chained together in the dark, everything closed up for a night or two or else just closed. Puddles shone with light in the gutters outside the International Bar, on the low streets running down to College Green, all lit up around the front of Trinity College and the Bank of Ireland.
We went down to the Spar on Dame Street and made tea at the Insomnia concession. I don’t really drink anymore.
“This Solaris tea is really nice,” I said. “It’s from Galway, you know?”
I hoked the herbal teabag around in the scorching water with a skinny little stick, tossed it on the dirty wooden counter amid the milk rings and scattered sugar crystals.
“That literally makes no sense at all,” I said. “I thought it would make you feel at home! Or do you wish you were back on that N17?”
“Why don’t you go and drink natural wines in D4 with your Trinity friends, you asshole?”
“Actually that’s more like Dublin 8,” I said. “Dublin 4 people are still on the Margaux.”
“Shut the f**k up, Ross O’Carroll Kenny.”
We walked uphill towards City Hall, smiling.
During lockdown I walked all over Dublin, getting to know it again. The warm, hoppy smell in the air was Guinness brewing, a burnt-toast smell like home. Without traffic fumes the canal water was so clear that slimy tricycles and traffic cones reappeared at the bottom. A fox walked past me casually, his long, paintbrush body unperturbed by my presence. I cycled down the middle of the street, practicing taking my hands off the handlebars. All the places I used to go with you were closed now anyway. Little by little, vertebra by vertebra, I unfurled, opening the front of my body towards the sun. So much need, adrenaline coursing through me, skin prickling at the thought of human touch. Energy made me listen to terrible music; I laughed by myself alone in my apartment, looked at our message exchange with soft eyes, mouthing the words he had written to me.
“So you never told me what happened with your ex,” I said. We had kept that part brief in our messages. I wanted to keep it light.
“She wanted me to put a ring on it after only eight years. Talk about desperate!”
“What a needy bitch,” I said. “Well, I’m going to block you as soon as you get back on the train, don’t worry.”
At the corner of Parliament Street, we stopped and looked all the way down to the bridge, over the Liffey and straight up Capel Street on the other side. City Hall was underlit and orange, sitting at a slant on the suddenly sharp incline towards Christchurch. I shivered. The quiet was thrilling, like the New York blackout or the Christmas Guinness ad on TV. Any minute now a horse’s hooves could ring out on the spooky cobbled streets around Dublin Castle or up towards Rainsford Street. A man would be thrown from a small trap onto the kerb. It would start to snow. He would roll, draw himself upright and stagger into a laneway.
“I always thought I’d get married here on Christmas Eve,” I said. “For a few years anyway, I was hoping for that, because I’d lived abroad for so long. Something to make one nice Christmas memory at home or to have something nice to celebrate… some kind of happy occasion to remember it by instead of just depressing ones.”
“Is that a hint? Ehhh, maybe let’s wait until the third date to tie the knot!”
He was so nice and it didn’t feel like he was laughing at me or taking me too seriously either. In lockdown, conversations got really deep really fast. All the middle-ground, half-acquaintance, half-drunk, breezy floating pub chat had disappeared. Neighbours became suddenly intimate; stuck at home, old people cleaned out their drawers again and found photos from the past. It was the season for talking about exes; at the same time this was a first date and I should be keeping it light. I probably cried a little bit as I laughed.
“Ahh, who’s the desperate one now?!” I said.
It was the wrong thing to say. No one on a first date with an internet stranger on Christmas Eve wants to be called desperate, and he hadn’t made fun of me and had only used the word about his bitch ex-girlfriend. It was just very hard to get out of the habit of being defensive, even or especially in jest. These things were as hard to unlearn, my therapist had said, as unlearning how to ride a bike. But now I had to say something else to recover. This kind of comment would merit a swift unmatch on Tinder; in real life, I had more of a chance to move the chat along, but would have to be a total, literal genius to think of the right thing to say now to his slightly fallen face.
“Sorry,” I said. “Bants fail.”
“Mal-function,” he said, in a robot voice.
“I had a bath before coming out,” I said. “Some water must have gotten in.”
This was good. Men on Tinder loved hearing about baths as an easy prelude to sexting.
“Yeah, I think I saw some leaking out of your eyes there a second ago,” he said.
What a legendary comeback. Our date was now officially going exceptionally well and I genuinely loved him for a second.
“Should we take a wander along the river or something?”
We walked down Parliament Street, past the shuttered bars, and turned west, heading inland along the Liffey. The sky was dark but low light shone through with green over the river, the silhouette of the Four Courts black and netted with widowy scaffolding. Other cities have massive towers and erections but Dublin has rotundas, cupolas, small domes and other softly-curved bridges and rooves. Sometimes as I walked during lockdown the constant, intense anxiety would break and something ecstatic would emerge. “Marry me, world!” I thought in those moments. The pain of the preceding years would alleviate and recede and I would be disoriented, like seeing a blindingly bright sun spell after heavy rain, or picking up a massive box only to realise it was empty and fall backwards, staggering.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this? Do you think it’s dangerous to be meeting up?”
Every morning at seven my radio woke me up to a recitation of the number of deaths so far. After that the talk show hosts talked all day long about the house parties. Maybe this guy went to house parties. He looked a bit like he did. Maybe he was one of the people who didn’t care if they killed everyone with their selfish need for booze and craic. The flip side of this pandemic, a nurse told me, was an unprecedented boom in STIs: unprotected sex between people desperate for human touch. Maybe my shortness of breath was Covid or syphilis. Maybe I would kill him with my selfish need for human touch.
“Sure if we weren’t doing this we’d be at home killing our elderly parents.”
I wanted to keep it light but I asked him why he wasn’t spending Christmas with his family. “Let’s just say it wasn’t always ‘Jubilant scenes at Dublin Airport’ on Christmas Eve in my house.”
“Lol. Yeah, we’re not exactly Coronation Street ourselves.”
He was funny but he had a nice way of looking extremely serious and focused. His face looked like he was frowning, but he was just listening. It felt weird to be walking around with someone who seemed to be thinking long, consecutive thoughts, then responding with verbal indications that he had heard what I, a virtual stranger, had said. He was trying to understand what I was saying. I turned that thought over like a stone. It made me feel like jumping up and down but I continued to put one foot in front of the other, like a stick figure drawing. “The moss is on this side of the Liffey,” I said, pointing down at the low wall, “because it’s facing north.” He looked at it. I very, very briefly considered jumping in.
We got to Usher’s Island and I stopped, pointing up.
“This is the house The Dead is set in.”
“Is that a series or something?”
“It’s a short story by James Joyce, actually.”
“Oh right well, I’ve never read anything by him. Probably telling that to the wrong person though, amn’t I?”
“Well this is a good place to start! It’s a film too, a beautiful one by John Huston with Angelica Huston. You know her, from The Witches?”
“Oh ya… cheeeeldren of Eeeeeenklant!”
“That’s actually a deadly film too. Nicolas Roeg.”
“So what’s the story about?”
I had reread it recently because I was furious to learn that Joyce had been younger than 25 when he wrote it.
“Well. It’s about a man who is very ‘in his head’. Then women do things to interrupt his fantasies and that annoys him, so he calls them old.”
No. That wasn’t fair. My voice went into professional mode.
“It’s a story about a marriage I suppose. It’s about a woman married to this man who is very ‘thought tormented’, as he puts it. At the end of the story, her husband has this tiny revelation of understanding of the shared world of their marriage, that she is a separate person, with a past, and a life of her own, when she tells him about a boy she loved when she was young, long before she met him. Then he goes back into aesthetics, back into his head, to the life of the mind and art. It’s a brief encounter, only really knowing someone for a second, understanding their lived reality. Even if you’re married to him. Or her. Then it’s gone.”
“Hard can’t relate. Doesn’t sound like something a man would do, if you ask me.”
I liked him more and more. I asked him what he did, reluctantly, because I knew it was some tech job that I knew nothing about.
“You’re a designer?”
“No, I’m not a designer.”
“What are you then?”
“I’m a programmer.”
“What’s the difference?” I suddenly didn’t care. No one knows what they do.
“Programmers write code to create software applications, while designers create the visual designs for those applications.”
“I don’t understand.”
He was patient; he had explained this before, in exactly these words, to a rude child like me.
“Programmers take the designer’s visions and turn them into reality by coding them.”
I hear the words and I just don’t know what they mean.
“I used to always be searching for writing jobs on Indeed and Glassdoor,” I said, “but all the jobs that came up were writing code or something like that? The salaries were a lot better anyway.”
“Well, it is writing, it’s just... a different application I suppose. It’s just used for something else.”
“So, in a hundred years, will people be trying to save the building you wrote some bit of code in?”
“I don’t think the building is as important for our stuff, ha. We’re all remote now anyway, so my bedroom might be in the history books if I come up with something brilliant. At the moment it would probably be better if no one saw it, though… it’s a bit of a dump.”
I lurched away from him dramatically.
“Your room’s not a dump is it?! I swear to god, I don’t mind dick pics but if someone’s carpet is gross or they’re sending you selfies from a dirty bathroom, it’s an automatic block from me!”
“OK, good to know; hoover first, then spam people with unsolicited pictures of my naked, erect penis, got it.”
“Yep, those are my priorities. I’m a total slut but absolutely OCD about cleanliness.”
Pigeons, seagulls. It was so quiet. In a Zoom book club, the host stopped talking to listen to the blackbird outside my window. Crystalline, sweet song. They simplify their language for our ears, are more complex and fluid when playing to an audience of their own. Every night I drank a bottle of wine with a takeaway pizza, watched six or seven episodes of a multi-season show from the early 2000s, had a coffee and then went to bed. Since April or May my jaw had hurt from clenching it closed so tightly. So that was my life indoors. Outside, the city centre was empty like the 1980s. Red and yellow uniforms during the day, brown uniforms, high-vis neon yellow. Night town felt dangerous, with specific shades of blue. Gardaí sometimes. Shoals of turquoise Deliveroo riders, flitting by with big turquoise backpacks on black electric bikes, cycling fast through the flats.
We crossed the river into Smithfield and I automatically raised my mask. I couldn’t breathe under it, held it up with my locked jaw, my breath warm and hammy inside it like a dog’s. Leaning against a wall was a girl I knew from the streets around town. Recently I had refused to go to an ATM to take out cash to give her. Now she was crying, asking for two euro. “I’m only 16,” she said. “I don’t want to go into a hostel. I’m scared.” I looked down, kept walking. Up the street after us she cried. “I’m scared. I’m scared.”
“Is this safe?” he said. “Dublin is a bit of a kip now I hear. We could go back to my Airbnb. It’s in Mountjoy Square, I picked up the keys this afternoon.”
We would have to walk east, cutting through the markets to Capel Street and across Parnell Street to O’Connell Street and then uphill to Mountjoy Square. Past the tents clustered around the back of Cineworlds and carparks, the dead white faces spending Christmas there with no turkey, no hand sanitizer. “They keep telling us to wash our hands,” a man had said to me. “Where am I meant to wash me fucken hands?”
We hailed a taxi.
All around the sides of Mountjoy Square were little fairy lights hanging on railings. At the door I stopped. I didn’t know his surname, I realised. My friends all thought he already had a girlfriend or wife.
“Are you going to murder me?” I asked, confidently.
“No, I want you to come in to protect me in case there’s a murderer there already.”
“OK well. If I come in and it looks like it’s all set up to make a snuff movie I’ll just head off.”
“It’s definitely not clean enough for your type of porn, don’t worry.”
Everything on the north side of Georgian Dublin was twice as big as on the south side, houses with front steps you could crawl up on your hands and knees. This portico was six or seven feet across and the wood of the door felt heavy as I pushed it open. The stairs rose steeply from the hall. These were built in more spacious days, I thought, recalling the lines from Gabriel’s speech. We are living in thought-tormented times.
“Interesting combination of smells,” I said. “Mmmm, it’s a musky terroir… top notes of carpet and soup, with a late, fugitive tang of ass. Or is that balls?”
“Definitely balls,” he said. “Or at least, this is what my balls smell like.”
“Good to know. Ok, you got the Airbnb, I’ll get the Deliveroo.”
This was the worst Airbnb in Éire. I had forgotten what they were like: the padded wallpaper with spongy panels; the old ceiling, plastered and once magnificent with toothsome stucco; that white Ikea cube table. We turned on the little space heater. Even with it pulled right up to the seat of the couch I was freezing, apart from where it burned and bracked my shins through my black jeans and the thick black tights underneath.
“I’m just gonna sit on the floor here instead,” I said. “Do you want to join me down here in front of the fire? I want to be closer to this carpet.”
“Are you trying to get me to make sweet love down by the fire?”
I laughed, but was riddled with mortification by a Chef accent in 2020 on numerous levels, intersecting with issues of race, keen awareness of our age, his lack of originality and cosmopolitanism, the fact that I had only ever watched South Park while babysitting my little cousins as a tween myself.
“Speaking of Chef,” I said, “come down here so we can take a look at the pizza options. I don’t even want to know what the kitchen is like.”
The cracked screen of my iPhone was smeared with some greasy combination of hand cream, pocket dirt, impacted Charlotte Tilbury highlighter and tobacco flakes.
“Sorry,” I said, “this phone has the Rona,” and wiped it face down on my thigh through my jeans. “Do you have any cash? I want to give him a big tip. Those Brazilians have pretty much kept Dublin alive this year.”
“No way,” he said. “Ireland for the Irish!”
My heart stopped. “I swear to f**king God. If you’re a f**king Shinner I am out of here!”
“I’m only messing. I’ll give him a tenner,” he said. “Although I’m not sure if you’re right about the Shinners.”
A tenner was very decent considering one pizza was over €18. I felt OK about this political compromise.
“I’ll just have a drop of wine,” I said. “I basically don’t drink.”
After two mouthfuls I started getting that hot, lairy, shouty feeling in my head. I wanted to ask him everything there was to know about his ex but I also wanted to keep it light. We sat on the floor and listened to the progress reports dinging from the Deliveroo app on my phone. After a while he just started talking about her anyway.
“I’ve had relationships that were one thing or the other, you know? With my ex, it was so friendly and warm and caring. We were so close but there wasn’t much of a physical side. Since then I’ve had things that were only physical but then you don’t get on that well with them. The thought of finding both in the same person is scary… it could be overwhelming, and I don’t actually know if I could physically handle it? Like what if you lost it then, or something happened them or they didn’t feel the same way about you? Do you know what I mean?”
I had never known what someone meant more in my entire life.
“I know” I said. “I’m not scared of anything except for intimacy.”
“Like Kenny from South Park.”
I didn’t want any more Campo Viejo. I put down my glass.
“I can touch you now in real life,” I said and then I did.
I looked into his eyes and he inhaled. With my hands on his chest and my knees on either side of him I lowered, felt pressure, lowered some more and exhaled. He was in. It felt so good that I laughed, then stopped as the feeling registered again, stronger. The pressure increased instead of going away – the pressure to rub forwards against his hard abdomen and then back, so I felt him deep inside me and then something demanding intense friction, like a mosquito bite I couldn’t stop scratching. This was different.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, the serious look back on his face. I took his hands and pushed his fingers and knuckles backwards like I was trying to fight him, then put them on my breasts. He pulled my nipples and the pressure increased. Orgasm was inevitable now in a way that it hadn’t been in the past, when the pressure would go away or go somewhere else, like out of my eyeballs, in hot, heavy tears. There was nothing else I could do: my face got hot and something at the base of my spine started to climb the ladder. It curled and coiled all up my back as I suddenly opened my body to the front. Bright stars showered over my head; moments of our secret life together burst like stars upon my memory. I fell on top of him and fell asleep with my arms around his neck.
Later that night or morning in bed I said: “What time do you have to check out of here tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. What are your plans for the big day anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
I went back to sleep, his hand on my ass.
When I woke up my breath was making little white puffs in the air above my mouth. My piss sounded loud in the empty apartment, steam rising from the cold toilet beneath me like from underneath a horse. I came back into the room, feeling around my neck for the thin chain I wear. Folded bluntly on top of my jeans were two fifties, not mine.
Orange peels and tea leaves and red onion skins from rubbish bags that the seagulls had pecked open and then discarded were strewn all across the sloping, granite pavement on North Great George’s Street. I clopped downhill towards the Luas stop, past the big golden vintage Volvo Estate always parked there, texting him: “Eh… what the f**k? where did you go??!!” And that was it. No two tick, no blue tick. Happy Christmas, I never saw you again.
Eva Kenny is a writer from Dublin