As we left The Dirty Fiddle that rainy night, a man told me, “Goodbye, princess.” I wasn’t positive I’d heard him correctly, but my recent spin around the dance floor with my boyfriend was enough to convince me that the stranger was right: I was a motherfucking pearl.
Tomorrow would be less of a jewel to me, for then I was beginning a new life of sobriety. My decision to quit the instruments of bliss had wrought much protest from my friends; I was well under fifty and had no reason, my friends told me, to let sobriety piecemeal my bliss.
At The Dirty Fiddle, I was one of many dark-haired woman and the only one who owned an outrageous apple of an ass. My boyfriend, Brian, was the skinny rebel in a jean jacket. We were lascivious creatures; we were about to do it, or just had, I bet they were thinking. I resembled someone I was not in the best possible way. No better moment to quit.
(“Now, what have we got here?” I would cheerfully ask my Then Friends when they exchanged pills and dime bags at parties. I conversed with the drugs and formed intimate bonds with the equations that increased my serotonin uptake. I’ve tried Happiness Ascension Tactics in almost every form. You see, the cool, breezy climate in Salt City is just right for HAT, though I like to call it bliss instead. In Salt City, there are many young bodies for the salinity to conquer. Too few art galleries and stages for prominence, too many brilliant artists crowd bar floors, so the young blockade themselves from the salt winds to strip away their own indoors.)
We danced one song about a teenage wedding and left immediately to his pick-up truck where we smoked, stared into each other’s eyes, spoke at the same time, and brought each other off. Sex whined to make itself outside, pressing itself against the truck’s windows.
The clock struck midnight and my dance was over. My head was on his lap and he was stroking my hair.
“Time to go home, princess,” Brian told me.
But I am not the Princess, nor was I meant to be. I am the Squire’s great-granddaughter.
In 1930, my great-grandfather, Alfred O’Neill, was an Irish rogue who embezzled from his father-in-law and, shortly after, fled to sweet England. Sweet England he found useful to his pocket book. The girls—and he knew where to look—he found easy to bed. His Marlboro red hung low from his thin Irish lips and he let his ash drop into their sheets. These English girls, thought Alfred; it was as though they had no mothers. The English foremen wanted to believe the best of him. The country was looking for their Irish Messiah and found a cheerful renunciation of him in Alfred O’Neill. Pleasant-faced, articulate upon a pint’s wielding of him, a lover of families.
Alfred loved young lads—their beamish ways, their thin cheeks, their access to pretty women. Perhaps if his wife, Margaret, had been able to give him a boy, he would have stayed with her.
But back in County Kerry, he left three girls to care for their mother, his wife, who was riddled with cancer.
Every day after he fled Ireland, they say, she gazed at the door and waited for his return.
Agnes was my grandmother and, Alfred teased her, she had inherited his nose.
“Aw, Agnes,” he told her. “Your sisters wanted it. Eileen wanted. Mary wanted it. But you, my girl, you’ve got it. The O’Neill nose.” He grabbed the tip of her nose with his hand and made her head turn back and forth while her cheeks reddened.
I’ve got it, too. How many grams of powder and rings of jewelry have crossed this blessed thing’s threshold? How many drops of blood have lingered on the end before plummeting onto my blouses? And so on. And yet, no one has ever commissioned a banquet upon the grandeur of my nose.
Near the end of the H.A.T. era of my life, something happened during an expedition to sensory delights: I died. This hallucination was obviously terrifying—I saw my mom and my father’s ghost, my Nana, and the Squire all gathered around my hospital bed—but that was not the worst part, if you can believe it. The worst part came later when I shit my pants in front of Brian and two of my housemates. I didn’t understand where the smell was coming from and suddenly, a roomful of people with enormous faces was focused on me. Brian laughed and pulled me up off the floor and together we flew out of the graveyard and into the land of the living (the bathroom). He tore off my clothes and turned on the shower. He guided me into the tub and stood next to me while we gazed at the water gushing from the faucet.
“This burns slightly,” I mentioned. The water had rinsed off my filth. A rush of amour filled my belly. My mind whispered ways I could bring the man to me. My amour made my fingers elongate themselves to yearn for his cheeks, but I was not touching him.
The next morning, I told Brian that I would use H.A.T. no longer. He smiled at me gently and he wished me well on my voyage.
1940: Alfred returned to Margaret.
Margaret was close to death (in a hospital, in fact, at this point). “I knew you’d return,” she said to him when he entered. He stayed long enough to fold her eyelids down like window shades and sign her death certificate. She’d left him everything, of course. Maggie O’Neill was sick over that man. But what of the girls? They’d marry themselves well enough, Maggie thought; Agnes, the youngest and my grandmother, was smart enough, Maggie wearily told herself, to make sure the other two didn’t smoke themselves to cancer as their mum had. But every one of her daughters started smoking the day of the funeral.
A woman exits her twenties and starts to rekindle her affection for her fibrous heritage. She’ll spend the next decade trying to reconcile herself to the bad things her male ancestors have done to women.
Brian was no Prince of mine. He said that I had grown quiet, but I suspected another player had entered his game. I pleaded with his voicemail over the issue until I finally threw my phone into the ocean during one midnight storm.
Shortly after Brian departed, I started visualizing conversations with my dad where he would relate amusing stories about my great-grandfather. These conversations cut me with a sharpness that was similar to bliss, but the angle differed.
“Hey, dad, did the Squire ever write Margaret letters?”
He answered: “Yes, though I’m afraid it was only to ask her for money. And this of a woman dying of cancer in a hospital bed. She’d never deny that rogue.”
I asked him to assure me that my great-grandfather was perhaps better than family legend held.
“Oh, dear. He would have divorced your great-grandma in a second if he wasn’t attached to your Nana.”
The man that enraged my Nana more than any other was her father. Isn’t that sad? I would have asked, but I think my dead dad was done with talking from the grave, at least for the night.
I felt as though my dad was guarding the house, which was a muted bliss. But, often, I lay in the master bedroom that was once my parents’, awake until the sun rose again when I would fall asleep for a few hours before my alarm went off and I went over the bridge to work in the tiny offices of Nexis.
My job in the data processing center of Nexis was obscene only in how much I collected for pay every two weeks. At Nexis, I translated data into code for a few West Coast companies that couldn’t afford to pay a team of data specialists to sift through purchases and K values in-house. In this field, every qualitative value is quantitative. The particulars of a purchase (say, a pregnant woman buying diapers, as opposed to pickles or anti-nausea medicine) is assigned a value and certain values predict certain outcomes. Every bit had an expected outcome.
Every paycheck I (mentally) translated into eights, ounces, and grams. Even after my fall from bliss, I calculated how much euphoria I might buy with my earnings.
I also rented out the basement quarters of my parents’ home to a middle-aged computer programmer named Steven.
The upstairs of the empty house was for me and my ancestors alone.
The house was very quiet again, except between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. when the basement tenant was awake and working: Ticka-ticka-ticka-takka-takka-takka was the sound of his keyboard.
One morning, I wandered down to Steven in his basement quarters. I told him about my father (who built this house) and about my great-grandfather. I gave him orange slices to eat.
“I hear you clicking away all night, dude,” I told him and I extended an orange slice.
“I hear you talking on your phone. And walking around.” He leaned back in his Ergonomic chair and broke the slice in two with his fingers. The juice squirted his glasses.
“I’m not actually talking on the phone,” I said. “I mean, I’m talking into a phone, but there’s no one on the other end.”
“That might be a bad way of coping. Dad died a while ago. Mom too.”
“Well, it sounds like—”
“But you should have seen what I was doing before.”
I shoved a slice of orange in my mouth. “I’m on a new leaf,” I told him.
I made him chuckle when I revealed my renunciation of bliss, and of the companionship of those who had luxuriated in it. He closed his eyes behind the thick lenses of his spectacles and laughed hard. He told me about some bad trips, which was a nice thing for him to say, I think, since this fucker had clearly never blissed as I had. Did you forget your name and the name of your mother for a day? I wanted to ask him. One time, when being without bliss seemed too great a torment, did you walk out into the ocean in a storm?
“Well, I’m always here to talk,” Steven said, which indicated to me that he was eager to get back to the computer.
I pulled off my shirt as I closed the basement door, so certain was I that he had turned away. I walked to the bathroom and took off everything else before the bathroom mirror. There was my punctured skin: holes in my lower lip, eyebrow, ears, nose, and nipples. When I see those tiny dimples the gun gave me, I remember the day, twenty years ago, when my mom agreed to escort me to a piercing shop while my dad waited in the chamber of our Ford truck and read the newspaper.
Afterwords, we went out for pizza nearby at a restaurant that specialized in local foods and expensive beer. The mod men of the Gold Coast neighborhood appalled my father. His eyes narrowed and held their thin ties, crew cuts, and womanly sweaters at bay. He chased each look across the room with a swig of Jameson’s.
I envied how he chased disgust with pleasure. I assumed that all unhappiness has a swift route to its alleviation, if you’re paying close enough attention. Migraines and nausea, the sweats, lengthy stays in the bathroom, or a tearing sensation upon penetration: A woman is a container for impressions, reactions, degradations, and ailments.
I know the formula for femininity now, at 30, although I struggle to mark it. At 15, my first piercing and the migraines; at 17, my first drink and a broken hymen; at 20, my first capsule and an ovarian cyst; at 25, the first hits of everything else would drop into my container, bumping around pods of nervousness like buoys in a gale far out at sea.
I turned on the shower, plugged the tub drain and stepped in under the water. The cold of the porcelain shocked my skin into needing the water; its warmth was a tether to tug while I rubbed and rubbed. Who is to wonder whether Steven could hear me opened up, the cloud of me in the steam before I am lidded again?
I asked dad’s voice to take a walk with me that evening, when the house was full of him. He told me that the only time he met the Squire was in 1965 and by then the Irish rogue was mumbling and drooling across his death-bed.
“Where’s that cow, Margaret?” the Squire had asked my father, who was fifteen at the time.
“Don’t be talking to young Danny that way,” my Nana told her father.
“She drew herself up when she said that, I remember,” my father told me. “I could see her lips twitch.”
“Wow,” I said to my father’s ghost.
“I think she would have smothered the man then and there,” my dad’s voice said. “A woman can only stand so much.”
“Like mom? Is that what you mean?”
He was gone and could not answer.
One afternoon, shortly after our basement talk, Steven was still awake from the night before when I came home from work. He was in the kitchen staring at steam rising from a tea kettle. This, on a hot August afternoon.
“Come on,” I told him. I pulled him out of the house.
“Is it OK if we walk to the boats?” I asked him. His head was bowed and lips were tight. I had honestly no clue what drug he had consumed and did not ask.
“I could do anything,” he said. He raised his soft chin and blinked his eyes.
We walked down to the bay front and down the dock. Boats were snug against the pilings, the harbor still.
“How about this one?” he asked me of a wooden fishing boat with blue paint and orange trim. Hand-painted, I thought to myself. I wondered how hard it would be to make models of fishing boats. It would be a less-precise craft than model sailboats, that’s for sure.
“Kerry Ann.” I read the boat’s name aloud.
“I know a Kerry Ann,” Steven said.
“Who doesn’t,” I told him. “Let’s climb aboard,” I said with a grin. Steven shrugged and obeyed.
(You, Alfred, are not the only rogue.)
Steven looked disappointed at the poor view of the harbor once we had seated ourselves at the bow of the boat, away from the nets. The boat reeked of fish parts.
“I hope they don’t carry us out to sea,” I joked.
Shortly after I said this, the engine started up and the ship crept from the harbor. I could see the whites of Steven’s eyes behind his thick lenses. In fact, I could even see their pale blue. “No worries,” I told him. “This happens all the time, probably.”
“I’m pretty sure I saw a notice prohibiting this kind of thing when I walked down here.”
“No one even knows we’re out here. We’ll be back to port in no time.”
Two men in the cabin had spotted us and pointed our way.
“You can always play ignorance,” I told Steven.
“I’m a terrible actor,” he said.
“You just have to believe you’re telling the truth,” I said. “No acting skill required.”
“Can I help you with something?” A trim fisherman in orange plastic overalls had come out to us.
We stared at him.
“We’ll get you back to shore in a minute. This is just kind of a problem for us because you two are a liability,” he said. “Luckily, we aren’t going out fishing right now. The Captain isn’t even in the country.”
“Then why are you going out?” I asked.
The fisherman winked at me. “Well, sweetheart, sometimes it’s nice to be out on the boat.” He ran his hands through his curly brown hair so that it stood up. He pulled a cigarette out of a pack with his lips and lit it.
“What’s your name?”
Lord forgive me for asking, but I would receive his name.
We are at sea. The fisherman (his name and his patterns would later be correlated to my set of data) brings Steven and me beers from a cooler.
They bring us raw cuts of salmon on paper towels and chunks of lemon to squeeze over it.
“Want another?” my fisherman asks me. The sun is setting around us. I see as he sits next to me that he has a series of white scars on his forearm like tiny harpoons.
“I don’t like to overdo it,” I tell him.
I know what ancestors wait for me in the dark house by the shore.
• • •
Copyright © 2016 Mary Breaden