Early one summer morning, I sat with her among the rooftops of the city and the fat white clouds moved slowly above us – it was so early as to be a city lost in sleep, and she was really very near to me. My want for her was intense and long-standing—three months, at least; an eternity—and I was close enough to see the opaque down of her bare arms, each strand curling like a comma at its tip, and the tiny scratched flecks of dark against the hazel of her eyes. She was just a stretch and a clasp away. The city beneath was lost to the peaceful empty moments of 5 a.m.—it might be a perfect Saturday of July. All I had to do was make the move.
Nor was it my imagination that her shoulder inclined just slightly towards me, that there was a dip in the way she held it, the shoulder bare also beneath the strap of her vest top. The shoulder’s dip must signal an opening.
‘Now I don’t want to sound painfully cool here?’ I said.
‘I believe you,’ she said.
‘But you may be looking at the man who introduced Detroit techno to the savages of Cork city.’
We talked about the music and the clothes and the pills and the hours we had spent together—the nightclub, and then the party at the flat that was rented by friends, all of whom were panned out inside now, asleep or halfways there, and we had climbed onto the rooftop to smoke a joint and see the day come through. Every line had the dry inflected drag of irony—feeling was unmentionable. We talked about everything except the space between us.
I sat on my hands.
I thought about maybe kissing her shoulder. How would that be for a move? It would be the work of two seconds—a lean-to, a planting of the lips, a withdrawal. And a shy little glance to follow.
‘I should maybe think about going,’ she said.
I really needed to make the move.
‘Don’t yet,’ I said.
The pool of silence that was the city beneath us was broken but infrequently—a scratch of car noise from a cab rank, the tiny bark of a dog from high in the estates somewhere, very distant, the sound of the traffic lights turning on the corner of Washington Street and Grand Parade. Across the way the church and its steeple, the grey of old devotion, the greened brass of its dome.
I turned towards her and I looked at her directly and her eyes braved me to make the move.
‘So any plans for Saturday?’ I said.
I read again the disappointment in her—she was urging me on but onwards I could not make ground.
‘Depends,’ she said.
Her shoulder dipped a fraction again. Now was the moment. I sat on my hands and looked out across the rooftops and saw nothing, registered nothing but the hard quickening beat of my heart.
‘So . . . how’s it you know Cecille again?’ I said.
She sighed and explained the connection—it was through the university, they had shared a place on French’s Quay as first years.
She said it in an exaggeratedly bored tone—an automated drone, the words running into each other; a mockery.
The flat high on Washington Street was Cecille’s—Cecille had in her bedroom loudly been fucking some boy for most of the night; Cecille had no trouble ever making the moves.
‘Cecille’s had a good night anyway,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she said.
Maybe I should just ask, I thought. Can I kiss you? How would that sound?
A gull descended to the lip of the church’s roof. Across the breadth of the street, the mad stare of its eye was vivid and comical and a taunt to me.
I allowed my left hand to emerge from beneath my buttock and I let it travel the space between us, along the cool stone of the ledge, and I placed my fingers lightly on hers.
I listened for a change in her breathing but nothing. She was still even and steady and I turned to look at her and blithely still she looked out and across the rooftops. She did not incline her head towards me. And she did not speak at all.
I drew back my fingers but only by an inch or two.
I looked to see if she would withdraw her hand to a safer distance but she did not.
She breathed evenly.
Hard rasps of jungle panic ripped at my chest inside.
I thought—what’s the worst that can happen here? The worst that can happen is I lurch and she recoils. So much worse not to try.
‘So all I have to do now,’ I said, ‘is make the move.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ she said.
‘You’re killing this stone dead,’ she said.
But she did not get up from the ledge. She did not leave my side. She allowed the silence to swell and fill out again. Now birdsong taunted from the direction of Bishop Lucey Park. What if I left it to her to make the move? Procreation would end and the world would stop spinning.
The birdsong rose up now and strung its notes along the rooftops and linked them in a jagged line, the rise and fall of the steeples and chimneys was as though a musical notation. There was dead quiet from the flat inside. The last awake, we had the morning to ourselves.
‘I really like you,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ she said.
‘I mean really really.’
So very hard to put the words out but they were on the air and at their work now. I turned to look at her and she turned but to look away. I saw that a flush had risen to her cheek. The perfect knit of her collarbone as it turned, and flawless brown from a good June the smooth curve of the shoulder. Like rounded stone made smooth by water. It was as if my words had just flown up into the white sky above and softly imploded there, as if an answer was not needed.
‘Okay,’ I said.
This meant everything. All of summer would be coloured by this. She did not seem to breathe then. I kept my eyes fixed on her, as she looked anywhere but at me, and I counted the seconds away as she did not turn to face me.
In my evil dreams I had seen myself approach her with lascivious intent—with a cold thin cruel sexual mouth just parted slight-ways—and I went deep then to find a way to make this suave magic come real. Still, something in her presence unmanned me; perhaps it was the sense that I was aiming too high. She was really quite beautiful.
‘Turn to me,’ I said.
She laughed but it was only a tiny laugh and it had the trace of shock in it—I was forceful now out of nowhere.
And she turned to me.
I leaned in without pause—I did not allow the words to jumble up in my head and forbid me—and I placed my lips on hers.
She responded well enough—the opening of the lips was made, our jawbones worked slowly and devoutly, but . . . we did not ascend to the heavens; the kiss did not take.
After I don’t know how long—maybe half a minute, maybe a little more—she placed very lightly on my chest the tips of her fingers and the tiny pressure she applied there told me it was over, already, the pressure was of a fuse that fed directly from her heart. Gently so with her fingertips she pushed me back to break the kiss.
She turned quickly to look away and I turned as quickly to look in the opposite direction. My heart opened and took in every black poison the morning could offer.
Midsummer. Slant of the sun coming through the whiteclouded sky then, and the church across the way drew its own shade over half of Washington Street; a fat pigeon flew beneath the eave of the church and only the heavy beat of its wings on the air broke the dark spell that had formed about us. I turned to look at her, and she responded with a half-smile, half sorrowful. She placed her palms face down on the ledge and pushed herself to a stand. Languid, the movement, to let me know what I was missing.
‘I’m going to go,’ she said.
I nodded as coolly as I could. That I could muster even the tiniest measure of cool was credit to my resilience. I was resilient as the small medieval city beneath—throw a siege upon me and I will withstand it. She crawled through the Velux window to the flat inside, and I heard after a few moments the turn and click on the flat’s door; then her footsteps on the stair. With her steps’ fading, the summer went, even as the sun came higher across the rooftops and warmed the stone ledge and the slates, and I looked out across the still, quiet city, and I sat there for hours and for months and for years. I sat there until all that had been about us had faded again to nothing, until the sound of the crowd died and the music had ended, and we all trailed home along the sleeping streets, with youth packed away, and life about to begin.
“Across the Rooftops,” is from the collection, Dark Lies the Island, published by Graywolf Press, 2013.