This week, the Cut is featuring Escapades, a series of journeys by adventurous women.
“You’re the girl who got sick on the ferry, right?” I squinted up at the horse-and-carriage driver behind me, the horse pawing on the hard-packed soil and whinnying. “Do you need a ride?”
“No. I’m okay now. Really.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Thanks to a propensity for motion sickness and the fact I’d had a few too many Guinnesses the night before, I’d spent the entire hour-long ferry ride to Inis Mór, on the Aran Islands (population 800), puking. The first two times, I’d managed to make it to the bathroom. The other six times, I stayed in my seat as various crew members sympathetically gave me plastic bags. Now that I was on dry land, my reputation had preceded me. This was the fourth well-meaning citizen who had asked me if I was all right.
It was nice of them. But I was fine — and I didn’t need the interruptions. I was on a mission in Inis Mór, and had only one day to do it. After ghostwriting ten young-adult novels for a packaging company, I was out of assignments — and had been told by my editor there were none coming down the pike anytime soon. In hopes I could catch a trend before it started, I’d decided to write a YA fantasy about fairies, which I’d naïvely hoped were the new vampires. (I was wrong.) The Aran Islands were known for their fairy-related legends, and a quick trip promised to be just what I needed to get my writing back on track. I was looking for some sort of inspiration injection that would land me the book advance I needed to continue paying rent. In the early 20th century, the Irish writer J.M. Synge had gone to the Aran Islands seeking material; his collection of notes, anecdotes, and stories helped launched his career. If it worked for him, it was worth a shot for me. In my overconfidence about the plan, I’d already set up a few meetings with agents and editors for the following week.
The creative situation was as bleak as my financial prospects. I’d been scraping the bottom of the inspiration barrel for the past year. My mom had died the year before, and nothing — from my writing to my love life — had been the same. I was drinking too much, going on endless OKCupid dates that more often than not ended the next morning with me frantically buying a new outfit from the T.J.Maxx across the street from my office, and struggling on assignments that had been effortless the year before. I’d already received a warning from my book editor that my work hadn’t been up to par, a few suggestions from friends that I slow down with the dating, and a creeping sense of dread every Monday at my day job, where my editor had taken to stopping by my desk each evening and asking me what I had done that day — a clear sign that I wasn’t handling anything as well as I’d hoped.
Instead of tackling any of these issues, I decided to run away from my life — at least for a weekend. I saw an advertisement for a cheap flight on Aer Lingus and bought a round-trip ticket for a three-day trip. I asked for a personal day for that Friday, neglecting to tell my boss that I’d be out of the country. What did it matter, since I’d be home by Monday morning?
But as afternoon turned into evening during my first day on the island, nothing had borne creative fruit. I’d followed a sign to a castle, which was just a crumble of ruins. From the hill it stood on, I stared down a bunch of cows and took photos of flowers, abandoned churches, and stone fences, all of which I would have Instagrammed if I hadn’t forgotten my iPhone charger.
Inspiration-less and depressed, I eventually walked into the sweater store, one of the three stores on the island. Designed for tourists, the square cottage sat in between a supermarket and a combination café/bike-rental kiosk/ice-cream stand and was a repository of thick woolen sweaters, mid-’90s Riverdance knockoff CDs, and stuffed sheep of all sizes.
A woman in her mid-50s approached me. I told her briefly what I was doing.
“Ooh, you like fairies, do you?” She introduced herself as Siobhan, the sweater-store manager, as she led me up the stairs to her rickety attic-office, chatting the whole time about her ex-husband, her bright-orange electric car (loaned to her by the Irish government as part of a sustainable energy program), and her fairy-figurine collection, which flanked her enormous, outdated computer.
“This one’s my favorite,” Siobhan beamed, holding out a tiny winged Christmas ornament and giving the glass-smudged little statue a kiss on the head. “Would you like to hold it?”
“That’s all right.” Whatever I’d been looking for, it hadn’t been this. I wanted fairy lore, not tchotchkes. Siobhan, with her penchant for oversharing, reminded me of my landlady back home in Brooklyn. I glanced out the dusty attic window. The sky had begun to darken.
“Where can I get a drink?” I asked finally.
“Go to the American Bar. It’s close to here. I’ll meet you later.”
The American Bar. Of course. Grumpily, I walked over to the small low building. Inside was a roaring fire and three day-drinkers glued to the 12-inch TV precariously hung in the corner.
“It’s really lashing out,” the bartender said brusquely as I walked in and sat down at the bar, empty except for an elderly man muttering to himself in the corner.
“Raining.” He furrowed his brow at me. “You’re American? How long are you here for? You know the last ferry left for the day.”
I explained that I was staying at a B&B overnight, but was taking the early ferry at 8:15 a.m. in order to be back in Dublin for my return flight the next evening. He looked dubious.
“Not likely. In this weather,” he said, shaking his head.
“What?” My heart pounded.
“Oh yeah. Sometimes, rain like this, the ferry won’t leave for days. So you’re stuck. But what can you do?” He shrugged as he placed a pint in front of me.
I felt my stomach turn, imagining how I’d explain my unanticipated time off from work. I pictured the already-overdue assignments continuing to pile up in my inbox and my frowning boss.
“You don’t understand. I need to get back to New York City.”
“Oh you do? Well, good luck to you.” He shrugged and turned his gaze toward his iPhone. The bar was filling up — a few cardigan-clad employees from the sweater store at one end of the bar, men wearing crew sweatshirts from the ferry by the pool table, and a Gaelic-speaking group of elderly farmers holding court by the jukebox. I kept watch on the door. Maybe Siobhan would turn up and give me some intel on my transportation options for tomorrow.
“Hey, America.” A barrel-chested man in a windbreaker sat down next to me. He had a constellation of freckles across his face and a chipped front tooth. “I heard you’re trying to get home.” Once again, everyone on the island knew my business. This time, though, all I felt was relief that someone cared about my predicament. “Listen, I’ll buy you a drink, get your mind off it. Are you the girl who got sick on the ferry?”
I raised my glass of beer as a mock-toast. What else could I do? As the the beer and whiskey flowed, the smaller groups in the pub began to mingle. A few patrons stopped by my corner of the bar to express their condolences about the ferry; Siobhan, when she finally came, had her own crisis to manage: An American TV show wanted to produce a segment on how Aran sweaters were made, including showing a sheep being sheared. She wanted the publicity but the truth was that the sweaters were no longer made on the island, and there were very few sheep. She thought she could have her cousin bring a few animals over, but was worried that it would be a scandal if the story broke.
The man who’d bought my drink roughly touched my shoulder. “Hey, America, we’re going to Joe Watty’s. You should come.”
Siobhan’s eyes sparkled.
“It’s a pub half a mile up the hill,” she told me. “You should go. Have fun and I’ll be up in a bit.” With Siobhan’s blessing, I rushed to catch up with the rest of the pack of bar patrons.
“So, do you think the ferry will run in the morning?” I didn’t care if I was being annoying.
“Well, no, probably not.” He shrugged. “But that’s good for me. Gives me a day off.”
“But how am I supposed to leave?” I asked. He considered, then gave me a broad smile.
“Well, I am the owner of the ferry company. I’ll think about it.”
“Anything I can do to help you?” I smiled flirtatiously, deciding right then that I would do whatever it took to get off the island. I gave him a covert once-over and decided that, if it came to it, I’d absolutely sleep with him. I was just beginning to figure out how to bring that up as a possibility when one of his friends, apparently also a ferry employee, interrupted my train of thought.
“She should buy us all a drink, to start,” he said loudly.
I hurried to the bar and ordered a round for the entire crew, embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it myself.
“Thanks, America!” toasted the man I’d begun thinking of as My Captain — I hadn’t been able to catch his name with his thick accent.
The rest of the night was a blur of drinks, toasts, and traipsing through the rain between the three pubs that formed the epicenter of island social life, all while remaining, barnaclelike, by the side of My Captain. I made the decision that I wouldn’t let him out of my sight, but it was hard. It seemed as if I were here with the entire male population of the island. No one else seemed to care about the weather; I hadn’t seen any other tourists since that afternoon. Most disconcerting, I found myself so caught up playing pool, trying to decipher accents, and ordering rounds of drinks that I kept getting distracted from my task at hand.
“I really want to leave tomorrow,” I said at one point, kissing My Captain on the neck as we settled back into a booth at the American Bar. I think I would have been doing so even if he didn’t have something I needed.
“How much do you want to leave?” he asked, tipsy as well. I kissed him more aggressively, only slightly aware that the 40 or so people packed into the tiny bar were watching with interest.
“I think you know how much,” I breathed heavily into his ear, already wondering whether we would sneak into my B&B or head to his house. I traced my hand up his thigh, hoping he’d get the point. I’d never traded sex for favors before, but now that it was the plan, the idea turned me on. I was taking control, following the same M.O. I had been following ever since my mom died: Doing something is always better than staying still.
His eyed widened. “I think something can be arranged.”
“We should go,” I said, tugging urgently on his arm.
The pebble-paved road was slicked with rain and I shivered, pulling my sweatshirt closer to me, teeth chattering. We headed toward his car.
“So, where do you live?”
“On the other side of the island. But there’s something I need to tell you.” A smile played on his lips. “I don’t actually own the ferry company.”
“You don’t?” I blinked at his sheepish expression. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kick him or kiss him.
“Of course not. Do you really think the ferry owner would spend all night getting drunk at the pub with these people? Seriously? It was just a bit of craic,” he said, using the Irish word for fun.
I started laughing. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. My face was wet and cold from the rain; my laugh sounded strange and guttural, and from his terrified expression, I knew he thought I was crying. I wiped my face and roughly shoved him.
“You owe me a drink.” I led the way back into the bar to a round of applause. Apparently, everyone (including Siobhan) had been in on the joke. If this had happened in America, with a group of frat-bro types, it would have felt insulting and degrading. But here, the entire setup felt good-natured and well deserved. After all, I’d spent the entire day trying to cast every resident in a story of my own making; I couldn’t be angry that they’d cast me in the role of the naïve tourist who fell for a ridiculous lie.
Something about the free-flowing alcohol, the roaring fireplace, the good-natured back-and-forth insults tossed between locals, and the fact that everyone in the pub now knew me as America made me feel like no matter what, everything would be okay. It was a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time. The owner of the pub pulled down the blinds and introduced a lock-in: No one could go in or out; the beer would be flowing until morning.
Johnny Cash hits played from the jukebox; conversations swirled around in Gaelic and English. I occasionally kissed My Captain, who, thanks to the fact he’d spelled his name on a bar napkin for me, I now knew as Paul. He was bewildered that I had been so close to sleeping with him; I found his slightly abashed attitude refreshing compared to the New York City men who often expected sex would be in the cards. Siobhan and I had a heart-to-heart about the state of our love lives, and we came to the conclusion that dating as a 20-something in Brooklyn was very similar to dating as a middle-aged woman on Inis Mór: Men acted as if they had all the power, women let them get away with it, and you were always bound to run into someone you knew during a morning walk of shame.
After hours of craic, when the blinds were pulled up, the sea was calm and sparkling under the rising sun. Nevertheless, the ferry didn’t run — it was something about the sea still being rough and high winds, but I didn’t much care. I was glad Paul and I hadn’t slept together. Laughing together had made me feel closer to him than I had with any one-night stand I’d had back home.
Without an influx of tourists, the island was extra sleepy on my extra day. But I stopped looking for “inspiration.” I had tea with Siobhan and walked through the ruins of an ancient fort with Paul. I ordered whiskey at Joe Watty’s and learned a few words of Gaelic from the pub owner.
I returned to New York two days behind schedule with a $200 bar tab and a $750 charge for my flight home. I missed an agent meeting and got a lecture from my boss on time management. I never followed up on my “fairy-themed YA novel.” Still, the island changed me. It let me slow down, stop taking myself so seriously, made me realize that everything would be okay even — especially — in the times it seems everything will fall apart. And of course, it’s not lost on me that I was looking for fairies and ended up chasing a ferry — a Midsummer Night’s Dream–esque play on words I’m sure the tiny mythical creatures known for their mischievousness would appreciate.
In the three years since, I’ve visited the island three more times. Being locked in a pub together makes a difference. Paul likes every photo I upload of my baby on social media while bemoaning his own love life. Siobhan died last summer; I was invited to her funeral. I’d meant to get 24 hours of material, but, as cliché as it sounds, I got a lifetime of connection.
All of which led to the lesson I needed to learn, and one I’ve fallen back on time and again since then: You can never force a story to play out on your schedule. And, while it’s always fun to get to know the locals, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for finding your own way home — wherever that may be.