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S E P T E M B E R  1 9 9 8

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

LATER, at the Haggard Inn and then in the lounge of the Judge and Jury, Beth was persuaded to do a Jewish accent. She imitated her mother haranguing a saleswoman at the Clinique counter in Bloomingdale's. "In the past few years my poas have gotten very large. Do you have something for large poas?" Then her parents arguing over a bad investment her father had made in someone's nephew's foray into frozen pizza rolls. Then her father complaining about his sciatica. Most of this Beth invented as she went. Her parents were mild, box-of-matzoh-in-the-cabinet Jews, their income modest by Long Island standards. Still, Eamon's family fanned out on either side of her, roaring. Eamon roared.

At the pub "But they don't really talk like that, sure they don't," his sister Siobhan said.

"Sure they do." Siobhan's husband, John Joe, rested an elbow on a large fold of belly. He had an ulcer and kept singing "Desiree" -- not the whole song but just the word. "Remember that show Rhoda?"

Everyone agreed that Beth sounded like Rhoda. Proof from television seemed to settle the matter. In America association with television seemed to discredit facts, but in Ireland, Beth thought, television seemed to stand as that which validated all claims.

"You should see the house where Beth grew up," Eamon was saying. "Like the mansion on Dynasty."

"Is it really?" Siobhan asked.

"That would be a gross exaggeration," Beth said primly, but nobody heard her. Eamon was describing the maid's quarters, the stable, the billiard room with the full bar, the ice machine, the monogrammed highball glasses.

"But there's nothing in the stables," Beth insisted. "The stables are falling down."

Now they looked at Beth differently: inhabitant of mansions, owner of highball glasses. She had meant to distance herself from that, to align with Eamon, but now she felt herself to be a species apart from him and his family, with their forlorn and graying teeth, their tiny identical row houses, the Waterford crystal from their weddings everywhere locked up and dusty, their unselfconscious public singing. Two young men with fiddles had wandered into the pub and begun to play. People sang along between swigs of stout, mispronouncing most of the words. They said "tree," for instance, when they meant "three." She wondered if she should drink more.

She drank, the stout a brogue's lubricant. It made her recoil from the sound of her American accent reverberating inside her head -- the nasal monotony of it, the apathetic blah blah blah of someone middle-class, cushioned by the class below her. Someone raised by a mother who had time to worry about pores. Someone who could indulge a whim and get bitten by a pony or get drunk on melonberry schnapps. She had no tragic history to recall -- only a road back through memory filled with the discarded gifts and purchases of an American childhood.

John Joe was telling a story about going out for Chinese with a crowd in Navan. The taxi driver who took them home had gotten paid twice, by him and then by Siobhan.

"Eejits," Siobhan said, as if she were commenting on the behavior of some other drunk and foolish couple.

"Drink up, lads," the bartenders were calling.

Though it was after midnight, the streets were busy with people walking home from the pubs, arm in arm or in unruly, shouting clusters. Eamon draped one arm around Beth's neck, leaning heavily on her. They passed a butcher shop. The scarlet sides of meat hanging in the window affronted Beth. She had wanted to ask Eamon about the shops he had gone to as a child, the architecture of the Christian Brothers School, the fields where he'd played Gaelic football. She'd meant to ask about a statue of some English lord up by the hotel -- an early colonizer?

"Oh, that," Eamon said. "They've been trying to blow that up for years." He gestured toward his family, walking on ahead in the joyous and disorganized zigzag of drunks and children. "We never get around to anything."

"You didn't have to say that about Dynasty," Beth said.

"They liked your accent. They liked 'poas.'"

"They liked 'poas,'" Beth said. "Great." She felt glum and violated, like a bed someone had pissed in by accident, or a public pool with a warm spot.

They went back to Siobhan and John Joe's house, a messier twin of Paddy's. John Joe, complaining of his ulcer, lay on the couch and drank milk from the carton. He was still singing "Desiree." Siobhan clopped from one room to another, shouting at everyone to keep it down or the girls would wake up. The girls woke up and wandered in, barefoot and squinting, tangles in their hair. They nodded when Siobhan introduced them and had to be told to shake hands with Beth. The taller one, Nuala, prodded John Joe with a foot. "Drunk again?" she asked. "Did you go to McCormack's? Have you a packet of crisps for me?"

The girls showed Beth their room. It seemed to be a converted storage area, with flimsy walls they had written on in pencil. More UP MEATH. More BOO MAYO. "If Meath win, everyone gets the day off from school, but if Mayo win, we don't get the day off but the boys' school does," Nuala said. The younger girl, Ciara, sucked her thumb and asked Beth if she could touch her hair.

"You're drunk too," Nuala said.

"You look like your father," Beth said.

"But not fat."

"And not drunk," Beth said.

That night the Guinness and black-currant made her hallucinate. She saw the world in triplicate, three turning orbs. Three of herself bought scarlet sides of beef in the butcher shop from a man without a tongue. At the top of a staircase she stood in mink, white diamonds dripping from her breasts like milk. The airplane passenger with the dandruff-covered shoulders grabbed her and cackled sour syllables into her mouth.

She felt a presence next to her, an arm slung around her waist. She got out of bed. The long tiled hallway felt as slick as a frozen pond under her feet. When she finished peeing, she pulled the flush handle while still sitting on the bowl and felt air whoosh up between her thighs. The ancient plumbing chortled as the water went down. She crossed back to the room where she and Eamon slept and climbed in beside him. He slept sprawled out when he'd been drinking, a limb in each direction. She pushed the cold soles of her feet against his leg. He yelped and turned on his side.

"Do you still love me?" she whispered to his shoulder blade. The Guinness had receded, leaving her head trapped in an aching, sugary halo. She remembered the cartoons of men with sore heads, each one holding his pint of the black stuff. Language primers also liked illness. A headache was tinneas cinn. Was cinn pronounced like "sin"?

"Get some sleep, Beth." He reached for her hand and held it hard against his hip.

In the morning she found Eamon and Paddy downing tea in the living room. "It's herself!" Paddy announced. Eamon wore the green-and-yellow cap that had been on the bush in the yard. He tossed her a Meath jersey.

"I'm not wearing this." She threw it back at him and went to put on her own clothes.

"You'll look like an eejit in cashmere," he warned.

She had not showered in two days -- a record for her. She sniffed her armpits. They smelled like the microwaved kasha she'd gotten on the plane. She felt as if she were soggy grain, fermenting.

DUBLIN bustled with pregame drunkenness, everyone spilling out of the pubs in their green-and-yellow jerseys. "This is a Meath pub," Eamon said as he elbowed his way in. People rebounded off Beth, flecking her sweater with spots of stout. After drinking two pints of Guinness she let Eamon help her pull the Meath jersey on over her sweater. "You look lovely," he said, and kissed her, stuffing his tongue into her mouth.

She trotted along behind him to the stadium. Their tickets were for an area called Hill Sixteen -- a section with no seats, only low cement walls to lean on. "What if we get trampled?" she shouted, but the cheering and roaring drowned her out. Mary Robinson came out dressed in purple silk, and everyone stood for the national anthem. They sang in Irish -- loose, lilting syllables that Beth couldn't form. She still often made the mistake of walking into the men's room, labeled FIR. Women's was MNA, which she always transposed into MAN.

Eamon shouted all the way through the match. Beth had trouble keeping track of the ball. Meath pulled ahead by a point in the last two minutes of the match. "Brilliant," Eamon breathed. His eyes glinted with tears. In front of them two men with pompons on their hats threw themselves into the crowd below. Eamon was hugging the man beside him and weeping.

"Jesus, Eamon. Pull yourself together." Beth patted him on the back. She had never seen him weep before. It made her want to drink.

They rode home with Siobhan and John Joe. The tradition, apparently, was to stop at pubs along the homeward route. Replays were being held in every hamlet, each moment of the game worked over in murderous detail. "Sure they won, but they played crap," Siobhan said.

The Guinness was starting to blur the edges of things. Beth was starting to like life better this way -- everything bleeding together. "They played crap," she agreed.

From under a straw hat that seemed to be gradually unraveling on her head, Siobhan offered her a wavering, contentious look.

Beth had been practicing her accent, the way she practiced Irish words and "poas." Usually she practiced in her head. But something had unhooked in her. A bolus of consonants pushed together stuck in her throat, a halitosis of want, for after all, she wasn't, would never be, Irish. "I didn't mean it like that," she said.

"Go get a round from the barman," Eamon said. He pushed a roll of bank notes into her hand.

While she was up at the bar, singing began -- first in scattered clusters, then a chorus, then a ragged harmony. The crowd, surging up for drinks, pinned her against the bar. In the corner Siobhan put one arm around John Joe and the other around Eamon. A man with an accordion climbed up on a table and began to play with restless, fanatic energy. He lay down on his back, still playing, and gulped a pint of Guinness as it was poured into his mouth from above.

OVER the next few weeks things began moving more and more slowly, as if drifting in the Liffey, rife with pollutants. Each night Beth and Eamon went with Paddy to Siobhan and John Joe's for a meal, usually dark-brown and stewed. Afterward they lingered for hours at the table with multiple cups of tea, any uneaten food congealing on the plates in front of them. Beth became convinced that the nightly pints of Guinness, as opaque and dense as oak, had gone solid in her body, shellacking her organs. Her limbs stiffened; she had to mind them when she walked through doorways. Her Irish wasn't coming along as she'd expected. People spoke it in jest and secretly, muttering quickly, reminding her of drug transactions she'd seen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

It should be noted that the English language is weighted toward action, control, independence, she read in her primer.

"I am happy."

"I am sad."

In contrast, the Irish language explicitly recognizes distinctions between action and patience.
táim go brónach    "I exist sadly."

tá brón orm           "Sadness exists on me."

A stubborn clump of rain clouds gathered over Eamon's town and stayed as if pasted there. Gray sheets of rain and sleet fell for days. The weather began dueling with the Gaelic football win as a topic of conversation, but no one seemed daunted by all the flichshneachta: women walked out for their groceries in it with little more cover than rain hats; children tumbled on the greens with their soccer balls, oblivious even of downpours. Beth thought about sadness existing on her, a beige miasma, a misty blight. She felt her soul assailed, soaked through, retreating into its crawl space. The peat that Paddy brought in to burn in the fireplace steamed when he lit it. Even the food acquired a musty taste -- musty cheese on stiff bread, flat Lucozade that Eamon and Paddy never capped tightly enough, so that it lost its fizz and tasted to Beth like glucose solution.

At night she huddled in bed and warmed her hands on Eamon's shoulders, a Girl Scout tending a tiny fire. "We can't stay here much longer," she said. "Rent is due back home in a week."

"We can wire it from here."

Outside, rain clacked against the windows. In the past few days the hills around the town had gone deep and then deeper green, a hegemony of green.

"I want to go home," she whispered. "Do you want to stay?"

They lay for a long time like that, her hands at his back. Then he got up and left the room, returning with a carton of milk. He gulped from it and handed it to her. It had started to sour, the first inkling of curdle.

"It's gone off," she said, gagging a little as some of it slipped down her throat.

He took the carton from her and lay back on his side of the bed. She heard the milk slosh into his mouth, a dumb sour ocean between them.

"Then stay," he said. "Then go."

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

Wendy Mai Rawlings is in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Utah.

Illustrations by Geoffrey Parker

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; Come Back Irish; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 83 - 88.

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