You have been living on Guinness and chips for the past four days.
Colm returns with the next round of pints from the bar and takes his seat on the wooden bench beside you, where you sit watching the hurling game on television. It's Galway playing the team from Tipp. Everyone's rooting for Galway, because that's where you are.
Colm is a good tour guide and he has been filling you in on the last 2,000 years of Irish athletic history. "This is the fastest game in the world after ice hockey. Mad dangerous too. Someone's always getting clobbered."
You never even knew this game existed and he's telling you the rules and how the season has played out. Colm would be adorable, but his hair seems to end too early on the back of his neck. It’s not that it’s shaved--it’s just not there. You forget about it, until he turns his head again, and then he's less attractive somehow.
You arrived in Galway last night, driving in a sheet of rain. The friendliness of people seemed to increase exponentially for every kilometer you drove away from Dublin, and culminated in the grand hospitality of the bed and breakfast keeper. On the trip west, Colm drove and you sat on the left in the passenger's seat. The change seemed to be accentuated by the small car you rented, which sat so low to the ground that you felt everything as you sped along the two lane road. No wheel in front of you, you delighted in crossing your legs. You’ve been having this feeling of giddiness throughout the trip and you can only describe it as a wanting to drink in everything around you. The green grasses, the layers of limestone, the glimpses of sea. You pointed out every gathering of sheep, every cow along the way. You asked Colm to pull over when you came by some houses with thatched roofs. He grumbled about losing time, but once you were out of the car he started talking about the houses while you took pictures. The buildings were on their own, not by anything else. It didn’t look like anyone lived there and you wondered who ever did and where they’d gone.
Now you’re sitting having lunch. You don't know which pint this is. They seem to just appear on the table. Colm is having a Bass this time and you’re having another Guinness. You know it’s silly, but you won’t allow anything but Guinness to touch your lips while you’re in Ireland. You set the pint down and finger the hole in your jeans, torn just above the knee. The hole began in Belguim, you think, and it’s been growing steadily ever since, soft white threads stretching through the gap. You have been living in these jeans for over a week now. Since you left the dormitory in Rome for the Easter holiday, you’ve already lost one shirt to red wine at a curry restaurant, one hat to the windy cliffs of Moher, and a pair of shoes to the deeply gray and substantial mud of a field outside of Dublin. As you sank in the mud, Colm called it your finest hour.
You first met him your sophomore year at Columbia, at a pub in the West Village where they didn’t card. It was one of your many pubs in the city. Colm was temporarily working in Midtown. Something to do with computers or money, or one of those things you have little interest in. You had ordered Guinness. He was sitting alone drinking a bottle of Corona. Guinness was so bitter in America, he said. That’s how it all started. By the end of the night, Colm had promised you true pubs and smoother Guinnesses and a year later he has delivered. When you arrived in Dublin, he took you out to the touristy section. It was your first time in the country and he leaned in confidentially as you entered a bar with a band playing traditional Irish music. “We don't really listen to this shit,” he whispered. The tourists were all huddled upstairs by the small stage, clapping in time. You were there only long enough to swallow a few pints, before making your way to a club thumping American rap music. Colm's demeanor changed from one of strained tolerance to absolute pleasure as he rapped out every word by heart, jumping and flailing, you shaking your head and trying desperately to recall the sounds of fiddles and Uillean pipes.
There is no music playing now, but Colm nods his head slightly, as if he has found a rhythm in the game. You cup the pint between your hands and tap at the glass with your fingertips. "This one feels like Harold."
You have been naming the pints since he accused you of nursing one: "You might as well pull up your shirt if you're gonna be drinking it like that."
Your chin automatically tipped to your chest. “What do you mean?”
"The beer. You’re drinking so slow, you might as well name the bastard."
And so in just this sitting, there has been a Kate, a Sean, and a James. The effects of these birthings are producing a pleasing effect, a warm fuzziness enveloping you from head to toe.
"You can't name him Harold." Colm gestures to the pint. “Everyone'll be spitting in him if you call him that." He gives a smart rap to your newborn.
"Okay, how about Colm then?" You know this'll make him squirm. Plus, you’re having a harder time coming up with names. There has been one name on the tip of your tongue, but it’s a special one and you’re saving it.
"Hey, it's not my baby." Colm panics playfully at the suggestion. He leans in close to the glass. "He got your looks then. Look at that mug. It's the mug only a mother could love."
You push him away and cover the pint with your hand. "Shh, Colm Junior will hear you." The thin mouth of the glass circles your palm. You nod toward the beer. "I do love him."
"I know you do. Love him into a toilet, you will."
The pub is full of people watching the game. A man, woman, and girl enter, letting in the harsh white light from outside. The woman’s eyes are powdered a pale green. The girl’s curly blond hair falls just past her shoulders.
There is nowhere else to sit and she and the girl motion as though to share your table. You smile at them and pull your pint and basket of chips closer. It feels very natural to make room for them like this. The man they’re with has gone over to the bar to sit on the one available stool. The bartender sees him and comes over to shake his hand.
"Where are ye from?" the woman asks Colm as soon as she sits down.
"And you? Are you Spanish?"
“No.” You shake your head.
You have to smile at the words being spoken in her Brogue. You don't want to tell her right away. You want her to go on because you like being taken for a South American. The girl begins guessing too. “Ecuador?” She has the same shade of blue-grey eyes as your sister. They would not be asking her what other country she came from. She would fit right in here, as your grandmother always used to say.
As for you, you've been getting these questions a lot during the trip, based on your dark looks. No one ever seems to think of Mexico, the country your mother came from as a girl. They say Italy or Spain first. They usually seem hard pressed to move off the continent. So now the naming of all these South American countries is rather thrilling.
Colm grins at you and takes another drink of his beer. "She's a lousy American."
He would have to go and ruin it.
"Well, it could be worse,” the woman says of your nationality. “You could be English.”
You smile at her joke, surprised that she accepts Colm’s answer without a fuss. In the states, you get this question all the time, usually from foreign men. You can never simply say you’re from the U.S., which is the truth. They insist you must truly be from somewhere else. Preferably where they are from, but any other country will do.
Wanting to share more with this woman, you continue, “Actually, my grandmother is Irish. She was born in Kerry.”
“Is that right?” the woman exclaims. “Are you visiting her?”
“No, she lives in California now.” You’re not sure whether your grandmother even knows that you’re here, in the cherished homeland she left decades and decades ago. You wanted to somehow tell her before you left, but you weren’t sure if she would be up to it, how it would go over. "I go to school in New York,” you say, to move off the subject, “but I’m studying in Italy for the year. I just came out to visit for the week.”
"You came to see your sweetheart?" the woman asks.
You don't realize right away that she means Colm. "Oh, no. We're just friends."
The woman leans over the table. "Do you have a boyfriend in Italy?" She asks this in a hushed voice that makes you want to laugh.
“No,” you answer, although the boys at the gelato shop might say differently.
"Ye hear that?" The woman reaches across to nudge Colm. "You best be paying attention. And you, do you have a girlfriend?"
"Lots." He smiles and raises his eyebrows, but the woman doesn’t join in.
"A bit of a player, is he?" she asks, her manner stoic, not exactly disapproving.
"That's what I thought at first." Now you lean toward her. "Till I found out he was all talk."
Colm rolls his eyes. "You crazy American."
"You need a nice girl like this one," the woman tells him.
"Nice girl?” Colm breaks into a mischievous laugh. “You don't know her like I do."
You jab Colm and he goes with it, tensing up his arm and taking your nudges. You want to laugh because you’re more like children than a romantic possibility.
There’s a rush of air and you realize the woman has sighed very deeply. She’s shaking her head in pity at the scene you’re both making. "He's lovely. She's gorgeous,” the woman finally says to the girl as much as to Colm and you. "Why don't you two get married?"
At the m-word, Colm swallows hard. He sets his pint back on the table coughing.
"Darling, listen to me," the girl says suddenly, taking the woman’s hands. "She is from America. He is from Ireland. They're mates. She came to Europe to study. And she's going to go back home. That's it."
"But when will they see each other?"
The girl looks to the two of you. Colm is focused intently on the television. Galway has the sliothar and they are nearing the crossbar to score.
"We'll write to each other," you say as convincingly as you can.
"See?” The girl pats the woman’s shoulder. “They'll keep in touch.”
There's a big cheer in the pub. Colm joyfully smacks the table and reaches from behind to shake you by the shoulders. You clutch your pint with both hands. “That’s it, they’ve won!”
The woman looks at the television, then at the man at the bar, who’s patting people vigorously on the back. She finally looks back at you and Colm, longingly, and you want to reach out and reassure her that everything will be okay. But the man walks over to the table and greets you. It’s their signal to leave. “Be good now,” the woman says to Colm. To you she opens her arms and you stand up to hug her, and then the girl, realizing you never even got their names, or gave yours.
“Take good care, and tell your grandmother hello,” the woman says.
“Yes, enjoy Ireland!” the girl sings.
Once they’ve gone, Colm excuses himself to the restroom and you lean back into the dark wood paneling of the wall.
You admire the Guinness signs over the bar. The Irish flag. Men wearing wool caps. You’ve traveled very far to get to this very familiar place. Before Dublin, there were the pubs in Rome, Barcelona, and Paris. You sat with your glass of bière or cerveza or whatever it was called, Italians at your side, grimacing at the shepherd’s pie. Irish bartenders and Irish dancers. Before Europe, the streets of New York. The parade on Fifth Avenue. Before that, Santa Monica. Your grandmother’s house in Fresno. The ceramic figures in corners and bookshelves, the crosses and plaques with proverbs, the books and paintings. Things her friends had given her. Years later, when you were older, a card you had given her for St. Patrick’s Day. She thanked you for it, more than once. It was just something you had picked up at a bookstore, thinking it would be nice, easier than sending a letter. You’d never sent her a card for St. Patrick’s before and she acted like it was the best thing you ever gave her.
Your first time in Ireland, but it all started a long time ago.
When your grandmother lived here, she was no one’s grandmother, no one’s mother. She was just a girl. Moira.
She is looking and acting very differently these days, you hear. Your mother says she has been confusing you with a teenage Mexican girl who sells fruit. She sees this girl, in a dirt lot by the market, and she talks to her as if she is you. She doesn’t try to buy strawberries, her favorite yield of the central California land. Instead she wants to know how the girl is. How is school, how is her life. She reaches for the girl’s hand and looks into her eyes.
It’s hard to imagine. The last time you saw her, she was as you’d always known her, smelling like powder and white tea, with her pale skin and capillary-lined cheeks, her breathing audible, after so many years of smoking. She still had strength in her arms and she rocked you in them singing, “sweet little lady.”
Colm comes back to the table. He waves the colorful euros you offer away and pays the tab at the bar.
A group of guys enter the pub and shout "Olé!" when they see you, stepping dramatically aside like a matador gives way to a bull.
Colm lowers his head, but you can tell he’s smiling. He holds open the door for you. It is raining again.
You pull on your hoods and run to the small rented car. You go to the driver's side, only to bump into Colm, recover, and continue running to the other side. You grin at him from over the roof of the car and stifle your laughter. He meets your eyes, pauses with the keys.
"What's the matter?” he says. “Forget where you are? Is this Columbia? No, wait. Are we in Ecuador?"
"Open the door!"
He does and you both get inside.
"I think Colm Junior was one too much for you." His voice sounds warm and close. Its hum fills the small space.
"He is an unruly lad,” you admit.
"Takes after his father." Colm winks and starts the car.
"Oh, so now you're claiming him."
“I can claim him when I damn well please.”
He’s looking at you and you consider reaching to touch behind his ear, where the skin must be soft. It’s very quiet, nothing going on outside except the rain. Nothing but the two of you and the warmth taken from the pints and the happy feeling of a freshly shared escape from all the well-meaning people who would seek to marry you off. But you don’t extend your arm. Colm gets that smug look on his face and turns to face the dashboard. You snuggle back into your seat and strum on the threads of your jeans, fanned out over your bare skin, just kissed by the rain. You tug on one until it snaps.
Colm’s pulling out into the road and you think you see the blond girl from the pub, walking into an alley. You sit up and twist in your seat, hoping to glimpse a familiar face, willing her to recognize you, so you can wave goodbye.
At one point, this story was going to be included in my collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. It's from Andi's perspective, though you never get her name in the story. All the other stories were set in Southern California (except for one in Mexico), and I ultimately decided this one didn't quite fit. It was inspired by a trip I took to Ireland right after grad school. To look at me, no one would guess I was part Irish, but I am, and I just loved Ireland and the people there. I wanted to write about Andi in a completely different place, a place where she feels she should belong, but where, to an extent, she'll always be denied belonging, and thus denied being able to fully identify with her Irish grandmother. In perhaps a larger way though, she's the one resisting, as a young person who doesn't want to "settle down" yet.
Toni Margarita Plummer is the author of The Bolero of Andi Rowe (Curbstone Books, 2011), winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize. She attended the University of Notre Dame and the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. She is a fellow of the Macondo Foundation. An editor at a New York publishing house, Toni lives in Brooklyn.