By Nigel French
It was a balmy day on both continents.
I was 22 and I was coming to New York to visit a woman I barely knew.
We’d spent a total of four days together. We’d met nine months before in a tourist bar in Berlin. After an endless night of drinking, I missed my train back to the campsite on the outskirts of the city. She smuggled me into her hotel; a cramped single bed. “I hope I can trust you,” she said. I assured her I was harmless and fell into a drunken slumber.
We met again in Liverpool, four months later. After that we had two days in Brighton. She loved the Morrissey melancholy of my post-student bed-sit and I loved that she loved it. That my quasi-poverty looked picturesque to an American was not lost on me. I shrugged nonchalantly as I turned my armchair upside down to shake out the loose change that had fallen down its sides. I smiled with practiced weariness as I scooped out 50 pence pieces from the electricity meter with my specially adapted teaspoon.
I traveled economy class on a DC-10 from Gatwick to Newark on a soon-to-be-bankrupt airline. I’d never been to the States and my imagined New York was a hodgepodge of clichés. I saw skyscrapers and wide avenues. Times Square, Central Park, Broadway—and the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot. The Empire State Building. The Statue of Liberty. Graffiti-covered subway cars and yellow taxis. And The Talking Heads. Not exactly a comprehensive picture. But what the hell? There was the prospect of foreign travel and adventure—not to mention plentiful sex. What did I have to lose?
It was my first long flight; my first airplane meal. I enjoyed its modularity—all the pedantically packaged pieces that added up to less than the sum of their parts. Captive to my thoughts for seven hours, the prospect of seeing her again gave me a recurring hard-on, which I did my best to conceal under the thin blue blanket. I tried to read. At her suggestion, I was preparing myself with On the Road. For the past four months she’d written me everyday, scrawling her 25-minute epistles from the Staten Island ferry. Her handwriting was erratic, leaning sometimes left, sometimes right, but her grammar was always good. I wrote her in turquoise ink, thinking blue or black too ordinary. We’d sketched out our plan to travel cross-country. Sea to shining sea. Kerouac was required reading. I visualized the two of us in some gas-guzzling behemoth cruising an endless ribbon of deserted highway, fueled by caffeine and desire, our eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, our hair matted with dust.
It was difficult to concentrate. I thought of my parents. They’d insisted on leaving early and we’d arrived at the airport with more time than we knew what to do with. The floor of the café was clogged with luggage carts, the air heavy with cigarette smoke and imminent separation. “Keep your mouth shut,” my father counseled, the spidery red veins on his cheek redder than usual. He was convinced I was going to be trailed by the FBI as soon as my plane touched down. America had recently bombed Libya, and I was keen to tell anyone who’d listen I considered this an act of state-sponsored terrorism. Still, I promised to heed his advice.
“Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” my mother asked as we stood by the departure gate, the point of no return. I didn’t say anything, just nodded and smiled and tried to look confident, like I knew what I was doing. She didn’t want me to go, but she never tried to dissuade me, wouldn’t dream of interfering. “Just so long as you’re happy,” she said. When she kissed me goodbye, her eyes were filled with tears, and I felt my own eyes watering. We hugged each other longer and tighter than usual.
On the face of it, I wasn’t leaving much behind. No longer being a student was anticlimactic; the world I’d been prepping for was indifferent to my readiness. Some of my friends had already moved on, but most remained in Brighton, wondering what to do next, pretending they were still students. My social life had “end of an era” stamped all over it. I'd suspected it at the time, and now I felt it for sure: As a student, I’d never had it so good. Now unemployed, I made enough money for beer and records with “under the table” jobs stuffing envelopes and donating sperm to a fertility clinic. Neither job paid well. Finding a real job in Thatcher’s Britain seemed a remote possibility—though admittedly, I didn’t test this hypothesis. While I’d not been looking for a way out, when one presented itself, I wasn’t going to pass it up.
My first sight of the New World was not an awe-inspiring, sepia-toned vista of New York Harbor and its imperious skyscrapers. I was not standing on deck, steerage class, rubbing shoulders with my fellow refugees for a first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, its torch rising from the early morning mist to greet the tired, the hungry and the oppressed. Instead, I craned my neck to look out the double-paned scuffed Perspex through beads of condensation to see traffic pulsing along the arteries of industrial New Jersey.
The anxieties I’d been suppressing the whole journey started to rattle around my head: Maybe she’s had second thoughts. What will I do if she isn’t there to meet me? Unlikely, but I think it just the same, as if by thinking the worst I will prevent it from happening. And New York. What if I hate it? That’s assuming they even let me in: What if a zealous and intuitive immigration officer realizes my intention to stay longer than the two weeks I’m claiming on my landing card and puts me on the next flight home?
She was late to meet me. Not by much, just long enough to give me time to panic. Time enough to wonder, What the fuck am I doing here? Then she’s there, right in front of me, and I wonder how she got so close without me seeing her. My worries evaporate as I hold her tightly, feeling the tickle of hair on my cheek, instantly recognizing her smell and realizing how much I missed it. It’s the welcome I’d been rehearsing for. The music swells up and the whole airport comes to a standstill; everyone stops what they were doing to marvel at this handsome, young couple. It’s the feel-good movie of the year.
Nothing was going to cheat me of such a welcome, but I still found time to wonder if I'm disappointed at the sight of her. She was already a myth and an impossible ideal. I dismissed the thought quickly, pretending I’d never seen it. It had to work; there was no alternative.
Outside the terminal, the day was bright and overexposed. The heat of Newark June lay on my face like a warm washcloth. She talked a lot. She asked about the flight. Were there movies? What was the food like? She apologized for being late. She told me it had been especially hot these last few days. Her words passed over me. I remember thinking she looked stressed, seemed nervous. She was probably thinking, Who is this guy? This person I’ve spent four days with, now together with me. And for what, exactly?
From the passenger seat of the car, I didn’t see the buildings, freeways, billboards, and cars—big, boxy cars—so much as I saw an icon—the sum of my popular consciousness and unconsciousness. It was every American movie and book and pop song rolled into one, giant pulsing organism. It was like seeing a naked woman for the first time: you knew what to expect—you’d seen the pictures, read the books—and yet nothing could fully prepare you for the reality.
Eighteen years later, I’ve spent nearly half my life in America. I couldn’t have known that that first goodbye would become the template for every subsequent parting. I wondered then when I would see my parents again. Now, with my father gone, and my mother so much older; the question when has been replaced by if. Had anyone told me that I’d never return to England—at least not to live—I’m not sure I would have boarded the plane. Had anyone told me that the woman who met me that day at Newark airport would in two months become my wife—and within two years my ex-wife—I’m not sure I would have believed them.
Nowadays my twice-yearly flights across the Atlantic are remembered more for their discomfort than for the thrill of expectancy. Arriving in London, I line up with the European Community passport holders; returning to San Francisco, I line up with the American passport holders. I go home, then I come home. I like to think that living here has given me more—made me more—and America certainly likes to think that about itself, likes to think that it offers new horizons to its poor, huddled masses—and those, like me, who wash up on its shores as the result of a random meeting in a cheesy tourist bar. I like to think I’m made up of more pieces. But there is one piece that will always be missing: the life that was—for better or worse—the one I gave up.