by Anne Connon
The town that I live in is built on water. We have a river. We have a canal. We have an ocean. Since our ocean is the Atlantic -- the western edge of the east Atlantic -- most of all, perhaps, we have rain.
They say that three things mark a person as being from the town built on water. The covert way the townspeople glimpse the water is probably the most subtle of the three. People from the town built on water refuse to look directly at the the river, the canal, the ocean the way a denizen of Tribeca refuses to stare openly at De Niro. Staring is for tourists.
Every summer the tourists flood the town. They come for the music, for the pubs, they come for their ancestors, for the talk. Above all, they come for the water. Thronging the bridges that staple the town together, the tourists stand and marvel. They exclaim at the preternaturally smooth way the water curves over the salmon weir, as if a blacksmith had bent the river into one continuous piece. They watch in awe as the bent out of shape river hurls itself away from the weir, belting towards the ocean in a tantrum of cataracts and foam.
Down at the ocean, the tourists flood the beach. The children and the waves engage in a steady flirtation, each darting to and from the other. The adults sit on the sand or in deckchairs, and watch the ocean like television. On foggy days, they track the purpled hills across the bay, drifting in and out of the mist like ghost-ships. On bright days, they are entranced by the diamond-fields of light, glinting opulently off the sea. Drinking sun-warmed coca-cola, they note that in this light the hills seem strangely near.
The people from the town built on water yearn to look upon all these things too. When bustling across the bridges, or walking their dogs down by the sea, fleeting, sidelong glances punctuate their eyes front-and-centre gait. Rarely, though, do they look directly in public, and never in high-season. To gape at the town they live in would erode their sense of possession. Not staring at the water is their ark against the flood.
It is only when the townspeople become tourists themselves that they feel free to become blatant spectators. Holidaying in places of aquatic renown, they greedily drink in the sights. They go to Venice, to the Aegean, they go to Lake Cuomo, to the fountains of Rome.
I went to Arizona.
It was in the Grand Canyon that I met my boyfriend. A graduate student in geology, he sometimes guided four day Canyon tours. At the university in the town built on water, my subject was ancient history. He teased me that on a timescale with his field, mine was mere current affairs. I told him about the ancient Greek Herodotus who claimed that history was a river. Immersed for so long in book learning, I'd wanted to know this tangibly for myself. I'd come to cool my feet in the Colorado River, and see in oranged rock the effects of water and time writ grand.
By day three, we were skittering around the edges of love beside a mesa's banded leg. Full-blown falling came after day four, when he took me caving under Kentucky and Tennessee. In stalagmite-decked caverns and tunnels lined with flowstone, I learnt the earthly marvels of a world that is built on rock.
Of the townspeople's characteristics, the one of the three that is permanent, the one evident even when someone leaves the town behind, is the way the population moves. When winding their way through a crowd, people from the town built on water maintain a distance of no less than two feet between themselves and other pedestrians. Two feet, experience had shown, was the minimum distance required to prevent one's umbrella either from jabbing into a person who did not have an umbrella, or from becoming complicatedly nested under the mantle of a taller person who did. Since the townspeople wielded their umbrellas on a near daily basis, eventually the distance became the benchmark of civilized interaction. Even on dry days, people keep to the two feet rule, not wanting to give unknown passersby a metaphorical poke in the eye.
The little girls of the town get their first umbrellas at age four. Transparent and dome-shaped, these resemble tiny biospheres. The little girls love them desperately, and solicitously take them everywhere they go. At about age nine, the girls move on to cheap mini-umbrellas with patterns mimicking wallpaper. In theory, these umbrellas slot safely away into book bags until needed. In reality, though, they just get constantly left behind: in school cloakrooms, on the floors of buses, under tables in tea shops where the older girls go to meet the boys. There are so many cheap umbrellas left behind in the town built on water that it is like Amsterdam with its free bicycle scheme. If you've lost your own, you simply pick up a stray to be discarded later for another's use. That the system of umbrella abandonment is unintentional seems to in no way undermine its effectiveness.
The boys do not have umbrellas. When they were four, they had Van Gogh-yellow rain-jackets with over-sized hoods or hats. Now they have nothing, except the occasional baseball cap. The boys get wet, but they do not care about that. Not looking like a girl with an umbrella, they care about that. Usually, a man does not get his first umbrella until the age of 21. These umbrellas are vast and solidly coloured, with handles like wooden snorkels. Their girth folds down, precisely, into long walking-stick-like shapes. These beat out important staccatos as the men move down the street.
The first time my boyfriend came to visit, I brought such an umbrella for him to the airport. It was raining when we walked into the carpark, but he did not immediately use the gift. After the all-night flight across the ocean, he wanted soft rain on red eyes, chemical-free moisture on wetnapped skin. Later, walking to my flat, he opened it and drew me under close beside him. Accustomed to my two foot perimeter, it would be a few days before shared cover felt entirely right.
The most obvious mark of people from the town built on water is played out in their hair. Like antennae pulling in radio waves, their hair snatches at relays of moisture in the ether. The strands tremble and pulse with water molecules, swelling to three times their dehumidified size. They widen and they agitate, haloing the heads of even the town atheists. Finally, gravid to saturation point, they can at last take no more. With a loud liquid pop, the hair suddenly deflates, and wild tumults sleeken into skull caps like soufflŽs collapsing flat. Often, adult tourists are alarmed by the sound. Younger tourists love it like bubble wrap, and wish their own hair could be heard.
Not only tourists, of course, find hair popping to be a distraction. Many locals minimize the volume by clipping their hair down stubble-short: surgeons, jewellers, really anyone wary of being startled in the midst of delicate work. In this famously bohemian town, there are noticeably few long-haired painters, a dearth of pony-tailed sculptors.
I have avoided taking the shorn route myself. On occasions when it is essential that my hair be silent, I twist it into a tight coil and lash it to my head with clips. I lacquer it with hair spray, and freeze the pulsings solid. Most of the time, though, there is no need. To mollify the suddeness of the transition, I had the stylist cut my hair into layers. Now it just murmurs at me gently, a soothing hum of domesticity during the days of solitary research, the nights of solitary sleep.
Some nights, when kept awake by the emptied space beside me, I amuse myself by designing a hairstyle whose rhythm would approximate his breathing. I envision a system of rag strips winding my hair up at night like a Victorian child's, their length varied and tension tuned to elicit just the right frequencies. Of course, to go further and emulate his snoring, I'd need my hair back at uniform length.
Every time I go for a hair appointment, the stylist advocates a radical loss. Hair of people from the town built on water is enormously prized, he again reminds me. It is woven by water diviners around hazel rods, studied intently by scientists in diaper factories. If I cut and sold the whole thing, he tempts, I'd be flush for at least a while.
The winter evening after my last trim, I wandered down to the deserted beach. I stood at the edge of the stone pier, and called across the ocean. At the other end of the cell phone, my boyfriend laughed when I joked that I'd accepted the offer. I needed the money, I told him, to buy a chain for his grandfather's watch. 'Oh no, sweetheart' he cried in cartoon desolation. 'I sold my grand-father's watch to pay for the trans-Atlantic phone bills, the cable internet access, my last plane ticket over.' The cartoon gained digital versimilitude with every word he spoke.
Somewhere mid-Atlantic, the sky had accumulated thunder clouds like bruises. Now, mid-conversation, they began to swamp the signal out. Straining to hear the long distant voice, I grappled my hair into a silent bun. I angled my body in his direction, and concentrated hard. 'Hello....hello?,' we both shouted valiantly into our ebbing connection. The faroff storm soaked our voices up, showering down a gulf of static in response. Forced at last to admit defeat, we whispered, 'goodbye...goodbye.'
Releasing my hair from its silence, I let the strands sigh in time with the waves. The familiar moisture gathered, rolling down my cheeks.
About the author:
Anne Connon is regularly rained upon in Galway, Ireland.