Otis and Mila left Kenmare to traverse clockwise around the Ring of Kerry an hour later than planned. Mila had marked five stops along the route on Google maps before they left the United States.
Sneem, Caherdaniel, Portmagee, Valentia Island and Glenbeigh.
Otis woke up late that morning, the world still blurry without his contacts in, but he could tell Mila was already dressed. He saw her soft outline covered in worn jeans and a knit sweater, her feet in water-resistant sneakers.
“What time is it?” he asked as he rubbed his eyes and sat up on the edge of the bed, careful not to step on the tissues he’d tossed on the floor throughout the night.
Mila didn’t answer and once he put his glasses on, her tight face came into focus, her brows pulled low in concentration as she stared at her phone. He could see the unease on her face of having her plan thrown off again.
As he loaded luggage into their rental car a short while later, she sat in the passenger seat and scrutinized Google maps.
“If we skip Valentia, we’ll stay on time for a dinner reservation in Cork,” she said. “How are you feeling this morning?”
She pinched her lips together and he knew she was trying hard not to chastise him for making them late, for ruining the day.
He had an excuse. He’d been sick as a dog for the last three cities they’d visited, starting with a sniffle in Belfast and escalating to chills, a fever and deep congestion by the time they got to Galway.
“Living up to your name,” she’d said the night before when he’d used the phrase and laughed at their old inside joke. That Otis was a name for a dog, not a man.
They met at an art show for a mutual friend some years ago. Otis noticed Mila from across the room squinting at an abstract painting. She was dressed in a soft brown leather jacket over a blue wrap dress and boots that went up to her knees. As he approached, he saw the dress had small polka dots in yellow and white, and he thought she must not be an artist because they all wore black and gray. Like him.
He stood beside her. When she turned toward him, he saw his face reflected back from her teal-framed glasses. He thought how cliché he must look to her in his black jeans and black sweater.
“What do you think?” he asked her, pointing at the art.
“I’m sure someone will like it,” she said. “I’ve never really gotten this stuff. Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky.”
“So what do you like? Or do you just not like art?” he asked.
“I like Monet and Renoir,” she said. “Degas. I don’t care if that’s pedestrian or uncool.”
He learned that she was a French teacher who had never been to Paris. Or anywhere in France. Neither of them had been very far from home, but they talked of places they might want to go. He shared with her that he worked for a graphic design firm, but really wanted to be a photographer.
“I would love to have my own show some day,” he said, and then held his hand out to her. “I’m Otis, by the way.”
“And I’m Milo,” she said.
He thought she was blowing him off.
“Sorry for bothering you,” he said and stepped back.
“It’s a joke,” she said, and reached out her slender fingers to touch his elbow. “Haven’t you seen ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis.’ It’s about a cat and a dog who are best friends.”
“So you think I’m named after a dog?” he said.
“Maybe.” She smiled and her nose crinkled up. “Unless it’s a family name or something.”
“What’s your real name?” he asked.
“Nice to meet you, Mila.”
The trip to Ireland was his idea.
“It’s a beautiful place, lots of music, lots of places to photograph,” he said. “I want to see the Book of Kells and hear traditional music in a pub.”
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll go someday when we save up.”
But they always seemed to be saving for something else. He saved for an engagement ring, then they both put money away for a wedding. And then Mila decided they needed to save for a down payment because their one-bedroom apartment would be no place to raise a baby.
Mila planned everything so carefully they were both surprised when she turned out to be pregnant months before her 35th birthday. She cried.
“It’s not the right time,” she said. “Our place is too small. You’re still waiting to hear if you get promoted. It wasn’t supposed to happen until next year.”
Otis pulled her glasses from her face and wiped her tears with a tissue.
“It’s the right time. We’ll be fine. We have at least a year to save before the baby needs more space.”
Mila bought baby books and started planning, of course. She made an appointment with a doctor. They told their parents and everyone started imagining a new little baby who would be half Mila and half Otis, 100 percent perfection. And then in October before the first trimester ended, Mila had lost the baby. That’s how the doctor phrased it. As though Otis wasn’t part of the equation.
“Mila, you’ve had a miscarriage,” she said. “It’s quite common and no reason to suspect you won’t go on to have a healthy pregnancy.”
Mila sat quiet in the car all the way home and took each step without a sound up to their apartment, then curled up under a blanket and closed her eyes. Otis went to the bedroom and pulled out the pint-sized onesie he’d bought that had a little lemon on it. He had planned to give it to Mila when they hit week 13. He’d read the baby would be about the size of a lemon then.
Mila turned away from him in bed that night.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” he said, against her hair “We can try again, like the doctor said. It’s not the end of the world.”
But it was the end of one world. The one in which they would have had a newborn in their arms in April.
At Christmas, Mila handed him four gifts and told him to open them in a certain order. The first was a cork board.
“To pin up my photos?” he asked.
“Keep going,” she said.
The next gift was a CD of the Pogues greatest hits.
“Open the next one.”
Inside the wrapping paper he found a tour book and a map of Ireland.
“What is this?” he said.
He opened the last box, a slim one with a piece of paper folded inside. It was a print out of a bank deposit for $5,000.
“Mila, what is this?”
“I started a vacation fund so we can do that trip to Ireland next year,” she said. “We always say we’re going to do it, but then we never do. I don’t think we should keep putting it off.”
Otis hung the cork board in the living room and Mila placed push pins on each corner of a map.
At bed, he kissed her neck and reached for her breasts, but she turned away from him.
“We should try again,” Otis said. “It’s been three months.”
“I won’t want to do an international trip if I’m pregnant,” she said without looking at him. And that was the end of the conversation.
Instead of talking about the loss, they put money into a savings account and flipped through tour books. Mila researched hotels and rental car options online. She smiled each time she added a push pin to the map and Otis had missed her smile for months. They wrapped string around each new point, creating a trajectory from Dublin to the northern coast then down toward the western seafront into Cork, and then back across to Dublin. She created a spreadsheet with an itinerary for nine cities. She purchased tickets online for museums and the Guinness Storehouse tour.
“We have a tight timeline if we plan to see all these places,” she said. “We can’t be late for anything.”
They spent three days exploring Dublin and nearby counties, on track with Mila’s itinerary until Otis put them off track again. They crossed into Northern Ireland and visited a garden estate house near Newtownards, where they got caught in the rain for most of the morning. Otis started to sneeze.
“Probably allergies,” he said.
But he kept sneezing all the way along the narrow roads that abutted with brambles and rock walls from the rural countryside into Belfast, where they stopped for lunch. After a bowl of veg soup and coffee, his nose calmed down, but as soon as they got on the road to Portrush, he started up again.
“Allergies,” he said when Mila gave him a glance after a triple sneeze.
But they both new that wasn’t true. Every time Otis flew in a plane, he got sick. Usually, whatever virus he caught incubated for five to seven days while he enjoyed his vacation, and then struck after he landed back home. But for this trip, they were only on day five of 16.
At the hotel along the coast, they settled into a room in the late afternoon. Mila left him in the room and walked to a corner market down the street, and came back with a box of tissues, a candy bar, and grocery store pizza. She canceled a reservation at a nice restaurant she’d made months before.
In the morning, his nose red and raw from rubbing it with tissues, Mila asked if he wanted to stay in for the day.
“We’re only here one day,” he said. “We can’t stay in.”
So he dressed and stuffed his coat pocket with tissues for the drive to Giant’s Causeway. He took photos of Mila against the gray sky and ocean, her hair whipping against her glasses, and told her the tale of two giants fighting. But after an hour or two, he was tired so they skipped the other stops they had planned, a tour of castle remains and a distillery.
Instead of seeing the sites, they stopped at grocery stores along their route to buy cold medicine and more tissues. He tossed each one he used into the backseat of the car so by the time they reached the west coast of the island, the floor behind his seat filled with white balls of crumpled paper.
By the time they headed to Galway a couple days later, he crashed hard. Mila put her hand on his forehead.
“I think you have a fever,” she said. “Do you want me to drive for a while?”
“No,” he said. “We’re only 20 minutes out. I’ll rest at the hotel.”
In Galway, they checked into yet another hotel and Otis wrapped himself in the white down comforter in the room. Mila laid down next to him for a bit, her hand on his chest as he coughed. He hadn’t slept well in three nights and he knew he’d been keeping her awake, too. Mila called to cancel the reservations they had to go kayaking the next day and left him in the room. She returned with more over-the-counter medicine and soup from a takeaway place.
In the morning, he woke to find her gone and when she got back, she held out a familiar bag with an egg breakfast sandwich and a coffee, from a chain they had back home. She kissed his forehead.
“You feel cooler today,” she said. “Maybe you’re on the mend now.”
They visited a museum and had lunch, before they went back to the hotel for him to nap. When they headed to the car in the morning to head to Doolin, all the used tissues were gone.
“Yes, I cleaned it up. It was getting pretty gross back there,” she said.
Otis continued to feel better day by day as they continued along the western coast, but as they traversed the Ring of Kerry, Mila started to sneeze.
“I guess it was bound to happen stuck in this box with you for days with all your used tissues,” she said.
They headed south toward Cork in the late afternoon.
“What were we supposed to do here?” he asked “Any big plans?”
“Dinner tonight. A heritage museum, a food market tomorrow.”
“That’s not too much. Maybe you can rest this afternoon and tomorrow you’ll feel better.”
Otis left Mila asleep in the room and he wandered through the cobbled streets in search of tea or something to perk her up. As he walked along the streets, he caught sight of a line of a dozen children in navy pants and little jackets. He found himself following them up a set of cement stairs into a hidden alcove of a street where they followed a woman through a red door. He looked up and saw a sign that read “The Butter Museum.”
It wasn’t one of the places he’d seen in a tour book or that Mila had flagged on their spreadsheet, but he found himself curious enough to step inside. He handed a woman at a desk a fiver and stepped inside an exhibit. Glass cases contained old iron equipment and a rope in the corner cordoned off different types of churning equipment.
Otis wandered somewhat aimlessly among the children, who he guessed must have been 5 or 6. After a while, the kids gathered around a woman who poured a glass of cream into a wooden churn. The children exclaimed in glee as they watched the liquid transform into butter. Otis smiled at their excitement, then felt an unexpected prick of tears starting and a scratch at the back of his throat.
He turned away from the children and fled to the back of the museum, where panels with long lines of text explained the butter exchange of the 1600s when Ireland supplied the product to all of Europe. In the corner he felt tears slip down his cheeks into his dark beard, a beard he’d started growing a year ago when his wife struggled to get up off the couch and he couldn’t be bothered to shave.
Baby Bee. That’s what they had called the baby they were expecting for two months. The baby they didn’t have. The baby who should have been five months old, who would have been rolling over and lifting its head on a blanket in their tiny apartment, looking up at him with a smile just like Mila’s.
Standing in the Butter Museum, he felt a sob escape his chest, and a woman came up to him and touched his shoulder softly. She had light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and a toddler trailing behind her.
“Are you okay, love?” she said. She held out a tissue to him and the sight of it made him chuckle for a second.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” he said, and turned toward the woman, her face ruddy from the cold outside. He looked down at the child, who had on overalls with a dinosaur on the pocket. “How old is your little one?”
“Colby is nearly 2,” she said. “Do you have any of your own?”
Otis’ face pulled together in grief and he whispered, “Almost, but not quite.”
The woman nodded. “Ah, I see. No joy. But someday, perhaps you’ll find it.”
Otis left the museum and stopped at a place for a pint, grabbed a tea and a cookie for Mila, and walked back to the hotel. His wife turned toward the door when he opened it, still half asleep. He looked out the window that overlooked the River Lee, at the water that flowed into the Atlantic Sea, toward home.
Otis sat on the edge of the bed and voiced what he’d been holding in for a year.
“I miss Baby Bee.” He let himself cry in front of his wife for the first time.
Mila sat up and held his hand.
“I know. We both do.”
Melissa Flores Anderson is a Latinx Californian whose creative work has been published in Maudlin House, The Write Launch and Rejection Letters, among others. She was nominated for Best of the Net for CNF. She is a reader/editor for Roi Fainéant Press’. Follow her: Twitter @melissacuisine or IG @theirishmonths.