She was driving Ben to a friend’s house, and this added journey was the cause of some irritation in her day; she had too much else to do. Though she did like the privacy of the car, the feeling of his voice coming over her shoulder as she checked the mirror and slowed to make a turn. He was up on the booster seat—Ben was small for eight—and he looked out the window at suburban streets and parked cars, while she used his mobile phone to map the route. She had it down by the gearshift, propped up on the gray plastic fascia. It was hard to read the little arrow through the disaster of Ben’s cracked screen—the thing was rarely out of his hand, unless he dropped it. Now he looked out on the real world as though mildly surprised it was there.“I don’t like Barry McIntyre,” he said.
“No? Why not?”
They had their best chats in the car. If they’d been at home, he would have said, “Dunno,” or “Just . . .” In the car, he said things like “I like boys, though. I do like boys.”
“Of course you do.”
She wondered why he couldn’t speak when they were face to face. What was it about her eyes on him that made him shrug and shift under his clothes?
“You are a boy.”
“I know that,” he said.
Of course, she was his mother, so when she looked at him she was always checking him over to adjust or admire. Though she tried not to. She really tried not to turn into the kind of woman who said, “Sit up straight,” or “Leave your hair alone.”
She glanced at the rearview mirror and saw only the side of his head. His coarse hair was darkening through the winter. In a year or two, it would be fully brown.
“I just hate basketball.”
“I really do.”
Recently, he had used the word “gay” as an insult. “That’s so gay,” he’d said at dinner, and his little sister missed a beat.
“Of course you like basketball,” she said warmly. That lie.
He did not answer.
“Does Barry McIntyre play basketball?”
In the rearview mirror, she saw his hand move toward his hidden face.
“Leave your nose alone!” she said.
It was hard not to. They were so temporarily beautiful, her children. They were so perfect, and then they were not perfect. She loved them too much to let them be.
She drove on while he watched the Dublin suburbs: spring trees, semidetached houses, a bundled old citizen walking her dog. The phone app was taking her down a familiar street, though it was an unfamiliar route, one she would not have known to take herself. Ben’s friend was called Ava, and she was new. She lived in St. Clare Crescent, which was somewhere near the motorway, apparently. But they did not take the motorway; they took a network of small streets, some of which she had driven down before—this was the way to the garden center, that was the way to the dog groomer’s—without knowing that you could cross from one to the other if you turned at the right place.
“Would you rather?” Ben said, then he stopped.
If you did not let Ben know that you were listening, he would refuse to continue.
“What?” she said, finally.
And, now that he knew he had her full attention, he said, “Would you rather drink a cup of lava or be drowned in a lava lake?”
“Would you rather?”
“Not this again.”
“You can’t drink lava.”
“Yes, you can.”
“In a cup?”
“A stone cup.”
“I’ll take the lake.”
“Would you rather fall off a roof or have a tree fall on your head?”
He was obsessed with choices, especially impossible ones.
“Neither. I would rather neither of those things happened to me.”
“Would you rather fall off a roof,” he insisted, “or have a tree fall on your head?”
Maybe he was obsessed with death itself. There was no getting out of it, one way or the other.
“Roof,” she said.
“What about you?”
“Yeah, roof,” he admitted.
“Not your best,” she said.
He paused, took the challenge.
“Would you rather be stung to death by fire ants or strung up by your toes from a big crane until your head burst?”
He would keep going until she was completely stuck.
“Would you rather drown in the dark or be strangled in the dark?”
He would keep going until she was actually dead.
“A huge dark lake full of eels.”
“Really not. Absolutely not. I would not rather.”
She was taken, as she drove, by the memory of a night swim, many years before Ben was born. It was in a lake, in the Irish countryside; a gang of them coming back from the pub, no moon, no sex, at a guess—not that morning, or the night before, when they were supposed to have their holiday-cottage sex—and she pulled her dress up over her head as she made her way, in the darkness, toward the lake. Of course there was a man in the group who was not, actually, the man she was seeing at the time; he was some other, forbidden man. And neither of these men would later become the father of the boy now sitting in the back seat. Getting naked in the deserted woodland in the middle of the night was a taunt to both of them—either one would do. It was all a long time ago.
The dress was a blue linen shift, loose and practical, her underwear possibly quite fancy and impractical in those days before booster seats and children with sleepovers and phones that told you which way to turn. Her body also a finer thing, back then, if only she had known it. And she was drunk, so the pathway down to the little boardwalk was patchily remembered, her experience at the time also patchy, though it slowed and cleared when she dropped her dress onto the still-warm wood and looked out over the water. There were turf grains in the silk of it that turned the lake brown, even in daylight. Now, at midnight, it was darker than you could imagine, so it was like a sixth sense, the feeling of open space in front of her. When she looked down, she saw the blackness gleam, like oil. She sat at the dock’s edge to unclip her fancy bra and shrugged it off. A man’s voice telling her to stop. Another man saying nothing. A woman’s voice, saying, “No, really, Michelle.” And she was in. She pushed out from the wooden lip as she dropped down into it, was swallowed in a bang of water that turned to a liquid silence, then she struggled back up to where the air began. Black water into black air.
As she rose and turned, she could feel the alcohol swell under the surface of her skin, and the water was not so much cold as numb. Or she was numb. The water slipped past her as she hauled her way through it, in a long, reaching overarm that took her away from everyone, even as she seemed to stay in the same place. She could tell by their voices that she was moving—the fragments of sound she caught as she plowed along the surface, out toward the center of the lake.
If it was the center. If it was even the surface she was swimming along. It was so dark and wet that it was hard to know if her eyes were closed or open. She was afraid that she was not quite level, as she swam, that she was tilting downward, afraid that when she turned her face up to inhale she would find only water. The shouts from the bank were more sporadic now; it was as though they had given up on her as she circled or tried to circle back toward them, because the scraps of sound gave her a sense of horizon and it was important not to lose this. She needed to know which way was up. She pulled the water along the sides of her body, and though she twisted into it as she went, she was not sure that she was making the turn. She should just stop a moment and get her bearings, but she could not stop; she did not want to. It was—this was the secret, sudden thing—so delicious. Not knowing which way was which, or where the edges were. She was dissolved by it. She could drown right now and it would be a pleasure.
She caught a flash of her white arm, a sinewy gleam that she followed—her body its own compass—until she heard, on the bank, the voice of the man she was supposed to sleep with, saw the intermittent cigarette glow of the man she was not supposed to sleep with (and never did, for some reason; perhaps she had him fully spooked). Her big statement was a little undercut, in the shallows, by the sharpness of the stones in the silt under her feet as she made her way up out of the lake, toward recrimination and cold-skinned sex.
She woke up the next morning with a start, the previous night’s slightly watery consummation already forgotten, wasted. It had happened without her. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled air into her lungs. She was alive. And she put this fact into her mind. Jammed it right in the center of her mind. She could never do that again. She was twenty-four years old, and she was giving up death. Drunk or sober, there would be no more lakes after dark.
“You know, Ben, you should never swim at night,” she said now, more than twenty years later, sitting in her Hyundai hybrid. Accelerator, brake, mirror, clutch.
“Would you rather?” Ben said.
“No, really, you have to promise me not to do that, ever. Not in a lake, because there is no salt in a lake to hold you up, and especially not in the sea. You must always respect the sea. It’s bigger than you. Do you hear me? And you must never, ever swim if you have taken alcohol, or even if your friends have. If a friend has had a couple of beers when you are a teen-ager and he says, ‘Come on, it’ll be fun!,’ what do you say?”
“Would you rather,” Ben said, patiently.
“No, I wouldn’t. I really would not rather. I would not rather die one way or the other way. What is your problem, Ben?”
They were in a street of newly built semidetached houses, depressingly small and endlessly the same. Tiny gardens: rowan tree, cherry tree, silver birch, ornamental willow—a horrible pompom on a stick. She did not know what she was doing in this place. It was coming to catch her, even here. It was coming to catch her children—her own foolishness; it had followed her out of the water. The night swim was not the end of it; she had been in thrall to death for some time afterward—months, a year. Because of course you could leave the lake but you could not leave desire itself, and all its impossibilities.
Though something was made possible. Something was made real. Something was resolved by the existence of the child in the back seat.
“Would you rather,” Ben said, “live in a turkey or have a turkey live inside you?”
“Would you rather,” he repeated, in a forbearing way, “live in a turkey or have a turkey live inside you?”
“That is a very good question,” she said.
“Would you rather?”
“That is a truly great question. That is the best one yet.” She reached to the car radio and switched it on, hoping to distract him.
“Is that the place?” The app told her to take a right. “Is that where Ava lives?”
“I don’t know.”
“She’s your friend.”
“No, she’s not. She’s not my friend. She’s just really, really pushy.” His hand rested, in anticipation, on the overnight bag beside him as she took the turn through large, open gates into a new development.
“Is this it?”
St. Clare Close, St. Clare Court. The little maze was set around an open green space, and in the center of the green was a grand, three-story building.
St. Clare’s itself.
There it was. All this time. She had lived five miles away from here, for a decade, and had never realized it was down this road, one she passed every so often, on her way somewhere else.
She had been driven here in a taxi nearly twenty years ago, when all around were green fields. She was terrified that the driver would know from the address that she was mad, though she wasn’t properly mad; she was just quite badly broken. She was sure he would know that there was a broken human being in his cab, that he would turn to sneer at her as they went through the gates, or as they were going up the driveway past tended gardens, to this large house, this facility.
The Sisters of St. Clare and St. Agnes. Private Nursing Home.
“Scraggy Aggy’s,” as it used to be known. The bin. She had typed the address into her son’s phone and thought nothing of it.
“Would you rather?” Ben said.
So that was why she had remembered the lake.
It was very strange, looking at the building from the outside. She had spent her time there in a small room and had seen the exterior perhaps twice: first in a skewed way, as she walked up the steps, and possibly once again in a backward glance when her father came to collect her. She had never gone into the gardens, which were now filled with smart new houses; it was possible that she had not been allowed. Or, more likely, she had not been supplied with clothes. She had slept a lot, or lain unmoving in her hospital-style bed. She did remember standing at a window—perhaps it was even that window on the third floor, where the building bulged out into a fat, round turret. She knew that the turret contained a flight of stairs and that she had looked out from the top of it, as a woman in a fairy tale might—though she was not in a fairy tale, she was in a fog of Mogadon, not to mention all the other junk she swallowed obediently, twice a day, wondering if she would ever, ever shit again. Nobody seemed to care about that. They cared about your feelings instead. Though “cared” was perhaps the wrong word. They observed your feelings.
“Mother,” Ben said—a word he used only when truly annoyed. She had forgotten to say “What?”
“What?” she said.
“Would you rather live in a turkey?”
“Is this the place?” she said. “Is this where she lives?”
She had slowed to a stop in the middle of the deserted street. A pair of tiny children, one of them just a toddler, were playing on the flight of broad granite steps that led up to the front door of the building that used to be Scraggy Aggy’s. The place had been turned into apartments—they probably cost a bomb. Other things came back to her as she looked at the façade: A foyer of sorts, where she had signed in. A large living room for the nuns, where her father had stood up from a chintz armchair as she walked through the door, ready to go home. It was the high-ceilinged room on the left, where the children’s mother had pinned the curtain back, to see that they did not wander far.
There had been a godforsaken day room where people went to smoke—she wondered where that was. They were all on twenty cigarettes a day, the broken ladies of the suburbs, with their trembling hands and their pretty dressing gowns. They’d sat in this stinking room, with its vinyl-covered armchairs, and looked at their wrists. She wondered who lived in that space now. Someone busy and young. Someone who put orchids on the sill of a window that had once been nailed shut. This person did not smoke. This person walked out of a lovely private flat into the public corridor where the sad people used to pace, all those years ago. Weeping, not weeping, silent, eying the pay phone.
“It’s No. 74.” Her son’s tone was one of bottomless contempt, and she saw that she had not moved, was stalled.
The toddler and the young child were actually contained by the steps, she realized. They stayed at the top, and peddled their tricycle on the flat surface. They did not approach the edge.
She had spent the past eight years of her life checking on the safety of small children.
The car rolled gently forward as Ben read out the numbers on the houses that faced onto the green: 67, 69, 71.
“Where are the evens?” she said, as they circled slowly around the back of the building as though driving into a trap. This is how her life had felt, just before it broke—everything had been too connected. And now it was happening again: the unwitting journey, the unfunny choices, the idea that her son knew, of course he did, you could smell it on her still: the brackish water of the lake.
She spotted the window of the day room, up on the second floor, and she was still up there, checking her wrists. Smoking away. Staring for weeks at a patch on the wall. Ben unknown to her. Her daughter unknown. They had not happened inside her body; they had not been born.
“There it is! Seventy-four, seventy-four!”
She stopped the car, pulled the hand brake, and twisted in her seat to look at her son, who was undoing his seat belt in the back. Ben glanced up at her, and he was beautiful. His hair needed a comb, and there was a gleam of something under his nose, but he was so very much himself. He looked at her from under long lashes, as though he had known her for a long time, and she was not inside the building. She was here now, on the outside, with him.
“Be good,” she said, as he grabbed the overnight bag and was gone. For a boy who didn’t like girls, he was quick getting to Ava’s front door.
“I’ll pick you up at eleven tomorrow.”
He came doubling back then. She thought for a moment that he wanted to kiss her goodbye, but he was just looking for his phone. She handed it through the window, then stuck her face out after it, for mischief.
“Mnnnnmm,” she said, puckering up. And he did kiss her, abruptly, before running back to the house, where Ava was now standing on the porch to welcome him in. A little blond pixie, with a sequinned heart on her T-shirt, jigging up and down at the sight of him.
The kiss was a clumsy thing. Fleshy. Swift. There was a dot of cold on her cheek, from the tip of his nose.
“Ben!” she shouted. “Hang on. Ben!”
“I would rather have the turkey live inside me.”
“O.K.!” He took her answer quite seriously.
It was just a question, she thought. And she checked the rearview mirror before pulling out. ♦
Published in The New Yorker print edition of the March, 9 2020, issue.