Home is Not an Irish Surfer
on sea gods and vulnerability
by Melissa B. Hawks | March 29, 2020
I don’t realize what’s happening at first.
Caught up in conversation with freshly minted acquaintances at the pub, I miss the entrance of someone new until chatter pauses. People greet the man with hugs and offers of a pint.
He isn’t large, but his presence fills the room.
He responds with a smile and a word for each of them, squeezing shoulders, bear hugging one man, and kissing another with a smack on the lips.
Then, he notices me.
His gaze is probing and I feel the act intimately. Spacetime bends about us, momentarily shutting out other voices.
“Hello,” he says, moving towards me. Leaning over the table, his grip is firm but careful as he takes my hand in his own, “I don’t believe we’ve met yet.” Inquisitive eyes meet mine, and my curiosity rises.
I smile and introduce myself.
The town is small. He already knows who I am. “Ah, yes, the American writer,” he replies and then offers his own name.
It’s a name I’m familiar with, a name you can’t get away from here. I realize I have seen him before. The big screens in the pub below my rooms replay short films of him surfing giant waves over and over. His voice and movements are already familiar to me.
Irish surfers are not for the faint of heart. Reborn of ancient poets and Celtic sea gods, their great love affair with the sea shapes their passion in a way that can make it difficult for a human lover to compete.
He is no exception.
“Surfing bigger waves came naturally to me,” he says, “because I always loved the feeling of being out of my comfort zone.” His internal compass is set to “figure it out or die trying” as he throws his body into thirty foot waves, confident he’ll survive the unpredictability of nature.
As he continues speaking, images of him on the water fill my head. Leaning into her curves, he shares his warmth with the sea as he fades into her foamy tilt. Watching him is a primer on pairing strength with gentleness. Each movement is measured as he wraps his body around her untamed sacredness.
Town gossip has also informed me of his age, a full decade younger than me. I shake away the heated thoughts and put distance between us.
Fresh off a month spent walking the coast of Portugal and Spain, I’m hungry for conversation in my own language.
This longing has landed me in Ireland without a plan. With the help of Google Maps, I randomly chose this town because it’s balanced on a rocky coast above the Atlantic.
Ungrounded, I’m in search of home. Unsure what that looks like, I reach for the familiar. If I can’t have home, I’ll settle for cliffs and the sea, beauty I recognize.
Ireland is the land of my ancestors. I’ve come seeking healing for the trauma of my past and to reconnect with the old magic in my blood. Instead, I find cows, Guinness, and weather — wet, gloomy, dramatic weather.
And this Irishman who isn’t dissuaded by my curt dismissal.
He skirts the table, coming to stand next to me, voice low and gentle as he interrupts the girl speaking to me.
“You’re a whiskey drinker.” It’s a statement not a question.
I turn towards him to reply and get caught in his gaze. He asks if I’ve tried Dubliner, and I stumble over my reply, “N — ooo.” With this, he disappears. I reach out to apologize to the girl for the interruption, but she’s already in conversation with someone else.
A moment later I feel a light touch on my back. “Try this,” he says, pressing a glass into my hands.
Thanking him, I politely give him the brush off. Again. His confidence stirs something in me to which my inner voice responds sternly with a reminder that I’ve come to Ireland for healing, not romance.
He isn’t deterred.
The dance continues. I move away, and he backs off for a bit. He lets me get comfortable, not getting too close, then reappears to restart the conversation.
Each time I answer, his responses are filled with such intention and depth, I find it harder to move away. Curiosity and intelligence are my kryptonite, so eventually I stay.
We talk of surfing and poetry and art. I show him a picture of one of my paintings and he asks me to make one for him.
“I’ll buy the canvas and the paint,” he says, covering my hand with his own in a casual movement that makes me flush. “I want something you’ve created hanging on my wall.”
He grins and he’s so damn pretty, too pretty to describe without defaulting into insipid romance novel language.
He tells me of wild places of beauty and insists I visit. “I’ll take you there!” he promises.
He’s excited. But I’m wary. I smile and nod my head, and make the terrible mistake of underestimating this man.
As the night progresses, we find ourselves on the same side of an old church pew in the back corner of the pub. He tells me that his mom writes poetry and we discuss the power of beautiful words.
Another hour passes and he inches closer until his legs are touching mine and his intention is clear.
“You can’t kiss me here in front of god and everyone,” I tell him, leaning back and away. I’ve been too focused on his words to notice his lips finding their way so near my own.
“No one is watching!” he swears, his finger grazing my cheek.
I laugh. People are watching. This town sees all, especially where it pertains to him. He’s the golden boy on the rise and I’m a foreign unknown.
Someone is definitely watching.
He doesn’t care and weaves his fingers through the curls at the back of my neck, tugging them. His eyes tell stories I know neither of us are prepared for. Tucking my chin between the thumb and forefinger of his other hand, he nudges my mouth towards his.
It’s warm and deep, easy and potent. I shiver. Pulling back, he stares into my eyes for a long moment.
And then it’s too late.
Later in the evening, my tiny room above the pub overheats and I get up to open the window.
The moon outlines my body through the sheer curtain and I reach for a sheet to cover myself. He stops me.
Climbing out of bed to stand behind me, his hands run over my skin. He worships my curves, nuzzling my shoulder as his fingers come to rest on my hips.
“Don’t hide your beauty.”
With him, I feel safe in my nakedness. My beauty feels more present in his presence.
It’s nearing 2:00 am. I don’t let men sleep in my bed, but this one doesn’t seem to understand that. One night can’t hurt, I think. Taking his hand, I lead him back under the covers.
He buries his face in my neck and we fall asleep in minutes. We sleep the dead-to-the-world sleep of children, as his arms and legs remain wrapped around my body. Leaning into his warmth, I feel a long broken piece of me come back together.
The next morning we stay lost in each other for hours, tumbling out of bed only when hunger overtakes us.
“Let’s grab breakfast,” he says, pulling me in for a kiss as I button a pair of jeans.
“Are you sure you’re comfortable with that?” I ask, “People will see us. Everyone will know you spent the night.”
“I don’t mind,” he says and holds my eyes, challenging me.
As we open the door to walk back out into the world, he looks down at his phone for the first time and I see a shadow cover his face.
“Everything okay?” A feeling rises in the pit of my stomach as I say the words.
“Yep,” he nods and looks up. He’s lying.
At the pub that afternoon, he disappears into more pints of Guinness than I imagined a single human could consume.
I’m confused at the dissonance between the man from last night and the one drowning himself before me.
From the cover of a corner stool, his eyes seek mine out. We’re still connected, but there’s pain there, pain I hadn’t seen the night before, pain I don’t understand. I dig through my memory of our conversations but there’s nothing he’s said that makes sense of what’s happening. Just a few hours ago we were skin to skin and now he can’t seem to speak to me.
Someone who saw us arrive together pulls me aside and drops a bombshell which decimates any afterglow I might’ve had left.
I’m not a potential love interest. I’m a rebound.
A six year relationship with someone he loved has just ended. And, I’m the first. The first connection, the first kiss, the first everything.
My stomach turns inside out. My heart closes up in my chest. I want to sympathize with his loss, but my body refuses. I’ve let down my walls in a space I thought was safe only to learn it was someone else’s temporary reprieve.
I am vulnerable and messy. I beat myself up for this slip, for my own naïvete. I want to crawl into a dark non-Irish hole.
He drinks more, spilling entire pints on the floor of the pub. He even pours one on a friend sitting nearby. Anyone else might be kicked out, but instead people are looking at him with concern at his unusual behavior.
I perch myself on the wide window and watch this all unfold. Turning, he comes and sits down next to me. The alcohol and the weight of his youth have rendered him mute, so he just stares, looking half grief stricken, half hopeful.
“Are you okay?” I ask, lifting his chin so I can look into his eyes. But he can’t speak, won’t speak.
Kissing his forehead gently, I hand him off to a friend. I finish my whiskey, watch as the friend half carries him out, and then take myself upstairs and crawl into bed. Alone.
Torrential rains blowing off the Atlantic and a deep malaise in my soul drive me inside one of the town’s hotels the next day, where a “Spiritual Fair” is taking place.
From a cracked plastic table, a man sells terrible smelling incense. People perform reiki on prone figures lying atop suspect looking sheets. To one side is another collection of tables, each with a different woman sitting next to signs offering tarot and oracle readings.
My friend, Fiona, convinces me to come as a distraction from the emotional roller coaster of the previous forty-eight hours. Insisting we each get a reading, she wastes no time in selecting a bird-like blonde woman for hers whose sign showcases images of nature and angels.
Light and airy, this oracle isn’t for me.
I take my time making my choice. My eyes pause and linger on a woman at the back staring intently at her cards. Her energy pulls me near, even as it rattles me.
Sitting down in the metal folding chair next to her, I can’t help but stare. Her fiery tresses have a life of their own. They wind about her arms and down her waist. They burst forth with wiry ferocity, refusing to be subdued. Her face is lined but ageless. In it, I feel the strength of the life she lives, one I both fear and long to possess for myself.
“Open yourself,” she commands. She doesn’t ask my name or where I’m from or anything about my story.
“Open yourself,” she repeats, “Can’t you see how closed you are?”
Tearing my eyes from her, I look down at my own body. My legs are crossed. Layers of clothes are buttoned, zipped, and snapped shut. Over this my arms tangle together tightly.
“You’re safe,” she says, this time her words are more gentle, “Open yourself.”
And so I do. I uncross my legs, unzip my many layers, and lay my hands on my thighs, palms up. Taking a deep breath in, I silently repeat her words back, “I am safe. I open myself.”
“Good. Now, hold onto these,” She places large chunks of raw rose quartz in each of my hands, “You need grounding.”
Leaning back, she stares at me. I sit under the weight of her eyes, and feel the vulnerability of the night before creep back in. Though her gaze is uncomfortable, the heavy crystals in my palms relax me and I remain.
She reaches for her cards and then changes her mind, placing them back on the table. Covering my hands with her own, she shakes her head, closing her eyes and swaying in her chair.
A whoosh escapes her lips, “You are powerful,” she says quietly.
“It sits on you and bubbles up within you, a deep well and also a roaring fire. But you haven’t accepted it. Yet. You’ve been too busy facing the dark shadows of the past.”
Her face grimaces, “So much pain,” and her hand moves to cover my stomach.
“You have been fighting to face and move through the pain. This pain here. And you’re almost there. The work of healing you’ve done is not in a vain. There’s more to come.”
My face is soaked with tears. Her true words echo in my body.
“This next part will not be easy, darlin’.” Her voice is heavy, full of sorrow. It dips and soars and the rest of the room fades away. “It will feel like you’re dying, but you won’t. Remember your power. Remember your fire. They will sustain you. Once you face the shadows, you’ll be reborn into your power.”
I don’t know exactly what her words mean. I embrace them and hate them at the same time. Even before I came to Ireland, I’d been at the work of healing for so long I’m nearing complete exhaustion.
Staring at her through tired, tear-reddened eyes, I watch as she moves her hand over my heart. “I know you long for love. Great love. And you will have it, a deep love that spans many lifetimes. But not yet. You aren’t ready yet. You’ll only open your heart to love once you’ve completed the work of healing.”
I don’t want to hear that. I can’t get the Irish surfer off my mind. I want her to tell me I’ll find my great love here.
She doesn’t. “Return to nature,” she says, “keep walking the cliff sides. Let the rain soften your edges.”
by Melissa Hawks
Weeks pass and I take long walks in downpours, traversing the cliffs, letting emotion take me when it chooses.
One day the air is misty and powerful. Taking a polished amethyst from my pocket, I draw an ancient symbol in the sand, calling upon whatever magic exists.
My face full of hot tears, I offer words of release and a few grains of sand to the wind, “Disconnect the thread between him and I,” I beg of the universe, “Between me and all of them. Cut the threads that tie me to the pain and the loves of the past. Help me find myself again.”
The sea roars and crashes, but the universe doesn’t speak aloud. I see the many threads connected to me, some are too painful to bear, others are beautiful but fleeting. I’ve hacked at them, tried burning them, anything to loose myself from them. Yet they hold firm.
A gentle voice inside whispers, “have you tried letting go?” It seems too easy.
I lay out a huge canvas on the worn hardwood floor of the house I’m renting.
I have several gallons of paint in varying shades and I begin to pour on layer after layer of acrylics. My feet pick up specks of blue from the splatter.
It’s not right, so I leave it alone for a few days. Then I get back to it. I use brushes and cardboard to scrape and blend the colors.
Then I step away and let it sit. Each time I walk by the room the painting calls to me.
Fiona stops by and looks at it.
“It’s not done,” I tell her. We sit on the floor, light candles, burn some sage. I cry. She cries. We hug. She leaves and I reach for the paint again.
One on top of another layers go on until it’s at least an inch thick. But it’s still not right. I let it sit another week.
One day I give in and use my fingers. Placing both hands on the canvas I swirl the colors around until the waves move in exactly the right way. I paint and paint until my hands and elbows and insides are stained with blue and my heart is empty of words.
A few days after the painting is done, I see him. I’m several blocks away but I recognize the outline of his body on sight. He sees me too. I don’t want to avoid him.
Our conversation is brief. We hold ourselves awkwardly as if too close of contact will unleash something neither of us are sure how to deal with. I can’t get away from his eyes, still saying so much.
“I don’t regret it,” he tells me. “It was healing, magical.” I nod in agreement but find that I have no words now.
“It was just really poorly timed,” he continues and I ache, “I wasn’t ready to be with someone else yet. I wasn’t expecting us to connect in such an intense way.”
I just nod again but no words feel right, so I say goodbye and rush to leave before the tears begin.
They’re coming hot and fast, dripping from under my sunglasses as I walk. The further I get from him, the tears turn into hiccupping sobs. I trip over rocks and pavement, until I stumble into a coffee shop where a girlfriend sits. She makes me a hot drink to bolster me and sits down across the table as I tell the story through tears.
“It’s okay to let things matter,” she says. “You don’t have to pretend like it was nothing. Stuff matters even when we’d rather it didn’t. That’s okay.”
A few days later I’m walking up what feels like an almost vertical hill, my arms awkwardly full with a bubble wrapped canvas taller than my body.
It’s the hottest day since I’ve arrived in Ireland and sweat beads at the nape of my neck, making its way down my back. Pausing for a moment, I balance the painting on my foot and retape the wrapping.
My arms are shaking and not just from the weight of the cumbersome structure in my hands. Fear has settled somewhere around my center and is thrusting painful tendrils into every one of my limbs. Taking a deep breath in to center myself, I let it out in a loud whoosh.
“If you don’t give it to him,” I whisper, “you’ll have to toss it or repaint it.”
the painting by Melissa Hawks
I can’t bear the thought of either of these options, because it’s his. It is him laid down in thick layers of swirling blue paint I finished off with my fingers and a few words that felt like magic.
The bubble wrap comes loose again and I see the writing on the back, a reminder for him to be gentle with himself. I need those same words right now, so I pause in my climb and hold out the canvas to read the words.
“You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver is scrawled in faded black ink. “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles in the desert repenting. You only have to love what the soft animal of your body loves.”
“It’s okay to let things matter,” I remind myself, “Loving what I love heals me.”
I think of this man the painting is for. I want to grab his beautiful face in my hands and say, “Be easy with yourself, sea god. Stop punishing yourself. Let it be. Let it matter.”
I pick up the painting and haul it through town, up and down hills, across the busy main street and past many curious eyes. My heart is uncomfortably on display. I’m a spectacle. I’m open and vulnerable, spilling all over.
But I have to do it. I need to do it. I want to remain open.
He isn’t there, so I lean the massive canvas against a wall and look down at it. A piece of Florentine stationery is attached on which I’ve written, “This is a gift. It comes with no expectations. Do what you want with it. Hang it, regift it, toss it, burn it. It’s yours.”
Walking back up the hill, I notice, finally, the sun is shining.