The humidity of New York City on a mid-summer’s evening made the rain hotter and heavier than Anna was used to. As she took her smoke break outside the restaurant, staring up at the overcast sky, she could see a storm was coming. The first roll of thunder clapped overheard when the phone in her back pocket began to vibrate. Anna paused, thumb hovering over the answer button, knowing there was only one reason why her mother would be calling her at 2 a.m. on a Friday night from Ireland.
“Anna… I’m so sorry to tell you… last night, your Great-Aunt Deirdre…”
The details of her great-aunt’s death washed over Anna as she returned to work and the dinner crowds swarmed around her. Her mother’s words echoed in her ears as she fixed each customer with her wooden, waitress smile and asked to take their order. Later as she sat with Toby in the back room and counted out cash from the register, it occurred to her that she ought to ask for tomorrow off work and spend the day in mourning. But soon she dismissed the thought, for tomorrow was Saturday – she always made the best tips on Saturdays – and Anna never really had been much of one for crying.
Besides, Anna thought as she readied herself for the subway ride home, it wasn’t as if she had known her great-aunt very well. In fact, she had hardly known her at all. The truth was, when Anna was little, Great-Aunt Deirdre had scared her. Aunt Deirdre had been an ugly, imposing woman with wrinkled skin and a hooked nose that led Anna and her sisters to whisper that she was a witch in disguise. Her appearances at the family home had been odd and irregular. The stories she had told to the children had been dark and macabre.
“You know, your Great-Aunt Deirdre used to live in America when she was younger,” Anna’s mother would tell her over and over, “why don’t you ask her about that the next time she comes to visit?”
But Anna, as a little girl, had had no interest in America, and no interest in finding fresh reasons to speak to her frightening aunt, who as she aged began more and more to mix fantasy with reality, ghosts with memories, and to tell stories that disturbed Anna and kept her awake late at night.
But it was the last story, the most recent story of her great-aunt that disturbed Anna the most. With the ongoing assault of old age had come the ongoing undoing of her great-aunt’s mind as she had succumbed to dementia. Throughout the final years of her life she had become ruder, wilder and stranger than before. She would spit at strangers. She would steal food from the supermarket. Then one day, she ran away from the Residential Home where her family paid for her care. The police found her, several hours later, wading from the coast out to the ocean, determined to cross the Atlantic. When they went in after her, they had to drag her out, kicking and screaming, calling out the names of places no-one recognized and the name of a man that wasn’t her late husband, a man that no-one knew.
“What was she talking about?” Anna had asked her mother when it happened.
“America, we think,” her mother had responded, “you know, your great-aunt lived there for a number of years back in the 1950’s. She never went back though. I think she regrets that.”
Something about that story and the image of her elderly aunt waist-deep in the water had disturbed Anna, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on at the time. But it was something she now recognized had led her to reject that graduate job offer in Dublin and had led her here instead. It was something about fear and regret, and the way those two feelings flowed together.
Almost a year later, Anna stood in the aftermath of a storm in America, lighting her last cigarette of the night, looking up at the darkened sky and listening to the sounds of New York City traffic around her. Nowadays, when people asked her why she had come here, Anna would often reply that she couldn’t remember, it was just something that she had to do. For Anna knew, somehow, as she looked around her, that she would not die in Ireland. A part of her was afraid, of course, that one day the cops would find her, wading out to sea and calling out to Ireland. But she hoped it wouldn’t come to that.