Bored and frustrated, I went to dormitory dances where I could breathe the air and make a public spectacle of myself in protest. The first time I dressed from head to toe in black and loaded up on bottles of Bass Ale or syrupy black Guinness beer. Moments later, I was on the dance floor, shaking like a human earthquake to Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round.”
The only person who would talk to me the next day was Liz. No one else who had gone to the dance knew what to say to me.
“It was quite entertaining,” Liz said over mugs of strong Irish tea. “Who knew the quiet American girl who’s always in the library could dance like that?”
My head still aching from the alcohol, I grinned. It almost felt like triumph.
The time had finally come to find other diversions outside of the university that didn’t involve pubs or drinking. Paging through my thick orange ‘Let’s Go Europe’ guide, I came across a section about Glendalough, a ruined monastic city in the Wicklow Hills south of Dublin. Descriptions of serpentine paths winding through lush woodland areas made me long for the natural escape they promised. I took the next available Saturday bus out of Dublin, grateful for a chance to get away from the books that I loved and hated.
Wandering around the tumbled-down buildings and moss-covered Celtic crosses of the dead city, I thought of the monks who had had voluntarily withdrawn from the world to live here. My fingertips grazed the eternal roughness of thousand-year-old stones. The monks would most certainly have known the scholar’s loneliness that I did. Maybe Joyce had, too, before he decided against joining the priesthood. Suddenly I felt the laughter begin to rise. You fool, I thought to myself. At the rate you’re going, you’ll never get laid.
Not long after that, Marci invited me on a weekend group excursion to Galway. Her fellow travelers included two other American students, Raina and Pierre. We took a train and stayed in a bed and breakfast run by a bright-faced woman with a son who, at a glance, looked like he had Down Syndrome. Regardless, she hid him behind closed doors. “He’s handicapped, you see,” she said. The four of us exchanged glances. In this otherwise hospitable country, certain kinds of differences — and especially those that shamed — had to be shut away. In thinking about our encounter with the bed and breakfast woman later on, I realized why the bird-girl in ‘Portrait of the Artist’ had been such a daring creation. Earthy and sensual, the girl represented a frank confrontation with the Irish Catholic taboo of sexuality.
Just after all of us went to bed the first night after we arrived — Marci, Raina and I in one room and Pierre in the other — I heard my roommates whispering to each other on the big double bed they shared.
“I’m so glad my boyfriend is coming to visit in December. It’s hard to be good when you’re separated like we are.”
“I broke up with the guy I was seeing just before I came here,” Raina said. “Now I just go out.”
Marci missed her boyfriend; Raina played the field. And I was the girl who didn’t have any religious beliefs to blame for being a virgin.
My mother was determined that I visit her kind, barrel-bodied sister in Rome. Hope that time and age had transformed me into someone who didn’t look like my father, the low-down bastardo who cheated my mother out of a proper divorce settlement, tempered my ambivalence about the trip to Italy.
The first words out of my grandmother’s mouth when I visited the family at Christmas told me that nothing had changed.
“Bellina, ma la ragazza sembra suo padre.”
I was crushed. My grandmother may have thought me pretty; but to her, I still looked every bit as Northern European as my father. For a moment, all I wanted was my mother’s olive skin and dark eyes. Then I realized that my grandmother might not have liked that either, since my mother took after the family that had cheated her out of my grandfather’s assets.
I felt on edge that first night in Rome, After Ersillia asked me about school, she began to reminisce about the knack I had for scraping and bruising my tall, clumsy body.
She smiled when she spoke, but I couldn’t stand it. A sob gurgling in my throat, I jumped up from the table, rushing from the room, past my stunned cousins in the kitchen into the guestroom.
Almost immediately, I heard my aunt calling my name, which she pronounced with a long “o” sound, just like my parents. When Ersillia found me, I was on the bed, face down in a pillow, sniffling.
“Ma perché piange?”
“Why did you talk about me that way? I’m not a child anymore,” I said, wiping away the mucus that dribbled from my nose.
“It is nothing, just stories to remember,” she chuckled. “You can cry when you get to be my age. Getting old — now that’s something worth your tears.”
A few days after I arrived, my mother called me. “Veda l’entusiasmo,” Ersillia whispered to my tiny, big-breasted grandmother, amused at how blasé I seemed. Then I passed the receiver to my aunt, who chatted eagerly with her sister then passed the receiver to my grandmother. I couldn’t understand most of what they said, but I could hear my mother’s desperate voice through the receiver.
Then my grandmother spoke.
“Vendalo!” she intoned.
Immediately I knew that Memé was referring to my mother’s condominium. My mother had been worrying that it had been a poor investment, especially since I had made it clear I wasn’t moving in with her after graduation. Now my grandmother was telling her to sell. Ersillia may have lived with her mother, but there was no way I could be the good Italian daughter and live with a woman bent on controlling my life.
My aunt invited me to stay until after the term started again in January, but I decided to go on a solo expedition to Barcelona instead, where the damp and chill drove deep into my bones. By the time I left for Madrid, I had contracted a fever. Too sick to do anything else, I holed up at the first decent hotel I found and stayed there until the fever broke four days later. I barely had any time left to do much more than walk around downtown before boarding a plane back to Dublin.
I measured the days from Hilary to Trinity terms and the end of school in Irish Cadbury bars, which tasted better than any chocolate I’d ever had, and the mugs of milky tea that warmed my insides all through the wet gray days of winter. Valerie had been the one to teach me how to drink tea without a pot. “You pour the milk first then add the water and tea bag,” she said one day after watching me do the opposite. Her method — which she claimed to have learned from Andy — made no difference in how the tea tasted. But it became the way I drank my tea for years afterward.
I hadn’t seen much of her since we arrived. But she did tell me not long after Christmas break that she had broken it off with Andy and was now only with John. “He’s there for me,” she said. “Every time I used to call Andy’s house, I never knew which of his other girlfriends would answer the phone.”
In a way, I envied Valerie and her amorous distractions; my own Irish escapade had become routine — too much so. I rode the green Dublin double-decker buses to and from school every day, giving money to a uniformed man who put my coins in a purse strapped across one shoulder while dispensing tickets from a small silver machine strapped across the other. I went to lectures where I doodled furiously in my notebook rather than taking notes. When I couldn’t stand the feeling of claustrophobia, I sometimes walked the two-and-half-miles between Trinity Hall and the college, passing through the red brick suburbs of Rathmines and Ranelagh on the way.
On weekends, I studied — “swatted,” the Irish students called it — wrote to people back home and watched over the dormitory mailboxes like a lonely sentinel for the maddeningly few responses that came in return. As much as I hated to admit it and no matter what I told people in the letters and postcards I sent back, I missed the hippies on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I puzzled over how that was possible. I was in Europe, the American dream destination. Maybe all I really wanted was what I didn’t have.
What powered me through my days was the promise I’d made to my father’s brother that I would visit him over the summer. According to my mother, my uncle Pat was cut from the same rough cloth as my father. “At least he took care of his wife and gave her a beautiful apartment on the Right Bank,” she said. My father told me not to judge. “Look with your own eyes and then decide,” he told me, anticipating my mother’s judgments.
He needn’t have worried. Pat surprised me with his unexpected empathy. A graying but vigorous man of few words, he never pushed me to talk. And when he wasn’t staying with his girlfriend or I wasn’t Eurailing around the Continent, he often made me breakfasts of sliced baguettes, jam, butter, eggs and tea.
My uncle even seemed to sympathize with what had happened between my parents. “Qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire?” Pat said, his brown eyes sad. Perhaps he, too, had known estrangement from his two children, my cousins Jean and Laurence. But in the end, they had accepted the separation between Pat and his wife. I wondered if I could one day do the same with my own father.
Despite my stubborn unwillingness to admit that France could be anything but the tritest of travel destinations, that summer was a happy one. The long walks all over Paris exploring the different arrondissements; the visits to my uncle’s farm in Fontainebleau eating wild cherries from his garden; the lazy afternoons in his fourth-floor Rue de Seine apartment spent listening to the sound of saxophone music drifting up from the lower courtyard—all of it passed like a dream.
Beyond the endless North Atlantic rain and the too-few sunny days that shone on a landscape so green it dazzled me, I had more to look forward to than I ever expected. Pauline had been right to gush, even if the only way she could do it was in clichés; hadn’t I, with my Oxford fantasies, also done the same? My father had been right, too. Perhaps I was the one who needed to rethink what I knew—or thought I did.
The last thing I did before leaving Ireland for France was visit Martello Tower, a tiny stone fortress on the Dublin coast. It seemed a fitting way to say goodbye; Joyce himself had spent six nights there before going to Europe the first time. But when I arrived, the only thing I could think about was the last time I had seen Liz, which had been a few days earlier.
She and I had gone to the George’s Street Arcade to visit the woman who sat in a black velvet-curtained booth that advertised palm readings. The girls at Greenane told us she was a gypsy and to beware her evil eye.
Liz went in first; I followed. We compared notes as soon as I left the booth.
“It seems I’ll be moving around a lot,” I told Liz. “She said something, too, about how the journey and not the destination will be matter most to me.” I shrugged my shoulders. “What can you expect for ten pounds?”
My friend flashed me a toothy, white grin.
“Apparently, I’m going back to Britain for work. She said I’d do well there, but…” She looked at me sheepishly. “Well, it just sounded like I’d lead a really materialistic life.”
As it happened, Elizabeth did eventually open several successful dental practices and buy a Cromwell-era home in the south of England. And I became a vagabond who could never seem to settle down. But on that breezy May afternoon at Martello Tower, I didn’t know any of that. Gazing out over Dublin Bay all I knew for certain was that my life stretched out before me as open as the sea.
M. M. Adjarian has published her creative work in The Provo Canyon Review, the Baltimore Review, The Prague Revue, Verdad, South 85, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves, and Poetry Quarterly and has work forthcoming in Serving House Journal.