My first night back in Dublin my boyfriend and I go to The Dice Bar with John, who is in from Berlin, and Mark and Éilis, who still live in the same apartment on Abbey Street. It’s a New York-style bar with black paint and low ceilings. For the first two years after moving to Dublin, whenever anyone heard I was from New York, they’d want to take me there like it would cure some homesickness. I wasn’t used to going to bars in New York—I’d moved to Dublin soon after turning twenty-two, barely old enough to drink in America—so there had never been anything to miss.
Even though the place is the emptiest I’ve ever seen it—we are able to get a booth in the back—the music is loud and we have to shout to hear each other. We’re celebrating. It’s the beginning of summer, and John and Mark have just got bursaries from the Arts Council. Everyone is an artist in Dublin. But these artists have money, so they’re buying rounds.
Alan comes, eventually. He is still unemployed, still on the dole—his bar job at Christmas was only temporary.
‘Are you back for good?’ he asks.
I lived in Dublin for about three years and then, last fall, I convinced my Irish boyfriend to move with me back to New York. Like many Dubliners, he had grown up idolising New York, visiting often as a child, so his intense love of skyscrapers, pizza, and the subway made the move easy. Before we moved, I had spent three years going back and forth—a few months in New York, a year in Dublin, a summer in New York, back again. We have spent years packing and unpacking. I understand Alan’s confusion; it’s hard to keep track of whether we’re coming or going.
‘We’re just here for the summer.’
‘Why would you want to spend the summer in Dublin?’
He’s right. We’ve sublet an apartment on Camden Street, but it’s not really Camden Street—it’s over the bridge and down, past both Spars. It’s the basement of an addition to a Georgian house, and after three days living there I know it was a mistake to pay a deposit on a place when we were three thousand miles away. It’s damp and cold and nothing ever dries. It doesn’t help that outside, too, is damp and cold. In my typical American fashion I am overdressed—hat, scarf, two sweaters and an umbrella. I understand from my years of ex-pat living that something about the way I dress marks me as American, but I still don’t know what that is.
Alan tells me about his comic book. He’s looking for Arts Council funding too. Vampires are out, zombies are in, so he’s had some changes to make since his last application. Artists get money to be artists in Dublin. Even though I benefited from the same programme, it is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. No wonder the country is broke.
I try to rally everyone to leave and go to Grogan’s, because for me that’s a real Dublin pub and that’s what will make me feel like I’m back again to my second home. What’s even better is that I might recognise someone or someone might recognise me. And then we’ll be on South William Street and we’ll certainly see people we know. The city is small and the only way not to run into people is to stay at home.
I step outside for a cigarette while everyone decides what to do. Even though it has stopped raining the streets are still wet and the air is heavy. People open the door to the pub, and the warmth inside is so inviting I understand for a moment what it’s like to be an alcoholic, to feel that pull. The light inside is always yellow, and the man who serves the drinks—whether it’s Rory or Igor—has a voice you recognise and barely understand, and it bounces off the walls.
A kid comes up to me and asks for a cigarette. He has the palest skin I’ve ever seen; it looks almost blue. I tell him when he’s old enough to buy them, I’ll give him one, then quickly try to remember how old you have to be to buy cigarettes in this country. Paleface laughs and shows me his passport, tells me he’s in Uni for fashion design. John and my boyfriend come outside and tell me we’re going to Temple Bar to some place with a late licence, and everyone meets Paleface and compliments him on his homemade clothes.
We all know it’s a bad idea to go to Temple Bar, but there’s no other place we can go without paying in. We walk down to the Liffey and cross one of the bridges—I can never remember which one is called what. But I can remember how wide apart the steps are without looking down at my feet. As we walk my boyfriend puts his arm around me and says it’s good to be home. Moving to New York has made him nostalgic for Ireland—for ‘real’ Guinness and chips.
But Dublin isn’t home. When I first came, I didn’t come looking for ancestors or family friends. I doubt if my Russian-Jewish grandparents would have been able to point to Ireland on a map. I came for school, stayed for a job, and then fell in love; so Dublin has that romantic otherworldliness that Irish people seem to find in New York—a place where they could see themselves, in some other life, belonging. In Dublin, old buildings have plaques advertising the famous people who had lived there, and even years after first seeing them, they make me smile. I’m told there are those signs on buildings in New York too, but I’ve never noticed them. Maybe it’s just a case of loving something foreign and new, even when it becomes a place you know well. I don’t expect to ever be a Dubliner—that option isn’t there, no matter how long I’ve already lived here, no matter how many times I visit. Not that I’d want to be. As much as I love Dublin, it is too small and wet, too obsessed with itself, constantly looking across the pond, worrying what other people think. But, crossing the smooth, black Liffey, I can still be sentimental.
We drink more in a slick bar with naked Greco-Roman statues near the toilets. I dance on saw-dust floors. The lights flicker and I know it’s last orders. When we’re finally kicked out, the streets are packed. It’s electric. Mark and Eilis want everyone to come back to Abbey Street, my boyfriend wants to find another pub, John thinks he knows where we can go. When I turn around, it’s Paleface, inches from where I’m standing. I think: Of course, Dublin is like that. I wait for him to recognise me, to say hello, but he pushes me out of the way and walks down the street, yelling. He’s with a crowd of his friends and I know there’s something happening but I don’t know what. I point towards the crowd and Mark runs ahead, blocking Paleface and his friend. Then he says something that makes the kid throw a punch. It’s something I can’t hear—an accent or a word that sets him off. There’s a chase and everyone is running down the wet cobbled streets.
I make my boyfriend hail a cab on the quays.
The cab jets off and suddenly we’re fighting. When I say, ‘I can’t believe those kids punched him,’ my boyfriend calls me naïve. He tells the taxi driver the story, turns him against me too.
‘You don’t know this city,’ the taxi driver says.
It’s right then that I begin to feel homesick. For New York’s summer heat and sun. Then I start to miss the green street signs with white outlines. The endless sidewalk. Peanut butter and real, brewed coffee. When I miss New York, it’s not the history or the noise or the fast paced buzz. I don’t care about the multitudes of people who lived there before me. What I miss is being in on something happening right now. There is more to love and hate in New York. It’s bigger than you could ever guess. There’s a true New York, an authentic New York, that no tourist can ever access; and what I love most about New York is that only New Yorkers know what it is, and we’ll never tell you how to get it.