by J.E. Reich
IT’S the summer of the London Tube bombings and the summer I go to Cambridge to study Shakespeare. The original plan was to fly to Israel to travel, but my father the professor forbade it, rasping suicide bomber statistics and the faintest of terrorist alerts. Despite precautions, these worries manifested and found me after all. So I sit in the common room in my dormitory with disaffected inquiry and watch fellow students rush past the proscenium of the open door, enthralled with their own panic. They line up to dial home in the academics office or send emails from the computer lab, their bodies padding the cement-brick walls. Their hands fumble with phone cards and their mouths proselytize conspiracy theories.
Inge thinks it has something to do with the Olympics. London had been announced as the host city for the games a day before. Nadia cites internal terrorist organizations that may or may not be imagined, that might be Tom Clancy concoctions. Suki says, it’s obvious, of course, as if it should be, shouldn’t it?
But the entire thing is as foreign as falconry. A certain brand of innate American paranoia — phrases like the walls have eyes — makes for a sense of distant proximity, makes me forget that Cambridge is only a little less than an hour and a half away, not counting the traffic, and that the country I stand in is temporarily afflicted. These tenets cleave me from the clamoring excitement of everyone else, so instead of madly dashing through the corridors, I walk.
For a moment, I picture blue splinters of electricity and the sickening beauty of fracturing glass, erupting in slow-motion.
The dormitory all of the exchange students are housed in is part of a girls’ college during the year, built in the ’60s at the height of rectangular obsession. New Hall (the British kids at Peterhouse pronounce it Newell) is punctured with quasi-outdoor walkways that always make me think of airstrips, with orange-green carpeting, slate-colored walls, and staircases that lead to nowhere. In short: it is square and ugly. My room, a two-level semi-loft, resembles a Cold War bunker. I turn sharply past my bed built into the wall and climb the frenetic stairs up to my roommate Inge’s unrailed loft-space and the glass door leading out onto the wide terrace.
We call it the Balustrade — that summer, I don’t know what the word means — and it is the only place that seems remotely Cambridge-ian, with expanding webs of patina and roiling tufts of moss that suggest an underworld of brimming, sinister greenery beneath the coarse stone. The Balustrade grants access to a view beyond the thin, polite branches of the trees that dot the university green, the domed outline of the old Cambridge epicenter unfolding like an origami swan.
I’m facing the wrong direction, I’m facing north and not south, away from London, but for a moment I look for billowing curls of smoke and the red hint of ambulance sirens. And then I tingle with shame.
Resident advisors are called resident counselors in England. They’re all American, most of them from the Deep South, rakish high school teachers who want to bolster their resumes. My RC is innocuously named Cindy and is somewhat vicious: you can tell by the exacting way she plucks her eyebrows in paradoxically angled curves. A few days after the bombings at King’s Cross and Tavistock Square, she comes into my room without knocking as I eat a cupped avocado half with a spoon. I eat them every day for lunch that summer — it’s all I can afford.
Message for you, she yodels, a yellow post-it stuck to her finger.
Oh, I say, contemplating the uses for avocado pits, prodding it with my spoon and pretending it’s a scalpel.
Cindy leans near Inge’s industrial mini-fridge, and I pretend not to worry that she came in to open it. Inge and I have a bottle of peach schnapps in there — illegal as per the dictations of the American exchange program. Schnapps is a predilection of Inge’s I will never understand but accept for the sake of consumption, because who our age has any taste, and being rich, she always lets me drink it for free.
It’s from your parents, if you wanna know. Two separate messages, actually.
Well, your momma and daddy are worried, I think, she says. They wanna know if you’re okay. They keep asking about the London trip.
Uh huh, I say, mushing a slick piece between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, I guess they think it was this past weekend. Or something.
Next weekend, our program is taking us in two charter buses to London, where I intend to see a laughable British rock-opera, expensive jeans in Covent Garden, and a pub in Camden Town that Inge says will give girls with belly button studs and topple-worthy pumps free gin and tonics, all of which Inge has and likes.
And my dad is British, I continue, so I figured he’d know that I’m far enough away. He’s from London, and anyway, we used to live here. It was before my parents split, and I was only a baby, but I leave this out. I’m a citizen. I’m basically a native.
You should probably shoot them an email or something, Cindy advises. She thinks she is a sage, she thinks she is the Dalai Lama, she thinks nirvana is only the name of a rock band.
I guess. I think of a certain montage like a run of clacking marbles, of stilted conversations and silences punctuated by gulps of air, of hieroglyphic cursive on paper lined with light blue, and poised, trembling fists on doors that are never knocked.
Mischa, she starts, with feigned intimacy and authoritative burden. She uses my name like the first line of a witch’s sonnet.
I need to study, I say, gesticulating with the avocado shell at a book that is not on my bed.
And because Cindy is vicious, she leers for a moment like my own Jewish mother, gearing for dramatics, machinating a lesson. And because I am used to it, I wait until she is gone to exhale.
We are going to London, despite the collective consternation of various parents from Tennessee, Oregon, Illinois, and other states festooned with helicopter parenting; despite heightened security at certain Londonian points of interest; despite the fact that the kids from New York think that New York City is better. The conservation of this trip is made possible by certain democratic oaths and compromises decided by the student body politic: we will be chaperoned like promiscuous middle-schoolers, we will only stay in groups, all tours are mandatory until they are deemed otherwise, and we are not permitted access to any manner of nightlife. We conciliate because we stow green and brown bottles of nothingness in our duffel bags and because hotel parties are sort of in. The consensus is that we’re victims of circumstance and that we’re therefore entitled to isolated acts of what Suki coins brattitude.
After afternoon classes, I grab my weekend bag from my room and hurry down the rubber-treaded stairs in a disrespected huff. Our don, a woman named Jenny Smith, Ph.D., kept us ten minutes overtime to dissect a particular section of Twelfth Night. Count Orsino is in love with a boy, Cesario, who is really a woman, Viola, who is loved by Olivia, who thinks her paramour is in love with her. There are gender politics and contextual, Tudorian homoeroticism involved. I am anxious and try not to look at the girl sitting across from me.
I board the bus eighth-to-last. Nadia, Inge, and Suki found their seats long ago and have formed an isosceles triangle at the back of the bus. Nadia, the half-American, half-Korean girl whose father is an American Express executive and carries an elite black credit card; Suki, who will one day drop out of college to dumpster-dive and form a techno-punk band; Inge, my French-Swiss-German roommate who lives five miles away from Monte Carlo. They keep me around because I am sometimes clumsy and sometimes funny, and because I try not to look impressed by their alien-like glamour — me, the middle-class attaché. These friendships will not last past the summer. We will promise to keep in touch and then break these promises, which, of course, is what most people tend to do.
Inge looks up and shrugs, because people like her never need to plan, and after perusing the remaining seats, I see why: the remaining vacancies are between Lexie and Walt the Skinhead.
In a slow moment, Lexie pats an ersatz beanie baby on her shoulder, whom she infamously calls Wolfie, and proceeds to conspire with it, whispering in his ear. She’s known for telling perfect strangers facts about the dog-eared progressions of fetuses in the womb and for putting her hands in her sweatpants during breakfast. No one can tell whether we’re witnessing savantian performance art or if we haven’t actually outgrown the sophomoric instincts of our hometown high schools.
I decide to sit with Walt.
His accommodation of me is almost imperceptible, a distant toss of the head. Walt’s bleached bangs skim his dark eyelashes as he reads a book wrapped in brown paper. No one knows how he got into the program, and there is a rumor that he has been trudging through Mein Kampf, but doesn’t want any of the RCs to know. He’s sitting in the aisle seat.
Fucking great, he says, without looking up from the page, just fucking great.
Can you move, please, I say with my bag in my hand, looking past him at the empty seat.
I don’t like the window, says Walt.
I didn’t ask what you liked. Just let me sit, please.
I don’t like company, either.
Cindy is at the front of the bus, counting heads and ticking off a sheet on her clipboard. Mischa, she calls, sit down, you’re holding us up. I’m sure you don’t want to do that, do you, hon? Eyes bore into me like gimlets.
Cunt rocket, he murmurs as I sidle past his knees with my back turned, but I’m not entirely sure whether he means Cindy, me, or both. If Ellie were here, she’d call him out, with what did you say and fuck you, making him repeat what he said until he goes red in the face. She’s like that about most things; she can be brave when she wants, she can stick out her chin and strike a pose, born with a trove of perfect responses.
But Ellie is back at Colgate, working through the summer semesters, swiping ID cards at Old Biology Hall. Since I’ve been here, I set my alarm for 3AM and tumble into the empty computer lab to check my inbox in warm privacy. It’s the closest thing I’ve done to praying since my bat-mitzvah. She has yet to email.
I tuck my bag halfway under my seat and perch my feet on it as the bus starts to rumble and pitch. As Walt ignores me, the city dissipates into subtle yellow strips of ploughed land. The signs on the motorway match with the tidbits I’ve picked up: Grantchester has the tea house where Virginia Woolf and her writer friends used to gather in the sun, talking words, and there’s Duxford with its airfields, hosting the phantoms of fighter planes. Evening strays into night, and broken towers of limestone rush up and pass us, blinking.
Compared to history like this, home is little more than a series of connected Greyhound stations.
It’s well past midnight by the time we blunder into London proper. This traffic is worse than the fucking 605, says a girl in the front who wants everyone to know she is from Los Angeles. The bus stops and starts between traffic lights. Our vehicle is almost too big for the streets, cramped and thin like spider veins. Every time we hit a roundabout, an unfounded fear that the bus will topple and vault us into a pile-up lurches in my stomach.
Walt is dozing, miraculously, and his book is open in his lap. I can’t help it, I sneak a peek, but it’s all math equations, no German in sight. He wakes with yet another lurch and abrupt pause of the bus, sees me looking, and shuts it with the loud thwack of a body falling. He scowls, so again, I look out the window.
I’m not the first to realize, but I’m among them; the reason for the traffic, for the frustration and false starts. It’s all there, outside, in a netted mess of reflective vests and the hepatic glow of caution tape at every entrance.
So this is it: King’s Cross.
On the other side of the aisle, kids sit up in their seats, elongate their necks, prop their knees on the cushions, taking care not to disrupt the air. Here’s the aftermath of what we have known, at a distance, to occur; this pale, printed madness on our computer screens and papers brought to life. We say nothing.
If I were to call anyone about the bomb in London, it would be Ellie, but we haven’t spoken in months. But silence, I’m beginning to realize, has no clout in the dark.
My dad told me that any place with National or Royal in the name is bad news, so we’re probably all be fucked. This is what Nadia says as she slings her duffel over her shoulder outside of our economy hotel, called the National Royal. Her disdain prods my gaze toward the ground, reminds me why it’s easier to tell people that I’m from Boston, not Malden, which is sort of a part of the city, but isn’t. Or it’s like the first time I met Inge: I asked her how it was possible for her to have an American accent, despite her French mother, her German father, and her citizenship.
English medium education, she answered, alerting me to my shame.
There are four to a room, each with two queen-sized beds and one plastic ashtray on a nightstand between them. Perfect, says Suki, grabbing her pack of Marlboros. Inge takes out her coveted schnapps and tells us that we shouldn’t waste the night, even if it is technically morning. The door opens, and we all turn and freeze, convinced it will be Cindy or another RC from Tennessee or Arkansas. But no, it’s the girl from my Shakespeare class, the one who sits across from me every day. She bites her bottom lip in a precise, short second, the same amount of time I forget to breathe.
Hey, you, says Suki, what’s your name? If you don’t take a shot, we’re kicking you out.
Her name is Cassie, and she goes to school in Santa Barbara, originally from Tiburon. More evergreens, less palm trees there, she says when Inge asks if she grew up surfing, and that she doesn’t mind if Suki smokes in the room, even if most NorCal kids are health freaks.
You and me, I guess, she shrugs, as I scoot closer to the edge of the bed. I’m all that’s left.
Despite Suki’s talk, we’re too tired to really stay awake, taking swigs from Inge’s bottle of schnapps and call them nightcaps, our stomachs warm and blushing. We turn to respective corners to change into pajamas, but out of the corner of my eye I see Cassie, her lithe stomach, tanned despite the caricatured fog of each and every morning. From the curve of her lower rib cage to the top of her belly button, there is a slight seam, denoting the hint of taut muscle. I turn away.
In the queen bed, there’s a lunar comfort pretending that the cilia on my skin isn’t raised in a despairing, ignorant hope, or that there is a warm body next to me to begin with.
You don’t know what you’re doing, I tell myself again and again, you don’t know anything at all.
That night, I dream of Ellie. Too much of a good thing is still a good thing, she says, eyes half-mast, as she bites the insides of my thighs.
Cindy wakes us with a pointed rap at the door. Rise and shine, dear hearts!, she says from the hall, and I picture my fist thundering into her face. The morning is unusually bright, a pale lemon, the liquid sun framing the curtained windows.
We’re up, we’re up!, yells Suki, as Inge zips the half-empty bottle of schnapps in her suitcase with a swift and practiced efficiency. Cindy tells us to be down in an hour, not a minute later, and walks to the next room, whistling “Portobello Road.” It takes me a few moments to realize that Cassie, still sleeping beside me, has nuzzled herself close; I can feel her breath on the back of my neck.
Dibs on the shower, I say, bounding towards the bathroom.
An hour later, the entire program is in the lobby, our eyes unfocused from resting in unfamiliar beds. I note the conservative papers, outraged, call the city Londonistan in their headlines, accompanied by photos of victims bundled in gauze, muted stills of the perpetrators, and politicians with maligned brows, all arranged in a printed triptych. One displays a list of the dead.
All right, y’all, says Cindy, pinning her clipboard to her chest, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to call out your names, and when I do, I’m going to need you to walk over to the RC I assign you to. This is your group for the day and for tomorrow, too. The rules are no leaving the group — if y’all do, I’m going to have to report you, and you could get kicked out of the program. We’re not fooling around — she waves her arms, gesturing at the lobby and its sluggish patrons, as if it houses an insidious rage, a germinating terror — we’re not taking any chances. Got it?
A Carolinian named Chip, with a ridged, primordial brow and a law school candidacy, points me to a corner where I wait for lots to be drawn. Walt’s name is called shortly after mine, and we find ourselves in an awkward teenage tango, distancing ourselves without catching Chip’s attention. A few names later, Cassie touches my shoulder.
Thank G-d, she says, roping her arm around my elbow, I thought I wouldn’t know anyone.
Know me, I want to choke, but I tilt my head instead and smile. Smiling, I think, is what anyone else would do.
Six birds must be kept on the premises, a yeoman guide tells us at the foot of the Tower of London, the young morning light attempting to warm our arms. Already, a heaving gaggle of visitors hang on his words, letting elbows and camera flashes get the best of their manners. Six birds must remain, the legend says, or else the country of England will fall.
While we wait in line for admission along the front of the main entrance, the yeoman in his carnival garb goes on about the ravens gathering on the lawn. One gambles at flying, pulsing and fluttering his clipped wings.
Don’t feed them, please, says the tour guide, just carry on.
Fucked, says Cassie, that’s just so fucked.
That they’re here? I ask, watching their wings batter and thwack, dooming their carriers to earthly mechanics.
That they’re trapped, she replies, like zoo animals, but worse. At least they can see their cages.
I don’t know what to tell Cassie. The comment is cartoonish, a little too young and existentially flat even for us, but the fact that she says it gives it something like authority. I want to protect her from a world where birds like these don’t know their own pain. After a while, our group passes underneath the tower-pillared portcullis bleached by sun and time.
We do what tourists do. We walk through the vast complement of rooms the Tower affords us, taking pictures of the helixing signatures of prisoners who whittled them into the tower’s bricks. One is a geodesic Zodiac wheel and one is in the shape of an off-kilter bell, made by men who died from sickness or the latter half of a rope. At the Waterloo Block in the Jewel House, we ogle at bits of coronation regalia and too-precious stones, a conveyor belt of people sent to marvel at what we can’t have. Later on outside, Cassie hands me her disposable camera for a photo of her next to an upright, human-size teddy bear dressed as a beefeater, her arms cinched around his waist like a best friend or a cousin.
Mischa, she calls, emphatic, beckoning. You too!
If Nadia or Inge or Suki saw, they would probably roll their eyes at the sheer propertied, bourgeois appeal of it all, and the staged clench of posing with a stuffed bear makes my insides cringe, makes me think we’re too old for this, that sophistication sets in sometime in between college and the future. Cassie slings her arm around my neck while handing the camera to a passing Canadian tourist. Up the pathway, I see Walt staring at the two of us as if we’re an equation on the cusp of being solved. But then Cassie presses her hip against mine, and something supersedes the twinge of Ellie that cramps a longing that turns into memory. So this is what it’s like to forget, my smile says. This is what it’s like to think of someone else.
Along with Cindy, the four of us — Cassie, Lexie, Walt and I — hop into a large-barreled black cab, the kind they sell at every gift shop here in miniature. For some reason, the program allotted us money for taxi rides; unlike buses and train cars, these are immune to the designs of bombmakers. Outside the window, London tilts and banks around us. I’m crammed in between Cindy and Walt, the three of us ill-fitted stones, with Cassie and Lexie across on two flip-down seats. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but Lexie gestures and pats at the wolf on her shoulder — it made it through the whole Tower tour without dropping to the ground once — and Cassie politely responds, no hint of social order in her grin. Walt’s math book is propped against his knees, but every time he bends over a page, he thunks back against his headrest, muttering about car-sickness and fucking cab drivers, letting the epithet hang in the air.
Need some air? Cindy asks, daring him to make things harder, I think we’re pretty close. Just a quick walk across the river will perk you up.
So like that, we’re on a vaulted bridge, our feet far above the river Thames, close enough to shatter the postcard the view affords. Even in summer, the water is blacker than I thought it would be, different from the pictures I’ve seen. Doll-sized people become bigger and uncanny. I’m walking behind Cindy, a little fast and far ahead, and I pretend to fish a pebble out of my shoe.
You good? asks Cassie as she comes up behind me.
I am, I say, meaning it.
We’re in the heart of things, but the heart of things is crawling with foreigners like us, outsiders. Cassie points to people spackling the foreshore, wandering below, wondering what they’re searching for. Years later, in fervent desire, when I come back to London with a girl I one day hope to marry, she will take me down to the banks of the Thames to search for fragments of porcelain smoking pipes and Tudorian shoes preserved by the thankless river mud. We will scatter pebbles with our fingers in want of past particles, hoping to grab them and wash them and carry them away from their bone gardens, into our homes. On the banks, I will look up at the bridge and remember this day, remember what it felt like to want for things to come. I will remember that despite our best attempts, this is how little a city changes. For now, and then, the London Eye turns its big wheels, vaunting the sky.
We pass street performers moaning single-stringed elegies and children begging their parents for ice lollies, skateboarders scowling with talent and no one walking with much intent. I think of the headlines from this morning: Terror Strike in the Heart of London, 7/7 Bombing Kills Over 50, numbers repeating until their meaning is all but lost. I do not know where this terror lives.
I’ve never been to the Tate before, Cassie tells me as we approach the ominous hulking block of the building. Behind us, Lexie growls, stroking her tulpa of a beanie baby on her shoulder.
If I did, I don’t remember, I tell her, when I lived here, I mean.
Everything in the Tate is factory ceilings and steel skeletons and color fields. We look at monochromes and pretend to know why they were made. Somewhere in the periphery Walt sulks, same as he did at the Tower, barely perceptible but present, like dust. I remember something my dad told me in an email I didn’t respond to: Go see the Rothkos at the Tate. They’re his favorite, and even then, I know I’ll keep it a secret, seeing them. I ask Cassie if she wants to come with me, and she does.
The gallery room itself has the same light as a romantic restaurant I’ve never been to. Squares of maroon and black and dimmed peach lie framed against the wall, what colors must look like inside of a mother’s stomach. Cassie and I go from painting to painting, scrutinizing the oversize canvas for answers. In front of the last one, hung high and warm, Cassie puts her hand on my shoulder.
What do you think we’re supposed to understand? she asks. She’s honest. I forget how I answer.
In my dorm room last winter, Ellie taught me how to eat a persimmon — which is to say incorrectly. The fruit was too ripe or not ripe enough. She watched me gouge out the meat of the fruit with a spoon, eyes seduced by the procedure. I bit it, and my mouth grew slow and thick with tannin. Afraid of disappointing her, I swallowed it anyway.
It tastes like you-know-what, she laughed while leaning into the tract where my neck met my jaw, but no, I didn’t. The thing with Ellie was she never let me know anything at all.
At lunch, all of us are drawn out and tired, even Cindy, whose aggravating cheer is beginning to wilt. You’d think we’d eat fish and chips from a thick-tongued vendor, but instead we’re at Au Bon Pain, forking half-wilted lettuce and damp croutons. It’s three in the afternoon, but we still have one more stop before we go back to the hotel. We’re in a rotation with the other groups, who have already been there, and if I could afford a cell phone, I’d text Suki or Nadia or Inge and ask about it, about the measurements of dutiful lameness to, well, whatever else. Instead, I have to hear about it from Cindy.
Last stop is Saint Paul’s, she says, before we meet back up with everyone in Leicester Square.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to go to this famous place, other than the fact that it’s pretty and that Princess Diana got married there or had her funeral there, I never remember which one. The cathedral dome is visible from the bridge, white and feverish through the hot air.
Death by tourism, mutters Walt, because it might as well be expected, coming from him.
There’s the Whispering Gallery there, says Lexie, who suddenly feels conversational. In another cab, she rolls the pilled stuffing of her wolf between her thumbs and forefingers, the part where its heart would be, as it sits in her hands. We say nothing, some of us in an attempt to ignore her, and others too tired to ask what it is but expecting an answer anyway.
It’s because of how the top is shaped, Lexie continues, digging her fingernails into the hard beaded meat of her animal. I read about it. When you climb up top, there’s this ring about the dome you can walk on. If someone says one thing on one side, it carries to the other side. It’s like they’re right next to you, whispering a secret.
Being an RC, Cindy tries to do the right thing. That’s so interesting, Lexie, she says as she fans herself with a tourist pamphlet, We’ll be sure to look out for that. Right, y’all?
The thought of secrets, as open as a vivisected heart floating in a bell jar. I look at Cassie’s knee tremoring next to mine.
In our dorm room suite, this was what it was like with Ellie, at first; during Halloween weekend, both of us dressed as stoplight colors, breath cold with vodka and closing our eyes, pretending we didn’t want this, pretending it wasn’t eventual and ulterior and needed.
The scent of her on my knuckles in the morning, for days and days and days.
Outside, constables fleck the sidewalks, perceptible in their neon sleeves. For so many people, today is ordinary. Streets are being watched, because that’s what must be done. It all seems that simple, and at the same time it’s not. Two days before, there was a vigil in Trafalgar Square. It was on the only television we had access to in our dorms, in a fluorescent-bright, large carpeted room next to the dining hall that would barely pass as a student union back at home. We were watching, but only half-invested, eyes on the unwavering TV screen while chewing on cheap pen caps and nudging each other’s legs. Suki bartered half an Aero bar for two of Nadia’s cigarettes as scrolls of people uncoiled through the streets, holding tiny flowers with long stems and cupping tea candles in their palms. One speaker went on about how to beat the terrorists at their own game by carrying on, by merely living, but didn’t say a word on how to understand them.
Even earlier that day, there had been a two-minute silence in memory of the victims, one that stretched around Europe, around a continent. I had been in my room when that happened, sitting on my floor, feeling the terrazzo floor with my palms. I closed my eyes, but the quiet sounded the same. Despite my best intentions, everything felt the same, and nothing moved.
Inside, the cathedral is overwhelming, but maybe it’s because I don’t have much experience with churches. It’s nearly impossible to take everything in all at once like I think I’m supposed to, and there isn’t much to do inside Saint Paul’s but to look up and around. There are statues nestled into the walls in unexpected places, and gold enshrines the high domed ceilings in methodical, lustering patterns. Terms from the art history class I took last semester interject themselves into the scenery like VH1 pop-up video bubbles, things I thought I’d never need, like portico and apse.
This wasn’t the first church built here, Lexie tells us. Right now, we’re walking on the ruins of four other sites, three cathedrals and one Roman temple, all of them burned to the ground. In the newspapers, they say the people next to the bombers in the train carriages most likely felt nothing. They had no time to realize that in one moment they had been a person, and in the next they were no different than the dust, the silt, the smoke.
We can’t get a tour guide, so we’re on our own. It wouldn’t matter anyway; we’re running late, according to Cindy, so we only have half an hour to stare at the listless faces of saints and pretend to admire the artistry of the place, which is beautiful but somehow a bit boring, too. We won’t even be able to see the crypt where Christopher Wren and Lord Nelson are buried. According to the pamphlet, the cathedral rents it out for dinner parties; it recommends Nelson’s mausoleum as an excellent venue for pre-dinner drinks.
I look for Cassie along a sea of metal folding chairs, but somehow I’ve lost her. The others have wandered off except for Lexie a few yards away, admiring a column. At the angle she’s standing, it looks like she and her wolf have their heads tipped in the exact same way, parsing a structural beam like a piece of art.
The thing is, I’ve been in this place before. There’s a photo of Mom and Dad and me at St. Paul’s. In the picture, I’m tucked into a baby carrier, slanted against my father’s chest. The three of us are in front of an altar, inscrutable and small and half-waving under unprofaned buttresses. I don’t remember it — my parents don’t even remember who took it — but the photograph, even the thought of it, makes me think I do.
I still haven’t talked to my parents; Cindy hasn’t even mentioned it since we got to London, not even once. I’m worried what they’ll ask me, what they want to ask me, who I won’t talk to them about, the things I don’t want them to know. They would like to know I’m here, I think. The ways I’ve gone back in time.
Lexie disappears behind a square column, still chatting with her shoulder. I don’t want to go looking for Cassie, not obviously, so I make my way past arcades of seats and toward the inside of the dome. Mosaic angels in blue and rose track me from a hundred feet up, arraigned in gold leaf. Wooden cherubs with swollen cheeks drape themselves on top of pulpits placed in weird corners. The pamphlet recommends the view from the top of the cathedral, so I find a staircase that curves like the inside of a seashell. I think of Cassie up there, past the innumerable steps, of being next to her, our bodies more focused and lionized than the city we’re supposed to be watching.
As I climb up the stairs, I realize how obvious it is why St. Paul’s seems so empty, how tourists and parishioners could be so reluctant to come here now, as if their fear could keep a memorable shape of the city skyline intact. This is how loss changes things, until they change back. A week, maybe two, not long at all. Maybe a place like this goes so far beyond history, it becomes a shrine to history itself. Like how we remember how things crumble before we remember who was inside when it did. How we don’t even remember their names.
When I wanted to call us something, Ellie told me it was stupid, so stupid. We were on my cramped dorm bed with the plastic mattress. Stalks of hard morning light fell across her taut belly, her small naked chest. In a month, I’d be in Cambridge. In a month, I said I’d miss her too much.
She didn’t flinch away from me, but she didn’t move closer, either. This isn’t like that, she said, as if we had never been like this in our room before, as if we never pushed our beds together in the middle of the night and only put them back to where they were before when we knew friends were coming over. What we had was different than other people, I knew. We weren’t like kids on campus who paired off first semester and never seemed to let go of each other’s hands or single-serve couples who pretended to forget each other’s names in the morning. We were somewhere in between that. I didn’t mind when Ellie stayed out and walked back in the morning from Andrews or Hancock Commons with a smeared mouth and marks on her neck I never made. Or the way she measured her affection while we ate pre-packaged sushi in the Coop surrounded by others, only touching me just enough to be a friend, for our togetherness to unassumingly make sense. It made us strong, that we were different like this, it made us better somehow. She came back, and it was enough. The things she said in the dark, head digging into my throat. Holding.
The last night of freshman year, she went to a party without me, her stuff in boxes, all ready to leave. The window went from dark to grey to dusted blue before the sunrise came. Not saying goodbye was a gift, until it wasn’t.
The Whispering Gallery is the first of three to the top of the dome, and no one’s there when I finally reach the stone circle of a walkway. Without the frenetic hush of other people’s voices, the idle silence is almost disappointing, the walls close to ordinary.
I’m halfway around the gallery when I hear someone spit out my name. I know it’s Walt before I turn around. He’s leaning against the tendriled iron railing, his elbow dangling ten stories above the checkerboard marble floor below.
Hey Mischa, he says, and it hums around the hall, violent and flickering. There’s a deliberate half-grin on his face, a rehearsed casualness from a bad high school play. I take a step back, the sound amplified and mortifying. We’re both too old for this.
Hey, I say, is there something you need?
Just saying hello. He keeps his hand on the railing as he starts to come closer, with his math book in the other. Nothing against saying hey, like he’s resuming an old debate.
Yeah, sure, Walt, I tell him. That’s a thing you can do, I guess. Our words echo around us in the empty hall, exhaling and breathless.
I saw it earlier today, you know, Walt says when he’s close enough for normal conversation.
I don’t know what you’re talking about? I reply with enough of a question to make it seem like Walt is seeing things and should be contrite for even mentioning them, for making shit up. But inside panic stuffs my throat and I’m thinking of Cassie, of my careful constructions and hesitations. If this is how little it takes for the empire of myself to begin its tumble into ruins.
Come on, says Walt, sing-songing with the upper hand. Are you really going to pretend like I didn’t see it? Seriously?
I tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about — at least I think that’s what I say, the words too thin to recall. His hand is still on the rail, almost touching my arm.
It’s obvious, he goes on. With you and that girl. The one in our group. Did you think you were hiding something?
What? Are you calling me a dyke? When I blink, there’s Ellie in my bed, staring anywhere but at me. Her voice. So stupid, so stupid.
Walt shrugs. You said it, not me. I haven’t noticed it until now, his hand, how he’s holding onto me in a way I can’t quite call grabbing. There’s an inscrutable purpose to him, the way his knuckles cleft under his skin. Walt doesn’t have to say anything for me to know what I’m supposed to do next. The hall murmurs, susurrus. Prove it.
I’m not in the mood for whatever the fuck, Walt, I tell him, shaking him off. It’s only now that I begin to wonder if the neo-Nazi thing is actually true, if he wants whatever he wants from me.
A lesson: this is how easy it is to forget that history happens all at once.
Too bad. Walt seizes my arm again, and I don’t realize he’s knocked me back-first into the wall until I my knees buckle. He’s all sweat and bleach and hunger, with the look someone gets before they want to break through a door.
A beat after he’s pinned me, the look on his face thaws into something like shock. It’s the look of a dark fantasy hidden in your journal being recited by a popular kid at a school assembly. Walt doesn’t let go but doesn’t go further. This, I think, is where terror lives.
We’re almost nose-to-nose, and still, the world doesn’t shake.
What are you doing, I say. My voice rises, circles us. From every corner, it gathers in our ears.
Years later, I will remember looking to Walt’s eyes, and I will know what the feeling is. It’s not forgiveness or sympathy or empathy, but something closest to the idea of forbearing, of understanding without absolution. I’ll think of Walt and the men who brought bombs with them below where a city breathes, and I will wonder what it’s like to love and to hate so much that you can’t stand to stay inside of your skin. To be so torn and incomplete that it can only be assuaged by obliterating every brick before you on the sidewalk, making the heart chambers of others implode.
Walt doesn’t answer, so I say it again. What are you doing, Walt?
What I’m really saying: This is where we are, and here is what made us. Now what do we do?
I’m scared, says Walt, his breath gutting him from the inside out. Are you?
He backs away, letting me go, his hands shaking. They’ve been shaking for some time. He picks up his math book, walking fast to the exit. It’s only after I hear the faint call of Cindy gathering our group that I begin to move, my wrists throbbing. When I start to walk down the stairs, it will be as if nothing happened at all.
A week after the trip there’s another string of bombings, one on a bus and three at separate stations tangled together by the same train lines. Timing is everything, says Suki. Ellie never calls, but I never expect it. When I arrive back on campus in a month for my sophomore year, I’ll find out from an old suitemate that she transferred schools. My parents find out, eventually. I don’t tell anyone about Walt, though the violence of the moment comes to me with time. I return to England more than a decade later, in love with a girl I meet at a bar in Brooklyn while she’s on a work holiday in the States. We will walk up and down the banks of the Thames, and I will point to the places I think I remember, but I won’t tell her what they mean, not really. This, too, will end, and I’ll know it when she doesn’t kiss me goodbye at Victoria Station, where I board a train to take me to the airport, away from her. I will watch the buildings and greenery dart past and away from my seat and think of loss. I will see Walt’s face and think of what it means to be cursed. I will remember the men who embered into ash, the people they took with them, and never forgive myself for how little I cared. Despite my best intentions, I will never remember their names.
But before any of that happens, there’s our last night in London. Cindy advises a full night’s sleep; we’ll be leaving at the crack of dawn the next morning. After waiting the requisite half hour for Cindy to retreat to her hotel room — with some light recon, Suki has conveniently found out it’s located on another floor, far enough for her not to hear what goes on after bed check — we drink a round of schnapps, and Inge and Suki and Nadia leave to go into a boys’ room for a party. Everyone will be there, they say, and I see Lexie cross-legged in front of the TV, alone, watching Animal Planet.
Seriously, I think I’m good for the night, I tell them again before they leave. If I change my mind, I’ll come find you.
Yeah, me too, says Cassie, I’m feeling kinda tired from today. It was a lot.
Just don’t drink the rest of my booze, shrugs Inge, and they leave.
Cassie and I lie down like we did last night, her belly against my back. In any other world, we’d stay like this, and I’d be so frightened, I’d fall asleep. But not now.
Cassie doesn’t turn off the light on her side of the bed. There’s the thrill of her hand on my hip, the rush of every moment before it inevitably leading to this touch. This is the place my life has taken me. The old familiar throb, rucking in my chest. At last.
About the Author
J.E. Reich is a Jewish genderqueer fiction writer and journalist whose work can be found at Vanity Fair, Slate, Jezebel, INTO, Autostraddle, The Toast, and other places. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and one-time Best of the Net nominee, their fiction has appeared in Flapperhouse, Storm Cellar, LIT Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, gigantic sequins, Armchair/Shotgun, and more. They split their time between NYC and Pittsburgh, and tweet insufferable dad jokes @jereichwrites.