[This is a rewrite of the second half of part 1 of my original backpacking thru Europe memoir]
It was late afternoon Monday September 17 when her mom drove Angie and me and our big full backpacks the thirty some miles to Metropolitan Airport outside Detroit. I felt an unnatural calm, akin to the reverse stage fright I would get before going out on stage in a theatrical performance. I was once again throwing myself in the deep end of the metaphorical pool of life experience. Like when I had first decided three years earlier to perform on stage, particularly my first big lead part singing and dancing in the musical Oklahoma. It was how shy, reticent me conducted my development, resisting and procrastinating until the fear of being a total chickenshit overwhelmed the fear of the leap into the abyss.
If Angie was having any second thoughts about our trip at this point, I did not notice. I was so deep within myself. She was quiet as well, sitting next to me in the backseat, probably going through her own version of something like a pre stage performance routine. Her mom seemed uncomfortable with our silence and kept trying to make conversation. All she got was short answers from both of us.
Somewhat surprising to me, Angie’s mom shared with us her plans to fly to London with Angie’s dad on September 27th, and from there head up to northern England and Scotland to see extended family. Angie had not said anything about that to me and the timing seemed weird. But I filed it away and went back to my own self focus.
Ours was an overnight flight from Detroit to London Heathrow. We both tried to sleep but neither one of us managed. The time might have been better spent talking about our hopes and concerns for the trip, really understanding where the other one was at. But we were mostly quiet. We got to our destination in the late morning local time, both pretty bleary. Heathrow was a maze of hallways, corridors and stairways, including moving walkways I had never seen before which I noted in my journal as “horizontal escalators”. The airport officials checking our passports were brusque and even snotty, but in the end let us and our backpacks into the country. After asking four people for directions and some wrong turns, we finally ended up on the bus to the London Underground station closest to the airport.
The bus traveled through oldish residential areas to the suburban London town of Hounslow, letting us off in front of the West Hounslow Underground Station. We took the District subway line to Earls Court, for a fare of 15p each. Recalling riding the London subways three years earlier when I spent the summer in England with my mother and brother, I noted that ticket prices had doubled since I was last there. We had read the book Europe on $5 a Day, and based on that our goal was six dollars a day, realistic or not. So I was immediately thinking about money and the cost of things, particularly transportation. Our two-month student rail passes had cost $150 each, but they didn’t start until October 1, and even then would not cover bus or subway fare.
The youth hostel we had headed for turned out to be full, and it was getting into afternoon and we both had been running on adrenaline and could barely keep our eyes open. We looked up another hostel in our guide, thought to call them first, and they were full as well. Outside the place we encountered two Americans, the first two since our arrival, who happened of all places to be from Ypsilanti, the town just east of Ann Arbor where my dad used to teach. They told us of a hostel two blocks down the road from where we were. So we went there and were able to get in. The man in charge was about 40 years old, talkative, friendly, a little uptight and pushy though. We said we might stay one or two nights so he had us give him two pounds each, and he would refund us one pound each if we only stayed one night. We weren’t in any shape to argue.
The place was one in a series of row houses, with a basement, ground and second floor, plus attic. Angie’s bed was in one of the female rooms on the second floor while mine was with four other guys in the basement. The place was rundown, with peeling paint, yellowing tile, and sort of makeshift beds. The room I was in had clothing and other backpacking items from the three other guys scattered all over it. It was about 2pm and Angie decided to go upstairs and take a nap.
I sat downstairs trying to pull myself together. I felt kind of scared and rattled by what I had been through earlier at Heathrow. I realized that getting anywhere by cheap transportation would always be a hassle, even here in England where we spoke the language! Every day we were going to have the same struggle, particularly in a big urban environment like London. Getting out of this big city seemed very appealing to me then, and I thought that we ought to get ourselves to Oxford the next morning and escape the dingy hostel, and the depressing, confusing city.
With Angie asleep upstairs I got another rush of adrenaline and decided to walk around the neighborhood a bit. The manager of the hostel gave me directions to the post office, and I figured I would pick up a postcard or something to write home to my mom. The post office was right across the street from the Earl’s Court Underground station. As I walked along I noticed the smells of this sort of urban area, smells of fresh this and that or rotting this and that. There were all sorts of people on the streets. Facial expressions ranged from the normal expected faces in a public place to weird far off looks. There were other obvious Americans with their backpacks and scraggly hair. Dingy British businessmen. Mothers with their children. Young couples and girls alone, and a few young British men alone. There were also a great number of Asians, which I had noticed at the airport and my hostel as well. It was a strange bunch of people, most of whom I was not used to encountering in my Midwest, middle class, mostly white college town.
I couldn’t find decent postcards so I bought an aerogramme at the post office instead. They were cheaper too, just 6p including the postage. I also stopped at a small food store and after much pondering and consternation bought a can of Campbell’s “Scotch Broth” for 10p. I felt like I was copping out, but this was the only food that was both appealing and reliably familiar. I wasn’t ready to experiment yet with British convenience food. I picked up a couple of familiar British candy bars at the Underground station and headed back. I quickly ate the candy bars, but decided to stow the soup away because I wasn’t all that hungry. I sat down and wrote my aerogramme to mom and brother. I wrote about my sense of overwhelm.
Angie reappeared from upstairs. I was relieved to note that though she still had bags under her eyes, she seemed relaxed and in the moment. So we both walked over to the post office. She bought three aerogrammes and I got one more. She agreed with me that we should only stay that night and make our way to Oxford the next morning. We found a little fast food place and stopped and ate and discussed our plans for the morning, both agreeing to take off for Oxford first thing, either by bus or hitchhiking. She said she had taken a nap and was a bit refreshed, but I could feel the deep fatigue in my body from little or no sleep, though I still continued to function. Angie shared that one of her roommates mentioned that she thought they had bed bugs, the kind that crawl into your sleeping bags, suck your blood and breed in your bedding.
We were definitely not getting off to a good start! And our relationship was not such that we were used to sharing our fears and troubles and discussing difficult personal issues with each other, so we really did not process our misgivings. Finally we parted company for the evening, her heading upstairs and me to the basement. I decided I would sleep somehow tonight without opening my sleeping bag.
The next morning we found our way to the bus station and onto a bus to Oxford. We both felt good to be leaving the big city and driving through the English countryside on a warm sunny day. There had been a radio in the room I slept in and the station had played Ron Argent’s song, “Hold Your Head Up”. So this next morning, all during our bus ride, its opening organ riff and lyrics were repeating in my mind’s jukebox…
And if it’s bad
Don’t let it get you down, you can take it
And if it hurts
Don’t let them see you cry, you can make it
Hold your head up
Hold your head up
Hold your head up
Hold your head high
And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes on you moving
And if they shout
Don’t let it change a thing that you’re doing
Hold your head up
My Greek chorus, even several thousand miles away from home, was speaking to me and giving me a mantra to get through this. During the bus ride I tried my best to refresh Angie on my previous time three years back living in Oxford. That we had an invitation to stay with the Clays, the family who had been our next door neighbors, back then in the little village of Horspath just outside Oxford proper. She seemed to be hanging in there.
When we got to the Oxford bus station, it turned out that the bus to Horspath did not leave for some three hours! Remembering my greater Oxford area geography, plus armed with a map, we finally figured out to take another bus to the Cowley roundabout, which was just about three or four miles from our destination. From there I called their number, and Mr. Clay, Bill was his name, answered the phone and said he would come right by and pick us up.
Bill was soon there in his new VW, full of his good friendly energy, very glad to see us. He and his wife Madge had lived next door to us three years ago when we had spent the summer in England. My brother and I had befriended their kids, Kevin, who was my age, and his younger sister Kate, who was about my brother’s. Bill cheerily filled Angie and I in on his family’s goings on, and inquired how my mom was doing, and how I knew Angie. He said Kevin was in trade school studying to be an auto mechanic and now working part time at a gas station, and Kate was into the whole teenage thing going to the little high school in Horspath that Kevin was going to back when we lived there.
When we got to their house, the neighborhood looked unchanged from how I remembered it, with the five hundred year old manor farmhouse across the street and the thousand year old church behind their backyard. The couple next door to the Clays who my mom had traded houses with had since sold their house and moved on. Madge’s mom had had a lot of health issues and was now confined to a wheelchair, seeming unlike three years ago, very bossy and impatient. Madge seemed thrilled to see us and gave me and Angie big hugs.
They insisted that we stay with them, and I was really glad they did. Angie and I were still feeling jet lagged and sleep deprived and happy to agree. I was so hoping she would have the chance to relax and get her bearings after the awful first night in that fleabag hostel.
Madge and Kevin agreed that Angie would sleep in his room, and he and I would sleep on the living room in our sleeping bags. He kind of went right back to where he and I had been three years ago, and was excited to show Angie and I the new motor scooter he had bought. She and I were still a bit on overwhelm, not having found our center of gravity as travel buddies. So after eating supper with the five of them all squeezed around their dining table we made an early night of it. As all others retired to their rooms, Kevin and I lay on the living room floor in our sleeping bags and he continued to regale me with the highlights of the last three years of his life, and quizzed me for details about my own. I could barely keep my eyes open but I felt it would be rude not to answer his questions, plus it just felt good to be around people I knew, sleeping in a place that was not completely strange to me.
The next morning the five of them were up early, Madge fixing breakfast for all. Since Kevin and I had slept in the living room in full view of the kitchen, it felt weird for me not to get up once they were all gathered at the table. Kate with her books, dressed in her school uniform, ready for her short walk to the school in the village. Kevin to head off on his scooter to his classes and Bill in his new VW off to work at the factory. I did not want them to feel they had to keep talking quietly on my account, so I got up, and Madge suggested I come and eat to give the hot water in the water heater a chance to recover before I tried to take a shower. There was no sign of Angie, cloistered off behind the door to Steve’s room, and we all agreed we should let her sleep.
Kate, Kevin and Bill all ate their scrambled eggs, toast and “bangers”, that is sausages, quickly, Kate first to excuse herself to head off to school. Kevin and Bill were next, but before they left Kevin suggested that they should take Angie and I to the village pub when they returned from their day.
After the three had headed off and I finished my plate, I took a shower. When I finally came out, all clean and refreshed in fresh clothes, Angie was sitting at the table eating with Madge and her mom. I was happy to see that my travel partner seemed reinvigorated, and was happily answering Madge’s questions on where she lived, her family, and how she and I knew each other through our theater group. I took a seat at the table and listened, trying not to disturb the nexus of the three women connecting with each other. Madge changed her questioning to the future.
“So where you two headed on your journey? Your mum’s letter said England and all over the Continent.” She directed the question to both of us, but returned her gaze to Angie, who she seemed quite taken with.
“Well…” Angie said brightly, then stopped abruptly. She looked at me, like somehow I could better answer that question. It was not like she hadn’t contributed to deciding on our itinerary, particularly Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, and especially Vienna with its history of opera and theater. Maybe she was just giving me the chance to join the conversation.
So I rattled off the list of destinations, and Madge made appreciative oohs and aahs and other noises.
“I’m so jealous”, she noted, her lips forming a pout. “I have grown up with all that just across the Channel, but I’ve never been, except to holiday once in Portugal after Bill and I got hitched.” She looked off out the kitchen window. “I’ve always wanted to go to Paris, but life just caught up with me.”
Madge’s mom mumbled some words that I couldn’t make out. Madge chuckled and shook her head, laying her own hand on her mom’s quivering hand.
Still holding her mom’s hand, Madge looked at us again. “So you two are going to be living out of those packs the whole time? What did your mum say in her letter, ten weeks? One thing for a lad perhaps, but for a lass?” She looked at Angie and shook her head. “You’re more of an adventurer than I am dear. I think I’d trade it all for a big trunk full of my clothes and two weeks at a nice little hotel in Paris.”
Angie laughed but it seemed a bit forced to me.
Once Madge had finished her friendly interrogation, Angie and I were happy just to sit and drink hot tea with milk and sugar and listen to her fill us in on the major milestones in their household since I had been there three years ago. Her mom’s worsening health and confinement to a wheelchair. Her daughter Kate becoming a “teenybopper”. Kevin’s acquisitions; scooter, job, apprenticeship, and now girlfriend. Bill’s new “bug” and continuing job at the Morris plant that paid the bills. Her own volunteer work at the church.
Before Madge could even ask, I told her about my brother David, how he was still doing his art, and also theater like Angie and me. I told her how my mom had gotten involved in local politics and the women’s movement. She laughed and said that that made perfect sense to her, remembering my mom’s gregariousness and strong views from back then.
Madge suggested that I take Angie on the bus into Oxford to show her around. She said that it was much busier now, in the fall with all the students back, than it was in the summer when I was here before. Angie thought that was a good plan, so we headed out, with a small bag of ham sandwiches Madge packed for us for lunch along with a map of the campus. Remembering the geography pretty well from three years ago, I played tour guide and showed her around the storied university with all its different cloistered colleges. Since both of us had grown up in a college town, it felt not too strange to wander among the cloistered brick and stone buildings in the midst of a crowd of students. Of course, though Angie and I were both eighteen, I had skipped kindergarten, and had been a year ahead of her in school. So I had already spent a year away from home in college while Angie had just graduated from high school the previous June, and our trip would be her first time away from home for an extended time.
Letting me play tour guide, Angie commented about this and that with her patented wit and bright effervescence. Still she seemed not fully present somehow. We were both actors of course, she probably more skilled at the craft than I was, playing characters on stage with energy and verve that were different than who we really were.
The best I managed to do in querying her on how she was feeling was to ask if she still felt jetlagged. She rolled her big blue eyes in that endearing way she could, a “take” she often used on stage to great comic effect. She nodded and grimaced but said no more about it. I figured, maybe “hoped” is a better word, that another good night’s sleep at the Clay’s would make a big difference.
This time we managed to get the bus back to Horspath in a timely fashion and I took Angie for a tour of the village. First we stopped at the little store across from the bus stop and I treated her to a “Cornish”, a plain vanilla ice cream bar with wafers on both sides. She ate it lustily which I took to be a good sign. We took the road up the other side of the village past the stone building that was the village pub, past the runty little thousand year old church, and the village’s jarringly modern looking secondary school for kids 11 to 18. We then continued on the road up the hill to the Shotover ridge just above the village. It was still as I remembered it, with fields of waist high bracken. We waded through the ferns as I told her the tale that Kevin had told me three years ago. How in medieval times the “horse path” from London to Oxford went right along this ridge, and outlaws used to hide in the trees and bracken and waylay rich travelers and rob them. Farther along the ridge we waded out of the sea of ferns and down through the cow pasture of the still operational manor farm across the road from the Clay’s house. Unlike me, Angie had no sense of where we were.
“So Coop, I feel like we are completely lost!”
“You know… you may be right!” I responded, playing playing along with her concern. “Let’s try going this way.”
It was perfect timing actually. We walked a hundred feet to the left through a line of trees and over a waist high split rail fence and suddenly we were across the street from the Clay’s house.
“You little shit”, she said, giving me a playful punch in the shoulder. That punch felt so good in that moment, intimate in its way. I think it was the first time we had physically touched each other since we had left Ann Arbor. Not that we had the kind of relationship where we would have the occasion to touch each other, except maybe getting the other’s attention by laying a hand on their shoulder to point something out or deliver a witty retort. We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend after all, just friends. And we weren’t even best friends like she and Lane. I remembered sometimes how Lane would tossle Angie’s frizzie strawberry blonde hair and scowl at her with mock anger before breaking out into a hearty belly laugh. Or how Angie would wiggle Lane’s chin and nose.
That evening after supper at the Clay’s, Bill and Kevin took Angie and I as promised to the village pub. I, an experienced beer drinker from my year in the dorm at college, had a beer on tap. At Kevin’s suggestion, Angie had a shandy, a mixture of beer and fruit juice. He and his dad quizzed us about how we knew each other, and we shared with them we were schoolmates, but became friends working together in our Youth Theater Unlimited group. It seemed like a kick to both of them that Angie and I had both been in a number of plays including singing and dancing on stage. I was so hoping that Angie’s comfort level with our whole adventure ahead was being increased by this much more friendly and domestic third day of our journey together.
The next morning was Friday, and after breakfast with the family, we said our goodbyes, repacked our backpacks, and Bill drove us back to the bus station. We were catching the bus to Salisbury, which had been on our planned itinerary. Angie wanted to see Stonehenge. I had seen it when my mom, brother and I had spent the summer in England three years ago, but was happy to go again to a place of great gravity and historical significance. There was also an official youth hostel in Salisbury, and we had called ahead and confirmed it was open and should be able to accommodate us.
During our two hour bus ride, I was sensing her pensiveness again and possible second thoughts about continuing our journey. She sat by the window and did not say much, spending most of the time looking out at the countryside going by. When I would bring up a subject, like how cool Stonehenge was, she would brighten up momentarily and make a few comments, before quieting again and resuming her gazing out.
Something about looking at the back of her head staring pensively out the window of the bus, I recalled her looking out on stage a year and a half ago when I was the stage manager and she ran props for the YTU production of Hamlet. Lane was playing Ophelia, so she was either on stage or changing costumes and otherwise prepping elsewhere for her next scene. Angie and I were basically running the backstage area. It was when she and I developed a bond as comrades in our own right, beyond our shared connection to Lane. I recalled us comparing notes, discussing timing for scene changes, and what set pieces and props needed to get out on stage. Then when the scene ended, calling out instructions to others and making the change happen. It was that bond that I was hoping would take us together through the entire run of our endeavor.
But beyond that good working relationship, she and I had no history talking about difficult feelings. Hell, I had trouble talking about difficult feelings with everybody. The question to discuss at this point was simple enough, are you having any second thoughts about this whole thing. But I could not bring myself to ask it. I was afraid of what the answer would be at this point, and I somehow thought that if I waited without asking for just a little while longer, she would shift and the answer would be different.
But that evening, after we had checked out Stonehenge and checked in, successfully this time, at our youth hostel, Angie finally shared her feelings with me.
“Hey Cooper”, she said sighing, “I know I haven’t been my sparkling self these last couple days”. She rolled her head and eyes as she said “sparkling self”. She sighed again. “It’s hard for me to share this kind of stuff”.
I gave her my best understanding nod. “Yeah I have trouble too”, I responded, like I knew what she was talking about though she hadn’t said what “stuff” meant in this case.
She gave me her best understanding nod in response and then looked down at the floor and gave out an ironic chuckle now shaking her head instead.
“I’m not going to be able to continue this with you. I’m so sorry! I bit off more than I can chew.”
I tried to give that same understanding nod again but I could feel my entire body go numb.
“Fuck”, she said, it was rare for her to swear, “It was Lane that talked me into this thing originally. And then you came along and were all gung ho to join in. And then when she bailed I don’t know, she always talks me into stuff, she didn’t want to be the reason you and I didn’t go.” I could see her shoulders relaxing as she let the words tumble out.
She looked into my eyes. I could feel it was the most intimate and honest she had ever been with me, and I always craved that level of connection.
“I mean once she talked me into it I was gung ho too. What an adventure! What an experience, right?” She gave me her cutest pained look and her rosy cheeks got rosier as her eyes teared up and the words continued to flow. “And when Lane was out and it was just you and I… well… that was a whole different thing, right? But I was still game!” She said it like I needed convincing.
I nodded again. I felt so sorry for her having to make this difficult confession.
“And it wasn’t that first night at that crazy hostel with the bed bugs. And the Clays were great. You’ve been a great travel partner.” She shook her head again. “It’s just me. I can’t do it. I’m so sorry!” I could tell she was finally done talking.
I hadn’t said anything since she had started her speech. I was a mass of conflicting feelings, feeling both betrayed but sympathetic, and I could see my continued silence was making her feel bad.
Finally I forced myself to speak. “I kind of thought you might be feeling this way, but I didn’t say anything, and I hoped things would change somehow.”
She scrunched her mouth and nodded.
“I don’t really know what to do now!” I said, looking off to the side. My first thought was that I should throw in the towel too, return to Londen with her and figure out how to catch the first flight possible back home. But then the implications of doing that hit me. After all the buildup, after all the long hours of cleaning hotel rooms for $2.10 an hour, after all the self-esteem I had invested in returning a world traveler, how could I come home after just one fucking week.
“Well I think you should continue”, she said. “From the moment we shared our plan with you you were totally into it. More than either of us really!” She laughed, then got serious again and continued, gesturing with her hands in front of her face for emphasis. “I get that you may not want to go on, on your own. I totally get that. And I don’t want to lay a trip on you that you have to continue because I don’t want to be the reason you won’t be able to do what you really wanted to do.” Her words seemed genuine.
“I get everything you are saying”, I responded, “I just have to figure out what I’m going to do.”
Out of the blue she gave me a hug. We had never embraced like that before. I wanted the embrace to last forever, but she finally let me go.
“Let’s sleep on it, okay? If you don’t wake up in the morning and want to have nothing to do with me, let’s continue our plan to go to Southampton to meet this guy and then on to London, okay?”
“Okay”. I nodded.
As much as I wanted to in that moment, I just could not go home after one week and have any shred of self-respect. Others would view me, hell I would view myself, as a total failure. I had too many failures in my life already, things I had not followed through on because I got cold feet, was overcome by fear. Moments I had come to with female comrades where she suggested that we take our relationship to the next level, that romantic sexual level, and I bailed instead.
I somehow had to continue with this now very different sort of odyssey. Rather than the adventure with my friend and all the new experiences it would bring, I was now looking at an ordeal alone so I did`not come home feeling a failure.
There was one of those painted red phone booths down the street from the hostel, one of those iconic ones that I had seen on TV shows or movies set in England. With a pocket full of British coins and a helpful operator I managed to make the connection back to the States and was grateful when my mom answered the phone. My voice was shaky and the tears flooded out of me as I explained to her what had happened and that I had decided that like it or not that I had to continue. Her voice and words over the phone line, so far away, struck just the right tone.
“Coop. From the time you were five years old and we let you walk to school on your own we have always trusted you to be thoughtful, have good judgement, and do the right thing.” She paused and then said, “It’s just if you continue on your own I’m going to be much more concerned about you, So I ask that you send me a postcard every day, or at least every other day, with where you are and how you are doing. Will you do that? And please call me collect anytime you want to talk.”
Nothing she had ever said to me in my entire fucking life was more important than those words in that moment. I thanked her, still in tears, and hung up the phone. I composed myself and returned to the youth hostel and did my best to try to get some sleep (despite my mind buzzing with all the implications of my decision) before the new day came in this brave new world that felt not of my own making but now controlled my fate.
Angie called her parents that evening as well. She told me in the morning that the plan was to meet them in London on the 27th and accompany them on their journey north and on to Scotland. I figured that must have been a “plan B” between her and her folks all along.
The next day we took a bus to Southampton, a port city along England’s south coast. After calling him, David met us at the bus station there in his very tiny Mini Cooper, that barely fit Angie and I and our backpacks. He seemed one of those caretaker type people that was always focused on looking after others, which was probably why my mom had originally made such a connection with him. He quickly quizzed Angie and I and found out all the details of our situation, and did his best to assure us that everything would work out for the best.
When we had met him three years earlier he had been single, but now he was living with a girlfriend and her two young kids in a somewhat rundown part of the city. While David was closer to my mom’s age, I recall that his girlfriend was a shy black woman who was significantly younger than him, closer to Angie and my age, who spoke very little English. He was not her kids’ biological father, but given his inclination, was filling in as such. It was a small one bedroom apartment, and David, his girlfriend and her kids all slept in the small bedroom while he made room for us in their main room.
I recall finding their relationship discomforting, since he seemed to treat her more like a daughter though he was apparently sleeping with and having sex with her. And here were Angie and I, platonic friends (though I had imagined our odyssey might have led to more than that) sleeping in our separate sleeping bags just one thin wall from their shared bed. Despite that, it was nice getting my first chance to sleep next to Angie, in this case just a foot apart on the floor of the narrow front room of the apartment that functioned as the living and dining room.
The next morning was Saturday, and David convinced us to stay a second night and took Angie and I on a tour of the city and at the end of the day to a big youth dance hall. Feeling like fish out of water among all these other young people our age we did not know, Angie and I finally got the nerve up to dance with each other to the DJ’s loud music. His playlist included American and British bands we knew, like The Who, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, plus other British bands we were not familiar with like Slade and Thin Lizzy. With Angie’s participation in the endeavor resolved, such as it was, we relaxed and danced like the friends and theater comrades we were. We would be going our separate ways in several more days, but it somehow seemed meant to be. The real journey was to be mine alone, everything that had happened up to now was just a way to get me to that starting point.
On Sunday we took the bus back to London, bleary again from not being able to get a good night’s sleep on David’s cramped little living room floor. We decided, given our situation, to splurge on an inexpensive hotel, instead of trying to find a youth hostel. One of the clerks at the bus station suggested a little place, just north of Hyde Park. The little square there was actually more of a triangle. We shared a room with two beds. The bathroom was down the hall, but it all felt luxurious after two nights at David’s, which had including sharing one tiny bathroom with rust stains in the toilet.
We “foraged” and found a little grocery store in the neighborhood. We bought a loaf of uncut bread, sliced ham and a wedge of cheddar cheese, took it back to our hotel and ate it sitting on one of the beds like a picnic. Our conversation was about the touristy stuff we planned to do the next day. The topic of what was going to happen beyond tomorrow hung over us but was not broached. We joked with each other in mock British accents that we “indeed” would “retire early”.
She actually fell asleep before I did and I enjoyed seeing her cute round face topped with those short strawberry blonde curls on the pillow of the bed next to mine. I imagined what it would be like to be lovers and to share a bed together, and maybe even be naked under the covers. Our bodies cuddling together and touching each other’s “naughty bits” as the English would say. And then to actually get on top of your partner, or them on you, to have sex. I wanted all that to be part of my life somehow, but it still felt so far far away.
The next morning, we walked through nearby Hyde Park, including by several young couples holding hands or arms around each other’s backs. Their implicit body language, along with an occasional explicit mouth on mouth kiss, telegraphed a sexual component to their relationship. A component beyond what my comrade Angie and I had, or would have any time soon. There would be a pause in our conversation, maybe a nervous chuckle at the two “love birds”, and then a somewhat awkward renewal of our thread of discussion. Our walk continued to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. We both noted the “theater” of it in its bright costumes, exaggerated formality and crisp choreography. Finally we stood in Westminster Abbey and felt the pomp and history of that big interior space.
It was getting dark when we finally made our way back to the neighborhood around our little triangle, Sussex Garden. A visit to that same small grocery store scored another loaf of bread, exotic pumpernickel this time, hard salami (at Angie’s suggestion), and Muenster cheese (at mine). Angie also insisted on buying a bottle of cheap champagne, not quite Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rose” but pretty close, to commemorate our last night together.
Holding the bottle, in all her best mock seriousness, she looked at me and said, “If I get drunk don’t take advantage of me!” She laughed, and it was a belly laugh that I had not heard from her since we left the States. I wondered if this was her way of suggesting that maybe we experiment with at least a taste of a sexual encounter.
If I hadn’t been such a timid chickenshit, I might have responded with something kind of flirty like, “Well… if you’re sure!” and then flashed a coy smile and a suggestive eyebrow raising or something. But I of course didn’t, and given the instruction by my mom and my feminist aunts, I knew that “no means no”, and I should respect her spoken ground rules. But I was still hoping, that despite our impending separation which nixed my fantasy of some sort of romantic thing happening between us, that it might break down some of the barriers between us towards a more intimate platonic relationship. Towards “best mates”, as the English would say.
We put out our dinner “picnic” on my bed on a spread out copy of the International Herald Tribune I had bought yesterday at the store. Angie said her feet were sore from walking around all week in her new hiking boots. Mine were too, and I could feel blisters forming on both of my heels.
“So take ‘em off”, I ventured, a bold suggestion coming from me. I then remembering my Jed Clampett, did the proper line reading. “Set a spell… take your shoes off… y’all come back now… hear!”
She laughed and responded with her Granny Clampett. “How do you like yer possum, fallin’ off the bones tender or with a little FIGHT left in it?”
“Neither of the above”, I said, and she came forth with another belly laugh. We both struggled out of our hiking boots and sat on either side of the spread out newspaper, me at the head of the bed and her at the foot.
“Sock’s too?” Now it was her turn to boldly venture. “My feet aren’t usually stinky!”
“Socks too!” I responded, and I think I might even have flashed a little suggestive eyebrow raising. Turns out, as I had imagined, she had pink pretty toes.
That small part of me that wasn’t a total timid chickenshit wanted to kiss her in that moment, but got unceremoniously outvoted by all the other chickenshitty parts.
Next on the agenda was the bottle of cheap champagne. It had been set upright and unopened in the middle of the International Herald Tribune on the bed, and had tipped over from the jostling as we had sat on either side of it. Angie looked at the plastic cork in the bottle and the wire mesh that kept it in place.
“How do you open these things? I’ve seen my mom and dad do it but never done it myself!”
“Unscrew that wire part”, I said, like some big older, wiser expert on alcoholic beverages. If a year of college had taught me anything, it had taught me how to open a fucking bottle of champagne. “Then grip and squeeze that big top part of the plastic cork and twist it and pull up until it…”
She was too quick following my directions, and there was a loud popping noise followed by foam coming up the neck of the bottle starting to tumble out. I guess instinctual behavior took over from opening agitated soda pop bottles, and she plunged the foam spewing opening into her mouth to contain its eruption.
Her eyes looked at me and bulged as her cheeks puffed as they filled with the foamy spew. Finally she swallowed and pulled the bottle from her lips.
“Oh my god, sorry”, she blurted out, gasping for a breath after dealing with the mouthful of bubbles that had momentarily blocked her breathing process, “I didn’t expect that. I didn’t want to get any on your bed!”
I laughed having enjoyed the performance I’d just witnessed. “You did good… it was quite a save!”
“Thanks, but I got my germs all over the bottle!” If we had kissed, I thought, it wouldn’t even be an issue!
“Not a problem”, I said, “I have shared many a bottle of wine my first year in college right out of the bottle. It’s pretty much standard practice, at least in my dorm. You’ll see when you go next year.”
She nodded in acknowledgement but then said, “No. I want to do a proper toast. The hotel gave us a couple glasses, right?”
I clambered off the bed and went to the dresser with a round wood tray with two water glasses and brought them back to the bed, handing one to Angie. She took it and filled it with foamy champagne, this time managing to keep any from breaching the glass rim. I took my place back on the bed and she handed me the glass and I handed her the other to fill for her. Realizing there was nowhere safe for her to put the bottle within arm’s reach, I took it from her and put it on the nightstand.
She held up her glass, thought for a moment, then said, “To your grand adventure ahead, no thanks to me!”
“To my grand adventure”, I responded, “Actually thanks to you and Lane coming up with the idea”.
She scoffed, took a deep drink and grimaced. “Tastes like ginger ale that’s gone sour.” Nonetheless she took another gulp, emptying her glass.
“To your tour of England and Scotland with your folks. Say hi to Nessie for me.” I raised my glass and moved it to my mouth to drain it.
“Ahem”, she said, tapping on the rim of her empty glass. I reached for the bottle and refilled both our glasses.
I noticed a bit of a flush on her cheeks, beyond their normal rosiness, as she took another swig. “It’s actually kind of tasty”, she said, “In a Lola sort of a way. Are we anywhere near Soho?”
“I think we are”, I volunteered.
“So you still headed to Munich like we planned?”
I nodded. “The train leaves Victoria Station tomorrow around eleven.”
“I’m glad you’ll be able to stay with those people you know in Munich. It’s hard to be on your own in a big city where you don’t even speak the language. And then maybe from there you can go to Paris and stay with those people your mom met in Switzerland. And once your rail pass kicks in it will be easy to travel around by train. You said you love riding trains.”
I kept nodding. It was like she was a coach reminding me of the game plan and giving me a pep talk. She finished her second glass. Having done and seen a lot of drinking alcohol at school, I could tell that she was feeling the alcohol buzz.
She paused and sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “Lane will be mad at me for abandoning you like this.” She brought her eyes down to focus on mine. “Please forgive me Cooper. I wanted to be able to do this with you and Lane had me convinced it would be okay. I mean she can pretty much talk me into anything.”
I nodded and tried to chuckle supportively but didn’t say anything. I appreciated her opening up to more of her feelings. My own were more conflicted. Was I nodding to indicate I forgave her or just that I was acknowledging that she was asking for forgiveness. I really did not have a sense of what I was getting myself into. I was still shaky and scared even, if I had been honest with myself. My fun adventure with a friend had morphed into an ordeal alone.
We finished our bottle of cheap champagne. She moved to her own bed and lay on her side facing me. We went on talking about the things she had wanted to see in Paris and Rome and Vienna and the things I should make sure I see. It was like she was doing what little she could in this last evening together to make up for not being there for all the days to follow. Whether it was to assuage her own guilt or be supportive of me, I just enjoyed hearing her voice drawing me away from the turmoil in my own mind. We talked for another hour and I could see that she could hardly keep her eyes open. I had launched into a long thought about wanting to see the Alps in Switzerland when I noticed she was asleep.
Despite my fatigue, I barely slept at all that night. I kept wrestling with the fact of how utterly defeated I would feel to return to the States having bailed on my opportunity to wear that bonafide badge of a person who had had this unique developmental experience. A person that was courageously charting his own course through life. That was the person I craved to be, and I could not bail on this experience like I had on a number of others before. I would go on somehow as best I could, one day at a time for as long as I could, writing a postcard each day or two to my mom as I had promised her. Until I had had the experience I wanted to HAVE HAD, if not yet ready exactly to HAVE it.
I had finally dropped into a light sleep around six in the morning and awoke to see it was already past eight and I had to get to and catch that eleven oclock train. Angie was still sleeping as I grabbed my bag of toiletries and left the room to the bathroom down the hall. When I got back to the room she was sitting on the side of her bed, still wearing the clothes she had passed out in last night.
“You gotta get going”, she noted.
I nodded as I stuffed any of my remaining things lying about in my backpack.
“Don’t forget you Swiss Army knife.” It was on her side of the little nightstand chest of drawers between our two beds.
“I gotta say goodbye to you here in the room if that’s okay. I’ve got a headache from drinking that champagne.”
“Are you going to be okay by yourself?” I asked.
“Yeah”, she replied tentatively. “You got any aspirin?”
“I do actually.” I fished around in my pack and found the small bottle my mom had suggested I take with me. She fished around in her own stuff and found her canteen which still had some water in it and swallowed the pills with a slug of its contents.
“Thank you”, she groaned.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” I wasn’t sure what I’d do if she said no.
“Yeah I’m okay”, she said in s resigned sort of way, lifting herself to a standing position, stretching her arms and cracking her back.
She stumbled toward me a bit theatrically. “Give me a hug.” She pressed her body against mine with her head resting on my shoulder and her short frizzy hair brushed against my chin, smelling kind of musty, but nicely her. She then stepped back and put her hands on my shoulders and met my eyes with her bleary ones, but still with that sparkle in there somewhere.
“Take care of yourself kiddo!” She grabbed the tip of my nose and wiggled it. It was the kind of intimate moment I rarely had but always craved.
“I will. You do the same.” We just stood there quiet for a long moment until she finally spoke.
“Get out of here already. You don’t want to miss your train!” She opened the door to the hallway.
I nodded and shouldered my pack and headed out.
“See you later alligator!”
“In a while crocodile!” Thespian Bravado.