I am ten. It is my first trip to Europe. I’ve always asked my parents to take me, but my mom said I “wouldn’t appreciate it.” That’s just false, because the only thing I really wanted was to travel. When I was younger and my nanny Carmel’s husband went to foreign countries for business, he would bring me back beautiful dolls–– one wearing a kimono from Japan, one in wooden shoes from Holland, a girl from Mexico with little gold earrings that really dangled –– and I would sit them on the brown carpeted stairs and play International School.
Now I am in Ireland and I am appreciating it very much. Ireland is the country I’ve always most wanted to see. Carmel lived in Dublin with her thirteen brothers and sisters until she was sixteen, when she moved to America to be a nanny. Sometimes I feel Irish even though I have searched my family tree and only have one Irish relative. I know how to count to five in Gaelic and I know all the words to “Sweet Molly Malone.” I’ve seen My Left Foot, which is a pretty grown-up movie. I have a Claddagh (pronounced “clah-dah”) ring that I never take off. Carmel has told me many stories about Ireland, about how they used hot coals to warm the beds before they went to sleep and how the nuns in school would rap your knuckles with a ruler if you misbehaved. She had tuberculosis when she was twelve, and even though all her hair fell out, she said it was the best time of her life because the nuns had never been so nice to her.
I have already done many new things since I’ve been here. I tried venison and watched Sky News. I went to Irish school for a day with Carmel’s niece, Amy. I bragged about having a two-acre backyard so they would think I was cool and sort of rich. I still feel guilty about that. We went home for lunch break to Amy’s house and when we came back, everyone told me a boy was saying he “fancied” me at recess. The only boy at home who like likes me once told me I looked like a hamster when I yawn.
Today we are going on a double-decker bus tour of Dublin. I am wearing a rainbow fleece jacket, leggings, boat shoes and an ugly hat. The bus drives all over Dublin and the tour guide points out Saint Stephen’s Green, Trinity College, the Zoo, and other important places. I look out the window as monuments pass us by. At lunch we stop at an art museum. We eat on the sculpture floor, but I don’t like anything they have to eat, so I wander around and look at the sculptures all covered in white sheets. I figure they’re being cleaned or something. They look creepy, but in a good way, like a movie. I hear Carmel call my name from a table where she and Al are sitting.
“Kelsey, I have to tell you something,” she says.
My shoulders tense up. I remember the last time Carmel said that to me. It was two summers ago, and she was driving me to tennis lessons. As she was backing out of her driveway, she stopped her silver Nissan short and said, “Kelsey, I have something to tell you.” I just looked at her. It was a beautiful day.
She sighed. “You know how you could never have a kitten because I am allergic to cats?”
I had always wanted a kitten, but Carmel was allergic, and so I was stuck with big, slobbering dogs. Sometimes when Carmel would come to pick me up at a friend’s house, if the friend had a cat, we’d have to tell the mom to lock it in a separate room so Carmel wouldn’t even see it.
So yes, I knew.
“Well, I’m not actually allergic to cats. I have a terrible phobia of them. Something horrible happened to me involving cats when I was younger. It’s so horrible that I can’t tell you what it is.”
I asked her to please tell me, but she wouldn’t say anything about the cats, only about how everyone who knew what happened told her that yes, it was so, so terrible.
So maybe you can understand why I don’t like stories that begin with, “I have to tell you something.”
I stand in front of Carmel and Al and do my best to look very cool. I don’t say anything –– I just wait.
“When I was sixteen,” she says, “before I came to America, I had a baby, Peter, and I had to give him up for adoption. I’ve never met him before, even though I’ve looked for him. But as it happens, Peter hired a detective to find me, which he did, and tonight I’m going to meet Peter and you’re coming with us.”
She looks at me like she wants me to cry.
“Okay,” I say.
“If you don’t want to come, we can take you back to Amy’s house.”
“No, it’s okay,” and I walk away to look at the ghost sculptures again.
Back on the bus, I feel something caught in my windpipe, and I realize I am afraid –– more than afraid, terrified. I start to regret pretending I am fine. I am not. But why am I so afraid to go? What is wrong with me? It’s another one of my weird feelings, definitely my problem, and I have to try really hard to seem like it’s fine, after all.
When the bus tour is over, we walk toward our parked red rental car. I am holding my breath. Carmel or Al asks me a question –– I can’t tell who it is –– and a sob bursts out instead of an answer.
“Take me back to Amy’s, please!”
They look at me like I’m crazy, and in a panic ask me what’s wrong? I am crying and I can’t say anything except that I want to go back to Amy’s. Once we get in the car, Al says, “It’s the opposite direction. You shouldn’t make Carmel upset like this.” So I swallow my tears and my terror and don’t say a thing except, “Okay.”
As we’re driving, Carmel tells me more about when she got pregnant and about her son, Peter.
“Oh, Kelsey,” she says, “It was horrible. They made me go to a convent in the country. I wasn’t allowed to see any of my family for six months. We just knit all day long. Then when I had the baby, they just took him right from me. I couldn’t even hold him. It was so awful! Peter used to have a problem with drugs, you know, needles,” she whispers that word, “but he’s okay now.”
We pull into a little street in an ugly suburb of Dublin. Paul’s house is a dirty, one-story beige house in a line of other dirty, one-story beige houses. Inside, Carmel and Paul face each other. Paul is tall and very thin and reeks of cigarettes. He has big bags under his eyes and little popped blood vessels in his cheeks. He seems angry. They hug and I walk away so I don’t have to witness. I wander into the kitchen, which has a sliding glass door that opens to the backyard. When I look outside, I see a cat slink by a full dumpster, but I don’t say a word..