|She was becoming stranger to me the longer we embraced.|
She was standing near the dance floor, half in shadow. I could see her laughing and talking to someone, with her drink of choice, a vodka stinger, in her hand.
Her dress was vintage, accented with bangles and leather boots, a hipster long before they had a word for it.
It was the night after Christmas 1993 and the club was packed. A new crowd, a new generation, was dancing to new songs by Nirvana and the Stone Roses and Blur.
My crowd had made room for them. We were still waiting for the Smiths and the Cure and Prince to play.
Because it was Donegal, because it was the holidays, you had to give each era its due. The DJ would also play Bowie and Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton, then Van Morrison and the Beatles and the Stones. It was that democratic.
At some point Michael Jackson would come on singing Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. Everyone danced to that. That’s how you knew the night had really begun.
It was a strange time in my life. I was still somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. But now when I returned to Donegal I brought the unmistakable glow of a new life lived elsewhere.
No one could see it but they could see the changes it was working on me. I was happier, more at ease, more myself.
It had not been easy for me in that town. I had been an insider and an outsider at the same time, which had sometimes made people, myself included, uncomfortable.
But I wasn’t the only one. There were other half-pariahs to befriend.
Casey was one of them. Her name was genderless, which I liked, but she was all girl.
Her parents were well to do escapees from England and France. They lived in a big ramshackle white house by the edge of the lough. They owned Volos and motorboats. They were never home.
When Casey sat beside you it was an event in your life. She was an intoxicating cloud of Christian Dior and cherry lip gloss. Her hair was always in a bob and always falling into her eyes. She would blow away her fringe like someone taking a bubble bath.
You’d have been crazy not to want to know her, I thought.
My bothers asked about her constantly. They could not understand her interest in me at all.
People hate undeserved windfalls, their comments told me. But the world made no sense.
Undeserving people won lotteries, good people were ground to powder by fate, unlikely boys won the attention of goddesses.
I was fine with it because I wasn’t invested in an outcome. I didn’t see her as a grand prize. I just saw her as a funny girl.
Now, standing near the dance floor, I had time to take her in. It looked like a visiting movie star had taken a detour or got lost.
Most of the girls still didn’t like her and most of the boys were dumbstruck. They couldn’t see the growing pains under the glamour at all.
Sometimes people meet and they discover that they’re going to mean something to each other that is bigger and more unexpected than anything they can ever say in words.
Looking at her it occurred to me that we had spent years trying to work out what we would mean to each other and how exactly we would achieve it.
Earlier that summer we had left for different colleges. She went abroad and was back for the holidays.
After months of changes I was so glad to see her that it took me by surprise. When she turned around and saw me she screamed.
My brothers would have said, snog her. My own heart had said it once too.
One night a few months earlier we actually did. It was just before we went to college.
As they say in Donegal, there’d been drink. We were at a party, it was late, we’d been talking for hours. We were so close we could hear each other breathe.
When it happened it felt like a door opened. For a second I could see a different life.
I was myself and not myself. I was more not myself. She was becoming stranger to me the longer we embraced.
Later we laughed it off and swore that it was just the booze talking. But it wasn’t just the booze. It was never just that.
Handily there was so much to distract us. College, new faces, new places.
But something private and important had happened between us. It felt like we had helped each other to cross a ravine.
I wasn’t embarrassed by the memory, but I never spoke of it to her or anyone. After it happened I went home and lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling for a long time.
A wistfulness kept me awake. I felt like I had caught a glimpse of another man’s life. It felt nice, but I knew I was trespassing.
I had caught a glimpse into her private self too. Later I would only see her at Christmas so I started to associate her kiss with that time of year.
The week between the 25th and New Year’s Day somehow makes us think that anything can happen. Old wrongs can be put right, broken hearts can be mended, relationships repaired, the past can be healed, new beginnings can spring up from the ashes of old ones.
It’s nonsense, of course. It’s just glitter and colored lights we throw over reality, an annual trick we pull to dispel the darkness.
That kiss had only happened because we had tried to protect each other. Somebody love me, that kiss said.
It would take us years before we would find the people that we were really in search of. So that kiss was a promise that we were in this together. It expressed what was deep and unsayable. It felt innocent and trusting and hopeful.
And it felt slightly sad too, like Christmas.