The first time I say goodbye to my “other life,” I am four, maybe five.
In this other life I am “normal,” meaning undamaged. At least untouched by a neighboring farmer. In that life I remain somewhat happy, as happy as one might be within the confines of an Irish family already rife with its own inherited losses. In that other life I will excel at sports, at music, at books. I am already good at all three things. I will marry someone like Erik Estrada from the television series CHiPs: handsome, strong, an authority figure who will fight for what is right, clap handcuffs on a baddie, all with a smile that can dazzle the sun from the sky. I will look lovely on my wedding day. I will try to get a tan just as deep as Erik’s and will sit out under the pet-days of fine weather lathered in butter to fry myself well. I will drive a decent car that doesn’t guzzle petrol like a drunk from a leaking jug. I will toss and knead brown bread on the kitchen table, read my children The Lion and the Mouse at bedtime. I will heat their small pajamas in the oven door of my turf range so that every stitch they wear is well aired, not a sniff of damp in a single thread.
This is the other life that runs alongside me, even still.
And then there is that first goodbye.
I can tell you I remember the exact moment I said that first goodbye. But that would be a lie. Yet somewhere in this intuitive body of mine, doors fling open, offer up suggestions—the garage, they say, the sacristy, the turf shed, the first spin on his black bike—as though the mere attempt to track down that first departure triggers an instinct, primal and innocent, to help in a search for something lost that has not yet been found, that were I to reach deep enough inside memory’s storehouse, I might grab hold of an intact child who has remained frozen, waiting. Waiting for that other life. The one that left with that first goodbye.
The dance is this: That first goodbye happened on some nondescript day. And then it kept happening. So many goodbyes they could be strung to a bunting and run the hundred-yard dash from our house to the grassy path that leads through the fields to the holy well of miracles. Each fluttering flag etched with early scribbles. Each flash of color stamped with a raised hand.
Because with each farewell, the other life kept leaving. In one way or another.
Herein lies the impossible quandary of the survivor of longtime abuse. There is a life from which you are catapulted, maybe at four, or five, or nine. Mind you, nine or ten approach the outer rims of predilection for pedophiles and the budding locus of preoccupation for sex offenders. I make this differentiation simply because it spawns two different kinds of eviction, not a hierarchy per se. Each category of perpetration still has a before and an after. They’re just a different psychological row to hoe. I know full well. I have taken the therapeutic plow to both.
Here’s the thing: When you are catapulted out through the top of your head at five and into the realms that some mystics call the astral plane or middle place, there is a definitive sense of exit from a life in which you had already set down some roots. Maybe you had grown slightly jaunty with your own selfhood and its plumpness, its playfulness, its passion for, say, your older sister’s tea set, or the long bandages from the tea-towel cabinet with which to wrap your mother’s ulcerated ankles, or your father’s stubs of chalk rifled from overcoat pockets after his day at school that you use to fashion a long snake that you and your brother follow out the front gate and up the lane to your auntie’s house and back again. This skin-full of early substance may indeed be heavily conditioned by other influences—familial, religious, cultural—such imprints likely to line the pocket of a psychiatrist or two for the purposes of blood-letting addiction and patriarchal condescension from the poisoned gridwork of your Irish village girlhood. But still, many have made hay from far worse beginnings.
That life, the one with a meadow of good grazing still at its behest, has already left the station on its way to its destination. Maybe even happily so, some might say. Already it has chugged ten miles to the local town where you go every Saturday with your mother and father, first to Bowler’s supermarket, where your mother walks the aisles and your father follows close behind her while she picks cans of beans and peaches and pounds of sugar from the shelves, and your father tots up the contents of the growing basket, as his schoolmaster brain can do so well, to monitor the sum of the weekly bill to which he has already assigned a limit.
Your younger brother and yourself will stand at the counter while the two servers, Danny or Edward, ring each item into the till, and you will wait, fingers crossed, for old Mrs. Bowler to appear from her kitchen and say: Well, hello there, Michael, hello, Mrs. Cronin, and who do we have here? Which of the children do I have now?
And you will both whisper your names, both of you prone to shyness, and Mrs. Bowler will be sufficiently impressed by your manners or your handshake that she will offer each of you a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, and you will exchange an imperceptible nod of victory that you have both made out like bandits. When you get home you will run to your shared double bed, the one that you both saturate each night with acid piss from strange dreams, and you will begin your hours-long operation by first smoothing the golden tinsel against delicious square, to count yet again the eight that you know are waiting. You will free them of their sheets and halve, with a butter knife stolen from the kitchen, those single slates into splits, using your bedspread as a table. Then you will flatten the wrapping paper to a fine plate, pick top or bottom of the bed for your feast, grab a comic from the old pile in the corner (it doesn’t matter which one, the stories will become new with each bite), and you will sit long hours in the drawn-out sweetness of this quiet spell together.
In that life you will bead together a rosary of Saturdays such as this, all chocolate and comics and television in the evening, to pick the man you will marry from the bevy of heroes on the screen. In that life you will not know that one of these Saturdays you will stand at the counter, hand out, and accept, for the last time, a gift that has no agenda.
* * *
Now let me tell you about that first goodbye. Understand this: It will only be the first because time, in the long rearview of the survivor, is fluid and constantly moving. What appears first today may do so because of the lens through which life is viewed.
Today that lens is goodbye.
Tomorrow it may be blood.
On another day, teeth.
Each time the first will reorganize its trajectory through that particular theme, its meaning and lifelong influence on how one navigates the sight of blood on a scraped knee or the click of teeth as someone chews meat. And on we will go, through the muddle of trigger and memory, to puzzle a person together, if not in the shape of the before life, the uninterrupted one, then the after life.
In this after life, we are told the best revenge is to move on and live our best life.
Which, by the way, spawns many questions: What life is ever truly uninterrupted? And living one’s best life takes on what form exactly—the best of the before or the best of the after? And whom does that best life serve?
In my case, is it the pedophile, who is still alive and in some flat in Dublin, who may very well lick his lips with each attempt I make at my best life, how my audacity to live revivifies, for him, the salted pillars of the innocent inside me into whose energetic signature he may still attune to reconstitute his predilections?
Is it possible that my best life will always, somehow, be its own wellspring for his urges?
Do I, by virtue of living if not my best life, then my best effort, expose yet again that sequence of child-selves he pecked clean of futures? By staying alive, does he not find me, somehow, in this highway of his rearview and render those children speechless all over again?
Can you see how the search for that singular theme creates a dilemma of living any life at all: the before life, the after life, the other life, any life?
I think this is the place most ignored by those who wish survivors to me-too and move-the-hell-on, to put it all behind us as though there is some wardrobe into which all troubled coats can be stacked so that what is left is sufficiently sanitized to be lauded as #goals: #best revenge.
When the truth is that there are always soul parts of the shattered self hovering, asking to be settled under the blankets one more time. One more story. Light left on. Door open. Voices of grown-ups audible in the not-so-distant kitchen so they can close their eyes and sleep. A dreamless sleep where the soul goes in search of the before and tries to introduce it to the after.
Which brings up another question: Who is it that makes this very report if not the ghost of all the remainders of the persons taken out of time with each violation? Which offers another dilemma: How does one begin the account of what has been lost in order to truly report a pedophile and his damage forty years after the fact?
But let me start again with that first goodbye.
* * *
The garage, an old stone shed across the way from our house, is the place of the first goodbye.
It shelters our four-door, bronze Opal Kadett. Constant rain demands all things of value to be protected in our village in whatever ways we can—reeks of turf and stacks of hay capped with potato sacks, bike saddles wrapped in plastic, leaking cars draped with tarpaulin, children mummified in pilot hats and anoraks, hallways decked with hardy mats and drip-dry coat hangers. There is no end to the damp in this southwest corner of Ireland’s furthest flung outpost: walls, doors, shovels, buckets, spuds, turf, harnesses, hinges, roads, hillsides, relics, monuments, all things devoured by ceaseless moisture. Indwellers too—human, animal, fowl—drenched daily by the Atlantic, whose constant arrival drizzles her transcontinental findings into every pore and peephole. Everything that was once silver or gold rusted by the wheel-turn of one season—no matter which one, no matter how dry—all impenetrable things reduced, sooner or later, to the pierced flesh of the nothing-left.
So, too, our once new garage roof of corrugated iron is now peppered with pinpricks of light. It is flour sieve and weeping basket that still manages, at the height of summer, to keep daylight at bay. Still manages to make of that one-room shed, its wooden doors bolted shut from the inside, a bog-black night of mind and matter.
This is the place of that first goodbye.
I could tell you about many aspects of that summer day, but I would likely have cobbled them together from other days, before and after. A form of stealing, if you will. A patch of gray on blue sky, a worm of turf-smoke from Auntie’s chimney, the chime of the shop bell in the distance, the complaint of a beagle straining against his leash, shackled to the steering panel of an old Morris Minor rotting behind a neighbor’s clothesline. All true. All there. But not on that day. Or maybe yes on that day.
Sun for sure. Lots of sun.
But rain too. Lots of summer rain.
Both and none.
The mind finds its pathetic fallacy when the heart does not grieve its lived reality.
Still, I try to go directly to the source.
To the senses first.
His breath, fag-stenched and foul.
His tone: cajoling, bossy.
His glasses: glinting, mirror-like.
His hands: rough, surgical.
His belt buckle: cold, metal.
* * *
I have a stamp collection in my mind. Made up of freeze-frames. They come and go when I begin a theme. Line up in squadrons, efficient, eager to please. Corrugated sheets on a ceiling of memory. They feel like children. My children.
People tell me: You seem like a mother.
I tell them I am childless.
It is not true.
I am the woman who lives in a shoe with so many children she does not know what to do.
How do you say that in this sanitized life of the after?
How do you say: I have dozens of young ones?
Instead you pull out one stamp at a time. Don your monocle. Look closely.
Then the mind does its dance. Near. Far. Near. Far.
It is the way of stamps that some are large and some are small.
This one, the garage, is both large and small. All around its tiny snapshot are those serrated edges that land here, in this telling, in the form of many more questions.
Did anyone miss that child on that day when she was gone for that half-hour? That hour? How long did he keep her in the dark? What ignited him on that day, more than any other, to move to the back of that garage shed, place her on the bonnet, remove her underwear, and relieve himself once, maybe twice? Was it the heat? Was it the short dress she wore? The way she may have given him guff the day before? The lack of attention any girls his age gave him because of his false teeth, his thick glasses, his lopsided walk, the way he smelled and looked like a farmer who never washed or changed his clothes? Why that day? What made it so goddamn different from any other?
That center picture, him, her, that car, hazy yet clear. Clear as day. Clear to the right lens. To the right hand. To a steady mind.
The garage, you see, is the exact location where I last spotted that girl. The one who went in as one person. Came out as another.
To go there is to visit the headstone of a beloved, to sag to the ground yet again, wilted flowers in sweaty palm, altered. Altered by the shock of an absence.
Can you recall that first time you stood at the grave of a beloved? Next to some clump of earth whose once warm-bodied presence your mind could not comprehend was gone. Gone for good. No trace of a living being left behind. No chance to meet again. No last handshake. No kiss on the cheek to whisper: Won’t be long now till we’re together again.
Instead just an empty space where once lived a person into whom you were pouring the rest of a palpable life.
Now imagine you are both the person standing next to the grave and the person buried.
Tell me, how do you lean in, steady your breath, and grieve this tiny window of memory on this merry-go-round of memory when it is not just one grave, one face, one stamp, but many?
See how the mind finds its way into mixed metaphor of merry-go-round and stamp collection. This revisiting of the past is tricky. It runs afoul of defenses for whom obfuscation becomes strategy. A ploy that one must name aloud so as to observe what the mind does with imagery when it gets too close to the unmanageable. It adds random nonsense (maybe not)—a shoe, a concrete wall, a radio announcer—shuffles lucky-bag items from other stories into the studied narrative of one memory in order to prompt forgetting. This kind of intentional muddying reveals, unwittingly I might hazard, its own strange fact. The fact that facts float in and out, flipping the pages of ephemeral recollections, crossing many territories, trying to remember and forget all at once.
All because I am trying to open the door to that garage across the road from the house.
Trying to reconstitute both the child who walked in and the corpse who walked out.
All this from the mind of the one who is writing, the one who survived, who, to that child and to those who followed, is a total stranger. She, the writer, is the other life. Not the other life intended for them all along, but the other life they became despite themselves.
Let me start again.
* * *
The garage door was wooden. Split in two halves like a barn’s entry, it sagged and rotted from constant rain. Across its width someone had scrawled in black paint the words no parking. When each door sat open, one half simply read no pa. The other r king.
In the case of our household, both statements were true.
Don’t get me wrong. We had a father. He was alive. But barely. His first massive heart attack, when I was four, had scooped him clean of strength. He, too, lived an after life nothing like the before. So to say we had “no pa” was to understand something that our pedophile neighbor understood to his bones: that we had lost the vital presence of a male protector at our front door. A man whose primary task it was to appear, even if weak as a reed, ready to hammer the living daylights out of a trespasser.
After his first heart attack, Dadda looked like he couldn’t hammer a nail. Such visible weakness a gilded invitation, it seemed, to that neighboring farmer to plan his infiltration. Which, if you thought deeply enough about the sticky residue of colonialism on a people, subjugation as power would have been its poisoned legacy.
Which brings us to the subject of kings. Whatever royal lineage had once been the Irish monarchy of Brian Ború and Ruairí was long gone. Centuries of pillage and British occupation had rendered such legacy obsolete. Instead we had been doused with wave upon wave of debasement, a crusade of centuries that stamped the waiver of interruption and dislocation on the collective amygdala. Raze native language and what you have left is broken memory and broken tongue.
Not that anyone in my childhood home would have breathed even a syllable of fealty to anything British, not even to the king’s English which we, by our love of words, spoke beautifully, but that the once miraculous music of our own tongue flung its forgotten syllables at us daily and often left us speechless.
Had I not entered the domain of the after through those double wooden doors, I might never have known the reason for all this dithering and dilly-dallying that translated into speech and posture. But in the after of my own interruption, my own dislocated girlhood, I could sketch from the air some specter that had hovered, heretofore, on the rims of the unremembered. Now I could see it everywhere. All about the people—at Mass, in the fields, at the fair—some dispossession of personhood seeping from skin and speech. Each night in our kitchen, news of bombings from the north blared from the black-and-white television, people running from British soldiers with tanks and guns, while my mother and father chased down some missing letter my grandmother had left behind so that Dadda could put to rest some wave of panic about a place-name he couldn’t retrieve now that the elders and their fluency was gone, Dadda, like some addled creature, pacing the hall and across the road to his sister to jog free some singular word and all its infused history which, if missing, might very well take with it the last remaining skeleton key to our mangled existence. Erase us from the map entirely. Right down to place-name.
So maybe the garage door foretold some future before it closed behind me on that first day.
No pa or king in sight.
At least not around me.
Sometime after the garage my mother asked: Where has my little girl gone?
I knew, from her question, that my leaving was real.
Even at five I knew her question contained a goodbye.
She’s here, I replied. I’m here.
Not really, my mother said. She’s not.
Éanlaí Cronin’s writing has appeared in Sweet Tree Review, String Poet, Peregrine, Sinister Wisdom, Big Muddy, The Ignatian Literary Magazine, The Courage to Heal, Entropy Magazine, and The Magic of Memoir. She was long listed in the National Poetry Competition United Kingdom in 2017; a Winner of the Eastern Iowa Review’s Lyric Essay Contest in 2018; a Top Ten Finalist in the Fish Short Memoir Prize contest in 2018. An elementary school teacher for ten years, she currently leads writing workshops. She enjoys photography, searching for the elusive “perfect chair,” and public speaking.