The Dun Aengus cliff, the island of Inishmore, off the west coast of Ireland.
I’m standing about fifty feet from the cliff’s edge, on a flat, raised piece of rock, facing out into vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Betsy, my fiancé is standing next to me, snapping pictures on her camera. She’s one of those rare individuals that actually still carries a camera that is simply just a camera.
Somehow, we’ve beaten the other 30 or so tourists up the trail, and because of the nature of the way the fort is built up around the cliff, we are alone and out of sight for the time being.
I am suddenly overtaken by this urge: I want to get naked.
Before the rest of the group gets here, I want to strip off all of my clothes and stand buck naked in the brisk 40 degree February air, face spread eagle out into the ocean, as if I have conquered all of this and it is mine, and I want Betsy to capture this in a picture from behind me.
This isn’t for Instagram or Facebook, not even Betsy. This is just for me.
But before I go all Full Monty on the north Atlantic Ocean, I should go back and tell you how I came to be standing on the Dun Aengus cliff to begin with.
Two and a half years earlier, Betsy and I were sitting in a bar in Lincoln Park here in Chicago, waiting to watch a friend’s band play. It was our second date. We had started the night off with dinner down the street, and we were already a couple of drinks in. Betsy was talking, telling me some story from her youth. I was totally enthralled with her, but I also realized I wasn’t exactly hearing what she was saying. Not really. I was busy taking everything else in: How she looked in that red sweater, the same one she had been wearing at the party we had met at a few weeks before, how her auburn hair fell around the earrings, the sound of her voice as she spoke, the atmosphere of the bar surrounding us. I hadn’t fallen for her, not just yet, I really, really wanted to. And I wanted her to fall for me. I wanted this to work.
I was kind of lost in this thought and when I tuned back in, Betsy was talking about her travels, the places she has been. How she went to Nicaragua with her last boyfriend.
My heart sank a little.
She talked about the countries she has been to in Europe; it was probably easier to name the European countries she hasn’t been to. She lived there for a while with her family when she was a kid.
My heart sank a little more.
Then she looked at me, expectedly, and said, “So…where you have you been?”
My heart, it hit bottom.
The truth was, I had never been out of the country. When I was a kid, my parents rarely felt the need to leave the city limits of our small town of 5,000 in Southern Illinois, let alone travel anywhere for a vacation. We simply couldn’t afford it. Then I went to college. There, and in my early adulthood, all my focus was on being performing. So I had always lived the broke actor lifestyle. The extent of my travels was mostly the southeast part of the U.S. back when I did touring children’s theater – some beautiful theaters here and there, but mostly elementary school auditoriums and Motel 6’s. Now that I was in Chicago, I was doing all I could just to keep my head above water. The curiosity to travel was always there, I just never made it a priority. When I hit 30, I started to become really, really self-conscious about it.
The comedian Lewis Black has a bit where he laments how before being elected president – forgive me, before he became president -George W. Bush had never been out of the country. “How is that possible?” screams Black. “Even drunk, on a dare, you make it to Canada!”
What I’m saying is, I felt as unsophisticated as George W Bush.
So if I was at a party, and the conversation turned to travel, especially of the international kind, I would get quiet, and try to become as small as possible. I would occasionally nod along with whatever whoever was saying, trying to seem like I knew what they were talking about when they talked about this sight or that in whatever country, just hoping, praying no one would actually turn to me and say…
“So...where have you been?” Betsy asks me on our second date, waiting to watch my friend’s band play.
In an instant, I imagine how the rest of the night will go. I’m going to tell Betsy I’ve never been out of the country. A look is going to come across her face, a look saying that she has immediately lost all interest in me, seeing me for the rube, the bumpkin, the uncultured redneck I am. She’ll say, “Oh.” We’ll make small talk the rest of the night as my friend’s band plays. When I drop her off at her place later, we might make out a little; what the hell, we’re drunk. But when I text or message or call her a couple of days later, it’ll take her a couple of days to eventually reply, and it’ll be to say she’s too busy, or I’m nice, but she’s just not interested, and that will be that.
I imagine all this as I give my best charmingly self-deprecating smile and say, “Well, Betsy, that’s my dirty little secret. I’ve never been out of the country. Not even to Canada.”
I wait. I wait for that look of disinterest to cross her face. For her to say, “Oh.” For my chance with her to be over. Instead, she smiles and says, “It’s okay. We can work on that.”
A year later in September, we moved in together. Two Septembers later, a custom-designed engagement ring sat in my office closet, waiting for me to take it out and propose. But in our whirlwind love story, we still hadn’t had a chance to travel together outside of the country.
Then one afternoon, she forwarded me an e-mail from some travel website about ridiculously low airfares from Chicago to Dublin in February and March, on the airline Aer Lingus. (I had never heard of Aer Lingus. Aer Lingus sounds to me like that crude gesture you make with your first and second fingers and tongue to indicate going down on a woman.)
We shot some e-mails back and forth that afternoon of the “ha ha, wouldn’t that be nice” sort, not really taking it seriously. But then we got home that night, and we both had a rough day, and we started drinking. Whiskey. We talked about that e-mail some more. We drank about that e-mail some more. And before long, we started doing the math. Let me tell you how Whiskey Drunk Math works. In Whiskey Drunk Math, you add up the first column, carry the one, and that equals, “Fuck it, let’s go for it.”
I woke up the next morning, heading throbbing. I rolled over to Betsy and said, “Did we book an international trip last night?” She rolled over, her head throbbing too and said, “I think we did.”
I logged into Facebook, and saw that over 100 people had liked a photo I had posted the night before of the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey in Dublin, with a caption that read, “May or may not have just drunkenly booked a trip to Ireland over Valentine’s Day week. Hashtag ‘no regrets.’”
Okay, so we regretted it for a couple of days. We freaked out for a couple of days. But we figured out how to make it work. And a couple of weeks later, I got down on one knee in our dining room and proposed. We had always talked about eloping, so my thought when we booked the trip was that going to Ireland would be our honeymoon immediately after our low key wedding. But wouldn’t you know it, as soon as she got a ring on her finger, Betsy wanted an actual wedding. A woman’s prerogative. Ireland would be our pre-honeymoon of sorts.
I could tell you at least a dozen stories from our trip. I could tell you how I got my first taste of real jet lag that first day, having been awake for over 24 hours, looking down at my traditional Irish breakfast, and realizing for the last few seconds, I had been shaking pepper into my coffee. I could tell you about that first night, how we stumbled into a bar, exhausted, just planning on a nightcap before going back to our bed and breakfast to pass out, but instead ended up getting drunk with some locals, laughing and singing for over three hours. They even put a guitar in my hands – I’m a decent singer, not so great a guitar player – but they let me perform a couple of songs for the bar. I could tell you about going to mass on Valentine’s Day in the church where the actual Saint Valentine’s remains are enshrined, or about going horseback riding in Galway Bay. Or about visiting the Dun Aengus cliff. But the essence of all these stories – even the story of the night Betsy got food poisoning and spent the night in the bathroom vomiting while I watched House of Cards on my iPad - is the same. It is about me finally being able to say I had finally stepped foot outside of my own country, being in awe at any given moment that my feet were touching ground on the other side of the planet. I know that just one week in a European country is nothing compared to the stories of much more well-traveled people, and I know that in the grand scheme of things, being able to say you’ve traveled internationally is a petty, trivial personal accomplishment. But to a kid from the poor side of a small rural town, a kid who grew up in a trailer and was once told by his old man that anything he ever needed could be found at the local Wal-Mart, this trip, with the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with, it meant much more.
All of that is what’s going through my head when I’m standing on the Dun Aengus cliff, and I suddenly become overwhelmed with the notion of stripping naked on a raised platform of rock, looking off into the vastness of the ocean, and having a picture taken to capture the moment. A primal feeling I couldn’t articulate then, and honestly, can’t even quite articulate now. A primitive way of marking my territory. A way of saying, “I was here.”
I tell Betsy what I want to do, and I’m already unzipping my jacket, and she grabs my hand, stopping me, telling me not to do it. I tell her we have time, we have at least a couple of minutes lead on the rest of the group, but she emphatically begs me to keep my clothes on. And realizing how terrified she is of getting embarrassed, of getting caught, I realize whatever moment of glory I would get from having such a picture taken wouldn’t be worth the distress it would cause her. So I let it go. Instead, we take a video that we post on Facebook later. Sure enough, thirty seconds after she talked me out of my scheme, the tourists came up through the fort entryway. Betsy was right; I would have been caught.
Nevertheless, Betsy feels bad when I tell this story. She says if she could go back, she would take my picture they way I wanted, damn the embarrassment. She promises that if we ever make it back to the cliffs, we’ll make sure to get ahead of everyone so we have enough time to make it happen. She feels bad for not being as daring and spontaneous in the moment as I might have liked her to be. The same way I felt bad about not being well traveled. In either case, there is a simple beauty in the words she said in the bar that night on our second date.
“It’s okay. We can work on that.”