At age 22, I emigrated from Dublin to San Francisco. In addition to the shiny pink Green Card peeking from my Irish passport, United States law also required me to present to the sour-faced immigration official, his cheeks studded with pores like drill holes, a large X-ray of my lungs—the ghostly snapshot proved I was free of tuberculosis and made of the same stuff as Americans.
After my beginnings in Ireland, everything in San Francisco seemed brighter and shinier, as if the sun is closer to the ground here. Here, the lights glitter inside houses high in the distance, make the hills look like they’re moving.
People complain about the city’s inevitable fog, a damp and cold intruder that swallows everything in its path, but I don’t mind the mist, however thick. Fog passes.
From the start, San Francisco seemed small and manageable and safe, and with every step I took I felt I knew exactly where I was going. I laughed out loud on seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, because it is dull, not golden, and the color of rust.
The first time I walked across the bridge, the wind slapping at my head and the sound of the passing cars whooshing in my ears, the views of the sparkling blue bay and cinematic city skyline took the breath right out of me.
Given how anxious I can get, I worried I would feel nervous up so high and crossing all that water. Yet as I stood in midair over the wide, churning ocean, my feet planted on the bridge, the bridge they said could never be built, I felt anything was possible.
I phoned my family in Dublin every week and often wrote letters home. I sometimes phoned and wrote my ex-boyfriend too, a man I’d dated for five years. I’d had to put two oceans and 5,000 miles between us, so I wouldn’t weaken, wouldn’t get back with him again, wouldn’t marry him. At our worst, he had often threatened, while enraged and driving at speed, to crash and kill us both. Had, our last fight, out back of a house party, threatened to smash my head into the concrete wall.
Whenever I phoned home, Dad always sounded so pleased to hear from me. My mother, too. I wished they’d sounded so warm, so fond, when I lived there. Those early years, Mam often made me promise I would move back home soon, made me promise I wouldn’t stay away. I promised. A promise I didn’t keep.
I hoped Dad was minding her well in my absence, a burden from which I was at last largely free. Hoped he was remembering to take her on time each month to the doctor for her antipsychotic injection and wasn’t letting her smoke alone in bed or drink too much brandy each night. Hoped, but didn’t ask, because Dad never ever spoke of these things.
One sister wrote in poems and letters, and said down the phone, how much she missed me. My other sister said my leaving was the worst thing that had ever happened her, said she felt now she had lost two mothers.
Almost ten years later, after I’d married, and given birth to our first daughter, and while enjoying the happiest times of my life up until then, I would phone my mother and ask her questions across 5,000 miles about my baby, pretending I needed her advice, wanting, still, to make her feel needed.
All that bother required by US law to bring my chest X-ray from the Mater Hospital in Dublin to San Francisco, hand-carrying it from Ireland to America and offering it up for inspection at Immigration—where maybe the officials will turn a body away if they don’t like the look of her insides—and then Immigration lets me keep the film anyway, as though they want me to have a souvenir of my old self and my first life in Ireland.
For months after I moved to San Francisco, last thing at night in bed, I would sometimes look at my X-ray, stare at the sheet of film so long the image would stick to my eyes and I could still see my ghostly lungs even after I’d closed my lids. In my head, the white dots of my insides burst like fireworks, as though celebrating my escape.
Excerpted from Out of Dublin, a short ebook now available from Shebooks.