The funeral was my excuse to get out of London. The day my mom called to say my cousin Samuel died, I packed the few things I couldn't leave behind – three pairs of jeans, a few shirts, as many CDs, DVDs and books as I could fit – into the one duffel bag I moved there with three years earlier. What was supposed to be the greatest adventure of my life was over, and I was headed back to Park Glen, Illinois.
Since college, I wanted to move to London and start a new life: Live in a flat, take walks in Kensington Garden, spend Saturday afternoons at the Tate and the British Museum. When I was 25, I gave up my job as an ad copywriter at a radio station in Chicago, packed everything I could fit into this same black and blue duffel bag, and whisked my girlfriend Elizabeth away to live in my favorite foreign city.
The plan was to write my novel. I was going to do the whole expatriate thing, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. London seemed better than Paris though, because I couldn't speak a word of French. Well, that's not exactly true. I can say "je suis un poulet," which I'm told means, "I'm a chicken."
The dream of "Jacob Lervus, novelist" soon turned into "Jacob Lervus, pub bus boy." It wouldn't have been so bad if they let me be an actual bartender, but I didn't know enough about English ales to get the job. So I cleaned off table in a little pub near the Earls Court tube station five nights a week. It didn't matter what I was doing for money, I told myself. I wasn't there to start a career. I was there to write, to create, to draw inspiration from one of the world's great – perhaps its greatest – literary city.
But there was a problem. I didn't have any ideas. I had once regarded this as beneficial. One of my writing professors in college used to tell us that ideas just get in the way of telling a story, that we should let the story lead us. I was just going to write, and eventually I would find my story. But "my story" just turned out to be a bunch of thinly veiled versions of my real stories. And most of those weren't good enough to entertain the drunk punters I chatted with to pass the time at work.
After a year or so, I hadn't finished more than three or four chapters of what was turning out to be one of the most horrendously boring books I had ever read. I decided my table-wiper's salary wasn't enough to support me. After my half of the rent and food, I barely had any money left to enjoy what I came to London to see. With my tail between my legs, I took a job writing ad copy again. I had moved 5000 miles from home to do exactly the same job I was doing before I left.
It began to feel as though there were at least a thousand other people attempting the same stupid feat as me, and each one of them had more talent and creativity. They also had more money in the bank to support their foolish endeavor. I was starting to feel bankrupt, creatively and monetarily. The days between my writing sessions began to pile up. Sometimes I went a week or two without touching the pen to the pad. Each month, I spent less time revising my story and fleshing out the characters and more time trying to figure out cricket on TV or drinking at McDonough's, the Irish pub down the street from our flat.
Through it all Elizabeth continued to offer her support. She read every page I wrote, and offered her take on the characters and where she thought the story was going. I paid her back with unflinching negativity.
"I love this part where the main character goes back to his girlfriend's house after she's thrown him out on New Years Eve," she'd say.
And I'd answer back, "Oh, that part is so stupid. No one in their right mind would ever do something like that."
"Who would want to read a story about characters in their right minds? Wouldn't that be pretty boring?"
"I need to be able to write characters that act believably, that do what real people would," I'd say, snatching back the pages she just finished reading.
After the second year, I pretty much gave it up. I'd drag out my notebooks every few months and change a word here or there, but I didn't really write anything new. My life went back to being very much as it had been before coming to London. I went to work, wrote cheesy copy to hawk someone else's cheap wares, and spent most evenings in front of the TV. All the things that made London novel at the beginning started getting on my nerves. I got sick of people calling the elevators "lifts" and not being able to get a decent hot dog anywhere. The traffic sucked and the summers were too hot without air conditioning in our flat.
As I grew less wide-eyed and duller, Elizabeth started to spend more nights out by herself. Nine times out of ten she'd invite me to come along, but I'd take a pass to sit at home and watch a soccer match (after three years I still call it soccer) or a Benny Hill marathon. She started spending a lot of time with Ian, the Irish guy who tended bar at McDonough's. They'd go to the pubs together and to the markets in Notting Hill on Saturday afternoons. The invitation was always extended to me out of courtesy, but I had already conceded defeat. I couldn't compete with his Irish brough or his rugby player's physique. I was supposed to be living in the world's greatest city with the girl of my dreams, well on my way to literary stardom, and life was no different than it had been in the suburbs of Chicago before I uprooted myself and moved six time zones. Same job, same boring nights in front of the TV, same aspirations I didn't have the motivation to pursue full force.
It was little surprise one Saturday afternoon about two weeks before I got the call from Mom about cousin Samuel, when they came back from the market each holding a bad of produce in one hand and each other's free hand in the other. I was lying on the couch reading a magazine. They came in the door and looked down at me.
"I'm sorry mate," Ian said. "I never meant to do you like this."
I laid the copy of Time Out I was reading on my chest. I'd been catching up on all the bands I'd missed the night before when I decided to spend another Friday night at home watching reruns of The East Enders on Channel 1. Elizabeth sat near my feet, nudging them toward the back of the couch as she sat down. She rested her hand on my shin.
"I'm sorry, Jacob," she said. "I'm sorry, but you've watched me slipping away and you didn't even try to fight it."
"What would be the point of fighting? You were obviously bound to choose the better looking guy with the charming accent. Fighting that would have been a waste of time."
"And you need your bloody precious time to sit around watching the tele every!" she said.
“Bloody? Tele? Listen to yourself. You’re American, or did you forget that?” I said, sliding my feet out from behind her and standing up. I picked up a dirty mug off the coffee table and took it to the kitchen sink.
“You know, this was your idea in the first place,” she said.
She followed me into the kitchen. The Celtic rugby star stood silent, leaning against the frame of the front door.
“I would have been perfectly content staying there and getting married like we always talked about,” she said. “It was your idea to move us halfway across the world, away from everyone we know. It isn’t my fault that I embraced the opportunity while you were too busy flipping channels and feeling sorry for yourself.”
Mr. Rugby walked behind her and put his hand on her shoulder to try to calm her down.
“Beth,” he said.
“You just stay out of this, O’Toole,” I said.
“The name’s O’Sullivan,” he said.
“Whatever. Look, Elizabeth, maybe it was a mistake to come here in the first place.”
“Maybe for you it was, but not for me. I love it here,” she said. “And you did too, once, when you let yourself enjoy it.”
They left and I sulked on the couch till Monday. She came and got her things while I was at work, writing some masterful pitch for chewing gum.
I quit my job that Friday and spent the weekend trying to figure out how I could get the hell out of London without looking like a failure and a quitter. It was the one big risk I’d taken in my entire life, and look how it ended.
I spent the next week going over everything I’d written during the first year. I re-read the same shit day after day, hoping to find something of merit, something salvageable. I didn’t find it.
And then on Saturday morning – it must have been before dawn in Chicago – Mom called with the news about Samuel. It was my ticket some.
I grabbed my bag and clicked off the light in our – my – flat. I hauled my overstuffed bag down five flights of stairs. On my way to the Tube dropped an envelope addressed to my landlord with my key inside in one of those stereotypical London mailboxes that looks like an oversized fire hydrant. I walked up to the ticket window and paid a one-way fare to Heathrow. With my head against the window, I shut my eyes and didn’t open them until the train pulled into the end of the line at the airport. There wasn’t enough room left in my bag for anything from the duty-free shop.Posted by dpetrella at November 9, 2006 4:58 PM | TrackBack