Playboy Fiction: The Bog Man

Margaret Atwood's short story, published in Playboy in 1991, is now online for the first time ever

Julie broke up with Connor in the middle of a swamp. Julie silently revises: not exactly in the middle, not knee-deep in rotting leaves and dubious brown water. More or less on the edge; sort of within striking distance. Well, in an inn, to be precise. Or not even an inn. A room in a pub. What was available.

And not in a swamp, anyway. In a bog. Swamp is when the water goes in one end and out the other; bog is when it goes in and stays in. How many times did Connor have to explain the difference? Quite a few. But Julie prefers the sound of swamp. It is mistier, more haunted. Bog is a slang word for toilet, and when you hear bog, you know the toilet will be a battered and smelly one, and that there will be no toilet paper.So Julie always says, I broke up with Connor in the middle of a swamp.

There are other things she revises as well. She revises Connor. She revises herself. Connor's wife stays approximately the same, but she was an invention of Julie's in the first place, since Julie never met her.
Connor mentioned the wife, and the three children and the dog, fairly soon after he and Julie met. Well, not met. Slept together. It was almost the same thing.

Julie supposes, now, that he didn't want to scare her off by bringing up the subject too soon. By the time he did get around to making a sheepish avowal or confession, Julie was in no position to be scared off. She was already lying in a motel room, wound loosely in a sheet. She was too tired to be scared off and also too amazed, and also too grateful. Connor was not her first lover, but he was her first grownup one, he was the first who did not treat sex as some kind of panty raid. He took her body seriously, which impressed her no end.At the time—what was the time? It was 20 years ago, or 25. More like 30. It was the early Sixties; the precise year had to do with bubble-cut hairdos, with white lipstick, with dark rings penciled around the eyes. Also, purple was big as a color, though Julie herself favored the more rebellious black. She thought of herself as a sort of pirate. A dark-eyed, hawk-faced, shaggy-haired raider, making daring inroads on the borders of smug domestic settlements. Setting fire to the roofs, getting away with the loot, suiting herself. She studied modern philosophy, read Sartre on the side, smoked Gitanes and cultivated a look of bored contempt. But inwardly, she was seething with unfocused excitement and looking for someone to worship. 

Connor was it. Julie was in her last year of university, in Toronto, and Connor was her professor for archaeology—a one-hour-a-week course you could take instead of religious knowledge. Julie fell in love with his voice, rich and rough-edged, persuasive and abraded, rising and falling in the darkness like a stroking, insistent hand while he showed slides of Celtic tombs. Then she got tangled up with him in his office, where she'd gone intentionally late in the day to discuss her final term paper. Then they'd ended up in the motel. In that era, such things happened more easily between students and their professors. There was no such phrase as "sexual harassment," even. There was no such thought.

At the time, Julie did not think the wife and the three kids and the dog had anything to do with her and Connor. She was too young to make such connections: The wife was as old as her own mother, almost. She could not picture Connor in any context other than the motel rooms they would sneak into. She did not think of him as having an existence apart from her: The wife and kids were just boring subsistence details, like brushing your teeth. Instead, she saw him in glorious and noble isolation, a man singled out, like an astronaut, like a diver in a bell jar, like a saint in a medieval painting, surrounded by a golden atmosphere of his own, a total-body halo. She wanted to be in there with him, participating in his radiance, basking in his light.
Because of her original awe of Connor—he was very smart, he knew a lot about ancient bones, about foreign travel, about how to mix drinks—she did not drive nearly as hard a bargain with him as she could have. But then, she had not been conscious of driving a bargain at all. She had been possessed by some notion of self-sacrifice; she had asked nothing for herself, except that Connor should continue to be superhuman.

The first motel was two months ago. Julie feels she has aged a great deal since then. She sits in the uncomfortable maroon plush armchair in her room in the Scottish pub in the small town near the bog, beside the window with its grubby white curtains and the clear northern light coming in, smoking Gitanes and drinking from a cold cup of tea she has brought up from her spectacularly awful breakfast with its limp underdone bacon and its burnt grilled tomatoes. She sits and she smokes, and she knits.Knitting is something she has just taken up again, having learned it as a child from a mother who believed in die female domestic virtues. She was also taught to crochet, to set in zippers, to polish silverware, to produce a gleaming toilet. This was baggage she'd discarded as soon as she hit Spinoza; two years, a year ago, she would have despised knitting. But there is not a lot to do in this town when Connor is not here. Julie has been up and down the main street several times; she has been drizzled on by the weather, she has been scowled at by the tweed-covered inhabitants. She has sat in the one café and drunk vile coffee and eaten bland and lard-flavored scones. She has inspected the ancient church: not a lot to see there. The stained-glass windows must have gone when the Presbyterians took over. Dead soldiers' names on the wall, as if God were interested.

The knitting is a last resort. Whatever else tiny Scottish towns like this one may lack, they all have wool stores. Julie went into the wool store, fended off inquiries as to her marital status and general mode of existence and bought a pattern for a sweater—jumper, they call it here—and some big needles, and a number of skeins of dark-gray wool. She wound the skeins into balls, and then she went back to the wool store and bought an ugly tapestry bag with wooden handles to put them in. Knitting is not really very soothing, but it gives her something to do with her hands while she broods and waits for Connor.

What she's knitting is a sweater for Connor. She's doing the first sleeve. After a while, she realizes that she has knitted the sleeve eight inches longer than it should be. It will make Connor look like an orangutan. Let him complain, she thinks. She leaves it that way and begins on the other sleeve. She intends to make it equally long.

While Julie knits, Connor is off inspecting the bog man. The bog man is why they are here.

When the bog-man find was announced, they were on the island of Orkney. Connor was looking at standing-stone ring sites and Julie was pretending to be his assistant. This was Connor's bright idea. It has allowed him to write off Julie as part of the expense of this particular expedition, but it has fooled nobody for long; at least not the barmen, at least not the maids in the various inns where they've been staying, who sneer at Julie in a dour, self-righteous way, despite the fact that Julie and Connor have taken care to book separate rooms. Maybe Julie should look more industrious; maybe she should carry notebooks and bustle around more.

Despite the sneers of the maids and the innuendoes of the barmen, Julie enjoyed herself quite a lot in Orkney. Not even the breakfasts dismayed her, not even the congealed oatmeal and the dry toast. Not even the dinners. It would have taken a good many rockhard lamb chops, a great deal of over-fried fish to dampen her spirits. It was her first trip across the Atlantic Ocean; she wanted things to be old and picturesque. More importantly, it was the first time she and Connor had been alone together for any length of time. She felt almost marooned with him. He felt it, too; he was more uninhibited, less nervous about footsteps outside the door; and although he still had to get up and sneak out in the middle of the night, it was comforting to know that he only snuck next door.

It was July, the fields were green, the sun shone, the stone circles were suitably mysterious. If Julie stood in the centers of them and closed her eyes and kept still, she thought she could hear a sort of hum. Connor's theory was that these rings were not merely large, harmless primitive calendars, erected for the purpose of determining the solstices. He thought they were the sites of ritual human sacrifices. This should have made them more sinister for Julie, but it did not. Instead, she felt a connection with her ancestors. Her mother's family had come from this part of the world, more or less; from somewhere in the north of Scotland. She liked to sit among the standing stones and picture her ancestors running around naked and covered with blue tattoos, offering cups of blood to the gods, or whatever they did. Some bloodthirsty, indecipherable Pictish thing. The blood made them authentic, as authentic as the Mayans; or at least more authentic than all that clan and tartan and bagpipe stuff, which Julie found tedious and sentimental. There had been enough of it at her university to last her for a while.

But then the bog man had been discovered and they'd had to pack and take the ferry to the mainland, where it was rainier. Julie would have liked to stay on Orkney, but Connor was hot on the trail. He wanted to get there before the bog man had been completely, as he said, ruined. He wanted to get there before everyone else.

This particular bog man was unearthed by a peat digger who'd cut into him accidentally with the sharp blade of his shovel, severing the feet. He'd thought he was a recent murder victim. It was hard for him to believe the bog man was 2000 years old: He was so perfectly preserved.

Some of the previously uncovered bog people aren't much to look at, judging by the pictures of them Connor has shown her. The bog water has tanned their skins and preserved their hair, but often their bones have dissolved and the weight of the peat has squashed them flat, so that they resemble extremely sick items of leather gear. Julie does not feel the same connection with them that she feels with the standing stones. The idea of human sacrifice is one thing, but the leftovers are something else again.

Before this trip, Julie didn't know very much about bog people, but now she does. For instance, this bog man died by being strangled with a twisted leather noose and sunk in the bog, probably as a sacrifice to the great goddess Nerthus, or someone like her, to ensure the fertility of the crops. "After a sexual orgy of some kind," said Connor hopefully. "Those nature goddesses were voracious."

He proceeded to give examples of the things that had been sacrificed to the nature goddesses. Necklaces were a feature, and pots. Many pots and caldrons had been dug up out of the bogs, here and there around northern Europe. Connor has a map, with the sites marked and a list of what has been found at each one. He seems to think Julie ought to have memorized this list, that she ought to have its details at her finger tips, and acts surprised when it turns out she doesn't. Among his other virtues, or defects—Julie is beginning to find it hard to tell the difference—Connor is pedagogical. Julie has started to suspect him of trying to mold her mind. Into what, is the question.

As she knits, she makes a mental list of other things that get molded. Steamed Christmas puddings, poured-concrete lawn dwarfs, gelatin desserts, wobbly and bright pink and dotted with baby marshmallows. Thinking of these reminds Julie of her own mother, and then of Connor's wife.

It's astounding to her, the way this invisible wife has put on flesh, has gradually acquired solidity and presence. At the beginning of her two months with Connor, the wife was a negligible shadow. Julie wasn't even that interested in going through Connor's wallet to look for family photos while he was out of the way in the shower.

She didn't bother then, but she has bothered since. Tucked behind the driver's license there's the whole family group, in color, taken on the lawn in summer: the wife, huge in a flowered dress and squinting; the three boys, with Connor's red hair, squinting also; the dog, a black Labrador that knew better than to look at the sun, its tongue out and drooling. The ordinariness, the plainness of this picture offends Julie deeply. It interferes with her idea of Connor, with his status as romantic isolate; it diminishes him, and it has made Julie feel, for the first time, cheap and furtive. Extraneous, auxiliary. If they were all on a troika and the wolves were gaining, she has no doubt—looking at the dog, the redheaded kids, the suburban lawn—that she herself would be the first to be hurled off. Compared with those upper arms emerging from the short sleeves of the wife's florid dress—those laundry-toting, child-whacking arms—Julie, with her long dark pirate's hair and her 24-inch waist, is a frill.

It's all very well for Connor to say that his wife doesn't understand him. This hefty, squinting woman looks as if she already understands a great deal too much. If she and Julie were to meet, she would not take Julie seriously. She would glance at Julie, merely glance, and then she would chuckle, and Julie would shrivel away to nothing.

Homely is the word. That is the wife's ace up the sleeve, her insurance policy. Even though she looks like a truck tire, she has the territory staked out. She has the home. She has the house, she has the garage, she has the doghouse and the dog to put into it. She has Connor's children, forming together with them a single invincible monster with four heads and 16 arms and legs. She has the cupboard where Connor hangs his clothes and the washing machine where his socks whirl on washdays, ridding themselves of the lint they've picked up from the bath mats in the motel rooms he has shared with Julie. Motels are a no-man's land: They are not a territory, they cannot be defended. Julie has Connor's sexual attention, but the wife has Connor.

Julie has knitted enough for one day; she rolls the newly begun second sleeve around the needles and tucks it into her tapestry bag. She decides to walk out to the bog to find Connor. She has not seen the bog before; she has not seen the bog man. She has picked up the impression from Connor that she would be in the way. Even he has dropped the pretense that she is an assistant in any real sense. She runs the risk of being treated as an interruption, but it's a risk she is now willing to take. Boredom is the mother of invention.

She picks up her shoulder bag from the chipped dressing table, peers at herself in the decaying mirror, pushing her hair back off her face. She is getting that sunless look. She ferrets in the closet for her raincoat, stuffs her Gitanes into her pocket, closes and locks the door and descends the stairs, skirting the cleaning woman, who gives her a baleful glare, and heads out into the mist.

She knows where the bog is; everyone knows. It takes her half an hour to walk there, along the road that is so old it has cut itself into the land like a rut. Connor goes there in a car that has been rented in Edinburgh by one of the other archaeologists. No hope renting a car in this town.

The bog does not look much like a bog. It looks more like a damp field; tall grasses grow on it, small shrubs. The chocolate-brown scars of the peat cuttings open into it here and there. It would have been more watery in the days of the bog man; more like a lake. More convenient for drowning.

Connor is over by a roughly constructed tarpaulin shelter. There's another man with him, and several others out on the bog surface, fooling around in the peat cutting, Julie supposes, to see what other buried treasures may come to light. Julie says hello but does not otherwise account for her presence. Let Connor explain it. Connor gives her a quick annoyed glance.

"How did you get here?" he says, as if she has dropped from the sky.

"Walked," says Julie.

"Ah, the vigor of youth," says the other man, with a smile. He's fairly young himself, or anyway, younger than Connor, a tall blond Norwegian. Another archaeologist. He looks like something out of a viking movie. The metallic scent of rivalry is in the air.

"Julie is my assistant," Connor says. The Norwegian knows better.

"Ah, yes," he says mockingly. He gives Julie a bone-crushing handshake, gazing into her eyes while she flinches. "Did I hurt you?" he asks tenderly.

"Can I see the bog man?" Julie says. The Norwegian expresses mock surprise that she has not done so already, an assistant like her. With a proprietary air—he was in the area, he got there right after the Scots, he beat Connor to it—he ushers Julie into the tent.

The bog man is lying on a piece of canvas, curled on his side. His hands have deft, slender fingers, each fingerprint intact. His face is a little sunken in but perfectly preserved; you can see every pore. His skin is dark brown. The bristles of his beard and the wisps of hair that escape from under his leather helmet are an alarming bright red. The colors are the effects of the tannic acid in the bog, Julie knows that. But still, it is hard to picture him as any other color. His eyes are closed. He does not look dead or even asleep, however. Instead, he seems to be meditating, concentrating: His lips slightly pursed, a furrow of deep thought runs between his eyes. Around his neck is the twisted double cord used to strangle him. His two cutoff feet have been placed neatly beside him, like slippers waiting to be put on.

For a moment, Julie feels this digging up, this unearthing of him, as a desecration. Surely, there should be boundaries set upon the wish to know, on knowledge merely for its own sake. This man is being invaded. But the moment passes, and Julie goes out of the tent. Maybe she looks a little green in the face: After all, she has just seen a dead body. When she lights a cigarette, her hands are shaky. The Norwegian gives her a solicitous look and places a hand beneath her elbow. Connor does not like this.

The three men who have been out at the peat cutting return: one Scottish physical anthropologist and two workmen with peat-cutting spades. Lunch is proposed. The workmen have brought their own and stay to guard the tent. The archaeologists and Julie get into the Norwegian's rented car. There's no place to eat except the pub, so that is where they go.

For lunch, Julie has bread and cheese, which is the safest thing, a lot safer than the flabby Scotch eggs and the barely warmed, fat-saturated meat pasties. The three men talk about the bog man. That he was a sacrifice is beyond a doubt. The question is, to which goddess? And at which solstice? Was he bumped off at the winter solstice, to make the sun return, or at the summer solstice, to make the crops prosper? Or perhaps in spring or fall? An examination of the stomach—which they intend to remove, not here and now but later in Edinburgh—will reveal clues. Seeds, grains and the like. This has been done with all the other bog people who have been found, those who still had stomachs. Julie is just as glad she has stuck to the bread and cheese.

"Some have said the dead cannot talk," says the Norwegian, twinkling at Julie. Many of his remarks have been addressed to Connor but aimed at her. Under the table, he lays a hand, briefly, upon her knee. "But these bog men have many wonderful secrets to tell us. However, they are shy, like other men. They don't know how to convey their message. They must have a little help. Some encouragement. Don't you agree?"

Julie doesn't answer. There's no way she can answer without participating, beneath Connor's very nose, in what amounts to a flagrant proposition. It's a possibility; or would be, if she weren't in love with Connor.

"Perhaps such things as stomachs disgust you?" says the Norwegian. "Things of the flesh. My wife does not like them, either." He gives her a hyena grin.

Julie smiles and lights a Gitane. "Oh, do you have a wife?" she says brightly. "So does Connor. Maybe the two of you can discuss your wives."

She doesn't know why she has just said this. She doesn't look at Connor, but she can feel his anger coming at her like heat from a stove. She gathers up her purse and coat, still smiling, and walks out of the room. What's running through her head is one of the first axioms from logic: A thing cannot be both self and nonself at the same time. She has never been convinced by this, and now she is even less so.

Connor does not follow her to her room. He doesn't reappear all afternoon. Julie knits and reads, knits and smokes. She's waiting. Something has changed, she has changed something, but she doesn't yet know what.

When Connor does show up, after sundown, he's morose. He says nothing about her piece of rudeness. He says nothing much at all. They have dinner with the Norwegian and the Scot, and the three of them talk about the bog man's feet. In some of these cases, the feet have been tied together, to keep the dead from walking, returning to the land of the living, for revenge or some other reason. But not in this instance; or they think not. The cutting off of the feet may have interfered with something, of course. Ropes, thongs.

The Norwegian is no longer flirting; the looks he gives her are speculative, as if there is more to her than he thought and he'd like to know what. Julie doesn't care. She eats her ossified lamb chop and says nothing. She thinks of the bog man, under his tarpaulin. Of all of them at this moment, she would rather be with him. He is of more interest.

She excuses herself before dessert. Connor, she thinks, will stay down there, drinking beer in the pub, and he does.

Around 10:30, he knocks on Julie's door as usual, then comes in. Julie is already in bed, propped up on the pillows, knitting. She has been sure he will come, but also not sure. She shoves the wool and needles into her tapestry bag and waits to see what he will do.

Connor does not say anything. He takes off his sweater, drapes it over the back of the chair, undoes deliberately the buttons of his shirt. He is not looking at Julie but into the wavering, patchy glass of the dressing-table mirror. His reflection there has a watery look, as if a lake bottom with decaying leaves on it is visible in glimpses beneath him, beneath his face and the whiter skin of his torso. In this light, his red hair has faded. "I'm getting love handles," he says, slapping his belly. This room flattens his beautiful voice, muffles it. "The curse of the middle-aged." It's a signal: If he's angry with her, he's not going to mention it. They will go on as if nothing has happened. Maybe nothing has.

That's fine with her. She smiles. "No, you aren't," she says. She doesn't like him doing this. He's not supposed to examine himself in mirrors or think about his appearance. Men are not supposed to.

Connor gives her a reproachful glance. "One of these days," he says, "you're going to run off" with some young stud."

He has said such things before, about Julie's future lovers. Julie has not paid much attention. Now she does. Is this about the Norwegian, is he looking for reassurance? Does he want to hear from her that he is still young? Or is he telling her something real? Julie has never before thought of him as middle-aged, but now she can see that there might be a difference between her idea of him and his own idea of himself.

He climbs into the sagging bed with something like a sigh of resignation. He smells of beer and pub smoke. "You're wearing me out," he says. He has said this before, also, and Julie has taken it as a sexual compliment. But he means it.

Julie turns out the bedside lamp. Once she wouldn't have bothered; once she wouldn't have had time. Once Connor would have turned it back on. Now he does not. He does not need to see her, she has been seen enough.

Meditatively and without ardor, he begins to run his hand along her: knee to thigh to hip, hip to knee. Julie lies stiffly, eyes wide open. The wind gusts through the cracks around the window, handfuls of rain are thrown against the glass. Light seeps in from under the door, and from the few street lamps outside: In it, the dressing-table mirror gleams like dark oil. Connor is a bulk beside her. His stroking does not excite her. It irritates her, like sandpaper, like the kneading paws of a cat. She feels that she has been demoted, against her will. What to her has been self-abandonment, to him has been merely sin. Grubby sin, sin of a small order. Cheating. Now he feels trapped by it. She is no longer a desire for him, she is a duty.

"I think we should get married," says Julie. She has no idea where these words have come from. But yes, this is what she thinks.

Connor's hand stops. Then it's withdrawn suddenly, as if Julie's body is hot, hot as coals, or else cold; as if Connor has found himself in bed with a mermaid, all scales and fishy slime from the waist down.

"What?" he says, in a shocked voice. An offended voice, as if she has insulted him.

"Forget it," says Julie. But Connor will not be able to forget it. She has said the unforgettable thing, and from now on, it will be hopeless. But it has been hopeless, anyway. Connor's unseen wife is in the bed with them, where she has been all along. Now she is materializing, taking on flesh. The springs creak with her added weight.

"Let's talk about it tomorrow," says Connor. He has recovered himself, he's plotting. "I love you," he adds. He kisses her. His mouth feels separate from him; soft, moist, coolish. It feels like uncooked bacon.

"I could use a drink," Julie says. Connor keeps a flask of Scotch in his room. Grateful that she has given him something to do, some small thing he can offer her instead of what she really wants, he clambers out of bed, pulls on his sweater and cords and goes in search of it.

As soon as he's out of the room, Julie locks the door. Connor comes back. He shakes the doorknob; he whispers and taps, but she does not answer. She lies in her bed, shivering with grief and anger, waiting to see whether Connor loves her enough to kick at the door, to shout. Whether she's important enough. He does not. She is not. After a while, he goes away.

Julie hunches up under the mound of damp coverings and tries without success to go to sleep. When at last she manages it, she dreams of the bog man, climbing in through her window, a dark, tender shape, a shape of baffled longing, slippery with rain.

In the morning, Connor makes another attempt. "If you don't answer me," he says through the keyhole, "I'll get them to break down the door. I'll tell them you've committed suicide."

"Don't flatter yourself," says Julie. This morning, she's no longer sad. She's furious, and determined.

"Julie, what did I do?" says Connor. "I thought we were getting along so well." He sounds truly perplexed.

"We were," says Julie. "Go away."

She knows he will try to ambush her in the breakfast room. She waits him out, her stomach growling. Instead of eating, she packs her bag, glancing from time to time out the window. At last, she sees him leaving for the bog in the Norwegian's car. There's a noon bus that will get her to another bus that will get her to a train for Edinburgh. She leaves behind the tapestry bag and the unfinished sweater. It's as good as a note.

Back in Toronto, Julie pins her hair into a brisk but demure French roll. She buys herself a beige cotton-twill suit and a white blouse, and deludes the Bell Telephone Company into hiring her as a personnel trainee. She's supposed to learn how to train other women in the job of complaint management. She doesn't intend to stay with this for long, but it's good money. She rents herself a large, empty apartment on the top floor of a house. She has no long-term plans. Although she was the one who left Connor, she feels deserted by him. At night, she listens to the radio and cooks subsistence meals and cries onto her plate.

After a while, she resumes her black clothes, at night, and goes to folk clubs. She no longer smokes Gitanes, because they frighten men. She picks up with a boy she knew slightly from her Spinoza course. He makes a crack about windowless monads and buys her a beer and tells her he used to be terrified of her. They end up in bed.

For Julie, this is like a romp with an entire litter of puppies. There's the same effect of gangly enthusiasm, of wriggling, of uncontrolled tongues. It's not passionate or even sensuous, but it's invigorating. Julie tells herself she's enjoying it, and she is. Or she would be, except for Connor. She wants him to know about it. Then she would really enjoy it. Even better would be the Norwegian. She should've taken advantage of that while she had the chance.

Connor returns at the end of August. It doesn't take long for him to track her down.

"I've missed you," he says. "I think we should talk."

"What about?" says Julie warily. She thought she was over him, but it isn't true.

"Why can't we go back to the way we were?" he says.

"Where were we?" says Julie.

Connor sighs. "Maybe we should get married, after all. I'll divorce her." He says this as if it's being torn out of him.

Julie starts to cry. She's crying because she no longer wants to marry Connor. She no longer wants him. The divinity is going out of him, like air. He is no longer a glorious blimp, larger than life and free in the heavens. Soon he will be just a damp piece of flabby rubber. She is mourning his collapse.

"I'll come right over," says Connor, in a pleased, consoling voice. Tears mean he has made headway.

"No," says Julie, and hangs up.

She puts on her black clothes, eats quickly, finds her cigarettes. She phones her boyish lover. She wants to pull him over her like a blanket, hug him to her like a stuffed animal. She wants comfort.

She goes out the door of her building and there is Connor, waiting for her. She has imagined him so much that she has forgotten what he looks like. He's shorter than she thought, he's saggier. His eyes look sunken and also too bright, a little wild. Is this what she has changed him into, or was he always like that?

"Julie," he says.

"No," says Julie. The knees of his brown cords are baggy. This is the only detail Julie finds actually repulsive. The rest just leaves her cold.

He reaches out a hand toward her. "I need you," he says. It's a trite line, a line from a mushy song, but he does need her. It's in his eyes. This is the worst thing yet. It was always supposed to be her who needed him; he was supposed to be well above such a weak thing as need.

"I can't help it," says Julie. She means she can't help it that things are the way they are, that she herself is without feeling for him; but it comes out more flippant, more pitiless, than she intended.

"Jesus Christ," says Connor. He moves as if to grab her. She ducks around him and begins to run down the street. She has her black pants on and her flat black shoes. Now that she has cut down on her smoking, she's a decent runner.

What does she expect, now that she's in full flight? That he will go away, finally, that he'll never be able to catch up? But he hasn't gone away, he is catching up. She can hear the thudding of his feet, the gasping of his breath. Her own breath is rasping in her throat; she's losing speed.

She has come to a cross street, there's a phone booth. She ducks into it, slams the folding glass door shut, pushes against it with both of her feet, leaning her back against the phonebook shelf for leverage. The smell of ancient pee surrounds her. Then Connor is right there, outside, pushing at the door, pounding at it.

"Let me in!" he says.

Her heart pounds in panic. "No! No!" she yells. Her voice is tiny, as if she's in a soundproof booth. He presses his whole body against the glass door, wraps his arms as far around the phone booth as they will go.

"I love you!" he shouts. "Goddamn it, can't you hear me? I said I love you!" Julie covers her ears. She is truly frightened by him now, she's whimpering with fright. He's no longer anyone she knows; he's the universal child's nightmare, the evil violent thing, fanged and monstrous, trying to get in at the door. He mashes his face frontways into the glass, in a gesture of desperation or a parody of a kiss. She can see the squashed tip of his nose, his mouth deformed, the lips shoved back from the teeth.

Julie remembers that she's in a phone booth. Without taking her eyes off him, she fumbles in her purse for change. "I'll call the police," she screams at him. And she does.

It took them some time to come. By the time they did, Connor was gone. Whatever else he wanted, he did not want to be caught in the act of sexually attacking a phone booth. Or this is how Julie puts it, when she tells the story these days.

At first, she did not tell it at all. It was too painful for her, in too complicated a way. Also, she did not know what it was about. Was it about the way she had been taken advantage of, by someone older and more experienced and superior to her in power? Or was it about how she had saved herself from an ogre in the nick of time? But Connor was not an ogre. She had loved him, uselessly. This was the painful thing.

Then, after she was married, after she was divorced, she began to tell the story of Connor once in a while. She told it late at night, after the kids were in bed and after a few drinks, always to women. It became part of an exchange, the price she was willing to pay for hearing other, similar stories. These were mystery stories. The mysterious objects in them were the men, they and their obscure behavior. Clues were discovered and examined, points of view exchanged. No definite solutions were found.

Now that she has married again, she tells it more frequently. By this time, she concentrates on the atmosphere—the Scottish rain, the awful food in the pub, the scowling inhabitants of the town, the bog itself. She puts in the more comic elements: her own obsessive knitting, the long dangling sleeves, the lumpiness of the bed.

As for Connor, how can she explain him, him and his once-golden aura? She no longer tries. She skims over the worshiping love she once felt for him, which would be mawkish out loud. She skims over the wife, who is no longer the menacing rival of the piece: Julie has now been a wife herself and feels a sneaking sympathy.

She skims over the grief.

She leaves out entirely any damage she may have caused to Connor. She knows the damage was done, was severe, at least, at the time, but how can it be acknowledged without sounding like a form of gloating? It was unintentional on her part; more or less. At any rate, it does not really fit into the story.

Julie eases forward in her chair, leans her arms on the table, lights a cigarette. She still smokes, though not as much. Over the years, she has put on weight around the face, and her waist has solidified. Also, she has cut her hair; it's no longer a mane, it's fashionably short at the back and sides, with a wispy, puckish mop on top. She wears silver earrings in the shape of starfish, an eccentric touch, the last vestige of her days of piracy. Except for the earrings, she looks like any woman of that age you might see, walking a dog or shopping, in one of the newly renovated neighborhoods.

"God knows," she says, "what I thought I was doing." She laughs, a rueful, puzzled laugh that is also indulgent.

The story has now become a story about her own stupidity, or call it innocence, which shines at this distance with a soft and mellowing light. The story is now like an artifact from a vanished civilization, the customs of which have become obscure. And yet every one of its physical details is clear to her: She can see the ruined mirror in the room, the slabs of dry toast at breakfast, the grasses moving on the surface of the bog. For all of this, she has total recall. With each retelling, she feels herself more present in it.

Connor, however, loses in substance every time she forms him in words. He becomes flatter and more leathery, more life goes out of him, he becomes more dead. By this time, he is almost an anecdote, and Julie is almost old.

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