I went down to the lobby at 8 a.m. to collect my mail, and re-entering my flat, I saw that somebody had slid a letter under my door. I lifted the envelope, then engaged all three deadbolts on the door: routine, routine, routine. The creamy envelope smelled of vanilla, and the handwriting was formed of delicate yet confident curlicues. Immediately I thought this had to be a mistake, but my name was on the envelope — Eóin.
I’d returned to the eighth floor by lift, which meant that the note-dropper had taken the stairs. Walking down took 52 seconds exactly. I rushed into the living room, and turned the television to the channel connected to the entrance surveillance camera; insomnia meant I often watched the drunks lurching home when the pub on the corner of my building closed.
Now I studied the screen for two minutes. Nobody exited.
I realized I was late for work. I sloshed coffee into a thermal mug, grabbed a handful of dates, and began my daily commute. It was a nightmare: rushing to my office in the spare bedroom, I spilled coffee on the hallway floor; I couldn’t continue until it had been cleaned. I went to my desk, powered my laptop on, and read through the mail I’d collected: bills and bollocks—nothing unexpected, except for the cream envelope. Judging by the handwriting and the perfume, it was from a woman.
I didn’t know any women, not since my abysmal breakup with Aileen six months ago.
But the handwriting was familiar. I experienced a moment of frisson, the hairs on my forearms lifting. I tore the envelope open:
I thought maybe we could chat some time, go for a drink. Call me on 077 00986 371.
Ciara? The nurse from the seventh floor?
My hands were trembling, and I set the letter to one side. This brouhaha had knocked me completely off kilter.
I write for an online magazine. It’s demanding but pays well. I upload a new article each day. I’ve discovered that once you get into the habit of doing something, it becomes a comfort. For the previous six months I had written an article every day without fail. Routine. Routine. Routine.
I stared at the blank page onscreen. The cursor blinked monotonously. I waited for the magic.
I typed the word the and deleted it letter by letter for the next hour.
Ciara’s note had broken my concentration.
I lifted her letter and my stomach roiled, a queasy sensation I’ve learned to recognize as the collywobbles — a regular affliction since Aileen had crushed me underfoot like a done cigarette.
I hid Ciara’s note beneath a pile of history textbooks and then ate a date. Fruit of the Phoenix dactylifera, Algerian Deglet Nour variety. A sweet, caramel taste. I swallowed, and excruciating pain flared in my esophagus.
I. Couldn’t. Breathe.
Growling like the Incredible Hulk, I thrashed around, slapping at my back. Collapsing to my knees, everything darkened … is darkened the correct word? Scratch that: Everything darkled.
I gagged, wheezed, convulsed.
Trumpets heralded the battle-cry in Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Ring cycle. Brünnhilde the shieldmaiden sat in judgement of the outcome of my mortal combat with this worthy nemesis. She pointed her finger derisively.
Date stems from Ancient Greek dáktulos — meaning finger.
I made a fist, channeling Edward Norton from Fight Club, and punched my stomach. My mouth hinged open like a Pez dispenser and something shot out.
Gulping air like a decked fish, I checked to see that I thankfully hadn’t voided my bowels. The worst part (had I died) would have been that nobody would have noticed for ages. Ruairí, my next-door neighbor, came over monthly to raid my DVD collection.
The date stone was stuck to the far wall, two meters away. I wondered if I’d broken any world records for distance. Could projectile vomiting be an Olympic sport? The stone was the size of my pinky and made a tobacco-colored stain on the cream paint. Jesus jumped up Jehoshaphat, I’d almost died scoffing a date. Had it not been for the chanking …
I rushed to the laptop with an idea for an article. I typed:
10 Things You Never Knew Had Names
Food that is spit out, like pits or seeds; a portmanteau of the words choking and yanking.
The cardboard sleeve used on a disposable coffee cup to prohibit the transfer of heat from the boiling-hot beverage, whereupon after taking two steps from the café, it is discovered that your fingertips have been welded by searing heat to this diabolically thin torture device.
A newborn baby’s cry, or the soul-rending shriek of the lonely adult male at 3 a.m. after his failed attempt to attract females in a nightclub by proving manliness through consuming his own bodyweight in whiskey and Jello shots.
To become gloomy, or concealed in dark. More commonly recognized as the opposite of the sparkle effect of the vegetarian vampires in Twilight.
Diarrhea of the nose; the condition wherein mucus is overproduced by the membranes that line the nasal cavities, causing a significant excess. It’s considered rude to blow your nose in Japanese society: sniffling is exalted.
The white spaces that coincidentally line up in a paragraph of text, creating a straight line. It’s not a coded message from the Illuminati. Probably.
That strange feeling in your stomach brought about by a state of nervous excitement, agitation, or fear. Similar to intestinal cramps from scoffing yesterday’s leftover burrito.
Go %&@$ yourself. Typographical symbols used to represent an expletive! Also called jarns, nittles, or quimp.
The day after tomorrow. Use if you’d like to appease the Dickensian urchin lurking deep within us all.
A sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear triggered by an emotional response. Your hair will stand on end, technically called piloerection.
I finished writing the article and forwarded it to my editor.
Thinking about Ciara’s note, I recalled another note I had found last month in the lift, titled “Ciara’s Stuff.” A shopping list of personal and grocery items. She had also headed a section “Pete’s Stuff.”
Ciara was gorgeous. A shallow face with indented eyes that dazzled like emeralds. Liked to wear a pencil skirt and knee-high boots when she wasn’t in scrubs. We were lift buddies. Outside of the lift, I hadn’t seen her in real life. Our conversations had been restricted to the 35 seconds it took to get to her stop on the seventh floor.
But why had Ciara sent me a note? She already had a boyfriend—Pete—for whom she purchased toothbrushes, underwear, and tissues. Quite the catch.
I realized it was 5 p.m. I always went to the supermarket at 5 p.m. Routine is important. It’s why I hadn’t committed suicide.
I entered my block of flats. Ciara was entering the lift, her blue scrubs ruffling out from beneath a corduroy jacket. I sprinted across the lobby and jammed my hand into the closing doors, even though I envisioned it being chopped off like a guillotine.
I pressed the button for the eighth floor, moved toward the rear, and saw Ciara reflected in the burnished metal walls. Straight brown hair and rouge lips. Eyes green as new leaves. She glanced back and caught me staring.
I needed to say something. Anything.
But the words wouldn’t come.
My palms slicked. A needling pain at my temples. My breathing staccato.
Another minute of this and I’d need a brown paper bag. Not because of hyperventilation: the bag would be to put over my head.
Why couldn’t I talk to her?
Jeez, say something. Anything.
I noticed the greeting card poking out of her handbag.
“Not exactly true,” I stammered. “What it says on your card, that birthday cake doesn’t count as carbs.”
“Don’t ruin my day,” she replied and glanced at the chocolate birthday cake she was holding.
“I didn’t realize, I mean, I … y’know. Happy birthday.”
“It’s not my birthday, you goof,” she replied. “The cake was discounted. And I bought it — to eat alone. An opportunistic impulse. So I bought the card out of shame, in case the till operator caught on.”
She smiled, actually smiled at me. Felt like I had been walloped in the kidneys.
Now she was staring at me. Waiting.
Say something, Eóin. Anything. You’re too gangly to be the strong, silent type.
Five more floors before she disappeared from my life.
“I used to write greeting cards,” I blurted out.
“Aren’t they written by computers?”
“No, quality work like that requires good old-fashioned slave labor, intimidation, and a sweat shop mentality.”
She looked me in the eyes. Four floors remained.
“My birthday card said, ‘Let’s face it, you survived another year, which is better than the alternative.’”
Three floors. Two.
“People go crazy for that kind of wholesome stuff,” I continued. “It was the agency’s top seller. I had a whole range of them. Like, ‘My favorite thing to do is you,’ and, ‘Every time we argue, you make me wish I had more middle fingers.’”
The lift opened at the seventh floor. Ciara got out, turned back, and put her foot in the door. She was grinning at what I’d said, but then her eyes went serious.
“Eóin, why haven’t you mentioned my note?”
“Don’t you have a boyfriend? Pete. Pete the boyfriend?”
“We broke up,” she replied. “He cleaned out our joint account. I almost didn’t make this month’s rent. Pig.”
I wondered if Pete took his toothbrush. His underwear and tissues, too?
Quite the catch.
“The doorman told me Aileen scarpered, six months back,” she continued.
“Has it been that long? Time really flies when you’re … mortally wounded.”
She chuckled. Tucked a ribbon of hair behind her ear. Smiled that grand piano smile of hers.
“I’ve made the first move, Eóin. Now, it’s down to you.”
“I don’t know, um, if I’m ready to, y’know …”
If Aileen had torn my heart out, why then was it pulsing in my throat?
She said, “What’s the worst a date can do?”
I stood on my balcony. My flat faced west toward Black Mountain, which glittered frostily in the setting sun. Black Mountain was 389 meters high, and now that it had snowed, Belfast looked like she was wearing an expensive ermine about her shoulders. I made dinner at 6:30 p.m., same as I did every night. Routine got me though the tough times. Everything planned out, nothing unexpected.
What’s the worst a date can do?
Then again, Ciara’s a nurse.
In all probability, she knew the Heimlich maneuver.
That’s page one of the Kama Sutra.
I lifted my mobile phone and dialed her number, heart ricocheting around my chest. Before the call connected, I hung up.
I wasn’t ready.
My phone rang, slipping through my hands like a bar of soap in the shower. I punched the answer button and jammed the phone to my ear, breathlessly mouthing Ciara’s name. She’d obviously seen that I’d called and decided to call me back even though I’d chickened out.
I had to say her name, make it sound effortlessly suave, cool.
But the words wouldn’t come.
“I tried your buzzer yesterday, and the day before,” Diarmuid said. “Are you never bleedin’ home, Eóin?”
“Maybe the buzzer’s on the blink,” I replied. “Otherwise, I’d have let you in. For sure.”
“Quit avoidin’ me, Eóin.”
“Things are, um, complicated right now, Diarmuid. Okay?”
“No, not okay. Not okay in the slightest. Mate, you need to get outta that flat, get back to reality.”
“I go outside every day now. Do my own shopping. Cooking. I even bought dates. So, yeah, I’m moving on, Diarmuid. No need to worry about me.”
Diarmuid had been there for me during my darkest moments. He’d been the one to bring food supplies, wash my clothes, help me piece my life back together. I’m his Humpty Dumpty.
“You’ve been holed up too long,” Diarmuid said. “Like some anemic zoo lion, or those self-abusing monkeys on YouTube. We need to move you onto Level Two.”
Diarmuid was a man of levels. Every problem could be solved as long as you followed the correct sequence of steps. And I had been doing what he said, following his sage advice.
“Nobody mentioned anything about level two,” I said. “I’m not ready.”
“Of course you’re ready.”
“Tae Bo,” he replied. “Or maybe Jazzercise.”
“Then I’d have to time travel back to the nineties.”
After the iPod silhouette ads, the world changed. It’s okay to be alone now. I wanted to be alone.
I glanced at Ciara’s letter on the coffee table.
“We’re going for a drink this Thursday,” Diarmuid said. “Seven. The James Joyce.”
I didn’t answer.
“You stand me up again,” he continued, “I’ll throw you off that balcony myself.”
I chuckled. Diarmuid knew how to make me laugh.
I jerked awake at 2:19 a.m. My dreams were always about Aileen. The girl that I loved, that I’ll always love. If there were a pill that would erase memory, I wouldn’t take it. We had great times together. Met her my first week at college. Five great years together. My first and only love. Then she found someone else to love.
I brewed coffee and took it on the balcony. When it wasn’t raining, which it always is in Ireland, Aileen and I would eat breakfast here. I peered over the edge. The yellow city streets were coiled like snakes 26.4 meters below. From this height, it would take 2.32 seconds to hit the ground. At the point of impact, I’d have a velocity of 81.9 kilometers per hour. I’ve made this calculation many times.
I went inside and slumped on the couch. Ciara’s letter was on the glass coffee table. I watched the letter, and the letter watched me.
Next door, repetitive grunts emanated from Ruairí’s flat. He’d picked up a new lady friend, same as most nights. Just as quickly, it was over.
I retrieved my mail from the lobby at 8 a.m. Entering my flat, I scanned the floor for a letter from Ciara. Nothing. I lifted the doormat, still nothing. I peered through the peephole — no Ciara. What was I doing? Obsessing, that’s what. Fantasizing too. I was hoping she’d seen my missed call and had decided (even though I was obviously a coward) that I’m definitely primo boyfriend material.
I realized I was late for work and rushed to my laptop.
10 Reasons Why We Needed “Scientific Gossip”
Scientific Gossip was a New York Times column that began over a century ago. At that time, it was the peak of scientific discovery and solved many mystifying issues, such as
- Should prisoners be used as batteries?
- Do camels actually exist?
- Are fish racist?
I wasted five hours and that was all I could come up with. I kept thinking about Ciara. Her note had changed everything. I’d worked hard to establish routine and wrestle back control of my life. Order and predictability, that’s what got me through each day.
It was late afternoon, and I realized I wouldn’t finish my article before the deadline; this would be the first time I’d failed to do so. I didn’t care. My mind kept returning to Ciara’s note, and our conversation in the lift. What’s the worst a date can do? I rehashed the conversation word by word, each syllable drawn out to long points in time, sustained notes of concentration. She’d made the first move: now it was my turn.
I dialed her number confidently.
The call connected.
Feebly, I hung up.
I stared at the phone, wondering how amazing it would be to hold Ciara’s hand, stare into her green eyes, kiss her lips. Things I hadn’t thought about in forever, that I never thought I’d want to think about again.
I lifted the phone, pressed it to my ear, put it back down.
I wasn’t ready.
My stomach ached, my whole body shivering with the collywobbles. Please, just let me forget about this letter, and return to my routine. My mouth tasted sour. I grabbed a date from the bowl on my desk, and ate it.
I lifted my mobile phone, deciding this time I wouldn’t chicken out. I dialed her number and dry swallowed.
What’s the worst a date can do?
The stone lodged sideways in my throat. I fell to my knees, hands clawing at my seizing throat. Brünnhilde the shieldmaiden was trumpeting now, coming for me on a winged chariot, caterwauling about our journey to Valhalla.
Ciara said, “What the heck’s happening, Eóin?”
The call had connected, but the phone had fallen from my grasp. I was on all fours, staggering like a drunken dog. Gasping and panting now, like a creepy prank caller. Then everything drained away and I went down, down, down into darkness.
The world blinked into existence. I was laid flat on the floor. Ciara was leaning over me, a pair of tweezers in hand, clasping that sickly sweet death stone. I wondered if she had given me mouth-to-mouth. Hoped she had.
Staring into her eyes, I knew she’d never want to see me again. What a terrible, wretched state I was in. This had been a horrendous mistake.
She glanced at the date stone, then me.
“I can’t believe you actually literally called me for a date.”
Gripping my hand, she leaned closer and pressed her lips to mine. This was the best first date I’d ever had.
She leaned back, and her green eyes were sharp as stinging nettles.
“You didn’t lock your front door.”
I’d forgotten to lock my door. I’d never forget again. But I could get rid of a few deadbolts too.