August 27, 2018
The bus traced the lip of the southern edge of the Thames, looping the Rotherhithe peninsula and winding its way past the Canada Water underground station before it trundles into the sprawl of Bermondsey. Today I waited for the bus in Rotherhithe, heavily pregnant, with the freshly-scrubbed commuters that pooled at each stop along the bus route. This part of London is dotted with cramped brick houses covered in trailing ivy and surrounded by willow branches. This part of London feels like you haven’t reached London yet.
I moved here eight weeks ago after immigrating from the US so I could be reunited with my British husband. I would have moved sooner, but my visa was delayed six months. Our child grew inside me while I waited. He’d been just a collection of cells when we began our application. When my visa was finally issued he was almost too far along—almost too ready to be born—for me to board a transatlantic flight.
The bus passed the juncture with Kinburn Street, and I saw the woman who stands there every morning with her back against the brick wall, having a cigarette. She wore a hip-length button-down tunic like a maid’s uniform, and she strutted back and forth as she smoked. Maybe pacing helped her think.
A few stops past Kinburn Street, a man boarded with his small daughter clinging to him. She’s dressed for the day in sweet, clean children’s clothes: bright blue overalls, a crisp polo-neck top. But he hadn’t remembered to comb her hair. It was a small riot of dandelion fluff.
At the next stop, a woman boarded who’d bleached the tips of her black hair white. She wore massive headphones like the protective ear coverings worn on a factory floor. In the quiet, the bus announced itself over the loudspeaker with a robotic freshness: “3!8!1! Service to! Waterloo.”
We reached my stop. “This station is: London Bridge!” Almost everyone on the bus tried to get off at once, moving toward the door with a determined energy that stopped just short of any physical contact. I fumbled to put my earbuds in my ears amid the crowd. I like cliché music for the walk across the bridge—the drama of the Thames crossing needs something cinematic. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” blared in my ears, and I got a WhatsApp message from my husband, a standard question from him: “You behaving yourself?”
“Yes,” I responded, as I waited for the light to change.
I got to the office at about 8:30 and ordered a coffee – an Americano – at the Benugo’s in the lobby. If I get in earlier I stop at the Pret a Manger across the street for a filter coffee, but Benugo’s doesn’t do filter coffee and so I had to say “Americano” to the ponytailed barista in my American accent. It felt like outing myself.
I walked into my open-plan office, which was nearly empty at this hour – all the twenty-somethings I work with are on the “show up late/leave late” schedule. I don’t know how they do it. I can only think in the morning, especially now, in the last trimester of pregnancy.
In my first meeting of the day, we stared at a design file.
“We need a word that means this,” my coworker said, pointing at a paragraph on the screen. “But just a word.”
I suggested some options, variations of lines of copy. I typed them up in a Google doc as we talked.
The coworker looked at my short strands of words, frowning. “None of these mean exactly that.”
I tried again, but my messages just grew longer.
“We only have space for one word,” he said. “Just one.”
“Let me take some time,” I said, and I spent the morning thinking about it.
I stared at my screen and tried again and again, looking for the short-enough solution to compress the complexity.
At lunch my coworkers asked me to join them. We sat around a picnic table with our sandwiches, up on our office’s immaculate roof deck. Bees buzzed around us, one landing on my exposed arm briefly before it disappeared into the hot blue sky. The roof deck lawn was green and plush, with the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral peeking over the horizon, its scale at this distance making it look like an ornate gazebo, the band shell of our private garden.
The conversation was scattered and in-joke-y. Someone mentioned the Gloucester Cheese Rolling. “You all know what that is, right?” he asked, and everyone quickly nodded, saying of course they’d heard of it.
“No,” I said, and they hastened to show it to me on YouTube. I squinted at a phone in the sun’s glare, watching men scramble down a grassy cliff after rolling wheels of cheese.
Later on, I rode the 381 home and sat in the priority seats just behind the box of free tabloids. Today’s headline: “Police Praise ‘Safe, Orderly’ Carnival.” Weeks ago I would have been baffled by why this innocuous statement was plastered over the front page. But now I knew this was about the Notting Hill Carnival, which used to be a notorious hotbed of knife crime. This year, though, it was apparently, “safe, orderly.”
My husband came home later than I did. We sat at the dinner table as the sky blackened outside our balcony door. We ate healthy food he cooked—meat and vegetables. It was good but oily, because he believes it’s good to eat as much olive oil as possible. He must have told me why at some point.
After dinner he and I curled up on the sofa to watch “Have I Got News for You” on his phone. It’s a news quiz show where snarky former journalists and BBC presenters competitively banter. The intro sequence included an image of hapless Britons waiting in an endless queue for a clinic labeled “NHS.” The National Health Service is the at the top of the list of things British people like about themselves—a poll showed more people said the NHS makes them proud to be British than the Royal Family or “our culture and the arts.”
Some of these NHS-loving people voted for Brexit because the Leave campaign stoked their anti-immigrant sentiment, telling them leaving the EU would mean a better-funded NHS with fewer immigrants taking up all the appointments. I’ve done almost nothing but go to the doctor’s since I’ve been here, getting tons of free appointments, consultations, scans. I’m the bad guy that Nigel Farage warned you about, I thought, as we watched the talking heads crack jokes.
At eleven we got in bed. We’ve propped up my side of the mattress with a stack of old textbooks, because having my head and upper body elevated is supposed to help my pregnancy-related acid reflux. More people have double mattresses in England than queen-sized mattresses—they even call a US queen a “king.” I don’t think they have US king-sized beds here. My husband says we’re like two mice in a matchbox.
We drifted off to sleep, him going before me.
I thought about work, about the single word my coworker asked me to come up with. What could it be? I thought about California. I thought about how I used to sit on the bench at the crest of Dolores Park and look at the city spread out like a bowl below me. I thought about the snow-white fog that would curl around the edges of the sky as it shifted from blue to lavender.
I felt the baby kicking, a few quick strokes.
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