Follow me to Paradise
By Susan Browne
Dearbhla half closes her eyes and peeps at her reflection in this palatial bathroom of mirrored walls and sumptuous white towels. Her pinkness morphs into mottled skin. Blue creeps into the lips. Membranes rupture. She blinks hard and smiles at herself.
Patsy has gone to find tea. The Las Vegas strip hotel is the size of a small town. She hadn’t the heart to ask him for a soy chai latte. He’s won this holiday for them through the Christmas Credit Union Draw.
Thinking about him, Dearbhla feels a rush of affection and wishes he would hurry back. She looks at the silver ice bucket on the sideboard, underneath a bewildered painting of Venice. Even being in the room, she feels ill at ease. Like the walls themselves are watching.
Maybe he’s gone gambling, she fancies, body sucked toward the slot machine, cigarette in hand with long ash falling over his forearm as he concentrates. Thoughts such as these fascinate her. Then she glimpses her face, freezing over with the fright of it.
Her friends had brought her to Lisdoonvarna’s matchmaking festival. What did she want a man for? They had no idea the delight of not having one – but something made her go, anyway. And they matched her up with him. At first, she didn’t like him. His jolly face, round abdomen and white hair. Shorn Santa with a comically thick country accent. But he had grown on her. The Sligo landscape gardening company owner and the Kildare A&E Senior Consultant. They married on a white-sand beach in Bali. He was widowed; Ann-Marie died of cancer.
When she’s ready, face made up, diamante necklace and earrings and ivory silk. On cue, Patsy knocks at the door. He brings two monstrous Costa cups, and suddenly it’s the last thing she wants, but she thanks him and accepts it.
‘What’s it like down there?’
‘Hell on Earth. I keep on losing my bearings.’
‘I do too. We’d want to get ourselves a GPS.’
‘Or leave a trail of breadcrumbs.’
They drink some of their American English breakfast teas in silence and then set off on the complex journey to the vast, golden hotel lobby, but Patsy remembers it. The Italian centrepiece is a golden globe statue atop a fountain; the ceiling a replica of the Sistine Chapel. A walkway past designer shops funnels them to the hotel-casino.
‘I passed through here for the tea.’
For Dearbhla, a coldness unfurls. She conjures up her father. He used to like the fruit machines, before M.S. and the wheelchair.
Dearbhla was the eldest, then Orla, Mike, and baby Áine. Right here in that casino, she can feel them all around her. Wisps in the blue cigarette smoke. They rarely come this close.
Cirque du Soleil’s “O” boasts an inexplicable stage of water with changing depths. So much happens at once it is impossible to take it all in. But Dearbhla finds herself pulled aeons away. Her mother as a young woman, taking her to the circus, radiant with an enormous, round belly. She wears a long, pink dress and a crisp white cardigan. Her hair is pulled up into a ponytail, and strands of auburn tumble down.
They watch as the slender, ballet-lace clad acrobat climbs up the turquoise silk. Winding and spinning, twirling and dropping.
‘Mama, I want to do that.’
Her mother holds her and kisses her on the head, and says ‘I know. So do I.’
Later, the sound of her grandmother shouting about women in condition at the circus and lions and foolishness and her mother’s face red with temper and tears and Dearbhla being sent to bed early. The pipes clanging and banging, drowning some of it out but not enough. The hailstones clattering on the window and then moonlight and stars and the long silent gap that is night.
As Dearbhla drops off to sleep, clowns float in upside-down umbrellas; synchronised swimmers point their legs in the air keeping their heads underwater for impossibly long amounts of time. Divers plunge from deathly heights, and she can see a wheelchair rolling towards the ocean. Falling in at high tide into the sun-speckled water that laps at the pier with tiny grey fish swimming near the surface. A little boy tugs at her arm and she is telling him to ‘wait a minute.’
Only there isn’t one.
The curtains are thick, but a sliver of light intensifies through the blackness. The time reads 5:33 and Patsy breathes softly. Inside the elevator, Dearbhla watches the small marketing monitor which tells her about diamonds and drinks in cut crystal glasses and luxurious face creams with collagen.
In the sprawling casino is a darkly lit restaurant with shiny black floors that welcomes her like an open mouth.
A menu reads ‘breakfast,’ and right under that: ‘cocktails.’ She orders herself a Margarita.
The salt at the rim which she had presumed to be sugar makes her wince, but she takes a big swig. After a second mouthful, she orders a second.
A warm feeling enters her brain; her body begins to relax and tense up all at once as elation takes hold.
A tanned man, about her own age, sits down in the chair opposite. His hair is short and grey-black, and he wears a colourful silk scarf and a black jacket. He is bat-like and beautiful.
‘You like Margaritas for breakfast?’
‘Oh, let me guess, Vegas has brought out the footloose, and fancy-free side? You been here all night?’
A sigh escapes.
‘You sure don’t look it, if you were.’
She can feel her nose wrinkling and forces herself to speak. ‘So, what brought you here?’
He smiles, warmly and says ‘I’m here on business. Not a big fan of the strip. But this place makes great coffee, almost as good as New York.’
Dearbhla relaxes again. Luca chats easily and orders them pancakes, which makes her laugh. These are topped with strawberries, icing sugar and syrup.
‘So are you working today then?’ she asks him.
‘Later on. I thought I’d go to the Eiffel Tower just now.’
‘Could I join you?’ she hears herself say.
He turns to face her and looks into her eyes. ‘Are you sure your husband won’t mind you coming up here with me?’ He gently touches her wedding ring.
‘Patsy? He’s still sleeping,’ she laughs.
The elevator doors close, caging them in with the crowd, forcing them closer together. At the top they walk around, watching others taking photos with their phones through the fencing peepholes, of the city skyline. Then, she turns to face him. A smile plays on her lips.
Luca looks at her, and she cups a hand on the side of his face, moving closer to him. But he turns, peeling her hand away.
She burns with shame and presses her body into the railing.
‘I’m sorry. It’s okay.’ he whispers.
She looks through metal at scintillating towers and desert. If she could, she would love to walk right off this tower and crash down through the café awning below to concrete death. A spattered, battered corpse, and perhaps another one that was in the firing line. An unsuspecting waiter dressed in crisp black and white. Or a tourist enjoying a croissant.
‘My apologies. I don’t normally behave this way. And I love my husband,’ she straightens her posture, pulling her shoulders back.
‘It’s okay. We’re still good. Don’t worry about it.’
Dearbhla feels her mother coiling around her, serpentine. Her fathers face downcast, blue eyes not looking. He wears a little stubble and his full lips in a twisted pout. She can see beads of sweat on his forehead. The desert is too hot for him. This tower too high.
‘This place. It makes me feel crazy.’ She can breathe better now. She feels the kindness from him. ‘And sometimes I get so afraid I’ll end up like my mother.’
‘What was she like?’
‘Drunk. She was drunk.’
She closes her eyes, and now she is pushing her father in his chair. Baby Áine is beside him in the stroller, bawling, driving her mother mad. The wailing, and the crowds. Just everything. It’s a sunny day in Dún Laoghaire. School holidays. Tourists and locals are milling around. Her mother has already been drinking; the car filled with her fumes. Laughing. In so many ways, she is much easier to be around in that state.
Dearbhla is left to care for her father most of the time – and the baby and Mikey. Her mother has asked her to buy ice cream for Áine. Anything to make the crying stop. Dearbhla has lost patience and told her mother to go get it herself.
The bearded Austrian man that tried to rescue her father is apologising over and over. He has just got sick on the concrete, having swallowed so much water.
The paramedics take him away too, with a cellular red blanket around him. She wonders how close he got to rescuing her father. He said ‘he was just too heavy, with the chair.’ She tries to imagine the point where her father stopped breathing, his lungs filled with water. When did the man let go, deciding it was futile? She didn’t blame him.
She couldn’t understand how he even started rolling in the first place, on such a slight slope.
Her mother returned at night time to a house choking with mourners. Neighbours poured her a drink and gave her the news.
Down in the café, she’s glad she didn’t become the suicidal flying missile causing any untimely deaths. She’s never seen a fall victim from that height, so it’s a stretch to imagine the scene. Multiple fractures. Shattered skull, perhaps with brains, bones and organs spilling out. A messy business.
‘This is good coffee,’ she says, enjoying the bitterness of it.
Back at the hotel, Patsy is waiting by the fountain, frowning.
‘Are you okay, Dearbhla? I was so worried. Next time would you bring your phone? I didn’t know where you were.’
‘I’m fine,’ she kisses him.
‘You smell like booze. Have you been drinking?’
‘I had a cocktail. To try it out. There’s this restaurant that does cocktails for breakfast. And pancakes. Amazing pancakes.’
Patsy’s raises his eyebrows. ‘For as long as I’ve known you I’ve never known you to drink like that,’ he says.
‘Just be safe, that’s all. Don’t just go out without me. And start drinking cocktails.’
Dearbhla flinches. ‘I’m going for a lie-down. I’ll see you later.’
He lets her go, and she doesn’t turn around. She remembers her mother, telling people to fuck right off and mind their own business. She shudders as she steps into the elevator and struggles to remember again which button to press.
Early morning again, Dearbhla wakes to voices on the corridor. Patsy is fast asleep beside her, snoring a little. Ann-Marie’s ghost is there beside him. In between them. The two women stare unblinking.
She pulls on a long turquoise dress and some delicate white sandals and sprays a falling cloud of Chanel above her and styles her hair. She looks at her phone, which tells her she is in a place called Paradise. This time she can find the way to the reception without help. A Roman man in a painting winks at her.
She goes to Paris. Lights flash, music pumps. Eyes from the top of the Cosmopolitan follow her. Across the gaping street, he appears, beside the Bellagio lake. He sees her, and she blinks and stares back.
Don’t walk changes to walk and she’s walking and then running.
He cups her face and touches her lips. Kisses her lips, her ears, her neck, her mouth, her fingers, her hair. She slides her hands into his jacket and up towards his shoulder blades, pulling him closer. They slow to a still, and she pulls back.
‘I have to go.’
Dearbhla has a rental car and is driving in Death Valley while trying to get a phone signal. Eventually, the bars and 4G appear, and she pulls over. She opens the windows and then closes them again, gasping. Fingers reaching for the AC controls, but it’s already on max.
It’s evening time in Ireland, and it’s ringing. The nurse goes to get her.
‘Dearbhla?’ her voice is frail, but it’s her. She can feel the rasp of her breath into her ear.
She holds the silence that bounces off a satellite in space.
Dearbhla presses the red button and blows air out of her mouth. She steps out into the shimmering heat and tries to unpick her mother carefully from every part of her.
At Zabriskie Point, the phone reads forty-three degrees. Dearbhla imagines how her body would look after three days here. Barbequed. She’s never seen one like that. Burn victims, yes but not sunbaked ones. Blood thickening, heart rate increasing, blood pressure lowering, hallucinations, organ failure. She once saw a dead pig with sunburn. Perhaps by the time they found her, she would be a more dignified looking bleached skeleton. Helped along by critters after nightfall.
Patsy’s not looking for her; he hasn’t rung. He’s so mad because she told him what happened. Perhaps he’s getting his own back and ordering in some company with blown-up lips and bouncing breasts, or having an MI with the stress of it. Or the excitement. But she’s glad she told him all the same.
She has no water in the car and has already walked some two hundred yards. She sits down on a rock, and she and a lizard contemplate one another. Her breathing is over thirty resps per minute. Her pulse pounds in her temples. It feels good.
It would be painful though, to go through with it, and take longer than she could bear. The hallucinations could be interesting. She thinks of a woman she assessed not so long ago for a nervous registrar on call. The patient had sliced her left forearm open. The look on her face, indifferent. She asked not to have anaesthetic as she wanted to feel the pain. Two dead eyes. Straight mouth, the spider lined mouth of a smoker—a tattoo of a teddy bear on her neck.
Back in the car, she thinks she’s left it too late. Her coordination is going. She closes her eyes and slips back towards her father, now, at the bottom of a water tank. It is cylindrical and enormous. Bubbles come out of his mouth. Blue eyes stare back at her through the blue water with a white face. His clothes float around him, a red and black shirt and silky black hair.
Gasping, she pulls six large bottles from the Gas Station fridge. She drops five, and they roll around on the floor, and she drinks the one in her hand. Then bends over double and begins shivering violently, afraid it might come up again.
‘Are you quite well, Ma’am? Do you need to see a doctor?’ The old shopkeeper stands awkwardly. She looks at him and nods.
In one of his eyes, he has a cataract, and he wears a football team cap atop grey curls.
‘I am a doctor, and I’ll be fine,’ she tells him. After paying she uses the dingy restroom. Looks in the mirror. Paste white, sweat-soaked, deranged looking.
McCarran Airport pushes them out of the birth canal, and they are born into the American Airlines aircraft, amniotic and new. Dizygotic twins. After they fasten their seatbelts, they hold hands. Ann-Marie is not there anymore. Nor any of Dearbhla’s people, or Luca. A young woman sits down in the window seat beside them and drinks from a bottle of gin in her handbag.
Patsy smiles at Dearbhla. ‘This’ll be fun,’ he whispers.
After takeoff Dearbhla is not aware of the woman talking to her about her nails, instead she’s staring at the emergency door. It’s reflexive. She is thinking about plane crashes. She’s floating, weightless around the cabin and Patsy is still talking too, not noticing that she’s dead and can’t hear her. Then she’s hypoxic, miles above the ground, waking up only to realise the Earth is racing up to meet her and there’s nothing she can do about it except wait. Trees. Perhaps there will be trees. Broken bones. Punctured lungs. Branch through the eye socket.
‘Are you okay, Dearbhla?’ asks Patsy.
Her eyes snap into focus ‘yes, I’m fine.’
‘Oh my God, I’m probably, boring her to death, sorry,’ the gin-and-nails lady laughs.
Dearbhla looks at her. ‘Impossible,’ she announces.
‘Oh, thank you. You’re so sweet.’
Dearbhla takes out her laptop to read through emails. There sits Áine’s invitation to visit and a ‘gentle reminder to please ring Mam. When you get a chance.’
The lady has now fallen asleep and is resting on Patsy who looks at Dearbhla helplessly. It makes her laugh, and she mouths him a kiss.
Dearbhla puts her laptop away and closes her eyes, and in her mind, she says thank you. To herself and all of them.