17

Dec

Somewhere in London

Narrative Essays // No Comments


This is one of those stories where you think you know the plot. One of those stories where the characters are dead and don’t know it. Only there’s no grand revelation here, no tacked-on cinematic twist to add melodrama. For they’re also living. They’re both alive and dead. But they aren’t ghosts and this isn’t a ghost story. No, this is a story of time in its most unconventional guise. A story of each moment as eternal. Infinite gestures and choices split off from one another, forming separate worlds and streams, and this is one of those streams. This is also a story of that most unconventional topic—happiness. But it’s happiness lived in the shadow of nothingness, happiness as it happens above a chasm.

In this story, you’re on a flight, though you’ve never been comfortable on planes. You and your wife are going to London. The subject came up two weeks ago when her office decided to send her to a conference there. Now you’re tagging along, heading to the airport. You’re willing to fly. You won’t let fear stop you from seeing distant countries, but you’ve doped yourself up. Two pills before hailing a cab, and one more in an airport bar with a glass of wine. You’re there in body, and you move, but you can’t recall boarding. Your wife leads you through security like a child, and when you board, you smile as a child would. You’re past care, floating in a dope euphoria. The fear is there, buried, but on the surface you’re relaxed. You watch passengers board, squish carry ons into overhead compartments, take seats. Women and men of different sizes and skin tones file past, a parade of multicolored clothing—pink sweats and green sweaters, suits of black and gray, blue jeans and khakis. In your state, they whoosh by, your observations disjointed. You wonder if you’ll die with these people. Even the drugs can’t stop this. You wonder if this might prove that statistical anomaly—a flight that crashes, rends asunder midair, blows up. Is there a bomb onboard? How tight is security? And what would blowing up feel like?

In stressful situations, you do this—turn to second person.

Calm down, you can get through this. You’re not going to die.

You always tell yourself you’re not going to die, but you have no idea. It’s always possible, especially this far aboveground, so you can’t be there. Your body, sure, it has no choice. But you, whatever you might be outside this corporeal plane, it can’t be present when you fly, and the drugs make this possible. You’re there, but not. You’re body sits, but your mind takes a breather. It’s separate, detached, on holiday as the plane transports you, hopping from one landmass to the next.

*

That happiness is difficult to render is acknowledged by most artists. But even more difficult than rendering happiness is revealing your own, telling someone you’ve been happy, that you’re happy now, as you speak. Outside certain circumstances—the birth of a child or your wedding day—many will do anything to disavow it, point to the myriad things you should be upset about: famine, third world debt, terrorism. A select few, of course, will think you harbor some secret. They’ll ask you to share. “What’s the secret?” But both types are forgetting happiness is momentary, fleeting.

This trip to London is a gift from my wife. Her boss is sending her on business. She’ll provide tech support for a medical conference and won’t have time to tour the city, but she asks them to book a room for two. They also bought her plane ticket, and we split the cost of mine, so we’ve found a relatively inexpensive means to visit my wife’s favorite city.

London—for the fanboy inside me, it holds a hallowed place, and I understand my wife’s enthusiasm even before we set down. The plays of Shakespeare! The novels of Dickens! 221B Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes and visits from Doctor Who’s TARDIS—my favorite fictive characters having adventures. Then there’s the music! From the melodic British Invasion of The Beatles and Stones to the distinctive 90s Britpop serenade of Blur and Pulp, I’ve always loved this country’s artistic exports, and here I’m riding through the same streets, seeing the same churches, parks, and monuments.

Her company sends a driver whose accent sounds delightfully similar to Michael Caine’s, and as we travel, he and my wife discuss the city’s preparations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I popped two more pills on the plane and I’m coming off them now, but their exchange still seems unreal.

“Have you been to London before?” he asks.

“Three times,” my wife says. “I studied here in college.”

Each time the driver speaks, I smile, thinking of Alfie or The Italian Job and mouthing lines like, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” I imagine Caine’s cockney drawl coming from my own silent lips. For years, I’ve wished I could do an impersonation, but it comes out sounding more like Sean Connery. They’ve acted together. They both have distinctive voices, and people do impersonations of both, but I’ve never nailed down Caine.

“My cocaine,” a friend tells me. That’s how he says his name. “My cocaine.”

I’m searching for the name of that film they did together when we pass Buckingham Palace and see the changing of the guard. Soldiers in trim-fitting red coats and black cylindrical hats high-step down the road. All the King’s Men, I think. But it’s not that! It’s The Man Who Would Be King. And watching these soldiers march, I’m already falling in love with the country. Horses pass, and a packed crowd looks on, snapping photos from the lush green park to the side.

“They’re not just ornamental,” our driver says. “These boys serve on active duty. Some are just back from Afghanistan.”

In my haze, I continue to watch. I hadn’t known this before. It’s the type of haphazard knowledge one gains while traveling, knowledge that reminds me these people are living their lives and I’m a guest in their country. I want more. I don’t want impersonations. I want the real thing. I want to wander and explore. I plan to absorb this city, to experience all it offers, to take advantage of my fortune in being here. Three weeks ago, I hadn’t planned on traveling anywhere. Now I hope, for the visit’s duration, to immerse myself.

*

An impression you get: you’ve reached cruising altitude, and the plane hits turbulence—a gentle rocking at first, and then violent shaking. The seatbelt light comes on, and the shaking continues. You’re dipping. That is, the plane dips. You see fear on the passengers’ faces. Their eyes mirror your own. There’s silence. There shouldn’t be all this shaking, yet it’s quiet. Your mind goes blank, an inversion, wind sucked into a vacuum. All goes still for a moment, seconds at most. Then at once, there’s a deafening roar, a great cacophony crashing in.

*

The theory of relativity and what it implies about the nature of time have, since the theory’s inception, made the notion of free will problematic. To our perceptions, time seems to move forward along its course. One event follows the next along a linear path, but that seems is important. According to Einstein, time isn’t immutable, but affected by an object’s motion. For a moving figure, time progresses more slowly than for a stationary one. If I stand in a fixed position, I’m still moving through time. But once I begin walking, I’m dividing that energy between both space and time, so time slows down relative to any stationary figure.

Of course, the difference can only be calculated with motion at greater speeds than humans can travel, but this theory throws our previous ideas about the fixed nature of time into a tailspin. If time is relative, who says my present is yours? That the past is gone? That the future doesn’t already exist? And if it exists, what does that mean for my choices? Are they already made? Are we simply here to follow a prearranged sequence of events? Do we labor under illusions, the universe having predetermined the end of our lives, just waiting for the cosmos to spring that surprise on us? Do I, then, on my second day in London decide to focus my efforts solely on exploring the southeastern corner, or am I acting out some prearranged progression?

When we arrive the weather is temperate, mid-seventies with blue skies and cumulus white clouds. My first afternoon, I unpack and stroll along the Thames, but the second day, I miscalculate the balance between effort expended and enjoyment received, and this accelerates my decision to stay in the southeastern section. Notting Hill is the destination. Guidebooks have recommended Portobello Road, for “its mixture of quaint antiques shops and bohemian stalls,” though I have to confess a not-so-guilty affection for romantic comedies staring Hugh Grant also draws me here. My travel preference is to make my way on foot, and this is my first mistake. I chart a course through Hyde Park and figure I’ll take in the springtime flowers bursting with purples and yellows and pinks. But what I fail to calculate is I’ll be on foot for fourteen miles there and back.

I didn’t sleep well the first night, troubled by strange dreams, but I’m not about to let a few yawns interfere with my trip. I head into the city, camera poised, ready to make my tour. It strikes me as ludicrous, the lengths people go pretending they aren’t tourists. Some conceal cameras and snap photos surreptitiously. Others refuse to consult maps so they don’t appear lost. But as long as one isn’t obnoxious, there’s nothing shameful in it.

I try to behave better abroad than I do at home where I sometimes forget my manners. I make sure to open doors for people, say please and thank you, and when I snap photos, I avoid walking backward and bumping into others. I get a few good shots—gardens and couples rowing boats across the lake. I almost capture a dog urinating on a black box labeled “Dog Waste Only,” a photo that would have tickled my juvenile sense of humor, but I don’t frame it quickly enough. Still, it remains difficult to engage the city without a guide. And though I’d like to gather better intelligence on where to go than books offer, my attempts to talk to a waitress in the restaurant I dine at on Portobello Road meet little success.

The room is cozy—hardwood paneling and framed photos of turn-of-the-century London. They offer green salad, gnocchi and a glass of red wine for eight pounds, which reels me in, and though the restaurant is empty, I don’t take this as a comment on the food’s quality. I sit at the table and order, and when the waitress returns, I comment on the weather.

“Yes,” she says. “It’s unusual for this time of year.”

“I had a nice walk,” I say. “Seven miles.”

Then I stammer. Seven miles? Miles? It’s kilometers!

I should have converted my walk! Ignoramus!

She doesn’t seem to notice but goes about wiping countertops, ignoring me. Not that I think this is penance for snubbing the metric system. I assume many tourists come through looking for small talk. Maybe she thinks I was hitting on her. Either way, I eat in silence and pay.

As I walk back, my limbs grow heavy, my eyes squint against the sun. I consider whether I’ve made the most of my afternoon. It hasn’t been disagreeable, but I only have ten days in the country, and I can’t ease the suspicion I might have spent this time more wisely. I’d planned on using these first days to venture far and stay near the hotel in the end. But there’s more than enough to explore in one region alone. The Globe, I decide. That’s my next target. I’ll see a play, experience Shakespeare on his home turf. It’s too late now. I’ve missed the afternoon show. But that’s what I’ll do—get a good night’s sleep, hope the strange dreams don’t return, then head out in the morning.

*

An image, it’s only an image—that rift, the great gaping chasm, that abyss opening underneath you. A jolt. There’s a jolt and shuddering and fire and ash. The smells of ash and fuel fill your nostrils. Fuel spills on bare flesh. A spark and screech as metal tears from metal, rending. The horrible screech and rending. Wind ripples through—a hot wind, hot and full of ash and fuel and flame and that horrible screech.

*

One solution to the problem of free will is the idea that every time we make a choice the time stream splits. We continue on a path with the choice we made while a separate version of self in an alternate stream, a version that makes a different choice, continues on his or hers. This is purely metaphysical speculation, yet I find it comforting. If I choose to visit the Globe, but had also entertained the notion of Westminster Abby, there’s some version of me somewhere that gets to see Westminster. And while the experience of this other me doesn’t edify my own, it’s fun to think that somewhere, someplace, I’m doing everything possible. I’m across town having fish and chips at a Pub—this version not opting to become a vegetarian. I’m there atop the London Eye, that majestic Ferris wheel that towers above the city—this version not suffering a fear of heights.

Books and films have toyed with this concept, even as their inventions stray from science and fact. Not that science has ruled this out. What science points to, in this vein, is the idea of a multiverse—that our universe is just one of an infinite number, and in this infinite number, some are so entirely different they’d be unrecognizable—different forms of matter, different forms of life. Some would resemble ours with slight variations—perhaps one in which Europeans didn’t discover the New World or one in which cockroaches became the planet’s dominant species. Others would be duplicates with alternate versions of us, leading similar lives, making similar choices. And if this is true, it means everything we can think of is possible somewhere, an idea that seems simultaneously terrifying and beautiful.

Naturally, the multiverse hypothesis isn’t something we can test through experimentation. If these other worlds exist, the mathematics—which is our main source of this idea’s validity—insists they’re moving away from us. But many who study the Big Bang and eternal inflation insist the multiverse is a possibility. So whenever I’m struck by the limitations of time, whenever I make a choice, opting for one path over another and wondering whether the path I didn’t choose might have been better, I think of all the possible versions of me out there who get to experience things I don’t.

Still, there are certain choices I’m so content with, experiences that fill me with such joy, that if I lingered on it, I’d feel sorry for any version of me that didn’t get to have them. My afternoon at the Globe Theater is one such experience. I had passed the building my first day and noticed they were holding an international festival—all thirty-six plays done in thirty-six languages by troops from different countries around the world. As I enter, I’m uneasy about watching a play written by a playwright famed for his eloquence with the English language performed in a tongue I can’t comprehend.

All’s Well That Ends Well. In Gujarati. Performed by a troop from Mumbai.

I arrive early since I don’t know whether these plays sell out, and I mill about the gift shop, perusing shot glasses with quotes from Macbeth and tee-shirts with snippets of Hamlet. In the courtyard are engraved bricks with the names of donors who provided funding for this recreation of the Globe on its original site. The first Globe—Shakespeare’s Globe—burned to the ground in 1613 when a canon misfired during Henry VIII, and a second was pulled down to make room for tenements after being closed by Puritan protests in 1642. This building boasts the same dimensions and was built with the same materials to approximate the conditions audiences enjoyed back in the seventeenth century. Of course, most of them heard actors speaking Shakespeare’s words in the native tongue, but this circular playhouse hums with energy and excitement whatever language they’re speaking, and I soon forget my reservations, subsumed into this enthusiastic crowd.

I file up a cozy wooden staircase and take my seat on a wooden bench. Some people have rented pillows since these benches are hard, and my back aches while sitting there. Still, as the music strikes up and the troop takes the stage, singing and dancing and waving images of a bejeweled gray elephant, I forget my discomfort and focus on the bright silk outfits of blues and yellows that flow around their lithe bodies. I’m not sure what I’m looking at, but in the midst of it all, an Indian gentleman to my right leans over and whispers: “To bring about a positive outcome, they’re offering a prayer to Ganesh.”

Back home, I’d be outraged if someone leaned over to talk to me during a play, even if that person were my wife or friend. But this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Someone to share knowledge, someone who can teach me new things about the world I’ve entered. I smile and nod. “It’s wonderful,” I say, though it’s more than wonderful. Words fail. This interpretation is full of an energy that transcends language. The actors are twirling. Their silk garments billow out. I gather the plot of unrequited love and mistaken identities through gestures, facial expressions, and body language, rather than dialogue.

My neighbor fills in the cross-cultural commentary between scenes. “The lead actress,” he says, “is famous in Indian films.” And I like the way he says “Indian films” rather than Bollywood. During intermission, he asks why I’ve come to the play when I don’t speak Gujarati, and I tell him I’m only here a few days and wanted to see something at the Globe. He smiles. “I love it,” I say. And his smile widens.

The theater troop has changed the setting from Italy to India, and as happens whenever I travel, I dream I can speak the different languages, every language—not just Gujarati but French and Italian and German and Spanish and Chinese. I find myself wishing I knew the history of these places. I want to read of them and fill myself with knowledge and go there and have firsthand experiences, conversations with the people, even the most simple exchanges like the one I’m having with my neighbor here.

When the play ends, our connection breaks, and I float off, borne away by the crowd. I maintain silence. I don’t want to interact with anyone. I want to let the last three hours wash over me. I read on the placard outside that the next day they’re presenting A Winter’s Tale, performed in Yoruba by a troop from Lagos. I don’t even know where that is, but decide I’ll be coming back. I could take a chance and explore some other parts of London that might or might not prove gratifying or I could come back here where I’m sure the work will infuse me with ecstasy—my chest swelling, my heart big, my mind open and racing.

I wonder what my neighbor’s life in England is like and what the play meant to him. I imagine he relished the chance to see a star of Indian film perform so far from his homeland in his native language, that it filled him with joy, that he’ll be talking about it for weeks. I linger over the dancing, the use of hands intertwining above agile gyrating hips, the vocal acrobatics I associate only with India, a dynamic warbling so different from traditional European ideas of pitch. Right now, I long to see and hear and experience everything that can be seen or heard or experienced, and even the knowledge this isn’t possible doesn’t diminish the warmth washing over me as I drift back to my hotel.

*

If there are indeed an infinite number of worlds in the ever-expanding realm of space/time, and these worlds are composed with the same building blocks, as string theory suggests, then we can assume there are many versions of you somewhere in that expanse. The best analogy I’ve heard to explain it, courtesy of Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, is a deck of cards. With a deck of cards, you have fifty-two building blocks you can deal. The hands will be different most of the time, but deal long enough and every hand will repeat itself. This could mean there are different versions of you all over the multiverse, and if these versions have made different choices, ever so slight, there are worlds in which you’re rich, poor, a serial killer, a drug addict, President of the United States, a special operative in the CIA, a rock star, an actor, etc. In this same vein, your choices in these worlds might mean you’re not married to your wife. You’re not in London right now. You’re not watching A Winter’s Tale. You’re on a different course entirely. There are likely a number of worlds in which you’re already dead—a car wreck, an overdose, cancer, a plane crash.

*

In the shadows, shapes pass, slow, cresting foam, color, saturation, darkness and cold. Your body breaks, and still you feel the wet seeping through, sensation, sudden and sharp and then gone. You’ve sunk past the aquamarine shallows, drifting into blue and then navy blue and then blacker depths. The shapes move toward you and first they hesitate, curious. They swim and circle and swiftly begin to move in.

*

>My dreams are only disturbing because they’re so vivid and aren’t confined to sleep. I get flashes, dream aftershocks that hit when I’m standing in the shower, letting the water wash over me. My wife and I have made it here. But we still have to make it home, and who can say this won’t happen on our return flight? That the plane won’t crash and hit the ocean, submersing our bodies in a place they’ll never be found? And even if we make it safely, who can say this fate hasn’t befallen me elsewhere? That these images aren’t a glimpse across the thin fabric that separates this self from others?

My days in London are winding down. I’ve opted to visit the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern, and it’s only during my stroll through the galleries that this comes into focus. My dream aftershocks become more intense as I stand before the submersed corpses of sheep and cows and sharks, their bodies preserved in aqueous hues, formaldehyde solution.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).

It’s the room’s centerpiece. The shark looks alive, though it’s immobile. Its jaws are peeled back, revealing a row of vicious razor-sharp teeth. On the walls near me are smaller fish—elongated or squat, black and silver and ghostly white shades—all preserved in positions that look to be swirling around this predator, their escapes frozen in time.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

This title comes from an essay Hirst wrote in college, but standing before his piece I see myself, my wife, others whose bodies were ripped apart or burnt to ash by the explosion. All are underwater, preserved in the same aqueous hues as these fish. Our eyes are wide and vacant. Our hair waves in the fluid. Sea creatures pass in schools, heading the same direction, much like these fish on the wall. Fins and gills, patterns shooting here and there. Then I have stranger visions, eyes where eyes shouldn’t be and no eyes at all and tentacles and gelatinous movements. The sinking hull has caught on a ridge and there it sits. There we sit. Strapped to our seats. Left to sit. Sitting as creatures come close. Touch a hand. Have a taste. Nibble. Bite. We’re consumed, slowly. The underwater creatures relish the taste, enjoy our flesh. And once that’s done, the water gets to work. The salt eats away bone, eroding all we are, and I know this must have happened somewhere. That somewhere I’ve dissolved into nothing.

Still, this doesn’t depress me. It doesn’t ruin my trip or send me spiraling into an introspective daze. No, the Hirst retrospective heightens my invigoration, reinforces the high traveling gives me, my enthusiasm for new ideas. Hirst’s work, focusing on life and death, resonates. In one room, the temperatures are gauged for the lifecycle of butterflies. Hirst has painted chrysalides into the canvas, which pupate and hatch and fly around, landing on our backs and heads and arms, and this room reminds me hope exists, reminds me of renewal.

It’s beautiful, I’d say. Or wonderful. Or exquisite. And though I’m sure I think this as I cross the threshold, pushing aside the heavy plastic curtains hung there to keep them inside, I believe I’ve used these words too often in this story. Beautiful, wonderful, exquisite—words that, like the concept of time, have no inherent meaning, but are relative to whomever is expressing or experiencing them. The same expression of beauty or wonderment or ecstasy I feel might mean nothing to you or even another version of me, and this is where we run into problems, trying to explain the significance any trip or transformative experience. Language fails to convey these emotions, and you’re forced to fall back on words like beautiful and wonderful and exquisite. At the end of each day, my wife asks how that day was, what I did, and I run down a list, inventory each event. But I can’t describe what it means, how each experience excites me and fills me with joy, even to the person closest to me.

Nevertheless, I feel transformed, reinvigorated, and as we head home, as my wife and I board our flight in two days time, I’ll want to act on this newfound vitality. I’ll want to check out books from the library to learn about India. I’ll consider enrolling in language courses. I’ll wish to engage with the arts, go to the theater and opera more. I’ll dream of traveling new places—Japan perhaps. It’s always been on my list of places to see. But I know this won’t last. The feeling will dissipate. I’ll return to work and get mired in the drudgery of day-to-day office life. I won’t have enough money to take the trips I dream of. I’ll forget to hold doors for people, forget to say please and thank you. When tourists in my home city forget I’m there and walk backward and bump into me, I won’t be as forgiving as I might, having had that similar experience in a foreign country. I’ll walk through the frame and ruin their shots. I won’t have the energy to attend classes, study, learn those languages. I know all this, but I don’t want to know it. I want to believe I’ll have the time and energy to act, to be the person this trip makes me believe I could be.

Perhaps somewhere, some version of me talked to that waitress, made a friend my wife and I could return to visit. Perhaps somewhere, some version of me can do a spot on impersonation of Michael Caine or snapped the photo of that urinating dog and gets a good chuckle from it every now and then. Even better, perhaps somewhere, there’s a version of me who persists in his studies, who learns about India and goes there, who plans that trip to Japan, who masters languages. Or maybe there isn’t one version of me who does it all, but many versions doing many things. I’d like to think that my vision of the one world in which I no longer exist is just one of many in which I do. In some version of events, the plane crashed before we arrived. In some version, my corpse wastes away under the waves. But this isn’t a ghost story. Somewhere some version of me is dead, but here I’m alive, feeling more energized than I’ve been in some time. I want more life. I want to live and love and learn. But here I’ll rest, boarding the plane home. Here I’ll rest above the sea. Here I’ll rest, for the moment, brief as it may be, in contentment.


The essay above originally appeared in Barrelhouse issue 15, 2016.

There are no comments yet


Leave a comment