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London isn’t where we feel comfortable. I wonder what it would be like to ‘forget’ to pay the rent, to be shoved onto society’s hard side.
“We need to get out of London,” I say.
“No,” she responds. “Kiss me again.”
The issue with London is this: we know London, London knows us.
Look, there’s the café where we read my acceptance letter. Here’s the lamppost she kissed me under, while drizzle frizzed our hair. Just here is where she took her gloves off to slip her hand in mine, and I braved frostbite to feel her skin.
There is where she screamed at me, .45 calibre of her dark eyes hammering at me, until she ended her string of profanity with my name, hissed like it was a worse obscenity than all the rest combined. Here is the wall I slid down, begging her, until she said my name again, soft. Here is our London.
The issue with London is this: London knows who we are. I don’t think that’s fair.
This could be Cardiff:
My dorm room has a single window, and a single bed, with an emerald comforter. I walk in the door, and she is on her belly on my bed, stretched out like a notion. I barely have time to toss my lyrics on the desk before she’s on me, hands and lips and breath.
“No more skipping breaks where I can’t come see you,” she says.
“I promise,” I say.
She lights up like Catherine wheels, calling me home. I say it again, I promise, just to make her smile.
This could be Paris:
I want to unwind. I walk to the hotel room I’m sharing with a classmate, slip between the over-starched sheets. When the phone rings, I check the display, and see her name, and 3:00 AM.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “You were probably sleeping.”
“S’all right,” I slur, mouth full of sleep. I listen to the silence down the line.
“I just wanted to hear your voice,” she says, “Since I missed the concert.”
I close my eyes. The words are warm like chocolate, and I let them flow around my brain, my pulse.
“I’m coming back Thursday,” I tell her. “Meet me at the station?”
This could be Swansea:
In the press across from the Christmas display in the Harrods window, I tell her to hang on tight, so we don’t lose each other. She laughs, breath steaming like a dragon.
The snowflakes blink on and off, and I smirk a little at the silliness of the whole thing. I quote Nietzsche just to annoy her. A group of carolers is parading their atonal way down the avenue, so I can’t hear the words she mouths into the join between my shoulder and neck.
I know them, though. Hi, she had whispered. Love you.
But in London all the tourist-trap monuments know us too well. Nelson peers down his column at our battle, offering useless advice on how to board a ship. 221B is scathing and dismissive of our attempts to snatch a moment out of classwork. The Tower leers, and Hyde Park’s Hunter raises an eyebrow.
We fought, but when she stormed out, and came back when I was sitting on the pavement by my suitcase, she knew I’d never ask, so she told me instead. Please don’t go, she’d pleaded.
Later, she’d said something else, but that could have been a dream.
This is how we live in London.
In London, I turn to her and ask, “Don’t you think we should leave?”
“No,” she replies. “I like the City.”
“But don’t you hate how we are here?” I ask.
She shrugs. “We always come back together.”
A loose cobblestone rears its head, and she stumbles. I reach out and grab her arm before she can drop her violin case. I bite back on something inane and useless, like, I’m sorry, you looked like you needed me. Don’t you need me? She stretches and melts against me, silk over Semtex.
“Thanks.” Grinning, she adds, “Just like us in London, then, would you say?”
She doesn’t look like she bit back anything.
You have no idea.
This could be Anglesey:
“You sang brilliantly, today,” she says. “Too bad it’s only a one-day thing.”
Briskly, she dabs at the shadow on my lids. “I’m off to London again,” she tells me matter-of-factly.
“What?” I try to open my eyes, and almost get a socket full of cotton. “But I thought you were coming back to Cardiff with me?” I hate how my voice wavers up at the end.
“No. Have some things to take care of.”
“Oh. Um, I was wondering, though, if you’d like to-”
“Yeah?” she asks, voice mild and ten million miles away. You feel like you’ve been caught doing something awful, like killing a man, or insulting her London.
“Nevermind,” you say, because in Anglesey you don’t know how far to push.
This could be Brighton:
It’s like the rain outside has shoved all the sand on the beach outside the car window down my throat. Dry, and scratchy.
“I had fun,” she says. “Didn’t you?”
Fun is breaking the speed limit. Fun is laughing with friends. Fun is hitting that B note spot-on. Fun is practicing the accents you learned in one of your acting classes. That wasn’t- that wasn’t just fun.
“Hey,” her voice wraps around me, and I think I could crumble with it. “Don’t look like that, please.” She reaches out, brushes a strand of hair off my shoulder. Two inches down there is a mark, that fits the shape of her mouth.
“Sweetheart, I told you it wasn’t going to work,” she says gently. “I never said a thing.”
This could be Edinburgh:
My cheek is stinging, and I know my eyes are wide, like a stupid baby’s.
“Forget you,” she hisses. “I told you, no more.”
She walks away like I’m not even worth running from. There is a train to London in thirty-two minutes.
“I don’t even get to apologize?” I shout after her. Her back gives me no response. “No, that’s right, I don’t get anything, do I?” I swallow, and the stinging has migrated to my eyes and nose.
“Hey,” I mumble to my shoes. “Don’t I get something?”
At least in London, she always walks back in to lick the wounds she left. On the inside, I get more brittle, harder, like what happens to some metals, after being frozen and reheated time after time. In London, I have her, mostly. In London, she never stays away too long, even if all she does is leave.
‘What are you afraid of?’ I want to ask. ‘Is it because for every Swansea, there’s an Anglesey?’ I suppose she could be right. It seems like we land in Edinburgh as often as Cardiff, and it’s hard to tell Brighton and Anglesey apart, from a distance. London is a known quantity. It’s an excuse, an Anglesey ‘Told you this would happen, darling.’
What is it about London she find worthwhile, anyway? Does she have a Cardiff, too? Am I somehow better on the other side of the Severn? I don’t see how it matters.
Maybe in Cambridge she never even says my name. Maybe in Manchester, I’m the one who says, ‘This doesn’t mean anything.’ Maybe in Manchester, she’s glad to hear it, just like I’m not.
In London, we drape out wet clothes over the humming radiator, and she lets me kiss and bite the seams of her body open. The windows fog with steam, and I think of my room at school in Cardiff, where it smells like mint and old paper and everything right with the world.
‘We’ve got to leave London,’ I think, and lean down to suck a mark two inches down from her shoulder.
Downstairs, her London neighbors switch on a radio, and Cerys Matthews comes on, crooning into the woolly air, unexpected on an English station.
‘Fy nghangen lân, fy nghowlad glyd,’ she croons. ‘Tydi sy'n peri poen a chri. A thi sy'n dwyn fy mywyd i.’ My pure branch, my tight embrace. You cause agony and anguish, and it’s you stealing my life.
“Tell me what she’s singing,” I murmur into her throat.
“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I don’t speak your language.”
In London, I listen to her exhale my name, and think, ‘There’s somewhere else we have to be.’ Or maybe, just me.