She had a wide butt. Her hair, dyed black, was pulled into a ponytail on top of her head, and she hadn't the sense to wear waterproof mascara here in Ireland, the most sodden land on earth. Twenty minutes into our walk through Ness Woods, just outside of Derry, her leather jacket was soaked and she laughed hard, too hard; I could tell she was as irritated as I that she'd been roped into meeting me.
But give Liam, my ex-boyfriend, the satisfaction of seeing that she pissed me off? Not on your life.
I knew from the moment I'd stepped off the bus that coming to Derry was a bad idea. It was Halloween, one of the biggest Celtic holidays in Ireland, and Derry celebrated it with a mixture of happy defiance and strident force. The town square was jammed with the crowds for the fireworks show; three-foot-tall ghosts screamed alongside their Dracula parents, their Mutant Turtle sisters, their Samurai brothers. Here and there, teenagers wearing black ski masks, army fatigues and holding toy AK-47s stood silently. A girl dressed as a British soldier retouched the fake blood on the bullet wound she'd fashioned on her chest. An ice-cold wind blew off the river, and children shrieked with excitement.
Though Liam and I had broken up ten years ago, we'd only spoken a few times. He'd initiated the breakup, he'd gone back to his childhood sweetheart, and while I didn't exactly pine for him, there was all that old scar tissue: unresolved feelings, painful memories, then resolutions of amity. Still, depending upon which way the scale shifted, one of us always felt angry or misunderstood by the other. Last time I saw Liam, it was his turn; I'd been happily in love, I'd moved on from him. Now, it was clear that my presence was a thing he was forcing himself to tolerate, despite his assurances to the contrary. "I'm in the process of moving right now," he'd told me. "But I'd love to see you. As long as you don't mind sleeping at my sister's. On the floor. On a mattress. And I do have to work. But I want to see you. You can't come to Ireland and not see me."
So there I was. Surrounded by revelers, Liam and I didn't talk to each other directly all Halloween eve. In the Ness Woods the next day, his sister Mairead and I were trying to nurse our hangovers. And suddenly there was this creature, this Sarah, with her stupid punk hair and leather jacket and tough attitude. "Move on, honey," I wanted to tell her. "Goth died a good 10 years ago." We moved around each other like cats. She complimented me on my skin. I complimented her on her nose pierce. We smiled. We talked. She had two children, she said, and wasn't Mairead a grand mother, with the four wee boys. Completely smitten with Sarah, Liam avoided looking at me. At the waterfall, where the water held so much peat it looked like a tank of Guinness had been released over the rocks, he slipped away and dramatically took a swim in the forty-degree lake.
Sarah pulled out her claws.
"I lived in America," she said. "In San Diego. It was really, well, very odd." She laughed. "I got very ill and almost had to go to hospital. And do you know, not one person offered to help me. Never offered to babysit, never called in to see how I was doing. It was really incredible. I couldn't believe so many people could be that, well, selfish. Never extending of themselves. Very unfriendly."
"How terrible," I said. "That doesn't sound like most of the Americans I know. I'm sorry you had that experience. Maybe it was San Diego."
"No, it wasn't," she went on, lighting a cigarette under a beech tree. "I got the feeling everyone was like that."
"Really," I said. "I guess you met a lot of Americans then. Thirty million, I'd imagine, to make such a generalization."
"I don't think it was the Yanks' fault. Everyone was just trying to keep their head above water. Because you know, America is so expensive."
I took a breath. Now, one thing America is not, is expensive. It's many things: big, rude, wonderful, friendly, arrogant, stupid ... but not expensive. Compared to Northern Ireland, at least.
"We could barely pay the rent," she continued, "and there were four of us living in a one-bedroom apartment!"
"Yes, I'd heard McDonald's starting salary is a little low," I said.
"Meow," said Mairead, under her breath. "Where is Liam, that fucker?"
"Anyway," finished Sarah, "I'd never go back."
"That's too bad," I said. "San Francisco really is a terrible place, too. You're right. Especially compared to Northern Ireland."
Liam emerged from behind a tree, his hair wet, looking invigorated. Why shouldn't he? He had gotten two women to fight over him, just like he'd planned. The scale had tipped again. I tried to remember what I'd fallen in love with, so many years ago. I just couldn't remember. There had to be some remnant left though, or why would I want to belt this woman one? But really, with him standing there with his dumb wet hair and self-satisfied smirk, I thought both of them deserved a good kick.
"I'm going to Belfast tomorrow," I announced happily. "I just decided." Sarah and I smiled at each other. Finally, we agreed on something.