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Short Story
4885 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

A Catch

by Sarah Seltzer

So many others in my study abroad program treated Ireland like it was Cancun, with hot-tubs replaced by the back booths of pulsing clubs as the chosen canoodling locale. Yet so far, I had had only a single one-night stand in Galway. The man, let’s call him Liam or Brendan or Jim, had arrived in town with a stag party from Dublin. He sat beside me on a hard wooden bench at a pub and whispered that I should come back to his hotel. He wore a rugby shirt and too much cologne, but oh, how much he wanted me, how he’d singled me out from the others. He made his case in low tones, urgently, his breath on my neck. Utterly alone, I felt removed from his need, but even more alien to the bland row of round-faced American girls at our table, Meghan and Ruth and Bridget.

So I went out with him, into the damp night. We had sex in the brightness of a hotel outside town. He knew what he was about, Liam or Brendan or Jim, moving me as though I were a salt shaker and the bed a bland meal. But our tryst failed to transport me, to elevate me: the plaster on the walls, the plainness of his clothes, his square black suitcase with the condoms tucked neatly in a side pocket.

Even his attempts to be nice as we got undressed were dispiriting: “You’re so sexy Erin, dear, d’you know?” I replied, “That’s Blarney,” imagining myself witty. When we were done, by which I mean when he was spent, he asked, “Do you care for a second spin?” and I replied, “I think I’ll go now.” So Liam or Brendan or Jim put me in a taxi back into town. I found the girls again out on the cobblestones of town. They shouted “ERIN. Where have you been?”

What would I tell them, them or my friends at home? Fucked in a mediocre manner, then popped in a taxi? I wanted something grander: to be a source of intrigue, to be touched and lifted out of my former persona, such as it was.

Sculpting a self seemed easy for everyone else in my program. Ruth had fallen in gentle love with her Irish roommate. Meghan slept around. Bridget prayed at the church of her ancestors each Sunday. Alexander hitchhiked to the base of remote green mountains and scaled their summits in the mist. I thought: Meghan is a sexual adventurer. Alexander is a pilgrim. Ruth a lover. Bridget has God. Each would make the crossing home after our year here and have a catch, a Great Irish Romance.

Not so, me. I drifted through the days in a funk, wary of boyfriends of course, given that my previous disastrous relationship had sent me scampering here. I was neither a believer in Christ nor in Yahweh and too hunched into my body to hike.

I had landed on these emerald shores shattered, a refugee from hordes of fleece-clad future accountants, my Cornell classmates. Unthinkingly I’d plopped myself in another cold and rain-soaked college town. I quickly became a well-clad vagrant, haunting Galway as I had haunted Ithaca. I skipped my classes and smoked cigarettes by the river. I sat alone in pubs and listened to the music of the language— “that’d be grand, so,” “I’ll drop it down to ya,” “I’ll ring ya.” I read my textbooks cover to cover, particularly the one on the British Romantics: “Pale were the sweet lips I saw/Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form/I floated with, about that melancholy storm.” In short, I brooded.


“I heard you went off with some guy,” this came from Bridget, the day after my encounter with Liam-Brendan-Jim, in our dorm’s common room.

Bridget was okay for someone who assiduously wrote her name on her milk containers in the fridge. Now she stood at the entrance to our common space with Ruth, holding a foil-wrapped packet of digestive cookies. They leaned on either side of the doorframe, boxing me in. I had poured myself a Jameson, so that I might glower into its mahogany depths and attempt (and fail) to spin the previous night in my mental mythology as more arousing than humiliating.

“What happened with the guy, Erin?” she continued, her eyes wide. “People were wondering where you went!”

“I don’t know why I schlepped over here if the only men I can find to bang are no better than the frat boys at Cornell,” I said. I rued within nanoseconds every single word I’d uttered: the Yiddish, the word “bang,” the Cornell name-dropping. It was so put—on.

“So he wasn’t Ivy League material,” Ruth smirked. “Well, they can’t all be.”

I deserved that.

From the depths of her pink bag, the indomitable Bridget handed me a folded-up piece of paper, a flyer from town. “Check this music group,” she said. “I hear you singing in the shower.”

I took the flyer, and a cookie. And I scrawled down the information about the music group advertised—“come sing with us!”—because Bridget had a point. I had a strong voice, and I missed using it since I got turned down for a cappella freshman year, by every group I auditioned for, and not because of my voice, either.


I arrived the next night at the pub advertised in the flyer and tiptoed downstairs for the first convening. Two middle-aged women, a pink-haired girl and a tall, broad-shouldered man in his 40s sat hunched forward in a semicircle of seats. They seemed so pathetically motley that I lost courage and pivoted back around.

“Heya! You looking for us?”

I spun back, plastering confusion on my face.

“Oh, are you the—?”

“The music group, that’s us,” said pink hair.

“An American!” said the middle-aged man. “Oh do join. Give us that Britney Spears flavor.”

I laughed despite myself, and moved forward.

“I’m Andrew,” he said.

“I’m Aireann,” said the pink-haired girl.

They told me the group came together on Wednesdays in dark pubs like this one, away from the touristy end of town. The barkeeps would turn the music down and let them rehearse. Sometimes locals might sit in, even harmonize a few bars.

“Sing with us!” they said with great enthusiasm. I had trouble saying no to heartfelt-seeming requests for my company. I sat down and promptly decided that I could, and should, seduce either Aireann or Andrew.

We consisted of two fiddlers, older ladies from the suburbs named Nuala and Kathleen, and a harmonica player, Kevin, an American returned to the motherland long ago. Aireann was a lesbian guitar-strummer from Limerick. Andrew, who mentioned Britney, was sardonic, forty-two and chubby, recently separated from his London wife, their posh flat. Transplants and natives, we sat together by the half-moon slice of Galway Bay, the last outpost before the Atlantic and home.

Finally, something I could relay to my parents. “I joined a singing group, guys.”


Let me explain: I was not always a sullen type. Once I was all-American. I was cherry pie. I had a steady boyfriend all through high school in Cleveland, and then another one right away freshman year; a tall and wiry Poli-Sci major who played basketball. A sweetie, pledging a frat. We had vanilla sex in single dorm-room beds. We went to college dances, for Christ’s sake. I held his head over the toilet after pledge events, clucking and soothing.

One day in the midst of fall activities, delighted with how my a cappella auditions were going, I knocked on the door to his room to discover his stuff gone, his roommates slack-jawed and awkward. It seemed they’d found him standing on one of Ithaca’s bridges, looking down, chilled through. He’d informed student services that he thought about jumping into the gorge below three times a day. He was going to go through with it, he said. He was.

The administration blamed it on the pressures of hazing and penalized the fraternity, all fraternities, heavily. They questioned me in secret offices, and questioned the frat boys soon after, and everyone decided I had “snitched”.

Of course, men who are being punished seek a woman to scapegoat. Thus, though I knew nothing of this boy’s mind, I merged with the story that caught on about him. People discerned in me a disease, moving away from me in the dining halls, growing still in the hallways as I plodded down with my shower caddy. I made it worse, probably, by my timidity. I was on a blacklist: I got rejected from a cappella groups I’d longed to join. Forget about sororities.

I had been scuttled right out of “campus life.” I became invisible, harassed, unseen again. At parties boys called me “Erin-go-fuck-yourself.” They would grab my shoulders and shake them and ask, “So how’s the dean doing, Erin?” or “Drive anyone to the bridge lately, Erin?” and I would say, “I’d like to drive you off one, asshole.”

That is a lie. I wouldn’t say anything. I would flee the sweat-filled room, into the night, unmindful of the stars. A shadow on the quad.

The worst part is that no one ever came after me. No one even registered that I had left.


My parents told me I sounded “more animated than I had in two years” on the phone, now, when I called long distance. On Wednesday nights in Galway, the ladies taught us Irish folk music, and Kevin and I coached them on Dylan and Leonard Cohen. The joke arose that Leonard, Bob, and me were the Jewish cabal. My dad was Jewish, which made me a rare enough specimen here. We sang “Galway Bay,” the original version, and left each session holding mimeographed music sheets. In the valleys between Wednesday nights, my days felt less aimless. I biked into town, chasing the clouds as the wind whisked them to sea like a mother driving her children out of the house.

Our instruments, our voices, loosened by drink and darkness, began to blend. “Molly Malone” and “Wild Rover” provided a start; we worked on harmonies for “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At the suggestion of Nuala’s granddaughter, we messed around with an a cappella rendition of the most popular song on the radio, “Where is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas. Fuck you, Cornell Deft Tones; our version was infinitely superior to yours. Aireann and I grew chummy, while Andrew and I sparred and flirted. We argued over whether Leonard Cohen and Dylan’s lyrics counted as real poems like the sonnets I studied.

“Absolutely,” I said. “Listen to the internal rhymes.”

“Bollocks,” he said. “Those have choruses and bridges. Not poems.” He had shoulder-length hair, and an exceptionally well-trimmed beard. He wore loafers of soft Italian leather; I ached to run my fingers across their surface. The breadth of his chest suggested expansiveness. He teased me, which meant that he saw me; I was made flesh.

I smiled as I called him a fascist, and wore short skirts to rehearsal.

Aireann and I explored Galway after she got off work. We crossed the Salmon Weir Bridge and stood to watch the fishermen in their thigh-high leather boots, waiting patiently for a catch. We sat across from the Claddagh and tossed bread to the swans flying low over the squat houses in their dollhouse-coats of pastel. We walked all the way out along the river to stare at an abandoned castle with moss on its sides, the sky pouring through its windows.

Sitting on a stone bench, she passed my lighter over a block of hash and let it crumble into the waiting embrace of a piece of rolling paper. Aireann’s parents were real Irish revivalists; they had sent her out to camp in the Gaeltacht each summer to learn her own language. She thought it was crap. I felt the same way about Hebrew school, I told her. We took drags; parents were drags. Heritage was a drag. This act of spliff-rolling, our low-toned bitching, made me feel at home and simultaneously ache for my few college friends. Imagine missing Ithaca, that shithole. An ocean’s distance casts a shimmering net so wide, it extends over places we’ve hated.

Sometimes I’d lean against Aireann in rehearsal as I did with all my girlfriends and always, Andrew’s eyebrows would raise at me. I admit to feeling intoxicated in those moments by my own significance. By then our music group had begun to plan a concert for the holidays. We rehearsed and rehearsed, and giggled and rehearsed.

One drizzly night Aireann and I met up in town to get loaded. I brought a few of the Americans I could stand, Alexander, Bridget, and Meghan and Ruth. At a pub on Upper Dominick Street with melting candles everywhere we shot whiskey. Later, Aireann and I stood by the Spanish arch where Columbus had stopped by. We linked elbows and crooned up at the stars. I was nineteen. I yearned still to twinkle, to be set among their numbers.

We sang a few bars of “The Rising of the Moon,” but no moon rose. So we hobbled up the stairs to her apartment, singing off—key.

Once inside, Aireann flung herself against me, stroking my face. I let her kiss me, but I felt nothing. Truly, I had convinced myself that I could take Aireann as a lover given the proper context, if she asked me convincingly, if there were mood lighting and music playing. But the fact of my essential straightness and lack of courage intervened. I stopped her and settled her down on the couch, making my clumsy hands gentle, covered her with a blanket and gave her a bowl for her vomit and a glass of water. I knelt beside her and willed the careening room to stand still. “Can I tell you a secret?” I said, as she looked up at me with saucer eyes. “I kind of have a thing for Andrew.”

I went home and re—read Endymion and the Keats sonnets, drunk. Would that I were steadfast. Would that I were anything.

“So,” said Aireann the next day, when I stopped by the clothing store where she worked. Under the fluorescent lights, her mouth twisted into a wry smile. “Andrew? Is he even divorced yet?”

“Do I look like I care?”

“Of course you do, Erin. You’re not as much of a bad girl as you think, you know.”

We crossed the bridge, the river dotted with fishermen. “I do need to be aggressive,” I said, feeling like a jerk even as I spoke the words. “I’ve become too passive.”

“Oh, is that your problem?” Aireann asked, with the most American sarcasm I’d ever heard from her. “Maybe you should wear your skirts even shorter, then.”

I had wounded her pride, but only with a small dent, surely. “Well, the worst you can do with Andrew is get rejected,” she said, smirking. “It happens.”

“It does,” I said.

“Or you could get slapped around by his British wife.”

We giggled. The next day at rehearsal, I walked in to find Aireann sitting between Kevin and Nuala, moving her hands with great verve, ignoring my entrance. Afterwards she told me, “I think I’m going to go to Clifden for the week-end. This girl I know has a friend in town she wants to set me up with.” She brushed a strand of pink hair off her forehead. “She speaks fluent Irish, would ya believe? And she’s queer, like really queer.”

“That’s great!” I said. “Grand, I mean.”

“I’ll ring ya.”

Aireann came back to Galway with a new girlfriend, Maire, whose hand never left the small of Aireann’s back. Maire joined us at singing group with a repertoire of traditional songs she knew from her time growing up in the hills of Connemara, the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht. She said we were “a riot” and agreed with me on the side that Andrew was a fascist, but an attractive one.

I gravitated towards Andrew, sitting beside him when I walked in, plopping my bag down, flipping my hair. “Are you jealous of Aireann’s new love?” Andrew asked and I gave him a look that said don’t be absurd, but also, I hoped, something more.

On Shop Street and Market Street, the Christmas decorations climbed like weeds, no menorahs to be seen. Our friends filed in to hear our Christmas concert, their chairs in another, larger semicircle in the pub’s back room. Nuala emceed and we stood up together and did Christmas songs, and Irish classics. Andrew and I did a duet on Joni Mitchell’s “River” while Aireann played guitar and the ladies of the group fiddled and hummed.

“I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” we sang. We made it sound like a lilting, sad Irish folk song and as he crooned, I saw it in him, the same broken thing I had in me, and I let my tears fall. The audience burst into applause when we finished. Then, we all busted out “Where is the Love?” as an encore, and the dignified crowd lost it. I thought the pub would spontaneously combust.

“Wow,” said Bridget after we finished, a big mug of spiked cocoa in her hands. “Your voice is really wonderful. It’s amazing hearing something so pure from someone kind of cynical and nihilistic, you know?”

I didn’t think she meant it as an insult.

“Who’s your duet partner?” she asked. “He seems out of place here, somehow.”

“Andrew. I’m going to sleep with him tonight,” I said, to force myself into action. “Two people who don’t fit in, you know. Might as well.” I showed her my back, and walked towards him.

Our music group ambled across the river to a café where the proprietors, friends of Kevin’s, gave us champagne on the house. Andrew and I sat side by side. I pulled on his sweater sleeve and said “Cashmere?”

He said, “I know what Cornell is; don’t pretend to be a starving artist.”

I said, “Touché.”

“Just do it already, you two,” said Aireann. “I can’t stand the flirt-fighting any longer.” Maire’s hand crept up to the place between Aireann’s shoulder blades.

We went outside to the bridge for a cigarette. The river wasn’t frozen solid, but it looked black. Dirty and cold. I puffed on Benson and Hedges, because I was pretentious. The Irish kids all smoked Marlboros.

Andrew lit my cigarette and I touched his wrist and said, “So how about it?”

“Sexual partners?” he said with a smile. “It’s an intriguing idea. I don’t know if it’s a good one. You’re very young.” I stood on tiptoes, leaned towards him. The whiskey we exhaled could have anesthetized a small person, probably.

We stumbled across Eyre Square, humming. At his flat, furnished sparsely but with a smooth glass-topped bar, I poured us each one more drink.

“To be honest. I’m not sure,” he said, as we perched on his couch.

I began to feel caged, wild to break out. Finally, I had just begun to think, something that made sense—by not making sense at all.

“Oh, drink, Andrew,” I said. “Just drink.” He downed his whiskey.

With a great effort, he sat down on the floor and let out a vibrato of a laugh. I bent down and tried to move him, but it was like pushing against a hillock, an ancient megalith.

Sitting beside him, I implored: “Andrew, please get up. Please get up, Andrew.” He leaned back against the couch and snored one time, and then his mouth flipped open.

I considered leaving, but I held fast. “Don’t be a pussy,” I whispered. I crouched on the floor and hugged myself. “Think about what you’re doing.”

I straddled Andrew and kissed his neck; he responded, barely opening his eyes, kissing back as though it were a reflex. I unbuttoned the first three buttons on his shirt. I undid his belt. He groaned, whether from enjoyment or discomfort I’ll never know, but I heard his baritone and I kept going.

I worked slowly and carefully, unzipping his jeans, pulling out his tucked—in shirt. Then I took off my own shirt, bra, and pants. Clad in only my panties, I went into his bedroom and grabbed one of his shirts, its cotton fibers rich and luxurious, and stuck my head through the neckhole, letting it cascade over my body.

I laid a glass of water and some paracetamol beside him, covered him with a blanket, and stuck my feet beneath its spare folds as I flopped down across the couch. And then I thought of one more thing. I took a condom from my purse, opened it, and discarded the wrapper and the thing itself in his trash can.

I woke up to a rare sunny day, a pounding headache, and Andrew sitting beside me, his face drawn with concern. “That paracetamol—nice gesture. It did the trick,” he said.

“I should have taken some,” I said. My stomach lurched. I pulled my knees up and hugged them, rested my chin in the valley they made.

“Little Erin,” he said to me. “Did you know my wife is half—Jewish?”

I shrugged, not sure what that signified.

“Erin, listen dear, did we, you know...? I saw, in the rubbish bin...”

Here lay the crux. Make him think the deed had been done, the die cast. I pretended to inspect his shirt, on me. “Umm, maybe, yeah...” I lied. “I think you mean, in the ’garbage can’ though. I know nothing of this rubbish bin.”

My eyes raised themselves just in time to see him slacken and surrender the struggle. “Ah, I see. It’s a pity I don’t recall, really. Couldn’t have been all that good.” He pulled me towards him. “I think...I’d like a better go of it. Shall we try again?”

When he said this, my whole body was a laugh. “Let’s eat first,” I said, and we bickered and bantered as he made toast with cheese and ham, and coffee. He said, “Don’t say your age, I don’t want to know.” We slept together again and he moved slowly, and asked me what I liked, and grabbed me with strong arms. Parts of me, within me, that had been numb since freshman year were regaining feeling. The thawing hurt some but I liked it, a sad song.


Sophomore year I had befriended a group of deviant types with angular bangs and tattoos. To a one, they swore their parents had bullied them into matriculating at an Ivy. Bullshit. But still they were so disaffected that they, often me with them, started shoving coke up their noses, running around campus like lunatics. I couldn’t sleep a lot, and lay in bed clutching myself, feeling like I could shatter. We made a pact to cool off with a year abroad. They all went to Florence or Paris or Rome. I chose Ireland because I had been dubbed Erin-go-fuck-yourself already. No, no. I chose it because you didn’t need a language—and I chose it for the music. The harps, the tear-stained melodies, the chords that took you flying over stone fences, over new-green fields that ran out across the land like waves.


Now I emailed them: “I’m having an affair,” my fingers squealed it onto the keyboard. “He’s much older (omg omg!)”

In music group, people guessed the truth. Andrew and my teasing had gotten more spirited, our departures notably out of sync. Nuala took me aside and spoke to me about getting hurt. And men.

Maire said, “You know, he’s separated, not divorced.”

I jutted my hips and said, “I’m not Catholic.”

“Those biddies told me to leave you alone,” Andrew told me that night, after feeding me Bolognese and going down on me until I came with a liberated shout. “Maybe they’re right. Maybe you should find a nice pimpled boy.”

He said that sort of thing a lot, but I ignored it. Who wanted a pimpled boy? I didn’t see his lack of resolve, or what it meant that I had so easily bent him to me. I didn’t see anything. Instead, I returned to his flat the next afternoon, having slept well and long, with a crumpled paper bag clutched in my fingers: two chocolate muffins from the bakery on Market Street.

His wife opened the door.

She had a chiseled face and thin body clad in the kind of expensive sweater I saw on sorority girls, with big pearls in her ears.

“You must be Erin,” she said loudly, taking the bag from my outstretched hands. “I’ve been hearing quite a bit about you.”

“Hey there,” said Andrew, sheepish, standing behind her. I noticed immediately that he had traded out the jeans he wore to our sessions for slacks, and a new sweater with a thick collar that slimmed him. He had shaved.

“This is Sara,” he said. “My wife.”

“Are these chocolate muffins?” asked Sara, sniffing inside the bag. “How indulgent.”

“Um! Welcome to Galway,” I said, as if any of us believed the muffins were a gift for her.

I looked past them and noticed a big volume of Keats on his desk. I had told him about my thing for Keats.

“I’ll take off,” I said. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“How considerate,” said Sara. She put an arm across my shoulder and walked me down to the street.

“Stay away from him, you manipulative little whore,” she whispered. “You little kike.”

I took in a breath that never got let out. I wandered out along the river, bag of muffins somehow back in my hand, drawing stares from the students I passed going back to class. Probably they saw my eyes dilated in shock. Back in my suite, I walked into Bridget’s bedroom, where she sat beneath a pink quilt reading a romance novel, and my breath exhaled: I burst into frenzied tears.

“You’ve been sleeping with him,” she said. “Oh Erin. I should have warned you. Older men are so amazing in bed, but it’s never any good in the end.” She stroked my hair.

Chaste Bridget, possessor of unholy carnal knowledge. I sniffed and held out the muffins, and we ate them. She didn’t even comment about the crumbs on her pink coverlet, which I knew was big for her.

That weekend I went to Dublin for a long-planned meet-up with my college roommates. They massaged my shoulders and fed me an ecstasy pill they had smuggled across multiple borders. We ate Fish and Chips right from the newspapers and licked the grease off our fingers. On our final day, I spied Liam-or-Jim-or-Brendan, on O’Connell Street. It took me a moment to recognize him as he strode forward, going somewhere, while I wandered from shop to shop, filtering wool scarves through my hands. My spectral presence on the sidewalk never caught his eye, not once.

“Come to London for New Years,” my roommates urged me. “Get discount tickets.”

“He’ll be in London,” I said. “He probably lives near Keats’ House, the bastard.”

“Ahh, you little homewrecker.”

“I really felt something,” I said again and again. “For him.”

“It’s called an orgasm, Erin,” they replied. Or, “Sure, and he felt something for his wife.”

“She called me a kike!” I said. “How the fuck can someone half-Jewish call someone else half-Jewish a kike?” They laughed. I had impressed them, but I avoided the mirror in the hostel, afraid I would see nothing there at all, or worse.

On the last Friday before Christmas, the rain let up. Aireann and I sat on the steps by the river, cans of beer in our hands. Andrew had returned to London, towed by Sara. The music group had concluded for the holidays. Aireann planned a week with her parents, and Maire with hers. Aireann invited me along, but I shook my head. I had begun to consider going over to London and chasing Andrew, and texting him and acting every bit the desperate girl. And on the flip side of this need to hold on, lay a deeper one: to go home, not to Ithaca, but to Cleveland, to my parents, to a “break” that meant, in Ivy League code, a breakdown.

“I’m lucky I have you,” I said to Aireann.

“You are,” she said. “You wouldn’t, still, if I weren’t so good natured and incapable of humiliation, you know.”

I looked out on the fishermen, in the current up to their knees, the yellow boots hugging their thighs. She pitied me, I could tell. But she pitied me as a friend, which felt fine, and was perhaps a start.

Above the river’s rush, the men’s faces were ruddy and dotted with grizzle. Perhaps they understood things about this endless dance with objects of desire and definition. When the salmon came towards them, they never lurched too soon. When a bite was solid, they sensed it fast enough to reel in and grab their catch.

But they knew also to surrender the salmon they missed, to let the elusive fish slip its way down the river, into the bay, and at last into the vast silent sea.


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Sarah Seltzer

is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in New York City. Learn more about her at:

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury