Tag Archives: us of a

Repurposed

January to March
The snow at the beginning of the year increasingly struck me as artificial, like it was really icing sugar, or maybe talcum powder. I went out and got drunk a lot, but I mostly abandoned weekends and saved my adventures for midweek instead. I was opportunistic, but frustrated. I frequently woke up with the hangover of the soul; it was like I was looking for something but not finding it. The previous night would come back to me in flashes and mainly it would look like a pointless exercise. I behaved badly. I was just waiting to leave. Correction: in order to leave I was waiting for term to end so I could get my money’s worth from the Polish classes that I got at a discount on account of my low income. Still, in between the many nights full of bad ideas I managed to make a couple of zines, do a couple of readings, DJ a few times.

I went to Anglesey with La Glitch for my mum’s birthday. We rented a cottage and I lit a candle in a church on the day. Hard to tell whether I’d just gotten used to her absence, or whether I hadn’t given myself sufficient time on this trip to reflect. Four and a half years, though, that was a fuck of a long time. By now it just got reduced to brief moments when I was lying in bed hungover and I’d find myself sobbing hard for five seconds and then I’d stop.

We drank in the pub next to the cottage and an old woman with Parkinson’s disease talked to us and somehow, something about her reminded me of my mother, even though the similarities were subtle. She told us about the time she took a bunch of kids to the zoo and one of them stole a penguin. I’d heard this story before, but without the excuse he provided: My mum won’t let me have a cat, he’d explained. When I got back to Edinburgh, I printed out the Snopes discussion and sent it with a card to the pub, addressed to The Nice Woman Who Drinks Whisky And Lemonade. She wrote back.

Mostly, I felt like my mind was never where I was. Penguin had been picking up on it, she said that it was like I wasn’t really there, wasn’t really focused. I didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it left me without much to say for myself.

Term ended. I got drunk one last time in the Wayside and felt mild regret that I would miss the Bon Jovi tribute band playing at the weekend. I went round to Penguin’s and we made badges together, and the next day I left Edinburgh and flew to Brussels, feeling not a whole lot other than numb.

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America, abridged

In rural Pennsylvania I drank cider by a bonfire while people yelled “Fire in the hole!” and launched flaming pumpkins from giant catapults and then boy scouts rushed to put them out with shovels.

In Washington, DC, I killed time in a Salvadoran bar, waiting for Jeremy to finish band practice. The waitress and I conversed in Spanish. She asked how I could travel so much and not miss my family. She couldn’t go home and see hers: it wasn’t just about money, it was about not having papers. She said that if I didn’t manage to contact my friend, I could stay with her and her aunt in Maryland.

I got a lift from Washington to Dayton with a woman who was on her way back to Manitoba. The journey took eight hours but she wouldn’t accept any money for petrol. It turned out she had grown up in the Mennonite town that Miriam Toews described in A Complicated Kindness. She said that she could speak Low German but that it was pretty useless. “I can speak backwards,” I offered. “At least you can communicate with someone.”

I had decided to try not kissing anyone for a year. I got as far as Ohio with that plan.

I walked into a bar in Indianapolis with my rucksack, and the owner sent over drinks on the house because a couple of bands I’d never heard of had cancelled their gig at the last minute. “John Dillinger used to come here,” said my host, a disarmingly cute conspiracy theorist. I nodded like I knew anything, and thought to myself: Four? Or Escape Plan? He drove me to a house on the outskirts of town, a work in progress that had been classified as uninhabitable. It was like the houses in the dreams I’ve had all my life, expanding: when he moved the boards and mattresses that were propped against the walls, they revealed doorways leading to more rooms. I slept on a couple chunks of foam in a cold, bare room; killed time in the morning by studying Polish until he came downstairs and apologised for waking up so late. “My bad,” he said. Outside, a mountain of bin bags filled with leaves awaited an ambitious composting project. He took me for brunch in a Mexican diner and then saw me off at the bus stop.

In Chicago I met up with a friend of a friend, an activist. Green tea turned into dinner and drinks in a pub till the small hours of the morning. We put the world to rights. “Hey,” I said, “we’ve spent several hours together but we’ve only just started using the word ‘dogmatic’ and I think we should throw it around some more.” She smiled shyly and then said, “My place is kind of a mess, but you’re welcome to come home with me if you’d like to.”

I went home with a girl in Somerville, Massachusetts. In the morning we lay in bed talking about ligers and the time she went to Canada for three hours. I wondered how long it would take before her bruises would fade. I wanted to see her again but I didn’t know if she was interested in a repeat performance. I cooked risotto for everyone and when she tried to summon me into an empty room I declined before I realised what that probably meant. But it was okay: my time in the States was ending, and it was what it was. My time with her, my time with everyone. I could be sad about leaving or I could be happy about all the experiences I had had, and I chose the latter.

Malden, Massachusetts

I
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.

II
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.

III
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.

IV
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.

V
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!”

VI
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.

Wrong to wish on space hardware

The latest twist is I’m six time zones west of Berlin. I had been in Edinburgh, couchsurfing in my own flat, selling as much stuff as I could, and waiting for an opportunity to come my way. This was it. Not long after making my decision, I was offered a few weeks rent-free in Barcelona: too late. I’m in the States till early December, just because I figured I might as well muck around here for a while.

My home for October is a house beneath an old oak tree that pelts the porch with acorns. I’m looking after two cats. There are grey squirrels in the garden and homegrown vegetables. This morning I also discovered chipmunks.

I hadn’t visited the USA since 1998, in part because of a petty personal boycott inspired by George W Bush’s presidency and in part due to getting sidetracked by Asia, Europe and Australia. This time round, it took an hour and a half for me to get through passport control and customs. It was kind of nervewracking, though I was also so tired that I wasn’t sure I’d even mind if they deported me, just as long as they made a decision quickly; I sat in the waiting room and tried to come up with a plan B for what I would do instead. A man clutching a bag of duty-free cigarettes and champagne was advised that he’d been in and out of the States so much lately that he needed to pay more than five hundred dollars for a visa. A backpacking English couple, so fresh-faced and twelve-looking they were surely just out of school rather than university, sat nervously before being summoned in turn to the counter. The man next to me called a friend, said Bro thank you for waiting for me but because of that thing in 2005 I have to wait and see an immigration judge, and the officials said Hey do you have luggage? Because if you want we can get it to your friend, and he said Thanks that would be great I really appreciate it.

I slept on the sofa my first night, and one of the cats slept with me. The other one is more aloof but already likes me more than he likes people in general; on the other hand, we had a dispute this morning about him stealing food, so he might hold a grudge now. I haven’t done a whole lot since I got here, so I’m just typing this blog post to say hi. I did however learn how to make an effective humane fruitfly trap. Observe:

1. Put a slice of lemon or lime into a jar.
2. Cover the jar with clingfilm and secure it with a rubber band.
3. Poke some tiny holes in the clingfilm with a fork.
4. Leave it to think.

After a while, you’ll find the flies have followed the smell of the fruit, but can’t find their way out again. Release them into the wild – Their lives are so short they might as well have some fun, advised my tutor.