Aisling declined to flinch at either the cold or the challenge.
The cold she found clarifying, as she always did. It had never been lost on her, that she seemed to have always existed in a minority when it came to her comfort with low temperatures.
This went beyond the baseline acclimation of her body to the chill winter shores of Eastern Massachusetts, growing up. She had taken that even further, in moving to Syracuse for school, and then in staying there. It was more about something fundamentally essential to her person. She could just handle lows, of all kinds. They didn’t bring her down with them. Aisling took pride in this.
Besides, not everyone she had grown up with had enjoyed or even completely accepted the reality of the winters. Too many of them spoke too fondly of their increasingly frequent (one day, probably permanent) trips to Florida, for her to believe that her comfort could be wholly attributed to prolonged conditioning. No, there was something more to it, even if that thing could be originally attributed to a partiality within her own biology, to DNA more than anything else.
It went further than that, Aisling though, but she wasn’t really the type of person who needed to explore such an impression more deeply. The cold was never permanent, of course, but at least at the appropriate time of the year when it came and stayed – it was home.
And there was opportunity in the cold, as far as Aisling saw things.
There was opportunity everywhere, she had learned. It could be that simple. In the warmer months there was the chance to run free, to swim and lounge and perspire. In the cold, by contrast, there was work to be done, plans to be made, new sources of energy to be found. The winter could be a time to reflect and assess and then act, in the same way that the summer often prompted people to relax and explore and experiment. Opportunity was a matter of perspective and of commitment to growth, at all times.
Sure, Aisling had experienced her share of pain, and regret. Like anyone else, she had fallen victim to certain basic fears that chased her as they did everyone else. But after enough years out in the world on her own she had decided that even in the dead of winter it was an overall benevolent, abundant universe.
If certain people, through their exploits and via their attitude, and by their failings, if such people clouded the ability of others (even herself at times, to be fair) to recognize and accept this truth, well, there was only so much Aisling could do to change their minds. Really, she could only remain steadfast in her beliefs and committed to her perspective and methods.
Aisling’s favorite of these methods was presented to her now. Growth. The opportunity to learn and strive, to continue to explore.
A new path would likely open up to her today, within minutes possibly, from out of the smaller universe of her life. She intended to approach the situation without expectation of anything more than that.
Something new. Something new. From out of something old and, up until recently, mysterious to her.
There was snow on the ground, days old but stubbornly remnant during the current stretch of sub-zero temperatures. She’d moved only slightly south on this trip, from her new home of Syracuse back to Boston, and in opposition to the standard measure it was colder where she was now.
Life had become basic again, during the cold snap. She didn’t mind the prolonged difficulties posed by its persistence any more than she might have on one single, randomly cold day. In it cold she found the same quiet, the same clarity, the same compulsory comfort to bundle up and stay warm (with the help of friends, food and drink) that she always defaulted to in winter. She never tired of these basics, though. There was a freedom in them.
And yet, despite all her general confidence and acceptance of the cold, in a more personal way, of late, Aisling had shied away from one fundamental, essential task, which all people who have left home, in her experience and judgment, at some point in life have to face. So there she was, returning home, ready to confront all the feelings and sensations typically inherent to such an act.
There would be questions, from her family. Eventually. Maybe. She couldn’t even be sure.
Her mother, who Aisling loved dearly, after “catching up” might very well also, in her own, unconscious way, attempt to unload years of fear and regrets upon Aisling, her oldest child and only daughter, as she had so many times before. And, of course, there was also the secret between them, of which Aisling’s mother didn’t yet know anyone else was at all aware. She had been very careful to hide it. To never speak it. To wish it away, perhaps.
There was no telling what it would be like seeing her father again.
Her father had changed in recent years, with the changing of the times. But while other similarly confused, scared, angry old men like him had reacted to the new economy, and the shifting mores of the culture, by yelling and fighting and digging their heels in at all times, in an effort to hold on to influence and power (or to scramble for a paycheck), by contrast Aisling’s father had retreated into himself.
He’d yelled and fought and dug his heels in his entire life, and seemed by now to have no more energy for it. Instead, he puttered around, tired and depressed. He drank a little too much but never enough to really concern Aisling’s mother and he took on whatever jobs he could find just to make ends meet. Aisling’s mother worked, and made a small stable income, but Aisling herself had been sending her mother money for years, officially without her father’s knowledge but he must have known.
As she exited the cold, finally, and entered the warmth of the pub, Aisling wondered if her father knew how completely he has passed on his often useful original attitude (of being frequently if not always in the right, and remaining willing to fight mostly anyone to prove it) on to her. She then further wondered whether she should or would tell him, not only this fact but the other she had been keeping from him for so many months now. For herself, she obviously now felt finally ready to let it go, but in the moment she couldn’t be sure what he could or would even do with the information if she were to deliver it. In a way, it was only partially hers to give anyway.
Regardless of these complications, Aisling found, as she breathed in the stale, many times warmed-over air of the mostly empty pub, that she was not only ready but looking forward to seeing her family. It had been too long, even as it had been just as long as she had needed for it to be. And it wasn’t as if any of them would have asked her to come sooner. That just wasn’t done.
But first, food, and a drink. And her first step down her new path.
Even in the warmth of the pub she felt cool inside still, thinking about what was about to happen (and, with a glance, she had confirmed as soon as she had walked inside that it was in fact going to happen). After all the therapy and all the searching she had done up to this point, following that nagging question wherever and whenever it would lead, all the while living and striving in parallel to the search, quite apart from but not discounting all the personal and professional success (which she intended to keep) that had come out of that other part of her life along the way, here she would start again, back where it all started, whatever that might mean.
Even if the door she was about to open closed right back up in her face, at least she will have tried it.
She looked around. She liked the pub.
Upstate New York was not necessarily short on Irish pubs, but there was something about the sheer number of them that dotted the streets of Boston that instilled in her just a little bit more of a sense of being at home.
This one wasn’t quite what she was used to, though, in these terms.
Even at a time wherein everyone seemed to still need a place to drink, just a little sooner and more often than in each of the previous few years (for how long had that been true?), there remained the pressures of novelty and rising rents.
As such, there were fewer of what her father called a “good old, no-nonsense pub” around than there had been when she was growing up. But the one Aisling had just entered seemed at least the next best thing, an update to the traditional version, with fancier (if also pricier) food and a curated craft beer list that existed alongside the old mainstays on draft. Novelty with a respect for history, or at least a quiet yearning for the owner’s particular idea of it.
It was early still. No one was inside except the bartender and a quiet old man alternative sips of whiskey with beer.
Aisling approached the bar and shed her gloves, coat and scarf, stuffing the smaller articles into the pockets of the coat and hanging it on the wall. She chose a stool about as far away from the door as she could go. As friendly as she was with the cold she nonetheless felt she could use some warming up in the short term.
As such, when the bartender arrived from the back she ordered her own whiskey, with a water as well, to help her rehydrate after so much time in the dry chill air. She also asked for a burger with fries and brussel sprouts, and a soup. Between the cold and her quiet nervousness about the task at hand, she felt hungrier than she had in a long time.
When her drinks came, she slowly downed half the water.
Then she took a long deep breath and lifted the whiskey. She made eye contact with the old man nearby, who smiled meekly and raised his beer in kind. The rest of his whiskey had disappeared quite suddenly from its glass. There were about ten feet between Aisling and the old man, but in the quiet of the bar and with the raised drinks it felt like no space at all.
“Another whiskey, John?”
The old man nodded. The bartender went about getting it for him.
Aisling knocked back half her drink. She looked again at the old man, who replied in kind with a second smile but appeared uncomfortable.
He hesitated. “Yes.”
She finished her drink.
“I was told I’d find you here.”
He seemed at once to know what she was talking about, and who she was. He had seemed to know as soon as she walked in, if she was telling the truth.
“We should talk, John.” She hesitated. Then she added:
“I’d like to talk. Need to, actually. To you.”
John Quinn took in his own deep breath. He drank all of his next whiskey when it came. But the smile returned for a third time.