THE REAL IRELAND
Hannah stares out the window to the Dublin streets, sipping the Carlsberg she had bought hours before at the Off-License down the block from her hotel. Kerri and Meg giggle as they take shots near the bedside table. A sigh slips through her lips as she watches the Viking Splash Tour barrel down the road, the passengers' plastic horned helmets bobbing up and down. The clomping of horse hooves mixes with the revving of engines. A light rain mists the storefronts.
"Hey, Hannah!" calls Kerri. "You ready for tonight?"
Hannah turns from the window. "Of course I am. I'm just waiting on you two."
"But you barely drank anything. Drinking a few beers isn't what pre-gaming is all about," says Meg. "We're on vacation. You can start to live a little."
"Please, Meg. I am living. I'm in Ireland!" Hannah drinks more beer to make her point, but she doesn't sip with enthusiasm. The word "vacation" brings her back to everything she left in New Hampshire: the real world. The post-graduate, I-don't-have-a-clue-what-I'm-going-to-do-with-a-bachelor's-degree-in-English fears press against her chest for a second. Thinking about her dad's offer to work as his secretary until she finds a real job does nothing to relieve the pressure. Her fingertip traces the beer can's condensation in swirls.
"Well, when in Rome..." Meg's voice breaks through Hannah's thoughts.
"When in Ireland!" offers Kerri.
Hannah smiles. "I don't need to get belligerent every night to have a good time, unlike some people."
"Kerri and I won't get belligerent tonight! Promise. Right, Kerri?"
"Right!" Kerri agrees a little too quickly.
"That's what you guys told me the other night night when I wanted to go to Blarney Castle the next day." Hannah looks down at her drink. "We ended up sleeping until two. We can do that back in America any day."
Meg steps over to Hannah's chair with a slight stumble. "Hannah, I promise we'll get to do your touristy things soon. We'll go somewhere tomorrow, OK? Cliffs of Man or whatever."
"Cliffs of Moher."
"Right! We'll do that tomorrow, OK? We'll leave early enough for you. You said you already looked up how to get there by bus, right? So let's do it."
Hannah looks up at Meg's reassuring grin. "OK. That sounds like fun."
You know what else is fun?" asks Meg. "Shots!" She drags Hannah off the chair and toward the beds.
Hannah, Kerri and Meg walk over to the Temple Bar area. "Is here good?" Hannah points to a random bar.
"Sure!" Kerri exclaims, one hand raised to the air and the other around Meg's waist. "Wherever we can get a drink is a good place to me."
Hannah pulls the bar door open, the muffled music spilling out into clarity onto the streets. She pushes through the throng of people clutching glasses of Guinness, Kerri and Meg following behind. Heading straight for the bar, she rifles through her purse for euros and catches the bartender's eye. "Jameson and Coke, please," she says to the bartender. She turns around and sees Kerri and Meg stopped two feet away from the door by a group of boys dressed in light polo shirts and plaid shorts. "God damn," she mumbles. Kerri tosses her hair to the side as she laughs, and Meg plays with her necklace as she listens to a guy gesticulating with his hands in large circles. The bartender places her drink in front of her and she hands him her money. Walking over to her friends, Hannah says, "C'mon, guys. I think there's music in the back." She barely glances at the disappointed looks on the boys' faces before taking Meg's hand and leading the two toward the other end of the bar.
"What was that for?" Kerri asks as Hannah sits down at a table near the guitarist performing a cover of Bruce Springsteen.
"Trust me, they're not as cute as you think," Hannah says.
"Bullshit. You're cock-blocking me just 'cause they decided to talk to us instead of you. Not my fault I'm looking good tonight." Kerri crosses her arms and stares at Hannah. "You owe me a drink."
"Now that's bullshit. I dragged you away from Ireland's answer to the frat boy. If anything, I deserve the drink." Anger burns her throat more than the whiskey. She and Kerri used to get into small fights like this, but one hadn't happened since the end of junior year -- months before they started planning their Ireland trip as their last hurrah after graduation. She didn't realize that she would have to deal with this tension again.
"Now, uh...let's just settle down, guys," attempts Meg.
"Don't pull that reverse psychology crap on me," counters Kerri.
"That's...not reverse psychology." Hannah takes a breath. She refuses to get stuck in Kerri's drunken stupidity. "Look. We're both drunk. I'm sorry, OK?"
"Sorry doesn't get me a drink."
"No, but he might." Hannah points behind Kerri, where she sees the group of boys walking over. She sighs as Kerri squeals in delight before leaving Hannah and Meg.
"She's a firecracker, but that's why we love her." says Meg.
Meg smiles. "C'mon, Hannah. Would you loosen up a bit, please? Drink and enjoy the music. That guy is pretty good."
"OK," says Hannah. "I'll enjoy the American music I can't hear anywhere else."
"God, Hannah. Sorry that not all bars in Ireland are authentic pubs filled with potato-loving redheads. Times have changed. So has Ireland." Meg gets up from her chair and walks over to Kerri, laughing and swaying to the music. Hannah watches.
"Good morning!" Hannah opens the hotel blinds and smiles at the sunlight stretching into the room. Kerri and Meg groan and pull the covers over their heads. Hannah makes out a mumbled "What the fuck?" from one of their bodies.
"Guys, it's already 11 a.m.! I made sure you got some sleep. I already bought some croissants and coffee. They're on the table." Hannah grabs their comforter and tugs it off the bed.
"Shit, Hannah. Why are you doing this?" Meg blinks through bleary eyes, holding her hand in front of her face to block the light.
"Cliffs of Moher today! It's a great day for it too. I think it's the first time in ages that Ireland's weather forecast predicts sunshine all day."
"Cliffs of what?" Kerri murmurs as she cuddles her legs into the fetal position.
"Moher. C'mon, Kerri. They're famous cliffs on the west coast. And we're seeing them today." Hannah walks over to the table and takes a croissant. "The train leaves for Galway at twelve-thirty. Then, we'll catch a bus from there to Doolin. It shouldn't take more than three and a half hours or so, I think."
"Yeah. That's so not happening today," says Kerri.
"What do you mean?"
Kerri groans again. "Hannah, I'm hungover, and I've barely gotten any sleep. I'm not schlepping across this damn island in this state."
Hannah puts down her breakfast. "Then take a shower and wake up. We're doing this."
Meg props herself up on her pillow. "Maybe it's best to do it another day, Hannah. We're not feeling too hot right now."
Hannah tugs at her hair. "No. We're doing this today. You promised, and we only have two more days left."
"Why would you promise her that, you idiot?" Kerri groans. "Why can't you promise enough sleep to rid me of this headache?"
"I've done all the stuff you've asked to do," explains Hannah as she tries not to grit her teeth. "I went to all those bars every night, even when it got old after day two. It's my turn today."
Meg nudges Kerri with her fingertips. "She has a point. We haven't really done the classic tourist stuff yet, and she's been talking about doing something like that all week."
"Fine, fine. We'll do it. But it's going to take my ass longer than an hour and a half to get ready."
Hannah grins. "I'll take it. Now come have some breakfast."
After applying some extra foundation in front of the Galway train station's bathroom mirror, Hannah glances at her cell phone. 5:46 p.m. The three-hour train ride nearly took all her energy from her as she dozed listening to her iPod, but excitement now begins to tingle in her toes. She is so close to something that she has wanted to see for years, ever since her aunt had told her that the cliffs were one of the most magical places she had ever been to when she came back from her honeymoon in Ireland. Judging by the photos her aunt had taken of them, she wasn't lying.
Hannah smoothes her hair down with her palms, forcing herself to relax. She remembers making the same gesture in her bathroom at home, right before moving into college freshman year. All those excited nerves and high expectations, and they all had led to nothing. Well, at least nothing incredibly special. Yes, she had made good friends with Kerri and Meg, her suitemates since that year, but the rest of college life had disappointed Hannah. There had been no pristine library with thousands of old books to get lost in; no elderly professor who saw an innovative idea in her senior thesis and who wanted to bring her to nationwide conventions where scholars argued over her ideas; no gorgeous R.A. in her dorm with whom romance was forbidden, yet with whom she still found moments to sneak away among the ancient tombs in that pristine library of her fantasy. Instead, her university's library did not even carry a copy of Samuel Johnson's Greatest Works and smelled like burnt plastic, even in the archives section; her senior thesis was an unoriginal attempt to prove William Shakespeare could not have possibly written all the poems and plays to which the public gives him credit; and all her R.A.s had been girls.
Her parents had told her that her college years would be the best of her life, but she hopes they had lied. She needs something to meet her expectations, which college didn't do. When her parents asked her what she wanted for a graduation gift, she already knew the answer: money for her trip to Ireland. With her aunt's description of the countryside, Ireland would go beyond her expectations. It sounded too beautiful, too charming. When Hannah asked Kerri and Meg if they wanted to go, they jumped at the chance, suggesting they stay in Dublin so that they could go to the country by day and live the city life by night. It turns out they have been living the city life nearly every night and day since they arrived, and they only have two days left. Still, Hannah smiles at her reflection. Today she got out of the city. Today she will experience something magical. She walks out to the train station entrance.
Kerri and Meg stand beside two young men. Dread pushes its way to the bottom of Hannah's stomach as she reaches them. "Hey, guys?"
Meg smiles at her. "Hannah! There you are. We didn't know if you had gotten lost. I thought you just had to go to the bathroom."
"Yeah....I was just....thinking for a bit. That's all."
"Ah, you Americans always take a while to think, now don't you?" jokes one of the guys in his Irish accent.
"Oh, stop!" Kerri playfully hits his shoulder. "Well, Hannah, it's a good thing it did take you a while, 'cause while we were waiting, we met Dan..." -- she gestures toward the jokester -- "...and Callum. Guys, this is Hannah."
"Nice to meet you!" Callum says.
Kerri continues. "Luckily, they know a great restaurant a block away from the bus station and we were telling them how starving we all are --"
"So, we figured we'd come to the rescue," says Dan. "A buddy of ours is a bartender there, so we can get a free drink with our meals. Whaddaya say? Shall we head off, then?"
Hannah looks to Kerri and Meg, who beam at her with hopeful hesitation. Why must they put her in this position?
"I'm sorry, but we're trying to get to the cliffs before it closes," says Hannah. "In fact, I'd like to get there before it gets too dark to see anything."
Callum pats her on the shoulder. "Don't worry about that! Our Irish sun may be cold, but it casts its rays long after it should, until about 11 at night. You'll see plenty. And you have loads of time for dinner! Aren't you hungry?"
Hannah registers the emptiness of her stomach. "A little...."
"Perfect!" Dan shouts. "We'll have a good time, Hannah. I'll even get you your first drink myself."
"But you guys said our first drinks would be free 'cause of your friend," says Kerri.
"Shhh! I was trying to look chivalrous over here." Dan rolls his eyes in mock annoyance. "Geez. What's a guy gotta do to look good nowadays?"
"Buy me a second drink," teases Hannah. She can't help it. She can allow herself a little fun, considering how close she is to her goal. Plus, eating a quick dinner with two Irish guys? Few things more authentically Irish than that come to mind. She'll keep an eye on the time.
"Oh ho!" Dan smiles. "Let's head off, then!" They leave the train station.
Tapping her foot against the floor, Hannah looks up at the clock in the restaurant for the eighth time. It reads 7:40. The next bus to Doolin leaves in five minutes. If they have any chance of making it to the cliffs on time, they have to get on that bus. Hannah curses herself for allowing Dan and Callum to distract her. Dinner had been so much fun; she asked them about life in Ireland and even confessed that she has no idea where she'll be working or what she'll be doing when she gets home. The fun dissipated, however, when Hannah turned to see that an hour and a half had already transpired. She should have been more vigilant about the time.
Eyeing Kerri and Meg rushing out of the bathroom, Hannah stands up from the table. "Thanks, guys," she says to Dan and Callum. "You say the bus station is just a left out of here, right?"
"Right," says Callum. "I'm sorry we had to rush things. Can we --"
Hannah doesn't listen to the rest. "It's fine. Bye!" She darts toward the entrance and whips the door open. She takes a left and runs to the bus station, hearing Kerri and Meg's footsteps close behind her. Hannah gets to the station, goes up to the teller, gasps, "Three for Doolin!" and pushes over her money. No time to get separate tickets; they'll figure out how much everyone owes when they get on the bus. If they get on the bus.
The teller hands her the tickets and change. "The second door over there," he says, pointing. "Hurry!"
They rush through the door and onto the bus, settling into the three seats closest to its door, which closes with a wisp of air. The bus backs out of the station.
"Hannah, I'm so sorry," says Kerri as she digs in her purse for money. "You looked like you were having so much fun that I lost track of time. It was nice to see you enjoying yourself." She hands Hannah the euros.
"It's OK; I lost track of time too," says Hannah. Her legs jitter as she wills the bus to go faster. "But we made the bus, and with some luck, we'll get to the cliffs in time. We won't be able to stay for more than a few minutes, but that's all we'll need."
"We'll make it," reassures Meg as she squeezes Hannah's shoulder. Her hand is too hot to provide much comfort.
"Hopefully," murmurs Hannah. She takes a deep breath and slumps down in her seat, preparing for the longest bus ride of her life, spending the next hour and ten minutes focusing on how she'll get to the cliffs. She'll have to ask the bus driver which bus they'll need to get there when they arrive in Doolin. She doesn't want to ask now and distract him from getting there as quickly as possible.
Once the bus comes to a stop in Doolin, Hannah hops up and heads toward the driver. "Excuse me, sir, but which bus do we take to get to the cliffs?"
The driver looks at her. "The cliffs? No bus this time of night; all of 'em will be coming back down from there soon. Better try another day."
Hannah grips the metal railing in front of her. "What do you mean? They don't close for another half hour! There's gotta be one that's going up there in the next couple of minutes."
"Sorry, but no. There's no bus that drives people there so they can see the cliffs for just five or ten minutes. No one would pay for that!" A few passengers push past Hannah.
"I would!" She can hear the desperation in her own voice.
"I think you'd be the only one, dear," says the driver. "Stay the night at one of the hostels! Then you'll have all day tomorrow to explore the cliffs. Paddy's Hostel is pretty cheap."
"I looked into the hostels here, and all of their offices close by nine," shrugs Hannah. "It's just nine now."
"Well, it's raining out now, so you wouldn't be able to see them well anyways if you could get there tonight." The driver points to his windshield. Hannah hadn't noticed the rain until now. "If you mean to get back to Galway tonight, the bus leaves in about forty-five minutes. Maybe get a cup of tea, eh?"
Hannah nods, then turns and steps off the bus. She feels a quiet sadness settling inside her stomach. She does not question why her anger is not fiery and quick like it usually is. She knows that this disappointment has been building since she got to Ireland and realized it is not the quaint country from the 1800s she used to read about. Her heart longs for home.
"Hey." Kerri steps over to Hannah, zipping up her rain jacket. She hands Hannah's over to her. "What do we do now?"
Hannah doesn't look up as she puts on her jacket. "Get a ticket back to Galway and wait for the bus."
"You mean we came all this way --"
"Kerri," warns Meg. She turns to Hannah. "It's OK. We can try again tomorrow. It wasn't too expensive to get here."
"I'll pay for your ticket, Han," says Kerri. "I shouldn't have made us have dinner with those guys. It's my fault."
"It's no one's fault," says Hannah.
"It is. Let me make it up to you."
"I don't want us to spend our second-to-last day here on public transportation for that long. We should do something else closer to Dublin, I guess." Hannah tries to mask the disappointment from her voice.
"OK," says Meg. "We can do that. Let's get our tickets." She walks toward the station door. Hannah follows.
"You know," says Kerri, "we're right next to the water. I can see it from here. Why don't we just check it out?"
Hannah looks at her, surprised. "Kerri, with all this rain and fog, we won't see much."
Kerri grins and nudges her. "So what? I've never seen the Atlantic from this side. It will be quick. Who's with me?" She starts walking toward the water without waiting for an answer.
Hannah and Meg shrug at each other, then zip up their rain jackets more tightly and follow.
The wind picks up the closer they get to the ocean and tears at their hoods. Hannah sees the gray water lashing out at the rocks beyond the green tufts of grass. The smell of salt permeates the restless air.
"Maybe we should go back!" Hannah yells to Kerri's form a few feet in front of her.
Kerri turns around. "No, Hannah! Let's just do this and we'll go back! This is as close to the Cliffs of Moher as we're gonna get." She turns and continues toward the ocean enshrouded by fog.
Hannah steels herself against the wind and marches forward. They walk over a gravel parking lot, their footsteps wet crunches overpowered by the bellowing of the wind, which threatens to push them back. "This is ridiculous," Hannah mumbles to herself as she reaches the slimy rocks. Head bent low, she focuses on walking without slipping and breaking her neck. She bumps into Kerri's body, then looks up.
Blue-gray water throws itself at the pockmarked rocks with more force than Hannah has ever seen. The white spray rockets toward the churning sky before falling like angry flower petals. Wind boxes her ears and the slamming waves howl at the fog.
"This....this is awesome!" Hannah yells.
"What?" Meg comes up beside her.
"This is awesome!"
"It's definitely something!" Meg shivers in the cold rain.
Hannah looks out to where the ocean and sky kiss the fog. "It could be endless!" she tells Kerri, whose features, which looked bold with adventure mere minutes ago, are now contorted in an effort to face the wind. "The sea, the sky! They could go on forever."
Hannah walks closer to the water, navigating the uneven rocks. Sea foam droops over everything. Hannah tries to touch it with her fingers, but it melts on her skin or scatters into the air, resembling fragile white flies darting back and forth. The air seems to roar at her. Inhaling deeply, she roars back.
"What the hell are you doing?" Kerri asks. "Have you gone mental?"
"This is the most sane I've felt in months!" She stretches out her arms and tilts her head back, letting her hood fall away from her face. Rain courses down her tangled hair and soaks her shirt collar. She screams again, letting go of all her frustration and worry. The wildness of the landscape pulses through her, making her heart beat blood into her numb fingertips and her sore calves, reminding her of her whole human body that is ready to take flight. She starts to laugh.
She'll need this strength when she returns to America, to home. But home is 3,000 miles away from here -- that is, if this isn't the edge of the world. How it looks now, it very well could be. And if she made her way to the world's edge, perhaps Hannah can make it anywhere.