Long Reads The Read More Project

Stalingrad by Aoife Loughnane

Suddenly, we had arrived at the stage of the night where the sexual tension had lost what little subtlety it had to begin with. We leave at twenty to one. The minute we’re outside, he pulls me into him and growls, “I’ve wanted to do this for ages.” He holds the back of my neck. The kissing is the good kind. After trying and failing to get me to listen to records and drink tea at his apartment, I kiss him goodbye. He pays for my taxi.

Sean slurps his Mojito. It makes me cringe a bit; his face contorted while he drinks it. For some reason I was surprised when he ordered it. It struck me as odd, though I don’t know why. The year beforehand – my last in school – I’d go to a pub in town most Thursday nights and that had been my drink of choice then. My friend would order a White Russian and our boyfriends’ pints of Guinness. I can’t stand that mint-leaf taste now. But there is Sean, sitting in front of me, slurping away before resuming what I assume he thinks is a brooding stare. He has a country accent, soft.

Even at the time, I’m aware of how luminous I am. Bright-eyed, wild-haired, three months into college and ravenous to live, rather than to merely exist. Which, of course, gives me the stage and setting to have, what nineteen-year-old me deems, An Experience. It’s our third date.

A few weeks beforehand, I meet him in Temple Bar at nine o’clock. He’d suggested the late hour and it was only on reflection that I realised I was offended by it. Walking to the cocktail bar together, it’s freezing and awkward. As I’m blissfully unaware of how much he loves the sound of his own voice, I spend the short walk worrying we’ll be swapping forced sound bites all night.

At the bar, we sit wedged between people on the rooftop and I order a Mary Pickford to show off my knowledge of old movies. I make a joke about gin.

“Mascara thinner,” he grins, quoting Dylan Moran. He’s twenty-six, a teacher and boasted about spending the summer in Tangiers. There is also a causal mention of having a book of poetry published and being in the middle of writing a play. These nuggets of information are like crack cocaine to the barely twenty-year-old me. He has an opinion about any book or movie I happen to mention. He asks me what journalists I like. No one has ever asked me something like that before. Somehow I feel he won’t approve of my lunchtime ritual of scouring the Daily Mail Showbiz section. He calls me ‘alluring’ and ‘intriguing.’ “You’re like a woman in her thirties, cynical and wounded, but sexy,” he says. Looking at him from under my eyelashes, I feel the cloak of teenage gawkiness melt away. Here I am, on a grown-up date with an adult man who has no clue I’m still raw from the whole forced kisses / avoided gazes / comments that sting palaver that encapsulates the decay of a long-term relationship. He’s wearing a grey t-shirt and his arms are quite nice. His hair is dirty blonde and floppy, but not in a foppish Hugh Grant way. It’s hard to picture him clearly now. Anytime I think I’ve captured his face in my mind it vanishes.

I talk about my college course, and he asks what I want to do after graduation. I tell him I’m scared about choosing a path that I regret, which he says is ‘inevitable’. “It’s funny how as you’ve only ever been young, you’ve only ever had potential. You know?” he says. “Like you haven’t had a chance to fuck anything up yet.” I clap my hands together before I can stop myself.

“Yes! See, I’m fascinated by people vanishing. Like true crime, disappearances, I love all that stuff. And I think part of it is because the people are frozen in time…” I can feel his attention begin to drift but I press on. “And a lot of the time, they’re young and on the cusp of doing something incredible with their lives. It is that cusp, you know? That potential that they had but is now lost. It’s gone–” I down the dregs of my cocktail “–and no one will ever know how their lives would turn out. So, there’s no disappointment. They’re forever the person they were when they disappeared.”

“Because more often than not, reality and how life really turns out is crushingly disappointing?” he says. I begin to speak but he cuts in. “It is true, I guess. Just look at Rory Gilmore.” He’s nodding his head but he looks bemused, which I find infantilizing. I look at him. He’s probably thinking, look, I don’t really want to be dealing with your post-teenage angst.

As the night wears on, his hand finds my leg. He doesn’t let me get the last bus even after I protest that I’m a broke student. He orders another drink.

“Do you think,” he purrs as he leans into me, “that people who are listening in think we’ve been together for ages? It seems like that because we’re ripping it out of each other.” I agree it’s possible. His eyes are nice and I know I’m openly staring at him in the way you think is coy when you’re drunk.

Suddenly, we had arrived at the stage of the night where the sexual tension had lost what little subtlety it had to begin with. We leave at twenty to one. The minute we’re outside, he pulls me into him and growls, “I’ve wanted to do this for ages.” He holds the back of my neck. The kissing is the good kind. After trying and failing to get me to listen to records and drink tea at his apartment, I kiss him goodbye. He pays for my taxi.

It was a few days later on the bus to college when the message arrives. “Hello there, are you still alluring? If so, then are you free on Saturday night?” A thrill zips through me. I just got my period but I decide to shave anyway. I wear flat boots this time, so he’s a good bit taller than me. The awkwardness dissipates quickly, but I notice he never seems to listen fully when I talk. I bring this to his attention and he’s like, “I’m giving you 60%! I can hear everything you’re saying.” And I think. right.

When he goes to get another round, I study him in the mirror behind the bar. Do I find him attractive? I must, if I’m here on a second date. His shirt is blue with this cool pattern of swallows on it. “A controversial shirt,” he’d called it. What an irritating collection of words. I find him mysterious, sarcastic, and intelligent. But it’s a shame that he is also rude and arrogant, with a tendency to belittle. Naturally, at the time I choose to turn a blind eye to the latter attributes. I reason that he isn’t a bad person; he just doesn’t know who he is yet.

To me, he represents ‘a challenge’. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet learned that incessant arguing doesn’t equal passion and crippling anxiety isn’t excitement. So, I tell him, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, to be honest.” He says he only messaged me because I had said he wouldn’t.

Mid-rant, he leans over to kiss me. We haven’t spoken about family. I feel like the only thing I know about him is that Donovan is his favourite artist.

“I’m not girlfriend material,” I say at one point in the evening.

“You’re not date material either,” is his quick reply. I feign outrage and he laughs. We start to kiss a bit more intensely and he asks me to go back to his. It’s early, like half eleven. We get a taxi.

His place is exactly as I’d pictured. The kitchen table is covered in loose tobacco and filters. Banksy pictures and a French poster adorn the walls and a battered couch, TV, and a record player complete the room. It reminds me of what I’d imagined college life to be like – you know, the bohemia of living in some seafront Georgian house, lying fully clothed in bed because the heating doesn’t work while smoking and reading something like Crime and Punishment.

We make our way to his bedroom while kissing. He calls me ‘Stalingrad’ but I can’t remember the context. He unbuttons my blouse and we climb onto the bed. I’m fully topless so it’s only fair, is his line. The light switches off. It’s strange to see a guy I barely know naked. I’d only been with one other person. We don’t sleep together but do other stuff. After he comes, we lie there and he puts his arms around me.

“You’re not like other girls,” he had told me earlier while his fingers traced the youthful slope of my hip. “You’re sexy always, on and on. It never stops.” I almost laughed, drunk on the fumes of flattery. It was like Nicole Diver had said in that Scott Fitzgerald book: how fun it is to pretend to have a mystery again. Because that’s all we ever do. We pretend.

A feeling of detachment washes over me then, which is unfamiliar. I possess, at the time, strong opinions that emotions are meant to be felt violently, or else they aren’t really emotions at all. Well, not ones worth anything. “Hey.” He’d picked up my underwear and was holding it. Shit, I’d forgotten to change them. “Cookie Monster? Cute. Get these on a girlie shopping trip with Aisling or whoever?”

I prickle with embarrassment. God, he probably thinks I spend my time lying on a bed with my friends moaning about our weight and lack of prospective boyfriends. The fact that we do isn’t the point. “Fuck off.”

He says he wants to show me a poem he’d gotten published. I mock-read it aloud in the hope it annoys him. He clamps his hand over my mouth and we laugh. Then he makes tea and we read the paper together. I leave a while later and go to an after-party at my friends’. In the loo, I check my phone and he’s messaged. ‘Did a car stop and pick you up, pretty woman?’

What followed were a few days of silence from him and, judging by how loud it was, I realised I cared a little. And so followed the usual song-and-dance of maybe it’s better if he doesn’t, I don’t want to start liking anyone. And it’s happening. Screw him.

Hungover, I go to Siofra’s for tea. She’s rolling us a smoke when my phone buzzes. The girls think I’ve met my match in Sean. I like the way that sounds, but it gives him too much credit. He’s just a guy with self-esteem issues who isn’t particularly interested in committing to me. I seem to attract that kind of thing. Or maybe there’s just an infinite resource of it.

I guess I’m craving that bad-for-you-and-you-know-it-guy. But the reality is that Sean isn’t a ‘bad boy’, he’s just a shitty guy. Bad boys drive noisy motorbikes and keep you out late; shitty guys don’t even bother to pick you up and expect you to get a taxi over to their place at midnight to ‘hang out’.

Nevertheless, I agree to a third date with him for Friday. The last days of my teens… which means he’ll be the last kiss of my teens. It irks me that my brain is always drawn to the sentimental. He arrives to said date and immediately compliments me.

“You look good.”

“Did I hit a nerve the other day when I said you never said anything nice to me?”

“No, you hit the truth.”

Inside, I sip on a large glass of red wine and he a Mojito. We bicker about nothing much. The wine is making me tipsy, fast. We kiss. The topic of family is mentioned briefly. It’s kind of jarring to picture him sitting at a dinner table with his parents. Or doing anything at all outside this vacuum we co-exist in. Last week I found myself wondering if he’s even a real person.

At the table next to us, a woman with an inky black bob is snapping a picture of her drink. Sean mutters something under his breath. And then, “People were cool and had interesting lives before social media. They actually, for example, they went to parties, right? And didn’t document any of it, but it still happened. They actually experienced it fully, completely present in the moment and didn’t feel like that had to show some weird form of proof to strangers.” He shakes his head as he lifts his drink up to his lips.

“Yeah, definitely. It’s kinda exhausting. Like, living your life is every day is enough, without having to update the world about it like a full-time job on top of your other full-time job.”

He seems surprised and murmurs, “I thought you’d be all about that self-promotion.”

I give a little laugh. “Why, because I’m nineteen?”

“Precisely.”

Ignoring him, I roll a smoke. “It feels like all the good things have been said, created, done. Like no one is original anymore.” He looks up, interested. “It’s like before people become famous,” I continue. “They’re being their authentic selves, right? And that quirkiness or whatever is what makes them famous and then they lose the original cool thing that made them stand out to begin with because they’re too busy licking everyone’s arses and being their unauthentic new self.”

I feel like I’m on a roll but I see his gaze has wandered to something behind me. Then I notice that he’s pointedly finished his drink. In the taxi, I chat to the driver about music and when we get out, Sean asks, “why were you so friendly to him? It’s a bit weird.”

His roommates are in the living room and I’m beginning to wonder if Sean gets on with them. He hasn’t mentioned many friends. In bed, I go down on him and then we have sex. I can’t figure out why he hasn’t gone down on me, but I don’t bring it up.

“My colleague asked if I was seeing anyone.” He’s leaning out of the bed, rolling a joint on his nightstand. “I told them I have a 19-year-old bit on the side.”

I sit up. “What the fuck?” But I’m kind of laughing.

“The thing is, I don’t have a main dish. So, it’s like tapas.” He really says those words aloud. It’s almost as bad as when he referred to himself as ‘nomadic’ with a straight face. His offerings of self-awareness are borderline cringey, like some soliloquy a teenager in Dawson’s Creek would spout. But of course, I eat it all up.

In response to the ‘tapas’ quip, I tell him I’ll be getting fed up of him soon and how long do these kinds of things last?

“A while,” he smirks. His hair is in his eyes and I notice how crooked his teeth are. He looks good and I hate it. “I think about you a bit, you know.” I’m happy when he says that, but he makes me miserable most of the time. We start to mess around again and as the clock strikes midnight I turn twenty. I order a taxi.

‘Well, that was fun at least’, is his message when I arrive home.

We put the Christmas tree up a few days later. It’s my favourite time of the year. Sean, hung-over in bed, messages. ‘It would not be unpleasant if you were here’. I know I’ll end up there tonight. I go to Jen’s and loads of people are there already, Jim and Ciaran are smoking outside. I decide to get pissed. In town, everyone is dancing. I kiss Ciaran again, shit. I’m waiting for Sean to message.

“Bored yet? Want to join?” An hour later, he greets me with a kiss at his apartment. I’m definitely drunk, but I feel that the kissing is better than any other time. Surprisingly, he goes down on me. We lie there and talk and talk. I hit my head off the wall at one stage and he kisses it better.

“You’d be a ball-breaker of a girlfriend.” His accent sounds very country when he says that. He claims he doesn’t ‘get’ labels, which translates to ‘I’m just not bothered with putting in the effort of dating you’. He asks me to stay and I sleep in his shirt. The next morning, I leave after breakfast. Before I go, he pulls me into him and gives me the gentlest peck on my lips.

A friend is home from Valencia, where she’s doing Erasmus. Over coffee I tell her about Sean, and that it’s been two months now. I know as soon as the words are out of my mouth that it’s a mistake.

“He sounds like an arse.” Clinking my spoon against the cup, I snort.

“I’m twenty. Sleeping with an arse is practically a requirement.” I tell her he has opinions, he’s smart, he knows things.

“That’s quite a low bar you’ve set for yourself there,” is her reply.

That night, I head out with the gang to a college mate’s gig. There’s a huge group of us. I spot my ex-boyfriend and my stomach plummets. We lock eyes, and in that moment he flings his arm around the new girlfriend. Another heart-warming clip to join the montage of them that regularly materializes in my mind, uninvited.

Sean has been messaging me all night.

I’m heading home shortly.

Do you still have battery?

Call me before it’s gone.

His persistent attention is unfamiliar and I’m buzzing off it. I grab a taxi near Trinity College. His apartment is empty. I sit on his bed and tell him about my night while he holds my ankles and seems distant.

His tanned hairy stomach is visible through the gap in his t-shirt and boxers. He was out with his old school friends, who slagged him for drinking white wine. He left without telling them. As he speaks, I’m focusing all me energy on a) looking seductive and b) wondering whether he likes me or not.

“The ‘right’ text you sent earlier was very Stalingrad of you.”

We have urgent sex, the kind where you’re clinging onto each other for dear life. After, he reads me a new short story he’s written. He prods for criticism and I want to tell him something he’s never heard before, but I feel like I’m groping round a dimly lit room with no idea what I’m looking for.

Lying in tangled up in his sheets, I close my eyes. My mind drifts back to earlier in the night. Why did he have to show up tonight? And with her. I allow the memories to dance briefly behind my eyelids. I can see it all – that hungry kissing in the hall at 10pm on a school night, wandering hands on a train in the sticky summer heat, dancing together on New Year’s Eve, pressed against each other – until the whole thing made me feel unhinged, like he could take me apart and put me back together again. Maybe I’m ruined for anyone else.

I jolt out of my reverie as Sean lights a joint next to me. I turn over, willing myself to fall asleep. Loud snores wake me a while later and I leave soon after.

I don’t kiss him goodbye.

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About The Author

Aoife Loughnane is a 27-year-old Dubliner who has recently relocated back home to the Emerald Isle after a stint abroad in Antwerp, Belgium. With a background in lifestyle journalism, Stalingrad is her first foray into the world of short stories.

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