Authors: S.P. Davidson
© 2012 by S.P. Editorial Services
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the author.
I stood paralyzed in the Rite-Aid card aisle. Not one card was right. “My Dream Come True.” “I’ll Love You Forever.” “Our Love is Meant To Be.” Ridiculous pictures of penguins, or ribbons, or silhouetted couples walking hand-in-hand in the sand.
Our love isn’t like that at all!
I thought, frustrated. It just felt wrong, buying one of those over-the-top cards, even though I knew George would do so for me. I knew he’d come home with a spray of flowers and one of those mushy cards. Maybe some pastel-colored lingerie, or cultured pearl earrings I’d never wear. Something you could tell he’d hurried into downtown Pasadena to buy during his lunch break, checking off an imaginary list titled “appropriate anniversary gifts.”
“Oh, the hell with it!” I muttered, grabbing the first card I saw—a large heart-shaped confection with imprinted lace edges. “To My One and Only Love,” it read in foil cursive. The lengthy poem in front appeared to continue inside, but I couldn’t bring myself to read the entire thing without gagging. Something about how we would walk hand in hand through life, always by each other’s side, with a love that never died. Well, that was about right anyhow, I reflected, digging through my cluttered purse for change. George would never let me leave his side. We’d be forever stuck together like the magnetic princess-and-frog salt and pepper shakers Aunt Dorothea had given us as a wedding present. Sometimes I just wanted to fling those garishly colored things at the wall.
I crossed the street to Larchmont Village Wine & Cheese and purchased an appropriately festive gift—a bottle of port. I couldn’t stand the stuff myself, too sweet with an undertone of wet socks, but George loved to pour himself a glass of port after dinner, swirling it thoughtfully as he propped his stocking feet up on the ottoman in the living room. All he needed was a pipe and a smoking jacket, I’d think, and he’d fit right in to the nineteenth century. My lord and master.
A sparkly bag to put the booze in and presto—our fourth anniversary. Our sixth year together.
The funny thing was, by marrying George, I’d finally given in. No more mucking about in low-paying jobs, barely surviving paycheck to paycheck, following some half-assed dream of artistic fame I could never carry through. I was ready to conform, and I had purchased the beige-colored clothing to prove it.
But marrying me—barely employed, almost half his age—that was the one crazy, wild, out-of-character thing George had ever done. That March afternoon four years ago, I’d walked down the makeshift aisle in George’s mother’s backyard, my heels sinking into the damp grass.
Sparse rows of guests with polite, vague smiles; George’s mother staring stonily straight ahead, as if at a funeral. My two brothers: Marty in a too-small suit, his bony wrists sticking out of the cuffs. He sat next to the aisle, and as I passed him, he mimed a hanging motion, crossing his eyes and lolling his head back, hand pulling on an imaginary rope. I kicked him furtively as I walked by. And Alex, sitting with his fiancée, Sheila, intentionally several rows distant from Mom and Marty. I hardly recognized him, with slicked-back hair and a suit that looked more expensive than my wedding dress.
Mom was crying, but she cried so easily.
And I hardly touched Dad’s arm as we walked together down the aisle, slipping in the mud. Thinking,
So there you go. This is how it ends, after all.
I rubbed my fingers across the crisp traveler’s checks, over and over. With enough money, I could do anything. I’d be safe. I carefully placed those American Express checks in my security neck pouch, next to my brand-new passport and my acceptance letter to Butler College. I fervently hoped the money I’d saved this summer would somehow last me through the next year of expenses. Otherwise, I’d have to dip into Uncle Paulie’s fast-dwindling stash.
I didn’t like to think about Uncle Paulie.
But it was July 31, my twenty-first birthday, and today was the day everything was supposed to change. So I shook off the memories, tucked the strings of the tan polyester neck pouch inside my shirt, and took a last, long look at my favorite place. My childhood bedroom was on the second floor of our narrow Victorian house in a converted attic. My room wasn’t much to look at, but it was all mine. Hidden in the back corner of the house, accessible only through the back door of a bathroom, a staircase away from everyone, it was the only place I really felt at home.
All the upstairs ceilings sloped inwards, and in my room the only spot you could stand up straight was on the left side, where my bed was. To the right were two dormer windows with window seats covered in yellow twill. I used to sit there for hours, sketching the varied roofs of the neighboring house. But I was through with art now. Finished. Moving on.
Like most Victorians, the rooms in the rest of the house were small, narrow, and dark. The way Mom had decorated them, with floral William Morris–inspired wallpaper covering every wall and ceiling, made them even more oppressive. I longed for a clean, empty space to rest my eyes, but there was always something to look at: tea cozies, fireplace implements, chintz-covered furniture, antimacassars, and always those busy wallpaper patterns pressing in. My spartan room, in contrast, had nothing to hide.
Saying a fierce, silent farewell to my little room, I dragged my duffel down the creaking wood stairs to the front door, mentally itemizing its contents. I’d tried to keep to the essentials. Aside from clothes and a warm coat, I’d packed my favorite purple stuffed pig; gel for my newly cropped hair; a sketch pad with a blue cloth cover; and three pencils: 2H, HB, and 2B. All you need are those three pencils, and you can create any degree of shading. Turn the imaginary into three dimensions. Despite my desperate resolutions, I hadn’t been able to resist throwing that pad and pencils into my bulging bag at the last minute.
“Goodbye!” I yelled, but the house was empty, except for Dad. In the summer he had a half-day off every other Friday, and spent that afternoon in thrall to ESPN. He emerged blinking from the basement television room and drove me forty miles north from our house in San Jose to the San Francisco airport to catch my evening flight. He smiled and talked the whole way about nothing I could remember, even moments after the words left his mouth. Instead, I slumped in the passenger seat, watching the hideous landscape of highway 101 shoot past: trash-strewn freeway margins, endless office parks, gray heaped on gray. 101 was the commerce route of the Bay area: straight, clogged, merciless, and utterly devoid of charm. Dad’s fingers tapped lightly on the steering wheel of his powder-blue Cadillac as he drove along, never glancing my way. I was glad, after all, that he hadn’t chosen the longer, more beautiful route to the airport along highway 280, where you could see deer grazing by the roadside near the deep blue reservoir. Via 101, I’d have fewer last moments to miss, fewer regrets to tally.
At last, Dad pulled into the maze of ramps leading toward the international terminal, no doubt counting the minutes till he could say goodbye. My flight was leaving at 6:25 pm, arriving in London late the following morning. After check-in, Dad and I poked around the duty-free shops and walked aimlessly through the boarding area, my backpack heavy with bottles of water and a London guidebook to read on the long flight. Soon enough, he started thrumming his fingers impatiently on the sides of his pants. I offered, “It’s okay, Dad, you can go now. I’ll be fine,” and gave him a tentative hug.
He pulled away but kept his hands on my shoulders. “Vivian,” he began, as if a prelude to something very important. I waited, not breathing.
At last, he said, “Have a good year, honey.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I managed.
He walked off with quick, decisive strides, his spine straight, shoulders back. He didn’t turn around.
Soon he’d pull out of the airport maze, free of another responsibility, and of the terrible guilt he and Mom never acknowledged. I’d seen his car sometimes that summer when I drove home from babysitting in the late evening. It would be parked around the corner from AJ’s, the dumpy little building on nearby Lincoln Avenue housing a second-rate topless club. I knew he was in there with my former classmate Andrew, his arm around Andrew’s shoulders, dispensing fatherly wisdom while they watched the girls gyrate, slack-jawed in front of beers. Andrew standing in for the absent son. The son who was never coming back.
But I tried not to think about that either, because soon I’d be gone. I was leaving it all behind again. I had the address of the Montague Hostel in my backpack, scrawled on my map of London for safekeeping. The plan was to spend three weeks on my own, staying at this hostel while exploring the city, then move in to the Butler College student residence hall near Russell Square when school started at the end of August.
I stood still, alone in that airport. Each minute a black marble dropping with a finite chinking sound into a big bowl of time.
It was my birthday, so I bought a Hershey bar to celebrate.
The last marble dropped. The gate agent began boarding. I walked with trepidation into my real future.
~ ~ ~
Stumbling off the plane eleven hours later, after a nervous, sleepless flight, I entered the vast swirl of Heathrow Airport. Sandwich carts, fancy shops--Harrods, here, in the airport--all bright glass and escalators. The line for customs and immigration seemed to stretch for miles, doubling and tripling back on itself in a sea of tired travelers smelling of unwashed hair and unbrushed teeth. At last, I dazedly pushed my passport over the counter to the clean-shaven officer. “And how long will you be staying?” he asked, squinting at my red-rimmed eyes. “Oh! yes!” I suddenly remembered, scrounging my neck pouch out from under my t-shirt, to his restrained amusement. Rummaging around, I produced my now-crumpled admission letter to Butler College. He eyed it, nodded, and produced a frighteningly large stamp. With a professional ka-chunk, an entire page of my passport was now filled with a big black box, bearing the words:
Leave to remain in the United Kingdom on condition that the holder does not enter or change employment paid or unpaid without the consent of the Secretary of State for Employment and does not engage in any business or profession without the consent of the Secretary of State for the Home Department is hereby given until 31
And on top of that, a pentagonal imprint: Home Office Immigration Department.
It was so proper and official. I felt safe, accounted for, and as a sea of people swept me down a set of escalators, as I followed the line-in-a-circle signs to the Underground, I felt a sudden sense of belonging. This, here, right now was the beginning of the place I was meant to be.
I dragged my luggage onto the Piccadilly Line, clutching a map of the Underground, following the little dots my only clue to where I was. We shot out through viridian fields, strange motorway signs, my first view of roundabouts. And then, the train dove under the ground (thanking god I didn’t have to change trains; holding the straps of my stained duffel for dear life). The stops sounded so desperately foreign—Osterley, South Ealing, Acton Town—and then, finally, Holborn. I wedged my dirty, exhausted self into an ancient-looking gray contraption. It was already packed, and the elevator riders closest to me had nowhere to hide as my large bag kept hitting them in the ankles while the elevator jounced upwards. “Sorry, sorry,” I kept saying, and then: outdoors at last. London.
I blinked in the sunlight, trying to orient myself, flapping open the London street map Dad had obtained from AAA. It was huge, flying around in the breeze, and I’d stupidly marked the hostel in black, on a blue-lined map. Where—oh, there it was. About six blocks’ walk, with my sixty-pound duffel. Why hadn’t I brought a suitcase with wheels, for heaven’s sake? Alright, then. Up Kingsway. Oops, wrong direction. Okay, proceeding again, toward Southampton Row. Stop, rest a minute. Was that a Wimpy Burger I saw? I blinked, and looked again. Yes, Popeye’s pal was the boss of his very own burger chain. I’d have to try one, later, after shedding this duffel. My arms were about to fall out of their sockets. Left, on Russell Square, past a big green park—Bloomsbury Square. Left, at last, on Montague Street. White-painted row houses with brightly painted doors, etched glass skylights above. Mine was the one with the red door.