Oliver is waiting for me at the end of the platform, slouched in an uncomfortable-looking metal chair, fiddling with his telephone. He is pale and floppy-mopped as ever, a proper vampiric Hugh Grant, minus all of the prostitutes and fame and whatnot.
“I told you to get at the front of the train!” he says, reprimanding me like a brother would his sister. “Don’t start with me,” I warn, and we wait together patiently for the next train, which arrives within two minutes.
This is a Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters…
A few stops and one bus ride later, we’ve arrived at his home, a contemporary modern abode amongst more traditional British housing, stodgy and stifled by comparison. “The Wood Cabin,” he has referred to it as in the past, leading me to mistakenly envision tartan quilts and loyal, fox-murdering hounds, not the Dwell Magazine worthy den of white walls and perfectly filtered light that it actually is.
“How much time do you need before we head out?” he asks, to which I gamely reply, “I’m ready to just go now.” I’ve only got 30-something hours in London before I head back to the airport for Leg 2 of my journey to the Maldives. Ordinarily, I’d prefer to crawl into some hole and succumb to my jetlag. Despite my enthusiasm, I realize it’s 10 in the morning and I’ve just spent the last twelve hours soaking up recycled air and the dander of strangers. I need a shower, a nap, a change of clothes.
My enthusiasm to carpe diem is stymied by Oliver’s mother-like push towards the tub. “Take your time,” he says. “No rush.” I scrub myself in scalding water while staring down at the flight-induced swelling that is still ravaging my ankles. Lazily, I opt to not wash my hair, a decision I will regret some 40 hours later, after every opportunity for genuine cleanliness has successfully evaded me.
It’s brisk in London today and I am happy to have packed warm enough clothing. I layer on a typically New York outfit: my favorite pair of gray jeans (complete with increasingly ripped hole in crotch), a polyester blouse disturbingly similar to ones my mother would have worn to work in the early 90s, a leather jacket that still reeks of old cigarette smoke circa Paris six days ago, and my wonderfully expensive wool coat (oh, the joys of designer trade) that recently replaced the synthetic G-Star knee- length number I’ve been embarrassing my friends with for the last two years.
Oliver and I walk along the green pastures in front of his house and up a hill. I remark on the English gardens my mother would swoon over, on how “cute” all the homes are, how “fucking British” Britain is. Oliver holds me by the elbow at street crossings to keep me from walking into oncoming traffic, buses and the like.
We sit down to breakfast in a place that may or may not have offered crayons in the center of the table to draw with. Our chairs are petite and elevated just enough off of the floor to make me feel like Alice in Wonderland after she’s just nibbled off of a biscuit stamped with “EAT ME.” My body’s got that “You’re here, but your brain’s somewhere else” feeling I have become vaguely accustomed to. I look around the room for one of those woven floor rugs they used to give to us in kindergarten for naptime. Every cell in my body is commanding sleep.
I order an English breakfast, which, in my estimation, is a masochistic and needless nationalist tradition of runny baked beans, sausages that look more like burned fingers than pig meat, and fried eggs – the chef’s obvious goal being to correct the unnatural ratio of white to crispy brown. I am confused as to why an entire culture would wish to present this mish mash of shit as their Breakfast of Choice. Over the course of my four morning mealtime opportunities here, I will have been relegated to order this fare (the alternative, of course, being blood sausage and other fine delicacies) four different times. Thankfully, this morning is one of the better ones. I vaguely recall some roasted potatoes.
We leave. I walk over to Barclays to pick up some “bank notes” that don’t fit into my American wallet, the edges of which are left exposed to the horror that is the inside of my purse. By the end of the day, most of my cash will look like some child’s afterschool project, mashed into a papier-mâché-like state by rogue chapsticks, a dead cell phone, coins from various countries, and confetti parade of gum wrappers.
“Naptime,” Oliver commands, my ultimate tour guide and jetlag fairy godmother. For some reason, I assumed he would continue to go about his day without me, but he gamely participates in sleeping for two or three hours, which, as it turns out, will fortify the both of us for the next ten hours in London.
Around 8 or so, we end up in a pub in an area I can’t remember the name of. The walls are purple. Yes, I’m pretty sure the walls are purple. Oliver orders me a glass of wine, of which I have the option of getting a petite serving or one more suitable to an alcoholic’s taste. I opt for the former, though, on my next round, liberated from acquiescing to my irritatingly omnipresent need to be in control, I opt for the latter. Friends arrive, everyone drinks, we play ping-pong in the back of the room. I establish that I am, indeed, a horrible ping-pong player.
A few hours later, we take a cab to Dalston. It’s 11 p.m. and I haven’t eaten dinner. Oliver takes me into a bodega and I scan a host of things I do not eat until I arrive at a bean salad with what is maybe feta cheese – an amazing find considering this is pretty much like Britain’s answer to a gas station convenience store. We stand outside a bar while I stab at chickpeas with a broken fork, most of which do not make it into my mouth.
Kids pack into the pub. Everyone drinks. The hours wane. A steady stream of cutesy 50s music plays nonstop. More people jam into the club. People drink more. People drink until they are drunk and then they drink some more. That night I spent in London three years ago watching British youth inhale drugs and swig booze until they’d obliterated all sense of reason – that collective, compulsory wish to destroy themselves – comes back to me. Oh, yes, I think, now I remember how people party in London.
I yell across the table at friends of Oliver’s and then at blithely friendly drunks who have just appeared out of nowhere. The room has become this bobbing mass of people shouting and dancing and I sit at my table feeling vaguely tired and a little bit drunk. Thankfully, at 3 a.m. the lights come on. Oh, good, I think. Now we can go home.
Or, you know, not.
Oliver and I walk to a place called Kebab House or Kebab Hut or something like that to get a falafel. We obnoxiously shout out orders to a man in a white smock, a rotating cylinder of compressed lamb meat just behind him. Florescent lights coat everything in an unappetizing bluishness.
“Is that mayonnaise?” Oliver interrogates, largely on my behalf, as the man steadies a yellow bottle above a mostly-finished pita. The man nods as his fingers ready for a squeeze. “No! No! No!” Oliver hollers, as though the poor little man has nearly picked up the telephone to incite WWIII. “NO MAYONNAISE!”
By the time we return to the front of the bar, Oliver’s friend – the one whose dad went to the same high school at the same time as my own dad – is standing with his hand to his nose, smearing a stream of blood into his beard with his fingertips. “Why did you punch me in the face?” he’s asking the boy standing across from him, who can’t seem to find a reasonable answer. Then again, I suppose there is little rationality in violence. Punching a person does not necessarily include proper planning and carefully laid plans.
The blood begins to dry on his hands, filling in the tiny lines between the joints. The little ginger girl who has been stumbling about and dancing and laughing and seemingly having the most wonderful time out of all of us lunges towards him with a plaid scarf, wiping blood away with its pilled surface, staining the fibers crimson.
“If you don’t want someone to punch you in the face, don’t ask for someone to punch you in the face,” the boy says, his eyes wide but not articulating anything but a needless and artificial surge of energy. I’m pretty sure he’s been doing blow. I’m also pretty sure Oliver’s friend did file a personal request to get knocked first in the chin, and then next in the nose.
“I didn’t ask you to punch me in the face,” he says. This is the most verbose bar fight I’ve ever seen, devoid of the testosterone-fueled duel one might find at, say, a dive bar in Detroit.
For a moment, the respective friends get riled up on behalf of the puncher and the punchee, frustrated that parties actually involved are not taking it further themselves. The girls step in, overly confident in their role as impenetrable shields. They hold their hands up saying no, no, no and provide the boys with excuses for giving up. Eventually, the groups peel away, still keeping their eyes on each other from an ever-increasing distance measurable in meters.
The useless debate to wage an all-out war continues for about thirty minutes until someone has the good sense to just head over to the liquor store to provide adequate libations for the wholly necessary afterparty about to commence around the corner at Oliver’s friend’s flat. I guess I’m not going home any time soon.
It’s about 4 a.m. by the time we reach the flat. I last long enough to hold a useless three-minute conversation while staring blankly at a chick magazine filled with celebrities I do not recognize or care about. Oliver points me in the direction of a bedroom. “Just go sleep in there,” he says. I can’t bring myself to really get comfortable in a stranger’s bedroom just six feet away from twenty more strangers still chattering and drinking and playing music, so instead I fall asleep, fully clothed, on a loveseat pressed against the wall, my bag digging into something that looks like a remote control for a robot.
It’s freezing fucking cold and I cover my knees with a decorative pillow in the hopes it might provide me with enough warmth to cease my teeth chattering. I’ve nodded off to sleep when Oliver comes in and takes of my shoes. “Get in Laura’s bed,” he says, and I look over to the white mass that has since been occupied by the little ginger girl, her face hidden by a wall of strawberry hair, the comforter taking the lumpy topography of something very human and small.
I crawl under the covers, wearing my wool coat and my leather jacket, my shirt that looks like my mom, everything but my shoes. I resist the urge to latch onto the girl I only shared four words with in the bar in an effort to warm myself. Her drunken heat radiates underneath the covers. I fall asleep to more laughter, more freezing cold air, someone playing a track by the Pixies.
BEEN TRYIN’ TO MEET YOU!
A WHORE’S IN MY HEAD
WHORE IN MY BED
Until my body gives up, wholly confused as to what time zone I am forcing it into, straining to remember where I even came from just twenty hours ago. Until my brain wakes up some three hours later, wholly confused as to where the hell I am, whose bed I am sleeping in, and where the fuck Oliver has disappeared to.