(2016 Ian MacMillan Awards, Fiction Finalist)
"Often, it was as if I had never spoken,
I heard my words echo in deep caverns of thought,
as if they hung about like cigarette smoke in a still room,
missionless; or else they were lost for ever
in the sounds of the city" – Sam Selvon
It’s 9:57 at night and the highway, unpopulated, seems as though it will never end, but end it must—United Airlines is waiting for me. Two sleeping pills later it’s like this: I’m here and here is the city. Unlike home, there are bridges here, from Covent Garden to Waterloo, from St. Paul’s to Tate, from station to station, from she and I, between Anna and I—mind the gap.
Find a calendar, pick a date, and any of our days happen like this: I wait for Anna outside of our shared building, and when she comes out, she has her lighter and fag ready, but the mighty wind has her beat, so she stashes it in the pocket of her coat. She is beautiful to look at, both in sunlight and moonlight, but there is something about the mid-morning gray sky that accentuates her luminosity to me, makes me feel as though this city and its climate were built for her. Her shoulder-length hair, dry from years of bleach and color, floats, but does not flow in the wind; I take her arm in mine, our elbows lock, and she walks. I am happy to follow.
We arrive at Hammersmith station and she is hungry. Anna thought a smoke would be filling enough, but don’t worry, I tell her, I don’t mind having a second breakfast—and I don’t. We take the District Line to High Street Kensington (there is a great salad bar there, she assures me). We emerge from the station and are met with sudden downpour—while umbrellas stampede toward us, we rush out and are lost within a matter of cold minutes. She says, I’ve gone this way before, it should be here, why isn’t it here? I’m sorry, I say, as if I were at fault. We eventually find it and laugh—how could we have missed this three story Whole Foods? Anna makes a salad of beets, arugula, farro, and roasted carrots, topping it off with extra virgin olive oil, then balsamic vinegar, and finally with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. I pour myself a ladle of the Thai red curry, but also the Guinness stew, taking extra care to keep my bowl straight, steady, so as to not have the red and brown weave into each other and become one. I fail. Anna, however, approves and buys naan to wipe the bowl clean.
Both beets and carrots are in season, and as we walk through the winter bounty, I wonder if Anna knew that as she composed her salad. We walk through the aisles, our elbows lock, and she shares with me her favorite things: the citrus kombucha facial cleanser, the mortadella in the showcase. She reads me nutrition facts from the different flavors of muesli, taking important note of the sugar content—she jokes that with me, she needs no excess sugar in her life. I laugh, politely, and make a face but am flattered by her platitude and remember it fondly for the rest of the week. We bid goodbye to the market, all three stories of it, and stop in Zara, which she tells me is a Spanish owned clothing store. All my life I have learned to enter stores and look down, so as to never really see, never touch—that is, until I've reached the back, where damaged items are available for a price within my reach. But Anna, she looks with intent at everything, but especially that which graces the front of any store, the season's freshest bounty of both produce and fashion. She grabs coats off hangers, sits down to try on shoes, and she looks beautiful in it all, for Anna knows that she is beautiful and has no trouble discerning what will best service her. When she is done, we walk down the high street, our elbows lock, and I try to figure out how the rain is falling—but the wind forces it from the left and sometimes the right and it is piercing, searing, without reason, or method to its celestial madness.
I was returning from my interview at the Hammersmith TESCO. When I was a child, I had loved the noise cash registers made as they beeped items past their scanner, and ever since, it has been my dream to work as a cashier in a grocery store at some point in my life. And though my status as a national alien caused me to immediately fail the interview, I remember the day fondly as it was the day I met Anna in our building’s lift. She was coming home early from the gym with our neighbor Arthur, where he played football and she studied to be a physical trainer and nutritionist. We were fast friends—Anna, she’d been in the city three months longer than me and she taught me to leave milk on the shaded part of the windowsill, to not bother shopping on Sundays (everything is open for a measly six hours), and to say rubbish bin (never trash can)—all valuable lessons she learned while making the transition from her native Bologna to here, to the city. Anna bought me a card holder for my Oyster card, so I would no longer stumble with my wallet, hold up the bus line, and expose myself as other in this city, as I did every time I felt compelled or was required to speak in my American way. And it is with her I sat down at a table and became a master of this country's currency and put the last of my American necessities away, loose change and my license, hoping to never need them again. Now I am able to pay for my blue cans of baked beans precisely, with exact change, in a matter of seconds.
One morning we wait for the 371 at Sainsbury’s. In her purse she carries four beefsteak tomatoes, cradled atop her knitted scarf, 80 pence apiece. She is overjoyed. Summer, she says, tonight I will begin my family’s tagliatelle al ragu, you know the secret? Some milk. Surely, you did not know that true ragu has milk, no? And the carrots, they must be small, so small, so you get their natural sweetness, and nothing else. When my grandmother makes it, it takes eight hours—torture, I tell you, waiting eight hours. But the rewards are infinite. I never eat pasta anymore—it's all empty carbs, and no one, absolutely no one would trust a trainer and nutritionist that is fat. But I want to make it for you.
The bus moves at a glacial pace through the incessant rain so we return to the building much later than anticipated and Anna is itching for a smoke. Our conversation is always the same when she smokes, it’s always Anna telling me about the guilt she feels, making me wait in the cold and inhale her smoke, and it’s always me telling her that it’s okay, that I want to be with her. The face Anna makes when she smokes and the face Anna makes after she sprints a hundred meters—they are one and the same. Her thinly plucked brows furrow and her eyes, always looking for something far off, contain a suggestion of fear, but mostly relief, and I somehow come to find her even more beautiful. Today she asks, why don’t you at least try one, who knows, maybe you’ll like it. And I make the mistake of divulging to her that, only a year ago, my grandfather passed away from lung cancer. Mother and I didn't even know he was sick until it infiltrated his lymph nodes. As if my heart wasn't beating quickly enough already, Anna weaves her fingers through mine, and holds my hand to her chest. She was smiling only seconds ago, but now wears that familiar face, though because of me, it is distorted. I stare at her eyes, which bear fear more than anything else. The one who feels guilt is now me, for making Anna uncomfortable, when all she’s ever done was give me hope for this city, where winter won’t quit and summer, with its rain and its haze and its soggy leaves, isn’t really summer at all.
We both see Arthur, running from the bus stop, using his bag of football gear to shield him from the weather. It’s the usual fare: fancy seeing you ladies here, massive rain today, innit? Anna quickly relinquishes my hand, tries to hide it as if it were not connected to my body, and insists he take a smoke, which he happily accepts, explaining that his are all probably soaked and that he’d repay the favor soon enough. He asks if I’ve heard back from ASDA, another place I applied to for work, and I tell him it was another instant rejection, as always because I am alien, monster, grotesque in my many forms of deviance: national, cultural, social. He explains that his best mate, Rob, works at this pub and they need dish washers. He continues, telling me that it’s a bloody good deal, as you take home money every night and more importantly because this pub has an Ollie—and an Ollie, he relates, is what every person like me wants. An Ollie has spent his life savings, and his parent’s, building a pub, and an Ollie will turn a blind eye to employing illegals, Orientals, what have you, so that he may continue sliding pints to the blokes who root for Chelsea, Manchester, whatever.
Now I commute to the East End six nights a week and wash dishes. As per Ollie's orders, I go in through the back door and wash whatever Rob and Peter drop into the sink. At the end of the night, I am rewarded with a small wad of bills, the amount of which varies from night to night, and a shepherd’s pie in desperate need of some salt. After a few weeks of having never broken a pint, a plate, or my perfect attendance, I ask Ollie about my chances of someday seeing and working the front and he tells me maybe. But you know, he continues, this place is more than a pub, it’s a home for men, for a community of men. You can see that, can’t you? Robby and Pete, they fit, they belong, they can get in on the banter, the football, they can down a pint like the rest of them, and it’s like neighbors, like family. Surely you understand.
The next day I am at Hammersmith station and I look to the wall populated with clocks; Anna and I agreed to meet at eleven, giving her time to head to the gym for an early workout, and allowing me the chance to sleep in, but it is half past noon. I feel in my coat pocket for my cell phone, but remember that I have no minutes left in my pay as you go account, so I alternate between standing next to the flower kiosk, where we agreed to meet, and watching the young woman roll out pretzels at the small stand in front of Starbucks. To pass the time, I remember the afternoons Anna and I spent at Richmond Park, looking at herds of deer, sitting under different trees. I would rest my head on her right shoulder, making her scent of citrus easily accessible. I stretched my mind in every direction, desperate to uncover some fascinating tidbit of trivia to entertain Anna, perhaps make her laugh. Only once have I made her laugh so hysterically that she was rendered completely inaudible, comparable only to a muted television, and that was when I disclosed to her how, at the age of seven, I inflicted a black eye upon myself. I ended up telling her what little, insignificant things I knew about Lord Byron: his deformed right foot, his unbelievable number of pets, and how he died a hero in Greece. She bestowed upon me a courtesy laugh, and said, wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a place that allowed us an absurd amount of pets? Or at least one dog? I agreed that it would be nice. A lone deer attracted her wandering gaze and I knew she began to envision that alternative world in which, together, we raised a dog, and at the time, I wondered how much the image in her head matched my own. She began considering dog names aloud, and then began talking about her mother, who made her sfrappole every Sunday. Every country, every place has fried dough dipped in sugar, Anna assured me. But my mother made it special, she said, her secret was orange zest and orange juice, she called them angel wings for her angel. She would have loved you, Summer. I asked how her mother is, if she could come for a visit, and before I knew it, before we knew it, she wove her fingers through mine, telling me that she passed just a few months before. We sat there, deer abound, fingers laced, and we scared each other by approaching our own fundamental truths. How did we get here, why are we here, where do we go now, when does it end, does it have to end at all? Who is the city, who are we in this city, who will this city make us become?
At fifteen past one I am eating a cheddar pretzel, though the whole point was to get lunch. I begin to think the worst, that there was an accident, that she is in trouble, or worst of all, that she has finally realized I am not worth her time. She arrives at half past one and is shocked that I would still be waiting, failing to understand that I have nowhere else to go, and no one else to be with. I thank her for coming and she asks me if I’m mad, and I tell her, no, mistakes happen, I can’t imagine being angry with you. No, she says, mad, like, the Mad Hatter, as in, are you crazy? And in my happiness to see her, and her massive guilt, I fail to acknowledge Arthur’s presence. I’m sorry, he says, as if he were at fault—and as he continues speaking, I realize he is. We got caught up at the gym and were famished from the workout, so we had a bite at that place in Covent Garden—to die for, he says. The three of us board the District Line for High Street Kensington anyway, and I sit opposite to the two of them in the crowded tube, and after a while of reading the back of someone else's newspaper, I look at Anna, expecting to see her eyes looking for something far off, but instead she is laughing with Arthur, pointing at ads for various West End productions above my head.
Anna and Arthur watch as I eat the lunch they bought me and I am reminded why people always insist that eating is a social, communal thing. I never thought I’d say this, Anna says, but I actually wish I were hungry, then I could eat with you. I finish drinking my butternut squash soup as quickly as possible, so much so that I feel all the points and places the soup touched on its way down long after we leave the cafe, as the three of us look upon sites that have grown so familiar, perhaps even nostalgic. Each time we enter a store, there is a dispersal, like roaches after the lights come on, but I somehow manage to find the both of them when it’s time to leave. On the way home, I try to quell Anna’s unusual amount of silence and ask what she bought at Whole Foods, and she tells me that she’s finally going to make her family’s tagliatelle al ragu for me.
The next time I see Anna, a month later, we sit on her twin bed and drink whatever the both of us have in our limited pantry though it’s only three in the afternoon. I have been told that you don’t mix colors when it comes to liquor, that the brown liquids like rum go with Coca Cola, and the clear ones like vodka go with Sprite, but Anna and I have always found vodka and Coca Cola to be the perfect amalgamation for us. She pours the Coca Cola, then the vodka, and I notice that my months old, low-shelf vodka has grown syrupy, resists the Coca Cola's efforts to penetrate it. Anna complains about having to work in the morning and I complain about having to work at night. She tells me that she and Arthur have gone on “proper” dates now, to which I shrug.
She says, he bought me this frozen television dinner of spinach ravioli. It was like a proper movie, Summer. He set the table, lit a candle. But when he went to the toilet I saw the box in the rubbish, and the pasta, it had so much sodium, just so many calories, I couldn't eat it. What do you think? I was rude, wasn't I?
I stir my drink, trying to force the two liquids together, and nod in the right places so she knows I'm hearing her. I assure her that Arthur’s feelings are not hurt.
But, she says, you're being too nice. It was a bit heartless, wasn't it? After all, he made it for me.
I remind her that buying and heating a frozen meal doesn't mean anything, requires absolutely no effort.
Yeah, but you know, you should have seen it, if only you had seen it, then you might be able to understand. It was something out of the telly. Now that I've got a Brit for a boyfriend, I'm kind of Brit too, aren't I?
Maybe by association, I think, but dare not say.
Anna smiled. I've got a proper reason for being here, she said.
A week later I am in her kitchen, restless, as I sit quietly and watch her stir, taste, add salt, stir again, taste again. Her hair is tied into a bun, sauce has burst on her sweater in different places, and she uses socks as potholders to drain the pasta.
Don't worry, she says, they're clean.
For the first time, I am nervous to be with her, and force laughter as a way to fill the silence. Without missing a beat, Anna pours the Coca Cola, then the vodka, and I occupy myself by contemplating the weaving contained within my glass that has grown so mundane, the way in which things sometimes refuse to consolidate, forever weaving past, through, above, around one another, often times leaving the possibility of reversal impossible for both, though sometimes only one.
We finally sit to eat and Anna is disappointed. There are noticeable chunks of carrot and celery in the pasta and she insists that it needs more salt, that maybe she didn't put enough ground pancetta. Between bites she tells me it's not right, not even close, that her mother would not recognize this mess of red and brown in front of her. She abandons it quickly, waiting for me as I finish every bite of the small bowl (portion control, she warns, is an important practice) and then we both stand in the kitchen, Anna holding the pot while I scrub the crusty bits and demonstrate to her the fruitful education of my life in the city.
Sam Ikehara was born and raised in Kalihi Valley. She received her Bachelor’s Degree inEnglish with Highest Honors from UH Mānoa, and is now continuing her study of English asa first year master's candidate in Literary Studies.