[This is part of a rewrite in August of 2021 of my autobiographical novel “Two Inch Heels”. It is the second half of what used to be “Part 1 – Angie”]
The next morning was Friday September 21, and after breakfast with the Clays, we said our goodbyes, repacked our backpacks, and Bill drove us back to the Oxford 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, 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 out the window of the bus, made me recall 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 still 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 those 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 and my stomach clutch.
“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 with my friends.
“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 me… well… that was a whole different thing, right? But I was still game!” She said it like I needed convincing.
I nodded again. Though it pained me what she was saying, I felt so sorry for her having to make this difficult confession.
“And it wasn’t that first night”, she noted, “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 still be feeling that way, but I didn’t say anything, and I hoped things would change somehow.”
She scrunched her mouth and nodded. “Oh man I hoped so too!” she said.
“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 London 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 Lane or me 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…”.
She paused, and thought about that last phrase. “Ha ha, pun, not intended.” Then continuing, “I’m not pressuring you 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 back 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 a female comrade 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 classic 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, 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”, she said, “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 that 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, but I didn’t say anything.
The next day we took a bus to Southampton, a port city along England’s south coast. After calling Sebastian, he met us at the bus station 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, that we were going to be ending our journey together shortly, 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 rundown part of the city. While Sebastian was closer to my mom’s age, 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 Sebastian, his girlfriend and her kids all slept in the small bedroom while he made room for us in their main room.
I found 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 Sebastian convinced us to stay a second night. He took Angie and I on a car tour of the city, with its long English maritime history and extensive modern seaport alongside ancient castle walls. At the end of his impromptu tour, he said he had the perfect thing to pick up our spirits. He convinced us to let him take us to a big youth dance hall, for their big weekly Saturday night event. He told us to stay as late as we wanted and then call him to come back and pick us up. Angie seemed gung ho, so we all agreed on the plan.
The place was big, some sort of gym by day with white lines painted in the concrete floor and basketball backboards currently winched up just below the ceiling. It was packed with young people, our age and younger teens as well. Some were dancing, others were sitting at tables along the walls that ringed the dance floor. The DJ and all his equipment were up on a portable stage at one end of the place between huge banks of speakers bellowing out rock music. Feeling like fish out of water, and having second thoughts about doing this, Angie and I bought a couple Cokes and found an empty table to sit. We observed the raucous crowd of kids, talking, singing and dancing. It occurred to me, wrestling with my own internal crisis of continuing my journey alone, that as George Harrison sang in his song, “Life goes on within and without you”.
The music was loud and mostly uptempo in-you-face rock anthems like Thin Lizzy’s “The Rocker”, Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” and David Bowie’s “Jean Genie”. Maybe half the crowd was dancing and the other half was sitting or standing around talking. We were both feeling more relaxed and at peace, though sitting at our table reluctant yet to dance.
With every big group of young people listening to music there is always that one song that pushes the “On” button to energize the crowd. For this crowd on this night that song was Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize”, which I had heard just once or twice before. After just a moment of quiet after the previous song, the speakers blared with a male voice howling in falsetto, “Baby, baby, baby”. Most of the crowd recognized what was coming and howled back. Kids around us who were sitting looked at each other and jumped up to start dancing.
Angie and I noted the seismic shift in the group, but it was the siren call of the chorus’s lyrics, sung by the assembled young voices around us, drowning out the band even, that lifted Angie and me to our feet and onto the dance floor with everyone else.
So come on, feel the noise
Girls, grab your boys
We’ll get wild, wild, wild
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.
So come on, feel the noise
Girls, grab your boys
We’ll get wild, wild, wild
The next morning, Sunday, David put us on the bus back to London, bleary again from not being able to get a good night’s sleep on Sebastian’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 cute little square that it fronted on was actually more of a triangle. We shared a room with two beds and the bathroom was down the hall. But it all felt luxurious after two nights at Sebastian’s, which had included sharing one tiny bathroom with rust and other stains in the sink and 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, using the latest edition of the International Herald Tribune as an impromptu tablecloth. 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 plan to retire early tonight”.
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, which was full of people. We walked 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, which was called Sussex Garden. A second 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, and then see how she reacted. 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 at least “best mates”, as the English would say.
We put out our dinner “picnic” on my bed again, on that spread out copy of the International Herald Tribune I had bought yesterday. 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. Then remembering my Jed Clampett, I 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 big 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 at that point. Turns out, as I had imagined, she had cute pink toes.
That small part of me that wasn’t a total timid chickenshit wanted to kiss her at 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 newspaper 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?” she asked, “I’ve seen my mom and dad do it but never done one myself!”
“Unscrew and remove that wire part”, I said, like some big older and 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 real gently until it…”
She was too quick following my directions, and there was a loud popping noise propelling the cork up against the ceiling, 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 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”, she said, flashing a smile, “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?” she asked.
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”, she noted, “I’m sure it’s going to be 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 already feeling the 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 so so much 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 when I noticed she was asleep.
Despite my fatigue, I barely slept at all that night. I kept wrestling with 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 your 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”, she said, “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 asked. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if she said no.
“Yeah I’m okay”, she said in a 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!” she said.
“In a while crocodile!” I replied. A final bit of shared bravado between two comrades.