Road Story: An Exploration of Place
1. At the Alice in Wonderland University, the rabbit hole was a path to the grocery. Dusty green in its late-fall way, I tripped along it daily, sometimes twice, a safer entertainment than the dark-walled pub with men who mocked my accent. And sometimes in the discount aisle, I’d find a treasure: Curry sauce for 10p, heat-and-eat risotto for a pound. A single scotch egg in taped-up packaging, a cast-off like myself.
2. “Your last name is German, your hometown is German … How can you be American?” The diaspora feels closer when I have to explain my origins, but I just want to give the man my money. Sitting in a bank queue for hours, the outside world feels very far away. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I say. “I have an American passport.” “You have a German origin,” he informs me. I’m not who I say I am, even when I want to be. He opens an account begrudgingly, sidelong glances from under caterpillar eyebrows all the while.
3. East London was a dreary place, row houses and tenements rimming a park where horses sometimes walked, heads down and stoic. The university huddled between Olympic construction sites and a polluted Thames, the sky always low and gray. I walked for hours through dingy streets, curious faces under hijabs and turbans murmuring questions I couldn’t understand. My red hair a shock in a sea of black and brown. Fish in the pond were obscured by floating leaves, Opheliac half-questions I couldn’t answer. Don’t wear your headphones on the street, they warned us. That’s how they know you’ve something worth stealing. I didn’t, I thought. My spirit left already.
4. One class: The American Road Story. The professor looked to me as an expert by birthright. He wanted characters who found themselves through leaving. I wasn’t ready to write that story. On the way back from class, the shortest route was through the mall, its doors left open for pedestrians cutting through, our footsteps echoing on dark tile, past barred windows with garish signs: Half-off. Big Sale. Closing. Voices mocking jays fluttering through shadowed ceilings, arching too high above our heads. Anything could hide there, even nothing at all.
5. I’m ready now.
6. That first night in my new country, I couldn’t make up my duvet. My classmates couldn’t make out my nationality. We guessed each other’s origins to break the tension: Iceland, South Africa, Australia? When they “American,” I said. They answered, “Why come here from there?” Because the best way to love a place is to leave it, or desperate minds breed desperate acts or I needed a change or missed travel or wasn’t thinking clearly long enough to orchestrate my own exile or the grass is always greener or I thought I’d find my road story where no one knew my origins. That night, I wrapped the duvet cover around myself and used it like a sleeping bag. Arose the next day as if from a cocoon, fresh and raw and uncertain with damp, useless wings.
7. I never did learn to fly, but watched airplanes out my window while I read tales of growth in leaving. My own face reflecting in the dusk-darkened window as the engines roared over my head, carrying more decisive bodies away. Back. Away.
8. A partial list of things I drank: Guinness in the campus pub with the only other American I knew. Southern Comfort and orange juice with an East Indies man, both our accents too thick for conversation. Sambuca with a boy from Nigeria, while we watched a cowboy movie. Red zinfandel with my Irish roommate as we discussed our gravest failings. Vodka at G.A.Y., a three-story gay club with neon lights and famous patrons, losing friends amidst blinking strobes and plush couches swallowing bodies like olive pits. Flat whites alone, a cliche of an American abroad, writing in a black notebook in a whitewashed cafe, paying too much for a little foam with less artistry.
9. In which I realize we all leave something behind when we grow into the next versions of ourselves, though some of us travel further to find it. I didn’t feel myself standing on the edge of the chasm, didn’t realize the changes ahead and not so far, I couldn’t trip over them on my way down. But we all find branches to grab in different places, and mine were stuck in the side of hills I had to leave to find. Muddy ones, with footprints I traced with my fingers, but my knees needed mucking first. My feet needed to ache on foreign cobblestones, nose filling with exhaust and nitrogen-filtered beer. Some of us respond better to cacophony than symphony. I do.
10. My road story, seven years too late: I found something in East London, but it wasn’t my spirit or scotch egg. It wasn’t anything so tangible as either of those, or as vital. But it was something written in the fabric of my stomach, where I keep my most important feelings. I’ll name it when I know it needs one. For now, its presence is enough.