An Optical Illusion
by Eimear Ryan
He should have had the decency to die while they were still married, Anna thought. He should have widowed her. There was dignity in that.
She arrived to the wake late at night, alone amongst the neighbours and distant cousins. Cars were parked at the kerb for half a mile up the road. Dan had settled in the new wife's hometown, a midlands backwater with a secondary school, a big Dunnes, some ghost estates. The house they had built was blocky and unpainted – a little provincial fortress. She crunched up the long gravel driveway lined with stubby, newly-planted trees, the bare branches reaching up plaintively.
How much easier, she thought, to lose a husband to death rather than to a twenty-five-year-old.
It had the atmosphere of a party, as these things tended to have. Before marrying Dan, she had never attended a wake, let alone seen a dead body. But it was hard to avoid them in rural Ireland. You might never have said more than two words to your neighbour down the road, but of course you'd go pay your respects to his corpse.
She had wondered if her presence might cause a ripple through the crowd, but such was the steady stream of mourners that she slipped in unnoticed. The crowds didn't surprise her. She had married a man who was easy to love, who was loved by many; she had never liked sharing. Some of these people didn't know who she was. Some of them probably didn't even know she existed. Everyone seemed so young, standing in small groups, in collared shirts and little black dresses, holding longneck beers and giving each other one-armed hugs. They were probably all Caitriona's friends.
She spun round. It was Dan's youngest sister, coming towards her with an uncertain smile.
“Liz.” They fidgeted a little before committing to the hug. “Look at you. You're so grown-up.”
“Look at you! Your hair is ... wow.”
Anna dismissed this with a wave of the hand. She had gone blonde only last week, a spur of the moment decision that now seemed fateful, as though she'd been planning a disguise.
“The asymmetrical style is very in right now,” the hairdresser had assured her. She showed Anna the back of her head with a mirror; from behind, she looked about nineteen. She thought of an optical illusion from a childhood puzzle book: Do you see a beautiful girl turned away, or an old crone?
“How are you?” Anna asked Liz.
Liz's eyes were huge and glassy within her carefully-applied liquid eyeliner. There were pink spots high on her cheekbones. “I ... I don't know. I'm holding it together right now. It was such a shock. We – who told you? I'm glad you're here, it's just I never even thought.”
“Barry rang me.”
Liz nodded. “Poor Caitriona was in no state. Dan just collapsed right in front of her. He was dead before the ambulance arrived.” She shivered. “I feel like I'm actually going crazy. Is that what grief is like? I didn't know.”
“I think it's different things to different people.” She rubbed Liz's arm the way she had seen the young people doing it.
Liz nodded vigorously. “Okay. Okay. You're back in Winchester now, is it?”
“Umm – yes ...”
“It's funny. All those years you were married to Dan, I never quite figured out where Winchester is, exactly. My geography's desperate.”
“Near Southampton,” Anna said with a tight smile.
“Right. Right.” She was staring somewhere past Anna's shoulder. Then, brightly: “I'll bring you through if you want. Come with me.”
Anna baulked. “Liz ... I'm not sure if I can ...”
Those big eyes looking at her. “Don't you want to say goodbye?”
Liz pushed open a door and Anna felt as though she were on the deck of a boat, so suddenly did the situation lurch forward at her. Here was a room containing a box; in the box was her ex-husband. Somewhere in here were her old, heartbroken in-laws; somewhere in here was Caitriona, the widow, the one who had taken her place.
She saw Dan, then, and it was real: the loss of him settled around her like bricks and mortar. He was wearing a black suit, as though he too were in mourning. He looked – she startled at the thought – he looked good. Better than the dead should look. Very much like himself, though he had lost some weight from his face.
An elderly man standing with a friend seemed to agree with her assessment: “He's houldin' well.” The man nodded across at her, and she smiled tightly back. These people, she thought, had a terrible ease with death. They filed past, touching Dan's face and hands, saying quick prayers. They held chats around him, over him, as if this were any old mixer, the coffin an oversized, grisly punch bowl.
Strange, too, to see him stilled. Dan was a person of bristly energy; it was this, rather than his looks, that attracted her. When she thought of him, he was always walking towards her. He had a particular gait she loved, a way of leaning back. He seemed at home anywhere, because he seemed to come from nowhere; even his accent was constantly in flux, picking up verbal twists from the countries they visited the way most people acquired souvenirs. The spidery grace of him; all that was lost, and she thought she might cry for the first time.
She looked and looked, almost hungrily. The Rosary beads wrapped around his meaty hands made her sad – they looked like restraints. She could not help but think of those hands on her body, all those years, all the things they had done. Propped at his feet was a photograph of him and Caitriona on their wedding day, both of them gorgeous in black and white.
Liz came back to her. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you, Liz.” She didn't know how she managed to drag up the words.
“I brought you a brandy.”
“Actually I'm –”
“I know, I'm sorry – I know you're a G and T girl. I couldn't find any around.”
Anna took the glass. The truth was, she was an anything girl. A whatever-you're-having-yourself girl.
“I'll bring you over to Mammy, if you want.”
Anna downed the brandy, wincing. “Okay. Thank you, Liz.”
“You don't have to keep thanking me.” To Anna's astonishment, Liz took her hand, squeezed once, and led her over to the head of the coffin, where Sean and Therese, Dan's parents, were seated. There was no sign of Caitriona.
“Anna.” Quiet and regal, Therese stood up. “Hello. We weren't sure you'd come.”
“Barry rang me,” Anna said. “Therese, I'm so very sorry. And Sean.”
She grasped both their arms, making a bridge between them; she wasn't sure if hugging would be appropriate, and the parents gave no sign. Sean, always quiet, shuffled awkwardly in place. He towered over her, his grief making him seem even larger. Anna felt her throat thicken.
She turned to Therese, this woman who had once called her daughter, now clearly uncomfortable. It was absurd – she had made beds with Therese, baked bread, walked dogs. She had taught Therese to email, the year she and Dan had gone travelling. She had a sudden vision of Therese, sitting straight-backed and determined at her battered old PC, the dialup connection fizzing and spitting.
“That bar. What do you call it. It's going backwards.”
“Therese, the progress bar is not going backwards. It hasn't moved for a while, but believe me –”
“Backwards, I'm telling you.”
The memory was like a visitation, leaving Anna's mind as suddenly as it had arrived.
She spoke again. “Dan was ... he was a wonderful husband to me.” Immediately she knew it was the wrong thing to say – too possessive, too pointed.
Therese blanched. “Yes, well ...”
“It's a beautiful house,” Anna blurted, to make some kind of amends.
“It is,” said Therese. “And they only in it a year.”
And we're only divorced two years, Anna thought.
“It's good to see you both again,” she said. “I'm just sorry that it's in these – that it's so ...”
“Yes, dear,” said Therese softly, “yes.” And Anna found herself being shuffled away from the principal mourners, gently pushed along a queue she hadn't been aware was there.
She took the nearest door, and found herself in the kitchen; crowded here too. It was a vast chrome kitchen, far bigger than the one she and Dan had shared in Dublin. She looked around desperately for Liz, who had seemed to manifest just when Anna needed her, but there was no sign. Across the room she could see Barry – Dan's older brother, whom she suspected had always had a thing for her. She willed him to look up at her, to recognise her, to desire her, but he just sat there with his head in his hands, a ruddy-faced friend on either side, whispering comfort in his ears. Grief allowed men to touch one another, she thought. It made everyone soft.
Look at me, Barry. She wasn't the widow; she could accept this. But she was still someone. She had a sudden mad wish that she and Dan had a child, to give her a little weight with these people.
Conversation filtered all around her.
“When you tie your laces in the morning, you never know who'll be untying them that night.”
“Can you believe, a heart attack. A healthy young man like him.”
“Ah yeah. It's scary, isn't it – you can be born with some small fault in your heart, and it goes unnoticed for years.”
He had a fault in his heart alright. The brandy was working through her like a living thing, wanting to announce itself.
“Salad sandwich?” A middle-aged woman with rolling-pin arms offered her a silver tray of triangular sandwiches. Tentatively, Anna took a bite – 'salad' turned out to be over-mayonnaised coleslaw with a slice of raw tomato. Still, eating gave her something to do, and she picked her way through the offerings on the kitchen island and table – potato salad, cold meats, a kind of marshmallow biscuit she had only ever seen in Ireland and that Dan had referred to as 'spring-sprongs' –
She looked around, her mouth full of biscuit. It was Barry. He was a version of Dan – older, heavier, blurrier. She remembered dancing with him at the wedding, how she'd dreaded it, thinking he'd be drunk and say something inappropriate. But he'd surprised her by proving an excellent waltzer.
She swallowed. “Hello, Barry. I'm so sorry.”
He opened his arms and subsumed her, swinging her gently in his arms in such a replica of Dan that she had to squeeze her eyes shut at the flood of memories.
“Barely recognised you,” he said into her ridiculous hair. “I'm glad you're here.”
She pulled back, gripping his arms to look at him, his tired, red, almost-Dan face. “How are you doing?”
He managed a shake of the head. “And you? This must be strange for you. I know you two weren't really in contact, but –”
“The occasional email,” she said. It was the very occasional email.
He nodded. “Ah. Still, when you've been married to someone. You probably knew him better than any of us.”
She felt a sudden warmth towards him. “You're his brother.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a ghost of Dan's smile, and suddenly she wondered what would happen if she took his hand and wordlessly led him up the stairs. In the dark, lost in him, would she know the difference?
“I've been meaning to ask,” he said. “When ye were married, did he ever complain of ...?” He patted his chest over his heart rapidly, his hand light like the wing of a bird.
“No,” she said. “He never complained of anything.”
He was shaking his head again. “It's just crazy – that there would be no warning. Nothing.”
“I know. I don't think any of us can believe it.”
He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes to stem the tears.
“Listen,” she said quietly. “I want to thank you for contacting me. I don't think your mother is too happy I'm here. I hope it's okay.”
“It's hard for her to see you. You remind her that Dan isn't perfect.” He paused. “It's not really me you should be thanking, though.”
“What do you mean?”
He fixed her with a gaze. “Caitriona was the one who asked me to ring you.”
She remembered the first time she saw Dan and Caitriona in public together, the first time she had to acknowledge them as a couple. She was in a pub on the quays – waiting for a date, she now remembered – and there they were: Dan and the woman, sitting in the corner. Anna locked eyes with Dan, and knew there was no avoiding the situation.
Her date was late – it hadn't lasted very long, that fling – so Anna had observed Dan and Caitriona from the bar before gathering the courage to approach. They clutched hands and leaned towards each other, almost comically symmetrical: Do you see a couple kissing, or a wine glass? But they never laughed. Anna had always made Dan laugh. Her poisonous wit, as he called it, was an intrinsic part of the glue that bonded them, part of the way in which they faced the world together.
She downed her wine and walked over. Not much was said; it was more that she wanted to prove a point. She looked them both in the eye, and bared her teeth in a smile. Caitriona gazed serenely back at her. She was so poised, Anna remembered; so placid. How odd for Dan to be involved in something so staid. So expected for an Irish country boy, to marry an Irish country girl.
Her date had arrived as she was talking to them, and she'd latched onto him, making a show of introducing everyone. She'd expected to feel smug, but under Caitriona's calm eyes she felt juvenile – out on a first date, starting all over again. Dan and Caitriona's fingers remained entangled the entire time, a little nest of digits; she could not understand it. She suspected they held hands even while arguing.
“Was there ... overlap?” a friend had asked her at the time. And yes, there apparently had been.
“What Caitriona and I have is right,” he'd said. “I'm meant to be with her.” It was an argument both maddening and unassailable. Because even as Anna scoffed to her friends over Pinot Grigio that it was sad, wasn't it, when men gave into these midlife urges, when they lived the cliché; even as she made brilliant psychological arguments for how he had deluded himself, Dan contradicted her every single day by simply being with that girl. Just living his life, he dismantled all her flimsy defences. She suddenly understood why some women murdered their exes, how someone's very existence could seem to mock you.
The weeks and months after he left had felt unreal. His absence was so total, so uncompromising. Still, there were mornings when, half-awake, she could almost feel him in bed with her, a phantom curling against her back.
In quiet moments she took deep breaths, and tried to imagine the sense of triumph and justification she would feel once Dan and Caitriona broke up. How magnanimous should she be? These were important things to consider. Enough to seem classy, but not so much that it lets him off the hook, she decided. He'd come crawling back, and she'd dismiss him kindly but firmly, and there would be no sweeter feeling in the world. “It's just not possible anymore,” she would say with fond exasperation. She knew just how his expression would crumple; she knew every line of his face.
The quiet of the first floor was shocking, like being plunged underwater. She wanted to collect her thoughts for a while – maybe even lie down. The click of her heels against the tiled floor seemed obscene in the quiet. She felt as though she was already in church. It was going to be a long haul, this funeral – wake, removal, requiem Mass, the whole drawn-out shebang, digesting the death as you would an elaborate meal. She should have just come to the Mass and the burial, but it was too late now.
Dan wouldn't have wanted it this way, she was sure of it. He was agnostic, but his disdain for the church was outright. She supposed this was just how Irish Catholics did things, even the lapsed ones.
I would have cremated you, she told him in her mind, like a promise. I would have burned and scattered you.
She stopped to take off her heels, then padded down the hall to the bathroom, all white gleaming marble, the size of a hospital chapel. It even had a connecting door – to the master bedroom, she supposed. She splashed water on her face. One of her contacts had started to itch. She took it out and accidentally dropped it on the tiled floor. After a few minutes' hunting, she found it – already it was hard and brittle, like the husk of an insect.
She opened the bathroom cabinet to see if there was any lens solution. There was the soda toothpaste Dan liked; there was Dan's aftershave, Dan's razors, still with little nubs of dark stubble attached. She wanted to sweep them up, those lonely hairs. Then there were the foreign objects – shampoo in brands she would never buy, waxing strips, sickly-smelling 'butters' of various types. There was a huge economy bottle of mouthwash, white and plastic like a container of drain fluid. Anna considered downing the whole thing; it might numb her better than the brandy.
She closed the cabinet and stared at herself in the mirrored door, her vision half sharp, half blurry. She took her lipstick out of her pocket and reapplied. The face in the mirror was not the one she imagined people seeing when they looked at her. It was funny, how your own reflection could look strange, like staring at a word on a page for so long that the spelling began to seem foolish.
She remembered that Dan sometimes kept his lens solution on his bedside table. Very gently, she opened the connecting door to the master bedroom. The lights were off except for a single lamp. A person was lying on the bed.
She realised that she had never spoken to Caitriona one-on-one before. She wanted to flee, but she was caught, trapped in the pool of light pouring through the door. The lens skittered out of her hand.
Caitriona pulled herself to the edge of the bed. She was pale, and with her dark dress and long dark hair she looked every inch the widow. But she had that aura of control, of stillness, that made Anna think of words like Stepford.
“What are you doing here?”
Anna lingered in the doorframe. She had called this woman such terrible names in her mind. “Umm ... Barry rang me. He said that you –”
“I know Barry rang you, I meant what are you doing here, in my bedroom?”
“I'm sorry to disturb you. I thought – I was just looking for a way out.” Nerves or drunkenness made her trip over her words. “I'm sorry for your loss,” she said, almost as an afterthought.
Caitriona dipped her head. “I just came up to rest for a little bit. It's kinda overwhelming down there.” Her hand went to her thin neck, and her words sounded as though they were being squeezed out. “It's hard to keep talking. I feel ... throttled.”
Anna nodded, looked at the floor. “You were his wife,” she said, almost to herself.
“You had him longer.” It sounded like an accusation. Caitriona raked her hair out of her face with one hand and sighed, a bone-deep, weary sigh. “I'm sorry. I just – I feel so cheated. I feel so fucking hard done by.”
Anna leaned against the doorframe. She couldn't speak.
“But who am I talking to,” Caitriona said.
“I'll leave you alone.” Anna reached for the door handle.
“Actually – can we talk? I feel like we should talk.” Caitriona stood up, walked over gingerly. “We've never actually talked before, have we.”
“I was just thinking that.”
“Well. We must be more alike than I thought.” Caitriona was close now, her face still shadowy. “I wasn't sure you'd come. Why did you come?”
Anna stalled, and thought of what Liz had said. “To say goodbye to him, I guess.”
“I thought you two had said your goodbyes already.” She regarded her a moment. “Don't you want to know why I asked to have you here? Therese wasn't happy about it, let me tell you.”
Anna winced. “Why, then?”
“I wanted to see if you'd show up. If you'd have the nerve.” A hard smile: Caitriona had been drinking too. “I'm not stupid, you know.”
“I knew he was having an affair. A woman always knows, doesn't she?”
The words went through Anna like acid. The old despair, old jealousies, spiked inside of her. Dan and somebody else. Dan and not her. Grief, it seemed, did not cloak these petty concerns, did not make her a bigger, better person.
Blithely, Caitriona stepped past her to the wash basin. In the gleaming white of the bathroom she cut a clean black silhouette, like a Rorschach inkblot. She splashed water under her eyes, wiping away the mascara tracks.
“All those trips to London,” she continued. “I should've known from the beginning. Footie trips with the lads, my eye. You don't stay at the Westbury with the lads.”
Anna felt as though her mind was short-circuiting. She saw a small chance, like a door swinging shut she might stop with her foot. “London? You think – Dan and me –”
Caitriona looked back over her shoulder. “Don't worry. I'm not as angry as you might think. At least it was just you. Not some other woman.”
Anna opened her mouth, closed it again. She wanted, she realised, to live in that same illusion. There had been other guys since, but always Dan, needling at the edge of her consciousness. Whenever she saw something funny or beautiful, it was Dan she wanted to tell. But he had been here, with Caitriona. And in London, apparently, with some unknown other. It might be a stranger, it might be any of those young women downstairs. It didn't bear thinking about.
Caitriona's words reverberated in her mind. At least it was just you. What did the just mean, exactly?
“He still talked about you, you know,” Caitriona was saying. “Get him a little drunk and he'd reminisce about the mad old days, as he called them. You and him, tearing up Dublin city.”
This little detail threatened to unmoor her. “Well. Yes. I quit drinking a while back.”
Caitriona looked at her sceptically.
“I may have fallen off the wagon. Recently.”
“That's always the danger, isn't it.” The edge in Caitriona's voice was unsettling her. “Do you have anything to say to me?”
Anna decided in the briefest of moments. She folded her arms and looked at the floor. “I hoped you'd never find out.”
“Well, I did,” said Caitriona flatly. “And here we are.”
Let her have it, Anna thought. Let her believe she knew who her husband was. But Anna knew this small act of kindness was as much for herself as for Caitriona. She never knew that Caitriona considered her a rival. An equal.
Caitriona dabbed at her face with a tissue. “I should get back down there.” She looked in the mirror, her reflection making eye contact with Anna. “You're different than I thought, you know.”
“Different to – what Dan described?”
“Yes,” said Caitriona.
Anna stared into the mirror. She could see Caitriona, but her own reflection was a blur. She'd have lopsided vision for the rest of the funeral.
“I – if you wanted to stay here for a bit, gather yourself, that would be fine,” Caitriona said. “Since you're already here.”
Caitriona nodded, and opened the bathroom door. “I never did get to confront him about it.” She paused. “I'm glad I could confront you.”
She left, closing the door quietly behind her. Anna switched on the bedroom lights and stared at the room, as though waiting for Dan to materialise. On his bedside locker was a novel, the spine a furrow of fault lines until about halfway, where it smoothed out. She felt sorry he hadn’t finished it.
She sat on the bed and thought about lying down, but she could not lie on Dan and Caitriona's bed – a widow's bed, now. Soon the sheets would smell of detergent and not Dan. There was a dent where Caitriona had been lying, before. She had stuck to her own side, and probably always would. Anna smoothed down the cover with her hands, and turned off the lamp.
Eimear Ryan was born in 1986 in Co Tipperary. Her stories have appeared in New Irish Writing, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, and the Faber anthology Town & Country. Her awards include a Hennessy Award and an Arts Council bursary. She lives in Cork and is writing a novel. http://eimearryan.tumblr.com/
Alina Hartwig, is a freelance photographer from Germany. Since finishing secondary school a year ago, she has been making her way in the movie business and works additionally as a photographer and artist.View more of her work at Flickr .