“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 in 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 fifteen friends, he blushes harder and polishes off the rest of his beer. He’s my age--early twenties, and my type--athletic, just a little taller than I am, clean-cut, with a hint of feral lurking beneath the surface of that 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 continued shyness. “So...”
Beside him, his buddies snicker. They trail across the bar, a trio of muscular rakes in long-sleeved, striped jerseys, all blonde.
From the far end, I’m met with a greeting that sounds an awful lot like, “Oi!” and then a large hand covered in gold hair and freckles elongates into a finger that juts in my direction. The finger draws a few corkscrewing infinities in the air as he shoots off a flurry of words, some so mashed together that I'm left doubtful that it's all in English. I gather that he's demanding to know what my strange headdress and attire is all about.
The others cringe at such brashness, but their sidelong looks show they’re just as curious.
I flash a grin from behind the strands of beads that dangle down the center of my brow, sweeping beneath my eyes to my temples. “We were at a medieval reenactment event. You know, knights and ladies?”
A chorus of comprehension sounds as they glance over their shoulders to reassess the array of doublets, corsets, cotehardies, and cod-pieces slicing a garish swath through the center of the pub. I can't help but hear the opener in my mind. So an Irishman, a Viking, and a Baroness walk into a bar...
I am the lone “heathen” in floor-length sleeves and my belly dancing skirts.
"Well. M'lady." Down at the far end, a half-full mug lifts in my direction. “Rory's the name."
“It’s nice to meet you,” I say, dipping my head. "M'lord."
Four different flavors of chuckle arise, segueing into the rest of the introductions. The shortest blonde is Sean, and the one between him and Rory is Gillespie, who tosses his head and assures me that he will not be telling me his first name so I shouldn't bother asking, because everybody just calls him Gil.
"Okay, Gil." Stretching across the bar to shake hands with them, I let the dark one get a good whiff of my perfumed hair. “Everybody calls me Bella.”
“Bella,” my would-be-wooer finally pipes up. His voice is rich and heady as he murmurs, “‘Beautiful.’ Now that’s right.”
I glance away, certain that it's my cheeks suddenly matching the fire in the hearth behind us. In revenge, I fix him with the BellaDancer smile, fully aware of what those beads do to my eyes, especially in such sultry lighting.
The low noise he makes as his gaze snaps onto the rows of liquor bottles across the way tells all: bullseye. But it wins me more than this victory in the blushing war. At last, he 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 the Almighty Guinness all lined up across the bar.
Once the growling and grunting subsides, I ask, “So where are you all from?”
Sean opens his mouth to say, “We—”
“Dublin,” Jared says, beating him to it.
The two of them share a glance, and then Sean tosses a grin at me.
So does Jared. Apparently he’s done letting his friends make the first moves. “We’re here playin' rugby.”
“Ah, great,” I say. “Are you winning?”
And the conversation progresses from there with all the expected topics: jobs, school, travel, interests. The Tawny Trio participates, but mostly they let Jared answer my questions and ask his own. Soon we establish a comfortable rapport, laughing together 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 reflects the sentiment back to me in his smile and rapt attention. He's never met a belly dancer; I've never met a rugby player.
As the hour passes, our arms perform gradual imitations of magnets on the bar. Beneath, our thighs do the same. His limbs are lean and hard. There is a quietness to him, 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 does his intoxicating scent, and of course, the accent.
Then he starts speaking Irish.
He makes matters worse by alternating bilingual seduction with merciless teasing in a horrid Texan accent. (I called it "Gaelic", you see. So much for the way I'd impressed them all by being the American who actually knows where Dublin is.)
As the warmth grows between us, our topics of inquiry deepen. Hopes, history, dreams, family. “I grew up Catholic,” I answer, “but I haven’t really been to church since I started college.”
Gasps of horror and shock answer me. Jared stares at me like I have put a fly in his Guinness.
“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 social situations? Especially those that involve men who come from countries with such smoldering opinions as those of Ireland?
But I can’t find it in me to blow a line of smoke. Heaving a long sigh, I lace my fingers atop the bar. “Maybe it’s different where you guys come from, but here... I’ve known so many people who don’t really go to church to commune with the Divine. They go to network and socialize, or because it’s Sunday.”
Four pairs of eyes remain unblinking; four shoulders remain hunched and hackled.
I lift my chin in determination. “I’m an extremely spiritual person and I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy. People who spout about being godly and righteous, then cheat on their spouse and beat their children. Or the kids themselves, coming back from retreats bragging about how they got drunk on the communal wine and had sex right there on the pews. Ugh. And in class, we didn’t dare ask a question that might make somebody think. I got in trouble for that. Even the churches--any big, religious institution--so many of their decisions are not spiritually motivated. They're politics. Money. Power."
The quartet of hackles prickles harder, but this time not at me.
“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 the politics--and that has nothing to do with my relationship with God.”
Turning my palms up, I end with a little shrug.
Sean grunts out a contemplative noise, taking a long sip of his Guinness.
Rory exchanges glances with Gil, then grins and returns my shrug. “A'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, finally coming to the conclusion that, even though I am no longer a good Catholic girl, I’m still okay.
Jared suddenly stares at me--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 Minnesota.”
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...I don’t know," I say, "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.”
"Fuck's sake," Jared hisses under his breath, then bares half his teeth at Rory. “Now that’s class, ye right dense bastard.”
“Agh, I’m not even half—”
Gil silences the inebriated oaf with a one-armed hug. “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.”
“Mmph. When d’ye leave?”
I sigh out through my nose. “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 restroom hallway to await Jared with my eyes on the floor 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. Ye 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.”
I edge away. “Listen, I like Jared, I do. But I barely know him.”
Rory’s head tilts. “Who’s Jared?”
I jerk my thumb toward the restrooms. “Your buddy that you’ve been trying to set me up with? Dark hair, red shirt.”
Now my head tilts. “Oh. I thought his name was Jared.”
“Wh--? Ahhh. Right. Jared!” Rory slaps his knees, bending forward to guffaw. He has to grab the doorframe to keep from falling over. “'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 at him blankly. “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 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. I've never been any good at hatred. Although I'd shed the majority of my Catholicism along with my '80s perm, it was the part about forgiveness and compassion that stuck. I can't even assume a defensive posture, for how many mistakes have I made? 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 right now, for who he might choose to be after 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, brocade 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 with that distinctive accent. He moves closer until his sigh caresses my cheek. “Ah, you...” And there is that high-praising phrase in Irish again.
His hands lift to cradle my face and turn it toward him. As his lips close over mine, I inhale, engulfed in the scent of his cologne and in something else. A wave of emotions 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 wonder. His face blazes with 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 glorious smile. For the first time since we met, it encompasses the full range of his mouth and shines through his eyes.
~For Jared...Michael...whoever you've become.