The following is an excerpt of a short story that appears in Ethel Rohan's latest collection, In the Event of Contact, about characters profoundly affected by physical connection, or its lack. Rohan is the author of several books, including Cut Through the Bone, which was longlisted for the Story Prize. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, PEN America, and Tin House, among other places. She lives in San Francisco where she is a member of the Writers Grotto.
Ruth, Mary, and I were identical triplets. I was the oldest by ten minutes, Mary was in the middle, and Ruth, the youngest, was infamous. Ruth’s saga started in kindergarten and ever after people remained divided over whether she was a weirdo, the victim of a genuine disorder, or plain bad.
The bother began with our five-year-old classmate, Timmy White. At every opportunity, Timmy insisted on tracing his fingertips over any flash of Ruth’s bare skin. The afternoon he dipped his fingers into the hollow of Ruth’s throat, she suffered a seizure. After, Ruth claimed she couldn’t stand to be touched, not by anyone, not ever. Doctors confirmed the crippling fear was a real and rare phobia. I could never understand, though, why Ruth’s no-contact rule extended to Mary and me, the two people closest to her in the whole world.
We were twelve years old, and nearing the end of primary school, when Ruth’s phobia deteriorated to an especially disturbing degree. If anyone accidentally touched her, even the barest brush, she screamed and dropped to the ground in a fit. The neighborhood kids and our fellow students grew ever more frightened and repelled by her, and no one wanted to be around her.
“How’s she ever going to get on in life?” Dad said.
“The school should have done more to stop that boy back then,” Mam said.
I seemed to be the only one angry with Ruth. She needed to get over her bizarre fear and return to herself, to us. Let our family get back to normal.
“Why do you always have to go on about it? She can’t help it,” Mary said.
Toward the end of summer and the start of secondary school, our family’s panic was at an all-time high, worrying how Ruth could possibly attend classes with her now utter intolerance. Only I wasn’t convinced Ruth’s phobia was as crippling as she claimed. During a family day out at Dollymount Strand, I watched her brave the sand, pebbles, shells, seaweed, and salty ocean. How could she withstand all those irritants? At home later, Jimmy, our cockatoo, perched on her hand, shoulders, and head. If his antics didn’t offend her either, why couldn’t Mary and I, her two-thirds, also touch her?
As soon as I got Ruth alone, I quizzed her. She fired her sandy shoe at me, sending granules flying. “It’s people touching me I can’t stand. It’s like slugs slithering over my skin, covering me in slime. It’s bad enough that other people don’t believe me, but for you to accuse me—”
“I just want you to get better.” I watched her cry, aching to hug her and envying the tears sliding down her red-splotched face, able to make tender contact.
The start of secondary school loomed. I tried to convince Mary we were the only ones who could fix Ruth.
“I don’t know,” she said nervously.
“Listen to me. We need to trick her into recovery. Otherwise, she’s going to be shunned and miserable at school, and us along with her.”
“What if we hurt her?”
“We can’t. We’re a part of her. If she can touch herself, then we can touch her, too. Once she realizes that, that’s the beginning of the end of all this.”
I entered our parents’ empty bedroom and pulled open the bottom drawer in the tall rosewood cabinet opposite their bed, where Mam housed our few keepsakes. I sneaked two of the three pairs of long white gloves from the drawer and placed them under my pillow. The gloves, soft, silky, and blessed during our First Holy Communion mass, were ideal.
Mary and I waited until late that night, when Ruth had fallen asleep. At my whispered instruction we climbed out of our bunk beds, pulled on the gloves, and tiptoed across the wiry carpet to Ruth’s single bed. We stood over her, my eyes adjusting to the dark, my nerves refusing to steady. I nodded at Mary. But she shook her head and took a step backward. When she couldn’t be persuaded, I reached out a shaky hand and touched Ruth’s face with my polyester fingertip, the gentlest flutter along her cheekbone. Ruth shot up, screaming and thrashing.
Mam and Dad came running. After Mam calmed Ruth down, she worked the story out of Mary. Mam pulled the gloves off Mary’s hands, and tugged them even more roughly from mine. She raised her arm and slapped the gloves across my face. Mary’s hand rushed to her mouth. Ruth remained sitting on her bed, her knees hugged to her chest. Dad looked away.
Despite every possible precaution, Ruth lasted three days in secondary school. A fellow first-year student either forgot or ignored the warnings and touched Ruth’s bare forearm. Ruth collapsed onto the schoolyard, hitting her head. She started convulsing, only the whites of her eyes showing. Blood filled the crack between her lips.
After Ruth recovered from her bit tongue and concussion, our parents brought her to see yet more doctors. Each agreed that Ruth was high-need and high-risk and required specialized schooling and care, at least until she showed signs of improvement. Our parents argued like never before.
“She wants more attention from you, they all do,” Dad said.
“She got this from your side. You’re a bunch of oddballs,” Mam said. Dad’s face slackened and dimmed, as if she’d also hit him across the cheek with something holy and stinging.
In addition to her office job, Mam started waitressing three nights a week in Flanagan’s Restaurant in town. Dad, a life insurance agent by day, also found night work as a security guard at Smurfit print-works in Glasnevin. All so they could afford a private teacher for Ruth. One of Mam’s longtime bosses recommended Mr. Doherty, a family friend and a tutor trained in special needs. After a phone interview, Mam invited Mr. Doherty to meet with us.
Right at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, the doorbell rang. Jimmy stirred in his cage and flapped his white wings, showing their yellow underside. “Toodaloo.” Mam answered the door and led Mr. Doherty into the living room. He shook each of our hands in turn, his palm sweaty. His gray eyes seemed too loose in his head and too much blood pooled in their inner corners, making me squeamish. When he reached Ruth, he pressed his hand to the breast of his leather jacket and delivered a tiny bow. “Nice to meet you.” He dropped his arm to his side, its oily handprint leaving a shadow over his heart.
“What do we have here?” he said, moving to inspect Jimmy.
After a quick chat among the adults about cockatoos, we sat down, five of us surrounding the coffee table cluttered with china, tea, fancy biscuits, and triangular sandwiches topped with sprigs of parsley. Dad was left with nowhere to sit and remained standing in front of the empty fireplace.
From Dad’s armchair, Mr. Doherty appraised Ruth, Mary, and me, sitting opposite him on the couch. We were long and thin, with brown eyes, browner bobs, straight lips, and milky skin with blue trails. “Remarkable,” he said.
“Carbon copies,” Mam said, pleased with herself.
“Yet each unique,” he said.
I started to almost like him.
Mary pressed her hands together prayer-like and held them out. “See, my right pinkie is longer than my left. Theirs are the same size.” She sounded triumphant.
Mr. Doherty crossed the room and pinched the tip of her extra long pinkie. “Isn’t that something?”
She grinned, her lips glued back.
“That’s enough, Triplet,” Mam said, her voice as harsh as her smoker’s cough.
Mary placed her hands beneath her thighs and seemed to fold in on herself, like air leaking from a blow-up doll.
Mr. Doherty returned to Dad’s armchair. Mam perched on her chair next to him, her face speckled with gold bronzer. Mr. Doherty helped himself to a second sugar cookie. As he spoke, listing off his years of experience, he spat golden crumbs. His shirt collar cut into his neck and reddened skin bubbled over its white ridge. I kept expecting his top button to pop and fire into the air.
“This is going to work beautifully, don’t you think, Ruth?” Mam said.
Ruth nodded, smiling. Mr. Doherty winked. She crossed her legs, her smile widening. Mr. Doherty eyed her bare knee, a tiny bald head.
Mam walked Mr. Doherty to the front door, Dad and the rest of us trailing.
Jimmy sang out. “Toodaloo.”
Mam laughed. “You’ll get used to him. He does that every time someone comes or goes.”
“What an interesting household you have,” Mr. Doherty said, holding Mam’s hand with both of his. Her eyes sparkled brighter than her face bronzer.
The next day, Mary and I arrived home from school to find Mr. Doherty and Ruth tucked inside the back kitchen, the now study space. They sat at the white wooden table from the charity shop, their bodies as close as they could get without touching. Mam entered the main kitchen, her face opening with surprise when she saw Mary and me. Yet she was the one out of place, not usually home from the office until sixish. “How was school?” she said. Before we could answer, she smiled at Mr. Doherty. “Not as good as Ruth’s first day, I bet.”
She removed her navy cardigan and readied a pot of tea, her ivory blouse bringing out her creamy complexion. Mary and I set on two bowls of crunchy cornflakes. Mam carried a steaming cup and saucer into the study, our rose-patterned china out again for Mr. Doherty. He accepted the offering, his eyes gleaming. My stomach fluttered worse than when I was in an elevator, falling through a building.
Mam returned to the kitchen and cracked open a can of white lemonade, unleashing a hiss. “Can I tempt you to stay for dinner, Mr. Doherty? I’ll make my chicken curry.” She raised her heavily penciled eyebrows. “Unless you don’t like spicy?”
“Oh I do,” Mr. Doherty said.
“What time will Dad be home?” I said.
Ruth scratched her neck and tugged the vee of her blouse, complaining she felt hot and itchy. “It’s like my clothes were washed in acid.”
“Put your lotion on,” Mam said.
“I already did,” Ruth said, sounding tortured.
A while later, Dad arrived home. He stopped short when he saw Mr. Doherty leaning against our kitchen counter, sipping vodka and white lemonade while Mam sliced red and green peppers into strips. I continued to set the kitchen table, spotting Mr. Doherty’s once-white tennis shoes covered in purple marker, a maze of small hearts. My scalp tightened. Ruth loved to doodle and purple was her favorite color. Dad excused himself. I watched his broad, blue-shirted back disappear.
“Do you like coconut milk, Mr. Doherty?” Mam asked.
She smiled. “Dan.”
“I love coconut milk.”
She poured the entire tin into the large, steaming saucepan, that dreamy smile never leaving her face. Ruth, leafing through the latest issue of Jackie, dropped the magazine onto the table and rolled up the sleeves of her blouse. She scratched both forearms simultaneously, their bloom of angry lines matching the red drag marks on her neck. “It’s like scald on my skin. It’s driving me mad.”
Her shrill voice and exaggerated gestures would shame even the worst actors. I stared her down. She returned her attention to the magazine, her cheeks a hostile crimson. I got what she was trying to do, but her faking filled me with fresh, frantic suspicion.
Throughout dinner, Mr. Doherty told terrible jokes. “What did zero say to eight?” Next, he tried to impress us with trivia. What do you call a group of frogs? A group of ponies? Crows? We only knew some of the answers. When he asked how many windows are in the Empire State Building, Dad almost came out of his chair.
“Correct,” Mr. Doherty said.
Dad’s grin split his face, as if he’d just won big money on a TV quiz show. His eyes darted to Mam, hoping for approval. She was smiling at Mr. Doherty. I forced a goopy load of chicken curry into my mouth, the taste of coconut overpowering.
Mam offered dessert, the air thick with the drift of cloves and home bake from the oven. Mr. Doherty clapped his potbelly with both hands. “I really shouldn’t.”
“Nonsense. We have to indulge every now and then,” Mam said.
Mr. Doherty chuckled. “True.”
Dad’s eyes paled to a lesser blue. He looked pained, as if some animal were lurking beneath the table, gnawing on his toes.
After bowls of warm apple tart and whipped cream, and too many cups of tea, dinner ended. “Say goodnight to Mr. Doherty,
Triplets,” Mam said.
“Goodnight, Mr. Doherty,” we chorused.
“Toodaloo,” Jimmy said.
“There he goes,” Mr. Doherty said, and he and Mam laughed.
Mam closed the front door after Mr. Doherty, and held onto the handle for too long. No one mentioned his shoes with purple hearts or worried that Ruth might have drawn them.
That night, our parents’ argument carried through our bedroom wall. “Maybe you could do with developing a bit of Ruth’s ‘don’t come near me’ condition,” Dad said.
“How dare you! I can’t enjoy some intelligent, interesting company? I’m not allowed to switch off and forget for a while?”
“You forget? What about me? What about what I need?” I could picture Dad’s finger stabbing his chest.
“I’ve plenty more to forget about than you do.”
While they raged, Ruth lay on her bed with her back to me. I stood over her, refusing to go away. “Tell me. How much is real, and how much have you been faking all this time?”
She sprang to her knees. “It’s all real!”
“It’s all in your head more like. Oh. Oh. My shirt is burning me.”
“Why would I do this to myself?”
“You’re doing it to all of us.”
“Leave her alone,” Mary said from her bottom bunk, an authority to her voice I hadn’t heard before.
I whirled around. “Tell her she’s destroying this family. Tell her.”
“Shut up and go to sleep, both of you. Isn’t it enough that Mam and Dad are killing each other?” Mary dropped onto her mattress and pulled the yellow comforter over her dark head.
Stunned, I climbed to my top bunk and tried to sleep. I kept seeing Ruth’s hand, working the marker over Mr. Doherty’s shoes, drawing and filling in purple hearts—so many hearts, so much time and care, and all for a stranger.
Days later, Mary and I went for ice cream after school with a few of our classmates. We both felt guilty, knowing Ruth would be waiting for us at home, but our new friendships were a thrilling development we couldn’t pass up. That was the real guilt: everything coming easier to us without Ruth’s unsettling presence.
Just as we sat down, Mr. Doherty appeared at the café’s window. He waved, flashing a brownish grin. I remembered the first day he came to our house, how he’d stained his leather jacket with his sweaty hand, leaving an oily print. The other girls asked who he was. Mary started to speak, about to kill the high mood and tell them he was Ruth’s special needs teacher. I shoved the head of my ice cream into her face. She cried out, letting her cone fall to the table. She dragged the blue arm of her school cardigan across her eyes. “What’d you do that for?”
A couple of the girls laughed. Mary, tearful, dairy-eyed, swung her backpack onto her shoulder and charged outside.
Mr. Doherty watched Mary walk away, the sleeve of her cardigan still wiping her face. I thought about going after her but couldn’t bring myself to move. If it had happened the other way around, she wouldn’t follow me. So I stayed, trying to pay attention to what the other girls were saying.
When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I went outside, just in time to see Mr. Doherty take off in his little red car, Mary next to him on the front seat.
A full hour later, Mary arrived home and swanned into the kitchen. “Where’s Ruth?” she asked airily. Ruth was in town with Mam, seeing yet another doctor.
“Where’d you go with Mr. Doherty?” I asked.
“We drove all over, listening to music with the windows rolled down. I felt like I was in a film.” She smiled to herself, one hand taming her windblown hair, the other reaching into the cabinet, removing the TUC biscuits.
I pressed her for details, but she wouldn’t cave. “Fine, don’t tell me.”
Her bravado left her in a burst. “If you must know, he talked about Ruth the whole time, okay?”
“He didn’t mention Mam?”
“What did he say?”
Mary rolled her eyes, much less hazel in her irises than in mine or Ruth’s. “He thinks there’s something extraordinary about her. ‘Sacred’ was his exact word.”
It hit me that Ruth got all the attention for being the youngest and a misfit, and I got the odd mention for being the oldest, the firstborn. But Mary was just Mary in the middle. Her thumb and finger touched the bridge of her nose.
“You really hurt me,” she said. “And you also made me bang my leg against the metal bar beneath the table.” She showed off the red bruise blotting her shin.
I fetched the tube of arnica from the drawer and dragged my chair in front of her. With my fingertips, I eased the lotion onto her coarse, stubbled leg. The room filled with the smell of licorice. I imagined she was Ruth and I was getting to touch her, to help her heal.
Excerpted from In the Event of Contact: Stories by Ethel Rohan. Excerpted with the permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2021 by Ethel Rohan.