It will be 9 hours before I touch down in London. From there I will carry on to Frankfurt, and finally Florence, where I will be returning for a second year, this time for four weeks of poetry, completing my minor in creative writing at NYU.
A year gone by and all of my muscles feel tired, my brain spent, even my hair follicles are sore. This is the way I used to leave the playground as a kid. Hands callused from playing on the monkey bars, dirt in my hair and ears and under my little kid nails, muscles fatigued and hungry for a homemade meal.
I stressed in the car on the way to the airport, my mom behind the wheel, me shouting out driving directions as I battled with the automated voice at Bank of America who insisted I was going to Chile when over and over I told “her” I’m going to Italy! I’m pretty sure it still thinks I am going to Chile so who knows. My layover in London is six hours. Just enough time to leave the airport and touch the streets, reminisce about a time when I was nine and living in Chester, moved by my father’s company. We wouldn’t allow him to go without us. We were a family. If he went, we went. And the sentiment remains though our family has changed.
On the way to the airport we use our spare couple of minutes to stop and hug my brother at his apartment in Lawndale. “We’re still just three little birds in a storm,” my mother says, as I hang up the phone and tell her I do want to stop to see him even though we are pressed for time. He’d tagged along to pick me up when I’d arrived in Los Angeles just over a week ago. My step father came too. I was standing there waiting for the car to pull up when someone pulled the cylinder of Pringles out of the water bottle sleeve on my backpack and said, “give me all your Pringles little girl.” It was my brother, who promptly flipped the lid off and began chomping them as he squeezed me hello. The three of them had parked and walked over to greet me. It was midnight. All of us buzzing at being together again. If one went, we all went.
I want to remember England tonight. Maybe because the words of last night’s fight with my father are lingering. Or because I have hurt him by protecting myself from him. Because despite his best efforts, he doesn’t understand me. Because in trying to understand we always seem to miss one another. Because I’m still trying to assemble for myself what my family has become, or if it has remained the same in the time I have been away at school. I’m not sure. Tonight I want to remember. The way it used to be. Before. I want to remember that time when we were so very young and so very happy, touring castles on the weekends, eating cereal with farm fresh milk, walking to the baker and butcher, and eating bangers and mash in the pub together every Friday night. I want to remember that hilarious trip to London when my mom and grandmother and I almost missed our train and went running through the station with our bags dangling behind us, screaming to make sure we had all made it as we jumped on board just as the train had begun to screech along the track. We laughed until our bellies ached in the bathroom of our hotel that night, The Number 16, as my grandmother soaked her blistered feet in a little bowl of water. I was so little and so excited to be one of the girls, laughing and traveling like grown ups do.
They took my to Harrods the next day where we ate little chocolates and I wandered the extravagant toy stores with my eyes beaming.
Most nights my brother and I put on “plays” in the living room, singing along to our cassette tape of Beauty and the Beast, my brother playing all the parts besides Belle, a tiny bit of a British accent creeping into his 4 year old voice, a side effect of attending preschool with the other little British boys.
Terribly shy and desperate not to have to make all new friends, I threw a fit about attending school in England and after many conversations and tears my mother found me a tutor, Mrs. Nancy, and she and I spent our mornings and afternoons together as she helped me with my math and English and taught me about Chester. We took field trips together on foggy mornings, learning about the great Roman wall surrounding the city and the people it once belonged to. I made little handmade books with illustrations done in crayon accompanied by facts and thrust them upon my mother the moment she arrived home in the afternoons, eager to show her what I had learned.
Occasionally my mother would allow me to attend tea with her in the early evenings and I relished the opportunity to wear a frilly floral dress. I felt like a real life princess with a little balcony off of my room where I could watch the city and wait for Peter Pan to swoop in through the window. When it was time for bed I would line my dolls up in the covers and tuck each one in tight. I had to make room when my grandmother came to stay and slept in the bed with me. I remember thinking the ones left out would be so cold.
Weekends when we visited castles I would spend hours running my hands over the cool stones in the damp dungeons. I wanted to know all about where the torture took place. A little thing in a pink dress, I would sit on my knees on the floor inspecting the knives and wood tables used for laying out victims who had fingers cut off, eye balls extracted. I imagined bodies being stretched, intestines pulled out, heads lopped off and placed upon spikes. I was fascinated. I wanted to know what suffering was all about.
I sleep a lot on the plane, my eye lids heavy from lack of sleep and unwanted tears the night before. I wake up between shifts of food. I blush when at the first meal, the flight attendant arrives beside me and says, “Ms. Parkhill, your special meal,” and hands me my tray before anyone else has gotten their food. It takes a moment for it to dawn on me that M. has arranged for me to have vegetarian meals, and now I feel like she is on the plane with me. I can’t stop smiling. She is the most thoughtful creature I have ever encountered. It is a rare day that I don’t find a little piece of chocolate with an attached note buried somewhere for me to stumble upon amidst the rush of life. She teaches me every moment what it means to truly care for another human being.
She and I are reunited at Heathrow. I text her from just outside my gate. I panic for a second that it’s 4pm since we are supposed to board at 4:45pm. Still groggy from the first leg of my journey, I realize it’s only that my phone hasn’t changed to London time yet and it’s only noon. I meet her once I get through customs. We are two little kids jumping up and down with excitement.
We explore the airport a while and settle into one of the more casual restaurants and share a beer and catch each other up on our time with our families. We are tired but excited to be embarking on our journey. We decide there isn’t enough time to go into London and instead we bookmark it for a future adventure and I am a little sad for a moment but soon let it go.
The plane ride goes by in a flash. We are just happy to be together again and we laugh and nap and soon we are in Frankfurt for another layover. This one is only 2 hours. M. has done her research on the various things to do in the airport and we find our way to the showers and pay the 6 euros to use them. I press the button on the timer to keep the water going about a hundred times. Water has never felt so good. I am nearing 20 hours of traveling and have one more flight to go and this is an unexpected and delightful treat.
“I’m having so much fun!” I squeal, when I realize we can hear each other from our neighboring showers. “Me too!” she shouts back. We laugh at all the other people wandering the airport who aren’t freshly showered, wondering how we were the only ones to have discovered the greatest secret known to man.
We order cappuccinos and croissants and board the tiny plane refreshed and ready for anything. We get to Florence hopped up on caffeine and sugar and though it’s 11:30pm we have already decided to drop our bags at our new residence and head straight to town for pizza.
“I got this, kid,” she says to me at baggage claim, and runs to collect all of our luggage. She orders me to stay with our backpacks but I end up dragging them over to the row of carts and start helping her load everything onto one. We wheel it over to the taxi line and pile everything into the back of a white taxi. I am sure the taxi driver is the same man who drove me last year. I remember him in a pair of overalls, the hair the same—dark and pulled back in a bun. I recognize the face and stature. It can’t be, I think, but decide to take it as a sign that everything is as it should be and we chat with him on the drive, learning a few words in Italian.
We drop our bags in the room in a hurry and I am flooded with the memories attached to the details of every surface of this place—-the laminated sign on the door that says, “don’t let the cat in,” in both English and Italian with a little picture of the black cat that lives on the property. I remember last summer when he had tangled himself up inside the branches of a tree and I’d had to call one of the guards to assist me in freeing him. Seeing the couches in the lounge brings me instant happiness as I think of Omri and Charlie and I sitting each night in our “house clothes” writing with mugs of wine at our sides. It all feels familiar and warm and I can feel my skin begin to hum with joy.
The air feels fresh on our faces and the sky is clear. Fireflies dance out of the plants and light up the night and I am happy and whole.
M. and I scurry back out the front gate around midnight and make the walk into town where we find everything closed. We enter a bar and ask if there is anywhere to get food but no one speaks English well enough to tell us anything besides McDonalds and we leave still a little unsure of how to get to it so we just roam. The girls in the bar seemed cool and we leave wishing we spoke some Italian so we could stay and hang out with them.
We find a dusty little bar playing Queen and serving pizza and we order the two slices they have left and wipe the peanuts off of a the table and share a beer, amused by the tiny fake apple tree on each table and the giant blow up mug of beer next to our table on the patio outside. I run in to use the bathroom as we wait for the food and find a happy clan of kids playing pool in back, laughing and singing, cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they shoot. I feel a little bad interrupting their game to scoot past them on the way.
We finish our pizza and M. gets a choco taco from the fridge and eats half and we ask the bartender to call a cab so we can head home. We see one pull up and begin to walk to it but soon I can see that the man in the backseat hasn’t gotten out yet, is drunk and begins throwing up all over himself and the backseat of the cab. “Not that one,” we say to each other and wait for the one that was called to arrive.
We fall asleep to the sound of the birds chirping as the sun is making it’s way up. We are too excited to sleep. I fell asleep the same way my first night In Italy last year, the birds chirping, M.’s voice the last sound I heard before drifting off. Only this time she is there beside me and not simply a voice on the other end of a phone on the other end of the world somewhere. A simultaneous sigh. We are home.