WHEN IRISH EYES ARE. . .
by Alexx Hart
Inspired by the work of three artists: Dan Steinhilber’s ‘The Reflecting Room,’ Jawshing Arthur Liou’s video ‘Kora,’ Fahamu Pecou’s ‘Gravity’ series.
Theme: Look…look deeper because things are not always what they seem.
“Still haven’t found any courage in the bottom of that glass, eh?”
His eyes shoot open and meet mine. Embarrassment colors his cheeks as he lifts a near-empty mug. He takes his brew like his hair—dark. In a heavy, lilting accent, he says, “I haven’t reached the bottom yet.”
I can’t immediately place the cadence. British? Aussie? Would it be too stereotypical to assume that he’s an Irishman just because this is an Irish pub?
I slide onto the stool beside him. “Then I guess you’d better drink up. Again.”
We’ve only been making eyes at each other for an hour and a half, since he sent the waitress over with his offer to buy me a drink. My acceptance came with a caveat: that he ask me himself.
Now that I’ve ventured away from the danger zone of my dozen friends, he blushes harder and polishes off the rest of his beer. He’s my age—early twenties, and my type—athletic, clean cut, with a hint of feral lurking beneath the surface of a low-key demeanor.
“So…?” I start.
The mug makes a soft, decisive thump when he sets it down. His gaze swims in the few drops that remain. His grin is a testament to his shyness. “So. . .”
Beside him, his buddies snicker. They trail across the bar, a trio of muscular rakes in long-sleeved, striped jerseys. Three blondes. Three loud blondes. I’m met with a greeting that sounds like “Oi!” as a large hand covered in gold hair and freckles reaches across two men between us. “Rory’s the name.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I say, shaking the offered hand. The short blonde to Rory’s left is Sean and the one on the far end is Gil. Stretching across the bar to shake hands with them, I let the dark one get a good whiff of my perfumed hair.
At last, my would-be wooer introduces himself as Jared and musters up the courage to buy me a drink. Its arrival is met with mortification, as if my pretty, pink cocktail could challenge the manhood of their mugs—four stout soldiers of Almighty Guinness lined up across the bar.
Once the growling and grunting subsides, I ask, “So where are you guys from?”
Sean opens his mouth to say, “We—”
“Dublin,” Jared says, beating him to it with rapidly evaporating shyness.
The two of them share a glance, and then Sean tosses me a grin. So does Jared. “We’re in the States to play rugby.”
“Ah, great,” I say. “Are you winning?”
“We talk about jobs, school, travel, our interests. The Tawny Trio participates, but Jared answers most of my questions and asks his own. We establish a comfortable rapport, laughing and gazing into each other’s eyes. His are sky blue, set in a pale face, a startling contrast to his near-black hair. Absolutely stunning. He mirrors my interest with his smile and rapt attention. As the hour passes, our arms slowly draw closer on the bar, our thighs do the same beneath. His limbs are lean and hard. There is a quietness to him, and a lithe agility so different from the hockey and football players I’ve dated (or avoided). Now that he’s relaxed, his down-to-earth nature draws me in, as do his intoxicating scent and accent.
He starts speaking Gaelic. I’m slain. As the warmth grows between us, our conversation deepens. Hopes, history, dreams, family, religion. “I grew up Catholic, but I haven’t been to church since I started college.”
Jared stares at me like I have just put a fly in his Guinness. I hear gasps of horror and shock from his friends. “Ye gave it up?” Sean says in a breathless voice. “How could ye do that?”
I gulp hard. What are the cardinal topics to avoid in casual conversation, especially with men with deeply rooted, smoldering beliefs from places like Ireland. .
But I can’t find it in me to blow smoke. Heaving a long sigh, I lace my fingers atop the bar. “Maybe it’s different where you guys come from, but in America, I know so many people who don’t really go to church to commune with the Divine. They only go to network and socialize, or because it’s Sunday.”
Four unblinking pairs of eyes and four sets of hunched and hackled shoulders remain.
I lift my chin in determination. “I’m an extremely spiritual person and I can’t stand hypocrisy. I know people who spout about being godly and righteous, but cheat on their spouses and beat their children. Kids come back from church retreats and brag about getting drunk and having sex right there on the pews. Ugh! And in class, no one dares ask a question that might make somebody think. I actually got in trouble for doing that.
“Since I started exploring other avenues, I can have the greatest spiritual experiences anywhere. In the woods, driving down the road, at church with my family, or in a friend’s temple. . .” Lifting my glass in salute, I down the last of my drink. “In a pub with four Irish Catholics. It’s all pretty universal. Treat your neighbor how you want to be treated, and how you’d want them to treat the people you love. To me, the Divine is everywhere, so I haven’t given up anything except the bullshit—and that has nothing to do with my relationship with God.” Turning my palms up, I end with a little shrug.
“Humph,” Sean says, taking a long sip of Guinness.
Rory exchanges glances with Gil, then grins and returns my shrug. “All right.”
“Well, that…that makes sense,” Jared says. His arm moves closer to mine.
They all spend some time with their drinks and their own thoughts, and I watch them absorb what I’ve said, and finally conclude that even though I am no longer a good Catholic girl, I’m still okay.
Jared suddenly stares straight at me—straight into me. He calls me something then, with a hushed voice and melted gaze. Something in Irish that he has a hard time translating. Between him and his friends, they finally manage to convey that it’s something special. A deep compliment. He is calling me an extraordinary woman.
I answer with an honored smile and a bow of the head.
“So?” Rory says with a shrewd grin for Jared’s sake. “Where d’ye live?”
“Actually, I’m from Wisconsin.”
With my explanation of just how far away that is from this pub in Chicago, Jared’s face falls. The blondes burst into a frenzy of encouragement, trying to get me to accompany them to their hotel with or without any number of my friends. “We’ll have a bit of a party!”
Jared glances at me from beneath long, black lashes. His round-eyed reticence is edged with hopefulness.
I take my turn at blushing. “I don’t know. I’m not really in the habit of—”
Clink! Thump. A deluge of profanity preempts any further discussion. Rory has knocked his glass over, dumping it into the bar trough and spilling its entire contents.
The bartender swoops in, saving the glass before it hits the floor, then sets to wiping up the mess. “Okay, fellas, finish up. Then it’s time to go.”
Jared bares half his teeth at Rory. “Now that’s class, ye right dense bastard.”
“Ah, I’m not even half—”
Sean silences the inebriated oaf with a one-armed hug. “Oh, would ye look at that? Is that really the time?” He salutes the bartender with his mug and a placating smile.
Conversation between the guys becomes subdued as they drain their cups, while the empty-handed Rory mourns the “waste of the Black” down the drain.
Jared leans closer to me. “How long are ye in Chicago?”
“Only until tomorrow morning.”
“When d’ye leave?”
I sigh. “Early. Seven or eight at the latest.”
With a deep frown, he nods. His eyes reflect the heaviness in my chest, for what is there to say now, except goodbye? He pushes away his empty glass, pushes himself up from the bar and grumbles, “I’m for the loo.”
“Aye,” Sean answers, following him.
As Gil steers the tottering Rory off his stool, I slide from mine and trudge toward the restrooms to await Jared, my head hung low and my bottom lip out.
“Oi.” Rory’s arm flops around my shoulder. He grins down at me with his large teeth and bovine gaze. The beer on his breath could suffocate an ox. “You’ll be comin’ to the hotel then?”
“I told you, I can’t.”
“Sure ye can. ‘S easy. Just put one foot in front o’ the other.”
As Gil sidles closer to join in the coercion, I can’t help but laugh. “The offer is tempting, but I’m not going to a hotel with four strange men. You guys could be axe murderers for all I know.”
“Come with us.”
I edge away. “Listen, I like Jared, I do. But I barely know him.”
Rory’s head tilts. “Who?”
I jerk my thumb toward the restrooms. “Your buddy that you’ve been trying to hook me up with? Dark hair, blue eyes, red shirt.”
Now my head tilts. “I thought his name was Jared.”
“Ohhhh. Oh, right. Jared!” Rory slaps his knees, bending forward to guffaw. “Of course he’d never tell ye his real name. That fecker’s blown up so many Protestants that—”
Gil cuffs the side of his head, barking out a rebuke in Irish.
As Rory acquires a sudden interest in the collection of flags hanging over our heads, the air makes a silent exodus from my lungs. Blown up…?
A red-faced Gil whinnies out a laugh. “Pay no attention to that gobshite. That’s just Arthur talkin’.”
I stare. “Who?”
With a wide-eyed glance at the restrooms, he mutters, “Nothin’,” and shoves Rory toward the exit.
I turn around to find Jared—or more correctly, Michael—standing outside the men’s room looking like he’s just been kicked in the crotch. Sean has halted beside him, mid-step. They hold another silent, rapid-fire conversation before Sean stuffs his hands into his pockets, scrapes his feet and murmurs an incomprehensible farewell. He scurries off after the other two.
The silence between Michael and me drowns out the hum of the room’s conversations, the mood music, the television over the bar. I bet they’re not really rugby players from Dublin either.
A flicker of despair passes through his eyes, laced with the pain of a thousand regrets. Then it’s gone and his body stiffens. He marches toward me, his jaw tight, his gaze barricaded, no doubt preparing for the worst I can dole out. Or perhaps the best that could be expected: a quick, cold goodbye.
My thoughts and emotions collide as I watch the approach of this hard, young terrorist. His eyes glint with unyielding defiance as if to say, “Well, now you know the truth.”
I dip my head as if to reply, “Yes. Now I know.”
Our conversation about religion and soulfulness comes back to me. Although I hate what he did, I can’t find it in my heart to hate him, or even assume a defensive posture. For how many mistakes have I made in my life? Who am I to cast a stone? All I can feel is anguish for both sides of a centuries-old conflict.
Taking a small step toward Michael, I search his features for who he is in this moment, rather than who he has ever been.
What little color he has left drains from his face. The muscles grow slack, melting into disbelief. A little puff of air escapes his mouth. His hand reaches out, halting, hesitant to grasp the edge of my flowing, silky sleeve. I cast him a sad smile. Once again, he mirrors it. Unable to hold my gaze anymore, he looks at that cloth as if longing to take it home.
I place a comforting touch upon his arm.
“You. . .” he whispers, moving closer until his sigh caresses my cheek. “Ah, you. . .” And there is that high-praising Irish phrase again.
His hands lift to cradle my face. As his lips close over mine, I inhale, engulfed in the scent of his cologne and in something else—a wave of emotion that rockets through my body. Rage. Anguish. Blind confusion. Terror. Utter exhaustion. And sorrow deeper than any I have ever tasted.
With a gasp, I realize—these are not my emotions.
The air comes too rapidly, tearing through my throat. I clench his sleeve, reach up with the other hand to clutch the back of his head. His grip tightens and he pulls me further into him. We hold onto each other, falling, falling, riding that thunderous moment.
The wave finally recedes.
Our lips slide apart and our breath becomes our own. Sounds return to my ears. My pulse begins to slow. Beneath my lids, my eyes burn with tears from the raw pang in my heart that I know not how to ease. All I can hope for is that, just as I have touched him, felt him, breathed him in, perhaps he has done the same with me, that he might taste a bit of the peace and love I have known.
When my eyes open, I see that his are wide with amazement. His face blazes with wonder, hope, joy, and a passionate awakening to—what, I cannot know. He backs away, letting the tips of his fingers trail my face, then turns and strides for the door. At the last moment, he glances over his shoulder with a brilliant smile. For the first time since we met, it encompasses the full range of his mouth and shines through his eyes.