I couldn’t wait to emigrate from Ireland to New York, was counting down the days, but the fast approach of my farewell party made my ears ring and stomach queasy. The only other party I could remember in my honor was my twenty-first birthday bash the previous year. I had also organized that. I didn’t expect this second party to go any better.
My parents didn’t attend my twenty-first celebration. They wouldn’t appear at my farewell party either. It just wasn’t something they would do. I wasn’t supposed to take their no-show personally. Maybe they would toast me that night in the dim, smoke-filled kitchen, the usual cheap brandy for her and cheaper vodka for him, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Deep down, I’m sure they knew that I was both chasing a new life and running away from them.
They were fuzzy on “everything else,” but clear that I didn’t have a Green Card. I would be arrested and shipped back to Ireland in shame.
They had gone into a rage when I quit my government job to leave Dublin for I didn’t know what in New York. I couldn’t leave my good job and everything else just to take off willy-nilly to America, they railed. They were fuzzy on “everything else,” but clear that I didn’t have a Green Card. I would be arrested, they argued, and shipped back to Ireland in shame. Everyone over there is dying of AIDS, they added, it’s suicide.
My sisters reacted as if I was terminal, and accused me of leaving them behind. I didn’t even tell my brothers. I hoped when my ex-boyfriend heard, an abuser I still imagined I mostly loved, he’d writhe in agony. My boss, the same one who had grabbed at my left breast in a dark car park after a work function, told me I was a fool: emigrants were returning from America by the plane-load. There was no work, especially not for illegals. He managed to make “illegals” sound nasty.
The morning of the party, my best friend, Anna, read my horoscope. It foretold great things, one of my celestial houses in just the right place. I laughed, but hoped she was right. By then, my lips felt numb and my whole face was hot and stiff. I worried that no one would show up, that if they did I’d snot and cry and make a fool of myself.
Anna and I arrived to the pub together. We stank of fake tan and sweated inside Lycra body suits. I had booked the private room and just hoped it was small enough. Friends and a few workmates stood around drinking and chatting. No one looked tortured. I smiled through my anxiety, a wooden doll, and drank vodka-colas, too much, too fast. The piped music blared.
My sisters arrived, their mascara smudged. I warned them not to set me off. Someone bought more drinks. My youngest brother appeared, followed by my ex-boyfriend. My ex looked suitably pained. We chatted, angling for goodbye sex. He said I looked hot. I knew it.
We ate greasy finger-food: sausages, chicken nuggets, fries. I drank till I felt I was floating. My ex pressed his body against me, shouted above the music: You’ll be back. You know you will. He was ridiculous and dangerous and something like love shone out of his eyes. I definitely needed to change continents. The song changed, Michael Jackson. I gave myself over to the music and danced with abandon in front of my ex, wanting to torture him, to make him regret what he’d ruined.
The music slowed, I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane. My brother appeared and took my hands. He smelled of aftershave he couldn’t afford. Onlookers encircled us and joined hands above their heads, swayed from side-to-side and shouted the lyrics. The song ended. My brother’s damp hands left mine. I felt him go.
People urged me to make a speech. I felt like I had something urgent to say, but couldn’t get anything out. My sisters presented me with a hardback copy of Animal Farm, three red roses pressed inside the front cover. The flowers still smelled, still hurt.
The chorus climbed: speech, speech, speech. The sweaty, shiny faces swam at me and fell away, out of sync with their chant. My mouth opened and mind spun. The book slipped from my hands and thudded to the floor, the flowers flying out. I hurried from the room before I said something I’d regret: I’d never really wanted to go. I’d only whispered the empty threat and they’d rushed to say goodbye. I could have been dissuaded if they’d only asked right. I pushed through the main doors and out into the cold night air, even my bones crying.
My older sister drives and I listen to her prattle on, everything outside just as drab—the trees, red barns, and stone houses. So much roadkill. We turn a corner and plow through yellow, orange, and red leaves. In the rearview mirror, I watch the brittle leaves hover and swirl, and fall again. I want to jump out and run back, to curl up small beneath the pile.
We stall in traffic in a fast food drive-thru. She can’t see what I find so funny. Drive-thru, I repeat and shake my head and look out my too clean window and think how I’m about to eat a quarter pound of dead cow. My mouth sours.
We’re back on the road. She talks faster, and speeds the car to our mother. I ask why we have to watch Mom die. Hear her last breaths. Hold her impossibly blue hands. Didn’t we see her enough? My sister looks at me in horror, but she knows that I am part right, that it’s tempting to turn the car around.
On and on she talks, constant as the too-low radio.
I want a quick, painless death, thank you, in my bed in my sleep. Just like we’re going to give Mom.
Soon, in the hospital, we will have to turn off Mom’s life support. Little trip, I say aloud and laugh again. My sister slaps the back of my hand. It smarts. She’d left her three-year-old, Danielle, with her sitter, told her we were just going on a little trip. A single mother, she’d gotten pregnant just out of high school and thinks she has to protect Danielle from everything, especially hard truths. Some part of me is still back there with Danielle, on the swings.
I never liked driving and won’t get behind the wheel unless it’s the last resort. I’m afraid I will get lost, or maimed, or killed in a crash. I want a quick, painless death, thank you, in my bed in my sleep. Just like we’re going to give Mom. We drive and drive, and it feels like it’s taking forever. Like we’re driving clear through the county, the state, and the next state and the next, and I wonder just how far we’d have to go to be out of states and hospitals and dying mothers.
We enter the hospital parking garage. There’s a slurping sound and I turn and see that my sister looks just like our mother did forty years ago. Right down to the three red splotches that break out under her left eye whenever there are tears. Oh, no, not crying. Where will crying get us? Get us enough water for fish is where, and fish stink. That’s what our mother always said when we were little.
The hospital’s gray machines whirr and bleep. Fish stink rises. My sister and I nod in unison. The nurses unplug the respirator and roll it away. Its wheels squeak over the linoleum, feel like they’re running over my chest.
Across the corridor, in another room, a patient is propped against her pillows. A man with blond hair and a shiny navy suit leans in close. On her lap, stunning orange roses. I go to leave. The nurse with the black-brown mole next to her nose tells me there isn’t time.
I stay, but in my mind I run. I run through the squeaky corridors and outside and chase from street to street, my shoes kicked-off and a stabbing pain in my throat. I search and search, and would drive, fly, swim, vault—anything—to return to my mother with glorious orange roses, twelve thorny babies in my arms that I hold out to her and say, Look, Mommy, See, Mommy. Aren’t they gorgeous, Mommy? Touch, Mommy. Smell, Mommy. Breathe, Mommy. Beautiful Mommy. Breathe.
Ethel Rohan was raised in Ireland and now lives in San Francisco. Her story collection, Cut Through the Bone, will be released from Dark Sky Books December 1, 2010. A second story collection, Hard to Say, is forthcoming from PANK, in 2011. She blogs at ethelrohan.com.
The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund.
From Ilsa to Mr. Mani, Sarah and Sara, Harold, and more, the memorable characters inside this delightful collection set out on journeys both literal and figurative. Likewise, I read these stories and felt transported, moved. Ostlund’s precision, wisdom, compassion, and luscious language bring us eleven stories that pulse, that amuse, that made me ache. This is exquisite work.
American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell.
One of the few story collections I finished, and immediately read again. Every story is a knockout. Knockouts of knockouts are “The Inventor, 1972,” “The Burn,” “Family Reunion,” and “King Cole’s American Salvage.” I didn’t read this collection. I breathed inside it.
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg.
From Bigfoot to Loveds to hair on fire to caves, these stories fascinated and delighted me. I love their originality and inventiveness. Their haunting loneliness and loveliness. They made me feel dull, like I needed to live more, write better, and adventure. I do need to live more, write better, and adventure. I also need to take a master class in all things Laura van den Berg. She’s first rate.
More of This World or Maybe Another by Barb Johnson.
Barb Johnson worked as a carpenter for more than twenty years in New Orleans. I suspect she was an excellent carpenter and built great things. She certainly created nine exceptional stories in this debut collection. More of this World or Maybe Another traces the lives of several unlikely friends and loves living amidst poverty, violence, and displacement in New Orleans. Through these excellent stories, Johnson offers us a welcome window into a place and people all too often overlooked. Johnson has a great talent for titles, and the stories behind these wonderful titles consistently live up to their promise. Throughout this collection, Johnson displays an enormous gift for storytelling, characterization, and fresh, evocative language. More, the tenacity and spirit of the collection’s heroine, Delia Delahoussaye, has stayed with me.
Online and print literary magazines: Subscribe to your favorites, teach from them, and at every opportunity, laud, laud, laud them.
Homepage photo by Vanessa Warren