The Plague within a Plague: Ethel Rohan’s In the Event of Contact

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The fourteen stories in In the Event of Contact, Ethel Rohan’s third story collection, vary considerably in setting, characterization and feel, but they all intersect at the notion of human contact. Rohan introduces us to a young girl who cannot stand physical touch, while lonely older women beg for it; a middle-aged woman defending her choice to remain childless; an older single man recovering from an injury who falls for the caretaker he can never have; an aging priest struggling to find connection and purpose in his dwindling days. These stories are a collection of curiosities strung together thematically into a necklace of human want—the ache for physical intimacy in its many forms.

Several of the stories, including “Collisions,” “Blindsided,” and “At the Side of the Road,” feature predominant character triangles, and the resultant tensions and unmet desires that stem from unbalanced relationships. Love triangles appear most often—in “Blindsided,” “Before Storms Had Names,” and “Into the West”—but there are other manifestations as well. Margo, the protagonist in “Rare, but Not Impossible,” struggles between the competing tensions of her own desire to remain childless and the expectations of her family. Similarly, an aged and faltering Father Quinlan, the main character in “F Is for Something,” confronts both his desire to remain an active priest and the realities of his condition. A set of triplet girls is the focus of the title story, but it’s a teacher who comes between two of the triplets who creates the story’s pivotal tension. Rohan is masterful at mining these triads for their palpable uneasiness and unavoidable suffering. In “Blindsided,” for example, wheelchair-bound Dave’s anguish is visceral to the reader when he finally realizes that despite her flirting, the younger Cora has no romantic interest in him:

Finished, Dave rolled to the kitchen and stopped short in the doorway. Kieran stood pressed against Cora, the two locked in an embrace of arms and tongues. Dave charged at them. “Get out, both of you.”

He expected them to put up a fight, but they slipped past him, tripping and snickering like two schoolchildren caught drinking. He followed them up the hall. “And don’t come back.”

Cora turned to him, glassy-eyed, unsteady. “You need me.”

“No, I don’t.” He rolled his chair forward, herding her and Kieran out the front door.

She stopped on the front step, a mix of pity and scorn shriveling her face. “It’s not my fault you got notions.”

“Wait, did he try something?” Kieran said, swaying, slurring.

Dave scoffed. “I got notions? Look at you two, it’s disgusting.”

“At least I have someone,” she said.

The smack of the McMurtagh’s truck had hurt less.

In “In the Event of Contact,” the narrator, one of a set of triplets, describes her sister Ruth’s fear of touch, a phobia so severe that physical contact triggers pain. When a special needs teacher, Mr. Doherty, breaks through Ruth’s phobia, the narrator experiences the anguish of seeing a stranger receive the connection the narrator has longed for herself:

Mr. Doherty was kneeling next to her. “I give you the gift of touch,” he said, his voice booming.

“Yes!” Ruth said, her back arching toward him.

He scooped up a mound of grass, leaves, dandelions, daisies, and rained down the strange bouquet on Ruth’s bare midriff. She cried out in delight, her feet kicking and her hands clapping the earth. They laughed, the weak autumn sunlight glancing the tiny garden on her stomach.

I turned away and wrapped my arms around my waist, struggling to hold myself upright. A sharp ache filled my chest. Why hadn’t I ever thought to do this for Ruth? Mary and I, we would have made it beautiful. With Mr. Doherty, it was obscene.

Rohan has mentioned that this collection was years in the making, which points to an incredible, ironic serendipity—that this multifaceted exploration of human connection should finally arrive during The Year of No Contact. Her characters and their wants (less contact, or else more, or perhaps a different kind of contact altogether) hit harder in this current age devoid of hugs and handshakes, these ongoing months of less sex and more isolation, packed with FaceTime calls and Zoom meetings that promise to fulfill at least some of our intellectual needs for contact but absolutely none of our physical ones. In 2021, our nerve endings are starving, atrophied; somehow Ethel Rohan sensed the trouble coming before it grew to crisis proportions. But even she could not have foreseen how these stories would strike so much deeper in a COVID-19 world. Given the circumstances of our current times, the book’s dedication— “for Survivors”—has expanded to include all of us, whether Rohan originally intended that or not.

Ethel Rohan’s prose is easy and conversational, but not mundane; there is a simple and understated beauty in the way the author captures everyday moments in unusual ways. Consider this passage from “At the Side of the Road”:

Mid-afternoon, the rain beat down on Cissie’s fantasy marquee. In three hours, she hadn’t made a single sale. She could see her mother’s smug, jellied face. The whole country was down on its knees with the recession, and still her mother singled her out for failure. At least she had a summer job to get her through until September, and then she didn’t know what. Her parents were insisting she attend college (“They let you in, didn’t they?”) but that seemed like another cage. She could emigrate. Only that didn’t feel like a choice, either, but more like her generation’s sentence.

But perhaps the best description of the persistent hunger in this collection comes from the author herself, in “Before Storms Had Names”:

The next morning, Rory lingered in bed before daybreak, fantasizing about Ashling in the room next to his, no more than ten hands length away. He tested her name in a whisper, liking the soft start of it and the little flick of his tongue at the end. It meant ‘dream,’ if he remembered his Irish well enough. He imagined speaking it into her soft neck as he stretched himself over her.

The author’s exploration of her Irish heritage is fascinating here. Like Rohan herself (born and raised in Dublin, currently living in San Francisco), her characters are Irish citizens or else Irish expats, continuing the cultural thread of her heritage evident in her debut novel, The Weight of Him. In a 2017 interview, Rohan describes the conflict the novel’s protagonist, Billy Brennan, faces as having a cultural dimension. When Billy publicizes his struggles with obesity and personal grief, his family and his village push back. As Rohan states in the interview, “I think the Irish are really good with the pain factor, just not looking at things too closely.” The same sort of societal pressure appears in “Rare, but Not Impossible.” Expat Margo travels from America to Ireland for a visit with her family, only to feel the full brunt of societal expectations—the whispered rumors of friends and the more direct questioning from immediate family make it clear that they believe something is wrong with a married Catholic woman who has no children. The stories in this new collection could certainly stand apart from the cultural thread Rohan weaves through them, but would the result be lessened in some way? Is there something else peculiar to the Irish culture or sensibility that lends an additional dimension to these stories of human want, something that James Joyce or Oscar Wilde would understand? In the context of the Irish soul, do these stories strike a different chord or stir a deeper resonance? If I could ask the author one question, over a couple of pints in a quiet corner of a Dublin pub, it would be that.

Six of the stories in this collection were previously published, although mostly in Irish and UK venues such as The Irish Times, Banshee, and The Lonely Crowd. Rohan’s focus on publishing in such venues echoes the Irish-centric focus of her most recent works. Taken together, they point to an author reevaluating (or perhaps falling in love again with) her heritage; the literary equivalent of an investigation, with all its resultant joys and sorrows and fascinating anecdotes. In a sense, this collection is Rohan’s complicated love letter to her homeland, written through the eyes of a mature expatriate who perhaps did not value such things as greatly in her earlier years. Or, maybe this is simply the author’s coming to terms with the poverty, depression, and physical abuse she endured in her childhood, a topic she’s opened up about in past interviews. Whatever the reason, an undertone of deep appreciation rides beneath and ultimately outlasts the ache in her stories. What lingers in the reader is a feeling of warmth, or of home: hands wrapped around a steaming cup of tea, feet resting on the hearth.

With In the Event of Contact, Rohan explores the literal edges of the human experience—what we desire to bring into contact with our bodies, and just as importantly, what we don’t. She counts herself among the excellent women writers who continue to unflinchingly explore the realm of the body, and through this lens, infuse the short story form with a pervasive loneliness and ambient anxiety that mirror the uneasiness of our times: authors like Carmen Maria Machado, Roxane Gay, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sarah Rose Etter, Amber Sparks, and Sara Lippmann. Add Ethel Rohan’s name to that list.

Joe Kapitan writes fiction and creative nonfiction from a glacial ridgeline south of Cleveland. Recent work has appeared or will appear in DIAGRAM, Booth, Passages North, and Atticus Review. He is the author of a short story collection, Caves of the Rust Belt (Tortoise Books, 2018). More from this author →