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…
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.