I Went Briefly Abroad
Hallie Wolfe: of us all, she was most cuddle-prone. One whiskey in the pub and next thing she was between your arm and ribcage. Shorn hair soft beneath your chin. Ear stuck fast to your collarbone for what seemed, forebodingly, might be the rest of the evening. Then: I love you! she’d start cooing. You’re my favorite, you’re great, into the space in the side of your neck, beneath the ear, a little too close.
You resigned yourself—no use resisting.
We met for the first time, she and I, too early in the morning on a bleary taxi ride from Dublin Airport. Hallie Wolfe explained to me from the right side of the cab that she was looking for someone among the sixteen of us on the trip to assist her in dying her pink hair blue. She further indicated (she who would prove, in those six weeks we were together, her knack for further indicating) that she was going to an indie rock concert in Galway next weekend, that she was a sophomore at a small college in Colorado, that she preferred “Hallie” to her legal name Heather, and so on, etc, etc, etc.
Days after this, in the pub, drinking whiskey (she never drank beer, only whiskey or ice water), Hallie would express to Sasha, James, and me how her mind had a defect, or was it an ability? Synesthesia. It made her see letters in association with color. It made her remember information to a remarkable degree, in vibrant shades of scarlet, orange, teal etc. She said her legal name Heather had an ugly muddied hue, but “Hallie” was a pretty melding of letters, with a sweet warm magenta tinge when the tones of the H, A, L’s, I and E bled together, active curlings of tendrilled ink inside the matter of her brain.
On Day 1 in our taxi, though, we only passingly discussed her name. I must have shrunk into my half of the backseat, become quiet, tried to signal I was too tired for conversation. Hallie Wolfe talked fast and jumped topics even faster. As the taxi sped along the flat gray motorway she wanted to know: What did I think about the blog feed and its effect on how people of our age consumed the news? Did I not think it limited our ability, as a generation, to process an alternative point of view? Did I not think the effects might be dangerous, when your subjective interpretation of events was reinforced for you that way?
The year was 2011, I was not yet 21. In truth, it was something I had never thought of, and as early-morning conversation topics go it was unexpected, entirely. Nervous as I was, groggy from a night of fitful sleeping on the plane, I had no reply. I turned to stare out my window, mute, as Hallie set upon the cab driver: Is Dublin known for any sort of wildlife? On my side of the car, I cringed, groused inwardly that this was a pointless, decidedly embarrassing American question. (While in Dublin, I spoke very little in public; I didn’t want anyone to catch my accent; I hoped to be mistaken for belonging. All of us on the trip appropriated a certain inquiring cadence, “the Irish up-question,” we called it, our attempt at blending in.)
But the cab driver in his cotton-candy sweater said: Foxes. Dublin was full of them. They’d shoot like puffs of air into the road at night, as if from nowhere.
Weeks later, based on this information, we would eventually settle the matter that a fox must have been what Doolan heard upstairs at 12 Wesley Road, the day she came running downstairs from the third floor. I was standing at our kitchen counter, making a sandwich with the back doors open on the concrete garden, its clothesline and view of chimneys. She burst in, distraught, demanding to know: Are you all right? Were you just screaming?
This was summer. Early June.
The scream of a fox would prove to be an eerie, wretched cry—approximating that of a human female, only wordless.
Wordlessness. Imagine it. We could not—aspiring writers that we were purported to be, trying to prove we could be, all that summer: Hallie Wolfe, me, Clare, Hannah, Sasha, Emma Doolan, James, Sam, Kevin Harris, etc, etc, etc, etc. After Hallie Wolfe defined “synesthesia” for us one night in the pub, James described the essay he had written some months earlier. It was really seven essays stacked inside each other, like Russian dolls, he said. The further you went in, the more foreign the outer layers became, the more garbled and artless and slapdash the language, the more he cried as he was writing it, the more inscrutable the grip on reality and train of thought, the more you lost the plot.
I got lost in that first week. The streets in Dublin curve and bend, they go off at misdirecting angles. The cheerful dark-haired RA told us: No better way exists to get to know a place than being turned around. But then it got dark, and I felt twitchy angst and fear. At every dusky intersection something seemed to loom. Clare began to text me on my tiny chirping Irish cell phone: Just checking in, but are you coming back soon? Of course, I would act like I’d intended it completely when I found my way back to Wesley Road that night, where Clare and Doolan and Sasha were watching Irish reality TV. I implied I’d needed the walk, had meant to end up walking quiet parts of the city alone in growing darkness all these hours. (I have this thing about intentionality, in relation to control, see? You have to re-interpret, sometimes, suggest that all of this is just the way you meant it all would go.)
When I did come home, not to 12 Wesley that night, but weeks later, to the town where I am from, my sister said there was a funny look on my face. I recall a feeling of touched surprise which could be what she observed in me—touched surprise in the front hall, in yellow lamplight, as my mother came in from the sea-green kitchen to hug me, hard. We ate American food for dinner that night: corn. I had passed one extra week in Ireland, driving out to the Dingle Peninsula and back in a rented car with Doolan, Clare, and Lena, between the end of one thing and coming home to this. I was trying to wear out my love for the terrain of Ireland, the terrain of my brain when I was there; I wanted to feel better about leaving them behind.
During that week I emailed James: The moment of “the end” is crushing in its way, but I always find the gradual draining feeling of something becoming the past is a little bit worse.
From midway across the U.S. came his emailed reply. He appreciated the exquisite detail of the thing I missed particularly: running full throttle down the tall, narrow, leering stairway of 12 Wesley, and careening around the corner into the dining room. Not unlike the way Doolan did, after she heard the fox out her third-floor window, when she thought it was me who was howling that way.
I always miss the colors, details, etc, etc, etc—I watch their fading thrumming sprawl, while the plot is getting lost.
I do not forget, for example, the colors on Day 1, June 9, at the fork where Rathmines Road diverged in two, and an irreverently named burrito shop stood absurdly at the crossroads: Kevin Harris’s wool sweater was mint-candy green, and Blaise’s hair was white, white blonde. James’s jacket was the color of wet sand, and the air was gray, very gray, looking like rain.
Anywhere you go in Ireland, even when you perceive it to be sunny, you must think of what may eventually fall from the sky, you must bring an umbrella and practical shoes. Things could turn at any moment. This is effectively what our the RA warned us at some point in those first few days, when she sat with us at 12 Wesley Road to review the program rules and dispense local advice: Girls, you must always consider what might happen.
You must think how, in the space of six weeks, to “up-question” might become a verb. How “to Hallie Wolfe” might become one too. Or how we would become “The Wesley 12 Crew”: me, Doolan, Sasha, Hannah, and Clare who actually lived there, but James and Sam and Harris too—they lived just a few blocks west of us, they were always in our living room. Lena early on, Toby towards the very end, Blaise who had a thing for Sasha, Hallie when we had the energy, and Nate once we’d warmed up to him, had oriented ourselves to his bravado, his funny ways of talking himself up and then tacking on that consequential “So...” (The “so...” that flowered with implication, then trailed away to nothing.)
I picked up a five-euro copy of Ulysses in a museum bookshop, I arrived at a section called “The Grandeur That Was Rome.” (That was. Not is.) Wait a moment, professor McHugh said, raising two quiet claws. We musn’t be led away by words, by sounds of words. In those weeks, to be one of our crew was to share in certain things. Like getting drunk on wine and reading aloud what we had written. Like the morning we stood in the hall between workshops and each took a bite of my sandwich—Nate, Doolan, Sam, me. The brevity of shared experience: ham and cheese. Dublin was gray and brick, the sky spitting rain on the two-decker yellow buses. The city of Joyce, of roaming consciousness grasping onto time, place, the personal ordering of experience—so personal it might well become opaque, illegible. We went to the Chester Beatty Library one rare, sunny afternoon, and afterward up to its pretty rooftop garden, where we doubled over laughing when Doolan ran to the balustrade and shouted effusively to a couple wrapped around each other on the grass below: Fuck yeah, kissing rules!
By then we had settled it: to Hallie Wolfe a person meant “to cuddle someone publicly, regardless of and/or oblivious to his or her interest in being cuddled.” Example of proper usage: I’m totally Hallie Wolfing you right now, which is what James would say to me on the second to last night when we were sitting in the concrete garden with the clothesline and the chimneys, and he was leaning his forehead weirdly but (I decided) inoffensively against my knee. It was four in the morning, we were watching the sun come up. (You mean you were watching the sky sort of lighten, Doolan would later correct me, because at that time of the morning you can’t see the sun itself from the steps of 12 Wesley Road, Rathgar, Dublin 6, Ireland.)
That same night, Hallie stayed over on the living room couch, while Sam slept nearby in his heavy duty all-weather sleeping bag on the floor. Sam was, as he described himself, an “Adventureman,” a boy who would own such a sleeping bag, a boy who climbed walls and hopped fences all over Dublin in those weeks, who did not believe laws about where one could and could not go camping were applicable to him. Once in a while Hallie or Sam would stir. James and I would turn around and try to see them through the clustered, shadowed legs of the dining room chairs—peering. Trying to sort it out. Write it out. Find the pattern in the larger whole.
I recall things with a vivid bent. I comb and paw through details, obsessive. In a pub on Rathmines Road, I proved I could recite every one of our birthdays: July 20, September 4, October 18, November 6, etc etc etc etc. But I do not have synesthesia (unless you can have synesthesia for things besides letters and numbers, like a moment, a feeling, a person, a picture you never took). Hallie might say, H is pink, no question. I avoided her after the first week—her blunt distinctions, her confidence in the workings of her own mind.
I preferred talking at length with the one named James, who confessed to be mystified by his own contradicting thoughts and wants and choices. For a joke he began to refer to himself as James “A.C.” Riley. James “Arm Clutcher,” my best friend in those weeks. Anytime we walked next to one another, deep in conversation, he’d unwittingly reach out to grab at the crux of my elbow, holding on.
Certain nights that summer I wrote tentative emails from the 12 Wesley kitchen, emails back home to an old high school boyfriend while the rest of our house was sleeping. It was an activity I felt to be be somehow illicit. One night, an enormous thumb-sized snail moved in from the garden, slid up the kitchen-table leg, and emerged furtively from behind my laptop, weird and blank. It moved its antennae probingly, I leapt silently from my chair.
By daylight, in that same cement-walled garden, we sat one day drinking bottled hard cider and eating strawberries straight from their box. (They had come with a card, So thank you for buying our Irish strawberries, which I put it in my pocket to save.) Snails lurked on the concrete perimeter. Hannah and Clare went over to inspect one, they knelt down to get closer. Later I took a picture of the Wesley 12 Crew in our kitchen: sunlight falling in across them from the upper left, their arms around each other.
I took two reels of film in those weeks but something went wrong. The photos turned out gray and blurry, vague, obscured. Still, the things I had photographed stayed indelible in my mind: St. Stephen’s Green, Doolan eating a carrot, Nate leaping like a scarecrow, goofy, to catch wet green grapes as we chucked them in little trajectories through the air. Toby, sunlit, kicking a soccer ball with debonair agility. Hannah and Lena and Clare sitting somewhere in the city center, being “stoop people,” meaning simply they were sitting on a stoop. The view down Wesley Road from the second-floor window, and Nate in my leather jacket, too small (I was wearing his, big and droopy, while I took the picture). Finally Virginia Woolf, as we named the plump street cat who frequented our kitchen window, winking her eyes closed at the camera. (The problem with the real Virginia Woolf, said Daniel Byrne, our creative writing teacher, was the way she continually wrote off James Joyce. When they were doing the same thing really.)
I have no concrete explanation for why the prints were ruined. It might be that (1) the old 80s Pentax was broken, in which case there was nothing I could have done. (2) I could have put my film through the security scanner at the airport when I was crying, going home, in which case it got wiped, a regrettable but innocent mistake. Or (3) from the outset I inserted the film wrong, not once but twice, and in spite of my awareness of the necessity to double-check. In this case I should have paid attention.
Each of the forty-eight times I turned the wheel to bring in the following frame, I should have realized I was doing something wrong.
Likewise on the night I proposed we see an experimental film at the cinema institute in Temple Bar. I thought we would enjoy it but instead the rapid-fire splicing of the images became with time completely dreadful, spectral, hyperbolic, the accumulation frightening. I covered my eyes in my seat between Doolan and James, but Nate leaned over to say: I think I love this. I’m not for sure though. We’ll see.
What happened to the Wesley 12 Crew? It ended. Most of them went back to Wisconsin where they were in school. I to the town where I was from, then back to college, senior year. Hallie Wolfe returned to Colorado. Sasha to Los Angeles, Doolan to Virginia, Daniel Byrne to New York. Ireland stayed put. Summer’s lease, etc. In the months that followed, if anyone asked I’d say We keep in touch, which was a kind of lie. By then I was ignoring texts from the one named James on principle because it’s better to be wordless when your interpretations stop lining up—when you have misplaced your ability to process the alternative point of view, to prioritize the thing that you were in it for when you were them, “us,” for some short time.
Of course in retrospect, it was all there from the beginning. At the outset of six weeks in Dublin, early evening, we’re in a pub on the canal. At a table by the window, Hallie Wolfe gravely explains to James and Harris her stylistic preferences in fiction. She details how her multi-colored set of highlighters executes her personal, intricate editing code. Yellow is for spelling and grammar, green is for awkward phrasing, blue is for a striking image, and pink is for clichés. In this case, as in many, the rule applied: the things you say turn out to be significant. They looked at her shock of very pink hair and held their tongues.
In Ireland, the summer sun rises early and sets well after 10 o’clock. At dusk the gray clouds colored magnificently—something the way the word “Hallie” turned pink inside the matter of her brain.
In those weeks, to be Hallie Wolfed consistently made me squirm. I didn’t like being hugged without granting permission, without initiating it myself. I hated the presumptuous closeness, the subtle invasion, it made me shrink. So why was my method with Hallie always reciprocation? Shouting over group karaoke in a sweaty, blue-lit room on Toby’s birthday, or drinking cheap pink wine while Nate turned hot dogs on an improvised foil grill on the Fourth of July, or finally lying across the living room sofa on one of those last nights, I love you too, I responded every time, weary, but meaning it maybe, as Hallie planted her entire soft, devoted face into the side of my neck. I love you too.
I said it to buy myself time, in order to figure it out later, “it” being the thing I actually meant to say, but I never did.
I told her I loved her back, and then for months I barely had a thing to say in reply to her many postcards in my campus mailbox. Likewise I told James Yes. Yes, under other less finite and entirely hypothetical circumstances, I could consider the idea of you, us, in another light, another kind of coloration. I might interpret us another way. Hallie of course would highlight this in green for awkward phrasing. Or pink, for the cliché of knowing all of this would end in only two days, and thinking there was no harm in being kind, in evading clearer choices, thinking circumstances would not be corrupted. Thinking I could do no wrong, if I evaded definition, if I tried only to preserve it as it was.
The things you say turn out to be significant. Consider Doolan saying, You two are like peanut butter and jelly. Or, Fuck yeah, kissing rules, as I wrote at the end, thinking I was being clever, on my pay-as-you-go Irish cell phone which promptly informed me it had run out. Now removed from there, I am here—unable to locate the lost plot, the source of my own garbled and slapdash language on the point, the Russian doll of intent stacked inside the other four of what I tried to say and do, did say, did do.
The rendering of exquisite detail is all I have to give to it. I can only say what I saw, felt, absorbed. Never what I did, not even my intention.
Mr. Byrne, at the end of summer, said that the interior voice in my fiction was striking. But there was an utter inscrutability of plot to reckon with, and a tendency to over-describe a given moment—a blundering of the shift from one point of view to another, a thing that Joyce or Woolf would never do. My clearest shortcomings as a writer, he diagnosed them. This too: my evident incapacity to state outright what any character actually desired.
If I could kick these habits, he said—if I could make use of fewer –ly adverbs and –ing verb forms, and stop forming sentences that began with indefinite articles—then I might well get somewhere with this. If. And I have not figured out if he was right or wrong. So in the retrospective mode I can do nothing but describe the way it seemed to me: In his friendly brogue, dressed as ever in suspenders, with his wonderful crooked horde of teeth piling in on top of one other, Mr. Byrne looks across the table at me in a burger place on Rathmines Road, points his finger, and growls:
“Listen to me, listen: Every. Character. Wants. Something!”
But I only attend to the surrounding details. The evocative, the indelible periphery, a tendency I expect will prove to be one of two things: Either my one real talent, my strange power, the thing I have to offer—
or else my sick obsession, my crown failure, my eventual sticking point—
The place where my wheels begin to spin.
Kate Doyle’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions and appears in Anomaly, No Tokens, Bodega, Meridian, and elsewhere. She received an MFA from NYU where she was the first Global Research Fellow in creative writing at NYU Paris. Her work has been featured in a number of reading series, including the inaugural installment of Franklin Electric, and recognized by Glimmer Train and SPACE at Ryder Farm. She is also a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown. She is writing a collection, I Meant It Once. Learn more at katedoylewriter.com.