Exploring the art of prose


Cillian by Janey Tracey

Image is a color photograph of striped pillows on a bed; title card for the third-place winner of the 2023 Short Fiction Prize, "Cillian" by Janey Tracey.

Janey Tracey’s “Cillian” is the third-place winner of the 2023 Short Fiction Prize,
guest judged by Nana Nkweti.

Susan Sontag once said, “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.” This observation is no more evident than within the pages of Janey Tracey’s “Cillian,” a sharp and nuanced portrayal of the ways in which grief, trauma, and human instinct play out between two flawed people attempting to make sense of the lives they inhabit. But Tracey’s story is also deeply funny in its noticing, offering readers the humorous literary equivalent of a jump scare. As the story’s titular character and first-person narrator orbit each other and collide, whipping up a cyclical weather pattern of emotional debris, wit-filled moments of characterization appear suddenly, shifting the mood and tone, again and again. The ultimate effect is a story that pulses with tension and release, as well as characters who feel highly realized. By the conclusion, we, as readers, feel repulsion and tenderness, melancholy and absurdity, rage and relief. In other words, we see ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. Clearly, Janey Tracey has been paying attention.  —CRAFT


When the night was over, and everyone else had gone, Cillian took me to an Irish bar, scratched the small of my back, and told me his theory of everything. He told me political polarization was related to wave polarization, which forced nebulous waves into a defined shape. I nodded, and repeated it back to him: the polarization of our country is inevitable, and is just forcing us to see the truth of things, their true shape, for the first time. He said no, his pale cheeks flushed with righteous indignation, our polarization was forcing that wave into a shape when it should be free to behave the way it wants. This was somehow related to his keto diet, because humans had been forced into eating carbs and sugar for fuel instead of meat by the Industrial Revolution.

It was a hot, muggy night, and we were both wearing all black. I had just bought a new pair of black jeans from Macy’s that smelled poisonous when I opened the box, like they had been tented for termites. He said he liked my black beret because it made me look militant. I told him Jamie bought it for me. Jamie, my boyfriend, was Greek, with a sharp chin and dark cartoon eyes. Once, when he wore a blue striped sweater and walked a little too close to New York Comic Con, he was mistaken for a Clark Kent cosplayer. Cillian was German-Irish, with colorless freckled skin and pale pinkish-blond hair that always looked wet. He had a triangular grin and small, grayish teeth. His black button-down made him look like a greaser. He used the word “dialectic” at least three times. He worked at a political science think tank. I ordered a Moscow mule from the wiry bartender. Cillian held up a pink palm and said, “No but, have you ever had a mezcal mule?” and then explained that the peaty-ness of the mezcal complemented the ginger beer better than vodka. “You’ll see,” he said, as he pointed at the bartender. “Two, please.” The bartender nodded, his eyebrows raised and his lips pressed into a thin line.

When Cillian said I really needed to read “this revolutionary new book, Hillbilly Elegy,” I knew I would have sex with him. Not because I wanted to have sex with him, I just knew it would happen at some point, like when you see a piece of furniture jutting out a little too far from the wall and don’t bother to push it back before you stub your toe on it.

The first time I saw Cillian, he was screaming at his then-fiancée, Carly, because he lost his iPad. Carly had frizzy, dyed-black hair and dull black eyes. Her smile—downturned at the corners, with large horsey teeth—was her best feature, but I only saw it in pictures. She started and ended every text with “haha” or “lol” but never laughed in person. I still thought she could do better.

It was Jamie’s twenty-ninth birthday party, and Cillian insisted on playing a series of drippy songs by bands like Vampire Weekend and Arctic Monkeys on his own state-of-the-art waterproof speakers. Right around the time he started accusing Jamie’s sister of cheating at beer pong and defending his pride in his “German heritage” apropos of nothing, his iPad went silent. I told Jamie it was a birthday miracle. When a quick search didn’t yield the iPad, Cillian berated Carly for ten full minutes: “I wanted to leave for the other party half an hour ago and I knew where my iPad was half an hour ago so why didn’t you just let us leave half an hour ago!” Carly’s responses were muted, plaintive. When Cillian was finished, he stumbled over to Jamie and me and pawed at my shoulder bag.

“What are you doing?” I asked. He directed his response to Jamie.

“Where’d you find this one?” Cillian slurred. “She’s too hot for you. Probably a thief.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Jamie said cheerfully.

Five minutes later, Cillian found the iPad in his own backpack.

Cillian and Jamie grew up across the street from each other, so they weren’t close so much as soldered together. As for Carly, she was an enigma. At parties, she would just scroll through her phone, not because she was shy or awkward, but because she never seemed to consider that there was any other way for a party to go. I had entire conversations with Cillian while she texted furiously next to him. The only time I ever saw them have fun together was during Jamie’s and my annual New Year’s party, when they would giggle and shut the door to our bedroom so they could snort coke off of our dresser.

Six months after Jamie’s birthday, while we were moving my clothes and my cat into his apartment, I asked him if he had ever seen Carly and Cillian look at each other.

“Yes, of course,” he said. But then he paused, his dark irises vibrating back and forth like bell clappers. “Wait…have I?”

He hadn’t. We had seen them stand next to each other while they talked to other people. We had seen them sit next to each other at dinner while they talked to other people. They had collectively discussed their shared vacations—they always did like taking trips—or movies they had seen together. But we had never seen them directly address each other, let alone look each other in the eye.

A few weeks later, we were out to dinner, the four of us, the significant others seated across from each other like double daters do in the movies. Cillian sat on my side and asked me in a hushed, secret voice to explain the difference between second- and third-wave feminism, because he thought he might like second-wave better. Jamie and I held hands across the table. Carly was texting, her frizzy hair falling in front of her face. She didn’t look up until Jamie mentioned the clear, bitter-tasting nail polish he had been using so he would stop biting his cuticles.

“Cillian bites his nails, too!” she said brightly.

Cillian’s face flushed.

“When he’s stressed,” Carly continued. “He doesn’t use the nail polish, though.”

“Carly!” Cillian hissed.

Jamie and I heard a light thud under the table.

“Um, ow,” Carly said.

A louder thud. Carly doubled over, her shoulders almost touching the tablecloth.

“Ow-w!” she whimpered in two drawn-out syllables.

Jamie and I gave them one of those looks couples give other, messier couples—horrified, happy-smug. I squeezed Jamie’s polished hand.

A few months later, Carly broke up with Cillian during an Arcade Fire concert.

“She’s the one who wanted to get married,” Cillian said, eyes glittering, as he drank our bottle of red wine, his thin lips suckling the neck like a rubber nipple. “I said it was too expensive.”

During the Carly years, Cillian treated me like a particularly attractive sweater Jamie had found at a thrift store. “Where’d you find this one?” he would ask Jamie whenever I said something intelligent. “You’ve got good taste!”

Post-Carly, I became a separate entity, with its own attractions and uses. Cillian slid off of our group chat with Jamie to text me a rant about a “shockingly non-nuanced” take on current events, or a 100-character review of the latest book he was reading. “Against Empathy by Paul Bloom. I know you only read fiction, but it’s a compulsory read for any deep thinker.”

“How does Cillian hug you?” I asked Jamie after a day of drinking with Cillian for Mardi Gras. “Show me.” Jamie wrapped his arms around my shoulders, distant and manly. I extracted myself and said, “Okay, because this is how he hugs me.” I moved my body into his, wrapped my arms around him, and gave him two quick scratches on his lower back.

“You’re kidding,” he said.

“I’m not.” That was how he hugged me, with two quick scratches, sharp and efficient.

Jamie was horrified at first, but over time, it became our own private joke. I would hug him when he went to work, or he would hug me before I left for a trip, and we would scratch the other’s lower back, sometimes underneath their shirt.

And then we would cringe and laugh.

After the bar, Cillian walked me home. He did all of the things he was supposed to do: wandered closer to me as if by accident, touched my elbow and described my personality like I wasn’t there. “You always speak in declarative statements,” he said. “You say your opinions so confidently, they sound like facts.” I told him he might be projecting. He laughed and touched my elbow again, and then we were in front of my apartment building, which was right next to the hospital. He saw the Mt. Sinai sign and winced. He stood in front of me, his hands resting unnaturally below his hips.

“I’m not going to come up,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. I opened the door to my building and propped it open with a floppy triangular doorstop. He followed me in like a puppy all the way to my apartment and onto my couch.

“I don’t want to leave you alone,” he said.

This was the part where I would ask if I could get him anything, but I had no alcohol left. Jamie had three wine bottles hanging on the wall for decoration, and for guests in a pinch, but I had drunk them all in the past week. Jamie’s coffeemaker was shiny and complicated—I didn’t know how to work it. I could make pasta, in theory, but Cillian was keto. I had nothing to offer him. I filled a glass of water from the sink.

I sat down next to him on the couch and handed him the glass without a word. He ranted for several minutes about people who have water filters, and said the antifluoride movement was the liberal version of climate denial. I said that was a very declarative statement, and he kissed me. His lips were cold from the glass.

He pulled away and looked at my face. I thought he might cry. I unzipped his pants, slid to the floor, and pulled his penis out of the flap in his boxers. I stuffed it in my mouth, and he groaned.

After a minute, he made a loud creaky noise, like he was trying to roar but had run out of breath. He pulled me to my feet and pushed me against the wall. He thrust into me from behind, so I banged my head on the eggshell paint. This was what I needed. He threw me onto the couch, thrust into me again, and grabbed my breasts like bike handles. I asked him to hold my hands down above my head. He froze and propped himself up on his palms, his penis still inside me but motionless.

“I can’t do that,” he said.

That made sense. Jamie could play at violence with me, because to him it was automatically a farce. Cillian looked at me like I was stupid, reckless, like I was poking an alligator in the eye. We both came about a minute later.

He tried to collapse on top of me, but I swatted his body away and made a dash for the bathroom. When I didn’t come back, Cillian called out, “You okay in there?”

I cared so little that it was easy to be honest. “Fine. It’s just hard to pee after I cum. My muscles are all tense and spastic down there.”

He chuckled, pleased with himself. I rolled my eyes. I bit my lip until I heard a few staccato streams hitting the toilet water.

“What do you think he would say about this?” Cillian asked.

“What,” I said from behind the door.

“He wouldn’t understand,” Cillian said. “He never did anything shitty in his life.”

I snorted. Once, when Jamie and I first started dating, I called him after a hideous day at work and told him not to bother coming over—I was about to crawl into bed and cry in the fetal position for the rest of the night. Half an hour later, he knocked on my door holding a takeout cylinder of cheddar and broccoli soup and crawled into bed with me. For months after, he recalled fondly, “Remember that time you cried for six hours? That was so cute!” I had no idea how Jamie would react to anything and neither did Cillian.

After that first time, we always met at Cillian’s place. I didn’t want to worry about being quiet for my neighbors, who, days before, had flouted the unspoken rules of neighborly New York behavior and attended Jamie’s funeral.

Cillian was one of those misguided men who thought the thrusting part of sex should last a full twenty minutes, so I had plenty of time to get bored and observe his apartment. It was beige and fussily neat, almost grandmotherly, with a white bust of Abraham Lincoln’s head next to the Smart TV and a text map of the United States hanging on the wall. He had meat delivered in giant crates that were half my height—globs of cherry-red beef in vacuum-sealed packages; slick, translucent chicken the same color as his hair. We had sex against his silver-flecked marble kitchen island, on his novelty cube-shaped ottoman. He still wouldn’t hold my hands down, but he liked to have sex with my head banging against his white-painted headboard. His pillows were hard and comma-shaped, with deep indentations that bore no resemblance to the curve of a human head. He explained that they were ergonomic, for neck pain, meanwhile I had never experienced neck pain in my life before I slept on those pillows.

Cillian cried a lot. He cried after sex approximately forty percent of the time. He cried after he asked me, without thinking, whether his cock was the “best cock I’d ever seen.” He cried over an Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney, those colorful pictures of electrocutions. I didn’t even cry at Jamie’s funeral. I cried for eight hours the night he died and then stopped.

“You cry the least out of any of my girlfriends,” Cillian said once, as he blubbered into a Chipotle burrito bowl filled with little cubes of chicken and steak.

Four nights a week, we went to bed together at night and woke up together in the morning. I didn’t eat red meat, so he would add salmon to his subscription meat box and cook it for me. He texted me articles throughout the day and speculated how I might feel about them. He once saw me fingering the white hairs on his chest and asked me if I had “daddy issues.”

“Yes,” I replied. “My dad is a Republican.”

Cillian accused me of being a “coastal elite” and made me watch three episodes of Bill Maher. Later, while he was thrusting into me from the big spoon position, he whispered in my ear that we were “learning from each other.”

Three months after Jamie died, Cillian reinstated a monthly dinner club Jamie had started with his friends, whom Cillian had somewhat acquired over the years. Cillian agreed to arrive five minutes after me, as long as we sat next to each other at dinner. After a few drinks, Cillian laughed at something I hadn’t heard, draped his arm across the back of my chair and left it there. I didn’t say anything, mostly because none of his friends would put it past him to make this possessive gesture without invitation. But then, right after one of them got him all hot and bothered about an upcoming craft beer tasting in Long Island City, he forgot himself and started twirling his index finger into my hair. I reached into his lap and pinched a tiny section of his scrotum, just enough to hurt.

While he was alive, Jamie had a litany of excuses for Cillian, primarily revolving around Cillian’s anxiety. When I complained that Cillian would only address Jamie in conversation, even after I had asked a direct question, Jamie said he was “just nervous.” When Cillian snorted coke right before Carly’s brother’s wedding and screamed a string of obscenities at her on the dance floor, Jamie said he “had trouble with social situations.” When Cillian went to Jamie’s office Christmas party and physically pushed one of Jamie’s pretty coworkers under the mistletoe, Jamie said he was in therapy and “working on himself.”

“Besides, what’s the fun of being friends with someone that lots of other people want to be friends with?” Jamie asked me with a wink. He repeated the story my parents loved to tell, that when I was little I would always choose the ugliest puppy at the pound—the one with matted hair and a droopy face, the one who wouldn’t come when I called—because a cute puppy wouldn’t need me as much.

“Those were puppies,” I corrected him. “There’s no such thing as an ugly puppy, but there are ugly people.” He just laughed.

But after I started sleeping with Cillian, I saw that Jamie was right—Cillian really was afraid of everything. He had nightmares almost every night, usually about forgetting which day of the week it was. He would wake up in a grayish sweat and call out, “It’s Friday!” or “It’s Wednesday!”—and he would be wrong. When we walked around Astoria, he would describe apocalyptic visions of New York: all electronics shorting out and cars crashing into each other without traffic lights, or a nuclear bomb dropping in Manhattan, leaving us alive but tumor-riddled in Queens. I used to imagine large-scale disasters while Jamie was alive, especially when he worked in Rockefeller Center—mass shooters, the Cloverfield monster—but then he was killed by a cyclist two blocks away from our apartment.

Cillian and I fought a lot. I said I liked listening to covers of old songs on Spotify because the quality was better, and he called me a monster. He thought I was “disconnected” during sex, and I suggested he try going down on me once in a while. We had a five-hour screaming match about whether Beyoncé was a “hypocrite” for singing empowerment anthems after forgiving Jay-Z’s infidelity. We could have been any other couple. When we fought, he was at a disadvantage because his skin was so pale, and when he was angry or afraid, the flush would start at the base of his neck and work its way up like the crimson in an old thermometer, and I would laugh.

Six months after Jamie died, Cillian and I braved the Bryant Park Christmas shops because neither of us had any gift ideas. We waded through the brightly lit glass shacks filled with snow globes and hat trees. I made fun of couples trying to figure out their portrait mode by the giant tree, and Cillian ranted about the superiority of the Pixel camera. He ducked into a shack and bought a yellow plaid scarf that was too thin to keep anyone warm. He made a move to wrap the scarf around my neck like a lasso and bring my face close to his. He smiled.

“What are you doing?” I asked loudly.

He reddened and mumbled, “I don’t know.”

We went to a movie after that, one of those Christmas romances where someone has been dead the whole time, and it was even worse than we had expected. The man worked at a horse farm, which required him to be shirtless for sixty percent of the movie. The woman had an abusive past, recounted in horrific, tasteless detail, and said she was “too broken to love.” They had sex for the first time in a horse shower and she cried, the water mingling with her tears.

We went in hoping for a good laugh, but this movie was too soggy even for hate-watching. Cillian had his hand on my knee and whenever he got bored his hand would move up until it was halfway up my thigh. I adjusted my skirt so the pleats opened like an accordion. He slipped his hand under the elastic waistband and wiggled his fingers downward. He struggled to even graze my clitoris at that angle, but the struggle itself made me a little wet. There was an older couple sitting in our row, in their 80s or 90s, but they weren’t looking at us. They were watching the screen, riveted, and sharing a box of Hot Tamales.

After a few minutes, I pulled his hand out of my skirt, whispered in his ear, and walked out of the theater. There was a line for the women’s bathroom, so I walked into the empty men’s room while no one was looking, sat on one of the toilets, and picked up my feet like I was cutting class. A few minutes later, the door to the bathroom squeaked open and shut. Cillian’s brown loafers appeared underneath the stall. The door rattled.

When I unlocked the door, still seated on the toilet, Cillian grabbed me under my armpits and stood me up. I pushed him away before he could kiss me and knelt, my pleated skirt fanning out in a circle across the pink-and-black checkered floor. I unzipped his wrinkled, elephant-skin khaki slacks. His penis flopped out through the zipper and bounced around a little.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I looked up at him.

“Don’t kneel on the floor—it’s filthy,” he said. “I just read an article on the PBS website—”

The bathroom door creaked open and shut. We both turned our heads toward the sound. Black Nikes walked briskly by and locked themselves into the handicapped stall. I laughed with my mouth closed. Cillian slapped me. The noise echoed but it didn’t hurt. I laughed with my mouth open. He slapped me harder, so it hurt. His face flushed like it always did, like an old thermometer, but I couldn’t recognize it this time. I kept laughing. The Nikes left the bathroom in a hurry. As the bathroom door swung open and closed, Cillian sat on the toilet so I could straddle him. There was a thin film of dust and hair on the toilet seat where it met the metal flusher. I bounced up and down on his lap. The bathroom door opened again. Cillian covered my mouth and we listened to liquid hiss into the urinal until Cillian abruptly came inside me. I pulled him out of my body, bit his shoulder, and exhaled out of my nose like an overstimulated horse as my urine and his semen dribbled between his legs and into the toilet.

The Irish bar wasn’t decorated for Christmas. They were famous for their elaborate Halloween decorations, so they kept them up for the tourists until New Year’s. Plastic jack-o-lanterns wearing beanies, plastic skeletons hanging from the ceiling, black-and-orange twinkle lights. Cillian and I sat at the bar ordering drink after drink. I drank screwdrivers—he ordered mezcal mules until 4 a.m., when he started asking the bartender to leave out the ginger beer so he wouldn’t get hungover.

I don’t remember everything we talked about, but I remember he lamented for an hour that millennials don’t know how to drive stick. “It’s an art,” I remember him saying. He told me he just downloaded an app called Digest that uses neurological principles to summarize entire books in a way that makes them impossible to forget. He said he read The Art of War in fifteen minutes that morning. He talked about a study that claimed galaxies exert gravitational pulls on each other and move together across the universe for long distances. He said that must be why identical twins never resent each other as they get older, because they’re separate but moving through the world within the same orbit. I told him to please, please shut up for a minute.

At 6 a.m., the wiry bartender left at the end of his shift and wished us luck. Sunlight leaked through a small window, which made the bar look dustier than it was. Cillian started to cry. I sipped my drink and ignored him, out of politeness.

“We should just—get married,” he sobbed at one point.

“Yeah,” I said, “we should do that.”

“No, I’m serious,” he said, “Carly made all the plans. It’s in June. We haven’t even forfeited all of our deposits yet.”

I was quiet for a while. Then I told him about a skinny, elegant professor I had in college, even paler than Cillian, with a long white head like a Vicodin pill, who once called marriage a “built-in redemption story.” Everyone thought Woody Allen and Soon Yi were disgusting together, this man argued, until Woody made an honest woman out of her. Cillian cried louder. The new bartender, a broad, statuesque woman wearing a crop top and pigtails, slid us two Bud Lights on the house.


JANEY TRACEY has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she taught undergraduate writing. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction, Entertainment Weekly, the Ploughshares blog, and more. She lives in Queens. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @janeytracey.


Featured image by Lasse Møller, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

The inspiration for this story traces back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I was eleven, I watched Buffy die, come back to life, claw her way out of a coffin, descend into a depression, and let a vampire fuck her on a crowded nightclub balcony. Steamy as that may sound, it didn’t look fun. The sex wasn’t a playful distraction—it was as sad and violent as the feelings she couldn’t express.

It’s a truism that sex writing is hard, but to me, sex is a cheat. It’s a nonverbal form of communication, a means of developing characters’ motivations and dynamics without dialogue. (That’s probably why I tend to write about bad sex—all happy sex is the same, all unhappy sex is unhappy in its own way.) For my narrator, sex is an act of loathing, for Cillian and herself. Though she would never admit this, she and Cillian are a lot alike. They’re both stubborn, misanthropic, angry at the world. They’re both grieving the lives they thought they would lead. Cillian becomes the narrator’s outlet for unspoken rage, trauma, and grief. Sex with Cillian allows her to express the inexpressible.

I withheld Jamie’s death for the first half of the story for two reasons: first, I was writing for a course called “The Excruciating” with Binnie Kirshenbaum, and I wanted to time the reveal so it would hurt. But also, I wanted the reader to experience the narrator’s denial along with her. The first scene reads like she’s cheating on Jamie because, in her mind, she is. When she finally does reveal his death, there’s an abrupt paragraph break so she can ruminate on the myriad ways Cillian is disappointing her in bed. She can’t look at her grief all at once—it’s too big and bright, like staring into the sun. She needs to refract it through her joyless, excruciating relationship with Cillian.

Although her relationship with Cillian is, for the most part, a bizarre parody of civilized mating rituals, I knew I wanted to end on one moment of near-tenderness. Because there is a strange kind of intimacy between them. Like Buffy, the narrator is sleeping with him to obliterate herself—to feel nothing but self-loathing and disgust so she doesn’t have to feel grief. He’s a witness to her self-annihilation. He isn’t paying much attention to what she thinks or feels, but he has an insider view of the worst moment of her life. He knows what hell looks like for her. In a way, that’s love.


JANEY TRACEY has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she taught undergraduate writing. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction, Entertainment Weekly, the Ploughshares blog, and more. She lives in Queens. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @janeytracey.