I am playing the ultimate kind of hooky. I have left the country. While my parallel life continues this week in Durham, North Carolina, I am here in England re-constituting the tiny red booklet that documents my identity. Somewhere on this wide earth there is a similar red booklet containing my picture -- a ghost of my 16-year-old self; it refuses to be unearthed. As a result, I took a long trip to London on Friday (a trip that began in Durham on Thursday) for my third visit to the U.S. Embassy this year. "Ticket number 1431, please go to window 17".
On the train on the way back to Andover (my second visit to Andover that day, after car, plane, car, car, train, tube, tube), my eyelids were heavy from 32 hours of sight, the cold dark mists outside the window blurred dream visions. Inside the crammed train, the rush-hour crowd tapped cell-phone keys. A grey-and-wild-haired man in a tweed coat sitting diagonally opposite stared at me intently as I attempted to force my tired mind to glean some sense from George Eliot's pages. I could feel his eyes piercing my concentration. And as he had watched me, I watched others. The woman opposite me had picked out of her wardrobe that morning a a low-cut, loose-fitting shirt with horizontal black and white stripes that drew attention to her red, wrinkled, crow's-feet cleavage. She rested large forearms on her over-stuffed blue backpack, propping up the vivid splashes of a magazine with a name like "Splash!" or "Star!" or "Sass!" She was reading the second page of a story about a woman whose mother had stolen her husband. I know because I read portions of the first half as she draped herself across the table that separated us. As the train drew closer to Andover, she called her husband to announce her arrival and smoothed her thin, greased, short black hair behind her ears in the landscape's dark reflected surface.
In Dickens's day, scientists believed they could identify and categorize people's characters by their physiognomy. As I underlined references to physiognomy in Daniel Deronda, I mentally confessed to my own guilty pleasure at nationally identifying people by their physical features. This train was British. Oh, so British. There's something under the eyes, something about the slope of the nose down to the shape of the mouth and chin, something so unmistakably
British. When I look in the mirror, I try to find it in my own face, but its familiarity defies my attempts. In airports, I play spot-the-Brit and spot-the-American, a highly unproductive but entertaining pastime at a departure gate. Why is it that I seem to harbor something of a distaste for what I categorize as a strictly British physiognomy?
Sliding into Overton station, the train nudged shoulders with a passing office building, a small, stark space illuminated by strips of dual-bulb fluorescent lighting that glared at off-yellow, paint-chipped walls. The walls were lined with bookcases, and upon those bookcases lay lever-arch binders, which shuffled against each other for space in bright primary colours. Someone had let a potted plant wilt on the windowsill. It was a scene that glided past me in a swift second, but one that filled me with a dull, lurking sense of horror, a catch of the breath, the need to swallow hard, the need to quell an overwhelming dread of the life -- or lack of life, lack of the very qualities of being alive
-- that were contained -- or not contained -- in that dull yellow space, which I somehow knew had one of those itchy, square-foot-block carpets I remember sitting on in the music room at Rookwood when I was young (It was dark blue. My friend Mari threw up on it once. I thought of that every time I sat on it afterwards). Perhaps the enjoyment of life brings with it -- or partly springs from -- an awareness of the things in life that would not be enjoyable if the circumstances were not as they are. I felt trapped in that train in that moment, trapped in the fleeting view of that stark space, trapped in the thought of that entrapment, and so free in the ability to step out, to let my mind wander back across the ocean to my desk covered with books and papers, books and papers that can entrap, but if they do they only entrap me within a world into which I have voluntarily stepped. I have been attempting to write an essay this week -- the first for my PhD program. The process is excruciating, as always, but with that pain comes the pleasure of having picked the kind of process that has the potential to stimulate, having picked the right cage. Perhaps that's not an overwhelmingly positive thought as it appears here in text beneath my fingers. But it is not that office building beside the train tracks. And that makes all the difference.
And what's wrong with an attractive cage, albeit a cage, when you can step out and feel the wind blow through your hair driving NC12 with the volume high or ride to the top of a Ferris wheel with flags fluttering beneath your feet? Life has its negatives. It has plenty of things you wish you could change, plenty of situations that are just not right. But... life is good.