I want you to clear your head. I want you to look down at your feet and not see your shoes, or my shoes, but none at all.
I want you to imagine that you are Ariel Davis. It is 2002 in the deep south, in a high school classroom on the Gulf Coast. You are a waif-like thing. Curly Auburn hair in a tight bun, a school uniform skirt an inch or two longer than everyone else. Your biology class — imagine, with the lab tables, sinks, electrical outlets and all — is interrupted because you are needed at the guidance counselors office.
You like the guidance counselor. He is a man named Charles Snood, he has a round belly and always wears very classical cashmere sweaters and gold chain bracelets with thick gold watches. He’s…cosmopolitan. The funniest thing you ever heard him say was to a class about applying for college housing. “If you don’t apply for a dorm room, you’ll be pitching a tent out on the campus quad!” he exclaimed. He hadn’t realized the double-entendre in his statement. The boys in the classroom all started laughing and raising their eyebrows. “What did I say?” Mr. Snood asked. Miffed.
You go to his office, sit in a chair opposite a desk table. Mr. Snood greets you and pulls out an envelope you’ve seen before and sits it on the table.
“I got this in the mail,” he says. You know that branding so well, it’s from Richmond University in London. The picture of the campus’ most beautiful building is on everything they print — it’s like the most beautiful building you’ve ever seen. Storied is the good word. You’ve never been anywhere that storied before. And it feels like you’ve really never been anywhere but New York. You’ve never been away from your family for more than an hour or so. This makes you crave freedom of the extreme, freedom of a foreign place. Far away as you can get.
“I see you’ve been accepted here, congratulations.” You think briefly back on that day, the way your mother told you the mail was there. Mail! Such an important thing for a college applicant. You hugged the letter and locked yourself in your room to open it alone. You got in.
You say thank you. “I would really like to go there but — “
“I see why,” Mr. Snood interrupts quickly. The bell rings for the next class period.
“I haven’t decided…I mean, I don’t think my parents will…” you start to say. Mr. Snood is standing.
“Well, that was all,” he says, dismissing you. You walk out into the wash of students changing classes remembering the real reality: you can’t go. Your parents have already said no because it is too far, and you’ve never been out of the country. You haven’t a dime to send yourself. You tell yourself: “Thats it, it’s done and over.” You take the key to that door and fling it in the river, and watch it wash out to sea.
You study instead, in your hometown. The same street as your high school, so you jokingly call the next four years the “high school extension.” You move to New York in 2008, and decide that you will scrape up enough cash (or a hefty tax return) to send yourself to London. But it’s hard to save in the city, with paltry salaries and sky high rent. You look up flights to the point of mania.
On March 30, 2011 you get on the phone with Delta.
“Hi, is,” you stammer. “is the price for the ticket this weekend I found right? It’s only $410 round trip to London.”
“If you see that price,” the woman on the phone says, “you should book it soon.”
You hang up. The only risky thing you’ve ever done was eat chocolates out of the box without the map, making a solo, last-minute trip to London would be a gigantic leap. You pace the bedroom in New York with the door shut. You sit on the bed, you pop up like a hot potato. You are propelled by the need to ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?” You book the ticket, your stomach sick. You swear your sister to secrecy. Then on Friday, April 1, you take a cab to JFK airport. In the security line the phone rings. Your mother.
“Can I call you back?” you say. The airport announcements are threatening your ruse. “I’m watching TV” you lie.
You board an empty plane. Luxuriously, you have the whole row to yourself, as does the man in the seat a row ahead of you. Its your first international flight, so you watch the man next to you and mimic him. He takes off his shoes, you take off yours. He puts his dinner roll aside before eating, you do too. You look out the window where lightning is bolting over the Atlantic. You put on John Coltrain. You fall asleep.
In the morning, your view is replaced with the English countryside. Cars flowing on the other side of the road confirm it: you really are in London. The plane curves closer to Heathrow Airport, and equally closer to the ground. You see the Thames, the London Eye and Big Ben. This was it. After seven years, you’re finally there.
A customs officer presses her lips firmly at you, and narrows her eyes under her blonde bangs.
“You’re traveling alone?” she asks.
“Yes,” you stammer. She’s intimidating.
“And only for the weekend, why such a short trip?” she asks.
You get the instinct to tell her your life story: how long you’ve waited to see London, how important it is to have achieved something all on your own, how this is your first big risk, how this feels like nothing you’ve ever done and the most beautiful thing you’ve ever done and the completion of a story you never stopped telling yourself.
Instead, you only hesitate.
“Just a quick trip,” you say suddenly. “There was this cheap ticket and — “
She hesitates. Then shakes her head, as if she regrets her own decision. Bang, bang, bang, three stamps. The first ever on your naked passport. You’re in.
You splurge and take a cab into the city. The driver cranks up the volume on his radio, and The Beatles, “All You Need is Love” begins to play. London rolls by, a bunch of faces in cars, and double decker buses and streets you know from daydreams.
“This is the best moment of my entire life,” you say to yourself.
You’ve booked a hotel in Mayfair, the Mandeville. Its beautifully appointed and has views of Wigmore Street. You touch the curtains, you fluff the pillows. You flip through a tourist magazine with Kate and Will on the cover. Then, remembering that you are this waif who went around the world alone, you get on your knees. You open your hands to God and you weep. (Even four years later, when you remember that weekend, you weep just as easily.)
You shower, dress and race downstairs for breakfast at Christopher Place. You have an appointment at the Millennium Wheel. The hotel concierge, a very short man with a nice smile and an earring in one ear shows you how to get there. He immediately reminds you of the gypsy from Sherlock Holmes’ “The Red-Headed League.” The concierge makes the tube seem easy, so you hop on, landing yourself in front of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the London Eye.
The London Eye is magical. The 30 minute ascent over the Thames leaves your heart soaring. Even when the ride is over you feel like you’re floating. You take the tube and then go to Harrods with one thing in mind: a green, iconic Harrods bag and a few gifts. In an escalator bank they have an opera singer singing “Time to Say Goodbye,” a song you loved as a teen. For some reason, this makes you feel safe.
You drop your spoils at the hotel and go for a walk through Picadilly Circus. You eat dinner at a Lebanese Restaurant. In your room you sit in the window and watch people walking by to the pubs. You turn on the music box you bought at Harrods that plays, “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Like a lullaby, you listen to it till you fall asleep.
You wake up at 7:30 the next day. You eat a full English breakfast at the hotel while flipping through a copy of The Independent and decide that this, is your most independent moment.
You want to see an English park, so you ask the concierge.
“Thank you so much for your directions yesterday, you were most helpful,” you say. He puts a hand to his heart.
“It’s my pleasure,” he says.
“I want to see a park,” you say. “Which is closer, Hyde Park or Richmond Park?”
He pulls out a map. “They are of equal distance madam.”
“Which is better?” you ask.
“I prefer Hyde Park, myself. There’s quite lovely views of the river,” he says.
“Thank you,” you say.
It’s starting to mist in empty Mayfair. You walk to the park. The department stores on Oxford Street are just beginning to wake up. As the workers open their doors and lift their metal storefronts, the writer in you tells you that they look like eyelids, and that you’ll write it that way.
You shop, then settle in a seat at Hyde Park. Ah, to be away from home! To fulfill your dreams. To see it as a reality. You can’t even fathom it. Years later you will replay the weekend in your mind and ask yourself if it really happened. Everything you wanted at sixteen grouped together and boomeraged back to you at 27. Wiplash.
You find a coffee shop called Cafe Fratelli to sit in. Your New York Sunday tradition was coffee at La Colombe, and you aren’t going to let that fail. Cappuchino, window seat, notebook. You write for hours. Another patron, a stoic looking woman in workout clothes and a trench passes you. She nods through the window. You nod back.
You write that you feel like the bud and the flower, a nod to feeling suddenly grown up. You don’t have much time to relish in this. You have a flight at 5 pm.
The concierge calls a car, and the driver turns to you in the backseat. He’s young, with a middle eastern accent.
“So, you came all the way to London to see us drive on the other side of the road?”
“I’ve always wanted to come, and so it was just a quick trip,” you say.
“What time is your flight?” he asks.
“Five,” you say.
“You are early,” he says.
“Yes, I didn’t want to rush,” you say.
“Why don’t we do this. I drive you around on a tour then I drop you off,” he sas.
“Heh,” you snort.
“I’m kidding. I will take you there.”
He tells what he knows about London as you roll through. It’s just a city to him, a nice city. You meet Heathrow again, and instead of driving away, he steps out of the car. He watches you roll all the way to the airports gate. It’s puzzling, it’s fatherly. It’s comforting.
On the plane ride back, you tell yourself that no story is ever really done. As a writer, you see this. You’ve lived your whole life with chapter two in waiting. Stories that close in high school get new “afterwords” as adults, and sequels after that. When you feel sad you know that it could all come back.
You land in New York. You’re back to life as usual. But you remember. You accidentally spot pounds in your coin purse and see tube tickets in your wallet and you smile.
You are prone to laughter without prompting.
Originally published at ariel-davis.squarespace.com on October 24, 2015.