105. A Road Not Taken

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Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

This was probably the twentieth taxi we’d been in on this trip, so we’d experienced a fairly mixed range of drivers, but this was by far the most enjoyable. It’s not often that the driver wants me to sit upfront, and I wouldn’t do it if I was on my own, but I guess it’s an easier audience. Saves my husband having to pretend to laugh at some potentially cheesy gags. He kept his Stetson on and drove quickly and smoothly. Automatic movements over and over down those same streets, leaning back in his seat, one arm straight, the other hand chucking printed laminated paper in my lap for me to read. His well-rehearsed speech about his comedy career, who he’d met and how surprised he was that we hadn’t seen him on TV. “Look at the pictures!”

When we got to the diner, which was one of the few places left in Vegas still with a parking lot in front of the building, he told me to wait while he got out and opened my door. Taking my hand, he swung me round and we danced for a few seconds. Then he kissed my hand and took a bow. I was giggling. My husband appeared bemused but never said anything. A few seconds later the driver was juggling. Actual juggling. This guy sure loves living his life. Joy comes easily to me, which, coupled with my baby-face, is often mistaken for sycophantic anxiety, but I’m no fool. He earned every penny of that tip.

When you’re spending over a hundred dollars on slot machines every day, and more than two hundred a day on food, a few twenty-dollar taxi rides won’t break the bank. it might sound extravagant, but doesn’t even touch what some people get through here in a week. People can spend their money on whatever they like. This took me a year to save up for, so I’m going to enjoy this week. A year of packed lunches and taking the last bus home to save the taxi fare. This week is not for skimping. We’re on holiday after all.

Even though the resort we want is less than half a mile away, we would still ask a doorman to hail us a cab. Who wants to spend an hour trying to cross the road, avoiding the attention-grabbing, persistent slap slap of the soft porn trading cards being handed out in the street? Sometimes they try to hand a card to him, when I’m right there. Holding out a prostitute’s card to my husband. In front of me. There’s no point saying anything. They’re just doing their job. The pavement is littered. The cards must work, or why would they keep doing it?

I saw a young woman walking quickly through the sauntering crowd. Long raincoat. Full make-up. Glitter and huge eyelashes. Hair tight in a headscarf. Possibly late for work. No time for any nonsense. Some young men, you know, those who sip all day from the big plastic, oddly shaped promotional glasses, wouldn’t let her pass. One said “How much do you charge?” to back slapping whoops from his friends. Quick as a flash, she replied, “Ask your mom. She’s my best customer,” then managed to hurry away whilst the youths laughed and high-fived their buddy’s backfired everyday sexism. If it’s funny, who cares which person is the butt of the joke?

Our first driver at the airport, told me that this was her last trip of the day. She chatted about her kids and how she had to go home and pick them up from daycare then study for her exams. That she’d never even stepped foot in most of these hotels, but one day she would take a vacation here. I’ve never hugged a taxi driver before or since.

Whenever they ask me what I do for a job, I find it’s easier to say I work in the DA’s office, but that’s just to get a conversation started. They usually like talking about themselves more. Like waitresses, this isn’t how they want to be remembered. It’s a side hustle, a way to make money. It fits in around their real lives.

The ex-marine with a red MAGA sticker on his dashboard, who wants to build the wall. The man who never showers. The one with the facial tic. Lots of students or men sending money back home. The woman with a faint London accent, who supported Chelsea, and talked only of “soccer” for the whole trip. The woman who told us that people still try to pay their fare in poker chips. She declines, saying her religion prevents her from gambling. Makes more sense that implying that those chips might be fake. The man who told us “you gotta take a tour” whenever you visit a new city. We still say that to each other.

The cabs here are way better than the yellow taxis in New York. Roomier, with a telly that shows adverts all day long. I think they all buy their air freshener from the same place. As if I’m going to know whether taking ‘Frank Sinatra’ is going to be quicker than Boulevard or we’re being taken for a long-haul ride. It’s a scam for a couple of bucks, not my soul. We certainly saw a different side of life just one street away from all the action. Those hot, tired, chefs and kitchen porters resting in the shade, with Gatorade and cigarettes. Admittedly I was a little scared when one driver took a service road as a shortcut. Then I saw a black limo, and realised that VIPs do these dimly lit side-roads all the time.

We’d never have gone to this diner if we hadn’t seen it in that film. Pink, neon, squishy purple booths, flamingo light shades, palm trees. Old school glamour. The familiar dimmed lighting of 24 hour restaurant/lounge bars. Giant cocktails to last all day, waitresses with 100 denier, flesh-coloured, shiny tights, pretty ankle socks and trainers. Sticky-out short french maid dress. Pencil poked into hair-sprayed rigid dos. I doubt they could be any quicker if they wore roller skates. Everyone had take-out boxes as the portion sizes were way off –  one plate could feed three. Out waitress was sweet as pie until someone didn’t tip enough, then I heard her say, “Was there something wrong with the food, honey?”, at which point my husband told me to stop being so nosy. When I looked again, the man was searching in his wallet for the right note to give her.

If this was my first day here, I would have left most of my three pancake stack , six rashers of streaky applewood bacon and three fried eggs. The jug of maple syrup was bigger than the bottle we had back home. As we’d been here for nearly a week stuffing our faces, I could manage most of this meal. The holes in my belt are an inch apart and the buckle was already straining at a new hole. There was plenty of time to sort all that out when we get home. We thought we’d walk everywhere to build up an appetite or burn off those calories. Then my husband got a blister. Plus, we are on holiday after all.

Time could very easily have no meaning here. I didn’t dare to try or I’d be worried about not knowing which day it was and missing my flight. Arriving mid afternoon when it’s already past my bedtime. I’m too cold and wired to eat. It’s not late enough yet to sleep. Strange how winning seventy dollars in the first hour made me believe that there might be a chance of leaving here with more money than I brought with me. I’d never even consider putting a tenner in a slot machine back home. Penny arcades all the way. But we are on holiday after all.

 

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104. Worn Out

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Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

This is the first time I have seen myself nuddy in a full-length mirror for twelve weeks. I’m physically stronger, more toned, with my arms and legs dipped in honey. It might be the fatigue and jet lag talking but I don’t know who I am anymore, or where I belong.

“Get a grip, woman. You’ve had five coffees, a bottle of wine and no sleep. This is a totally normal comedown for a cot case. You know this. You got this” I tell myself.

My friend said that every hour of flying adds a year to a face and I believe all of those tired 22 extra years. I now have the body and life I always thought I wanted.

How can my top drawer have better knickers in it than the ones I brought back with me, when I took the best ones away with me? He knew exactly what I would want to wear today, so had folded it neatly on the bed. I put on his trackie-daks, with the frayed drawstrings,  and my old University t-shirt.

“You smell nice.” he says, drawing me close for a damp embrace.

“I used your shower gel. I missed it.” I say.

A text to his mum to let her know I got back ok will have to do for now.

He makes me tea, beans on toast, and there’s a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a box of jaffa cakes next to the breadbin. Celery and hummus in the fridge.

“Ooh, that’s a nice cup of tea. Thank you.” I do a Mr Wolf mug raise. Our eyes meet but I quickly look away. I really can’t do this now. I don’t want to. He knows.

He takes my picture, wet hair, mug poised.”

“Post it for me please? Then they’ll know I’m back. I can’t face anyone today. I’m too tired.” I say. At least I won’t be a travel bore. Everything is all there as it happened, on my blog and twitter. I’ll  never have to talk about it again if I don’t want to.

I have the house to myself for the rest of the day as he’s going into work. We’re having a chinese later.

Everything is so different but exactly the same; just muted with the colour turned down. I understand the language, but the money has changed. I don’t who these people are on TV and how can English newspapers can get away with what they print?

Utterly exhausted but totally wired, I try to lie down on the bed but it feels wrong. I can’t just put on my swimmers anymore, walk out there and take a dip. My aching bones sore from sitting still in limbo for too long. The sun on my legs would soften the ache, for sure. There’s never going to be a good time to unpack, so I may as well just get it over and done with. So much baggage.

Those Danish shoes I can’t get here are really popular in Australia. I even got mine resoled whilst I was there. Rebooted. The delicate rhythm of breaking in thick leather shoes. Gentle baby steps or they will bite back hard. With dubbin and time, they perfectly mould to my feet until they feel bespoke. I’d like to see the forensic results of how far I’ve gone in these.

My favourite cashmere, softer with every wash. Worn sparingly and stupidly saved for best. Then nibbles of tiny holes from invisible moths. Darned and patched. I did what I was supposed to do, and I refuse to let it go. What else could I have done to have looked after it better?

Beautifully faded, thinning denim. I can almost see my hand through some parts of these jeans. I could easily get exactly the same pair again, wear them everywhere for a couple of years and never notice the imperceptible changes.

Fabric rubbed threadbare from friction under the arms of my silk shirt. I’ve grown so much that it’s no longer a good fit.

This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time. I’d ‘banked’ two weeks of my holiday every year for five years with my employer. They’d agreed I could have three months off paid, but not now, next year. They’d get a temp. I’d get my salary and keep my job. Mortgage and bills covered. I’d researched it all. I even knew the exact dates to fly, and when was the best time to get the cheapest ticket. Then Mum took crook just as he had his big work thing. This wasn’t even my Plan B but the big talk couldn’t have gone better, even with timing beyond our control. Money, perspective, trust, love.  All boxes ticked. Agreed. We called it ‘Operation Apple Pie’ and we did the best we could. I called it ‘Operation Terminal’ in my head.

We facetimed every day at first but the 11 hour time difference made it difficult, so we settled into a daily email routine and a 10 am early morning on Saturday for you, 9pm Saturday night for me and again on Sunday, with the occasional early morning alarm call from me. I’m so paranoid right now, that if I knew facetime would let me listen into his life without him knowing, I would have been tempted into crossing that line.

No matter what I did, it felt like I was running away from something. From my family, my work or us. I know your job was, is, stressful. I know she’s only a friend, a really good friend, and that nothing would ever happen. If it did, there was no way I could deal with it, not now. I didn’t want to be a part of it and I don’t ever want to know. I’m an orphan now and I can’t be on my own. But I know I’m not going to be alone. I need to trust myself.

I used to think we needed a thunderstorm, a grenade, a tragedy, clean break, and then we’d be sure. There was potential to be kintsugi or broken crocks for drainage in a plant pot. We would agree that if we were meant to be together, we would find a way to make it work. It’s the little things, the everyday moments that make a life together. And now I’m back. Clean slate. There’s so much to do and all the time in the world to do it.

I promised myself over and over that I would never, ever ask him, even though I want to, because I can’t be sure I would believe the truth. It shouldn’t even matter whether he’s making an effort because he loves me or because he feels guilty. I will have to find a way of learning to accept that I won’t get any answers to questions that don’t need to be asked.

It’s too soon, but then it will be too late, yet neither of us dare make a move. We swore we would not argue or drop any bombshells unless we were in the same room. Now we are. I’m holding my breath. This is landmine territory, with the awkward, deliberately faltering tension. Someone has to be brave. Take charge. One foot wrong and everything will always be my fault. I have two homes, with people who love me in both, so why am I so terrified of being abandoned? I keep telling myself that I officially have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and if he was going to ditch me, why wait until I got back?

“Get a grip woman. This is not who you are. It’s all in your head. No worries, remember. Breathe, Just breathe. You’ll feel better once you’ve had some zees.”

103. This Machine Prints Tickets to Anywhere

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Every family has secrets that slip through the cracks of time. Even those who get on with each other. I know I’m one of the lucky ones who genuinely is friends with their own parents and siblings.

It’s a thing we’ve always done. We make a time capsule or write a letter and put it under the floorboards for our future selves to find. Nothing fancy. Only the ordinary, everyday stuff that we would have thrown away anyway. Like a newspaper, ripped out magazine pages, a shopping list, a photograph of a room in the house at the time, or last year’s diary, all squashed inside a Christmas chocolates tin, so rats can’t get to it. I know that if I found any of those things from people who’d lived in my house years before I did, I’d be thrilled.

My parents are having underfloor heating put in and a new Oak floor. So I’m going out with them to look for a rug and then for lunch. I’m the adjudicator in case they bicker over colours or style. I’ve got a ‘modern view’ on home furnishings apparently. It also gives me a chance to take them to that new place that does the amazing salads. I just love their warm shredded duck, blood orange and chicory salad or that one with the crumbled feta, toasted pumpkin seeds and cavolo nero crisps.

After our mains, whilst I’m sipping the rest of my pinot noir and wondering whether it would be cheeky to ask if we could have only two desserts but three spoons, when mum suddenly does that index finger in the air thing, because she’s remembered something important. She rummages around into her bag and pulls out a clear, plastic freezer bag full of letters. She holds out the package to me and says,

“The workmen found these under the floor. I think they’re yours, love. They weren’t in the tin though. Don’t worry, we haven’t read them.”

I’m intrigued and take the package. It has the fragility of old sellotape. Inside are at least half a dozen opened fat letters, tied with string. The top one has a 22p franked stamp on it and is addressed to the boyfriend I had in sixth form, in neat, purple fountain pen ink. It’s not often these days that I see my own handwriting.

“Oh wow. Thanks mum. God, these are a blast from the past. I haven’t read that name for years. When did you last have your floor done?”

“1990, I think, love.” She says. “You were doing your A levels.”

“That’s when me and Richard broke up. Wow. So they’ve been under the floor all that time?” I say. “I’m not going to read them just yet though. There must have been a reason why I put them there, but I can’t even remember doing it. Anyway, funny you should give me these now because I’ve got this for you. Is it too late to put this in the tin?”

I hand her a sealed letter with my name and January 2019, written on it.

“No, the floor is only half-down. I’ll be glad when it’s all finished.” She says.

“Did you find anything else? What about your letters?” I ask.

“There was a receipt for Asda in your mum’s letter. Guess how much it was for a week’s shopping for five people, back in 1990?” Says Dad.

“Um, thirty-five quid?” I say.

“Not far off, love. Forty-six, and we must have been having a party or something because there was loads of beer on the receipt.” He says. “Anyway, you’ll never guess what else we found?”

Before I could answer, he says “Human teeth!”

I instantly clutch my stomach with one hand and smack my mouth with the other. My eyes are fixed on my Dad, who has a huge grin on his face. I’m confused. I don’t know how to respond to this. I look at Mum but she’s smiling too.

“Oh it’s nothing like that,” he chuckles. “Your brother told us what happened yesterday. He said that one day when Frankie was round, he went into your mum’s dressing table and found the box of the baby teeth from when you were all kids. He fell over and some of the teeth got lost through the gaps in the floorboards. Frankie said he didn’t know what to do so pushed the rest of the teeth though the gaps, then threw away the little box. He told his mum and dad because he was worried and children aren’t allowed to have secrets in their house, but your brother never mentioned it to us until yesterday. Apparently, Frankie was frightened that he was going to get told off and he was only about seven at the time, so couldn’t have known that adults might think there could be a more sinister explanation. Poor kid.”

“What a way to find out that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.” I say.

“I think he was more scared because he’d been going through his grandma’s private things. The logic of kids eh?”

“What did the workmen say?” I ask.

“They weren’t fazed at all. They said they see all sorts under people’s floors. Teeth are a common thing, but, passports, money, teenager’s drug stashes, porn, the lot. They even found a well once on a remote property. They said the owners were lucky. If they’d have fallen in, they might not have ever been found in time.”

Our waitress appears and says, “Can I tempt you with any desserts or coffee?”

We order a slice of treacle tart with vanilla ice cream, an Eton mess and three spoons. A peppermint tea for me, earl grey for mum and a cappuccino for Dad.

My brother rings me later to admit that he was the one who put the letters under the floor, because I’d been so upset when I’d split up with my boyfriend. He said that Richard came round once to return my stuff (a cardigan, records, books, the letters) but I was out. When he saw the plastic bag of letters, he got really angry because he thought it was mean or spiteful to give back love letters, so he literally hid them from me because he didn’t want me to feel worse. Bless him. I want to hug him. He’s carried this guilt all those years. My little brother worshipped Richard, maybe more so than I did. He had an instant cool, big brother who wanted to be around him, played computer games, took him to the cinema and the football and didn’t treat him like a child. How do you explain to a kid why someone they looked up to has gone and won’t ever be back, when you don’t understand it yourself?

What would I have felt at the time if I’d found out? I know it wouldn’t have been ok, but those memories waiting patiently under the floor have definitely mellowed over the years. I can imagine the cover-up being a massive dealbreaker at the time, but now is not then. My brother knows that I don’t blame him, and that he was only trying to protect me. We never noticed that he was hurting too. He’s punished himself so much since then. Our lives could have turned out quite differently if I’d gone to University hating my own sibling. He’s still got to tell mum and dad what he did, but that’s a face-to-face conversation. I try to convince him that it’s not a big deal and there’s nothing to forgive, but I’m not sure he believes me.

Like father, like son. Things don’t stay buried forever.

A few days later, I decide to read the letters I sent to my then-boyfriend all those years ago. I put on ‘Reading, Writing and Arithmetic’ by The Sundays to transport me back to my Doc Marten, hennaed hair days, and wallow in chronological snobbery. When I was 18 and in love with the Brontës and Christina Rossetti. I want to luxuriate in that time before everything changed at University. I realise I’ve never even Googled Richard, probably because he enjoys the anonymity of a common name, so it would take a while, but I’d also like to remember my first-love how he was then.

I savour the first letter. It’s more cringeworthy and foolish than painful. Proper sixth form poetry where I am trying to emulate a style I admire, but don’t have a fraction of the talent. I can’t even remember myself feeling like this at all. It’s as if someone else wrote it. I might save them for my daughter to read, so she can get to know me a bit when I was her age.

Then I notice there’s one letter in the pile that’s unopened. It’s addressed to me, in Richard’s handwriting.