Sean doesn’t try with local girls. It’s the tourists he wants: they are transient and easily slip away from Inis Mor on ferries and planes. Ephemeral moments of intimacy are what he is after, and his lovemaking is genuine, even if his approach is contrived. It’s the moments after intimacy that he strives to avoid—the muddled conversation, the confusion of desire. Difficulty always begins with the sound of another heart beating close.
He doesn’t notice her among the other tourists immediately, but then suddenly she is in front of him, ordering a Black Bush neat and a pint of Guinness. She sits by herself bellied up to the bar, and when she turns to watch the session, Sean catches a glimpse of the long hazelnut hair shining down her back. Looking at her denim-wrapped legs, he imagines them unwrapped: her naked thighs, the color of tea with plenty of milk in it.
As she drinks her first round, he runs his fingers by rote around the seashell hanging from his neck—the one he’s worn every day since finding it among his mother’s things after she died. Though it’s a remnant, something cast off, it’s constant, and he finds comfort in its curves. When she turns around and puts an empty pint glass on the bar, he lets the shell drop back against his chest and approaches her. “Guinness or Black Bush or both?” he asks, showing his straight, white teeth.
“Both,” she says, laying out correct change.
“Do you know what you’re doing, woman?” he asks.
“I know very well what I’m doing.”
From her accent, he can tell she’s American.
“Three or four whiskeys and I’m out of my tree,” he says, “I love the stuff, but I just can’t drink it. I don’t remember shit when I’m on it.”
“That’s the difference between you and me,” she says.
He laughs, pours her a generous whiskey and starts filling a pint of Guinness.
“From America, then?” he asks, letting her pint settle before topping it off.
“Ah, yes. The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, like?” He remembers another woman, Julie, telling him that.
“And what do you do for a job in Minnesota then?”
“Guess. We can even bet on it if you want. You guess right and I buy you a drink. You guess wrong and you buy me a drink.”
He takes a few steps back and looks at her, moving his hands in camera frames around her face. “Hmmm….what does this woman do back in Minnesota?” She is biting now, he thinks, really biting and so he walks away, still keeping an eye on her as he serves up drinks all around. Twenty minutes later he comes back and says, “You work as a secretary, but you’re a student. Either art or literature.”
“So close. You would have been right a year and a half ago. Now, I teach literature to high schoolers. Since you were half right, how about we call the whole thing off?”
Sean picks up her empty pint glass and tops it off. She tries to pay him, but he slides her coins back. “No worries,” he says.
“Well, thanks. What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Sean. Sean of Kilronan.” She starts laughing. “I’m Ella.”
“You’re welcome, Ella of Minneapolis,” he takes her hand and kisses it, bowing towards her, which throws her into another fit of laughter. She’s getting tipsy, and he keeps going back to her, chatting her up, making sure to keep her attention.
After another Guinness, she stands up, knocking her bar stool over. He quickly comes out from behind the bar and picks it up.
“Are you all right?”
“Fan-fucking-tastic,. Fan-fucking-tastic. Now Sean, did you know that there is an actual word for inserting cuss words into regular words?”
“Ella, would you like a cup of coffee?” He doesn’t want her too drunk.
“Has it come to this? Are we at the coffee hour? No whiskey in it either, huh?”
“The regular black coffee hour. But, Joe Watty’s will gladly provide you cream and sugar.”
Sean makes the coffee strong and stays nearby while it brews. When it is done, he sets it down in front of her and says, “Free of charge.”
Soon the music has ended, the boys are packing up, and Sean has to make his move.
“Do you want to go walking on the beach after I close up? It’s almost full moon, so it will be grand.”
“Walking on the beach?” She pauses, “Yes. Yes I would.”
“You sit there and drink your coffee and when I turn off the lights, wait for me out front, all right?”
“Yeah, all right.” Her eyes are glassy, her smile is wet, and Sean is eager to be alone with her.
For the next fifteen or twenty minutes, he moves around the pub by memory, his only conscious thoughts of how her skin will feel against his, how she will smell and taste. When his work is finished, he changes out of his work shirt and splashes on cologne.
Ella waits outside, staring off into nothing, and she doesn’t look his way when he comes out. Her face has taken a different shape, and nothing from his wealth of backlogged bullshit surfaces when he sees her standing there so small, so solemn.
“Ready to go?” he asks, tentatively.
They set off wordlessly. He leads her down the road past an abandoned church with a graveyard in front, past the old Bagley’s place, stones overgrown with vines. Without realizing it, he starts tracing the shell around his neck. Mist settles uncomfortably between them, and he hopes she will start talking, laughing again once he gets her to beach and she sees the rocks jutting up from the sand at low tide, the moon’s wireless hanging. And there he will find the moments he has been craving.
Finally, she breaks the silence.
“This is my honeymoon,” she says.
“My honeymoon. This is it.”
“I don’t know what you mean. You have a man here?”
“No. I don’t have a man at all.”
They are getting closer to the beach and he hopes that she will lay out whatever story she has before they get there so they can move past it when their feet hit the sand.
“I was supposed to be here in Kilronan on my honeymoon. I am supposed to be married two weeks by now. But look,” she holds up her ring-less ring finger, “I’m not.”
“What happened to your man?”
“He passed,” she says.
Sean is quiet.
“He died,” she says, her voice rising, “Kicked the proverbial bucket.”
“I’m so sorry—may I ask what happened?”
“You may,” she says, stopping outside the telephone booths in front of the post.
“We had been living together before and I missed it. You get used to sleeping with someone, you know what I mean? But I found a job about an hour and a half away from him. He was in school, so I left and he stayed. Everything was already leading up to it. One night I was lonely and I wanted him to come and see me. So I called him and I said, ‘Baby, baby, please come to sleep with me tonight. I don’t want anything in the world, but to sleep with you.’ He said he was too tired to drive. He’d been half asleep when I called. I kept at him though. I kept asking and asking.” Her voice has grown progressively louder and higher, and Sean is afraid that her whole body will crack right down the middle as she reaches in for the rest of the story.
“It was snowing bad, too, the plows hadn’t been out yet. But I kept asking until he finally got in his car. A half an hour later, he slid off the road into a tree. He never wore his fucking seat belt. I had told him a million goddamn times to just wear it, and he never wore it. Never. And that was it. He died in the hospital before I could even get there.”
Her eyes fall to her shoes and he’s sorry that he even asked. “Ella, I’m so sorry. That’s a horrible accident.”
Clouds shift over the moon and the light they had been standing in is suddenly gone.
“Accident? Accident? Don’t you understand? Accidents don’t fucking exist. Everything was leading up to this. Everything was nearly in place, but then I slid the final piece into position. I made him come to me. I knew exactly what I was doing when I was on the phone with him. I knew exactly what to say.”
She edges closer to him.
“I made him. He didn’t want to drive and I made him do it.”
The air grows still around them and he stands with her in that stagnancy. Finally, he takes her hand and breaks the silence.
“It’s not your fault, Ella.” She turns her head. “Ella, it’s not your fault.”
“Nothing is anyone’s fault, Sean. It’s just this fucking ambivalent universe.”
He says nothing, but leads her toward the beach and soon the ocean is audible, and he’s relieved to be back on familiar territory. They walk in silence to a large, flat rock.
“It’s beautiful at low tide, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she says, a calm returning to her face.
“Come on, right up here,” he climbs the rock himself and then helps her up. “Look down into these cracks. There are always pretty shells here. I used to collect them for my mother.”
Sean’s knows his attempt at normalcy fails when she looks down apathetically and then lies on her back, blinking her eyes at the sky. Not knowing what else to do, he lies down next to her, slipping an arm underneath her neck.
“An arm under the neck twists the spine, Sean,” she says, yawning. He removes his arm, takes off his jacket and balls it up under her head. Then he props his head up underneath his palms. “Look at those high clouds,” she says, “they look like trilobite fossils floating across the sky.”
He smiles, then straightens his lips as he begins thinking of fossils, of how his whole life seems nothing more than a series of fossils. His fingertips return to the shell hanging around his neck. He only has what people have left behind. The waves roll up, foam tongues licking sand, off in the distance he can hear water hitting the cliffs and see the crests explode like fireworks. He turns on his side and watches Ella lying there. Her breath has become measured, but still he wants nothing more than to be near her. He works his hand underneath her jacket, her sweater, finding bare skin. He runs his index finger from her belly button to her ribs, feels the fine hairs on her stomach. Blood rushes to his pelvis and he thinks about moving his hand up, about feeling her breast in the heart of his palm.
As he is about to move his hand, she moans and shifts her body, catapulting him from his fantasy. He pulls his hand back and turns away, red. He lies still, listening to her breathing mixed with the sound of the water.
A lone bird flies overhead, splitting the sky, and after another minute, he climbs off the rock. She will be safe here, he thinks—just confused in the morning. As he is about to turn away, he remembers his jacket underneath her head and wonders whether or not to take it. He glances back over her; her face is windless, and so he walks away, leaving her and the jacket to wait for the tide to come in.