I am sitting in a bus terminal at the Stansted Airport on the outskirts of London waiting to return home from a friend’s wedding. I was here less than 48 hours ago. My jet lag is just now beginning to rectify itself and I am going to careen through the time zones again making my body, and my watch face, tired. It’s 8:30am London time, and it will be 6:30pm Ohio time when I get home. That will make for a sixteen hour travel day, after which I am expected to be ready and awake to host the freshman in our home for three days of consecutive partying.
When I got to my motel on Friday afternoon I napped on and off for 5 hours which felt great at the time. When I was twisting and turning in my bed that night at 1am, more awake than a little kid on Christmas Eve, sleeping next to bridegroom and best man snoring soundly, I realized that the my naps may not have been the best idea after all. I decided to take a walk, smoke a cigarette, and discuss some of my life questions with God, or at least the black night sky.
Two minutes down the sidewalk is a 24-hour service station that looks to me like a rest stop you might find on the side of the highway. I ordered a bacon & egg sandwich and what I actually got was a flattened hero role with some strips of bacon bunched up in the center, a few strands of half-melted shredded cheese, and something white, which I can only assume must have been the egg. I ate my smashed breakfast sandwich in silence and lit a cigarette inside of a public building. I guess our anti-smoking laws haven’t made it quite this far yet. Upon returning to the travel lodge I struck up a conversation with Anna, the front desk lady on nightshift. 3.5 hours, a coke, and over 10 cigarettes later I was ready for bed. She told me about her 5 husbands, her combined 39.5 years of marriage (and going strong with hubby number 5), her thoughts on love at first sight, about the time she met the translator to the queen of Morocco, and fancy fingernail painting techniques. I went to bed at 5am that morning wondering if my idea of love at first sight, and my idealized version of falling in love once and being in love forever was indeed a fairytale. If Anna could be in love 5 times, did I really think I was going to get out of the war of the heart that easy. I am sick of being on the frontlines. I want to hide in the back of the medi-vac, licking my wounds and stuff every one my pockets with extra gauze for the day when I may really have to stop my own bleeding.
Anna said she had no regrets. She said she lived the life of the unknown. If you live the life of the known, she was telling me, it is not challenging, it is not exciting, it is manageable, unadventurous, and chances are good you like calling yourself an adult and carry a briefcase. But if you live the life of the unknown, anything can happen to you, and it seems, as if almost a dream, that you can make anything happen. She has loved five times, has 4 children, lived a life of mystique in Morocco, and works as a cab driver and night receptionist in England. And the mind-boggling thing is…she actually seems happy. Four times divorced and she seems happy. She worked as a therapist for a while and onetime one of her clients spotted her in the public square and began to ask her questions. This was a client who was having marriage problems. He asked if she had ever been married and when she told him that yes she had, five times, he didn’t know what to say. He looked over at a young mother pushing her baby in a stroller, looked back at Anna and said “how can you give me marital advice when you can’t even get it right?” She smiled, and replied unflustered, “who said I got it wrong?” I went to sleep puzzled, fatigued, woozy from too many cigarettes, and desiring to know less and less about my exciting and challenging future. What was in store for me would be just fine
After the wedding reception the next night Claudia, one of the twenty-something guests, and myself decided to head off to an English nightclub to find cute boys and give me assurance that, being out so late, I would indeed sleep on the plane. We waited in the cue for ages and then we were tossed aside by a bouncer who didn’t want to let me in because my trainers (aka sneakers) violated the “smart casual” dress code. “I am just a dumb foreigner,” I told him, “and I won’t show anyone my shoes on purpose.” I flashed my best innocent American smile. He apologized saying there was nothing he could do, so Claudia and I ended up smoking some fags on the edge of the greasy sidewalk a few meters down from the club.
In England they call cigarettes fags. We lit fag after fag sitting on the pavement and deadening our lungs. It got me to thinking that maybe we should call homosexuals cigarettes back home. Cigs for short. “Wanna go to the cig club” we’d start saying to each other. Or “God hates cigs” would be the new signs on the nightly protests outside the grave of Matthew Shepherd. In England we smoke fags. In America we smoke ‘em out.
As we headed back to the travel lodge I stared out the window of our taxi feeling like I was a piece of grizzle that the monster that is the London club scene spit up onto the floor because I was something it couldn’t quite digest. What was it about me that got me black listed? Why did I inspire this gag reflex? I stared out the window thinking that what did he know; he lives in a country where they drive on the wrong side of the road anyway. As the taxi hurled itself around corners, my stomach would seize with every sharp left turn he made. And then it occurred to me. Could I have been driving on the wrong side of the street all this time? Maybe over here, in dreary sneaker-free club land they had it right. I have spent the summer pining away for a boy who has made it clear that he is not interested in a romantic relationship. He has made it equally clear that he loves our friendship and doesn’t want to lose it. And I have just followed him around, like a u-haul that has been hitched to his cute little ass. But now I think maybe I am meant to be driving on the other side of the road. So, driving home in the taxi, stomach seized and heart bruised, I unhitched the trailer, and untied myself from Bobby. I just knew that even in America, I would rather speed full force into oncoming traffic that carry a torch around for someone who doesn’t realize how lucky he would be to have me. And if he is heading in one direction, and I in the other, we are inevitably moving further apart.
I made it through the long process of checking in at the airport, walking through metal detectors and implicitly assuring everyone around me that I, indeed, was not planning to hijack a plane and send it careening into an 85-story landmark on U.S. soil. Whew. I could just tell everyone was so relieved. With an achy shoulder that had an impression the shape of my laptop bag strap I made the trek to gate 17. Walking through the duty free shop I began to think that I wanted one last cigarette. And then I began to become aware of myself, my stomach which is smashed and dizzy from the nicotine, my eyes which are covered in a fog made of cancerous tar, and my lungs, which are coughing ash just to be able to fit a little bit of air through. So I stood up straighter, adjusted the shoulder strap of my laptop bag to make the weight of it a bit more bearable, and just walked on through. Right then and there my addiction kicked. I didn’t need one last fag here in England, and Bobby wasn’t the last fag on earth back in America either. So my addiction to fags was over. Love can come and find me some day. In the meantime, I am content to sit back, breathe deep clean air, make small talk with the Anna’s of the world, and smile at my unknown future.