Mum, Auntie Faf and I went to New York. I can’t remember exactly why we went to New York, but I’ll tell you one thing, it was definitely not for Mum’s birthday. Mum has stopped having birthdays because when people know you’re a certain age they start to treat you differently. A pretty astute theory, probably.
A week before the trip, Mum and I were chatting on the phone and she said, “I’m not looking forward to New York as much as I thought I would be, although I am looking forward to seeing you and Faf.”
Sirens. Alarm bells. Nee-naw nee-naw nee-naw.
Mum is a pathologically positive person. She read once that some people have a happy gene that keeps them chipper through all manner of terrible things, and she decided that her Mum had it, and that she has it, and at times, I suspect, when I’m raving about abortion rights and homelessness and armpit hair she looks at me and wonders why I don’t have it too.
So when my Mum said “I’m not looking forward to New York as much as I thought I would be” this was roughly the equivalent of your Mum saying “I hope Trump and Kim Jong-un do initiate a nuclear apocalypse, because at least then I won’t have to get out of bed.” I was worried. I wished I was at home to help her look forward to things again. But I knew a weekend to potter and gossip and get a bit sozzled amongst the skyscrapers and the streets with no names would be medicine.
I took the train from Montreal Central to Penn Station, past frozen lakes, then half frozen lakes, then glinting blue lakes rippling and singing of summer. I wrote and daydreamed.
Do you know what’s a funny thing? The stuff that used to drive you mad about the people you love becomes the stuff that you miss most when you’re far away. Like, Mum always reads me the things she thinks I’ll like off restaurant menus and then doesn’t know what she wants to order when the server comes round. When I lived in Ireland I would have given this behaviour an “endearing” score of minus 3 and a “headwrecking” score of 6, but now those scores are totally inverted. Or, Mum expresses with impressive consistency and frequency the worry that I will go outside without my coat, in spite of the fact that I have been costuming myself for the external elements largely unaided for – oh – twenty years. 2007 – Endearing: 0 Headwrecking: 5; 2017 – Endearing: 5 Headwrecking: 0. I was looking forward to having menus read to me like storybooks, to dispelling mad dystopian coat fantasies.
It was late by the time I bit the apple, rolled through the subway system, and reunited with the Mammy and the Auntie on East 71st street. We went for dinner and Mum read me the description of the seafood pasta and I told them all my gossip. My ex wants to get back together.* I met a soldier at the train station and he’s writing me a letter and we’re going on a date.**
My ex decided that after more or less ignoring me for six months in the home we shared, after refusing when I begged, repeatedly, for us to get couples’ counseling to try to save the relationship, after ending things without really bothering to explain why, after straight up breaking my fucking heart into sharp wee pieces, that we should get back together because they are sad. Endearing: -7 Headwrecking: ∞
So I was waiting for the train when a cute soldier said “waiting for the train?” We struck up a conversation and he even called me Ma’am. He wrote me the second best letter I’ve ever got. (The first best letter was from Bobby Clay McBride, who, in 2003, folded up the single bedsheet we’d slept on for a month in New Hampshire into A4 size rectangles and wrote a love letter on each one, front and back, until it was full, then mailed it to me in Ireland. That letter would take some beating – it had good poems and drunken scrawls and tortured artistry and dreams for the future and a list of things Bobby had stolen in my honour. I had to throw it away in the end though, because it stank. As Mum remarked at the time, he might have washed it first.) The soldier’s letter started in 2017, then flashed back to 1917, then went on a literary-allusion-rich time travel adventure before ending up in the military because it didn’t have any structure. It was impressive – and, even if I hadn’t been romantically invested in the 1940s period drama that was receiving letters from a solider I met at the train station, I would’ve been excited for a date. So, the soldier marched into town, and we went for fancy dinner and charming conversation; then we hit a dive bar where he demonstrated how unmistakably badass he was at pool before letting me win the game (slick); then we went for a posh cocktail. By bar three we were fighting. By bar four we were dancing. Then we bribed a broke warrant officer for the keys to a saracen and had drunken sex in the back and I got pregnant and the solider went off to war and was killed and 18 years later our daughter set off on a journey of discovery that unearthed the mysterious secrets of her father’s past. And that’s why we’re not going on a second date. Makes a good story though.
Mum and Faf think I should enjoy being single. Faf has been widowed for many years. Uncle Les, who was my favourite when I was little, died far too young. Faf has no interest in finding another man (unless he’s very rich). Mum’s after knocking off her boyfriend and her husband in the space of six months; she’s staying single so as not to arouse the suspicion of the authorities. All the single ladies!
We went to Macy’s and saw the famous flower show and talked sad talk about Dad and John as we sat and waited a million years for the sales assistant to bring me the wrong shoes in the wrong size. Mum refused to let me buy her any presents yet insisted on buying me loads of things even though it wasn’t my birthday. Or anyone else’s for that matter. Endearing: 7; Headwrecking: -2.
We walked up 5th avenue, past the pretty dresses and the activists arguing over pins and buttons outside Trump Tower. We went to Fred’s restaurant at the top of Barney’s department store where Mum read me the ingredients of the four seasons pizza and we tried not to gawk like hicks at all the fancy ladies with the same lips and same hair and same, strange waxy faces.
We went to Times Square in the neon night. We hunted out pubs where our neighbours from home told us we’d find friendly Irish faces. The Paddies we were looking for weren’t even working in the end, but we had drinks anyway, and Mum made friends with a whole table of fellas sitting under a decorative Loughrey road sign. She wanted to take a picture of the sign, you see, to prove she’d been to the bar. But the fellas thought she wanted a picture of them or something. At least that’s the story she told me. It’s possible she was hunting for her next victim.
We saw Mum’s sister Anne, who drove all the way down from New Jersey with my cousin Paula. We saw Dad’s sister Anne, who wined and dined us at her lovely Manhattan apartment, then took us to see the Carole King musical (which is called Beautiful, but should be called Men Are Assholes: Now With Songs!). We went to Chelsea Market and to Central Park. We walked the Highline. We had naps and nightcaps and no room for dessert. We had time.
Then I rode North to the ice and snow, while they rode West where the the wild folk go. And first I starved, and then I froze, without the things my mother knows.