This story of how a widow deals with her grief is taken from The Long Gaze Back, An Anthology of Irish Women Writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson
She felt that she should do something to mark her husband’s passing – a personal project, some self-improvement – so she learned to drive. It was harder than she imagined. Her husband had made it look easy. He drove while consulting the map or groping under his seat for the Al Green CD he loved, one hand stroking the wheel, open-palmed. She drove with her hands clamped firmly at ten and two.
She got lessons from a boy forty years her junior from the local town. He always stared straight ahead, avoiding her eye, even when she pressed a fifty euro note into his hand at the end of every lesson. She knew it wasn’t personal; it was just her husband’s death, lingering like an awkward joke at a party. Nobody knew what to say to her.
The interior of the car looked different from the driver’s side. The seat was moulded to the contours of her husband’s body. There were remnants of him everywhere; the door pocket stuffed with music and chocolate bar wrappers; tangy traces of tobacco from his rolled cigarettes. She couldn’t bear to vacuum them away.
She practised every day; she had time, in her widowhood. Driving even infected her sleep: she dreamt of hill-starts, of endless three-point turns, of cars driving towards her in the wrong lane. She awoke with handbrake precision. When the time came she sailed through her test, and drove home feeling reckless and free.
In the last few weeks of her husband’s short illness, he told her not to be lonely. Go out, he said. Meet new people. Have a life. That’s what he would’ve done had she been the first to die. But then it was different for him. He was on parish committees and hurling backroom teams; he could hop onto a high stool at Kennedy’s and talk to whoever was beside him. The pure ease of him.
She loved him, but by no means had he been a perfect husband. There’d always been indiscretions – even a love child, about ten years into their marriage. The other woman had been local; though she didn’t know who it was, she fretted that it was someone she knew, someone she liked. When she went into town, she sometimes scrutinised the faces of twentysomethings, looking for the shadow of her husband.
She tried to honour his deathbed request. She developed a routine: every Saturday evening, she readied herself, got into the car and left. It took her two hours to reach the coast, driving in any direction. She would make for a city or a big market town. She’d wear every piece of jewellery she owned, a long dress, a shawl. She would go into a hotel bar, order a Jameson on the rocks, and wait. It was never long before a man approached, looking for company, asking if she was OK for a drink. She usually let them buy her one.
She knew she was a point of fascination. She drank steadily but was careful to never appear drunk. Men who were young enough to be her sons approached her, asking what was she doing out on her own, at her age. Their eyes skimmed over the curves of her body, the clinging swirls of fabric, her neat cap of downy grey hair. Some of them told her she reminded them of their mothers.
The men would drink themselves to the point where they had the courage to reach out and touch her face. Her skin was creased, but still soft. Sometimes she pulled back in a kind, maternal way, and they would splutter and apologise and blame the drink. Other times, she went home with them.
She thought she saw her husband, sometimes. A man coming towards her on the street, smoking a cigarette, would turn out to be a woman eating an apple. She stared at strangers who shared a trait with him: a beard, a dark coat. She began to harbour a belief in ghosts.
She willed him to reincarnate. She was alert for the way a crow might turn its head, or a cat yawn with its whole body, the way he used to. She looked into young mothers’ buggies and expected to see his knowing eyes smirking back at her. She was the one who hadn’t wanted children, and now she cursed herself for it, for failing to hold on to even a piece of him.
Tonight’s candidate watched her from across the room for two hours before summoning the courage to approach. He was in an armchair, hunched over a low coffee table, pretending to do the crossword. She bided her time.
He was a bulky man, but so was her husband. They bore it differently, though. Her husband’s heft was like a bulwark against the world; he seemed insulated inside it. This man wore his weight apologetically, like a ratty old coat. She felt a pang of pity; she allowed him in.
Later, at his apartment, all shyness melted away. When he bent her over the couch, the blood rushed to her head. She had the phantom sensation of hair tumbling, tugging at her scalp; the long hair of her youth. It was different from sex with her husband – there was no way she could pretend it was him. But she still enjoyed it.
Grief was like a creature from folklore, sitting on her chest while she slept. Her excursions began to leak into midweek. She tried to pick a quiet time when there wouldn’t be much traffic, when her only company would be the wildlife: the slink of small animals on the narrow country roads, or a flock of dark birds in the evening sky, like fragments blown from a fire.
She would enter the city in the murky dusk, the street lights just beginning to spark up, reminding her of the glow of her husband’s cigarettes as he smoked out the kitchen window before bed. It hadn’t even been the cigarettes that killed him, in the end – it had been some other, stealthy mutation. It could have happened to anyone.
Her lovers would ask her to stay till morning, offering to cook her breakfast, expressing concern about the long drive.I don’t mind, she’d reply. I like long drives. I can listen to music. Actually she did mind, travelling in the dark from Cork, from Galway, from Kilkenny, from Limerick. She minded being trapped in the dark capsule of her car, hurtling into blackness. She couldn’t see her hands on the wheel; the night seemed to invade the car. Her eyes were tricked by tail lights and she’d hallucinate hitchhikers, heavy machinery, trees blown into the road.
After every journey she’d arrive home, climb into their old shared bed, and whisper into the pillow what she’d done, and who she’d done it with. I’m meeting new people, she’d say. I’m living my life.
Six months into widowhood, she made the mistake of becoming attached. He was a tall, stringy Corkman, a businessman who told her he had no time for relationships. He said he found it hard to talk to women – except for her.
He talked about everything: how he really wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the points; his mother’s early death; his disabled younger brother whom he worried about constantly. In return, she told him about the hotel bars, the men. How she’d been a virgin when she married. How she’d become convinced that her teeth were about to fall out; they tingled as if preparing to wrench themselves from their roots. She tongued them when she drove, daring them to make a crone out of her.
When they went back to his place, he only ever wanted to lie down, hold each other and talk. Sex was something he paid for, she gathered. She was irritated by the way he compartmentalised his life, but then, wasn’t she doing the same thing? Still, she liked him for his staccato accent, and because he reminded her of her husband – his directness, his sardonic humour.
Though she rarely saw the same man twice, this one became a habit. She would drive down midweek, or whenever he could meet. She would feel her pulse quicken as she drove through the tunnel at the outskirts of his city, with its puzzlingly inverted instructions painted on the tarmac, commanding her to LANE IN STAY.
When they were apart, she would text him from under the covers, curled up, the smartphone glow flooding her tired eyes, and thought of reading by flashlight as a child, her mother scolding her: You’ll ruin your eyesight.
He asked her to stay the night once, and for him, she broke the rules. He made her breakfast with charming nerves, checking that she had enough juice and coffee, forgetting where the spatula lived. It was a pleasure to watch him move about the kitchen, quiet and smiling, like a tall sturdy geisha. Her husband used to make her breakfast too, but with a flourish, as if conjuring French toast from the midmorning ether. This man, by contrast, made humble scrambled eggs, pouring in entirely too much salt. But she ate them with gusto, savouring the shrivelling saltiness on her tongue and lips like a kiss.
Something changed between them that morning, and they found themselves undressing again and going back to bed. The sex was warm and straightforward, like him. Afterwards, he cried in her arms and told her he’d never felt such intimacy in his life. She rocked him, dismay seeping through her. She’d thought he understood that this wasn’t about him. But he was coming undone in her arms, and she knew there was no way of explaining. She left as normal, giving him a kiss at the door, and drove home. In the tunnel, she weaved around the other cars, ignoring the directive to LANE IN STAY. As she was passing over the Blackwater, she pitched her phone into the river. She didn’t trust herself not to text him again.
She fell back into her old routine – Saturday nights only, different towns and cities, different men. She drove home from Kilkenny one night, slightly drunk, knowing she was tempting fate, that she’d be put off the road if she was caught. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself then, sitting at home, trying to distract herself with bad television, or the death notices on the radio, or by staring into the fire until her vision blurred. The things widows were supposed to do.
There was someone thumbing on the outskirts of the city, on the road that pointed home. He stood in the faint wash of a streetlight. She slowed down and squinted to make sure he was really there; most of the hitchhikers she saw turned out to be trees, or wheelie bins. But this one was real. When she saw who it was, she almost laughed – it was the boy who’d taught her to drive, whose name eluded her. He looked tired, unsteady on his feet. She stopped the car, skimmed her mind for his name. It was a new-fangled name – Darcy or Bradley or Cassidy – more a surname than anything.
Davin, she called, easing down her window. He looked shocked that someone had stopped for him, even more shocked that it was her. He ducked his head and peered in the window, and her heart quickened, keeping pace with the tick of the indicator.
She’d only ever really seen Davin in profile before, sitting sullenly beside her during driving lessons, deliberately not looking at her. But his eyes, the cast of his brow – they were achingly familiar.
I’ll take you home, she said. He got into the car.
He made small talk, though in her jolted state she’d have been fine with his usual silence. He’d been at a college friend’s birthday party, he explained. But there’d been a fight. Something stupid and drunken – he could see that now – but he’d stormed off, and it would just be hassle to go back. He’d been planning to walk home if necessary – all the way back to their sinkhole town in the midlands. It would have taken all night. She smiled at this. Aren’t you lucky I came along?
She looked at him; no longer the boy from the driving lessons, but a revelation. His arms looked coiled with strength. His jawline, dark with stubble, revealed no acne. He couldn’t see her watching him in the dark.
You’re a good driver, he said, but you’ve been drinking. He must have smelled it on her.
When they were nearing home, he turned to her and looked at her in a way he never had through all those lessons. He said he was sorry for his gruffness before; that he hadn’t known what to say to her. I don’t know if you know this, he said, but your husband – he was really good to me.
The turn for their town was coming up. The night sky spattered onto her windscreen; she flashed the wipers.
He was friends with my mother, he went on, and I suppose he was always kind of like an uncle to me.
They stopped at a set of lights. There was no other traffic this time of night. He seemed unaccustomed to talking about emotional matters and he stalled, puttering out of words like a broken engine. She put her hand on his knee, the way she used to with her husband when he drove.
Do you want me to take you home? she asked.
He didn’t object when she pulled up to her house, not his, and unlocked the front door. He followed her mutely. Inside he was nervous, asking for a cup of coffee – if it’s not too much trouble; it might sober me up.
When she came back from the kitchen, steaming cup in hand, he had taken off his jacket. He was crouching beside her husband’s CD storage tower, running his fingers over their spines. Her eyes lingered on the hollow between his shoulders, a space that would fit the flat of her hand exactly. He stood, holding up a CD. Sly and the Family Stone, he said. I love this record.
She took it from him in exchange for the coffee. His shy smile as their fingers touched nearly undid her. Davin, she thought – the one she’d brought home. She wondered if her husband had named him. She shrugged off her own coat, inserted the CD in the stereo, and pressed play.
Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork
**This story was published in The Irish Times today. Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork The Long Gaze Back – An Anthology of Irish Women Writers is published by New Island, €19.99