“Knock-knock,” you say.
“Who’s there,” she asks.
“Oh, don’t cry,” you say. “It’s only a joke.”
She’s twenty years old, the kid sister of one of your classmates from your Trinity College days. She leans in close to hear you above the din of the pub, laughs at your awkward attempts at humor. Afterward she follows you back to your flat in Glasnevin, taking your hand as you pass the cemetery.
A year later she follows you back to the States. Two weeks’ holiday, and she’s spending it all on you. A bad winter in Philadelphia, you hole up in your apartment, most of the time in bed. The games you play, whipping the sheets off each other every morning, biting each other awake at night. She is, you think, your little naked Irish angel. You curl up together after sex and talk about everything. How could you be so lucky? Yet when the two weeks are over and she’s told you that she loves you, you let her go. When you leave her at the airport, that look on her face, the elaborate finish to a setup neither of you understand.
Knock-knock. Like the drunken porter in a production of Macbeth, you make jest at the pounding at the gate. Opportunity, you say, I’m not ready yet. Come back later. So much time, no need to rush these things.
Ring-ring. Three thousand miles away you listen to the phone beckon in the dark vestibule. How your heart leaps when at last her sleepy voice answers. You blurt out how much you’ve missed her, how much you need her. But when she begins to tell you that she has gotten on with her life, the alcohol that gave you the courage to place the call fuels your anger. You know how to hurt her, and like the puppet Punch you land your blows. In the silence that follows, before she hangs up, you hear the gasp, imagine her face clouding over.
Farce is not your strong suit, being too afraid of the pratfall. Still, you make your attempt, get on the next flight to Dublin. You insist that she meet you in the pub. But as soon as she shows up you know that all is lost. Impending marriage becomes her. Light attends her. She strides confidently through the throng to where you sit hunched over your pint, puts her hand on your shoulder. She is no longer the girl who followed you through the streets that night. Two hours later, she pushes you into a cab. “You can’t walk back to the hotel,” she says. “Dublin is not like it used to be.”
Years pass. You get on with life and it gets on with you. You achieve happiness, or something like it. You find equilibrium, anyway. You meet the right woman, and well into your forties, you get married. Then one day, rooting through dusty cardboard boxes you discover her old letters. Bound by a rubber band that snaps as soon as you tug on it, they spill out everywhere. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, you spend the afternoon mapping out the story of your relationship — a narrative starting in hopefulness and ending in despair. How can that be, you still wonder, twenty years later. Finally you pick up a faded photograph. A black haired girl with blue eyes — no one else ever looked at you that way — stares you down.
“Knock-knock,” she says.
Dan Allen lives in Philadelphia, which consumes most of his time.