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This is the room she will sleep in for the next three months. Its walls are desperate for paint, moths fly up from the ink-stained carpet, an antique wardrobe stands gaping without its door. She empties the two suitcases that accompanied her across the Atlantic and spreads their contents over the futon mattress. Fondly, she fingers her bottle of rose oil, a yellow sandal, her notebook and the dress she hopes to have reason to wear. She hangs her beads on a nail over the large mirror and drapes her silk scarf across the window, tinting the soiled walls pink.
It is late. Crowds of people still gather around the pub below, their steady din of drunkenness rising through the fair night air. She wanders the apartment. Along the hall hang paintings of fish and abstract lovers and at the end stands a bookshelf. She scans its contents: The Forests of Ireland, The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten, Macbeth. She chooses a novel by Roddy Doyle. Tucked within its pages is a newspaper article. Glancing it, his name rises from the page. She sits down in a chair. Sixteen years ago he premiered his first film in New York.
Hanging laundry at night probably isn’t normal, she thinks. But when was she ever that? The back deck, nestled between antique city rooftops, is stunning at this hour. Red light radiates from the arcade’s roof windows. Seagulls circle a patch of still-lit sky. The air has cooled but the clothes will dry with the morning sun, leaving them crisp and warm when she awakens. Weather in Ireland is unreliable though, ever changing. She will risk it. Standing still, the summer blossoms grow around her. She watches her bed linens rise with wind and mournfully acknowledges that this too will pass.
Where was she sixteen years ago? With the druggie college boyfriend, wearing shorts and white sneakers, struggling with baby fat. She’d never go back to such youth, even if she could. There was one moment of peace that summer, drawing a tree for class. She followed the limbs of an oak and although young, its stature was strong, rooted, something she could lean into. Her eye and hand met on paper, connecting one branch to another. Then she put her pencil down, the world picked itself up again, and everything began to whirl around her. The rest is a blur.
There were grander times at the apartment. When dinner guests gathered round the stretch of kitchen table, strings of white lights twinkling above their heads. When vegetables and flowers flourished on the back patio garden and people basked in the sun beside them. Those were the days that outings were made to the sea and pebbles brought home to remember the trip. This morning she removes the dead leaves of a geranium, leaving the plant near bare. She picks a pebble from its soil and gripping it in her palm wishes more than anything for a history of her own.
He says he’s a geologist, buys and sells property, owns a travel company and is opening the coolest hotel in Malta. Someone told her he’s related to the Kennedys and his girlfriend is the Argentinean ambassador’s daughter. “My mother’s Tiffany silver should not be scoured, but polished with proper cleaner,” he says. A photo of him yachting is displayed behind him. That night she dreams of dining with childhood acquaintances from the other school. They drove Mercedes and wore monograms. She forces her spine straight against the chair and like her mother taught, makes sure to use the correct fork.
Much went unsaid that night, each of us caged by our own circumstance. Ciaron had broken up with me, still heartbroken from his last girlfriend he’d claimed. We pretended we were a couple and the others asked us our plans for the holidays. They smiled, hiding their curiosity of our separate answers. Paula suspected she had cancer again and stored the fear behind her teeth, laughing. Martin, with a bemused look, nodded and breathily repeated, “Ah isn’t it great”. When it was over I got into bed, pulled the covers over my head and wished for someone to find me.
Months later, back in Dublin, she is relieved to be untied from his cynical beliefs: a couple did well if they got five to ten years out of each other, most marriages were farce. She felt wounded when he emphatically decreed that he would have no more children. He’d taken measure to make sure of it. She did miss the feelings of femininity and complete sexual readiness he released in her. His marshmallow-like hands made her feel fine-boned and delicate. She realizes though that everything has a cost and for his affection, the greatest expense would have been her youth.
With the exception of his alleged pain over the ex-girlfriend, Ciaron was able to move on with unfathomable ease. He had the ability to be so in the present, he forgot anything and anyone that wasn’t right before him. When he was away on tour he never called. When they were together, he repeatedly stressed the importance of impermanence, even giving her a book on the Buddhist teaching of nonattachment and quizzing her on it after. She laughed now at the memory of him presenting her with a stone, the words One Day At A Time etched on its side.
In the beginning he represented a universe of possibility. Through him was an initiation into a broader, deeper existence. She’d struggled a long time against being a credit card, a mortgage, an office cubicle. With the grind at her heels, his world of music, travel and country living was the panacea to dull conformity and blind death. From the start there was excitement, upheaval. He moved in like a storm, pressing his adoration upon her. He showed up at her door with flowers telling her he was taking her to dinner and surprised her with impromptu trips across his country.
It’s a cloudless June day for Ciaron’s party. Wildflowers grow knee-high, guests roll around in hammocks, drink wine. European accents carry through the clean air; an impressive collection of passport stamps between them. Ciaron wears stylish jeans and a turquoise linen shirt he picked up in Australia. He is tanned and looks younger than his fifty years. She sits at a lawn table with Paula. A barefoot French girl strums a guitar beside them. Ciaron glides in and out the back door, seamlessly departing one guest to embrace another. Occasionally he looks over at her and gives a conspiratorial wink.
As the sky darkens candles are set out and logs thrown into the patio hearth. Musicians gather round to play traditional Irish and folk music. She curls into a twentieth century modern Danish sofa that’s been pulled from inside. Listening to the music she is only required to talk occasionally with guests who wander in and out of the circle. For hours she keeps her eyes on the fire while a bodhran drum beats like horse hooves hitting the ground; a young woman sings a famine lament, whaling like wind; and a guitar tells the tale of emigrating to America.
By midnight the air hangs damp and cool upon her. The session has moved inside. Piano notes escape onto the deserted patio through an open door. He is finished making his rounds and joins her on the sofa. He pulls her close and she warms immediately, her body relaxing for the first time that day. An orange glow from the kitchen window above them lights their single silhouette. They stare at the stars, pinhole lights strewn across a blanket of sky. “Do you see the Plough there?” he asks, pointing overhead. She does not know what she is looking for.
“I think you Americans call it the Big Dipper.”
The constellation rises up from the bed of sky, first the bowl and then its handle.
“Yes. I see it now.”
“If you follow the edge straight up there, yeah?”
“That’s the North Star. You’ll always find your way home with that one.”
A guest she hasn’t met sticks his head out the back door then closes it, shutting out the others’ voices.
Ciaron reaches for her face. Holding it in his palm, he plots kisses first on the top of her nose, her cheek and finally her mouth.
She kisses him back, putting her hand up into his hair and moving her fingers through it. His mouth is warm and wet. She is bold in her exploration of it. She thinks of his confidence at playing host of the party while she has stayed quiet. Now is her time. She takes her tongue from inside his mouth and slowly kisses his cheek, his forehead, then his lips and back inside his mouth again. She would like to go further, to completely lose herself with him, but they will have to return to the others in the living room.
The room is alive with applause and compliments. A woman, who looks like a young Joan Baez, has just finished her piano solo. About twenty guests, crowded together on a sofa and cross-legged on the floor, turn their attention to the center of the room. Seated before a tall glass door, the mountains of Wicklow in the distance, a flute, fiddle and guitar player strike up the high beat of a jig. The warmed faces of the party, glowing with wine and candlelight, recognize their circumstances as exceptional at this way station between the new and old of Ireland.
Turning off the motorway from Dublin, the road narrows again. Hedgerows and old trees breathing emerald in the afternoon light, move across the bus window. “Down that lane is where my Aunt Maggie lived,” says Paula. “And that’s the church where my parents were married and I was baptized.” The church looks deserted but the pub next door is crowded with cars. Two men, tanned, in college t-shirts and shorts are smoking outside. From there, clusters of identical white bungalows, not unlike Florida retirement villages, spread back from the road. “I almost don’t recognize it around here anymore,” says Paula.
Today Christine is alone. Sitting at the window on another wet and colorless morning. Like breadcrumbs, summer sprinkles itself across a stretch of grey. The café owner is hopeful the weather will turn. His wait staff obediently lift patio chairs from a stack and place them around tables and heat lamps. The shop girls, heeled in their Monday best, have raised the boutique gate and stand under an awning, each talking and smoking with one hand and keeping warm across the chest with the other. She used to be that young. When there was all the time in the world.
Her twenties were a jumble of ideas, desires and pursuits, half-begun when they were over. Men were chosen for their reckless smiles and sexy ambivalence. Her greatest fear was getting pregnant (she didn’t). Art school turned into waitressing, acting classes and a brief stint as a real estate agent (too much backbone for that). There was night school for computer design, late nights in East Village dives, booze, yoga and holistic healing courses. Youth was a succession of temporary settlements, a grander destination always on the horizon; never much thought given to what it was or how to get there.
On Christine’s thirtieth birthday the towers fell. She watched in disbelief from her roof on Lafayette Street. Late that night she awoke and went out to the kitchen for a glass of water. Darkness had enveloped the neighborhood and all was quiet except for the sound of rescue machinery moving in a few blocks away. In her shock from the day, she realized only then that things would not return to what she had known. She hurried back to her bedroom and locked the door behind her. The following morning she awoke with a new and haunting sense of responsibility.
A man walked the shore, head down, a dark and brooding sky looming over him. Out of habit, he stopped to pick up a pebble that caught his eye. He was collecting it for his girlfriend who’d left months ago for a younger man. He cursed himself and turning to fling the pebble into the water, he saw her: a woman, fully clothed, wading purposefully toward the horizon. She was out a good distance. Her details were lost, but he could make out long, pale hair and broad shoulders, turning gracefully with each step she took across the sea floor.
He watched the water grow tall around her as she went deeper, her gaze always forward. Suddenly the floor dropped off beneath her and she was gone. He ran to the water. Shocking cold shot up his body as he threw himself in her direction. He was a strong swimmer and reached her quickly, grabbing her around the waist and pulling her toward the surface. She gave no sign of surprise or resistance. As they rose, spewing water, a wave broke upon them. He lost his hold as they were taken back under, and tossed in a storm of sand.
The weight of her clothes made it difficult to move up shore on her own. He pulled her next to him where they lay on a bed of pebbles. Staring at one another he listened to the tide rush forward then recede. The water, trickling back through the pebbles, sounded like a hundred hands clapping. They must have been applauding him. She looked like an angel, peering out from wide eyes. They were blue like the sea he’d saved her from. Her hair was plastered back with salt water, exposing waxy, creamy skin. Things like this didn’t happen by accident.
He led her up to the house where she sits on a sofa in his sweatpants and sweater, a blanket wrapped around her. Her hair dries a pale yellow and warmth colors her face from the fire he busies himself with. She watches, sipping a cup of tea. “I wasn’t trying to die. I just wanted to feel the water on me.” He turns around, surprised to hear her voice. It’s soft and feminine, a posh American accent. The boyish clothes, drying in the laundry room, don’t suit her. They are raggedy and mismatched, like they’ve gone through a war.
Watching the workers in their yellow jackets, sweep the sidewalks, empty the trash bins, she wonders if they struggle to be anything different. Are they content with their lives? Do they go home to their families at night, their work behind them, and relax? The thing is everyone goes on with their lives and you can’t expect them to understand you. Nobody really does. The world doesn’t stop when your connection to life wears thin. Perched here at the window watching life happen in the street below, she knows that she’ll only find the resolve to go on from within.
Two friends are on their way to a country party. These women stand out from the other bus passengers. One is fine-boned with long pale hair; she’s wearing a silk dress and yellow heeled sandals. The other is taller and a few years older; her dark wavy hair is graying around the temples. She is sitting closest to the window and points out landmarks from her childhood to distract her friend from being motion sick. “Down that lane is where my Aunt Maggie lived,” she says. “And that’s the church where my parents were married and I was baptized.”
One of them – Paula, the thinner, taller one with dark hair - is a mother: she has a son. The light one, Christine, is not. Paula is past the age and desire for more. Christine is not. She very much wants a child, although her choices in life would indicate otherwise. Paula is twelve years older than Christine and sees herself in her younger friend. She serves as a sort of maternal figure in Christine’s life away from home. Ciaron, who is throwing the party, is a long time friend of Paula’s and five years older. He is dating Christine.
A couple walks arm and arm toward the apartment. She presses close to the window. She knows it’s not him. His walk is different, but still, she watches as they approach, her eyes widening with a surge of something she can’t name. She must make sure. The woman is younger than the man; she has long red curls that hang from a cap, a short skirt and boots. Not beautiful, but young and daring in her style. As they turn and disappear from view, Christine wonders what she would have felt if it had been him. Now, she feels relief.
Niamh is eleven. She is working in her family’s sandwich shop for the summer. She has silky strawberry blonde hair and freckles to match. “You’re from America, are ya?” she asks. She has moved down the counter to where I am ordering a tuna sandwich from her mother. I tell her yes, I’m from New York. Her eyes lights up like she’s struck gold. “My brother lives in Queens. I’m going there and Disney World when I’m sixteen.” Her mother, standing behind her, smiles and shakes her head at Niamh, whose self-assuredness must come from knowing that she is safe.
The sun has finally come out after weeks of rain and desperation. I sit on the back deck, soaking it up. A seagull also seems to be enjoying it, swooping down in between chimney pots where I saw her nesting before the weather went bad. There is movement, clumsy shadows around the pots. They belong to baby gulls, awkward with nappy grey feathers and beaks to grow into. Born in the lashing rain, hail and rest of the recent biblical-like weather, they have survived. Their mother stands over them and calls out. Maybe there’s hope for us all yet.
The Tip Jar