On the first of June, I returned from five months spent living in a dirty student apartment in Cork, Ireland. It was what you would call a “life-changing experience,” where I learned all the usual lessons of independence: cooking, cleaning, finance, time management, etc. A familiar theme in all “coming-of-age” novels and not something you expect to be so emotionally real until the actuality of age comes crashing down on you.
Needless to say, I changed rapidly to adjust to the new environment and the new people; to become a person I didn’t recognize, but who I enjoyed all the more for her difference. So as the first of June approached and my one-way ticket to Dulles International became more and more relevant, I found it hard to say goodbye in any definite way. Rather than face the looming separation, I took to nightly pub-crawls my last week in Cork, soaking up each experience in preparation for my long summer devoid of gallivanting down city streets with people I felt I knew so well after so little time. Summer would be devoid of all the stories I had amassed, few of them even worth telling.
But on one of those nights something in me cracked (sparked by a stupid thing, really—they were out of curly fries at McDonald’s), and I ended up crying on the dark shining streets of Cork among all the people I would miss. To the passerby I must have looked a wreck, a dim caricature of a girl crying in the street. Is that even worth writing? It was embarrassing and relieving, but as I was escorted home, my heart splayed on the damp cobbles, I was somehow less of a knot. As Melina would say, her Galician accent coming through, “It is good to hurt so much, because you know that it is important.”
I was watched and waved into my Leeside flat, first floor, and I demanded promises that my outburst would be kept secret, except, of course, for the massed city of witnesses milling down Grand Parade. But I hardly thought of them.
Inside I staggered and changed for bed, washed my face clean, and then spotted on my pillow a note from Abby who, asleep now, would be gone in the morning. For the second time that night, I lost all ability to read. My eyes awash with tears, I sobbed methodically, silently into my arms, hoping not to wake my still resident flat-mates.
But I had forgotten my open window, pulled-back curtain—I was completely on display to the street right outside, and that was when I heard her ask, “Is she okay?”
I kept my head down, still as a statue, what good would it be to acknowledge her? I refused to be interrupted in my silent despair.
“She’s probably asleep,” he answered.
“She looks awfully sad.”
Still as a stone I sat, waiting for their receding footsteps, until I heard “Excuse me miss, are you alright?” and unable to ignore it anymore I looked up into the face of a thin twenty-something with brunette hair and an orange pallor in the streetlights.
“Yes,” I said, wiping the tears from my face, snot spreading onto my arm, “I’ll be okay.”
“Why are you sad? Is someone hurt?” In that earnest inquiry I felt suddenly petty. No, no one was hurt. I was hurting, yes, but nothing dire. No life-or-death scenario, just a simple girl not wanting to go home, like a spoiled child. I was ashamed.
“No, no…no one is hurt.” I stopped. I wanted to tell her everything, right there, to this stranger that I would never see again. But spilling my whole trivial narrative—that would be immodest and indecent, and I was silent. Still, she looked at me compassionately, expectantly. Swallowing, I went on slowly, “It’s just, I’m leaving Ireland soon, and I’ll really miss all the people I met here.” Simple statement. Petty reasoning. My voice an incoherent mumble stuffed with tears, choking on them. Could she even understand me? I could tell she was not Irish, not American, and my English was atrocious through the tears and the barred window.
“Where are you from?”
“America. I’m American.”
I didn’t know what kind of response my admission would illicit, but I was surprised. “I understand,” she said congenially, “I am French. I am leaving soon too. I will miss it, but I must go home.” I turned to look at her, in her late-night dress, her date standing awkwardly in the background of the Grattan Street sidewalk. Then she swung her purse off her arm, “I have something for you.”
What? “No, no, that’s alright. I’ll be alright.”
“Give me your hands.” This conversation through the window at three in the morning in a foreign country, strange enough as it was, made me calmer. I did put my hands out, hesitantly, sticking them out the awkward angled window and she, standing on the rail, gripped them. In one palm was something cool and metal and she spoke, “I do not know if you are Christian.” I paused, not ready to explain my ideas on religion, and in the end I only smiled, “Do you mind if I pray?”
And she did, and I don’t remember the words she said, but the firm human grip of her hands was like a full-body embrace, and when she finally looked up she put the metal into my hand. A metal ring. Ten small beads welded onto a loop, and on top the cross, a figure of Christ prostrate, and when looped onto my finger it was comforting and warm from being pressed so willfully into my palm.
“Do you feel better?”
“Yes, thank you. Yes.”
“It will be alright.”
“I know, thank you. Thank you.”
“When do you leave?”
“I hope you get home safely.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” It was all I could think to say.
So she pushed back off the railing and nodded, taking her date in arm again, and retreated towards the quay. I sat on my bed fingering the metal ring, my tears drying into invisible patterns of salt. Eventually I pulled the curtains shut, placed the ring quietly next to my earth-coloured buddha, and crawled under the duvet.