I was asleep on the overnight train from Carbondale to Chicago, dreaming about snuggling with my boyfriend, Sam. I awoke to find myself reaching for my seatmate—a newly released convict who did not want to snuggle.
“No,” he said, crossing his arms. I knew he was a former inmate from his grey sweatpants, matching t-shirt, and prison-issued sneakers. The Pinckneyville Correctional Center is halfway between Southern Illinois and Union Station. The midnight train is the cheapest option for shipping freed men north.
He shook his head. “I don’t cuddle.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. It seemed pointless to explain that I’d thought he was my boyfriend of one year, who I was on my way to meet. Sam and I were flying to Ireland and staying with his family for one month, which seemed like the most romantic thing ever.
At the time I was going to school in Southern Illinois. In retrospect I was clinically depressed. My evenings consisted of three beers, watching “Bones”, then to bed with the help of frantic diary writing and a Klonopin. Every diary entry that year was about Sam. I wrote about worrying if he liked me, if he would call me. I wrote to quiet the swirling within me—a swirling that happened when I thought about calling him—because he rarely answered.
Our decision to spend a month together in a foreign country felt auspicious. The fact that we were staying with his family for the duration was practical (we were both grad students with small stipends, and it made sense to leech off people providing food and shelter in a picturesque environment) but only complicated the delusion that he might really like me. The capacity for madness lives in all of us. The question is whether those who love us see it for what it is, or try to romanticize it into something else.
After we retrieved our bags, Sam used the payphone to call his parents. It had started to snow and buses were running erratically. “They’re not coming,” he said when he returned.
I felt confused. I was used to my mom and dad walking as far as they could into the airport, pointing and waving from the security line, dancing at the sight of me.
“My dad doesn’t like to drive in the snow,” Sam said without emotion. “It makes him nervous.” It would turn out that a lot of things made Sam Sr. nervous: driving, synthetic fabrics, making coffee, getting out of bed. Sam had told me that his parents were working artists—his mother made wooden furniture, and his father did “graphics”—so I had expected some degree of eccentricity. But I still couldn’t wrap my mind around why they wouldn’t claim us.
“It’s only twenty minutes from here, right?” I asked. “Sam Sr. doesn’t like when the roads are icy,” Sam said. “Well, they’ll be icy for the bus, too,” I snapped. I’d never snapped at him before. My anxiety about his affections had made me insecure in a lot of ways. “And who knows when the next one will show up,” I added, more gently. “How many stops does the bus even make?”
“It’ll take about three hours,” he said.
Once, seven months into our relationship, Sam had wept in front of me, recalling a time his father had retreated to the bedroom for a month after Sam’s aunt had died unexpectedly. At the time, with my arms wrapped firmly around him, I could think only of how close we felt—his cheek against my collarbone.
Now, waiting in the airport, the memory felt different. An omen that had gone unnoticed. Who stays in their room for month, I wondered, staring at the baggage claim. What kind of person ignores his family that long? By the end of the month, I would find out not all tyrants are loud or strong. Some come hunched over, bent by insecurities.
“Please call them back,” I pleaded with Sam. I’m from Wisconsin. I know when people are overreacting to winter weather.
Sam sighed and called me a “silver-spoon-fed whelp.” His nicknames were never very romantic. “Walrus” was one of them. But usually they sounded nice.
Thirty minutes later, his parents showed up, happy to see us but clearly worried about the snow. Sam Sr.’s lazy eye rolled frantically as he led us to the car, his stooped gait a combination of rushing forward while lilting back. Caro, his mother, was beautiful, but clearly didn’t know it. Siobhán, Sam’s sister, was the same. Both were tall and strong, with broad shoulders and smooth, creamy skin. But Caro talked nervously and often about her crow’s feet. I could tell by the bloody, bald patches above her nape, and the way Sam Sr. swatted whenever she reached for her head, that she compulsively pulled out her hair. Siobhán, for her part, was actually blind to her own beauty; she couldn’t see without her glasses, which covered up her whole face.
“Well, the plows will come,” I said, trying to reassure them as we buckled ourselves in. In Wisconsin, plows the size of small houses comb the highways as soon as the first snowflake hits the asphalt. The city gets ahead of the snow. “What plows?” Sam Sr. asked, his lazy eye undulating.
Ireland is poor in a way that I still have trouble explaining without becoming loud and hyperbolic. This was 2010, and most of the construction sites we passed driving from the airport were muddy canyons since closing down post-recession. Despite weather forecasts, the local government had not invested in any form of snow preparedness.
Shortly after arriving at the small cottage leased by Sam’s parents we were snowed in. The foot of snow had lain undisturbed long enough to turn to ice. No one could get anywhere.
The rundown two-story cottage boasted a small kitchen that was dominated by antique tools, piles of scrap wood, and Caro’s current project: an end table. There was a living room, one bathroom, a small, fenced-in back yard overlooking the grey-blue mountains, and three bedrooms if you counted the divided attic.
When I walked in, the first thing I noticed were the clothes drying everywhere; five racks had been set up throughout the house and each one was completely covered in wet laundry. (“It’s damp here,” Caro warned me. “It gets into your bones.”) The entry floor was crowded with shoes, and the banister at the bottom of the stairs sagged to the right under the weight of various coats and wool sweaters. In lieu of closets or dressers, clothing was stacked neatly in piles on the floor of each bedroom.
I reminded myself that these were working artists—something I knew nothing about, as the daughter of a civil lawyer and a real estate agent. My parents had divorced when I was one, but stayed situated a mile from each other on my behalf, and still claimed me at the airport as a team. Sam told me that most of the places where he’d grown up were like this: abandoned and away from everything. He said his family had moved every single year.
That night, Sam and his dad stayed inside to talk about art. I went for a walk in the snow with Caro and Siobhán. The moon was bright against the blue-black sky, and for a moment I was very glad to be there, despite how cold it was inside the house. I told myself not to overreact. We had loads of blankets.
“We’re so glad to have Sam back,” Caro said, slowing down to match her stride to mine. “Thank you for bringing him.” I had no idea what this meant, except to imply that I had forced Sam into the trip, which I sort of had, not because I wanted to make his parents happy, but because I wanted to lie to myself about the seriousness of his affection for me.
“I’m sure you know what happened with his last girlfriend,” she added. “Sam Sr. walked in on them cuddling and went ballistic. He yelled at Sam in front of the girl about how the girl was nothing—how Sam would forget her name in a year. We never heard about her again. He started drinking too much after that.”
“I thought Sam had other girlfriends since that,” I said. She seemed incredulous, and later, in bed with Sam, I confirmed she’d been right—the yelled-at girl had been his only girlfriend. The other girls, whom Sam referred to as girlfriends, had all been one-night stands of sorts. I was his first girlfriend since the one his father had screamed in front of him.
Part of me felt proud—like I had succeeded where others had failed. The other part of me felt doomed. No wonder he grew so impatient whenever I felt anything, called me crazy whenever I cried. He’d never been in a relationship before.
Over the next month, I would also learn that Sam had lied to me about his parents’ jobs: they didn’t have any. They were not working artists, but had rather opted to leave behind their middle-class upbringing and good educations to live on the dole, Ireland’s form of welfare. Caro got splinters from compulsively sanding the same bedside table until it resembled a large toothpick. Sam Sr.’s days revolved around rising late, napping, bossing Caro around, and lecturing snobbishly on the superiority of natural fibers while his nipples peeked through holes in his over washed pajama tops. "Wot?” he would yelp at me a few nights later, in exactly that voice, when I stood up startled after the back on my chair fell off—“It’s a great antique piece, very nice quality, you just can’t lean on it.”
But for now, Caro and I were having a nice walk. “I’ve been seeing someone,” she said, smiling a little as Siobhán packed a snowball in the distance. “I was talking to him on the phone earlier.”
I wondered if I’d heard right. Part of what was so maddening about Sam was the fact that he was withholding rather than confessional with me—something I’d assumed was a familial trait. But Caro and I had only just met each other, and although strangers have always been candid with me (“Something about your face,” a lady told me once) I couldn’t wrap my head around what she’d just said.
“Has Sam said anything about it?” Caro grinned at me, looking both excited and nervous.
“No, he hasn’t.” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Good. I’d prefer if you didn’t mention it to him.” Caro explained that she was in love with a cobbler. They spoke every night. She extended her leg to show me his handiwork: ankle high boots in dark green leather. I recognized the shoes. Sam had a similar pair in brown. When we got back to the house, I saw whole rows of them lined up. “Does Sam Sr. wear these, too?” I asked. “Why, yes,” Caro said, surprised at my surprise. “Siobhán does too. They’re good shoes.”
By Christmas, I would have my own pair. By the end of the trip we would all be wearing the cobbler’s shoes.
The next morning I woke up to the sight of Sam Sr. looming over our mattress. He asked Sam in a weird, whiny voice to make coffee for him. I grabbed Sam’s arm and pulled him back onto the mattress.
“I have a few questions,” I mumbled. Sam Sr.’s tone disturbed me. His accent wasn’t quite Irish or American—he’d gone back and forth between the countries his whole life. It was more of the antiquated, throaty lilt affected by Hollywood actors playing turn-of-the-century old money characters. Except for when his tones rose and fell at unpredictable measures, his upper crust accent occasionally breaking to expose the high-pitched egg-yolk of his panic over nothing.
“Ask away, Walrus,” Sam said, looking bemused. I tried to think of how to proceed without sounding like an asshole. My real questions were, “What the hell are we doing here? What happened to your parents?” His dad played on the computer for hours. His mom stared grey-faced at piles of wood and occasionally made secret phone calls. His sister read books and sometimes I heard her talking to herself in her room. The roads were closed and I was wearing three sweaters.
“You told me your parents were working artists.”
“Kathleen, I never said that.”
My stomach felt icy. Hadn’t he? I struggled to remember the conversation that had brought us here.
“Have they ever had jobs?”
“Woodworking is a job,” he said testily.
I wanted to point out that his mother had been working on the same $300 table for sixth months prior to our getting there. “Okay, but what about your dad?” I asked.
“He’s the brains of the operation,” Sam said flippantly but with pride. “He’s always found the cheapest rentals. And he motivates Caro.”
“Sam,” I said, reaching for his fingers.
“Wot?” He spun around. I paused. Wot was a good question. I had no idea how to wrap mouth around all the questions I still had without spouting off potential cruelties. “Do you want to have kids?” I asked suddenly. He smiled, harrumphed, and extricated himself to help Sam Sr. with the coffee. Once again, his quiet abstraction proved a solace, a space to fill or project meaning onto. Quiet meant “Yes.” Quiet meant “With you.”
Sam talked to himself during sex. Not about anything erotic, just jarringly mundane things. He had admitted sex made him feel claustrophobic and nauseated. He’d review grocery lists or make strange noises as if the whole thing was a joke. I was so attracted to him. I just focused on his body and tried to find the blather cute.
Still, I couldn’t help but grow paranoid that the attraction wasn’t reciprocal. Why else would he zone out from sex, talking about lettuce, trilling like a cartoon character, while I felt love underneath him?
As the days passed, to avoid thinking too hard about where I was and what was happening, I thought instead about quitting graduate school. I felt there might be a connection between the sadness I often felt to how little I enjoyed the program.
“Have you ever thought of just being with the cobbler?” I asked Caro idly one afternoon.
“All the time,” she said.
The night before, I’d stepped into a pair of men’s galoshes and gone outside for fresh air. I ended up taking a long walk through the snow in the dark before coming back about thirty minutes later, wet to my knees. For a second, standing there in the moonlight, I had thought I saw Sam showering through the frosted glass of the first floor bathroom window, and stopped to stare. But then the naked man turned; it was Sam Sr.
As quickly as I registered my own repulsion, I simultaneously remembered Sam Sr. took the longest showers. I had to pee.
I crouched near the garbage at the edge of the yard and went. Peeing in the snow that night, I felt more homesick than I ever had before. I thought of Caro inside, scrubbing wood until her fingers bled, counting the minutes until she could talk to her cobbler. I wanted to be back at home with my stepfather and my mother, who yelled when she was angry, who didn’t dress our family in her lover’s shoes.
I regarded Caro from across the table she had built. “Do you and Sam Sr. still—”
“Have sex? Oh yes, he’s sex on tap.”
She looked as disgusted as I felt. It wasn’t that she’d overshared— there is no oversharing once cabin fever spikes— but that I was envious.
“I was going to say ‘still love each other,’” I said quietly.
In lieu of facing physical rebuffs from Sam, I’d begun tossing an arm around everyone else, including Sam Sr. and Caro and Siobhán— unwittingly instigating an easy bond between myself and the latter that would prove hard on her when Sam and I departed.
Everyone in the family liked hugs, it turned out. Giving a quick squeeze proved easier than listening to Sam Sr. go on and on about what clothes should be made of (cotton, silk, or linen), why Siobhán was still not allowed to wear bras, even though she needed one (the wires were “unnatural”).
Siobhán was always embracing Sam or I. I had clung to the notion that Sam liked me differently because he occasionally pulled me onto his lap and called me, “Walrus”—overtures, I told myself, that might feel platonic, but were actually romantic in nature.
(But then: “C’mere, Walrus,” Sam once said while we were watching a film on his family's laptop. I smiled, thinking he was talking to me, and turned to see he’d pulled his sister onto his lap.)
“I was never physically in love with Sam Sr.,” Caro said, yanking out a single strand of hair from the nape of her neck. “But I thought it was something that would grow. Everybody knew him and knew that his father was a novelist. I was curious about him. But you can’t just move in with each other—or you couldn’t do that back then. Our neighbors were our grandparents. In a different time, we would have gotten it out of our system and moved on.”
“Is Sam kind to you?” Caro asked abruptly. She’d been so open with me. I figured the least I could do was be honest in return.
“Not really,” I said. “What about his drinking?”
“Bad,” I said. “He’s detoxing now but usually watching him drink is like watching an avalanche.”
She sighed knowingly. “His grandfather Sam was an alcoholic, too.”
“Tell me more about the cobbler,” I pressed her, starting to grin. If we were going to be snowed in with two tyrants named Sam, we might as well discuss love.
“Once I hugged him, like this,” she said, putting a hand on my shoulder and pressing her cheek to mine. “And I sort of lay my lips on his neck, just for a second.” She leaned back beaming. “It felt like I’d been electrocuted.”
“Wait,” I said. “That’s all you’ve ever done? Physically?”
She looked confused.
“You’ve never slept together,” I clarified quietly. “You’ve never even kissed.”
I wasn’t smiling anymore.
On Christmas, ten days into the stay, I received a pair of shoes made by Caro’s cobbler lover and a urinary tract infection.
The next morning, as we strapped chains to the family’s car tires so we could make it to the clinic, Siobhán asked her mother, “What’s a UTI from?” Caro responded, “Too much sex.”
At the chemist, Caro had leaned over while they were filing my prescription and said, “I’m glad you’re free about these things. I didn’t know what it might feel like to want to shower with someone until I met my cobbler.”
I felt terrible for her, and angry about the social mores that had coaxed her toward a marriage that she didn’t want. I wondered whether this is how I sounded like when I talked to friends about the small joys Sam afforded me. Like when I said, "I found a photo on his camera that he took of me when I wasn’t looking,” or, “He cleaned my computer keys with one of those air-duster things. He didn’t need to.”
Sam and I hadn’t had sex since that first night when, crippled by jet lag, we’d groggily reached for each other on the mattress in the attic. Above us, a painting of his mother loomed large. It was one of the many unfinished pieces his dad had done when he was younger. It didn’t look like her, but captured her depression: grey face, glazed over eyes, a kind of petrified beauty that held in the face of overwhelming circumstance.
I started taking lots of pretend naps, unable to go downstairs without feeling feral. I wanted to close my eyes against the claustrophobia that arose whenever I considered that we were only halfway through the month.
“Do you have any other family members we could visit?” I asked Sam, trying to sound casual, though I could hear the desperation in my voice. “I’d love to meet them.”
He took me to his aunt in Dublin. They lived in a large house with a warm fire and two aloof dogs. The aunt was a writer who enjoyed gardening, her husband was a photographer. “Want a beer?” the aunt asked. “We’re having pasta for dinner.” The whole thing was so easygoing that I thought I might cry.
At one point, Sam got up to go to the bathroom and the two of them leaned in close. “How is it over there?” they hissed. “Those people are bananas.” In the warm glow of their recognition, something lifted in my chest. We were into the second bottle of wine and we dipped our heads furtively, indulging in warm, drunken gossip in Sam’s absence. This brand of oversharing made me gleeful because it wasn’t instigated by cabin fever.
“How is Siobhán?” the aunt asked. “They won’t let us see her because once I took her shopping and bought her a bra.” I shrugged. “She’s great,” I said. “For now.” I could hear Sam flushing the toilet upstairs.
The next morning, the photographer, Sam and I took the dogs for a long walk on the frigid, rocky beach. Sam went ahead to take photos for his paintings.
“You know he’ll never be quite right, do you?” the photographer said, sotto voce, even though Sam was hundreds of feet in front of us. I had fallen for him thinking if I could draw him out, then that was love, never considering that certain forms of introversion prohibit such coaxing.
“Kathleen,” the photographer said, pulling me to a standstill. He told me how, when Sam was little, he and Sam’s aunt had gone to visit him at the end of one of those dirt roads the family had always lived at. When they got closer, they saw Sam, seven years old at the time, his tiny hands wrapped around the front gate, face pressed between the bars, talking to himself like a lonely prisoner who'd started to go mad. His name was Sam, his father’s name was Sam, and his grandfather’s name was Sam. But history was repeating beyond all that.
When we returned from Dublin, Sam Sr. and Caro bustled and glanced side-eyed at Sam and me, obviously wondering what the aunt and the photographer had said about them. Siobhán, picking up on the tension, threw her arms around each of us, and hugged me so many times in particular that I felt grumpy and hated myself for it.
Caro seemed to miss our conversations about the cobbler, but I couldn’t get that excited about them: they had never even kissed. Caro had mistaken the whole thing for a sexual affair because of her lack of experience. The cobbler was just a man who either liked to talk to Caro on the phone, or couldn’t afford not to, since she bought a lot of his shoes.
That evening at dinner, the back of my chair fell off every time I relaxed against it, and Sam Sr. kept barking at me to “sit in it right.” Siobhán piped up and said some girls from school were having a birthday party, but Sam Sr. said she couldn’t go. My Sam tried to cheer her up by tickling her across the table, saying he wasn’t even allowed to bike when he was her age. Sam’s curfew, I learned, had been 8pm until he graduated high school.
A few bites later, Sam cleared his throat and asked his parents to borrow money—two thousand dollars to put toward student loan bills and rent, and art supplies, and things.
I would have expected it to be more dramatic than it was, but Sam Sr. just nodded. “We have about $65,000 left in Caro’s trust,” he said frankly. “We can afford to give you one thousand, not two.”
“Your mother has a trust fund?” I asked Sam later. We were walking down the snowy roads outside his house to the shuttered corner store that was never open.
“It’s inheritance money,” he said, rolling his eyes at the phrase trust fund.
“But they’re on welfare—”
“The dole,” he corrected me.
“Right, sorry, I just didn’t know that you could qualify for welfare if you had that much cash stored away—I mean, I know it’s not enough to last a lifetime, but—”
“You’re rambling, Walrus.”
I looked over my shoulder at the empty road leading to his house. If I had felt that he could see how weird this all was, even for a second, I would have been grateful.
“Were you ever lonely growing up?” I asked quietly.
I reached for his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“My parents did a good job,” he said. “I got into Harvard.” He extricated his fingers from mine.
“That isn’t exactly some big triumph of parenting,” I said. “Everyone I met at Harvard spent their teenage years closeted or anorexic, or somewhere remote with an 8pm bedtime, like you. Everyone was escaping something.”
“Jesus, Kathleen,” he spat.
“Don't talk to me like that,” I yelled. “I'm not your mother, you can't say Jesus this and Jesus that and expect me to jump.” I burst into tears, apologizing. “Look, I’m just saying, people get into Harvard for the saddest reasons. My mom was drinking for that period of my life, so I went to the library. A certain kind of person reacts to sadness by reaching for a book.”
“Jesus. Is this about the bike? I eventually learned to ride one, you know. It’s not that hard.” He kicked the snow. “Not every child has to grow up surrounded by friends and riding bicycles, you silver-spoon-fed whelp.”
We walked a while longer in silence. “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings,” I finally said. He put his arm around me. “I’m not saying every kid needs a bike,” I continued. “Or that every good parent can afford to give them. But if a parent does have the capacity, the mental ability, the physical health, whatever, to provide for their family, and chooses not to…” I searched his face. “Don’t you think that’s a little irresponsible?”
“I guess so,” he said, but it sounded like each of those three words cut his mouth.
Sam slept for the entire flight from Ireland back to Chicago, meaning I could hold his hand without him tugging it away. It was a warm and heavy thing. While he snored, I ignored the in-flight movie and wondered at the aftershock I felt.
Having spent only a month with Caro, I could tell she’d never leave. But what exactly was upsetting about that? It felt like I was escaping and leaving her behind, for one thing—and maybe something about having witnessed her hair-pulling, and the way that Sam Sr. stayed in bed, made my own depression felt more manageable in comparison. There is guilt in that. Unlike them I could save myself, though doing so would take me almost a year and lots of heartache.
In a few months, I would drop out of graduate school and follow Sam to New York City. As long as we kept moving, we could sort of keep going. It would be the emotion of motionlessness that eventually stopped us: a shared lease in Brooklyn and the fighting that ensued after I came home from a business trip to find he had commandeered the biggest room for his art studio. There was no space for me. It's weird how you can feel such electricity around someone without actual chemistry. Sometimes love isn't reciprocal, or fated. That shouldn't be allowed.
After landing at O’Hare, I kissed Sam goodbye and caught the Amtrak south. Winter break was one night’s rest from being over, and according to my ticket, this leg of the journey would be about forty-five minutes shorter than my first train ride. The conductor explained this was because we wouldn’t stop to pick up released inmates from Pinckneyville. Offenders from Southern Illinois only go in one direction when they leave, and that’s toward Chicago.
I thought of the ex-con from the night train—the guy I’d tried to snuggle with 30 days prior. At the time the experience had warmed in the hopefulness I felt about my trip; I had chalked it up to being, if anything, some funny anecdote about my predatory nature.
Now, as the scraggly woods rushed past my window, it seemed nothing more than a moonlit encounter with a doomed man. I knew that Sam and I would break up. Not yet, but soon. I brushed my palm against the fogged glass to see if I could spot watchtowers or barbed wire, and catch sight of where he’d come from: a reformatory somewhere through the trees.
Kathleen Hale is the author of two novels, No One Else Can Have You and Nothing Bad is Going to Happen (the latter will be published by HarperTeen in 2015). Her essays and reporting have appeared in Vice, Elle, and Hazlitt, among other places.
Brianne Burnell is a digital illustrator working out of Toronto, Canada. See more of her work at brianneburnell.com.