It was Friday December 7th and I was in the friendly confines of the American Express office in London. The place was full of people including some of my backpacker ilk, though there were no VW vans being sold out front or hashish being sold in the bathrooms like in Amsterdam. It had been a two hour train ride from Colchester to Liverpool Street Station and then about a half hour on two subways to Victoria Station, about a five minute walk from Am Ex. Hearing all the English being spoken around me made me feel close to home. In just four days I would be on the plane back to the States.
I had met a man in the Piccadilly tube station who, seeing my youth and my big backpack, had struck up a conversation with me. He said he had two daughters about my age who had done a lot of traveling, on the Continent, to the States, and even to Asia. He was friendly and charming, with a self-effacing humor. He asked me about my travels and I told him of some of my previous exploits but also my current situation, on my last few days before returning to the States from an eleven week odyssey. He said that he actually worked for BOAC in London, but lived in Oxford with his wife and daughters. He offered to give me a ride to Oxford that afternoon and then back to London the morning of my flight. I felt blessed, like the universe was sending helpful people in my direction. We agreed that he would meet me at the American Express office around four o’clock.
My money situation, which had looked shaky when I got to Amsterdam, seemed fine at the moment. I had the equivalent of about $40 left, and if I could stay with the Clays, I’d need little of that money for my last few days. I’d even have money to buy my mom brushes at some snazzy art store in Oxford.
I had mail, which I always looked forward to getting when I visited an Am Ex office, and kept me tethered to my world back home. A letter from my friend Avi, in case I had not gotten his letter in Amsterdam (which I had) confirming he had bought me a ticket for the Alice Cooper concert on December 12th, the day after I arrived home. A letter from my mom confirmed that she had my flight information and that she and my brother would be there at Detroit Metro airport when I got off the plane. Finally one from my dad said how proud he was of me and my “great accomplishment”, which brought tears to my eyes when I read it.
Avi’s letter was full of what was going on with our close circle of game nerd friends. Jerry, who had graduated from Pioneer High the same year as I, would be home from his Sophomore fall term at Michigan State in East Lansing for the winter break and the Alice Cooper concert. Avi said that when he had seen him last during Thanksgiving weekend, Jerry had said he was really looking forward to me getting back, that my fall in Europe sounded way more rewarding than his had been at MSU. Clark was living with his parents and going to school at UofM and was also planning to go to the concert. Dave was also going to UofM, and financing school by signing up for the Navy ROTC program. Patrick’s younger brother Damian was still selling marijuana, but now turning it into a real full-fledged clandestine business, dealing in larger quantities, a real pocket drug dealer. Avi was in the middle of his senior year at Pioneer, including taking calculus and physics, and sick of high school. Apparently the teachers were taking attendance again, so it was not as easy to skip class as it had been two years earlier when Jerry and I were seniors.
My mom’s letter was full of all her efforts to find a path forward for her own development. She was exploring ways to make money, including working as a phone canvasser for the UofM Institute of Survey Research, and possibly studying to to get licensed as a real estate agent. She was also considering going to Eastern (Eastern Michigan University) in nearby Ypsilanti, where my dad had worked for many years as an English professor, to get a Masters in Art. Then she gave a report on all our family friends in attendance at the big yearly shared Thanksgiving celebration hosted by the Mortimers, with the usual 20 or 30 people in attendance. Plus a mention that Angie had called her curious about how I was doing in my travels and when I’d be home.
My dad was such an enigma. I knew that he loved me and would do anything he possibly could for me, but he really struggled to process and communicate his feelings. The feelings were in there but he never talked about them, and particularly the frustrations roiled his psyche to no end. To the point where they would finally burst out of him when one of his vicarious idols failed him, like when our hometown UofM Wolverines football team lost a big game.
But he could often be more real with the written word, he was an English professor after all and taught writing, and his letter was particularly eloquent. He wrote of watching me develop from a “bright young boy” to a “thoughtful and capable young man”. He said my trip to Europe was “an adventure of incomparable value”, and that he was “so deeply proud” of me sticking it out despite the initial issues with my travel partner Angie deciding to part company with me and go back to the states. The tears welled in my bottom eyelids as I read his laudatory prose.
I read and pondered all the letters, and the context of my life back home that they revealed. There was nothing more about the whole thing, that my mom had shared with me in her last letter, about my dad telling my brother that he had married his friend Mary, when he really hadn’t. That last letter had really disturbed me that my little family, still hanging together after my parents’ divorce eight years earlier, was finally coming completely apart. That my dad might just break off any communication with my mom all together, start and focus his life on a new marriage, taking that focus away from his relationship with my brother and I, and our mom, who despite her protestations, still seemed to need his support from time to time. My wounded little family needed care and feeding, and I was now feeling like I was capable of, and needing to, contribute a lot more to that care and feeding. I wrote in my journal…
As I read all this I have an intense feeling of responsibility for helping all these people, who I love and need, cope with the world. My life is more serious now. These people are now so very important to me that I must be serious about maintaining communication, love, and respect with them. So much has gone on since I’ve been gone. I think it’s time to get more seriously involved with my immediate family environment and politics.
As I had managed to navigate the physical geography of Europe, I now felt I could leverage that new agency to better navigate the “social geography” of my family and friends, and play more of a role weaving things together and thus keep them from falling apart.
Getting back to more tactical considerations, like where I was sleeping tonight, I decided not to chance it and spent the money to call the Clays and was happy to hear Madge’s “hello” on the other end, followed by a “we’d be delighted to have you” after I explained my situation. I told them about the guy I met in the tube station offering me a ride, probably right to their door. Madge called it “smashing luck”, and told me to be prepared to “tell all”. When I hung up I felt a sense of abundance, that the universe would have me cloistered in its loving arms and deposit me back in my hometown without further ado.
It got to be four o’clock, and then four thirty, and the guy I had met in the tube station did not appear at the Am Ex office. I went out and stood in front of the entrance to the building for another fifteen minutes or so, but nothing. So I went back in the office and got information about a nearby bus to Oxford, just several tube stops from where I was. It was doubly disappointing. I would now have to pay for the bus to Oxford and presumably the bus back to London on the day of my flight home. Plus that sense of the universe providing what I needed being replaced by it teasing me. But I quickly realized that it was no big deal, I had the place to stay with the Clays, that was the big deal.
It was a little after six when I boarded my bus to Oxford, scheduled to be about a three hour ride. The bus was pretty full, and I did not find a seat until the very back next to a young woman who appeared to be asleep. She was wearing a long blue wool coat, with a beehive hairdo and a great deal of of makeup. Her whole done up look made her seem older, but when I really looked at her face, she looked like she might even be younger than I was. Her painted eyes were closed and underneath her unbuttoned coat was a black party dress, low cut on top with straps but no sleeves, showing off her breasts and barely reaching her upper thighs below. I managed to jam my big pack in the luggage rack above and slide into the seat next to her, trying not to disturb her. Though she did not open her eyes I could tell she sensed me sitting next to her, adjusting her body just a bit.
Apparently her two friends, looking of the same ilk, all dolled up, were sitting in the seats in front of us. I knew I was in for something when as soon as I sat down the two of them turned around, and sitting on their knees with their heads up over the seatbacks, done up hair and all, faced me and their comrade sitting next to me.
So the young woman in the seat in front of me, now facing me, sized me up with pretty hazel eyes surrounded by plenty of eyeliner, mascara, and eye shadow and framed with big round purple plastic glasses. As she looked me over with pursed lips, tilting her head one way and then the other, she said, “Well I’m just going to be cheeky, cuz that’s just me, right?” The question was directed to her friend next to her who nodded and trained her own dolled up visage in my direction. Purple glasses continued, shaking her head like she already didn’t believe me based on the way I looked, “What’s your name frizzy top?” She sounded a bit drunk.
“Cooper”, I said, a little unsure exactly what I was in for, but enjoying the attention of these two young women in front of me and the smouldering presence of the mostly comatose one beside me. That’s all I said, though I thought that if I had had it more together I should have continued with a, “And yours?”, you know, tit for tat. But it occurred to me too late.
“Though you didn’t ask, it’s Stacey by the way”, she continued from behind those big purple frames. She directed a finger to her comrade next to her, “Jeanie”, and then toward the woman sitting next to me, “Mitzi”. Jeanie fluttered her fingers at me as a hello, the gesture reminding me of Monika in Grindelwald. I fluttered a handful of fingers back at her and she giggled like maybe I was doing something inappropriate for a person of my sex.
When I turned and looked in Mitzi’s direction sitting next to me, she ratcheted her eyes open a bit, grinned and then started to laugh, more obviously drunk than her two comrades. Since she had slumped down in her seat, her butt moving a bit forward had caused her dress to ride up a little and her black panties were just peeking out under the hem. I stared at her body on both ends of the dress and then caught myself and turned my gaze back to Stacey.
But the young woman behind the purple glasses saw all and was giving no quarter. “Ooh checking her out… what do you think of that dress mate?”
I was caught by surprise, in the act, and struggled for a moment to respond. I really did not want to blush but I could not help myself. I knew a neutral answer like “nice” would be totally lame, evasive even, so I went big. “Her dress is awesome!” And then realizing it was weird that I was talking about Mitzi as if she wasn’t there, turned to Mitzi and said, “Awesome dress!”
Mitzi managed to utter a “Thank you… you’re sweet”, touching my shoulder as she did before she slumped back down into her big coat and the seat under it.
Stacey, the obvious alpha of the trio, seemed on a mission to say anything that might get a rise out of me or otherwise stir the pot. “Mitz honey, you might want to pull down your dress a smidge, your naughty bits are on display, not that I’m sure Cooper minds, but you barely know the bloke!”
Mitzi swore and then apologized, wiggling in her seat as she struggled to pull her dress down maybe an inch and clutch her thighs together, then groaned and closed her eyes like it was all too much work in her condition. This time I decided to say nothing in response, I certainly didn’t mind seeing any of the body parts she was showing, but acknowledging that would have set me up for god knows what from Stacey. I was desperate to redirect the conversation, and went to my go to question, that always seemed to work.
“So how do you folks know each other?” I thought about saying “girls” instead of “folks” (even though I had been thoroughly trained by my mom and my “feminist aunts” that only female children were girls) because that was probably how the trio saw themselves. To say “young women” would have been way too stodgy and formal, like I was some bureaucrat or teacher. I even thought about saying “ladies”, a word I never used, just to poke a little fun at them, but that seemed way too not me as well. Maybe if I had been as drunk as they were I would have gone with “ladies”.
Stacey looked at me a bit askance, like she saw right through my little redirection ploy, but Jeanie took the bait, finding her opportunity to chime into the conversation. She said that she and “Mitz” were “long time mates”, having grown up in the same neighborhood in Oxford, and with a glint in her eye, that she was Mitzi’s “better half”.
Eyes still closed, Mitzi stirred and groaned and stuck out her middle finger at her mate and mumbled, “Sweet bollocks that! Who was the one that told that bloke who couldn’t keep his hands off you to sod off?”, then in my general direction, eyes still closed, “Excuse my French!”
Stacey chimed in, taking back the conversation, “There is no excuse for you Mitzi, French or no French. Maybe Jeanie wanted her bits jostled, it certainly has been a while since anyone has been in her knickers other than her lonesome”, the latter statement eliciting a growl and a punch in the shoulder from Jeanie. Then looking at me Stacey asked, “Aren’t we the sweet birds then?”, letting loose a hearty laugh. I chuckled, and I could tell that they could tell that I was enjoying the interchange. They did not appear to be restraining themselves or on their best behavior on my behalf, though maybe showing off a bit. And of course I dug that big laugh.
Jeanie continued that she and Mitzi had met Stacey in secondary school, when Stacey moved to Oxford with her mom from Harrogate after her parents separated. Stacey theatrically bent her head, tilted down her glasses, and looked over the top of them deep into my eyes with all the mock seriousness and deadpan she could muster and said, “I’m from a broken home.” Those big hazel eyes gave me a glimpse into her soul, her determination mixed with joie de vivre.
“Me too!”, I replied instantly and brightly, not even contemplating the words in my mind before I said them. I felt instant kinship with these three young women, though Minzi next to me seemed barely conscious. I went on, explaining that my mom and dad had divorced when I was ten and that I lived with my mom and younger brother in the States. My dad lived 200 miles south of us but I explained how he was still part of the family, driving up to take us down to his place for weekends and also when my mom got sick to help out.
Stacey commented, “Your dad doesn’t sound like a bad sort, why did he divorce your mom?”
Mitzi groaned, “Jeez Stace, none of your damn business!”, then to me after a perfectly timed beat, “Yeah, why’d they split?”, triggering howls of laughter from the other two, coaxing just the smallest hint of a grin on Mitzi’s face. She tried to open and then focus her eyes to look at me and see if I enjoyed her good line, and then thinking better of it, blurted out, “I think I’m going to vom!”
Her “better half” chimed in, “Bog’s just behind you Mitz.” Mitzi awkwardly scrambled over me, her right hand failing to secure a grip on the hand rest to my left, causing her breasts to rub against my face as she struggled to get to the aisle and staggered into the toilet just behind us in the back of the bus. I had never felt a woman’s breasts before, and they were deliciously firm but spongy, though I had expected my first encounter would have been with hands rather than my face. It was another first for me of sorts. Not one that had been on my checklist, but definitely worthy of inclusion.
“Hey Coop,” Stacey was already abbreviating my name, “You’re actually the third bloke sniffing her tits this evening!” she snickered loud enough for her sick comrade’s consumption. I grinned and nodded, not sure how to otherwise respond and hoping I wasn’t blushing too too much.
From the still open door of the toilet, Mitzi managed to groan out a laconic “fuck you” before we heard her start to empty the contents of her stomach. An elderly couple sitting across the aisle, who had been trying their best to ignore us, looked nervously at Stacey and inquired if “that girl” was going to be all right. Stacey reassured them that “in a tick” she would likely feel much better.
But I had blushed and Stacey had noticed and the rules of engagement were seemingly no rules and no quarter. Stacey threw the next verbal left jab, her right hook ready should I let my guard down. “So how do Mitzi’s pair compare with the girls back home?”
No quick easy answer this time. I said “hmm” to buy time while my mind raced through a list of possible responses other than the sad truth. Jeanie wasn’t saying anything to save me this time. As Mitzi continued to worship the metal (rather than porcelain) goddess, I finally said, “None that I can recall better than those!”, which was technically correct though obviously not anywhere near the real story, and not delivered convincingly enough to be a good line reading from an acting point of view.
There was definitely blood in the water as Jeanie joined the fray. “How about your girlfriend’s?”, and then, “You’re not a poof are you?” I gulped. I had heard the term once before and knew it was British slang for a gay man.
I scrunched up my face and pursed my lips, shaking my head and saying “no” in a neutral tone. We could hear Mitzi now coughing and spitting in the toilet.
Assuming that was an answer to her second question, she returned to her first. “Girlfriend?”
“Not at the moment,” I said with all the nonchalance I could muster, thinking of what seemed like a clever rejoinder, “It’s pretty hard to have a girlfriend when you’re off across the ocean for eleven weeks!”
“Yeah I guess,” Stacey acknowledged, but then threw that right hook, “So you ever… do it?”
It was Mitzi, back from the dead, returning from the toilet, that saved me. She put her hand on my shoulder and scolded her comrades, “Cooper is trying to be a perfect gentleman here and you two guttersnipes don’t have a fucking clue!” She then looked at me and said, “Sorry for the… my…”, waving her hand between her breasts.
“Not a problem,” I replied, which was again technically correct but again was not anywhere near the real story. And then, “I’m glad you’re feeling better”, as I got up and gave her room to get back to her seat, then sat back down again. Jeanie offered her a breath mint. She took it, popped it in her mouth and said “Ta”. Mitzi slid her left hand under my right shoulder and grasped my right upper arm, moving her right hand on top of her left for emphasis. Her stomach no longer troubled, she was the inebriated queen and I was now her favored consort. The interrogation of my sexual status was so decreed as tabled.
“So eleven weeks eh?”, Mitzi noted, “Tell us about your travels. Bet you’ve seen and done way more interesting stuff than we have.”
And I proceeded to give them the long version of my travel narrative, from the original hatching of the European odyssey by my friends Lane and Angie, figuring it was the best way to keep Stacey at bay. None of the three of them had even been outside England, not even to Scotland or Wales, let alone across the Channel to the Continent. I might have been the sexual virgin, and they may have intuited that from our previous exchange, but they were “travel virgins” of sorts. I was now practiced in telling the tale with all its dramatic moments nicely set up by the appropriate exposition. The breathalyzer test by Swiss police, the tearing apart of the VW van by Spanish customs, the gory bullfight, the long ride with Walter, the Sistine Chapel, exiting the long tunnel under the Alps, the mountains of Grindelwald and the journey not taken to the “top of the world” on the cog railway. I told Miranda’s story, which wowed the three of them, though I skipped the vignette about her hitting on me, thinking it might give Stacey ideas for a new line of cross examination. I did tell the Steve story, including his sexual proposition, but only my saying no after our extended discussion, and not my thought process that had entertained saying yes. They loved all the hash smoking parts, none of them having smoked before, all “cannabis virgins”, so I really embellished those vignettes in the telling.
Beyond Miranda, I figured they would be interested in all the intriguing young women I had encountered, and I pretty much wove all of those women into my narrative from what they looked like to my take on what made them tick. From Angie parting company with me in London, to Rhonda on the ship back to England unexpectedly going off with charismatic Max, and pregnant mom Ceil with her self involved husband Ilya. Stacey’s favorite was the diminutive but charismatic green-eyed, five-pigtailed alien alpha Trix. Jeanie loved the sarcastic card dealing Ragna. And Mitzi’s was the stoner artist Gwendolyn. They were all curious about my relationship with Angie, buddies but not boyfriend girlfriend. They all loved the feminist sex goddess Monika, or at least the way I told the story of her swagger, Swedish accent, drop-dead gorgeous body, and the funny way she said “guys”.
The three of them seemed to be enjoying getting a glimpse of a larger world beyond their own experience, plus seeing the world through the eyes of a “bloke” who was not crafting his words just to talk them out of their pants, but who was sketching profiles of intriguing, bigger than life young women that he was attracted to but also had great appreciation and respect for. Women with characteristics that the three of them either saw in themselves or aspired to possess someday. Women who did not play second fiddle to men, but carried the day with their own agency and on their own merits. I was reporting my point of view like I was their agent, their mole even, into the alien world and worldview of the male sex. And maybe they were getting to that deeper understanding, where I myself was learning to inhabit, that we were all just people, some of us with penises and others of us with vaginas.
Throughout my tale, bits of my story triggered them sharing what highlights they had of their own. Stacey and her mom packing their old Austin in a hurry one day with just four suitcases and leaving her dad and their lives in Harrogate behind to come to and start a new life in Oxford. Jeanie meeting David Bowie when she was one of the on camera teens on “Top of the Pops”. Mitzi’s various salacious sexual encounters. The three of them getting clerk jobs at a real estate company in London.
I had assumed up to now that the three of them were still in high school living with their parents, based on their youthful looks and my perception of their maturity. So I was a bit shocked to piece together from the bits of their stories that they were out of school and living together without any adult overseers in an apartment in Oxford. Apparently they were returning home from a Friday afternoon office party, where, as they explained it in great detail, the ritual was for everyone to drink way too much, and the male bosses to hit on all the young female clerks and secretaries like themselves. In all their stories it became clear that though they flung the insults and talked the trash, they had great appreciation and understanding of each other and always had each other’s back. I found that totally endearing.
It was after nine when our bus pulled into the Oxford bus station. They inquired where I was staying, and we were surprised to realize that we were all headed to the same part of town. The three of them lived in a flat in Cowley, in the southeast side of Oxford on Horspath Road. My friends the Clays lived in the village of Horspath just outside of town and a couple of kilometers farther out Horspath Road. Jeanie said that unfortunately their bus only went as far as Cowley, and if I took it I would have to walk the last two kilometers out to the village. Still I imagined Mitzi cuddling up next to me on that bus ride, falling asleep on my shoulder or on my lap.
While they waited for the bus, I called the Clays and spoke to Madge, telling her that my ride to Oxford had fallen through and I had ended up on the bus from London. She said Kevin was home and would be happy to drive over and pick me up. I told her that he didn’t have to, that I was okay taking the Cowley bus, thinking to myself that despite the walk I would have some more time to hang with Mitzi and company. Madge insisted that I shouldn’t have to take the bus and the walk, that Kevin was ready to go and would be there in twenty minutes. Feeling their great hospitality and not wanting to spurn it, I finally said I’d be happy for him to drive down and pick me up.
So when the Cowley bus pulled in, we said our goodbyes in the little station waiting room, the three of them in their long wool coats covering their short party dresses, me in my orange down jacket over plaid shirt and jeans. They all thanked me for making an otherwise boring bus ride home something more memorable. Mitzi, barely able to keep her eyes open, apologized again for inadvertently “smashing my tits in your face”, hoping it hadn’t made me too uncomfortable (it certainly hadn’t), saying she was a “silly cow sometimes” when she drank too much.
I grimaced at that last remark and tried to find the words to tell her that that was definitely not the case. What I managed to say was, “I certainly don’t think that is true! I’m just glad you are feeling better!”
Mitzi smiled and did her best to hold her eyes open to look in mine. I could see the wheels churning somewhere back there in her mind as she was suddenly inspired to stagger toward me and give me a little peck on the cheek, her breath smelling of spearmint and bile, then wiping the residue of lipstick left behind with her fingers, saying, “You’re a sweet bloke, you know that?” and then she stepped back. Her comrades watched her and were respectfully silent (for once) during the moment, like they were seconding her words and actions, and they each put an arm on her shoulder after she withdrew. Stacey, used to having the last word as the alpha of the trio, finally ended that moment and said, “Okay then, we have to board our bus, good travels mate!” and Jeanie nodded in assent. The three of them bundled up and her two mates led Mitzi out the door of the station to the waiting bus. As they exited, Mitzi gave me a royal wave from above her long blue coat.
I felt a deep well of so many emotions, and rising out of the mix, sending goose pimples down my forearms, was Badfinger’s great hit song, “No Matter What”, suddenly playing in my mind’s jukebox…
No matter what you are
I will always be with you
Doesn’t matter what you do girl, oh girl with you
No matter what you do
I will always be around
Won’t you tell me what you found girl, oh girl won’t you
No matter where you go
There will always be a place
Can’t you see in my face girl, oh girl won’t you
Knock down the old brick wall, and be a part of it all
Nothing to say, nothing to see, nothing to do
If you would give me all, as I would give it to you
Nothing would be, nothing would be, nothing would be
It was both torch song and anthem, calling out one’s absolute and undying fidelity for another. I felt the three of them had had that for each other despite their teasing and trash talk. I had that same feeling for my family and my friends back in the States. In four days I would be back home and able to demonstrate that fidelity with my words and actions. And I knew that someday I would find my own life partner, and every one of those words would ring true in our forever bond. It might take a while. It might take years. But someday, damn my fucking shyness and timidity, it would happen!
And yes, knock down that old wall!