“Call me when you land.”
It’s the last thing she says to me before I hang up. I stare at the face of my phone, at her contact info, at her picture, still glowing on the screen.
Overhead, a woman’s voice announces that the boarding of Flight 6793 to JFK will begin in fifteen minutes.
It feels so unreal. Me. This airport. This flight. New York. Fiona.
I want to scroll to her name and see her on my screen, more real and immediate than anyone on earth right now, but I don’t have her in my phone. I’m not sure Dusana even owns a cell phone. Probably not.
Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe she was right. I have CDs full of songs about Fiona. How I met her, how I loved her, how I lost her, how I missed her. Maybe Dusana was right and Fiona is still my future. She held my heart in her hands once, and maybe she wants to again, if I’ll let her.
But I know where my heart is. Back behind me in that dodgy recording studio in a bad neighborhood in Dublin. Then I remind myself that it’s not then, that night, those magic dark hours we all spent there. The morning came and the spell broke. Even if I turn around now and go back, all I’ll find there is peeling linoleum, threadbare rugs, burnt coffee, and walls covered in battered soundproofing foam. There is no music there anymore. No magic. No Dusana. Just some guys recording a jingle for the local supermarket.
There’s nothing left for me here. There hasn’t been for a long time. Only my Da and the shop and a job that was never meant for me. No purpose, no life, no love.
All I have left is what lies ahead of me. I have this bundle of CDs, our magic digitized and pressed flat. Dusana has her daughter and her husband, finally coming back to claim her. And maybe I have Fiona, waiting for me in that vast unknown city across the sea.
When the woman’s voice announces the boarding has begun, I don’t hesitate. I hoist my battered bag and I walk down the metal tunnel to the plane. I barely look down at Dublin as the plane disappears into the clouds.
“Declan!” Fiona’s waiting beside the baggage carousel when I round the corner. She looks like herself. After so many months, after so much pain, all those songs, I thought she’d be… different. More. The Fiona I sang about was stunning, a siren luring me in to wreck myself on the rocks. This is just Fiona. Just a girl. She’s pretty—just as pretty as she always was. Her long sandy hair, the pale dash of freckles across her nose, her light blue eyes, all these things are Fiona’s. But in my memory, they added up to more, to a goddess, a succubus, my heart and my ruin. But she’s only Fiona, pretty and happy to see me.
I feel tricked, like all of that pain and music was for some phantom, some thing in my head that was never real. This girl waiting for me to reach her doesn’t hold the power to wreck anyone. So did she fool me or was I a fool?
As I close the distance to her, I wonder how it will be between us and what we’ll say. She left in a bad way, full of bitterness and anger, leaving hurt behind. How do we start over from that place in the middle of a crowded airport? I should have known, though, that Fiona wouldn’t be here if she didn’t already have a plan. And her plan is “everything is fine”.
When I get close, she sprints the last few feet, throwing her arms around my neck, pressing herself into my arms. I’m still carrying my bag and my guitar case, so I can’t hug her back. All I can do is lift my arms like I might want to, but the gesture is incomplete. Fiona doesn’t care. Her cheek is pressed to my neck and I can smell her hair, different than before.
“I missed you, Declan,” she whispers into my shoulder. I don’t say anything. I don’t know what to say. Not yet.
“You look good,” she says, holding me at arm’s length. Her eyes are bright and her face is alive, all smiles.
“Thanks. You, too,” I reply, because she does look good. She may not be the soul-crushing siren my memories made her out to be, but she definitely looks better than when she left Dublin. Her clothes are different. No long skirts and sandals. She looks like an American girl now, glossy and sharp. “I didn’t expect you to be here,” I go on, to fill the silence. “You didn’t say you’d come meet me.”
She brushes me off with a wave of her hand. “I wouldn’t leave you on your own in New York!”
I smile, but what I’m thinking is that she left me on my own in Dublin so what’s the difference?
“Let’s get your bags,” she says, wrapping her hands around my arm and leaning into me. “I’ll take you home.”
Such a strange word for this loud, crowded new city, with this girl who was my other half but is now half-stranger. Am I home? I guess I’ll find out.
“Not now, Matka.”
“But don’t you want Ivanka to look nice for her father? You should change her into a dress.”
I am making tidy piles out of the magazines and mail on the little living room table. My hands won’t hold still. So much clutter. I want to throw it all away, so everything is perfect and tidy when he gets here, but it’s not all mine. Reza’s gossip magazines, Andrej’s mail… we live with too many people. All our lives so jumbled together. No wonder he left us.
“He hasn’t seen Ivanka in nine months. I don’t think he’ll care what she’s wearing.”
My mother sniffs and goes back into the kitchen. She’s so old-fashioned sometimes, always trying to put Ivanka in little girl dresses and bows in her hair. Ivanka hates dresses and she can’t bear the hairbrush. She’s sitting on the floor playing with two little cars that Švec brought her. She runs them straight into each other and shouts “Boom” when they collide. She makes all the noises. The squealing tires, the crunching metal, the anguished cries of the dying crash victims. I need to stop letting her watch television with Švec.
I chased my mother out of the room with my snapping but now that she’s left me alone, I want her back. I’m too nervous. I don’t know what to do with myself. Marek is almost here and I don’t know how it will be with him.
For so long I’ve waited for this moment. I have cried for him and longed for him and still he stayed in Prague. Now, he finally comes and I’ve made a mess of things before he’s even arrived.
I wanted something that made my heart fly. Just one thing and just for a few days. I wanted to steal that moment of freedom for myself, just once. Life is nothing but work and struggle and everything you can't have. There is so little joy, outside of Ivanka, and even that is threaded through with sacrifice and hard work.
I thought I could steal my moment and then maybe I could turn back to my life satisfied that at least I'd flown once. But as always, I am a stupid girl. I am trapped back on the ground, but I will never forget what it felt like to fly. That feeling eats away at my soul and leaves me hungry, not satisfied. It's because I was foolish to think I could steal my moment and not pay. Declan gave me his music, but he took part of my soul for it and now I have to do without.
Life stretches out before me and I want to cry. I will always feel this loss. Or maybe I'll forget and I won't. That would be worse.
So many months of struggle. Working and raising Ivanka and trying to figure us out and now, at the last moment, when I could finally fix it all, I’ve gone and broken it again. Marek doesn’t know that, though. He doesn’t know what I’ve done and how I feel. And it doesn’t matter anyway. That’s all over and done with. Declan has gone across the sea to his girl and I am here in Dublin where I will begin again at being a wife.
“Máma!” I call, but before she can answer, he knocks on the door.
I want to hide behind my mother’s skirt and make her answer, but I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m a mother and a wife. I’m his wife. And I have a duty to try. I will try. For Ivanka’s sake and my own.
I open the door and after all this time, there is Marek. He looks just the same, not older, not tired, not sad. Just Marek.
“You’re here!” I say, not sounding at all like myself.
Marek smiles, that knowing half-smile I remember. “Hello, Dusana.”
That’s all. Just ‘hello’. I am past romantic fairy tales, but if I’d been hoping for him to sweep me into his arms and kiss me with all of the passion he’d held back for the months of our separation, I’d have been disappointed. I wasn’t expecting it. Not really. It would have been nice, though.
Instead, he reaches for me, resting one hand lightly on my waist, and leans in to kiss my cheek, like a cousin at a wedding.
“You look well,” he says, and then his eyes move past me to Ivanka on the floor. Ivanka looks up at him and it breaks my heart when I see the moment of hesitation in her eyes. She’s not completely sure who he is. Her father. Then, seeing him standing so close to me must remind her, because she’s scrambling to her feet.
“Táta!” she shrieks, flinging her little body at his legs.
He crouches to catch her, his face full of the big, wide smiles he didn’t have for me. It’s alright, though. He and I, it’s complicated. But Ivanka is pure love. I understand that. He hugs her tight and she starts talking all over herself and this breaks the tension. With Ivanka as our distraction, we can move into the room; we can sit and talk.
A few minutes later Máma joins us. She’s polite, but I know she doesn’t like Marek. She never loved him and since he left us to go back to Prague, it’s settled into something much harder. I know what she thinks. She thinks I’m wasting my time on Marek. She thinks I had my chance at happiness and sent him off on a plane to New York. Sometimes, late at night when I’m all alone with all of these thoughts in my head, I’m afraid that she’s right. But the truth is, Marek is my husband. For all that has gone wrong between the two of us, together we’ve made Ivanka. So I will try. Once, I loved him. I loved him so much. I was young and very naïve, but the feelings were real. I just need to find my way back to them. We need to find each other again, the us before Ivanka and Dublin and hardship.
Máma has brought tea and I keep my hands busy pouring a cup for Marek while Ivanka climbs all over his lap and chatters like a little monkey. He runs his hands over her hair, which is always tangled and crazy, and laughs.
“Look at you, little girl. Your mamma has let you grow wild while I was gone.”
The dig is exactly what I don’t need to hear when I’m trying so hard to do everything right. Because it brings it all back, all the anger and resentment from the months before he left. I let myself forget it when we talked on the phone. I told myself I could let it go and start over. But now I’m sitting still, my fingers digging into the arms of the chair, telling myself not to be hurt by his criticism. That’s what it was. He’s always careful about it. Nothing in my face or direct. Marek is a mature, educated, enlightened man. That’s what he says and what he believes. Cruelty is beneath him. So his is always wrapped in jokes that aren’t funny and teasing that doesn’t make me smile.
“You know how she is,” I finally say, forcing a smile, trying to forget the sting.
“I know how she is,” Marek says. He’s looking at Ivanka, but he’s not talking about her. He’s talking about me.
“That’s new,” he says, nodding to the piano, stuffed into the corner of the living room that is already too crowded. Declan’s piano. The moment I look at it, I feel it in my chest. It hurts. It hurts to look at it and it hurts to play it. But I do anyway. Every day, every minute that I can steal from my hard life, I play. Sometimes Declan’s songs, sometimes Beethoven. It doesn’t really matter.
“It was a gift,” I say, my voice barely a whisper. I hadn’t thought of an explanation before and I can’t think of one now. My mother saves me.
“Dusana has been teaching music here and there. To make ends meet.” It’s hard to miss the dig in her words, since we’ve been making do without Marek’s help for all these months. “One of her little students moved away and they couldn’t take it. It’s nice, isn’t it? So nice to have music in the house again.”
“You can use it to give lessons at home while you watch Ivanka,” Marek says. He thinks his idea is grand, but my mother purses her lips in disapproval.
“That’s a very good idea,” I say, trying to take Marek’s side. Máma is upset because she knows what the piano and the music mean to me, but Marek doesn’t. He can’t. Not ever. Declan, his music, and the days I spent with him making it have nothing to do with Marek. I don’t want them to. Besides, I feel like I can’t talk about Declan without my feelings showing on my face. That’s something Marek can’t ever see. Not if I want this to work.
And I do want it to work. It has to.
Fiona got herself an internship at a bank. She tells me all about it over dinner at a little Italian restaurant near her flat. Everything is small here. For such a big city, every interior space feels half-scale. Her flat, where the bed barely fits in the bedroom; this restaurant, where the neighbor’s table is only two inches from ours. I feel like I can’t even turn around without hitting something or someone. It’s so different than Dublin. Even with all the buildings, there is also space and green. Trees everywhere.
I ask her why she’s interning in finance, of all things, when she’d come to New York to work in publishing. That was always her dream in college, but Dublin had no future for her on that path. It was why she left, and now she’s not even doing it. Dublin’s lousy with banks, if that’s what she wanted to do.
She shrugs and waves her hand in the air. “There’s no money in that field. If I’m going to work this hard in this city, then I might as well earn a decent salary, right?”
I push my pasta around my plate with my fork. “Yeah, I can see that. Must be bloody expensive to live here, yeah?”
“You have no idea. It’s murder now while I’m doing this internship, but hopefully I’ll get a decent placement when I’m through and then it’ll get better. So what do you want to do now that you’re here?”
I look up at her in surprise. “I came for my music.”
She lifts one eyebrow, but I can’t really read her reaction, not like I used to. “You’re still doing that, then?”
“’Course. I made a demo. I’ll play it for you later if you like.”
She smiles, but it’s not entirely enthusiastic. “Sure. Sounds great.” I remember Dusana’s earnest face as she told me that if I played my songs for Fiona, there’s no way I’d fail to win her back. Right now I’m thinking Dusana was as naïve as I’ve been.
“You sound American now, you know?”
“Please,” she huffs. “I still have a terrible accent.”
“It’s not terrible. It’s Irish. And I don’t mean your accent. I meant the words. You use American words now.”
“Do I?” She laughs a little. “Maybe.”
It’s funny, I have no idea what to say to her anymore. There was a time when we couldn’t stop talking to each other. The words just fell out of us. We’d stay up till dawn just talking. And now I’m stuck in a conversation I can’t find my way forward in. I suppose I can’t really be surprised. It’s been six months and we’re different now. It will take time for these new versions of ourselves to find their way together. If they do. I’m still not convinced.
“Tell me more about your internship,” I say, just to say something. It was the right thing, though. Fiona starts talking and her enthusiasm takes over. The finance thing might feel odd to me, but clearly it doesn’t feel odd to her. She has plenty to say, so I let her say it. I sit back and let her words fill the space between us so I don’t have to struggle to speak or even think too much. For now, that’s all right.
“University?” I’m trying so hard to keep the judgment out of my voice, but it’s hard.
Marek shoots me a look, sharp and hostile. It only lasts a second before he looks back down at his book. He shrugs. The movement is careless, like he’s not bothered, but I can tell from the set of his jaw that he is. “I need to finish my degree if I want to teach. And I’ll need to finish my dissertation.”
“Marek…” I trail off, unable to speak. He wants to go back to University and finish his degree. He might as well be telling me he wants to fly to the moon. We have Ivanka. It takes all the money my mother and I can earn cleaning houses to keep the rent paid on our tiny flat, and that’s with three other boarders helping. And he wants to spend all day at school. It’s like we aren’t even speaking the same language.
Marek drops his book to his lap with an exasperated sigh. “What, Dusana? You think I can’t do it?”
I laugh in spite of myself. I don’t know why I do it. It’s not funny. But laughing is my only response to his ludicrous suggestion. When all he does is scowl at me with his angry eyes, I stop. “How are we going to pay for University, Marek?” I ask him seriously. “We barely make ends meet as it is.”
“Well, we’ll have to find a way because I can’t work without my degree,” he snaps.
And I am so angry. Because I work. I work and work and work. And I have no degree. I had to leave University after my first year because of Ivanka.
“I manage to work all the time without my degree,” I spit into the tense silence.
“How? Because I am a woman? A mother?”
Marek rubs his eyes and looks tired. “I was much further into my studies than you were, Dusana. I’d already started on my doctorate! If I throw all that away, I’d be wasting my whole life! My future.”
“And my life was okay to waste? I should just clean houses forever so that you can go back to school?”
“I’m not the one who got pregnant.”
I snap back as if he hit me. It feels like he did. It feels like he punched me right in my chest and now I can’t breathe. I always feared he felt that way, underneath it all. Whenever we fight, it always feels right there, just under the surface of his anger. He blames me. He feels trapped by me and Ivanka. We are his ruin. That’s what he thinks, anyway.
When I can finally speak again, my voice is barely a whisper. “I remember there were two of us there. And only one of us was an eighteen-year old virgin, Marek.”
He looks at me and there is so much in his eyes. He is nothing but resentment. Like there was never any part of him that loved me. “Don’t pretend you were so innocent, Dusana. You’re a smart girl. You always were.”
“But only good enough for cleaning houses and supporting you, it seems. You listen to me, Marek.” My voice gets stronger as my anger comes back. “It doesn’t matter how she happened, but now we have this child. We will always have her, you and I. And whatever plans we had for ourselves have to change for that. Mine did a long time ago. When are you going to start changing yours?”
“I’m not ready to give up everything yet.”
“Do you think I was? But I am her mother. And you are her father.”
He shoves himself up off the bed and throws his book down. “You think I can ever forget that? I can’t.”
I look at him in confusion. “Do you want to? Do you want to forget us?”
He looks back over his shoulder at me, like a stranger. But he says nothing. He just reaches for his coat.
“I’m going to the pub for a drink.”
I don’t argue, I just let him go.
Hours later, after everyone else has gone to bed, he comes home, smelling of cheap whisky. I’m still awake, but I roll onto my side, away from the door and close my eyes tight. I don’t want to talk to him any more tonight.
The alcohol sends him to sleep in just a few minutes. When his heavy breathing fills the room, I roll over and sit up. He’s on his back, one arm thrown over his head.
He’s still so handsome. The same high cheekbones and dark hair I remember from the first day I met him on campus at University. His eyes, set so deep under his eyebrows, were different then. When he smiled, it changed his eyes. He is full of mysteries now and he seemed so then, only then, I imagined it was just all of the things he knew that made him seem so. His mind was always at work, learning and thinking. He knew so much about everything. Much more than me.
Now he keeps it all inside. He never invites me into his head. Now I know I’m not welcome there. I never will be. His resentment has built a wall around him that I will never be able to climb.
I’ve started to cry as I sit watching him sleep. Soon I’ll be noisy, so I leave our bed and go sit in the corner of the couch, out in the tiny living room. Reza is out for the night, probably off with Billy, but Andrej and Švec are sleeping in their room. And of course, my mother and Ivanka, too.
I ball my fist up against my mouth and smother the ugly sounds I want to make. I pull the old knitted blanket off the back of the couch and wrap it tight around me, hoping it will hold me tight together as I try to fall apart.
My mother finds me there, crying in the dark. What is it about mothers? We can feel it in our bones when our children hurt. She settles her weight in beside me and wraps her arm across my back. She brushes the hair off my face and tucks it behind my ear. Finally, I don’t feel so scared and alone.
“Tell me what’s happened, Dusanka,” she whispers, calling me the little girl name she always uses for me when I am low. “It’s Marek, yes?”
I tell her about Marek wanting to go back to school and the ugly fight we had about it. As much as she doesn’t like him, she holds her tongue and just listens as I talk. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Máma. I don’t know how to fix this between us.”
“You can’t fix what he broke,” she says.
“It wasn’t all him. I made mistakes, too. But why does he resent me so much, Máma? Not everything is my fault.”
She is silent for a minute, just rubbing my arm. “He is afraid of you, you know.”
I scoff and then I have to sniff loudly, because of my stuffy nose. “Because I am so scary. I’m a tired, overworked mother.”
“You are strong. So much stronger than him, and he knows it. There is this fire in you. It scares him. He doesn’t know how to be a man next to all this strength in you.”
“He did once. He loved me once.”
“You were young then. Almost a girl. Your fire was not so big then. Dusana, there is this life in you. Even now, in Dublin, working yourself to the bone and being Ivanka’s mother, it hasn’t gone out. It will never go out. Why do you think you couldn’t resist the Irish boy’s music?”
“I just wanted to be a part of something outside of my life. Just for a minute.”
“See?” she says. “That’s your fire. Marek doesn’t have it, so he wants to spend his life in a library reading about everyone else’s.”
I sigh and fall onto her shoulder. My fire feels low tonight, and all I want is my mother. “I’m not so sure this big fire is a good thing if it scares away my husband.”
“Not all men are scared of a woman with fire.”
“The one I need is, and that’s all that counts.”
She snorts. “You don’t need Marek. You’ve done just fine these months without him, Dusanka.”
I start to cry again. Letting go is so hard when all you’ve done for as long as you can remember is fight to hold on. “But Ivanka… he’s her father.”
“And he’ll still be her father even if he is not your husband.”
“He’ll go back to Prague. That’s what he wants anyway. He doesn’t like Dublin.”
“So let him go.”
“Ivanka—“ I protest again.
“Will see her father whenever he visits. Many children have grown up with far less. She will have you and me. And Reza, God help her. And Andrej and Švec. She will be a little girl surrounded by people who love her. She will be fine.”
The tears won’t stop now. I feel wrung out inside, nothing but water, washing away everything, putting out that fire that burns so bright. I am so tired, but letting go brings a relief, too. I hurt everywhere, but I know that after I sleep, I will wake up and finally start building my life again. I have been waiting for so long. It will be good to know there is nothing to wait for anymore. It doesn’t feel that way now, but I know in time it will. And that’s enough.
A mate from Dublin who’d moved to New York a few years back hooks me up with a job tending bar at one of the endless “Irish” pubs littering Manhattan. It’s not entirely legal, since I don’t have working papers, but the owner likes the bartenders to sound authentic, so he pays us cash and looks the other way.
It’s alright. It keeps me busy. I work mostly nights and Fiona works days, so we go for long stretches only stumbling on each other in bed in the dark. That part’s nice enough. In my memories, Fiona and I were incendiary. It’s not like that anymore. Maybe we were different then, or maybe I just remember it differently than it was. I’m discovering that a lot of things about us are like that.
I don’t know if it’s her or me. Maybe she’s no different and it’s only my perception that’s changed. Either way, it’s not like it used to be. I’m starting to realize that how it used to be was kind of no good for me, so maybe that’s okay. So it’s different now, but not bad. The truth is, I missed her. And now she’s back. It feels good to touch her again, and kiss her. It feels good to fall into bed at three in the morning and find her sleeping there. We’re not all right. A lot that went wrong hasn’t been addressed, but in time, I suppose we’ll get to it. In the meantime, she’s here and I’m here and we’re together again.
I send copies of my demo off to every label I can find, big and small. I don’t hear a word from any of them. There was a time when that would have told me all I needed to know and I’d have given up. This time, I don’t. There was a moment, not too long ago, when people listened to this music and felt it. It set them on fire and inspired magic. It will happen again, as long as I don’t give up. I have to believe that.
“Fiona, slow down!”
I’m half-laughing, half-annoyed as she drags me by the arm through the crowd. I accidentally jostle a girl and cause her to spill her drink. I try to stop and clean it up, but Fiona is relentless.
“Come on, Declan! I don’t want to miss him!”
We’re at some cocktail party hosted by her bank. As an intern, she’s lucky to be here. I don’t want to know what she did to get the invite. There’s some bloke here, a management-type. He’s got an opening in his department, an actual job, and Fiona has her eye on it. She’s done her research on him, and practiced what she wants to say and tonight is her moment. She’s been strategizing this meeting for a week in the living room and now it’s here.
I don’t like going to these work things with her. I don’t like this world. I don’t like how these people think or talk. When I’m here, I feel like the only human in a room full of those animatronic robots in the movies. Nothing feels real or natural. My words feel like a foreign language here, and it’s not just the novelty of my Irish accent that makes it feel that way. I can’t make small talk because no one talks like I do, about the things I talk about. But it matters to Fiona so I’m trying. God, I’ve been trying.
She sees him and stops so fast that I run into her back.
“Declan, there he is. Oh, God, I need to nail this. I can do this, right? I’m prepped. I’m ready. I got this.”
I open my mouth to say something, to reassure her that she can handle anything, but she’s walking away before I get the words out. Seems her questions were only rhetorical. I’m left talking to the air, with my hand extended where I intended to stroke her back. But she’s gone already.
I take a minute to watch her from a little distance and it’s remarkable. She doesn’t have an ounce of my discomfort. When she walks up to him, her stride is long and confident, her shoulders thrown back and her chin up. She thrusts her hand at him to shake like she’s the corporate goliath, not him. She smiles, all shiny teeth and bright eyes. When they exchange names and titles, her face is so full of life and energy. It’s this look I kind of remember from our early days together. Those endless nights we’d spend at the pub, just talking, talking, talking, nursing our beers as we exhausted ourselves getting to know each other. Every word was a marvel, every piece of our histories we exchanged was precious. I fell in love with her over those warming glasses of Guinness, with our words flying back and forth and that look on her face. I fell in love with that Fiona.
Her face is familiar to me, but not the rest. As I move to join her, standing just behind her, there, but not in the way, I’m immediately lost in their conversation.
“What Arras-Mitchell is doing right now is so exciting,” Fiona is saying, leaning in towards him. “The way we’ve positioned ourselves to capitalize on the new consumer paradigm is of real interest to me. I’d love to be a part of that kind of strategy-building.”
I have no idea what Fiona just said, and I don’t understand where her passion for it is coming from. Regardless, I have no place in this conversation and I don’t have a drink. The way this night is going, I’ll need one. I touch her elbow to let her know I’m leaving for a moment. Her head turns toward me slightly, but her eyes never leave the corporate mogul’s face and she never misses a beat in the conversation.
I turn away and go in search of liquor. There’s a bar in the corner, where I retrieve a couple of plastic glasses of red wine and head back to Fiona. The wine is dreadful and out of nowhere I’m hit with a memory of Billy and his passion for Spanish Rojas. He was a little ridiculous, but the wine was good, and so is the memory. I remember Billy’s music shop and Dusana laughing as Švec goofed around on the drums while Reza kept refilling my glass with Billy’s wine. Those were conversations I understood. That was a world I fit in. This place scrapes against my skin at every turn.
I push back through the crowd to find Fiona. Another couple of corporate bigwigs have joined them while I was gone, and she holds court in the middle. In her sharp black work suit and her hair twisted back off her face, I hardly know her. She says something and everyone around her laughs.
I stand twenty feet away, watching her, and it feels like I’m still back in Dublin, with the great wide ocean between us.
And I know. This is over.
It’s been over since she left me in our flat in Dublin last year, but I needed to come here and see her like this for it to be real.
At the very moment the realization is sinking in, she looks back over her shoulder, finally looking for me. She finds me, meets my eyes, and flashes a quick, bright smile. But that smile is not for me. I just caught it as it flew past me. Maybe that’s all I ever did. I caught a small piece of her as she shot past me and kept going.
I’m sure my feelings, my realization, must be written all over my face, but Fiona doesn’t see it. She reassures herself that I’m waiting there and then she turns back to her conversation.
I drink her wine myself.
My phone rings on the side table, waking me up just hours after I fell asleep. Fiona is long gone to work. It’s been two nights since my revelation at her cocktail party and I’ve worked back to back shifts since then. No time to talk or sort things out, only come home and pass out in bed. I’m guessing it’s her, calling to remind me about our dinner plans when I blindly grope for the phone and answer.
“Declan O’Connor?” the man on the other end says, in his London accent.
“Colin Brandt, R.D.R.”
I rub my hand across my eyes, trying to focus. I don’t know this bloke, but he seems sure he’s got the right man. He knows my name.
“Did I wake you?” He sounds amused and I do quick, shitty math in my head. It’s noon in London, even though it’s only eight in the morning in New York.
“It’s early here.”
“You’re not in Dublin?” he asks in surprise.
“No, New York.”
“Ahh,” he groans. “Sorry, mate. London time.”
“Caught that. So, R.D.R., you said? What’s that?”
“Red Dog Records.”
I’ve heard of them. “I’ve heard of you,” I tell him.
He chuckles softly. “Glad to hear it. Listen, Declan, a copy of your demo found its way to my desk.”
I sit up in bed, scrubbing a hand through my hair and trying to wake up. “Is that right? How did that happen?”
“There’s a name on this….” I hear him shuffle around on his end. “Ah, Eammon Grant?”
“Eammon…. Oh, from the studio. Where I recorded the demo,” I tell him.
“Seems your mate, Eammon, passed out a few copies to friends. This was handed around a bit before it got to me. I need to tell you, mate, I like what I hear.”
“You made this in Dublin?”
I think back to that intense day and night, the music and the people, and the tightening in my chest almost makes it hard to speak. “Yeah, Dublin.”
“It’s rough, but it’s good. With some proper musicians backing you up and decent mixing, it could be brilliant.”
“You think so?”
“I do. Now can I ask, what has you in New York?”
I could just tell him that I came for my girl. It’s even sort of the truth. But that’s not what I say. Instead I say, “I just wanted to try it out. See if the music played better here than it did back home.”
“Huh,” Colin says. “Funny thing about songs. The same songs sung by the same voice gets heard differently in different times. Like Nick Drake. I know you didn’t get much action when you were here, but I think with the right representation, your music could do very well for itself. And I have to tell you, we’d have an easier time finding you bookings in Europe, since you’re Irish. How do you feel about London?”
I think about that for a minute, letting his words sink in. He likes my music. He thinks he can find it an audience. In Europe.
“I think I like London just fine,” I hear myself saying.
I wasn’t expecting that. When I finally cornered Fiona long enough to sit her down and tell her I was leaving, she shocked me by crying. She said she needed me. I had to tell her that she didn’t need anyone, least of all me. That was always the problem. I was extraneous to her life and I still am.
Fiona protests, more than I thought she would. It surprises me and I think that if she had shown just half this much desire for me a year ago, none of this would have ever happened. But considering the demo CD burning a hole in my bag, I find I can’t feel any regret for anything. Besides, now I know. My eyes and my heart can see clearly. She doesn’t need me. She needs the idea of me, steady and familiar, holding her hand as she gets her feet under her in this new life. But I have no doubt that once she does, she’ll be off and running and she won’t have a backwards glance to spare for me. Again.
So that’s why I’m leaving, I tell her. I’m going back to London to chase my dream, while she stays here in New York and runs down hers. I finally understand that this is how it should be.
She capitulates and by the time I’ve wrapped up my brief life in New York, she comes to the airport with me. She wants to kiss me goodbye just the way she kissed me hello. I will miss her. She still stands large in my life and she always will. But I don’t want her anymore. I know, once and for all, that the road divided for us long ago. I’ve been far down my path for a long time without realizing it and now it’s leading me home.
I can hear the music out on the sidewalk before I ever go in, but it’s not Declan’s music. Someone else is playing now. I see his name on the poster by the door, though, so I know he’s here. Back in Dublin, playing his music.
I pay my money and they let me in. I’ve never been in a Dublin club, but it’s just the same as the ones I went to in Prague when I was at University. It’s dark and loud, and the floor is a little sticky. It’s full of people, swaying and moving, and I don’t want to push into the middle of them, so I press back to the wall and follow it around the room.
When I stop, there is a table next to me with things for sale. There are stacks of CD’s and I see the face of the girl now on the stage on one. Further away, on the other corner, I find the stack of Declan’s CDs. I take one from the pile and run my fingers over the cover, Declan’s picture. It’s the side of his face with lots of light and shadows. He looks good, better than he did when he lived here in Dublin. I turn it over, reading the names of the songs I know so well.
I have a copy already, of course. One was delivered to the flat three months ago, in a fancy heavy envelope along with a check and a letter from this record company. The letter was lots of words about rights and things I didn’t completely understand. When I took it to Billy, he explained to me that the check was to pay me for playing on the demo, and helping Declan with the songs. Billy got one, too. So did Švec, Andrej and Reza. I wouldn’t have kept that check except for the little slip of paper fastened to it, written in Declan’s handwriting.
Thank you, it said. This is yours, too.
So I kept the check from the record company and I made my mother’s lie come true. I used Declan’s other gift to me and I started teaching piano lessons. I still have to clean houses during the day, but I don’t have to do the offices at night. Things are so much better now because of that. I am home every night to help with dinner and put Ivanka to bed.
Except for this night. When I saw the paper on a lamppost in the city earlier today, I knew I had to come and see him again. I didn’t tell my mother where I was going, though. I didn’t want to listen to her pushy questions. So I told her I needed to see a friend, which is true.
Now I am standing in this crowded club, waiting for him to show up, and wondering if he will seem at all the same. So many months have passed and now he’s almost like a dream to me. He wasn’t someone real, he’s just someone I invented in my tired, wanting head.
The girl on stage singing sad songs in a high, pretty voice finishes and smiles at the applause. The stage is empty for a while, except for a man who comes out and arranges some wires and speakers. He comes out with a guitar and sets it next to the microphone. At first, I feel a huge disappointment, as it is not Declan’s guitar. Then I tell myself not to be so foolish. It’s been nearly a year and he has a record now. He wouldn’t still play that terrible old guitar he had. He would play one like the shiny black one set up on stage.
Still, it’s empty. The crowd shifts as people go to find the bathrooms and more drinks. I move into the empty places until I’m in the middle of the room.
Then a man comes on stage and says some things about Irish clubs supporting Irish musicians, and aren’t they all happy to have this great new Irish songwriter visit them. The crowd applauds and it doesn’t sound like they’re being polite. It sounds real. A few people put their fingers in their mouths and whistle. One girl shouts out “Declan!” These people know who he is already. People are hearing Declan’s music.
I don’t have time to think about that, though, because all of a sudden, Declan is there. He’s smiling in that way he had, like he’s embarrassed that anyone is even looking at him. He keeps his eyes away from the crowd as he picks up his guitar and settles the strap around his neck. His long fingers slide along the neck, the only part of him that looks assured and easy. His fingertips find their places on the strings like they know where they belong better than he does. I loved that about Declan. So unassuming unless he was singing and playing, and then he overwhelmed me.
The crowd has gone still around me, but there’s this quiet energy, like they’re just waiting for him to open his mouth and sing before they can breathe again. I know this feeling because it’s how I feel, in my chest and in my head and stomach and every little inch of me—just waiting for his songs to reach into me and grab my soul again. It feels like it’s been asleep since the last time I heard him sing.
Finally, Declan looks at the crowd, his chin down, his gaze sliding sideways as he smiles.
“Hey there,” he says, and the people around me erupt in shouts. He smiles wider in response. “I’m really happy to be here tonight, playing these songs for you. They’ve meant a lot to me in a lot of ways, and it feels good to share them finally.”
There are more shouts, more whistles, lots of clapping. Declan ducks his chin and smiles again. He doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t need to, because he starts to play. From the first chords he strums, the crowd goes quiet. The sound vibrates through me down to my feet. I’ve listened to his CD, of course. A lot. Until Reza hid it and said it was making me too moody. But listening to it is nothing like this, standing in the same room with him, hearing the music bounce off the walls and bodies and echo into me.
Then he opens his mouth and begins to sing. The sound—the chords and notes straining against each other—makes me ache inside. I feel it everywhere, this music that is so familiar to me but still seems new. I know this song. I’ve played this song with him. It’s different now, maybe better, but it still feels like my song. Once, his voice and my voice made this song live, so now it’s like it’s a little bit mine, too.
I stand so still through three of his songs. I can’t look away from him. I don’t want to. For all these long months, even for the few days we worked on his music, I’d convinced myself that’s all it was about—the music. My mother, Reza, even Billy… they all tried to make me confess that it was more that I was feeling. I told them it wasn’t, mostly because it was impossible. I am a dreamer, but I am not a fool. Still, now that I’m standing here seeing him again, I know they were right. It’s always been about him, impossible or not.
I am distracted by two girls right behind me. They must have just moved there because I couldn’t hear them a moment ago.
“Ahhh,” one says.
“So bloody handsome,” the other one sighs.
“Think I’ll have a go at him after the show, yeah?”
The other girl laughs, all knowing like Reza does when she’s on the prowl. “If you don’t, I will.”
My skin tingles all the way to my hair. I don’t turn around to see them, but I do turn my face away from the stage. I can’t look at Declan while I listen to them talk about him like that. My eyes fall on the stack of CD’s on the corner of the table. I feel foolish, standing here alone in this club, thinking back on the feelings he sparked in me, when he probably barely remembers me. He’s not famous, but these people know him. They love him. Those girls want him. He’s not that lost man that I met last year, playing his guitar to no one on the street. He’s found himself and the world has found him. I’m a single mother working like mad just to hang on. I don’t belong here.
I look back at the stage, at Declan as he starts his last song of the set. My throat tightens as I imagine singing my part of it. I press my lips together to keep from doing it. I’m glad I came to see him. It’s good to see him here, doing what he was meant to do. It’s good to see other people loving his music like I do. Maybe now I can put him behind me, just a story from my past.
As I’m taking my very last look at him, reassuring myself that he’s just fine, he takes a rare glance at the crowd, and just like that, he’s looking right at me.
I can’t move. I can’t even breathe.
Declan had been singing the last line and he bites the note off short, his hands freezing on his guitar. There is a long moment of silence as we stare at each other over the crowd. Then I hear people around me begin to murmur, wondering what is happening. I’m messing things up for him, ruining his show by surprising him this way.
Finally, I turn away and start pushing through the people to get to the door. By the time I reach the door that leads to the dark, cool hallway out front, the people have thinned out. I take a deep breath and keep going, towards the door that leads outside.
I’m still not good at this part. Funny, I’ve been playing and singing since I was fifteen and I used to do it on the street corner in front of disinterested strangers all the time, but getting up on a stage in front of an audience that has willingly paid money to see me still makes me nervous. I guess I worry about disappointing them, although they never seem disappointed. Colin tells me I need to talk more up there, banter with the crowd, make them my friends. That’s the hardest part for me, so I tend to say very little and let the music speak for me.
I’m especially nervous tonight because it’s my first show back in Dublin. The London shows have gone well, but home is different. The crowd is good—the club looks packed. People applaud when I step on stage. While I adjust my guitar, a few whistle and one girl calls my name. It’s still alarming and unreal. Does she mean me?
If I think about it too much, I’ll freeze, so I don’t look at them. I keep my eyes on the mic or my guitar and I just sing. Dublin changes this music. While I was recording and playing gigs in London, I focused on other things. I was crafting them, perfecting them. There was so much to learn about recording and what the producer could do, and it was all about that. Being home brings me back to the beginning, and when I start singing, I’m singing with all the raw emotion that I used to write them. The songs were always about heartbreak and loss, but now they’re not about Fiona. It’s a different loss I sing about now.
Just the same, I immerse myself in it for the whole set. I forget the people and the club. There’s just me and my voice, my fingers on the strings, and the stories I can tell with them. I’m almost through the final song of the set and I feel bold. Time to look at all these people who’ve come to listen to me sing. Time to invite them in to the stories I’ve been telling. But when I look across the faces, I find the one person who’s been there all along.
I forget to finish singing. The note just cuts off as I stare at her. She’s not smiling or even looking happy to see me, but she’s here. She came to see me. Then, just as my heart starts beating again, she turns around and disappears into the crowd. I shake my head, wondering if I’ve just imagined her. But I can see people shifting out of her path as she pushes towards the door. I don’t even consider what I’m doing, I just ditch my guitar and hop off the front of the stage, chasing after her.
The crowd around me makes all kinds of surprised noises, but I ignore them and stay focused on the door I think she just went through. It opens into a small, dark front room, fifteen degrees cooler than the crowded main room behind me. Dusana has her hand on the exit door when I call her name. She stops, hand still on the door.
“Dusana,” I say again.
She slowly turns around. And there she is again, that serious little face and those huge dark eyes that pin you right to the ground. Her stare is unnerving, just like I remember. I feel challenged, examined.
I smile at her. “Where are you going?”
She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. Dusana was always nothing if not confident. “I’m sorry I disturbed your concert.” I’ve forgotten exactly what her voice sounds like, the way her accent bites off her consonants and the lyric high note in her vowels, the one I can hear so clearly when she sings.
I take a step towards her. “You didn’t. That was the last song. Weren’t you going to say hello?” I’m a little bewildered that she would come here and leave without seeing me at all.
Dusana looks away, towards the posters tacked to the walls. “I didn’t want to bother you.” Her words imply polite distance, but that’s not what I hear in her voice. She sounds uneasy.
“You’d never be a bother,” I tell her, smiling again, trying to get her to relax. This girl knew me better after three days than Fiona did after five years. I want what we had again, that comfort and ease. It’s been months and months, but surely it’s still there somewhere. “I just got here this afternoon,” I tell her, to explain why I hadn’t gotten in touch with her yet. “I was going to come round tomorrow.”
“Come round?” she echoes, looking confused.
“To see you. How’s Ivanka?”
“Ivanka is good.”
“And your mother? Reza and Švec?”
“Good, good,” she says, the life coming back to her voice a bit. “We are all good.”
I look closely at her. “You too? You’re good?”
Finally, something like a smile. Just the hint of one. She’s trying not to laugh at me. But it’s okay, it’s real. “I’m good, too.”
“I’m glad. And your… Marek? How is he?”
“He is well, I hear.” Her voice gets distant again and her eyes are blank. “He’s doing good back in Prague.”
“Prague?” My heart drops out of my chest. “I thought he was coming back. You told me he was.”
“He did,” she says. Her hands are clasped in front of her, fingers twisting together nervously. “He came. It didn’t work out so he went home again.”
“So… you and him−?”
She looks up and meets my eyes. “We are over.”
“I’m sorry,” I say perfunctorily, because I’m not. I’m really, really not sorry. At all.
Dusana shrugs, “It was months ago now. And it was for the best.”
“I’m glad you’re doing okay about it.”
“How is your girl?” Dusana asks, lifting her chin. She was so sure about me and Fiona. She pushed me away and sent me to America to win her back. I’d almost regret telling her about our failure if I wasn’t also selfishly delighted.
I shrug, hoping I sound as over it as I feel. “Turns out there really wasn’t any future there after all.”
Dusana’s eyes go wide. “She wouldn’t come back to you?”
“Oh, no, she came. I just didn’t stay.”
“You left her?”
I nod. “It was over. I just had to go see that for myself.”
“Oh,” is all she says, but her face shows her thoughts and Dusana is thinking a lot.
I take another step towards her and she startles, but the door is at her back and stops her retreat. I keep going, until I’m close enough to reach out and grab her hand. Such tiny little fingers, capable of making the most amazing music.
“Listen, I have another set tonight, but can I come around tomorrow to see you?”
“You want to come around?”
“Okay. You can come. In the afternoon.”
I smile and once again, I get a tiny answering smile in return. “Good. I’ll see you then. I have so much to tell you, Dusana.”
I am a mess all morning at work. I vacuum the rug twice and forget to mop the kitchen all together. All I can think of is Declan coming to visit in the afternoon. On the one hand, it’s only Declan, who has come to our flat before. On the other hand, it’s Declan, the amazing man from the club last night. The one who seemed so far from me and untouchable. Imagining that man in my flat is impossible. I try to tell myself they are one in the same. After all, when Declan caught me at the door last night to talk, he seemed just the same. It doesn’t work. When I picture him on stage, under lights, I am a nervous mess.
At home, I tidy up like a crazy person. Reza, Švec and Andrej are all at work, thank God, but Máma is there with Ivanka. She bustles around, baking a kolache, clucking her tongue and muttering under her breath like she knows everything. I shush her a hundred times but she just smiles and clucks some more.
Just when I think I can’t take it anymore, he knocks on the door. My heart turns over in my chest. I feel ill and so excited at the same time. I was nervous when Marek came back, but that was nothing like this.
It’s just Declan, it’s just Declan, I tell myself as I go to let him in. That does no good when I open the door and find him standing there, looking so handsome and smiling at me like he’s never been happier to see a person. I forgot his eyes, dark, but they sparkle like he’s lit from inside.
We say a few polite words to each other as I let him inside and close the door. He’s brought flowers for Máma and a toy for Ivanka. It’s a little black horse with one of those English soldiers they have at Buckingham Palace. He brought it for her from London. It’s not a race car, which are her favorite, but it’s not a doll, either, so she’s pleased. She’ll probably make the soldier fall from the horse and die being trampled under his hooves.
I watch him crouch down, talking to her about it and something in me that I didn’t even know was hard and stony softens a little bit. Declan was thinking of Ivanka when he was in London. This is so surprising to me that it leaves me speechless and wondering. Was he thinking about me, too?
He’s even brought gifts for Reza, Švec and Andrej, a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates. I’m amused at his obvious attempts to ingratiate himself with everyone and without thinking, I tease him about it.
“What, no gift for me?”
He straightens up from the floor and smiles at me, standing close. His voice is soft when he speaks. “I brought something for you, too. It’s for later.”
My stomach bottoms out and I can’t speak. My mouth opens and stays that way, like a fish. I don’t think he meant something sexy by that, but his closeness, his low voice, makes me feel it all the way to my toes. Thankfully Máma chooses then to come in with the kolache and some tea.
We spend some time just catching up. Declan really does have so much to tell me. He tells me all about his months in New York. He tells me about his job, but he leaves out details about his girl. He only says that she has a new job and it’s very important to her. Then he tells me about the phone call he got from his record label, and the offer to come back to London and record his album. He tells me what that was like, and the musicians they hired to come play on it with him. I’m stupidly jealous of these faceless people who got to play Declan’s songs with him. He tells me about all the shows he’s been playing in London and other cities.
The album is going well for the kind of music it is, he tells me. That means he will never be famous like the singers on the radio, but there are lots of people who like his music, even if he never gets to perform it in big stadiums. He says he’s been very busy, just playing concerts all over England for the past few months. Now the record company wants him to come home to Ireland and play a lot of shows. They also want him to make another record. He speaks quickly about this part and then changes the subject, so I don’t press him on it.
Then he leans forward and smiles at me.
“Do you want to take a walk outside? Maybe with Ivanka?”
Ivanka is jumping up in excitement at the idea before I can even speak. I wonder what this is about and I catch my mother sending me her meaningful glances, but I ignore her. Besides, if he wanted that from me, he wouldn’t have suggested bringing my daughter along.
We walk to a little park not far from our flat. It’s not very pretty, but it has swings and a slide, so Ivanka loves it. Declan pushes Ivanka on the swings forever. She never tires, shrieking every time he pushes her higher.
We chat about nothing important until Ivanka runs off to say hello to a little girl she knows. The two of them run to the slide so Declan and I sit down on a bench.
“So,” he says, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “What happened with your husband?”
“What happened with your girl?”
He smiles at me over his shoulder. “I asked you first.”
I smile back and shrug. “We don’t work anymore. We became too different.”
“Has he changed much since you met him, then?”
I shake my head. “No, Marek is just the same. But I changed and I couldn’t change back, no matter how hard I tried.”
“I can’t believe he’d want you to.”
I laugh. “Oh, he did. I don’t think he likes who I am now.”
“Then he’s a bloody idiot,” Declan says softly, watching Ivanka play.
I laugh. It’s been just long enough that I can do that now. “Maybe he is a little.”
Declan is silent for a minute, and he’s not looking at me, so I can watch him without him noticing. His hair is a little shorter than when he was here last, but I like it. It looks good on him. It just barely brushes his collar in the back now. And he’s clean-shaven, which he wasn’t before. This looks good on him, too.
“Were you in love with him?” he asks suddenly. He’s chewing on his bottom lip, waiting for my answer to this question.
“Yes, very much, in the beginning. But—“ I pause, not sure how to explain it. He turns to look at me and it’s like he’s not breathing while he waits for me to explain.
“But it didn’t last?”
“I was an eighteen year old girl when we met. It’s not that the love was not real. It’s that the girl was not done. She still isn’t.”
“I don’t know, you seem in fair shape to me.”
This makes me laugh and he smiles. He has such a nice smile.
“Now,” I say. “You tell me about your girl.”
“Not much to tell, really. Fiona thought she wanted me back. Really, she just needed a friendly face to keep her company until she made her place in the world.”
“She doesn’t love you?” I will never understand this girl who had a man like Declan and didn’t care enough to hang on to him with both hands.
He shakes his head. “No, but it’s okay. I found out that I don’t love her either. Not anymore.”
“And your heart? It is not broken anymore?”
“No,” he says. “My heart is fine. Hopeful, even.”
By the time we get back to the flat, everyone is home from work. There is a big to-do over Declan. Švec and Andrej are so happy to see him and Reza smiles her smile that tells me she will ask me too many questions later. Máma presses him to stay for dinner, but he has to go, since he has another show to play tonight.
I walk him to the door to let him out. He stops outside and turns back, reaching out to touch my arm. “I didn’t get to show you what I brought you.”
“Just tell me what it is,” I laugh.
He shakes his head. “I need to show you. Can I come back tomorrow?”
I nod. “Yes. I get home at the same time tomorrow.”
“Alright. Tomorrow, then.”
He waits there for a moment, watching me, like he’s making up his mind about something. Then he leans in and kisses my cheek. It’s so fast, and then he’s straightening up and backing away.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Dusana.”
When he’s gone, my hand comes up to touch my cheek where he kissed me. It’s several minutes before I can go inside and face all the questions waiting for me.
I can’t keep the smile off my face as I walk through the familiar streets of Dublin on the way to my gig. I keep replaying the afternoon with Dusana—her face when she opened the door, her eyes, happy and apprehensive at the same time, our afternoon together at the park with Ivanka, kissing her on the cheek when I left. I think about kissing her cheek a lot.
I’ve been out of my mind since I saw her at the club the night before, but now I feel like everything is coming back into focus. My path is clear.
One night last year, in a dark, empty recording studio, I touched her hand and she told me that it could not be about that. She told me that what we had, what I felt, was just the music, and that my heart lay thousands of miles away across the ocean.
Dusana was so wrong.
My heart was here with me and with the music. My heart was here in Dublin. And it stayed here when I left. It stayed with Dusana. We have always been about that.
The morning drags by as I wait for Declan to get here. Unlike yesterday, Reza is off work, laying across a chair, reading one of her gossip magazines. I try to make her leave, but she won’t, and then she teases me. Máma also won’t let me be. They never spend so much time in our sitting room reading. I know it’s because they’re waiting for Declan.
He comes with his guitar case on his back, and predictably, they make a fuss over him. He’s so polite, drinking tea with Máma and putting up with all of Reza’s flirting, but after a little bit, he asks if we can take Ivanka for ice cream. Like yesterday, she hears him and starts to drag him out the door before I can answer.
She chatters like a little monkey all the way to the corner stand, hanging on to his hand like she’s known him all her life. He’s so patient with her, asking her all kinds of questions. It makes me smile. Most men are not so interested in children who are not theirs, and as my life shows, sometimes not even when they are their own.
When she’s finally busy with the biggest ice cream cone I’ve ever seen, I can finally talk to Declan in peace. But there’s no peace in me, only nerves. I don’t know why he’s come back into my life. I have nothing he needs anymore. Yesterday, when he kissed my cheek, I wondered… But it’s not good for a girl like me to think things like that about a man like him.
“How was your show last night?” I ask him, thinking that this is safe.
“It was good. These audiences in Dublin… they’re amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. They actually know the music, Dusana. Like, they’ve bought the CD and they know it already!”
“I told you that the world would love your music if they heard it.”
“Honestly, it still surprises me. I like it, I just keep thinking I’m going to wake up and none of it will be real.”
“I was there. I saw their faces. I heard them calling your name. It’s real.”
Declan ducks his head, smiling.
“You kept the piano,” he says eventually.
“Of course I kept it. You shouldn’t have bought it. It cost too much money. But since you did, of course I kept it.”
“You play then?”
“What do you play?”
I shrug. “All kinds of things. Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart. Also, your songs.”
He looks pleased. “You still play my songs?”
“You know I like them. I love your music.”
“It’s yours, too, you know. What you did for me, it was more than just playing on the demo. You know that, right?”
I start to laugh and wave my hand, dismissing his nonsense, but he reaches out and grabs my hand to stop me.
“I’m serious, Dusana. You’re in that music. You helped me make it.”
I just look at him. “Thank you,” I finally whisper.
He doesn’t let go of my hand. Instead, he lowers it and slides his around, until he’s holding it. He looks at me, eyebrows raised.
I swallow and nod. “It’s okay.”
But it’s not okay. My heart feels like it’s taken off and flown clear out of my body, leaving me standing here without it and shaking. I don’t know what this is. I mean, I know what it is, but I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Once, he touched my hand like this and I pulled back and told him ‘no’. I threw Marek down between us and I shoved him towards America. I didn’t want to, but I had to. I don’t have to now. America is behind him and Marek is behind me. There’s nothing else to use to hold him back. I feel so vulnerable and scared. I’m afraid of how much I like his hand holding mine and his kiss on my cheek.
He holds my hand all the way back to our flat. Ivanka is too busy with her ice cream to notice. I don’t know if she would mind even if she did notice. Her father was gone for so long, and when he was with us, he and I were not in a good place. He never held my hand or touched me that way. She probably doesn’t even know that it’s how men and women are meant to touch when they love each other.
That thought makes me hold my breath and look sideways at Declan. He doesn’t notice, too busy answering one of Ivanka’s thousands of questions. He holds my hand as if it’s nothing, like my hand is an extension of his and was always meant to be there. I don’t know what that means.
Back at the flat, Máma is busy cooking dinner. As soon as we come in, she demands that Reza come help her in the kitchen, even though she knows as well as everyone that Reza cannot boil water.
Švec and Andrej have come home from work, but Máma insists she needs something from the market, something only the two of them can get for her. They complain, wanting to stay and talk to Declan, but she commands them in that way only Máma can, so they go, grumbling all the way. Thankfully, all of this happens in Czech, so her blatant matchmaking is only humiliating to me. Declan is just confused.
Ivanka is off in the corner, acting out gruesome deaths with her toy soldiers, so it turns out Máma is successful; Declan and I are all but alone.
“So, I never showed you what I brought you,” Declan says. He sounds almost glad to be left alone with me.
“No, you didn’t. What is it?”
He smiles. “You have to help me with it.”
Then he turns to get his guitar, which he’s left in the corner. I watch him get it out and settle the strap on his shoulder, remembering the way his hands move over it as he gets ready to play. When he’s done, he nods his head towards the piano.
“Yes, you. I want you to play with me.”
I move to the piano, my hands running across the top in greeting. I haven’t touched it yet today. “Which song are we playing?” I’m so excited to play with him again. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until he was here with his guitar, about to play with me again.
Declan smiles, like it’s his big surprise. “Something new.”
“For my next album. I’ve started working on something new.
“I don’t know your new music.”
He shrugs. “You didn’t know my old music and that didn’t stop you. I want you to hear what I’ve been working on, but I also want you to play it with me. Will you?”
I can’t say no to that. I don’t want to. There’s nothing I want more than to have this music with him again.
“I have it written down. A little.” He pulls a piece of paper from his pocket. Declan knows music but he’s terrible at writing it down, I remember this. But I managed to understand his scratched out notes once before so I do it again. He plays a little of the melody for me, to show me the tempo and the feel of it. It doesn’t take me long to find my way into it with him. I always knew what he was doing with music.
He sings the first verse and the chorus. By the time he gets to the chorus again, I can sing it with him. My soul has always known his music and this is no different. It’s like I’ve always known it. The song is not angry and hurting like his old music. This is beautiful, sad but also hopeful. It makes me ache in a good way. It makes me want things I can’t name.
He trails off in the middle of the second verse. “It’s not done.”
“It’s good,” I tell him. “So good, Declan.”
“I was hoping you’d think so.”
“Was that my surprise?”
He smiles. “Well, yeah, in a way. But more than that. I was hoping you’d work on it with me.”
“Don’t look so shocked. You helped me before with the music. That’s why I’m back in Dublin, Dusana. I came to play the shows, but I also came to write a new album. And I want to do it with you.” He’s looking straight at me for this last part, with all of his truth and sincerity in his face.
“Declan, I’m not a musician,” I protest, holding my hands up.
He scoffs and reaches out, grabbing my hands in his. “Don’t be stupid, Dusana.”
“Not like you. Not the way you are.”
“You understand my music better than anyone on earth. I want to do this with you. Think about how good it could be if we do it together.”
I am quiet while I think about what he’s said. I am quiet, but my heart isn’t. It’s beating in my chest like a frantic little bird. My head might be telling me that I am no musician and I can’t do this with him, but my heart has other ideas. It’s practically taking flight in its excitement.
Declan must see my confusion, because he smiles, rubbing his thumb across the back of my hand. “Dusana, you know you want to. Just say yes. Just try.”
I hesitate another minute before I speak, trying to use my head and not my heart. “You know how my life is. My responsibilities.”
“I know. About Ivanka and your family. I know. I understand.”
I shake my head a little. “No one really understands unless it is their life.”
“Alright, then, I’ll try to understand. Will you work on the songs with me?”
I look up at him finally. He’s so handsome. I’ve always thought so. And so good. He’s such a good person, full of kindness and amazing music. And he wants to invite me in. Just like before, even though it makes no sense and will only make my life harder, I can’t resist him. I nod.
His smile grows, and this look he has feels like it’s just for me. His fingers curl around mine, tighter, pulling my hand into his lap, where he lays his other hand over it. My throat is tight and I can’t swallow or even breathe. His eyes drop and I think he’s looking at my mouth.
“We are back!” Švec shouts as the door bangs open. “Did you miss us?”
I startle and pull my hand away from Declan’s like I’ve been burned. Reza appears in the door to the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel like she’s actually been exerting herself cooking.
“Well, thank God,” she says. “Bring the bag to the kitchen. We’ve been waiting for you. Andrej, we need your help too. Now.”
I roll my eyes. “Enough already, everyone. I’m sure Máma would just as soon have her kitchen to herself.”
“Is everything alright?” Declan asks.
“It’s fine. Everyone is just being nosy. Let’s set the table.”
Once I insist that everyone stop acting so strange, dinner is good. Declan has many good stories from his time in New York and London. Švec and Andrej are enthralled by him. Reza flirts outrageously, but everybody is used to that from her. It doesn’t mean anything. Flirting is how Reza says hello. Besides, she has Billy now. She likes to pretend it doesn’t mean anything, but it does.
“Are you staying in Dublin for good, then?” Reza asks, bold as brass.
I kick her under the table.
Declan just smiles.
“For good? Hard to say. But Dublin is home, you know? And when it came right down to it, I couldn’t write a new record anywhere but here.”
Reza leans her chin on her hand. “Is that so? Who knew Dublin was so inspiring?” She looks right at me for that last part and I want to kill them all. I have enough doubt about Declan to fill an ocean and all their meddling is making it worse, not better. Only Ivanka is tolerable, and that’s only because she’s not listening. She’s making a castle with her potatoes.
After dinner, Máma starts wrestling Ivanka towards bedtime. This will take a while and I will need to help. A lot. Declan senses that I need to go and he starts packing up his guitar.
“Walk me outside?” he says quietly while Reza and Andrej are distracted, bickering in the corner.
I nod and turn to call to my mother. “Matka, I’m going to walk Declan out. Tell Ivanka that I’ll read her story when I come back.”
“Take your time,” Máma calls back in Czech. I roll my eyes and push Declan out the door. I follow him down the narrow stairs to the door that opens to the street. He’s halfway out, one foot on the step below, when he stops and turns back to me.
“Thank you for today, Dusana.”
“For saying you’ll do this with me. For just…” he stops and shakes his head with a smile. “For you. Thank you for being you.”
“Declan…” I’m starting to tell him that he’s being silly, or giving me too much credit but he steps back up to where I’m standing, silencing me. He’s so close. We’re just inches apart. You don’t stand so close to someone who is just a friend, or a writing partner. He’s still holding my hand. He’s been holding it all the way down the stairs. Most of the night, really. I hardly even notice now, my hand in his feels so natural.
“Good night, Dusana.” He starts to lean in and for a moment, I’m sure he’s going to kiss my cheek, like he did last night. Instead, there is a pause, just a silent beat of my heart, and he kisses my lips instead. It’s a gentle kiss, no passion or urgency. It’s so soft, so brief, that it could almost be a harmless kiss between friends. Except it’s not. He draws it out a second too long and there’s something there, in the lingering pull of his lips, in his heavy exhale against my cheek, that tells me this is not some harmless kiss between friends.
He draws back just enough to look at me. My heart is pounding wildly and I can’t breathe. He’s still holding my hand and the first thing to move between us is his thumb, sliding across my palm, easing me, gentling me.
“Was that okay?” he murmurs, still checking with me at every moment if the path we are on is the right one. I have no idea, but I don’t want to undo what just happened, not for the world. So I nod. “It’s okay.”
He smiles in the dark and squeezes my hand once more. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Dusana.”
“Okay. Tomorrow,” I repeat helplessly, watching him back down the walk to the street. I watch until he waves at the corner and disappears from view before I turn and go back upstairs.
Máma and Ivanka are in the bathroom arguing about brushing her teeth. I don’t know where Švec and Andrej have hidden themselves. Reza is waiting for me in the sitting room. I move past her to the kitchen, to begin cleaning up. She follows me, leaning on the doorframe and crossing her arms.
“Are you going to be stupid about him this time, too?”
“Dusana, listen to me.” Her voice is serious, more serious than Reza ever is. “I've seen you with him. You come alive when he's here. All that fire in you... It's for him. And I've seen how he looks at you. It's the same for him.”
I sigh and look away. “It's not so easy.”
“It's not as hard as you make it. Boy, girl...”
I look at her and tick off on my fingers, “Daughter, mother, ex-husband, flat mates. I am not simple.”
“He knows all that about you and still it's there in his eyes.”
“I have nothing to offer him. I'm afraid he'll see that.”
“You have yourself. You are the woman he wants, just as you are. You are so strong and fearless in every way but this one. Marek has made you doubt yourself with men. He was weak. Don't let him make you weak, too. A good man wants you. Believe in that, Dusana.”
My head drops back on my shoulders as I stare at the ceiling and tell myself not to cry. “Reza, you’ve seen him. You see what his life is like now. There’s no place for someone like me in that life.”
“You stop it!” she snaps. “If he wants you there, that’s your place! He sees you, Dusana. He sees what we’ve always seen and what Marek never did. He sees your soul. And it’s the same as his. It always has been, you and him. Just let him in this time. Don’t be afraid.”
I look at her and the tears spill over, because it’s true, I am so afraid. Reza comes at me with her arms spread wide. She folds me up and holds me and strokes my hair as I sniffle and get myself back together. I am so grateful for her. For all of them. Yes, they make everything about me more complicated, but at times like these, when I need them, they are my rock.
I’m clutching the tiny slip of paper with Dusana’s number on it in my hand and counting the minutes until three, when Reza told me she would be home. It happened last night while we were clearing dinner dishes. Dusana turned away to deal with Ivanka and Reza was on me, shoving the number into my hand and telling me Dusana was busy at her job cleaning houses until three.
I recognized an ally when I saw one.
“Reza, I want to take her to my show tomorrow night. Do you think she’ll come?”
Reza looked pensive. “She’ll try not to.”
I was defeated. “Okay. So she doesn’t want that with me. I get it.”
Reza smacked my arm. “Of course she does! She’s just nervous. She’ll use Ivanka as her excuse.”
“But it’s okay if she has to take care of her—“
“She doesn’t. Matka and I will watch Ivanka. Dusana can go. Now you just need to convince her.”
“How do I do that?”
Reza smiled. “That’s your job, loverboy. But I’d try the music if I were you. Your music is her weakness. And your strength.”
So I think about Reza’s advice all morning until I know Dusana will be home and I can call. The phone rings four times before someone finally picks up, answering in Czech. I’m pretty sure it’s Dusana’s mother.
“Is Dusana there?” I know she doesn’t speak English, but I hope that hearing Dusana’s name will be enough.
“Počkej,” she says.
I don’t know what that means, so I wait. I hear her shout in the background, “Dusanka!” Then she comes back on the line. “You take her out, yes?”
The little faker. She speaks English. She’s never once uttered a word of it to me, or acted like she could understand anything I said. Her English isn’t good, but it’s obvious that she knows some.
“You speak English,” I accuse.
She makes an impatient snort. “A little. So, you go out with Dusana, yes?”
I swallow hard. This is awkward. Because that’s exactly why I’m calling. And while I’ve gotten the impression that Dusana’s mother likes me, I’m not really sure. It’s hard to be sure when you don’t speak the same language, which I thought we didn’t. Sometimes she seems to be encouraging me, but I’m pursuing her recently-separated, single-mother daughter. She might think I’m not a good bet. Sometimes I think so, too.
“Um,” I stammer, buying some time.
“You want her, yes?”
I close my eyes in embarrassment before I finally admit it. “Yes.”
“So you take her out, yes?” she demands impatiently.
“If she’ll come. Yes, I want to take her out.”
“You ask. I make her go.”
I open my mouth to protest, but she’s off, shouting for Dusana again. I finally hear Dusana in the background, muttering in Czech.
“Dobrý den?” Dusana says. It makes something funny happen in my chest when she speaks Czech. I know it makes no sense. She’s saying hello. There’s nothing at all romantic or exotic about it, but I can’t help it. I love listening to her speak Czech, even when I don’t understand a word.
“Dusana, it’s Declan.”
“Listen, I have another show tonight.”
There’s silence on her end of the line. “I see,” she finally says. “So you won’t come by today?”
“No! I mean, no, I can’t come over, but I was hoping that you’d come to the show.” I pause. There’s silence. “I’d like you to come. I want you to be there.”
More silence. Then she says, “I have Ivanka—“
Whatever she was going to say is cut off by a rapid stream of Czech from Dusana’s mother in the background. They argue for a moment, a furious exchange of syllables, and then Dusana comes back on. “Okay.”
I finally exhale. “Okay?”
“Yes. I can come. What time?”
I told her to come at seven, even though I don’t go on until 9:30. I have a plan. I wait at her bus stop at the edge of Temple Bar and the second I see her coming down the steps, I start smiling. I meet her at the bottom, reaching for her hand and leaning down to kiss her cheek at the same time. I’m giving her no chance to retreat back behind her “all business” face. Last night I kissed her and she said it was okay. I’m holding her to that. I’m planning on kissing her again tonight.
“You look nice,” I tell her, because she does. Dusana is pretty unconcerned with her looks, even though she’s very attractive. She’s left off her jackets and sensible skirts tonight. She’s wearing a dress. It’s light blue with little flowers on it. It’s sheer and I can see her legs through the fluttery skirt. Her hair has a little curl at the ends that’s not usually there and she might even be wearing lipstick.
She wraps her arm across her waist awkwardly. “It’s Reza’s dress.”
“It looks nice on you.”
She stares up at me with those huge eyes and I have no idea what she’s thinking. “Thank you,” is all she says. And then, “What time is your show?”
“Not until 9:30.”
“So late?” she asks, surprised.
“I thought we could get some dinner before. If that’s okay.”
Once again, I’m checking with her and once again, she says, “It’s okay.”
As I hold her hand in mine and we make our way through the crowded streets of Temple Bar, I think about her reactions to me, to every tiny move I’ve made. She’s never told me no, at least not this time. She quiet and uncertain, but she’s never pushed me away. I think she wants this. I think she wants me. I can’t be imagining this thing that’s always been between us. It can’t be one-sided.
When I think about Reza and her mother campaigning for me, pushing her towards me, I think she must be scared. She’s so young. It’s easy to forget, because she feels and thinks like someone decades older. But she’s just a girl, saddled with way too much responsibility for someone so young. And she’s only just broken with Marek. I don’t know much about him, but I feel his presence lingering in her, between us. It’s not enough to make me give up, but I know it will take work to get through it.
We have dinner at a little Italian place near the club. It’s tiny inside, so we sit with our knees touching and my hand brushes hers every time I reach for my water. Half way through dinner, I stop trying to keep to myself and I settle my hand over hers on the table. Dusana doesn’t say anything, but she smiles a little and lets me do it.
We talk about Dublin and her family, Ivanka and her mother. I ask her questions about Marek and I don’t know why, but I’m surprised to find out she got pregnant accidentally when she was eighteen and that’s why they got married. She’d only been at University for a few months when it happened. She dropped out to have Ivanka. I understand so much more about her now that I know this.
I’m frustrated for her, this amazing girl with so much potential and a huge soul who had all her options wiped out. Ivanka is a great little girl and it’s so obvious every time Dusana looks at her that she adores her and wouldn’t change a thing. But still, I hurt for her unrealized future.
“Do you miss him?” I ask her when I’m feeling brave.
She looks up in surprise. “Miss him? Marek?” She thinks about that for a minute then shakes her head. “No, I don’t miss him. I asked him to come back because I needed to be sure. For Ivanka’s sake. We tried. Well, I tried. Now I know that there was no future for us.”
“And you don’t miss him.” I squeeze her hand a little.
She smiles. “I don’t miss him.”
When we get to the club, I get her set up at a little table just to the right of the stage. It’s a tiny space and the stage is only a foot higher than the floor, so she’s close. I can almost reach out and touch her. After the sound check, I sit with her and we sip our beers while the club slowly fills up. The doorman told me it’s sold out again tonight. This little bar isn’t exactly a concert stadium, but I don’t want to play concert stadiums. If I can keep this going, playing shows to two hundred people who really love the music, then I’ll be a happy man. I’ll be even happier if I can get the nervous girl across from me to stick around for it.
When it’s time to play, I lean down to kiss her cheek again before I head for the stage. Everybody in the club can see me do it, which was kind of my point. I’m all in and I want Dusana to know that.
The crowd is good, energetic and enthusiastic. I’m no good at banter, but houses like this make it easier. They like me and they want to be here. I don’t need to win them over, I’ve already done that with the music. They’re here to celebrate that music with me, which makes me enjoy it more. We’re all in it together. These nights are the best kind. Half way through the set, I take a pause and adjust the mic.
“Can you guys give me a minute? I want to try something new.”
There’s a roar of approval and a couple of feminine shrieks and whistles. I smile and hop off the stage, heading back to Dusana. She’s looking at me, absolutely terrified.
“What are you doing?” she hisses, shooing me away with her hand. I grab it and pull her to her feet.
“I want you to do a song with me.”
“Declan! I can’t!”
“Sure you can. Hey, you did this to me. Remember open mic night? Remember? You said I had to get used to it. So do you. Come on.”
She’d opened her mouth to protest, but she stops when I mention the open mic night last year, because she knows I have her on that one. She forced me into that and she knows it. She was right then, of course. So I’m hoping I’m right now. She’s silent, her eyes flicking from me to the crowd and back again.
“It’ll be okay,” I say gently. “You can do this. You have done this. It’ll be just like the studio.”
“Except for all those people.”
“Don’t tell me the brave Dusana is afraid.”
Her chin goes up, just like I knew it would and she swallows hard. I tug on her hand again and take a step back.
“Come play with me. Please?”
Her shoulders sag and I see her surrender in her eyes. She’s still wary and nervous, but she follows me up on stage. There’s a piano to one side that’s always there, and I scoot the bench out for her so she can sit. Her fingers run over the top of it as she does, and it makes me smile, knowing it’s her little way of greeting the instrument that she’s about to play. I lean down and whisper the name of the song in her ear, my hand resting on her shoulder. I feel her inhale under my palm and I squeeze before I let go.
Back at the mic, I smile at the audience. “I asked my friend, Dusana, to play a couple of songs with me and I got her to say yes, so be nice to her, okay?” The crowd roars its assent. I glance back at her and she’s watching me, hands in her lap, smiling just a little. I look back at the crowd. “She’s important. To me and to the music. I wouldn’t be here tonight without her.”
I start to play, and then to sing. Dusana is just to my left and when I turn to look at her, she’s there, fingers on the keys, waiting for me to cue her. When I do, she joins in, playing and singing, and the song transcends. It’s good when it’s just me and a guitar. When she’s there, too, it’s great. We’re great.
The audience is silent, absolutely transfixed. They're as enthralled as I am by this slip of a girl who transforms me simply by standing beside me. This is when I can see our future. Moments like these make me know that the two of us together are so much more than either one of us alone. I just need Dusana to know that.
Once she starts playing, her uncertainty is gone. She forgets the crowd and her nerves. None of that matters when we play together. We play through that song and two more, each one better as we find our rhythm. By the time we’re done, the crowd is shouting and she’s smiling. I hold out my hand for her and she gets up, coming to stand next to me and hold it. I thank the crowd, I thank her. She bows, they scream, she smiles. I feel like I’m flying.
As the MC takes the mic, we make our escape, off the side of the stage. I keep going, pulling her after me down the hall that leads to the bathrooms. I stop half way and turn to her, pulling her into my arms to hug her. She’s laughing, high on our performance. Her arms reach up around my shoulders, squeezing tight.
“That was amazing. I told you that you could do it.”
“It feels incredible,” she says, leaning back to look at me, “to feel them enjoying it so much while you play.”
“I know.” Her smile is radiant, and her dark eyes are sparkling. She’s alive, on fire, and so beautiful. I can’t help it. I lean down to kiss her. Not a kiss on the cheek, or even the gentle goodnight kiss from yesterday. I kiss her. She hesitates for just a moment, and I can feel her breath catch in her body, before she responds and kisses back.
Reaching up, my fingertips brushing her cheek and the side of her neck before sliding back into her hair. I tilt her face and deepen it. Her hands come up to my sides, her fingers curling into my shirt to hang on. When I open my mouth over hers, she does the same, and the little flame in my chest that always burns for her bursts into a bonfire.
I wrap my arm around her waist and pull her in closer. We fall back against the wall and that’s where we stay for a long time, kissing, touching, not speaking at all, as this brand new thing unfolds between us.
Some bloke sidles past on his way to the bathroom, chuckling as he goes, and it breaks the spell. We break apart, breathing hard. Her arms are still around my waist and I’m still cradling her head in my palm. I don’t want to let her go. I want this to go on forever. She seems to feel the same way, because she rests her forehead on my chest and sighs.
“I have to go soon,” she whispers. I kiss the top of her head and run my hand down her back. Her waist dips in tiny before flaring out to her hip and I rest my palm there, curling my fingers into her to pull her closer.
“I’ll take you home.”
“You don’t have to—“
“I want to,” I tell her with a smile. And then I kiss her again for emphasis. And then we get distracted by that and we kiss for a while longer. This has been building between the two of us for so long, and now that it’s finally here, I never want to stop.
But we have to eventually. Dusana pulls back and murmurs, “Mama will be worried.”
I dip my head and kiss the side of her neck, working my way up towards her ear. The little sigh she makes goes straight through me. “No, she won’t. Not if you’re with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know she speaks English?”
“Only a little and not—wait.” She pulls back to look at me and reluctantly, I leave her neck alone, although I keep my hands laced behind her back. “How do you know that?”
“Because she spoke English when she told me to take you out earlier today.”
“She said that?”
I grin and nod. “I think she likes me.”
“I think she is very nosy,” Dusana gripes.
I laugh. “She means well. Come on. I’ll take you home.”
We slip out the side door of the bar and wind through the crowded streets of Temple Bar hand-in-hand. Every few minutes, I stop and pull her into me so I can kiss her again. The night feels glorious and I feel like the king of it all.
When we finally get on the bus, we settle into the very back seat and I pull her into my side where we kiss some more on the way to her neighborhood. The bus is nearly empty and there’s no one sitting near us. Things get heated. My hand is on her leg. She’s gripping the back of my neck, pulling my head down as we kiss. We’re half-reclining into the corner of the seats. Then my hand is under the hem of her dress, curling around her knee, my fingertips finding the hot, silky skin along the back of her thigh. Everything in me wants more, but it’s not going to happen here.
So I sit back and confine myself to an arm around her shoulders. We don’t talk about it, but I think she’s thinking the same thing as she straightens up. She sighs as she leans into me, though, and it’s so good to feel her with me like this, to finally know her physically the way I have emotionally for so long. We fit this way, too, like we’ve always been together like this, like we already know each other.
When we get to her house, she stops me on the front step, even though I want to walk her all the way upstairs and inside.
“They’re all asleep and Andrej has to get up so early in the morning. I don’t want to wake them.”
“So I’ll say goodnight now, I guess. Can I come see you tomorrow? I don’t have a show.”
“I’d like that.”
I can see her smiling in the dark. I kiss her again, one more, long and thorough, to last me until I see her again, before she slips inside. I wait on the sidewalk until I see a dim light come on upstairs, and then I finally turn for my Da’s place, walking the whole way so I can replay the night again in my head.
The night before, I fell into bed without a single thought in my head. I was drunk on Declan, flying on the feeling of his lips on mine and his hands on my body. But the morning always comes too soon, with bright light and a little face in mine and her voice calling, “Mama, get up! Get up!”
As I fumble through the morning, making Ivanka’s breakfast and getting her dressed, getting myself dressed, last night feels further and further away, like a really good dream that fades the longer I’m awake. Even the evidence I see in my mirror, my lips slightly swollen and the faint red scrapes on my neck from his stubbly face, don’t convince me that it was real.
I look up from buttoning my shirt to see Reza lounging in the bathroom door. She’s smiling like a cat who ate the canary.
“It looks like someone knows how to kiss a girl properly,” she smirks.
“What?” she laughs. “You are a mess. And that’s a good thing.”
“You like seeing me so confused?”
She pushes off the door and drops her hands to my shoulders, looking at me in the mirror. “Yes, I do. I think it’s good for you. He’s good for you, if you would only relax and let yourself enjoy him.” She flicks the collar of my shirt with one finger. “Is that a hickey?”
She just laughs.
“Mama!” Ivanka shrieks, darting into the room and barreling into my legs. “Babička říká—“
Ivanka sighs. “Grandma says you need to brush my hair.”
“Oh, she does, does she? Turn around.” I start working a brush through Ivanka’s tangled hair as she whines and fusses.
“Is he coming today?” Reza asks.
I nod, although I can’t begin to reconcile Declan and me last night with myself today, late for work and trying to brush my daughter’s hair. I don’t know how he will, either. I finish tying back Ivanka’s hair and she’s off like a shot to the other room. Reza puts her hand on my shoulder again and turns me to face her.
“Dusana, listen to me. Stop thinking. Stop trying to talk him and yourself out of this thing.”
“No buts. Just be with him, and see where it takes you. You have earned this happiness in your life. Just take it, for once. Please?”
I close my eyes and nod, still not entirely convinced. Reza mutters to herself in Czech before kissing my forehead and leaving the bathroom. Alone again, I turn back to the mirror to look at myself. I still look young. So very young, even though my eyes look older and my soul feels ancient.
I am tired. I feel like I have spent my whole life being strong, being brave, being someone’s wife, someone’s mother. I stepped foot into adulthood and went right into battle, and I’ve been fighting ever since.
Maybe Reza is right. Maybe this is my turn, my time. I keep holding back, afraid to let myself feel this happy for fear it will all go away and I’ll be hurt. But it’s too late. I already feel it. I feel so much. I have felt it ever since I met Declan, ever since he played for me and we played together. I feel and I’ve hurt without him. Maybe, if I can be brave one more time and reach out for him, I can hang onto this thing we have. Maybe it’s time to finally win.
When Dusana opens the door for me, I reach out for her and pull her into the hallway before she can say a word. She’s just opening her mouth to protest when I shut her up with a kiss. Her hands flutter at her sides in confusion for a second before she gives in and grabs hold of my shoulders. I don’t stop until she’s relaxed and kissing me back.
Finally, I pull away. “Hi.”
“Hi,” she breathes, eyes still half-closed. “What was that for?”
“I knew you wouldn’t let me kiss you hello in front of Ivanka or anyone else.”
“Oh. You’re right.”
“See how well I know you?”
She laughs a little and starts to pull me inside, but I stop her. “It’s a beautiful afternoon. Come for a walk with me? I mean, if it’s okay to leave Ivanka.”
Dusana thinks about it for just a moment, and I can see her weighing something in her mind. Then she says, “She’s watching that police show with Svec. She won’t even notice I’m gone.”
I smile and take her hand in mine.
We go back to the little park near her flat, but we sit on the benches in the shade of the trees this time, since Ivanka isn’t with us. I set my guitar case by my feet and we hold hands for a bit, watching the traffic go by out on the street.
“Hey, I wrote a little something this morning. Can I play it for you?”
She nods, so I get out my guitar. I play the little bit of chorus and bridge I came up with over breakfast. She chews on her bottom lip, thinking and watching me.
“Hmmm, I like it, but do that second part in a minor key instead of major.” She hums what she means and I play it again. It’s better.
“Any words yet?” she asks.
“Just some sappy stuff about a pretty girl,” I reply with a smile. She nearly blushes as she smiles herself.
“Well, maybe I can help with that part.”
I lean across my guitar to kiss her briefly. “You are that part.”
She sighs and I set my guitar to the side. I scoot closer, pulling her into me and bending to kiss her again, for real. Everything about Dusana is tiny. The back of her neck where my palm rests feels as thin as a blade of grass. But there's also this fierce strength in her, just under the surface all the time, like steel in her veins. She's one of the strongest people I've ever known. I don't know why that makes me touch her so gently. I want her to know she can be soft with me. She can need me.
We lean back on the bench, my arm around her shoulders. She feels perfect tucked into my side.
“So,” I begin, “I thought I might look for a flat. Of my own. Maybe near here.”
She’s silent as she absorbs that. “So you’re staying in Dublin, then?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Is that okay? With your music? Your career?”
I shrug. “I’ll make it work.”
“Don’t stay for me.”
I crane my head back so I can look down at her. “Of course I’m doing it for you.” She opens her mouth to protest, but I reach up to put a finger over her lips. “But I’m doing it for me, too. I’m from Dublin. It’s who I am. It’s in my music. I don’t want to live anywhere else. Besides, you’re in my music, too. It’s not the same when you’re not part of it.”
She sighs. “Declan…”
“I mean it, Dusana. This is important to me. Really important.”
She twists her fingers together in her lap. “It’s important to me, too,” she says in a small voice.
“Good,” I say, putting a finger under her chin and turning her face up to mine. “Now we’ve got that sorted.”
“I don’t want you to limit yourself to be with me. It’s not fair.”
“I don’t see it that way.”
“You have so much potential, Declan.”
“So do you. Dusana, why are you trying to talk me out of this? What are you so scared of?"
She closes her eyes and sighs. “You. This. It scares me. It scares me because I want it so much and I’m afraid I can’t make it work.”
“It’s not all on you to make it work. It’s up to me, too.”
“My life is very complicated. It will be hard.”
“Is that all I can be? Another complication in your life?”
She shakes her head quickly. “No. Not just a complication. But you will complicate things. It can’t be avoided.” She’s holding my hand between both of hers now, tracing the veins on the back with her thumb. I’m beginning to understand her now. Her words might be all uncertainty and doubt, but the way she’s touching me, holding on to me, tells me she wants me. She just doesn’t know how to reach out for me. So I’ll do the reaching for now.
“Dusana, I know it will be hard. And you know that better than I can right now. But I’m here. I want you. I’m not leaving. So we’ll have to figure it out. I just hope you feel like I’m worth the work it will take.”
At that, her head snaps up and her eyes blaze. She reaches up and takes my face in her hands. “You have always been worth it. Always. Declan, you are a miracle to me. A dream. Dreams are just hard to hold onto in the daytime.”
I reach up to hold her face, too, leaning down to her. “Listen to me. We are real. What we have is real. Your life and Ivanka are reality, but last night, playing with me in front of those people, being with me afterwards, that was reality, too. It can be your reality. Just hang on to me and we’ll do it. We’ll take the leap together and we’ll figure it out. Because I love you. I don’t know about the rest, but I know that. That’s what I believe in.”
Her eyes are brimming with tears and she can’t speak, so she just nods. I lean in and kiss her, and it’s a little harsh and messy, overflowing with all this emotion we haven’t yet sorted through. But she hangs on to me and kisses me back and I know− I know− that we’ll be okay.
She pulls back a little, running her hands down my neck to my shoulders and back up to my face again, like her fingertips are memorizing every inch of me. “Do you remember, last year, the night we went up to the hill?”
I nod, smiling. That night with her, staring out at a darkened Dublin, was when I knew that something had started between us, a fire that would be hard to put out. Impossible, it turned out.
“Do you remember when you asked me about Marek? You asked me how to say ‘do you still love him’ in Czech?”
“Yes, I remember everything about that night.”
“I lied to you. When I told you how to say it, that’s not what I said.”
“What did you say to me?”
“I said, ‘I love you’.”
“Dusana…did you mean it?”
She nods and the tears finally spill over, streaking down her face. I brush them away and then smooth her hair back out of her face. “I couldn’t feel that way about you. It was impossible. But I did. I do.”
“Believe in that, Dusana—the way you feel. It was impossible, but it happened anyway. That should tell you something.”
Our faces are so close together that I can feel her breath on my lips. She’s got one arm behind my neck and she’s tracing my lips with her fingers. “Reza says we share the same soul, you and me.”
I smile against her fingertips. “I think Reza’s right about that.”
“That’s why it hurt so much when you went to America. You took half my soul with you.”
I shake my head. “No, I left mine here with you. That’s why I came back. And it’s why I’m not leaving again. Not unless you come with me.”
I kiss her then and it feels right. More real and right than anything has in my entire life. She’s my truth and my spirit, she’s the heart that beats inside every note I play. She’s right—she’s my soul.