An oldie. It’s snowing. Therefore.
How on earth it was possible to get so lost in the middle of Dublin, I will never know. The city is not unfamiliar to me, but somehow, at 11 p.m. on that November night, I lost my bearings. Home was in Ranelagh, a hop-skip-and one-stop-on-the-train away from St. Stephen’s Green, but it was late, it was raining, and I wanted a cab. The pubs had emptied out, en masse, and the streets were clogged with people, moving on to late-night venues, or queuing up for cabs. I wandered past the coliseum of Trinity College, hoping I could catch a cab from the other side, but when I saw the block-long line of people already waiting, I knew that it was hopeless.
I moved on to Plan B. If I got myself to Grafton Street, and headed south, on foot, I would be in Ranelagh in half an hour. Grafton Street was key, because eventually it turned into Ranelagh Road, which was the way home. It was not ideal, but nothing was ideal on that rainy night.
Okay. So. Grafton Street. Onward. March. Clomp, clomp, clomp, over the wet sidewalks. I made it across Trinity’s death-trap intersection, dodging the cars coming at me from all angles, keeping my eyes set on that warm bed in the garret-room in Ranelagh.
Grafton Street runs right through Dublin, on the south side of the Liffey. It is a wide brick avenue lined with shops and hung with white Christmas lights at that time of year. There is also a McDonalds on Grafton, open during the wee hours, so it is, naturally, a busy area, no matter the time. Besides O’Connell Street, it is the street in Dublin. You cannot miss it. Unless you are me on that night. Then you will most definitely miss it.
After some time walking I realized, dismayed, that Grafton Street had apparently descended into some sort of tesseract and was not where it was supposed to be. The accordion-folds of the space-time continuum had clamped shut or something, and I could not find it. It took me about fifteen minutes of walking to recognize this, because I was so certain, in my head, of the street’s location that I could not accept the reality of its obvious disappearance. I walked and walked and walked, sure that the next street would be Grafton, only to find that the next street was not and never had been Grafton. Meanwhile, the rain kept coming down. It wasn’t an out-and-out downpour, but it was enough to make the entire experience unpleasant.
Unlike the college-party atmosphere outside Trinity, these streets were darker, emptier. I had no map because, after all, I knew Dublin, right? I knew how to get around, why would one need a map?
The slippery streets grew shadowed, closed up, and residential. A narrow line of townhouses, with darkened windows, drawn white curtains. Wherever Grafton Street was, it was no longer in front of me. I would have to turn back.
Then I saw him.
He stood on a corner, his collar up. He seemed benign, so I decided to throw myself on his mercy and ask the ridiculous question: “Where is Grafton Street?” This would be like a tourist in Times Square asking me, “Can you tell me where Broadway is?” I will never inwardly roll my eyes at tourists like that again because now I know their disorientation. Dublin had, without my knowledge or consent, twisted itself through the Looking Glass. I needed help.
Determined, I crossed the street, walked up to the guy and said to him, “This is so embarrassing, but can you tell me where Grafton Street is?”
He looked momentarily stunned. “Are ya serious?”
“Yes. Sadly. I am dead serious. I’m lost. And I need to find Grafton.”
He wasn’t listening. He was, as most Irish were, with me anyway, struck by my different accent. I look like I belong there. Until I speak.
“You’re from America then, are you?”
I was tired and cranky. “Yes. I’m from America.”
“And you need Grafton?”
“I thought it was back that way. And now it’s raining and I have no idea where I am.”
Up close, I saw that he was little more than a boy. In his early twenties. He had thick black hair slicked up in a pompadour, and he was wearing a black leather jacket, jeans, and big stomping motorcycle boots. He looked like he was coming from a dress rehearsal of a community theatre production of Grease. He had pale white skin, thick black eyebrows, and a baby-face.
“I know the way to Grafton,” he informed me proudly.
“Good for you. Which way.”
“Do ya mind if I walk with ya?”
This was not unexpected, due to the general gregariousness of Irish men, which is normally a pleasant change for me, but I was in no mood. I didn’t need to be chatted up. I needed him to say, “Go that way” and call it a night. But in order for me to get blunt no-nonsense directions like that, I would obviously have to vacation in a different country.
“Can’t you just tell me the way?”
He wheedled. “Please let me walk with ya a bit?”
“Fine. Let’s go then. Let’s walk already.”
And off we went.
Silence reigned between us. He led the way and I set the pace. I marauded us through the dark empty streets like a locomotive out of control. In my mind, with my map of Dublin in my head, he was taking me the wrong way. With my sense of direction, we were going south. And in my head, Grafton should have been to the west. But so be it. I decided to trust, tentatively, the Irish Danny Zuko strolling beside me.
He asked, “Do ya mind if I talk with ya as we walk?”
There was something disarmingly gentle about him, although I didn’t feel like conversation. My Manhattan “crazy person” alarm bells were not going off, although I reminded myself that Ted Bundy was probably disarmingly gentle, too. At first.
“Fine. Talk.” I snapped.
We were in some weird intimate other-world where it was normal that he would be so kind and I would be so rude.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I sighed. Blatantly rolled my eyes. “Sheila. Okay?”
“Hi, Rory. How are ya. Is Grafton close?”
“Oh, sure. It’s right up here.”
“Really, dude? Because it seems like we should be going that way.”
“How long are ya here for?”
“11 days, okay?”
“And where are you from in America.”
“I live in New Jersey. I work in New York. All right?”
Clomp, clomp, clomp. Nothing looked familiar. We careened south. I felt like at any moment we would hit the Wicklow Gap.
“New York City, then?” His face lit up. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“Everyone wants to go there, Rory.”
“I have some cousins in Boston.”
“Every Irish person has cousins in Boston, Rory.”
Clomp, clomp, clomp. We were in a landscape of concrete, cobblestone, and cement. A palette of black and grey. The rain had let up a bit. It was cold.
I exploded. “Rory. Where the hell are we? Where is Grafton?”
“We’ll turn right up here.”
Oh. Okay. Right sounded right. Right meant west. We needed to be going west.
I was clamped shut against this thug. He wouldn’t work his Irish charm on me. No way, buddy. You got the wrong girl.
But Rory kept trying.
“So what do you do, Sheila?” Saying my name back to me. Like all Irish people do.
“I’m a writer, Rory. I do other stuff, too, but mainly, right now, I write.”
“Really! You write!” This information thrilled him. He turned to me, looking at me with an open impressed face. Irish people love writers. After all, James Joyce is on their currency. In spite of myself, I melted. A little bit. I didn’t want to give in, I wanted him to know who was boss, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask him a question.
“And what about you.” I fired at him, in the least friendly tone possible. “What do you do?”
“I’m an accountant.”
I burst into laughter. This kid? This rebel without a cause? “You??” I said, and cackled, as though the very thought was ludicrous. I felt the need to be mean to him. He didn’t seem to mind.
He made us turn right down a cobblestone side street. We walked by the line of darkened windows, a gallery of closed-dark doors, all good people at home in their beds. Except for Rory and myself. We were not good. We were not home. We were not in our beds.
“Sorry,” I relented. “I don’t mean to laugh. You just don’t strike me as the accountant type.”
Clomp clomp, I was driving us west across Ireland.
“I don’t really enjoy it though, Sheila,” he confessed, opening up all of his problems to me.
“Really.” I barked, making a display of disinterest.
“No. I don’t. You know what I really want to do?” he said, his face glowing with excitement.
“Oh, Jesus, Rory. Where is Grafton?”
“It’s up here.”
“Sure it is. Sure.” I laughed, a loud cynical sound.
“No, but what I really want to do –” he said, as though I hadn’t cut him off, “is be an air traffic controller.”
For whatever reason, this admission made it through my coat of armor. It was so specific. He was an accountant who was dying to be an air traffic controller. Who is this person? I continued to push us along the cobblestones, but suddenly I wanted to hear more.
“An air traffic controller? Really?”
“Oh God, Sheila. If I could be an air traffic controller, I feel like I could be happy.”
“Then – sorry to be rude – but why the hell aren’t you an air traffic controller then?”
“Well, it’s very competitive, you know. You have to apply, and they only pick so many people every year in Ireland to even qualify—”
“You’ve applied though, right?”
“Oh yes. A couple times, Sheila.”
“Good for you. Keep at it. You’ll make it.”
“I really want it, Sheila.”
People become interesting when they are passionate about something. Rory was passionate about air traffic control. I found this interesting. I had known him ten minutes.
“Why do you want to be an air traffic controller?”
“Because I think it would be so challenging, y’know? I’d really be doing something. To help out. To add. You know?”
I was probably ten years older than Rory, and I suddenly became his guidance counselor as we tromped through the silent odd city.
“Rory. Listen to me. Keep applying. Don’t give up. This is what you want. As far as we know, you only live once. So don’t give up.”
“Thank you, Sheila. You’re very kind.”
“I’m not being kind. I’m just being straight with you.”
“The odds are against me, you know.”
Clomp clomp. Grafton Street nowhere in sight.
“That’s okay, Rory. If it weren’t worth doing, it wouldn’t be difficult.”
“You know, there’s a lot of truth to what you say, Sheila.”
Suddenly I was a wise American sage. Still impatient to get to Ranelagh, to be sure, but let’s just say I was less impatient at this point.
“Can I ask you a question?” Rory asked.
“What is it.”
“Do ya have a boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I lied.
Rory took this in silently. There were no words between us for a bit. We were fully caught in the tesseract by then. A strange black-and-grey netherworld of midnight connection, of spirits meeting. Dublin did not look like itself at all. I could feel Rory thinking. About my American boyfriend.
Then Rory ventured tentatively, “It doesn’t matter though that we’re havin’ a bit of a flirt, does it?”
The Irish phraseology. It killed me. A bit of a flirt.
“Is that what we’re havin’, Rory? A bit of a flirt? I thought we were looking for FUCKING GRAFTON STREET!!” I shouted into the cobblestones.
“Well, sure, that’s true – but a bit of a flirt, too? Would that be all right?”
“Rory, you get me to Grafton, and who knows what will happen.”
Eventually, we emerged into some sort of square. There was a fountain, a statue, and a cathedral. We came to a standstill in the chill wet night air, staring up at the stark grey walls of the church.
I asked in an ominous tone, “Is that Christchurch Cathedral, Rory?”
Rory was befuddled, looking up at the spire. He admitted, “I don’t know what the fuck that is.”
“Whatever it is, it is NOT GRAFTON STREET!” I shouted at the cathedral.
Rory mumbled, “No, indeed. It certainly is not.”
And then, I got it. I was onto him. When I next spoke, my voice was quiet, calm and dangerous. “Rory. Tell me the truth. Have you been taking me on a wild goose chase through Dublin?”
He scuffed his feet, looking down shamefaced. I am not exaggerating. He scuffed his feet. He then said, “I guess I just wanted to talk to ya, y’know?”
“Oh, for God’s sake. This is INFURIATING!”
I tried to speak in a patient voice: “Rory, it’s late. I want to go home. Your behavior has been outRAG—”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“It better be good, dude.”
“Can I kiss you?” He winced uncertainly as he said it, because obviously from my shrieking and stomping about, I was highly volatile and also clearly insane.
“No, Rory. You cannot kiss me. This is ridiculous.”
“Just a little one?”
“Rory, I am about to kick your Irish ass into that fountain.”
“What would one little kiss hurt, though?”
The raindrops had gathered on his long eyelashes.
In a strange way, I was enjoying berating him. It wasn’t quite real, my rage. It was, but it also wasn’t. Except for my brief stint as his career counselor, I had been playing a part, out of self-protection, because I didn’t want to be nice to a potential axe murderer. But this kid with the pudgy face, the slicked pompadour, and the raindrop-bejewelled eyelashes, who had just led me on a purposefully misleading treasure hunt … he was no axe murderer. I realize this all probably sounds very sketchy, and that this Rory chap, standing on the random silent street corner in the rain, had obviously been thrilled when the lost American girl with the wild red hair approached him, and his one goal, in getting her even more lost, was to find his way into her bed. But somehow I didn’t resent him for giving it his best shot. Actually, I found his strategy to be rather admirable and creative.
So basically all of that stands as my justification for what happened next.
Rory asked, “What would one little kiss hurt, though?” and then I noticed the raindrops on his eyelashes.
We were trapped in some wrinkle in time, under the sheer walls of the nameless cathedral, the normal rules had all dissolved, and suddenly I found myself thinking, “What would one kiss hurt, Sheila? I mean really … what would it hurt?”
It was a cold wet night, we were a long way from the known world, and so I said to him flatly, “Okay. One kiss.” He leaned in, excited, and I shouted in his face, “HANG ON!” He stopped. I said, “Rory, here is what I want. And I would like you to do what I ask.” He waited, listening, an eager student ready to obey.
I informed him, “You are not going to kiss me on the lips. I am not interested in that. But you can kiss me on the cheek – ONLY IF –” (I shouted those two words. He winced.) “—the kiss is long and slow and sweet. I want you to linger. Okay? No quick pecks allowed. But ON THE CHEEK—” (I shouted those three words. He winced.) “You understand?”
I was satisfied. “Okay. Go.”
And so Rory, the accountant who dreamt of being an air traffic controller, kissed me on the cheek. We didn’t hold each other, or hug, we stood completely separate, two autonomous figures in the rain, and he did exactly what I asked. It had been a long time since I had had tenderness like that. It was perfect.
And then, something happened. Something that, I realize, will be difficult to believe.
Rory pulled back from kissing me, we looked at each other, smiling wordlessly, and then, all of a sudden, it started to snow. Not a couple of fluttering snowflakes, but a heavy whirling storm. He stopped kissing me, and in that moment the air filled with snow. Snow? In Ireland? It came upon us in one burst. It had been raining twenty seconds earlier, and suddenly: snowstorm.
We both gaped at the blizzard, astonished.
Rory exclaimed, holding out his hands to it, laughing up into the snow, “What the fuck is goin’ on? I kiss a crazy American girl and now it’s snowing??”
I laughed out loud, a crazy American girl indeed, circling where I stood, staring up, up, into the snow falling down on us, on the wet black streets, on the fountain, on the statue, on the church spire. Snow streaming through the Wicklow Gap, and falling on the silent waiting avenues of Ranelagh. The snow fell on Grafton Street too, wherever it lay hidden.
I gasped at Rory, breathless, “I can’t believe this!” Then I hollered, in a loud declamatory voice, “‘The snow is general all over Ireland!’”
Rory groaned. “Oh Jaysus, now she’s quotin’ Joyce, for fuck’s sake!”
We walked around the deserted square together, watching in wonder as the snow fell and fell, coming down in stark flurrying lines, blotting out the cathedral, the bare ranks of trees beyond.
The next morning all the snow had melted, and it was as though it had never happened. I said to my friend at breakfast, “It snowed last night!” and she refused to believe me. But I saw it. And Rory saw it. We stood there, reveling in the rarity, the rarity and magic of a snowfall in Ireland.
And there my story ends.
I suppose I could tell about how Rory and I went into a hotel on the square and asked the stunned receptionist (who looked at the two of us, with the midnight snow caught in our hair, as though we were nuts) to call a cab for me.
I suppose I could tell about how Rory shared my cab-ride back to Ranelagh.
I suppose I could tell about how he and I stood on the front steps of my house talking, talking about his job, my job, politics, movies, music, as the snow gathered on the black wrought-iron fences.
I suppose I could tell about how I eventually invited him inside, with the stern command, “You can come in for a bit, but I will not sleep with you!” and how he protested, all insulted innocence, “Sheila! Of course not!”
I suppose I could also tell about how we tiptoed into the silent sleeping house, and he promptly wiped out on the slippery floor of the foyer, his legs flying out from under him, and how he landed in a full split on the linoleum, gaping up at me in utter horror and dismay.
I suppose I could tell about sitting on the bed with Rory in my garret room, drinking water, as the snow whited-out the world outside, the two of us talking quietly about air traffic control. I let him kiss me on the lips, too. It was a bit of a flirt. Sandy and Danny on the beach in the beginning of Grease. Before the world lost its innocence. Who am I kidding. We made out like bandits.
And then I suppose I could tell how he left forty minutes later, and I walked him to the door, saying good-bye, watching as he trudged off through the darkness and snow, hands in his pockets, collar up to the wind.
But all of that, while very entertaining, isn’t really part of the story, because all of that happened in real-time, when Dublin became itself again.
For me, the real story is how I lost my way, how Grafton Street vanished, and how I then encountered a strange little pouty-faced boy who took me on a romp through the changed unfamiliar streets of a city I thought I knew well; the real story is the clomp-clomp of our feet, my strident voice echoing off the stones, and the tender kiss on the cheek. For me, the real story is the snowstorm, and Rory recognizing my shouted quote from The Dead. The two of us looking up, and it was unspoken between us: we felt like we had made it start to snow.
And I like to hope, and perhaps it’s just a silly fantasy, but still – I like to hope that the next time I fly into Ireland, as the plane circles over the green fields outside Dublin, as the plane flies in from the west, it will be Rory at the control panel in the airport, greasy hair slicked up, blue eyes serious, voice soft and calm, clearing the runway for my safe return.