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Degrees East

Jill McLaughlin

My first summer in Maine I wanted desperately to get to Jewell Island, because I read in a newspaper that it’s the last piece of land between Maine and Ireland. The journalist said that—he specifically said Ireland, even though at this latitude you’re more likely to hit Portugal or southern Spain, and if you take latitude out of the mix, then what about Iceland or Greenland or Bermuda? Yet he wrote Ireland, which is, of course, the place I think of every time I look out to sea, so I needed to get to Jewell. But the man who was going to take me, the only person I know with a boat, likes to party, and he realized there were islands much closer than Jewell on which he could party, so I lost my bargaining chip for a ride. This is probably okay, probably better for the natural ecosystem of Jewell. That summer I was not in a mindset to party in a place that had any sort of connection, even thousands of miles away, to Ireland.


Every morning it seems I wake up to fog. Yesterday I walked along the beach and an older man in muckboots and a sweater pulled a wooden dinghy on shore. I thought about the pure romance of the image, how excited I’d be if I saw it anywhere else. Ireland or Italy or even North Carolina. I might try to subtly take a photo, to capture the beauty of the man and his oars. A year ago, I’d have texted that photo to Robbie with a barely funny message like "you in forty years." But here, this summer, it was just an old man on a beach near my house. Another neighbor in Maine not acknowledging my presence. It’s only been a year since I left New York, this should still feel familiar. But we were the only two people on the beach and I wanted a nod, a casual mention of the weather to connect us. Instead he hoisted a cloth sack over his shoulder and walked up the rocks without a glance back. The fog prevented me from looking out to sea.


My dog is having a dream—or maybe a nightmare—and panting in fast scratchy yelps. It wakes me briefly and bleeds into my own dream: Robbie and me, on a train making fast scratchy leaps along the tracks to Galway. He tells me I can’t sit too close because he’s being honest now.

"We can’t do what we used to do," he says. Honest but not clear. Still he holds my hand as the car flails along the tracks. Still his thumb moves in slow circles on the backs of my fingers. I don’t turn around because I sense Lucy is behind us and, thanks to Rob’s new honesty, probably knows all of it now. I like her though. I always have. The train seats are high and leathered like a school bus. I hold tighter to Robbie to keep myself in the dream but outside the window Galway is flashing and disappearing in sparks, the bright fog finally waking me.


There’s a certain feeling of victory after sleeping a night in the heat. Sleep feels more like a conquering, an accomplishment; I have achieved sleep despite the humidity beading behind my knees, the fan thumping on the floor, the occasional buzz of a mosquito finding a crack in the screen. 

Back in New York I had a variety of tricks for sleeping in the heat and they all involved ice. Gel ice packs slipped beneath the fitted sheet, a loaf pan of ice in front of the fan, frozen towels on my neck. Sometimes I wonder if I only got involved with Robbie because he had air conditioning, and I wish this were true because it would make for an amusing anecdote. It would cast me as a woman who used men for her own gains. Like all of us, though, Robbie couldn’t afford the AC bill. He only used it on the hottest nights when we were all draped over his couch, or sprawled on the floor drinking and watching Star Wars, before Lucy kissed him goodnight and walked home, before everyone wandered home except me. I lingered in the bathroom, splashing cool water on my face, finally drifting out to him because even when everyone was there his hand had been on mine between the couch cushions. I wasn’t a woman who used men for their air conditioning. I was the same boring story as any woman in New York—in love with a man who’d never leave his girlfriend, who’d return to Drumcondra with her as soon as I worked up the courage to end it. 


Instead of Jewell Island I have discovered a beach that is only accessible at low tide. The tides have been strong, powered by a full moon and a hurricane far offshore. I haven’t been back since that first time, though. Every time I think to go I check the tide clock. It’s always high. 

It reminds me of the yellow diving tower at Blackrock, the way teenagers jump off at high tide. I was in Galway for a week and every time I walked by the tide was high and people were jostling at the top, laughing, pushing each other off. I had flown to Ireland under the guise of a sales conference, to get away from Robbie, to give myself a break from Brooklyn, and a stern talking-to about backbones and self-respect and moral values. But here at this tidal point on the fourth day, I felt drained. As if the only thing keeping me afloat and on the right course was the sun, and now that the fog had drifted in I’d lost the will to stop thinking about Robbie. Dylan’s harmonica on the rental car’s radio, a John Cheever book in the cafe, a cellophane-wrapped turkey sandwich, all of it reminded me of him. Every time someone mentioned Dublin I tensed, convinced they knew him, despite his ten years in America, despite the city holding 1.2 million Robbies. 

As people leaped from the diving tower I stood looking out at the bay and the old man next to me told me about Inis Mor, how you can bike the whole way around it, and I nearly cried at the image of it. I lied to the man, telling him I’d be back next summer with my boyfriend, saying we were planning on moving to his family’s house in Drumcondra. 

"Write these down, so," the man said, gesturing to my phone and then back out to sea. His voice calmed me and I wanted him to talk at me forever, to keep naming beaches and restaurants I should visit. We continued watching the fog, as though it might suddenly lift and we’d see Robbie and me, a year in the future, cheerfully tandem bicycling across the cliffs.

I wonder if the man knows, can sense somehow, that I never went to Inis Mor, and instead spent the next summer as a new Maine transplant, trying to persuade fishermen to take me to the farthest island out. If he knew that my theoretical boyfriend had moved back to Drumcondra, taking sweet, funny Lucy with him, just as soon as I’d torn myself out of New York.

I still haven’t made it to Jewell Island yet, and when I stand in the fog at the beach looking east, I remind myself of the coordinates. I watch the seaweed floating out on the tide and tell myself "no," tell myself "at this latitude, it would only be Portugal."

This piece is from the first issue of Topograph. Consider subscribing to our newsletter or donating to support our work.

Jill McLaughlin is a Maine-based writer whose work has been published in Stonecoast Review, Pangyrus, and Channel Literary Magazine. She was the recipient of the 2023 Ilgenfritz Scholarship and the 2019 Martin Dibner Memorial Fellowship.

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