I couldn’t seem to take pictures. New England in autumn is known for its beautiful colours but my pictures wouldn’t have done them justice. Everyone knows what leaves look like. You can find pictures online by better photographers than me.
I thought about what else I should document in photographs. Things specific to America: things familiar from TV and films but not from my own experience. The pretty wooden houses with their porches. Mailboxes on the outside, no key required, as trusting as leaving your shoes outside the front door – it would never work in the UK. I didn’t take pictures of houses in case their inhabitants objected or felt weird about it. Over-indulgent Halloween decorations. Yellow schoolbuses. Pedestrian crossings where the WALK sign never flashed, like it was just there for decoration because nobody expected any pedestrians to show up.
Mostly I wound up with pictures of squirrels and cats, none of which were particularly artistic. There were many days when I didn’t see or speak to anybody, and only the cats heard my voice.
Things I said to the cats: Hello, kitten. Hello, the cat. Look at you, you are so fluffy. You are made of fluff. Oh aren’t you adorable. Aren’t you just lovely. Oh that’s a very sad story but it’s still not dinnertime. Dinnae lick my hand, you just boked.
Whenever the ginger cat leapt up onto the bed he’d make a little burbling sound as he did it. The black cat was prone to stealing the ginger cat’s food after he’d eaten his own, so I’d distract him by having him run around in circles chasing the beam from a torch.
Life was quiet. I edited documents all day and cooked aubergines and tomatoes and herbs from the garden and stayed up late watching the Chilean miner rescues. I made French toast, sweet potato and black bean burritos, and scallop and mushroom quesadillas. I drank red wine by myself and didn’t miss company. I made smoothies with lemon curd and decided that when I feel like settling again, I’m going to need a blender. I trekked to the supermarket, initially trailing around it zombie-like while I tried to figure out all the foreign brands and how to cope without halloumi cheese. I watched Blossom DVDs because my friend ordered them so I could take them back to the UK and save her having to pay for international postage. It was better than I remembered.
Imogen Binnie and I went on a road trip. Roadside diners and liquor stores. We pulled off the highway in a place called Belchertown to see if we could find anything other than pizza. We passed a sign advertising a dentist’s surgery but the accompanying illustration bore a suspicious resemblance to Jesus Christ. “Let’s get tattoos to commemorate our day,” I said. We didn’t.
The prison was at the end of a tree-lined drive in upstate New York. I was nervous, not about my first meeting with the penpal I’d been writing to since 1999, not about the other prisoners, but about the regulations and procedures and whether I’d be told I wasn’t dressed appropriately or get pulled aside for drug checks or something. The visiting room was like a cafeteria except the only food came from vending machines and I lost $1.50 because I was too inept to work them properly. I took my place at the assigned table, careful not to take the blue chair because those were reserved for prisoners. The prison was maximum security but nobody showed up in shackles; we didn’t sit on either side of a window and talk into phones. Somehow, I hadn’t considered that some prisoners would be visited by their kids, hadn’t expected to see a Lion King mural on one wall. Near our table, another prisoner and his visitor quietly played chess.
A woman showed me to the subway when I was still drunk from the night before and didn’t know what time it was. She’d been headed in the other direction, but she said it was okay, she was going nowhere in particular, to be honest she was kind of depressed, she’d just been to look at an apartment but it required a $1200 deposit and who has $1200? A Singaporean student shared a subway ride with me; we talked about Berlin and Islamophobia and racism in Europe. A boy made an excruciatingly bad pass at me at a party, which I deflected in a la-la-la-I’ll-just-pretend-this-isn’t-actually-happening kind of way. A grandmother and anime fan from the internet invited me to her church’s pot luck dinner: great food, kind people, donations to Haiti. A group from upstate New York who were in Boston for a regatta accidentally led me the wrong way when I asked for directions, but their hotel concierge gave me a map and one of them lent me his phone and anyway I got to see the scenic route.
I tried a local Irish pub a couple of times, even though I am generally prejudiced against Irish pubs. (Wait, does that make me sound like a unionist? I mean that I am generally prejudiced against pubs outside of Ireland that are Irish-themed, because I dislike my identity being reduced to a pile of stereotypes.) The first time I went in, a regular sat down a couple of bar stools along from me. “Clever girl,” he observed, “reading,” and I could feel him looking in my direction, and I pretended not to hear him and focused intently on the zine I’d dug out of my bag, which was about Bananarama and queer theory. The second time I went in, I sat up at the bar again and the three TV screens were showing made-up American sports. I wanted to read a zine or write a letter but it was a Saturday night and I didn’t want to look weird. “Jesus Christ on a cracker,” exclaimed a woman nearby, “this game is a train wreck.” The third time I went in, I sat at a table in the corner and drank three pints and wrote a letter and then used the free wifi to talk to friends and grin into my computer as if they were there in the room with me. Two middle-aged women at the next table were involved in an animated conversation: at one point, the louder one exclaimed “DENTURES!”
Sometimes, lying in bed before I went to sleep, curved around the ginger cat, I’d marvel at the chain of events that led me to this place. I thought about how I’d miss it. I thought about where I’d been before and where I might be going next. I did not bother trying to make sense of it all.
And then I moved on.
As ever, wonderful writing, love. And I want to read the zine about Bananarama and Queer Theory.
It’s yours next time I see you! (And thanks.) x
belchertown! you were *so* close to smith. like, ten minutes. if you head back toward boston for your fly-out, maybe you will get a chance to go through northampton, which is truly an experience worth having, for the food if nothing else.
You are a superstar. Hope Philly is treating you well. xo