The Moon Outside a Window

  1. Stray

February 2020

I put out extra saucers for Trixie – filling one with the cream that squirts out of a can in an eager swirl. But at her usual time, she doesn’t come.

 Please don’t be too frightened to come back.

It’s Sunday night. The washing machine is spinning. Maybe I should make things quieter for her?

The kids come back from their dad’s, dropping backpacks in the hall. ‘Bath’s ready.’ This is the thing I do – to wash the smell of his place off them. My ‘How did it go’s?’ are said too quickly to allow for answers.

In denying the reality of the loss, you are buying time – preparing for it, the counsellor said. But ask yourself, is this activity assisting me to re-enter a state of balance?  If the answer is ‘yes,’ then proceed. If ‘no,’ consider your actions a method of avoidance.’

  1. 2. National Car Test

March 12, 2020.

I’m at the counter in the car-testing place – this is the place where a government-funded, private company scrutinizes a car that is, plain as day, roadworthy enough to get you there. Not once, have the NCT people said, ‘All is well. Off you go,’ even when I smile my best smile at the inspector and go to pains to clear every scrap of evidence from a year’s worth of indecision throughout the seats. For I have been told this – messiness is a gathering of incomplete acts.

I wait for the inscrutable man in the overalls to signal me into the kiosk place where no one is allowed to smoke, but it smells like ash. When he appears, I flash an extra, hopeless smile.

The radio is on. The Taoiseach is saying, ‘As a public safety measure, schools, colleges and childcare facilities will close from tomorrow until 29 March.’ Car owners are sitting in a glum cluster of vehicles, motors running. The very second the news report ends, several cars pull out of the inspection queue and screech away. The man waiting behind me starts making breathy sounds and shifting about. Seemingly to himself, he says, ‘I’m not taking any chances. Going to go get the kids now.’ And he’s gone. I’m picturing the relief on his wife’s face as he shows up at their door, a child under each elbow.

I ask the woman processing forms, ‘They’re closing the schools? With so little notice?’

‘Totally over the top,’ she says as she hands me a certificate with her finger tapping a line.

The form has ‘INCOMPLETE’ printed across it. ‘It’s the lifts’, she says. ‘A safety issue. We’ll let you know when you can come back to complete the test.’

‘Sorry?’

Then, as though she is speaking to a tourist, the woman says a bit too loudly, ‘You have not passed the test. The centre’s suspension lift cannot be operated. You will need to return at a later date to be confirmed.’

Always something you can’t predict.

On my way home, I see an enormous line outside the supermarket. Must make lists, fill cupboards.

  1. Symptoms

March 14, 2020.

 I am watching the news, dinner on my lap. ‘The weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, all public houses must close … There will be more cases and more people will get sick and unfortunately we must face the tragic reality that some people will die.’

Phone bings. A text from himself, who has the kids for their Saturday-night stay. ‘I’m experiencing symptoms. You need to come and take them back.’

I call. ‘What symptoms?’

‘Tightness in the chest, shortness of breath. Fatigue…’

‘Right. That’s awful. I don’t know what to do. I’ll need to ring the helpline.’

‘No, it would be best if you just come,’ he says with his tight-jaw voice.

‘But … I need to get advice…we could both get it at the same time so the kids wouldn’t have anyone to look after them.’

The Health Service hotline woman has a voice that could land a plane. She says, after much soothing of my dry-mouthed questions, ‘It is necessary for the children to stay where they are for at least 3-5 days to monitor if their father exhibits secondary symptoms, especially fever.’

I repeat this back to him and he says, ‘That’s not possible.’

‘What do you mean? I just told you they said I could be putting my own health at risk if I come to get them.’

‘I’ll speak to the HSE myself.’… ‘Apparently I had a panic attack. Symptoms very similar. So you can come and take them back now.’

‘But…’ I feel shortness of breath. Tightness in the chest.

‘Look, there are circumstances here that make it unfeasible for them to stay,’ he says. This formality of language is a stab. When did we start talking like this?

A cold feeling in my stomach. ‘What, which … circumstances?’ White, hot fear.

‘My partner’s father’s health is a major concern. He’s getting chemotherapy. We can’t be in contact with anyone who might be a risk, or she won’t be able to see him.’

Partner? WE? A father. Priority.

A static sound in head.

I falter, trying to buy time. I need to absorb this thing I have pretended not to know was real. ‘I can’t come for them … until tomorrow.’ I’m staring at the mute TV. ‘And I can’t come to your house. It’ll be too hard. To find. Please find a place nearby where I can collect them.’

Can’t see it. The cottage where his life has kept on living.

  1. Collecting

March 17, 2020 St Patrick’s Day.

And when tomorrow comes, after not a single minute of sleep, I ask our new-to-us, elderly dog, Mr Bojangles, to hop into the front seat. At every light I stroke his soft, black head. Ambulances whir past.

On the radio, Mr Varadkar says, ‘We have not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living history and we are in uncharted territory. Several important and unprecedented measures have been taken.’

I am on a road I’ve never driven. A country road. Hedgerows lean in, making the edges soft. Such idyll. Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou.

I find the curve where the kids and he are waiting. I can’t take my eyes from the patch of road in front of me. When I stop and try to shift Mr. Bojangles to the back, he gets stuck midway, in the gap between seats. It is taking a lot of concentration to not look at the non-husband’s face.

It’s been impossible to even glance at him since he said the first irreversible things. This inability to look him in the face is many-faceted. In the beginning, it was the pain of longing and wishing he felt the same. Then there was the avoiding him in the mornings so he couldn’t see me in my tracksuit bottoms and wild, morning hair. And now, with the news of his bedding down with a partner for this globally terrifying event, the avoidance feels more jagged. If I look and see anything – his fear, his apology, his silent rage, his pity or his rehearsed concern – I’m afraid my own rage could catapult me over the idyllic hedgerows. Full of fucking wild roses.

I plaster a grin on, which no doubt only makes the kids more unsettled. Everything looks too bright. My voice too sharp. ‘Mr. Bo, come on. Come on. Hop, hop. In the back.’ The three of them are standing by the car’s open doors. Voice now a shriek, ‘PLEASE. MR.BOJANGLES. IN THE BACK. NOW.’ The daughter moves quickly to sit where the dog was.

I speed away from him so quickly, the kids and dog all sway backwards. My son says, ‘We’re going very fast.’

I slow down. Get it together. We are off that road. I need to explain my behaviour to them. But there has been a long code of not saying things. The counsellor said, ‘Don’t bad-mouth each other. The child identifies with you both. If you say something critical of your ex-partner, the child can take this as a rejection of half of themselves.’

The Zen-training and its macro lens has come in handy for the pausing and tongue-biting. But, then there are times I wonder if openness is called for. A friend whose parents split said, ‘Be honest with them. Show them you’re upset. They know when something is off, and it can make them feel like they can’t trust you if you’re not real with them.’ These thoughts are doing a push-pull.

Traffic is wavering. St. Patrick’s Day flags flap from passing windows. A flash of him heading back to his girlfriend sends shudders through me. Pay attention to the driving. I’m touching my face too much. Turning the radio on and off. My twitchiness is too weird, even to me. Don’t scare them.

Don’t say it. Try deep breath. But another red light and the dam breaks.

‘I’m sorry. I’m upset …’ Glance at the distant sea and flat brown beach. ‘I … I’ve come for you because your dad said I had to.’ A quick glance to see if that’s caused harm, but my almost-thirteen-year-old daughter is looking steadily ahead, as she always has done. ‘And I don’t know if he’s got this virus. If he is sick, then I will most likely get it and it will be hard for either of us to take care of you. I’m upset about that. And … how scary this all is … and, and … I’m also very upset that your father has introduced you to someone in his life without telling me.’

There is a long stretch of road with thousands of daffodils on the thin strip separating the lanes. Like a big senseless grin.

I immediately feel awful for breaking the silence about the whole marital mess. This is the arena of things that grown-ups are supposed to take care of without offloading onto their kids – the money worries, the Santa thing, the fantasies of disappearing to a solitary life in a log cabin. By a lake.

My solemn daughter says, ‘He said you knew.’

A bird might as well have hit the windscreen.

She looks at me with an expression so tender, she could be a thousand years old.

They are old enough now. You can say some things.

Sunlight is bouncing off a car mirror, making too-bright flashes. ‘I didn’t know it had lasted. Or that you’d met … that you’ve been spending every weekend …with her. I should have known that. Maybe this could explain all your stomach aches?’

I can hear the sound of the dog’s collar jingling as my son strokes Mr Bojangles’ head.

‘I’m sorry. I’ll stop. It’s just that… I’d … I’d imagined we … your dad and I … we might be in this awful thing together. I mean … be alone in it, together. But he’s not.’ They don’t say anything. ‘And … I am heartbroken.’

  1. Matters of Interest

I suppose there are many things one should try not to take personally. An absence of convenient parking, inclement weather, a husband who finds that he loves someone else.’ – Amy Hempel

Impossible to ignore things until this point:

  1. He’s not sleeping in their bed.
  2. His shelves are empty.
  3. There are no synthesizers in the hall.
  4. A lease has been signed for his own place. (Yes, but – he’ll be back! I will not ‘steal his voice.’ It will be clear that he misses all our good love!)
  5. The pitying look on a friend’s face when saying, ‘I saw him in town.’ And the wife asked, ‘Was he with someone?’ The friend looked down when she said, ‘No?’
  6. He sent a text: ‘Difficult e-mail just sent.’
  7. An instant barbed pain behind the eyes. She read the text while on a footpath with a dog, on her way home to the kids and suitcases she needed to pack. What will this new difficulty be, on this night before she takes her children and dear friend to New England, where she will walk in forests which her mother knew and she will quieten the din in her head?
  8. ‘I’ve met someone. I want her to meet the kids.’ To this, she said, ‘Please wait until they finish for the summer.’ I hoped, no, I was SURE – it won’t last till then.

***

In the airport, seated by the big windows that show waiting planes, she said to her friend, ‘Julie, I really thought he’d come back. Thought he just needed space to miss me. So I didn’t do anything. Or say anything. What if there were things I could have said?’

‘I’ll tell ya,’ said Julie, ‘The only thing left, was for you to become Snow White and cut out your own tongue.’

6.Queue

‘An eerie scene in Dublin greets tourists for St Patrick’s Day. “We didn’t think it would be as bad as this.”’

 The kids help me lift the dog and his stiff hips out of the back seat. I make them hot chocolates. To make it feel a bit more like an actual St Patrick’s Day, we put green outfits on both dogs and the kids wear their gigantic leprechaun hats. We walk to the top of the road as if we are in a parade. As we turn to walk back, a woman at the bus stop says, ‘Happy St Patrick’s Day.’ The woman is Mary Robinson – the first female president of Ireland and a human-rights rock star. I am so overcome with admiration for this woman, I lose my words and, make the baffling decision to salute her instead of wishing her a Happy St Patrick’s Day back. She grins and dips her head.

“I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.” – Mary Robinson. She said things like this all the time.

 Once home, I try to focus on practical things to do in a lockdown with kids to feed. I make a shopping list. What do we need? What do I have that is already enough?

In the line outside the grocery store, keeping the distance, the air itself feels terrifying. Why the fuss over stockpiling toilet paper? Taking shallow breaths. The line is silent and orderly. Every head is bowed.

In the monastery in Japan, the Zen master, Shodo Harada Roshi, warned, ‘What you are doing here is easy. Real life will be your true test – the knife’s edge.’

I had not thought that monastic life, on a chilly Japanese hillside, was easy. I’d fled from New York, hoping the man I left behind would welcome me home, on bended knee, fascinated by the woman of rare substance I had become. But within a New York minute, he had found a fascinating woman of rare substance without leaving his borough.

Which helped stretch my intended months-long sojourn to a three-year endurance test. Until recently, I have worn those years as a badge of ‘interestingness’, having to concentrate on not dropping the experience into a conversation, lest folks mistake me for a dishevelled suburban mom who used to do some art thing.

This queue is moving so slowly, I feel older than I did when I joined it. The woman in front of me keeps looking behind her. Her breath caught in her mask looks like sailcloth on a turn.

The monastic years with their isolation and harshness were testing, to be sure. ‘So is a Maine winter,’ I can hear my late mother chime. Indeed, resilience tests come in many long, dark shapes.

At last, a man-boy in a Tesco uniform gestures me into the store. He’s holding open the door. As I pass him, he says, ‘Good luck, love,’ with such tenderness that my throat go solid. I glance towards the throng of masked figures clutching shopping baskets, and join them.

*****

Although now living in Dublin, Beth O’Halloran spent her early life in Maine. She spent three years living the life of a medieval Zen monk on a Japanese mountain. She is a visual artist and college lecturer in Fine Art at The National College of Art & Design, Dublin. Publications include The Ogham Stone Literary Journal 2020, Bloom Literary Journal (2021), Brooklyn Vol.1, Two short-listings for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award 2019. The Irish Times First Fiction Award 2019.