Rule Britannia

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Eventually, and more than three months behind schedule, I will write a little series called Forgotten Cities, in which I will try to remember things I meant to say about places I visited this summer that I foolishly never wrote a single word about (I'm looking at you, Copenhagen). Among those places was London, where I saw plays and visited museums and drank tea and only had one significant escalator-related setback. A great success, in other words.

I had come from Scotland where last-minute anti-Brexit campaigning was in full swing. The day of the vote, I didn't think much about it. I was busy seeing Kensington Palace and finding my way to the theatre in a downpour. The next morning, though, seeing as how I was actually in the UK, it seemed only polite to look up the result. I did it for form's sake, really; I assumed I already knew the answer. First, I saw the polling numbers, which I thought must not be THE polling numbers, but were perhaps from some old telephone survey. Then I saw in the Times that David Cameron had resigned.  What?  WHAT?  I had only been asleep eight hours and in the meantime it seemed the whole world had gone topsy turvy.

When I went downstairs, my hostess was literally pale with shock. No one she knew had voted to leave.  It seemed that no one who anyone knew had voted to leave. 

Later that evening, I was bound for the Netherlands.  I got a train from Liverpool Street and made my way to the port at Harwich where I boarded an overnight ferry. The train journey was about and hour and a half long.  Well outside the city, perhaps twenty minutes from the coast, a white-haired couple boarded.  She was in a decidedly British melange of mismatched floral prints, he in a sports jacket. I was relieved to see them. I had been quite nervous that I was in the wrong half of the train that was soon destined to split and go in two different directions (splitting trains always cause me a great deal of anxiety, even, it seems, in countries where instructions are given in my native tongue). This couple looked like they probably knew a thing or two about splitting trains. I asked; they reassured.  We chatted a little. It seemed that they had a house in the Netherlands and made the journey back and forth across the sea with some frequency.

As we drew nearer to our destination, the lady said, jokingly, half to her husband, half to me, "We'll have to see how they treat us now that we're not European anymore."   "Isn't is strange?" I said. I had been having conversations such as this with astonished people all day, so I thought I knew my lines.  "We are British," she said.  "We always were. We always will be."  She went on to say that a truck had driven down the main street of their town that afternoon, blaring "Rule Britannia."  Just as I was formulating a remark on how these moments of nationalistic fervor can be troubling, she continued, "It was lovely." Oh, I thought.  Oh. We are not having the conversation I thought we were  having. 

She sang the opening line, "Rule, Britannia!  Britannia rule the waves!" then paused. "And we will be there again," she said. "This is the first step."

I said nothing, but it was a moment of revelation for me.  OH. This is what is happening at home, I thought. I get it. Everyone I know thinks Donald Trump could never be president that, in fact, he is somewhere on the spectrum from incoherent buffoon to dangerous lunatic.  But, somewhere, in a tidy house in the countryside is a pleasant woman I've never met, wearing a clashing outfit, and dreaming of a Golden Age of America that will never come again and that, indeed, never really existed. It was a time when men were men and women knew their place and white supremacy was unquestioned. To that lady, 2016 is a bewildering, disordered nightmare.  That is the lady who votes for Trump. 

I felt sorry for her, actually, that lady who'd lost pace with history.

That was June.

Not how I imagined it

A writing prompt I give my playwriting students is to write a scene in a specific location--a beach, a kitchen, a jail cell, a stadium--in which someone says "It's not how I imagined it" which may refer to anything, not necessarily the location.

Well, I am drunk on Plungerhead red from Whole Foods. I'm listening to Bauhaus' "Bela Legosi's Dead." [Sing along, if you're so inclined.] I just got off the phone with someone who loves me who called all the way from Singapore to see that I was all right.  Last night, as the polls were still being tallied, I fielded another such call from Berlin. 

Downside:  we are in the midst of an international disaster.
Bright side:  I am looked after the world over.

I canceled my French class this evening due to mourning and, with my extra hour, planned to go to the mattress store (oh how the mattress woes continue to plague me), but Daniel posted a reminder to Facebook that there was live music to be had at the bar just down the street, so I traded another sleepless night (damn you, mattress) for an evening of connection. The place was packed. The music was great.  A woman newly arrived from New York sang "The Sunny Side of the Street." Bright sides were all around us.

Nevertheless... today.  It's not how I imagined it. Not at all.

God bless America, my home sweet home.

The lights are on, but...

Since I moved into my apartment not quite seven years ago, I have had a dizzying number of neighbors. The ones who had children moved to houses and the ones who didn't have children moved because of the ones who did.  A veritable whirlwind of change.

Of all these people, my favorites were Rose and Dave, who lived next door for two years and were my actual friends.  I made them a cake the day they moved in and handed it to Rose through her kitchen window, the old-timey neighborliness of which apparently changed her life. When she introduced me to people thereafter, I was always "Kari who handed us a cake through the window." When we hardly knew each other, I invited them to dinner and managed to pour boiling water on my foot while draining the pasta. When I swore floridly and dashed out of the room, ripping my sock off, they didn't retreat politely and subsequently avoid me in the hall. Instead, they went home to fetch some gauze and then finished assembling the meal while I stood helplessly by with my foot plunged in a wastepaper basket filled with cool water. When I used to be reduced to tears by the stereo-party madness of my previous upstairs neighbors, they administered hugs and alcohol.  Once, in the era when our front gate provided nothing more than a scene-shop illusion of security, there was a night where a drunk man seemed about to come in after me while his friends stood by mute.  When I retreated backward up the stairs with shaking hands and a pounding heart, Dave came to the rescue. They were those neighbors.

When I came home at night, I used to be able to tell if they were in because the narrow line of light would be visible under their door as I came up the stairs.  Checking for it became a habit. I liked knowing they were there. They had a baby and sadly for me, though happily for them, moved to Portland about six months ago. We agreed that we would not like our new neighbors as much as we liked each other.  That seemed the least we could do. Well, I did also get a huge jug of Tanqueray, some chocolate, and some ravioli out of it. My advice: offer help when people are doing last minute packing of their kitchens. In their panicky frame of mind, they unload all sorts of loot.

I have not checked to see if they are holding up their end of the bargain, but I certainly am.  In all fairness, it has been made very easy by the fact that I have no new neighbors.  For six months their apartment has stood empty. I've been grateful they weren't replaced by someone terrible, but I've also been lonely. I miss them. And not only because they never, ever slammed the gate.

Our building was recently sold (which may or may not be ominous) and, though there is still no indication that the apartment will be rented anytime soon, when I walked up the stairs tonight, that little line of light greeted me from under the door. I know this means nothing more than that a workman forgot to turn the lights off when he left, but it's a cruel trick.  In this terrifying moment, watching the vote tallies, and seeing that what began as satire may actually be the dark fate of of our country, I would like nothing more than to knock on my neighbors' door. I'd like to watch the rest of this unfold from the sanctuary of Rose and Dave's capacious sofa. I could do with the company. I'd bring the gin.

 

Zzzzz

I literally just fell asleep in a chair trying to think of something to write.  It's 10:30pm.

Oh!  There you are, end of daylight savings!  Have you met jet lag?  You two have so much in common. I'll just leave you to chat.

Noir

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In the dark, I become aware of a rocking figure. Back and forth. Back and forth. Over and over. Just two rows ahead and three seats to the right. Once I've seen it, I can't stop seeing it. I begin tracking plot, subtitles and, out of the corner of my eye, motion. It is one too many things. I hold my hand up to block my peripheral vision, but I hear the heavy breathing of someone crying hard without sobbing. It is a quiet but undeniable storm. I wonder that no one else seems to notice. In the dark, it appears to be a man leaning forward to avoid the awkward obstacle of the armrest and holding a woman in his arms, tight, tighter, rocking her while she weeps.

The movie is tragic, of course. They are all tragic. Nevertheless, it is surely too melodramatic and too old fashioned to occasion unbridled grief. What are the chances that anyone in the audience has shot a rival in a burst of rage and then, brokenhearted, dragged a massive armoire to block the door from a hail of gunfire from the gendarmerie in the couloir?  And still she gasps for breath as though this story were all too painfully familiar and still he rocks her, though it seems not to comfort her at all. i wonder why he does not bundle her up the aisle, out the door, and home.

The screen brightens and I suddenly realize that there is no couple at all, but just a man alone. I recognize him from every film festival I have ever attended in this town. He is as unchanging as he is distinctive. Plus, at every screening he arrives before me and sits in the seat I would choose myself, so I had noticed him when I'd arrived. Now, in that very seat, he is hunched over, with his arms tightly wrapped around his own shoulders, rocking while sobbing or possibly just gasping for air. I know I should go and see that he's all right, but I think of inching down my row in the dark, stepping on toes, spilling popcorn, blocking the view of the subtitles at the climactic moment, only to intrude on a stranger's private grief, or illness, or insanity, and I stay where I am.

When the hero has taken his own life just moments before the police breach his room via the roof, FIN rolls across the screen and the house lights come up. The man, in his signature cyclist garb complete with ever-present 70's-style terrycloth headband, rises from his seat, checks that his jacket is placed visibly to save his seat, grabs his backpack and heads to the lobby just as he does between every double feature. Just as though nothing had happened in the dark at all.