twenty::

Twenty years ago today, I boarded a flight from Dublin to San Diego, via London and Los Angeles. Both my parents were still alive, living in my childhood home in Dublin, and I was moving away with no intention of ever returning to live in Ireland again.

I was living in a flat on Sandymount Avenue, working retail, drinking Guinness, reading Marquez and wishing for a different life. Sold all my LPs and singles to Charlie, who owned Hot Wax records in Rathmines, for a pittance.

Arrived in America with a handful of cash, a bag full of books, and no notion of what the future held. I haven’t thought too much about the span of time here, the failed relationships, the divorce, and the over-abundance of college degrees in my name; but this morning it all hit me like a fucking pile driver between the eyes.

Hot shower water muffled my crying, my daughter banging on the door with her toy, and the passage of time settled on me like a damp, heavy cloak of sadness. Picked her up when I got out of the bathroom and she pointed with delight at the gray hairs on my chest. “They weren’t there when I arrived here twenty years ago,” I said.

Still, America has been good to me. She’s given me the latitude to become a writer, to claim my space, to see two books set for publication this year. I have a loving wife and family here, another back in Ireland who are so far away, though Skype helps bridge the years, allowing my mother to see Maisie run wild in the garden, to see her grow up.

Twenty. Times fifty-two. Times three-hundred-and-sixty-five. Time’s a flying, and the next twenty matter more than the previous twenty.  I shall follow the advice of James Joyce, another exiled Irishman, a better writer by far “You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use . . . silence, exile, and cunning.” James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

 

 

leaving nola

A bubble of the past is trapped between my rib-cage and lungs. Sometimes the regret bangs wordlessly against my heart, reminding me of all that remained behind when we moved. That last day our landlord came over to inspect the place and right before she arrived I took several photos of the emptied shotgun apartment with my digital camera. Flakes of paint from the curved ceiling beams hung precipitously, the wooden blades of the fan turned slow and caused the slightest whispering.

Stay. Stay. Stay.

I sat on the balcony of our place and listened to Arcade Fire’s morning sound check, coffee steaming into the mugginess. A street named Mystery leads to the gates of the racetrack. We swanned about during Jazz Fest, high on the Avett Brothers, our exuberant neighbors standing bearded and not-a-little drunk on their balcony, resplendent in colorful dresses and feather boas. They swayed in time to “Dancing Queen,” and the passersby hooted, hollered, and joined in the chorus. All the while the faraway river muttered under its breath,

Stay. Stay. Stay.

Our friend, Laura, found us the place, emailed photos of the claw-foot tub, the steps leading up to the front door, the stove—gas, a prerequisite for cooking gumbo and jambalaya. Now we were quitting the city, right before the humidity took over completely for the summer. I placed my camera on a window-ledge and did the walk through with the landlady. She returned our entire deposit, despite us technically breaking the lease. We had found new tenants; so, no need for her to advertise, paint walls, take time to show the place. A fait accompli, I shook hands and left to meet my wife at Alcée Fortier Park, where the chessboards sit out all night, and the butterflies play gambits with silent finesse. Across the way, Nonna Mia, our Tuesday night pizza joint, where we met our friend, Deb, who is now with Laura. She cleans glasses and says,

Stay. Stay. Stay.

The girl’s school planted a graveyard for Halloween. The crosses bore the names of the aborted lives against whose deaths the nun’s railed. We walked the dog over the pedestrian bridge, locals drinking wine and eating fancy plates of cheeses and meat, the strains of far-off jazz reaching out to embrace us in the evening. The ghosts patrolled the oldest house in the city, built in 1759, the original stairs leaning into uselessness. Cop cars flashed up and down the bayou, past the boarded-up houses still water-stained from Katrina, past Parkway Tavern, where Bill Clinton chowed down on a Po-boy, and on past the abandoned hospital with its shattered windows and empty wards. And all the while the palmetto bugs flew about, their chatter asking of us the same thing,

Stay. Stay. Stay.

Before we left we performed a Viking Burial for Jeanne. We made paper boats from a couple of my manuscript pages she’d marked up and placed tea-lights in them. Afire, we pushed them into the Bayou St. John, where Laura and I frequently walked our dogs. We waited for the paper craft to sink under the ripples, but one candle kept flickering, sputtering in the waterlogged boat, refusing to go gentle into the good night. Eerie. No other word. Jeanne didn’t want us to go. As the egrets slept at roost and the owls took to the air I heard her voice inside my head,

Stay. Stay. Stay.