Exploring the art of prose


“Watershed” by Jack Noland

There’s this conventional wisdom that short stories shouldn’t tackle too many points of view. The novel is the place for that. And if you must do it, then keep it small—two characters at most—and be clear when you’re switching point of view. But like much advice, writing or otherwise, rules are meant to be broken. And how wonderful it is when fiction that goes against these rules succeeds, in part because of the way in which it ignores and refutes the advice.

In “Watershed,” Jack Noland cycles through the point of view of five different characters, college students abroad in Dublin, as they spend a night out together. Noland has a clear authorial voice that allows him to shift quickly from one character to the next, and we land deep inside each character’s interiority. By the end, we know each character but we also have an understanding of the group as a whole. In Noland’s decision to include multiple points of view, he actually bolsters the sense of the collective. This is Jack Noland’s first published story, and we can’t wait to see where his career goes from here.

Distilling a city to its essence is a fool’s errand, but Dublin in December tests the fool. It’s all magnified: wind-blown rain; the serious, northern-latitude darkness that drives pub traffic and tea sales; a high holiday looming that’s both hearty-Catholic and global-commercial—Irish faiths old and new. It may not be the same elsewhere in Ireland, reliant as the country is on the whole vernal verdancy thing, green hills to slap on all the merchandise, but the city’s in bloom.

That’s June’s thinking, at least. In two rows of second-floor seats on a City Centre-bound bus, she, Liam, Amelia, and Michael sit a tipsy foursome. They’re all looking at Dublin with different eyes. June’s seen the way Liam and her roommate, Amelia, have eaten up every detail in their four months here: assimilation through osmosis. If Michael’s doing any mythologizing, on the other hand, he’s certainly not vocal about it.

And she’s slyly observed the subtle changes her friends have made since they arrived in August. Michael, brown-eyed and round-faced, wears his green Republic of Ireland jersey with pride. Liam has his hair cut neatly now, slotting effortlessly into a lily-white, blond-brown crowd. Even quiet Amelia, small features drawn tight, went for a rebellious, penny-sized tattoo of the island on her shoulder. If they didn’t speak, you’d might think the three of them pale and sweater’d locals.

Around their group are the real, city-specific variations June predicts she’d miss should she go home early. There are boys with undercuts in bright pullovers flashing the logos of Champions League teams. There are restaurant workers in on-your-feet shoes scrolling through their phones, unflappable older women, lonely men looking up to catch an eye. Mothers with Lidl bags. Office workers with eyes tired from past-five assignments done for a boss who left in the mid-afternoon. Jumpy humans with mellow dogs, and vice-versa.

Amelia looks over the seats at Liam. “Did you end up getting the whole hot water situation fixed?”

“Hot water situation?” June asks.

“We get ten minutes of it, and then it goes cold for an hour.” Michael says. Orientation manual left unread, he hadn’t known to set the hot water timer and had bruised a forearm lunging out of the icy shower his second day in Ireland. That the timer would betray him now, after months of dutiful compliance, seems criminal.

“Nope. Still completely messed up,” Liam says. “I called the program people, you know, Kathleen? She said they’d send somebody, probably early next week.”

“What are you going to do until then?” June asks.

Liam shrugs. With his square jaw and receding hairline, he’s a future Gregarious Dad, she’s decided, high-volume and sincere—a how we doing, buddy?, barbecue-ad dad.

“I’m cool showering at night,” he says, “so it’s really down to Michael and Tom figuring it out in the morning.”

There are knowing nods for the subtext there: fractious cohabitation, passive-aggressive brinksmanship—Michael and their third roommate, Tom, not being able to stand each other, basically. Liam’s tried to broker some kind of ceasefire, but fights over drunken arrivals, skunky weed, and loud dishwashing had calcified the dynamic early on. It’s all sullen avoidance now.

“Which means Tom just sets his alarm early,” Michael says.

“Well, doesn’t he have early classes?”

“Not really. No earlier than mine. When I asked him about it, he said he had to get up to go meet Gráinne on campus.”

“So it comes back to Gráinne,” Amelia says.

“What? I don’t mind Gráinne. She and Tom are fine together. I just don’t think she’s all that interested in us,” Michael says, looking over the seatback as if to challenge them to disagree.

“Because she’s Irish and we’re American. Sorry, American and Canadian,” June corrects, catching Amelia’s glare. “Because we’re not Irish.”

“And you can’t keep saying GrAYn-yah, Michael. It’s GrAHn-yah,” Liam says. He does know where Michael’s coming from, though. Gráinne’s always found amusement in the way their foreignness bumps up against Irish reality. He’s seen the looks of playful mortification she shoots to the bartenders, Tesco cashiers, bus drivers—Americans, right?

“We’re the next stop,” June says, looking up from her phone. “Tom says they’ll be there in five minutes.”

“What’s the place called again?” Amelia asks, turning. She still isn’t quite used to June’s new look, glasses-free since a mishap in Brussels. It really does suit her, though, calling attention to her big eyes and round cheeks.

“Old Tadgh’s, up near the river.”

The arteries of central Dublin are bright and loud. On the street, it’s a mass of crashing cells. The view you catch from up here feels purer, reconfigured by the rain-streaked glass, Michael thinks. The shops are mostly dark, the takeaways drowned in fluorescence. Takeaways? Maybe he’s been here too long. Zips come up and as the bus pulls in, streets full of weekend revelers, the four bounce off.

They fall into a favored formation. Rearguard Michael lags a step behind Liam and Amelia’s central line, while June takes the point, swiveling her phone’s map and internalizing their route.

She’s become the group’s navigator in the time they’ve been abroad, feeling out the intricate warren, a knack for remembering the visual cues, the little murals, colorful curtains in a window here and there. What else would you do in a new place? Before she’d trundled down Grafton Street to buy an Irish SIM card, learning the layout had been a necessity. You can’t pop into a café every few blocks for WiFi.

And, June reasons, she had chosen Dublin for exactly that unfamiliarity. She had known there was something flat and distancing about the idea of Ireland as shaded by the green Chicago River and stuttering high school discussions of A Portrait of the Artist. Going abroad meant getting the opportunity to see the whole picture of a place she didn’t know. Not to pat herself on the back, she thinks, but that kind of seems like the point.

As June’s come to realize, though, her knowledge of the city is a continual source of surprise. The reactions from a few fellow Americans fill a whole palette: amused, bemused, confused, unfriendly. It wasn’t that they doubted her interest in connecting with the city, she guessed, so much as they had placed such confidence in their own. If she’s there for the challenge, they’re there for the comfort. What’s drawing her in? She’s black: so visibly not, you know, Celtic, Gaelic—pick your signifier of ethnolinguistic purity. To them, their antecedent motivations are obvious. It’s not just studying abroad.

There are Megans and Connors and Liams clearly here on a homecoming, wading through questions of place and belonging with varying levels of self-awareness. They range the whole spectrum: brash bluster—writing the next chapter in a long family saga—to hidden embarrassment, the global city complicating visions of ancestors and wool and tillage. For years they’d proudly called themselves “Irish” to vault out of the melting pot, and here they are, confronted with the real thing.

They walk north. Crowds spill onto the cobblestone, drunk against the December chill and emboldened by newly clear skies. Amelia casts a backward glance to find Michael scowling as he nudges through. It’s a madhouse, this quarter, stocked even now with the whole mélange of tourists: continental students done with exams and here on a Ryanair deal, middle-aged Americans in the authentic Irish sweaters and hats bought at the shops nearby, English stag and hen parties always curiously underdressed for the weather.

As they weave through the crowds, Amelia feels again the measure of pride she’s come to associate with Dublin, the sense of being welcomed inside after a long walk in the cold. She knows it’s fleeting, made stronger by impermanence. They’re nearing the halfway point in their year-long program, a couple weeks home before a second term, and yet—passing under the red string lights, the green-coat Santas winking at their frothy pints aloft—here, in Dublin, she’s finally an adult. Every unimaginable detail is a confirmation that she chose right. She can make her own fate. The uncertainty she felt triple-checking her essays in the empty library, lying under childhood blankets in her old bedroom, waiting in the international terminal in Vancouver, could all be swept away by lived experience. It’s a heart-quickening, full-bodied sensation. The city will forever be staged that way for her, she hopes, and she smiles into her scarf as they walk on.

Michael knows there are varying opinions among the group about Tom’s hat, the flat cap he’s come to favor after a few months in Ireland. It’s wool with a houndstooth check. Amelia and Liam think it suits him, his thin face fuller for it. June finds it a little contrived, but not malicious, less a stab at Irish identity than a warm hat for a cold place.

“Extra, extra, read all about it,” Michael mutters as they spot Tom and Gráinne, huddled together by the building’s black siding. What’s most irritating, he thinks, is how affected Tom’s whole intellectual get-up is. Look at him, for Chrissakes. The pea coat, those heavy boots, the slightly-worried expression of the father bracing for an unruly child. Amelia shoots a watch-it-mister look over her shoulder.

“Hey, Tom, Gráinne,” she says, waving a mitten as they approach. The bar really does hide in plain sight. OLD TADGH’S is lettered in brass on the otherwise unadorned façade.

“Hey there, Amelia,” Tom says. “How was the ride in?”

“Easy enough. Good find with this place. It’s definitely quieter.”

The guidebook crowds that mass just blocks away are indeed nowhere to be found. Liam steps back into the street to get the building in his camera frame. This is the real thing, he thinks. The kind of place his grandpa would have gone. Look at how the half-drawn shades leak light onto the pavement.

“I love that we’ve been here for months and still go to new places,” he says to Michael, who’s backed out of the shot reflexively.

It’s moments like these that conjure the phrase Liam’s held close—and yeah, it’s silly, stripped from the back of a self-help book in his aunt’s house—spend your time like you would your money: deliberately. You have to soak it all up. When he’d confided that principle to Tom, he’d gotten back an even nod-n-shrug: that’s what we’re all here to do. But it seems imperative. Not life or death, but something close. He’s spent enough time just getting by at home and away at Syracuse to know how much it scares him. The fear isn’t in the current sweeping you older, but in your own powerlessness against it. So take your pictures shamelessly.

Old Tadgh’s is dark and warm, almost vaultlike, and a band is setting up in the back corner. The requisite bric-a-brac crowds the walls, Michael notices: Dublin GAA banner; a cheeky poster near the entrance: The Only Thing Better Than Having a Pint is Having Two; washed-out country landscapes; beaky, black-and-white de Valera watching over all. It’s reminiscent of so many other places they’ve been, he thinks, conjuring flashes of bars across the city and watching them meld into a universal Irish Pub. This place is no different. He looks behind the counter and, of course, it’s the same beers on tap.

Amelia and June deposit their coats in a booth and take drink orders (Michael, by rote: Guinness; Liam, angling to look over specials: Kilkenny). Tom and Gráinne fall behind, as she needs to use the ladies, and he takes her jacket and walks toward the bar.

Gráinne’s joked with him about an old man hiding in his body, but this really is right in the sweet spot—not too loud, not too dim. A conversation pub. The vision he nursed back home—wise Tom of Irish influence—could certainly have plunked down here, mid-afternoon, frothy pint and a book to read in a quiet corner.

That’s the filter he’d cast over the whole city, though. Taking the taxi in from the airport, fighting jetlag and directing the colorful cabbie to go through town, each American import implanted in the retail level—Burger King, TGI Fridays, another Burger King—had felt like a strike against that imagined city. And he’d known it wouldn’t be Joyce’s Dublin, or whatever, he’s since told himself. It’s foolish to have thought otherwise. But he saw the Tom-abroad he’d constructed fading alongside the city.

“Did that professor get back to you?” Amelia asks June. “The one at Emory who does the econ stuff you were emailing with.”

“Oh, yeah,” June says over her shoulder as they walk back, sliding into the booth next to Liam. “He emailed me back today.”

“Who’s this?” Liam asks.

“I’ve been talking with a professor back home about this conflict econ research he’s doing.”

Tom lights up. “I find that so fascinating. What kinds of conflicts?”

So fascinating, Michael thinks. Just so fascinating. Give me a break.

“All sorts. He’s actually done a fair amount on Northern Ireland,” she says, careful not to look at Gráinne. Whenever the topic has come up in her classes this year, she’s watched with embarrassment the Americans desperate to prove their authenticity. The hands would shoot up and the kid with grandparents in Belfast would recount inherited fears of brutal provos, the junior revolutionaries with dreams of the glory of armed struggle would harp on the heroic anti-colonialist tradition and the fight for the oppressed minority in the North. Even with her countrymen in the room, America’s own conflicts had sent eyeballs in her direction. She’s an emissary of national strife, racial and otherwise.

“Oh, don’t be coy, June,” Amelia says, turning to the group with a proud smile. “They’ve been emailing about June doing paid research with him next year.”

“Wow. That’s great,” Tom says, smiling.

“Well, next calendar year,” June says. “He said today he’d be interested in having me start next semester.”

She thought being open about it would be better, but the looks say otherwise.

“Next semester? But you’ll be here next semester,” Liam says definitively.

June shrugs and trips into a back-of-the-throat “eh.” There’s a whole lot of silence around the table. Her face is heating up.

“So you’re not coming back,” Liam says, still caught in the declarative. June couldn’t say for certain, but it sure looks like that Irish Catholic stare—try to ride over the pain and watch it disappear inside you.

“Well, wait. I haven’t made a decision just yet.” She looks to Amelia, who’s no longer smiling. “Please, can we move onto something else.”

Research into the economics of conflict. Tom’s rolling it around in his mouth. That’s good work to put into the world, he thinks, and then, reflexively: work I wish I were doing. Not for the first time, he feels himself turn the spotlight inward. The Plan he thought through so many times looks misshapen and embarrassing now—graduate from Georgetown and become an upstanding investor, a banker with principles. He’d be someone who could be in by 8 and out by 6 and emerge from the subway to turn down his leafy street in the Village, bundle the kids up on the weekend to drive to quiet Connecticut. How hollow does that seem now?

“Anyone want another?” Michael asks. He’s done the perfunctory glance around the table, checking levels, everyone else more than a few swallows from empty. As he stands, Amelia looks up.

“I’ll come with you,” she says.

In the back, the band tunes up. Michael drapes his arms on the bar, staring over at the prices listed on the chalkboard. He’s always reminded her of the boys who would have been pressured by friends to try out for hockey or lacrosse, stocky but probably not tall or nimble enough to really make the cut.

“Pretty crazy about June, huh?” he asks in the gossip-as-small-talk voice that sounds inauthentic even to him. “Let me get yours. Guinness?”

“Yeah, sure,” she says. “And yeah. I don’t know. I honestly don’t remember her saying it’d be next semester. I didn’t really know she was thinking about leaving.”

“Two more, please. Thanks.” He turns from the bar. “She didn’t tell you?”

“I mean, she’s talked about potentially wanting to head home early, yeah, but like, abstractly. It was never concrete.” Amelia looks from Michael to an older couple huddled in the corner, starting to assign herself the blame. Was it something she’d done? “I feel a little blindsided.”

“Are you okay?” Michael asks, watching her closely.

“Yeah, yeah. Of course. It’s her decision.”

“I’m sorry, Amelia. She still might stay,” he says, extending an arm for what he hopes is a comforting pat on the shoulder. “She says she hasn’t made a decision. But, to be fair to June, I get where she’s coming from. You know? Just in the sense of feeling like you’ve done the things you want to do. I get that. She’s gotten to spend, what, four months here?”

As the words come out he worries he’s deepening the wound, but she nods.

“But, honestly, maybe I’m just projecting,” he says. “You guys are friends, you know? Like, actually close. At least your living situation is stable.”

Amelia frowns. “Do you think things really couldn’t get better next term? Between you and Tom.”

“I mean, maybe. I don’t—” he stops and thinks. “Look, I’ve thought about this a little, and what’s so frustrating is that I know he and I are both … I know Dublin’s not quite what either of us was expecting—oh, thanks,” he says, fishing the oversize Euro notes out of his wallet as the bartender tops off the settled beers.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” He looks genuinely unsure. “I guess I thought it’d make things clearer for me, you know? Like, what I want to do with myself, who I was going to be, all that stuff. And I don’t really, I don’t think it has. But at least I’m not pretending it is what isn’t.”

“And Tom is, you think?”

“I mean, look at him. He’s Mr. Philosopher. He’s the soulful thinker, going to coffee shops to read Sartre—” he takes the French guttural Rs to eleven “—and, you know, pout at the rain,” he says, picking up the beer. “Sorry, maybe that’s unfair. But he’s a finance major, for God’s sake.”

The judgment made—a verdict, really—makes her heart sink. “Maybe he’s just trying to figure himself out,” she says, thinking of June, and seeing his expression, adds, “like we all are. You should give him the capacity for change.”

“Huh. Capacity for change. That’s a good phrase,” he says, nodding back at the table.

He could just not come back, too. Like June. It’s people like Amelia, he thinks, that would make it hard for him to actually leave. The specific visions of escape he’s always conjured—the porthole window, cozy bunk, sheets of nighttime snow twisting over the ocean, bound somewhere new—don’t hold the same comfort anymore. Like a dream vacation or a favorite prayer, he still carries them with him, something to indulge thinking about from time to time as momentary escape from a present frustration. Taking an advance on that future freedom. But satisfaction is like smoke: impossible to predict, and harder still to grab. That’s a clever one; he’ll have to remember that.

Gráinne’s mid-anecdote when they arrive. They’re all laughing, Tom looking on with a measure of pride.

“So I’m left there holding three cans, by myself,” she says. With her hair—mid-brown dyed lighter, Amelia guesses—pulled back under a knit hat, the heart of her face is made more dramatic: widow’s peak, round cheeks, tapered jaw.

Amelia puts her hand on June’s shoulder, angling herself into the booth.

“Oh, hang on,” June says, smiling. “Liam and I are going to get another round.”

Michael leans back in his chair as if trying to get the whole table in-frame, sipping the foam off his beer, which is yeast-yellow in the sallow bar light. It’s always a performance, Tom thinks. It’s always about how you appear to experience the world, not how you actually experience it. This is the devil-may-care routine: why feel when you can sneer?

“Come on, Mikey,” Amelia says, patting the leather booth. “Slide on in.”

He throws up his hands. They share a glance—a duo entering the crowded dining room after a preparatory chat in the kitchen—and he moves over.

“Oh, Amelia, I thought of you,” Tom says, screening Michael from his line of sight. Amelia braces herself, still fighting the impression of Tom that Michael put in her head. “Gráinne agreed with what you were saying about the exam system back home versus how they do things here, but I want to say I’d still argue there’s real value in having separate periods for classes, studying, and then exams. Especially if you’re switching gears between things.”

“I just don’t really know,” Gráinne clarifies, clearly embarrassed to be tagged in.

“No, I definitely see your point,” Amelia says, hurrying things along. If there’s one thing Tom loves, it’s relitigating an argument he’s already won.

Michael, who is absently rolling a coaster on its edge, snorts.

“What?” Tom turns toward him.

“Nothing,” Michael says, letting the coaster fall face-down. Maybe the problem is that Tom doesn’t get checked on his inane bullshit. “It just seems to me like a recipe for overload, leaving all the testing to the end. Even if you are taking one class outside your major.”

The back breaks; the thread snaps; whatever. Anything could have done it, Amelia thinks, pulling herself away. Maybe Michael is right. For the first time, she lets herself imagine things might not get better. June’s departure now feels all but guaranteed.

Tom frowns. “Well, Mike, it does force you to take some responsibility and commit to just doing the work. I can’t say how they do it at Penn State, but at Georgetown, we just kind of have to go straight from classes into exams.” You can’t blame anyone else, he might add, as foreign a concept as that may be.

“I guess it’s a personality thing. You’re the philosopher.”

June and Liam, toting the drinks, return with unknowing smiles.

“I mean, sure, if you skip all your history readings the whole semester, it probably doesn’t feel like there’s much to do.” Tom realizes now he’s leaning forward over the table, head almost level with the booth’s wall-mounted Emeralite lamp.

“Oh, come on,” Liam says. “Do we have to do this now? It might be the last time we’re all out together.”

June glares back. Maybe she doesn’t want to be the connective tissue.

“Am I wrong, Michael? How many times have you been to the library this semester?

“Alright, alright,” Amelia says. They’re fighting about the library, for God’s sake, and people have started to stare.

“How many times? That’s all I’m asking.”

Everyone’s arms are out, posed in various permutations of woe, plea, exhaustion. At once, Gráinne mutters, “dear,” and Amelia repeats herself. “Alright. Relax.”

The band erupts behind, and in unison they jump and turn to look. A few bars in, and, yep, it’s a Celtified “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the violin aping Cyndi’s sugary vocals. Tom mutters as the attention turns back to the table. Liam stares into his beer.

“What?” Amelia asks, voice raised against the music.

“Nothing,” Tom yells, shaking his head.

For whatever reason—it must have been something she’d read—Amelia’s wanted desperately to see it snow in Ireland. As the wind grew colder and the drizzle drove harder, she’d checked the forecast daily, hoping to see white flake symbols dancing down her screen. June had teased her for it—Amelia the Canadian, homesick and snow-hungry even across the Atlantic—but she’d felt her excitement build this morning at the sight of the clouds smeared like icing over the baroque roofline.

Tonight, however, the skies have cleared, glazing the city in waxy moonlight. Their circle is broken on the sidewalk outside Old Tadgh’s. Michael leans back with one foot pressed up against the bar’s wall, looking away from the rest, and Tom and Gráinne huddle near the curb. The pronunciation’s the same, but here it’s spelled kerb, Amelia remembers, a flutter of pride at her own assimilation.

“We could still head to Callahan’s, if we want,” Liam says, looking up from his phone. “It’s like, what, a fifteen-minute walk? That’s not that bad.”

There’s a deferential pause, eyes flashing around in search of someone with a stronger opinion, before Tom finally speaks.

“I don’t know, Liam. I’m not sure how much we have in us.”

Post-fight and on-the-mend, Tom notices all the familiar feelings coming back, picking his mental locks and pulling up their chairs. Gráinne has one foot out the door. Every deficiency is plain. In calmer moments, he’ll tell himself that the fact that Gráinne’s with him is proof enough that he’s becoming the person he wants to be. But wait, the other voice argues: that Michael’s able to dig under your skin justifies the fear that it’s all a farce, that you’re transparent. Tom glowers at Michael. He somehow skates every single time, responsibilities sliding off his back, never held to account. Free, unbound.

“Come on, Tom,” Liam says, his voice now strained. “What if this is it? What if this is the last time we’re able to all be together, you know, what with June… thinking about leaving.”

June looks up at the sound of her name. What did they expect to change so much next semester? She’s had the thought before, but now it feels fuller, their own imagined silence more telling. Here’s what would happen: they’d all return, cravings for family and American television and real peanut butter sated, and they’d fall right back into the rhythms of life in Dublin. They’d scheme weekends abroad in new places and have roughly the same experiences, drinking too much and wandering foreign cities late at night, deep in the throes of existential wonderment. They’d shop at the same Aldi and SuperValu, grab the same meal deals, delight at the same sales on tea and Tayto. This place was supposed to be something new and difficult. She looks around. They’d more than likely end up at Old Tadgh’s again.

Maybe that’s enough for them, she thinks. Maybe all they want to do is slot right in.

Tom looks to Gráinne and intuits enough to shake his head.

“I know, but I think we’re going to call it a night,” he says, affecting the sensible maturity Liam knows Michael hates. “We’ll see you back at the apartment, Liam.”

Liam nods and Tom and Gráinne give a gloved wave, turning toward the street. It’s different now. Broken. Think about it: next term’s nights out with Amelia alone, sans June (home), sans Tom (lost to Gráinne’s circles, practically living over there now), sans Michael (having exhausted this group, he’s gone elsewhere; here but not; syncopated).

The arc bowing from August to May that Liam has conceived, rich with unseen experiences, feels shorter. It just does. It’s hard not to look back enviously on the first weeks, when the shock and disorientation of arrival faded in the face of newfound freedom. It was drawing a map, street by street. Someone had an inside scoop, a bar with discount pints or live music. Released to the mild, late summer air, they’d maraud across their new city, giddy. The only consolation for losing that wide-eyed euphoria has been getting his bearings and building this communal reality. But now he’s Wile E. Coyote, running headfirst into the brick behind the backdrop.

It’s when he turns to June and Amelia that he realizes Michael has vanished.

“Where’s Michael?” he asks, and it takes them a second to register what he means. “He was standing right there.”

The wall behind them is bare.

“I don’t—” Amelia says, fishing out her phone as if for evidence of where he’s gone.

“Did he say anything?” Liam asks. He might have slipped back inside, but surely they would have heard the music rise through the opening door. Right?

June shakes her head as Amelia dials, blue-white light sharpening the contours of her face. She looks out over the quiet street. Tom and Gráinne are nowhere to be found.

“He didn’t pick up,” Amelia says. She’s already typing a text. A group shoulders past with the wild eyes of traveling Americans, their scarves stretched across their faces. She can’t shake the feeling that she could have kept him more engaged.

June points north, down the street to where it opens onto the riverfront. “If I were him, I’d have walked to the quays.”

Liam nods and starts down the block. That’s exactly what he would have done. Anger comes in and out of focus, buffeted by the notion he’s now questioning that if he doesn’t go after him, he’s no better. That reasoning is starting to feel real hollow.

Amelia is tilted forward as she and June follow, shoulders hunched and chin pushed into the worn lining of her jacket. The Dublin below is soaked, here and there a bulbous soft drink bottle bobbing with the streetlights in rainwater pools. Ever since the slides at orientation (The Liffey: Lifeblood of the City), she’s imagined the cold river water rising up and spilling out onto the streets.

The wind is higher on the quays, racing down the unbroken thoroughfare. Liam is by now several feet in front, casting his head back every few steps, whether in challenge or anguish, June doesn’t know. You couldn’t say it isn’t beautiful down here. The moon nods in the dark water, high over the lights twinkling on the other bank, white and red and green.

Amelia spots him first. Wrapped in that ubiquitous black parka a block and a half ahead, he stumbles along, swiveling his body between arcing quay and stone barrier. She throws out a gloved finger.

“Is that Mike?” she asks, and Liam’s head turns quickly.

Weird. No one’s had quite that much to drink—funny how an argument brings down the atmosphere—but ahead the man weaves across the pavement. Same dark hair dancing in the wind, same stocky frame.

“Michael,” Liam yells. The wind marches against them, toward the port and the bay beyond.

He yells again, picking up the pace. Of course he’d choose the path of most resistance. He imagines Michael setting out, steaming, walking until the frigid air numbs his face. Of course it’s about running away.

They’re speed-walking now, a trio of middle-age exercisers, as if actually running would make their own fear real and plain. Ahead, Michael presses on, head turned toward them if only for a second. It’s when he slips and falls toward the Liffey that they sprint, boots slapping the wet stone walk. June feels her heartbeat in her ears. The barrier hits him in his sternum and his arms shoot out. He’s draped over the top, riverbank superman, a kid testing the limits of his parents’ patience.

But by providence, luck, or dark cosmic justice, Liam grabs him by the jacket just as he appears to tilt toward the black water below.

“Michael, thank the Lord you’re alright, but, frankly, what—” Liam says, and stops, nearly letting go. The face turned back to him is all wrongheavy lids and hollow cheeks, a birthmark splashed above his eyebrow. It’s not Michael.

“Ah, cheers. Almost lost it there,” the man (not Michael!) slurs, finding his footing on the sidewalk. “Mates left me in the lav. Can you believe that?”

He’s shitfaced, and he’s English, Amelia realizes, spotting the tourist’s green and orange necklaces of beaded plastic peeking out of his jacket. He sends back a hazy smile.

All June can feel is relief. The anger she’d been building comes apart, block by block. It’s not Michael. He’s fine. She looks at the man, staggering against the stone barrier, blinking up at the streetlight. The second wave hits, the mirthless joy of a near-disaster. She imagines the fall into the Liffey, the enveloping cold shocking his lungs closed, the disorienting current dragging him away.

“Daz,” the man says. “Darren, actually. But you can call me Daz. That’s what I’m called.”

He holds a hand out to no one in particular. Amelia shakes it, and he nods, unseeing, reaching for his pocket. The bright light of his phone makes him wince theatrically.

Every time Amelia looks away, she turns back expecting to see Michael’s face. She feels a perverse pull to watch the river and ensure he doesn’t come floating past while they stand around. He’s still out there, the accident witnessed a woeful reminder of all the potential harm, every potential danger. It’s the softest rip in the everyday. And where is he, then?

“Dame Street. Any idea where Dame Street is?” Daz asks, looking up from his phone.

“It’s like two blocks up.” June points behind them. It is, in fact, exactly two blocks up. “It’s a big, main street. You can’t miss it.”

He stands in place, taking in the information, then lurches forward toward the road. “Cheers.”

Liam lunges after him, grabbing his shoulder as a car whizzes past. “Do you need some help getting there?”

“Nah, nah. No. I’ve got it in here, mate,” he says, tapping his temple. He stops to answer his phone. “Dunc! Yeah. No, I’m headed your way. Yeah. A few upstanding, uh, Yanks, I think, gave me a hand. No, I know.”

He aims for a wink and ends up blinking at them. Liam reaches reflexively as he steps onto the road, gathers himself, and weaves across, laughing into his phone. They watch as he disappears around the corner.

“He still hasn’t texted me,” Amelia says. By now the worry is naked in her voice. They’re standing in a valley between the streetlights, at the site of the almost-tragedy, and she feels very, very small. All that personal growth and development you wanted? Here you go.

June steps forward. “It’ll be alright. He’s alright.”

She means it, too. She’s come around to it, the near-miss hitting whatever catastrophe quota she’s allowed herself. The alternative is unthinkable. Michael’s fine. There’s no way he could be in harm’s way.

“My best guess is that he’s probably taking the long way home, you know. Clearing his head,” she says in tender tones, trying to be consoling. “Standing here isn’t changing anything.”

Amelia nods, and they walk east, the way they came, her phone still clutched in one mitten as a concession to her nerves. She’ll be the first to know if and when he does reply. Like ice cracking underfoot, the Dublin she’s tried to cast in amber feels impermanent, fluid, and altogether uncontrollable.

The reality is this: for Liam, the forecasting models were off. There was no lightning bolt, no cross of light in the sky, dregs of his afternoon tea decidedly gritty and nonportentous. That there would be letdowns and misfortunes had never entered the calculus. So you have to roll with that one.

The Liffey courses quietly beside them. Liam lags slightly behind, keeping a healthy distance from the riverbank barrier. When the head rush of the first month had worn off, the walks he started taking at night had felt like freedom. Tracing the well-worn avenues, the landmarks began to softly imprint themselves, and every brick block hiding behind was new, each one a badge of his mounting belonging and a reminder of the unknown beyond. That’s a new one, and wait ’til you hear about everything else you haven’t seen. Blue-lit TV rooms, the view of a kid practicing guitar between the second-floor curtains, empty offices, bookcases, a shadowy kitchen, arguments behind blinds in silhouette, what appears a shrine to Bernard Brogan, late dinners, dark houses, toy-strewn lawns, dogs, an old man peering back into the street, well-worn chairs. He puts himself everywhere. They’re hooks now, every feature of the passing city.

Two steps closer to Dublin Bay and in contravention to both alcohol consumed and the advanced hour, June feels awake. Vivacious, dynamic. The city changes beneath her feet, fresh and full for her impending departure. She’s counting—probably ten, maybe eleven or twelve days left. That’s it. But that’s the way all the big decisions are made, she thinks. Amid all the noise, the answer clicks without your knowing it. It gets jostled loose or something. From the other side, every alternative is the back of a false-front building, the puny reality made bare, and you feel both fooled for ever wavering and streetwise for confirming your own good judgment.

The arguments once used to rebut her gut now fall before her like wartime spending on household goods (zing!): 1. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (And I’ve lived it for four whole months); 2. You’re abandoning them (Them being Liam and Amelia? The ones who’ve bought into the city’s mythos, wholesale?); 3. There’s more Dublin to see (There’s the same amount, just less time to see it). And, as June knows, it’s the knowledge of eventual departure that gives the trip its spark.

She wants to walk the old, mazy streets around the sprawling park, skeletal branches rattling against early-dark skies. She’ll go the gaol, storehouse, cathedral with Amelia, do the things she’d put off in the face of so much time left.

She’s flying now. All the way on, she’ll see the brick heart, the tech tax havens. She’ll pass the new housing tracts and the green fields they’ll advance into, pass the arcing M50, pass beyond into hedgerows and tree-split hills. To borrow Liam’s parlance, she’ll soak up the whole watershed. That she will do.

The next right is theirs. At the intersection, huddled, they turn into the city.

JACK NOLAND lives in Ridgewood, New York. He is a recent graduate of George Washington University, in Washington, DC, where he developed passions for fiction writing and public policy. His reporting on money in American politics can be found on the award-winning OpenSecrets blog. “Watershed” is his first published work of fiction.

Author’s Note

In an interview with Frank Ormsby, the Belfast-born writer Ciaran Carson traces the similarities between mapmaking and poetry. “[A] map is only useful by how far it deviates from reality,” he says. “The perfect map would be reality, and therefore useless—the city as a map of the city. For a map to work, it has to use shorthand, or symbols, or metaphor, and in this it resembles poetry.”

It’s a beautiful analogy. Writing is mapmaking. Both seek a product that simultaneously stands on its own and conjures something larger, less skeletal than schematic. As the stories and maps we make will show, the city is another assemblage of tiny things given collective identity by virtue of their interconnection. Each component is both individual and of the crowd.

In writing this story, I was interested in exploring the ways people use group relationships and shared surroundings to justify, study, and contradict their own conceptions of self. Our environment becomes a stage for our actions. As such, the views people have of their world and their neighbors will reflect their own identities. The city becomes the composite of those impressions.

But belonging isn’t binary. The collective identity members of a group both shape and wear is inherently fraught. As the novelist Colson Whitehead writes of New York, “There are eight million naked cities in this naked city—they dispute and disagree.” That tension’s a rich narrative seam. In the gulf between viewpoints we learn a lot about our onlookers and the landscape linking them.

Naturally, these naked cities shift over time. The story’s premise—foreign students abroad, a few months into their program—affords a middle course between novelty, when details are most vivid and mysterious, and familiarity, when they’re commonplace and comprehensible.

Merging these points of view puts structural issues in play. Perspectives can’t be truly unified, of course, and to be enjoined they have to be stacked, another assemblage of tiny things. Scenes should move, and inhabiting five characters’ minds risks forcing hot-potato transitions. Rather than deepening understanding, jumping from person to person to person over the course of a few lines can have the effect of draining the story of any perspective at all. For that reason, I tried to make dialogue a rudder, steering the story between characters. When people speak, a little of their interior world comes out, deliberate or inadvertent, complete or fractured. These interactions are the building blocks of the group.

And the beauty of collective identity is that it develops a force of its own. To indulge the cliché, it’s a quality greater than the sum of its individual parts. In a story that’s nominally centered on five students, the biggest moment puts just three in view. Because the off-screen characters exist as members of the group even when the group is divided, their absence compels the others to action. What’s not there illuminates what is—and the narrative hinges, in the end, on something that doesn’t happen to one character inspiring another to make a decision.

Fiction can’t faultlessly recreate a city or a group of people. The deviation from reality is what matters, as Carson puts it, and this story’s schematic shorthand is the intersection of these narrative strands. As the details these characters absorb shade the outlines of their Dublins, it’s the act of interweaving these perspectives that serves to map each person, the city, and the group itself.

JACK NOLAND lives in Ridgewood, New York. He is a recent graduate of George Washington University, in Washington, DC, where he developed passions for fiction writing and public policy. His reporting on money in American politics can be found on the award-winning OpenSecrets blog. “Watershed” is his first published work of fiction.