An extract from Life on Earth by Molly McCloskey
In the mornings, my bed was littered with skin. It was like sleeping with a molting thing, or a being that had passed the night evolving. I thought of tails or fins buried in the bedclothes. After he left, I’d shake the sheets out the window and send flakes of him over the bricked patio, carried on the breeze into the grass quad adjacent to my house. There were students down there – there were students everywhere, flawless and blank-eyed, plumped on fructose and a feeling of entitlement to they weren’t sure what – and I loved the thought of it, the run-off of last night’s friction, the acid rain of middle age drifting down on them.
The first time he stayed the night, I couldn’t tell what was happening. I don’t mean the sex, I mean after. He slept vehemently, violently, as though he were undergoing something, electro shock or the return of buried memories. One minute his breathing sounded like a small motor, then silence, then a sudden snorting. He would kick, shudder, flip himself over suddenly and completely, as though someone had turned him with a spatula. It looked exhausting. In the midst of all that action, I slept hardly at all, and rose the next morning bleary-eyed, while he woke rested and refreshed. Apparently, it was not exhausting.
He was a year back from Afghanistan when we met, one of those wars Americans had begun to lose track of, so that people sometimes forgot whether we were still fighting it, or just advising others who were fighting, or pretending to advise them while we fought it, in secret, ourselves. He had just turned fifty, which seemed old to me for combat, but he was on the medical side of things more than the front line. Not that there was a front line, as such. Or maybe there was, in a way. What did I know about how battles were fought? I was an English professor who’d spent my entire adult life abroad. I had once worked with a colleague in England designing what she’d called a ‘vet-friendly curriculum’, which had prompted me, for a time, to think about the mental lives of people who go to war and about what literature might owe or could offer them. But that wasn’t like knowing them. It wasn’t like finding flakes of one in your bed, having him flop like a fish next to you all night long.
He said that when he came home from Kabul, they’d put his unit in some anonymous hotel in a flyover state to decompress. He lay on his bed with the AC maxed, drinking beer after cold beer and watching the shopping channel, where an ad for doggy steps showed elderly and disabled pooches ascending to luxurious beds.
‘Fucking doggy steps,’ he said, and laughed with a strange sort of joy. ‘I knew I was home then.’
Irish-American author Molly McCloskey was born in Philadelphia and grew up in North Carolina and Oregon. In 1989, she moved to Ireland, spending ten years on the west coast before moving to Dublin. She is the author of two short story collections, ‘Solomon’s Seal’ and ‘The Beautiful Changes’, and a novel, ‘Protection’. Her first work of non-fiction, ‘Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother’, appeared in 2011. Her new novel was published by Penguin Ireland in 2017 as ‘When Light is Like Water’, and in the US by Scribner in 2018 under the title ‘Straying’. Her work has appeared in the Irish Times, Dublin Review, Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She has taught writing at universities in Ireland and the US, serving as writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Dublin, University College, Dublin, and George Washington University in Washington, DC. She has also worked in the field of international development in the UN’s Kenya-based Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia. She currently lives in Washington, DC, and recently served as a judge for the DC-based PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.