"Moran, with confident ease and little surface fuss, can immerse you utterly in whatever moment he chooses to describe. He weaves unsettling moods with playful artifice. An admirably resourceful writer, willing to take risks."
-Michael Upchurch, New York Times Book Review
"A novel that is almost perfect. This story rises above its grimness into a quite piercing and extraordinary elegy. For many, this will be the best book of the year."
"Now, to 'A Farewell to Arms' and 'The English Patient', add another memorable star-crossed Red Cross romance: Thomas Moran's second novel. A reading experience as fresh and basic as lying down feverish on cool, clean linens with loving hands to tuck you in."
-Walter Kirn, TIME
"'The World I Made for Her' is the record of a mind deprived of the usual kind of communication ...To the reader, however, he transmits much more -a catalog of memories, sensations, and prognostications made poignant precisely because he senses the approach of his final limit: death."
-San Francisco Chronicle
"A heart-rending love story ...The world Moran creates is as tender as the imagined reality of his protagonist -always moving, never maudlin."
"Eerily affecting ...[Moran] relates the nightmarish predicament of his empathetic characters in hynotic prose that remains compelling right up until the final scene. Moran's poetic, cruel yet forgiving love story will not easily be forgotten."
"In a story that is both original and compelling, author Thomas Moran makes a haunting and beautiful world ...His characters, flawed and hopeful as they are, linger past the end of the book."
THE WORLD I MADE FOR HER
I KNEW SOMEONE named Nuala. Nuala means "white shoulders" in Irish, but no one much remembers these old things anymore, not even in west Ireland. Nuala's parents spoke no Irish. Yet Nial and Maire Riordan were in love with the sound of that ancient name. They began saying it every day as soon as Maire became pregnant, though they did not know whether the creature in her belly was a girl or a boy. They had the habit of talking to Nuala inside Maire's swelling stomach. They were that sure.
Nuala did not disappoint them. The name suited her from the moment she left the womb, which she did with scarcely a tear or wail just before one of those rare Irish dawns when the sun slipped up over the horizon undimmed by fog banks or clouds.
Nuala's father thought that bright light was a dicey omen. There was always prophesy in the weather at a birth. But an open sun at dawn? Who could be sure of anything so unusual? From birth, there was always an uncertainty about Nuala Riordan.
Today, Nuala can count the number of people she's disappointed in her life on the fingers of one hand. The ones she knows of for sure, anyway. She doubts there are any secret ones lurking about. She's very proud of this, considering she's already twenty-eight years old, has seen a bit of life, and has her own green card, which she's earned through her profession. She's not like the Irish who sneak into America on tourist visas; staying in the Irish neighborhoods of Queens, working nonunion construction jobs or tending bars in which the bitterness of failed dreams billows thick as blue clouds of cigarette smoke.
She's had five boyfriends. The last romance seemed full of promise, until he was killed. Her grief is still too young to behave itself, so she never lets it out.
Nuala's small, not above five and a half feet. Her shoulders are thin but broad, like a young boy's, and creamy white where I've glimpsed them. So is her face. She has green eyes that are too large and make her look startled even when she isn't. I don't believe Nuala's been truly startled very many times in her life. She can probably count the occasions on the fingers on one hand.
Nuala glows for me on rainy days. She's just luminous.
Her hair is reddish brown and would be wild as bush if she didn't tame it with barrettes and rubber bands. Her hair's gorgeous. I've heard a lot of women say so, and they're the only honest judges. But Nuala's not beautiful. She's just a regular girl, though she has lovely thick straight eyebrows and her features all fit well together. On certain days in certain lights, she's pretty enough to fall in love with. But you'd have to be able to handle that Nuala is always Nuala in any light; she has no fear of storms or of the dark. "To hell with you," she'll say when she feels like it, and she'll really mean it for that moment. She's not one to let any slight or ignorance pass unremarked.
If you had any heart at all, you'd be pleased to hear Nuala call your name. You'd be very happy if Nuala were one day to fall in love with you. You'd think her dad was dead wrong when he worried about the omen of the sun on the day of her birth. You'd bless the day.
I SEE NUALA about three days a week. She's an early arriver; she likes to set up her tasks and prepare mentally for all she'll have to do during her shift. We never exchange many words, because her work is so utterly different from mine. She's one of the active ones. I'm just an observer in most of the procedures; other things I do all alone. We are very aware of each other, though. There are twelve like me when the Unit is full, and six like Nuala and Brigit, and others who come and go, circulating from room to room to room as they're needed. A few of them act like real friends. Brigit, for example, is easy to get on with. She's always got something to tell you; many things happen to her in her private life that she likes to relate. But I can hardly get Nuala to smile at me, she's so serious. Some of us tease her, especially Brigit. "Lighten up, Nuala, you frustrated virgin," Brigit'll say. Something like that will make Nuala smile; she's affectionate with Brigit, who's Irish too. To the rest of us, Nuala is reserved, but equally, so she's not resented for it. When she does smile and say a few words, she favors everyone equally...
If you had any heart at all, you'd be pleased if one day Nuala were to stroke your face.
Meanwhile, we all have our jobs to do. It's serious work we're engaged in:twenty-four hours, day in, day out. It's important to check and recheck; you can't let anything slide or go undone because everything has a schedule. But I do have time on my hands, a few circumstances beyond my control. So I begin to construct a gift for Nuala in my mind.
Nuala. Not Brigit.
Brigit's much prettier; she has the air of proprietorship everywhere she goes. You know this type of woman. She's confident. She acts sure she belongs wherever she is, and she gives an impression of wondering about the rest of us. "I just don't know what you're doing here," she's said to me, not meanly, but not entirely joking either. "Really, it's inexcusable that you haven't moved on after all this time. You're a slacker, you are. A slouch, sure."
Brigit moves in the world so easily. Nuala moves cautiously as a tough but mistreated cat, eyes wide open for trouble. Part of it may be her grief. Part, I think, is that she feels she doesn't really belong; she feels separate and unknown. She's never afraid, just alert and ready to move fast if she has to.
In the world I would make for Nuala, there would be someone to whom she could tell her greatest secret without a single thought of betrayal.
In the world I would make, she would be light as a feather when she arose from her bed and always feel freshly washed. She would have the simple things that comfort her: an alpaca throw to put over her legs when she's reading, decent meals cooked at home. Plenty of hot water for her bath in the morning, and radiator pipes that don't clang like cracked old bronze church bells in the middle of the night.
In the world I would make, no one would ever again die in her arms.
In the world I would make for Nuala, she would finally arrive at a place that was always there, empty and waiting only for her.
YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND that I check in and I check out. When I'm gone, they say I'm in a coma. "He's here again!" Brigit shouts when I check back in. "And what did you see, love?" she always asks me. Most of the time: nothing. Most of the time it is black and timeless. But on three or four occasions, I have not only seen things, I've lived them. And I try so hard to tell her, I want someone to know what it's like. But I fail. I can't control my right hand enough to write.
And I can't talk.
I have a hole in the base of my throat the size of an egg, and it's plugged with a valve attached to a thick plastic tube. It's a pale blue umbilical cord that keeps me alive. It connects me to the ventilator, which does my breathing for me. The only intermediary is a small gray box with little lights and switches near my bed. The blue tubing just goes right through it and into the wall. Somewhere in the wall is my hidden source of oxygen, and life. The nurses call it "The Machine." It makes it seem as if the entire hospital is The Machine, breathing in its gigantic mechanical way from some mysterious center to keep us all alive.
Whether we want to be or not.
I'm not sure yet about myself. I feel sometimes I have ben on the very edge of death, and pulled back in horror. Other times I am sure I have been dead for a short time and found it a relief, only to be brought back by The Machine and the hypodermic needles they ram into my diminishing veins.
Whenever I check back in on Nuala's shift, she comes and stares at me. Her huge green eyes are on mine, I can see her irises dilate. She looks for the longest time without moving or saying a thing. Maybe she's trying to see if I've brought back any secrets from the other side. Then suddenly she will break eye contact and briskly adjust my ventilator tubing, and the two or three intravenous drips in my arms, the one in my neck, the pulse meter on my thumb, the thin tube that runs from my nose all the way down to my stomach.
Sometimes when I first check back in I'm confused. I have no idea where I am or what state I'm in. I only know it's unnatural. So I slowly pull the feeding tube all the way up from my stomach and out of my nose. It takes a while. The tube is so long, and it feels so odd to be pulling something so long out of yourself. Then I go to work on the intravenous tubes. Usually Brigit or Nuala or one of the others catches me by then. They get cross. They tie my hands to the rails of the bed with strips of white cotton.
I think, The bad girls have tied me down again. I make faces at them, hoping they will understand my question: Why are you doing this to me?
My secret plan is that when I have finished making a world for Nuala, that is where I will go when I finally check out. Because some of the places I go now are terrible.
TWELVE PATIENTS, SIX NURSES: that's the population of our Intensive Care Unit. Patients can't get to know one another because none of us can speak; we're all connected to The Machine or are comatose. And no one is mobile, we can't move from our private rooms. I don't want to know about them anyway. They're all dying, I think. How could I die? I'm not even halfway through my thirties, and I have always looked younger than my age. I feel like a contemporary of Brigit and Nuala, though I wouldn't be surprised if they thought I was too old, say, to consider dating. Of course that's problematical in other ways as well. I have been in here for a long time now, and I have not seen myself in a mirror once. They don't allow mirrors here. Probably they don't want you to be shocked by the way you've changed.
When you arrive at the state I'm in, you have to face it. You are no longer normal. And neither is your mind. In addition to whatever virus is corroding and rotting your body and brain, there are the drugs. So many drugs, some of them very heavy-duty, like fentanyl, which makes morphine seem like Children's Tylenol. I get antiulcer medication, anticonvulsants, and grand mixes of the newest antibiotics, never used on a patient before. And, every evening, a needle full of anticlotting agents in the stomach.
I am a masterpiece of plumbing. Small plastic valves are inserted into my veins and taped in place, so that each change in intravenous medication doesn't require a new hole punched in me. Of course these valves must be moved every week or so. The only permanent hole is my trache; the only permanent tube is my catheter. Yet I am always sprouting tubes everywhere. And there are the leg bags, which inflate and deflate on a regular basis to keep my blood moving while I'm supine.
Frequently I think of myself as a science project, or an experimental animal in a research lab. Except that some days I am sharp enough to recognize worry in the doctors' eyes when some new strategy doesn't appear to be working. Doctors are professionals. They want successful conclusions; they do not want to fail. Sometimes I think I can smell their fear of failure. They are trying to save me but aren't sure they can.
Someone is almost always within sight of me, and I'm wired with as many alarms as a museum. Someone would come to help me in seconds, if I needed help. But I do feel abandoned on those early evenings when Nuala comes to check all my drips or give me my last shot. Sometimes she'll smooth the blankets over my chest with her perfect hands. But as she says good night, it's rare that she'll look me in the eyes and give me a smile. I worry that in my illness I've become repulsive.
Or maybe I'm another hopeless case, and Nuala's had enough of those already in her life...