This story is by Elena Silva and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
As the quiet rain beat on his back, Michael ran after Mary down Park Lane, their favorite street in Dun Laoghaire. During Christmas, green and gold fairy lights were strung on the ash trees and across windowsills along the wet street. Delicate paper lanterns hung beneath wet awnings and above small porches, lighting up the sidewalks at night with pale pink swirls and sherbert-colored polka dots. And best of all, even in an Irish December, the street was magically lined with scarlet roses.
“It looks like a little red kingdom,” Mary giggled, as she ran her fingers carefully around one of the stems.
“Ruairí,” Michael told her, waiting patiently for her to sniff each one. “That means ‘red king’ in Irish.”
“Beautiful!” Mary exclaimed. “Ruairí, Ruairí, Ruairí, do you looove me?” she sang loudly.
Michael laughed out loud and said, “You’re such an American sometimes.”
“I am an American. Remember?” Mary grinned and sang louder. “Grand, like.” She winked, grabbed his hand, and they began to run again.
They bought ice cream and stopped in Baby Love. Mary’s long, chestnut curls hung down to her waist as she bounced along the store, throwing shirts, baby shoes, and plush toys into her bright pink shopping basket. Michael followed her with a small smile, his signature, quiet expression of joy.
“Even if we have a boy, I want him to have at least five pink shirts,” Mary told Michael. “This will help him to be sensitive and will help him avoid potential color-blindness!”
Michael rolled his eyes adoringly. “Mare, you do know how color blindness works, right?”
He picked up one of the shirts she had in her basket–a cotton candy pink turtleneck that read on the front: “I’m sweet as a muffin, and I ain’t bluffin’!” He grinned. Lina would have laughed at that, he thought.
“And does it really matter what the baby wears?” Michael asked.
“Of course it does!” Mary responded, dramatically aghast. “Do you know what kind of an effect the media HAS on kids? We need to counteract dominant culture as much as we can before he is in first grade.”
“Right, I’m sure a few pink shirts will do all that for our son,” Michael chuckled, “I mean, our kid. Why do you keep calling him a boy? We don’t know that yet.”
Mary paused thoughtfully. “Huh,” she said, “I don’t know, but I keep imagining our baby as a boy.”
“Mother’s intuition,” Michael winked, and he pecked Mary on the cheek. “You know we don’t call it first grade here, right? The school system, I mean. We don’t call it first or second grade. In Ireland we call it first class.”
Michael remembered his first day of first class, walking hand in hand to the front gate with Lina.
“Good luck,” she’d told him, beaming as she did, proudly carrying her Spice Girls backpack. “First class will be grand, Michael. I told all the teachers at the end of last year that my baby brother was coming and they are so excited to meet you–really and truly!”
She always said that, “really and truly!” with a kind grin attached to it. And he knew she always meant it. He could feel the recurring rotting breathiness settle in his chest as he began to remember her more viscerally. For the first time since he’d met Mary, Lina felt as starkly gone to him as she had the day she died six years ago. He shook his head slightly, took a deep breath, and turned back to Mary who, he just realized, had never answered his question.
“Mary? Did you hear me?” he asked
After a long moment, Mary turned to Michael. Slowly she said, “Right. First class.”
With that, Mary turned around and headed down the aisle to the bottles. Michael watched her go and made a decisive turn toward the buggies. He pushed away the ever-present thought that something between them had been long ago misunderstood. As his image of Lina faded back into his memory, he reminded himself to focus on who he did have in his life. He rolled the buggy down the aisle and called Mary’s name to show her.
They returned home and Mary flounced into their tiny kitchen singing Christmas songs, and started making tea. Michael could hear a slight Irish bent in her voice, surely the product of her living in Dublin with him for over a year. He couldn’t help but smile as his body filled with that same warm sunshine he remembered from the moment they first met three years earlier. As the kettle boiled, Mary ran up to him, brushed away the single strand of dark, wiry hair that had escaped his hair gel, and looked up into his big green eyes. She kissed him gently, then pulled back and smiled up at him.
He couldn’t help it. “You’re perfect, you know that?” he said quietly.
She looked at him steadily.
“You know that, right?” he asked earnestly, waiting for her usual blushing reply.
She brushed the back of her hand tenderly against his cheek and waited a long moment.
“Michael,” she finally said, struggling to keep eye contact. “I…want us to raise our baby in America.”
Like that, the sunshine was gone. He could feel his bony shoulders crashing into his chest, his sternum, his knees. He swallowed thickly and nodded. He was not one to say anything unless he knew exactly how he was going to say it.
“What–what do you, um, think?” she asked, her eyes hopeful, impossibly oblivious of what he knew was coming.
He stayed perfectly still. Then he raised her hands up slowly to his lips and kissed them.
He looked at her again and said, “My love. ‘But he who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose.’” He dropped her hands and left their small house.
Michael walked briskly around the corner to Brackenbush Road and cut across the small hill toward Watson Park. His head was rattling and the memory of when he’d first met Mary started rushing around his skull until he was consumed with the sounds and smells of that sunny day in San Diego. Michael was settling into his exchange year nicely and he was hardly ever homesick for Dublin. Thoughts of Lina haunted his dreams sometimes, but he preferred to focus on happier things like his new friends and most recently, his job as a host of the Irish Language Table. He knew that his Irish was limited, but it seemed that most of the American attendees were more interested in hearing his accent than learning much of the ancient language.
He’d noticed Mary walk in and quietly sit across the table with other Irish exchange students. She said something quietly to them and immediately got them laughing.
“Hey, Michael!” she called over to him. Startled, Michael realized he’d been staring at her.
“Michael,” she called again. “How do you say ‘hello’ in Irish again?”
He somehow responded, “Dia duit!”
“Dia duit?” she responded, her Irish perfect this time.
“You got it!” he responded and smiled.
She laughed loudly and he was consumed with the feeling of warm sunshine blooming in his heart. The sharp pain of Lina’s death had finally begun to chip away.
Michael searched his brain for the sunshine feeling again. But as he walked through the thistled fields of Dublin, he could find none of it. How could Mary ask this of him? How could she ask that he leave his life behind? And what about Lina? Frozen pictures of his sister ran through his head as he walked faster and faster, refusing to stop even when it began to rain, until finally, he reached Lina’s grave. He knelt at the wilting flowers and for the first time since he’d met Mary, he began to cry.
It was the ten-year anniversary of Lina’s death, and he’d come to his usual spot at the top of Killiney Hill. It was the end of March and very windy, but he could see the purple and yellow flowers budding below, implying a beautiful spring that surely awaited him. He held the faded photograph of Ruairí, his American son whose name was the only Irish thing about him. Michael was both pained and relieved that he and Mary were amicable enough to write monthly. Even if he lived 5,000 miles away from his 4-year-old son and had never met him in person, he liked knowing they were doing okay. Michael would watch the sea for a while more, then start the slow, windy drive back to his little house in the suburbs outside of Dublin city. The house he’d shared with Mary for a year, now swept clean of her and swept clean of his memories of California, of the future he’d officially closed off. Filled only with him, and as always, with roses, the color of red kings.