Rachel Sargent

Expatriation

Rachel Sargent

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Garrett asks me to choose somewhere to meet up. He says I know Dublin better than him now. When I offer a pub near my office he counters, asking to meet further away from Trinity. Don’t really want to run into anyone from college, he says in his message. This doesn’t seem likely as he graduated over three years ago, but I relent and suggest a place that’s just opened up on Drury Street.

I arrive first, letting in a rush of cold air as I enter the cafe. My scarf is wrapped around my neck like a bandage and my beanie is so damp and overstretched that it slides down my forehead to the bridge of my nose. It’s two days after Christmas and town is pretty dead. There are a few post-Christmas sale shoppers about but everyone I know is barricaded in their family homes, playing board games and rewatching A Muppet Christmas Carol. I came back into Dublin from Bray yesterday, ostensibly to take advantage of the empty library and work on my dissertation, but really because Garrett is only in town today. I didn’t tell Anna. She’s a bit sensitive about Garrett, even though she knows he’s not an ex.

At the counter, I order an Americano and wait for it off to the side. There are two lads chatting in a corner and an older woman with the Times crossword spread out in front of her but otherwise the place is empty. I’m staring out the window at a busker who’s drumming on his guitar on the cobblestones outside when I notice Garrett in line for his coffee. He’s looking at me, head cocked to one side and a smile on his face.

You know you could have just come straight over, I say, striding over to him. He throws an arm around me, as stiff in his hugs as I remember. I always felt lucky to be one of the few he would embrace.

Well, I assumed you’d notice me eventually, he says.

I met Garrett in a History tutorial on the Colonization of North America. Somehow, I ended up in all third-year modules while studying abroad at Trinity during my undergrad. I was doodling an intricate representation of my name one day in the back of the class when the TA asked, and what would the American perspective be, Jessica?

I put down my pen and straightened in my chair. Avoiding the strangeness of asking for an ‘American perspective’ I said in my most dignified class voice, Well, I think the problem here is we’re applying a nationalist framework to a pre-national time.

You know, that’s an excellent point, the TA said, turning back to the rest of the class. That was when Garrett leaned over to my ear. Bullshit, he said. I heard you use that same line in Early Modern Europe last week. He was grinning, his crooked teeth poking over one another. I’m sure I blushed, but my memory has rewritten my shrug afterwards into something playful yet slightly arrogant.

The next week Garrett towed me along to a History Society meeting and invited me on their trip to Krakow. None of my friends are going, he said. You should come along so I’m not left with the first years.

Well, I couldn’t allow that, I said.

It was October that we went, just as leaves began to turn, something I found fascinating being from Southern California. We visited the main square and cathedral, watched the dragon belch fire outside Wawel Castle and stared at art installations at the Contemporary Art Museum with confused intensity.

These people have such a different way of looking at the world, I said.

I don’t know, I really don’t get it, said Garrett. It’s all just like, stop-motion videos of the artist vacuuming, with a voiceover going ‘Consume, consume’. But, like, in Polish.

I let out a snort. I think you’re confusing a few of them, I said.

Eh, whatever. If you like it that’s fine.

Liking them makes me seem cultured, I said.

On the overcrowded tram back to our hostel we traded caricatured looks of bafflement as a woman’s crackling blonde ponytail swung from side to side, catching one of us in the face each time. We edged away, closer to the door and to one another.

On our last night we found a basement pub filled with the kind of green haze present in a B-movie alien abduction. We downed U-Boot beer cocktails until we were so drunk we were confiding in each other details we would usually save for old friends. He dropped his tendency to joke constantly and told me about his mother’s death two years previously and his father’s subsequent move to London. I accepted his unfocused, yet calm account of the aftermath and traded him my younger brother’s current battle with leukemia. I have a hazy memory, like a dream, of Garrett holding me while I cried and a kiss that we shared tentatively, in the smoking area outside in the cool autumn air.

Jaysus, I don’t remember a thing from last night, Garrett said, his head braced on the fold-out tray table on our flight home. Me neither, I said.

Back in Dublin we would hole up in Doyle’s, necking pints of Heineken and sucking into cigarettes as rain dripped over the awning outside. I ditched the group of American girls I had clung to in my first few weeks and joined Garrett’s sprawling, yet incestuous circle of friends. I’d been waiting for a reason to escape since I fell in with them during orientation. I wish I could say it was because of the judgment in their eyes when I told them about my brother at home, in and out of hospitals. The truth was I hated the way they marked me as an outsider, as a part of a group alienated from the rest of the college at a time when I was striving for authenticity, for individuality.

They travelled in packs around campus, clad in knee-high boots and North Face jackets, carrying conversations pitched a dozen decibels higher than any other in the vicinity. They squeezed Ryanair flights to Paris and Rome into every other weekend and went to mass in the nearby church just to see if it was different. I found them grating, and I’m sure they found me pretentious. I guess I was. I was soon proud to not hang out with any other Americans.

Upstairs in the cafe, Garrett and I are squeezed in together, our coffee saucers touching on the small round table. I notice he dresses like an actual adult now. He wears trousers, not one of the two pairs of jeans he cycled through in college, and a shirt so crisp he must have paid at least fifty euro for it. His hair is shorter, he’s grown a beard and he no longer wears the square glasses that were hipster back in college but are now sold in every Specsavers.

He checks his phone and nods to himself.

You pressed for time? I ask.

No. I mean, I have two hours.

Before?

Before I meet Declan, he says.

Ah right, I say. I try not to be hurt by this. I know the way visits home happen. You schedule friends in two-hour slots and tell yourself this is the only way you can see everyone.

How about we go for a bit of a walk after? he asks.

Yeah, I’d like that, I say. Where you staying while you’re here?

My aunt’s, he says. It’s penance, for not seeing her in like two years.

He leans down to open his backpack and pulls out a gift bag with a fat, sparkling Santa grinning on the front. Red glitter trails it in a cloud. Here you go, he says. Happy Christmas.

Oh jeez, thanks, I say and accept the bag by the soft rope handles. I’m sorry, I didn’t get you anything.

Yer grand, he says. He’s sitting on his hands and shifting from side to side. It’s just regifted stuff anyway, he says. Had to pawn it off on somebody before I leave.

I remember the Christmas gift he gave me a few years ago: a cartoon of our trip to Krakow. I knew he’d spent hours on it from the variety of colored pencils he’d used.

Inside the bag there’s a pair of socks with the tricolor on them (One of my cousins trying to remind me where I come from, apparently, says Garrett), a tiny lavender candle (the only thing I actually bought, sorry) and a copy of book written by some Silicon Valley entrepreneur, complete with a dead-eyed, smiling blonde woman with her arms crossed on the cover (because yer a bloody socialist and need to start making some contributions to the world). At the bottom is a small glass bottle with a cork stopper, filled with golden sand. There’s a small tag on it that says, La Jolla. I turn the bottle over in my hands, watching the sand glide from one end to the other like an hourglass. I rub at my eye like my contact’s gone a bit dry.

We went to San Diego over the summer, he says. Had a lovely time, great beaches. It’s funny though, I always thought you’d be there to show me around.

His words hang in the air for a moment, then they drip down in the silence between us.

Just thought I’d bring you a piece of home since you didn’t get back for Christmas, he says.

I mean, yeah, I say. Thank you, it’s such a -- I search for words that are light enough that Garrett doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Lovely gift, I decide. God, I didn’t even think to get you anything.

Ah, don’t worry. I already have too much to bring back with me.

I nod, and put the gifts away in my backpack, folding up the bag to reuse next year. He swills the liquid in his mug around and takes a sip.

Are you drinking a matcha latte? I ask. Christ, the Bay Area’s really got you.

Garrett laughs, and my insides warm a bit. I’m surprised at myself. I didn’t think I still craved his approval.

Yeah, he says. Well, at least I’m not eating soylent yet.

God, I don’t think I could stay friends with you through that, I say. I would though, but I don’t say that.

Where are you living now? I ask instead.

We’ve got a place in the Marina now. It’s not as fun as Oakland but there’s a Whole Foods nearby and my gym’s right down the road, he says. His accent has flattened. The way mine has but from the other direction. I wonder if we’ll meet in the middle somewhere: a sort of transatlantic, Amero-Hibernian.

And Prue is well? I say. His girlfriend doesn’t enter our conversations much. They started going out towards the end of my year at Trinity, after Garrett and I’d come to some sort of unspoken agreement to not get together. Prue was always friendly but someone told me that she didn’t like him hanging out with me alone. She must have been relieved when I did go home, but Garrett and I continued talking and Skyping through my next two years of college, making plans to meet up that always fell through. Our messages got less and less frequent until I called him hours after my brother died. He coached me through the funeral from afar and ordered flowers to be delivered to my parents’ house. But by the time I was able to tell him I was coming back to Dublin for my PhD, he told me he and Prue were moving to San Francisco.

Yeah, she’s been promoted to Head of Operations, he says. She’s in charge of a load of people now and goes to conferences and stuff.

More silence. We’ve emailed and texted and occasionally Skyped but it’s in person that the three years apart are felt. He changes the subject to my PhD. He doesn’t want to talk about Prue with me. I switch gears and tell him of the little progress I’ve made in a year and a half.

I’ve found too many ways to pretend I’m working when I’m not. I don’t know why my supervisor likes me, I say.

I miss doing History, says Garrett. Like, I miss the challenge of it. Arguing with people in lectures and stuff.

Yes, that’s mainly what I do, I say.

Ah, y’know what I mean, he says. My friends in America, most of them did, like business degrees, so we don’t really get to have conversations like that. It can get a bit stale.

I mean, I was surprised you didn’t go into academia, I always thought you were suited for it.

I know, I know. But like, it would’ve been another four years in Dublin, and I just needed to get away.

I nod and take a sip of my Americano, realizing it’s gone cold. The shop must not have yet figured out how to make coffee that actually stays hot. Garrett smiles when I make a face. Let’s go for a walk, he says. His chair belches as he scrapes it back and slings his bag over his shoulder.

We emerge onto the street and immediately the cold sinks through my jeans and crawls its way up my legs. When we cross the road a car nearly doesn’t stop. Garrett slaps the hood and gestures at the driver.

Fuckin’ moron, he says. This whole area should be pedestrianized.

We end up heading toward the quays without it being a decision on either of our parts. Garrett hands me a cigarette and lights it for me.

I don’t think I’ve smoked in like three years, I say.

Don’t tell Prue, says Garrett. I’m meant to have stopped.

I’ll keep it in mind for our weekly catch-up.

Garrett laughs like he’s unsure whether I’m kidding. We cross Dame Street and move from pavement to cobblestones. I can feel them like tiny hills under the soles of my worn-down boots. We pass the dystopian cinder block of the Central Bank, makeshift walls almost concealing it from view.

It’s closed now? Garrett asks.

Yeah, they’ve moved it to some huge building on the north-side, I say.

I swear I’ve seen so many buildings that didn’t exist when I was here last. And there’s a few gone that were there before.

I know the feeling, I say. My favorite taco shop at home is gone. And the empty gas station lot where we used to buy weed is a Starbucks.

Soon we will all be Starbucks, says Garrett. How was visiting home?

Kinda strange, I say. My parents were in a weird way. They insisted on doing the same Christmas stuff that we did when me and my brother were kids but at the same time they barely talked about him. It’s never been great, I say. But this time was suffocating.

I stop there, and hold the other details close because I don’t know how to voice them. It wasn’t home without him. It was another holiday I had spent longing for Dublin and the freedom and anonymity walking its streets gave me.  I wanted my friends and I wanted Anna. But when I left my parents at the airport gate I cried in gasping, strangled sobs, the pain and fear sharp and immediate.

God, I’m sorry, says Garrett. Were your friends at least around?

Some of them, yeah, I say. Most of them were in pretty good form. But you know yourself, people from home never really want to hear about your life abroad.

Yeah, it’s like, I’m just telling people about my life and they think I’m bragging or something. Even when it’s just the mundanity of living in America. Like, are they jealous of standing in a queue at the DMV for two hours?

I shake my head. I guess we shouldn’t be complaining. We are lucky to live abroad.

But like, they hate when I give out about Irish people in America as well. They’re always calling me out on it when I do it, even though they do it whenever they go traveling. It’s like I’m not allowed to anymore.

I know what you mean, I say. Just because you left doesn’t mean you hate where you’re from.

Tourists stand in the plaza in Temple Bar snapping photos. Despite the cold, the flowers hanging over the pub signs are still lush in their primary colors. The wandering notes of a fiddle carving out a reel pours through the open door of a music shop while the heaters play on full blast. The area feels as though it’s been quarantined from the rest of the city.

It’s weird, isn’t it? Garrett says, avoiding the puddle forming near the curb he steps over. I’m over there and you’re here. We’ve switched places.

Yeah, I say. You’d have thought one of us would’ve stayed put so we could be in the same city.

Are you getting at me for not staying? Garrett asks. He stops to turn and look down at me.

No, of course not, I say. I just meant I wish we were in the same place.

I hold back my harsher answer. At least I moved here for myself.

He nods. We turn up one of the side streets leading to the keys and pass a man hunched against a brick wall, wrapped in a tartan blanket. Garrett and I both rummage in our pockets for any change we have and drop it in the cup he holds close to him, as though it’s a warm cup of tea.

We’re quiet when we reach the road that traces the edge of the river. After a quick check for buses we dash across to the other side.

Do you get homesick a lot? Garrett asks. Miss the beaches? The feeling of sand between your toes?

We stand at the barrier looking over the Liffey. The water is surging eastwards to the sea, concealing the debris and rubbish that lies beneath. A breeze sweeps through that makes me shiver. I pull at my gloves and dance on my feet, trying to bring feeling back to my toes.

No, I say. I mean, yeah, I do, but it’s been so long that I don’t feel it very often anymore. It’s always there, but it’s like an undercurrent, constant yet barely noticeable. It’s only really bad right after I leave home to come back here.

Yeah, I get what you mean, he says.

What about you?

Yeah, he says. I kinda feel it like you, but not the same. You know, my Dad’s in London, so that’s obviously where my family is, and I miss him. But I guess I do miss Dublin. It’s the city I grew up in and all that. I miss it, y’know, as a place.

I turn to start walking back eastwards, towards the center of the city, and Garrett follows. The sky is darkening overhead. Stark against the dark gray clouds, the tricolor and the Leinster flag flap in the wind. The Christmas lights declaring, Nollaig Shona, will soon switch on. I feel a buzz in my pocket and slide out my phone slightly to see I’ve got a new message from Anna. I press the lock button and shove it back into my pocket.

It’s funny, I say. If I ever move back to the States, I don’t think it’ll be to San Diego.

No?

I shake my head. None of my friends really live there anymore, I say. They’re scattered all over the country. And I just don’t know if I’d be able to have the life I wanted there. It’s just so different to here.

You could check out San Francisco, Garrett says.

I half-smile. You really like it there, huh?

Anna and I have talked about our future. She wants to get a dog and a little house in the city somewhere. I think if I don’t get an academic position when I finish my PhD, she’ll want to get married so that I can stay. Suddenly, I can see our life leading out from now in a straight line and my stomach clenches up. I worry about being able to stay here after I graduate constantly, but shy at the idea of committing to somewhere permanently too. My phone vibrates again, lighting up in a ghostly glow. I ignore it.

Garrett is telling me about his job in San Francisco but I’m only half-listening. He works in marketing and, really, he should know better. Other people’s jobs are about as interesting as their dreams.

Jeez, man, when did you become so boring, I say, giving him a little shove. He stumbles across the pavement and then shoulder charges me back.

Hey, I’m living the American dream, he says. Flat in San Francisco, nice job that pays the bills, keeps me from being intercepted by the U.S. government. And all the girls go crazy for the Irish accent.

Yeah, I’m sure Prue loves that. She’s not worried you’re gonna go chasing after some American girl? I ask.

He stops at the crosswalk at Westmoreland Street. She was, he says. He’s staring off at the new Luas tracks, and I can feel my heart thudding against my chest.

Yeah, I know, this street’s all changed, I say.

Do you love Anna, he asks. The little green man blinks in the traffic light but Garrett hangs back, leaning against the wall that lines the bridge.

Sorry, what? I say.

He just looks at me.

Do you love Prue? I say, folding my arms and squeezing them together.

Come on, Jess, he says. Don’t turn this into that. You know what I mean.

Do I? Just because I’m with a girl doesn’t mean my relationship is any less significant than yours.

I soften when I see his face crumble a bit. That’s not—that’s not what I meant at all, he says. I just want to know that you’re happy here.

The wind is picking up again, urging the river along at a rush. Buses honk at pedestrians that step out in front of them, the Luas clangs its bell as it glides along the rails northwards. The sun has been hidden behind the clouds all day but I can tell it’s nearly set as the light has all but left the sky.

I’m sorry, I say. I’m just so used to people second guessing it. He nods for me to continue. I do love her, I do.

But? He asks.

But something’s stopping me from fully being in it? I say. It’s a question, with an answer that I’m unsure of.

Do you find it different? Being with girls?

A bit, I say. Not in the ways that matter, obviously. But sure.

How often do you get back home? He asks. I don’t really know why, he knows I haven’t been back since last Christmas.

Like once a year, I guess?

I don’t say that I’m scared to go back. Scared to think about where my life would go if I were back there permanently. Part of me can’t face how it feels when I have to leave again.

There’s a pack of seagulls twirling over the water, cawing and fighting with one another over a scrap of bread. It’s the one thing that looks the same here as it does at home. The street lamps on the sidewalk pop on with tiny zaps. A street seller packs up his cart of scarves and hats and Claddagh rings.

I sidle close to Garrett without thinking about it, as close as I can without actually having our bodies touch. I can feel his arm twitching. We’re standing on O’Connell Bridge, a site we stumbled across more than once together in the early hours of the morning.

When was the last time you were here? I ask.

Two years? He says. Just before you came back, I think. You know, Christmas is in London since my Dad and Prue’s family are there. I don’t have much reason to come back here.

You don’t?

Nah. I mean, it’s great to see you, of course. But Dublin always felt a bit small to me. I just associate it with being young and in college. It’s like you said, I just don’t think I could have the life I wanted here.

I nod, even though that’s not what I said.

Sure, let’s go get a drink, he says, jerking his head back south of the river.

Don’t you have to meet Declan? I say.

I’ll just push it back a bit, he says.

We sit in the snug of an old man pub a few pints later, the smell of cheese toasties wafting through the stale air. My head is starting to get a bit fuzzy and I already feel myself playing loose with how much I tell him about Anna. He doesn’t get uncomfortable, he latches on and says something about Prue’s intense work ethic that annoys him. He opens his mouth to say something, then leans back into his cushioned seat and swirls the beer in his glass. In the space of silence, I clutch the vial of San Diego sand in my hands under the table, turning it over and over like an hourglass.

I guess, he says. I guess you just can’t have everything.

What? I say.

You can’t have both uh...you can’t be both at home and abroad.

Wow, what a fascinating insight.

No, hear me out. It’s like, with us, right?

With us?

Yeah. Like you can’t have everything.

The bottle of sand is cold, and I can almost trick myself into thinking I can feel the grains falling down it.

We can’t have everything?

Right, he says. You get it.

Actually, I don’t.

Jess, c’mon, he says. I’m not being weird, I’m just saying, obviously you’ve thought about what things would be like if you made different decisions. Everyone does.

If I made different decisions?

Yeah, like if you were in San Francisco. Or...he furrows his brow. San Diego or whatever.

Do you wonder about that kind of thing? Is that what you’re saying by asking me?

No no, not that again. I asked you first.

And I’m asking you, do you wonder what would have happened if you stayed in Dublin?

Do you wonder what would have happened if I stayed in Dublin? he says, his hand resting on the rough, scarred table.

Garrett, I say, letting my voice trail off.

You don’t have to answer right away, he says. I have to go to the jacks. He pulls his hand back and stands, heavily on his right leg, overbalancing slightly. He rounds the corner and I’m alone. I turn the bottle over, let the sand rush down again. I place it carefully on the table and stare at the glistening grains. They’re muddy and brown, not the white sand everything thinks of. By the time he gets back I’m on the streets again, in a cold drizzle, on my way home.


Rachel Sargent


Rachel Sargent is from Phoenix, Arizona and holds an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. She recently received Second Prize in the Winchester Writers' Festival 'First Three Pages in A Novel' competition and attended the Cúirt International Festival of Literature as a Young Writer Delegate. Her work has appeared in the Cardiff Review and been commended by Glimmer Train.