The War on Good Taste (Excerpt from “Innocents”)- Cathal Gunning

I sit in the bathroom alone. After peeing, I wait. As usual.

I look around the too-white bathroom and try to think straight. I fail, and try not to think at all. His sink (our sink?) is always clean. Too polished for you to use it comfortably. There’s something off about people who keep everything clean. Remind me of serial killers. Or my dad, alone in his big house, passing his days by obsessing over keeping the place clean. First option felt more dramatic. I’m uncomfortable either way, might as well be because of serial killers. He is a sweetheart, and probably not a serial killer. But Jesus, everything about his place freaks me out. Not always, at all, just every once in a while. The apartment is a freshman’s dorm room, but super-sized. Glossy mass-produced posters of famous artworks, mason jars as coffee cups.

I try not to get any on my fingers. As if it matters. My whole life might be about to change, but pee on my fingers would be the real step too far. I mean, then it would feel like I have no control over any of this. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Suppressed fear and anger can cause the release of the hormone cortisol leading to stress… Even everyday stress can be bad news for your baby.”

Good. Overheat its heart, I’ll get it right next time. I’ll be ready next time. Just not now. Batteries always burn out anyway, don’t they? Little echo-y taps, too small for anyone else to hear, speeding up and up, always one too-big thump from being converted into precious silence. My stomach turns in on itself. Tummy bugs, my mum used to call them. Little bugs living in your tummy. Not funny.

I sit in the bathroom, alone. I feel sick. I’m getting sick of feeling sick.

This is pregnancy. It has to be. Fat-wrapped ankles, achy tits. Rubbing between every bone, sticks of chalk grinding on each other. I feel full, ready to be sick. Sea-stomach, the sick-full feeling of drinking four pints of water in the hopes of beating a hangover.

My chest is full of something heavier than air, weighing down every breath. This is Monday morning.

***

I work for facts, facts do not work for me. I am not a cheat. Or a crook.

The coffee-shop is nestled at the bottom of a moderately expensive Dublin street, the corner a tight curve of glass and chrome. Early in the new millenium, city planners provided an amount of street furniture and flora almost sufficient to leave any small side street indistinguishable from one in Milan or Madrid. Flagstone-floored boutiques and ailing record stores flank the giant coffee-shop, a towering red-brick edifice, city centre Gothic mansion. Home to hot drinks, unearned tips, and stilted conversation. I am not in the mood.

The interior is all hard concrete surfaces, coated in artificially-aged wood and punctuated with oversized windows, wall-length slabs of thick glass. The staff maintain an old-fashioned surliness, a demeanour which almost excuses their general incompetence. Here, it is as if every request is an imposition. This is the sort of self-seriousness which leads the customer to assume this must be a great spot, if they can get away with acting like this. In time, the would-be charming struggle to live up to the excess of the structure becomes a frustrated refusal to accept their limitations. Children playing in their parents’ clothes. In time, everything.

 

She orders some thin orange liquid, just juice by a better name. It is poured into a foggy glass, still too warm from the dishwasher, by the Kid. He and I half-watch what he is doing, both of us hungover. I am too emotionally invested in this pour. The Kid is too tall for his face, ginger in hair and soul. He has the always-open eyes which are common to ardent fans of anti-depressants.

She looks great, probably. This is owed to her adoption of a free life, as she now takes pains to avoid anything containing sugar, or fat, or alcohol, or dairy, or anything else without which one could live freely. She measures success by pounds, and bad jobs, “and worse guys!” which she has lost. She laughs at the last.

I am trying to take the opposite approach, drinking, and eating, and fucking, in excess, taking drugs and making money, as much and as fast as this body will allow. As she orders and pays money for her healthy glass of bright orange nothing, I procure two double espressos and an unidentifiable pastry product via an overtaxed credit card. I think of saying something about how this is “typical of us,” but I do not know the right words, or the order of them, and I am tired. Besides, she is busy staring intently at my food. I could swear she looks hungry. Under a butter-flaked crust, this splintering pastry is full of thick, bright gold ooze. Vanilla something.

Her eyes look me over. Satisfied she has seen whatever she was hoping to see, or not see, she looks on. Her eyes are glassy, glazed, some other “gla”-word. Echolalia. She always looks as if she was leaving something else unsaid behind her eyes, except for today. Today there is nothing else. Neither here nor there.

“In a way, I’m glad we had the scare,” she says.

She speaks softly. As if someone is listening in on us. As if anyone would. As if our lives are a secret worth keeping.

Pregnancy scares are how we end relationships now, every time. Start by finding a girl who’s already seeing someone, fall madly in love, and then the pregnancy scare. This is the worst sort of predictable. The day you can buy an abortion in Ireland is the day I’ll have to stay with someone. I’ve never understood why people pretended to hate Starbucks. I had this conversation with her before. This conversation, like so many of ours, consists of me speaking and her nodding or “yeah”-ing, or looking serene; staying still when I move, and moving when I stay still. She doesn’t base her movements off of mine or talk only in terms of me; I just have a better memory of the conversations which I want to have. Everything she wanted to talk about seemed played out to me, but I always think I have something to say. I wouldn’t stay with me either. Good call. We need to call it off.

This is the morning after the night we called it a day. She looks at me when I say things like that, and says “Clever.” And I hate her so much. With all of my heart. The Kid hands me a basin of coffee. The cup is white, coated in that too-smooth finish worn by every coffee cup with a too-small handle found in any Irish hotel since 2000 A.D.

Red Eyes. Red Eye. The gravy they make with coffee. Americans seem strange. We all love them for it, though. Strangers in their strange land.

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