I got to London in September, 1996 for study abroad. I had just turned 20. I’d gone to college in my hometown and had never been away for more than a few weeks.
I remember drinking a beer in a rundown tourist bar near Tottenham Court Road, buzzed off half a pint, face flushed from a lack of alcohol dehydrogenase, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Across the road was a Burger King where I’d sit eating chicken sandwiches while Jamiroquai played on the radio. Things were just different enough to be disorienting — fortnights, lifts, driving on the left, snooker. I felt like I was living inside a dream the moment I arrived.
I remember being both scared and excited the first day of orientation. Thirty classmates I’d never met but would spend every day that semester with, even living in the same building. Daunting for an introvert with social anxiety. That was my entire world for the next three months. It seemed like a long time.
I had just begun my first serious relationship that summer after nearly two years of infatuation. She was my opposite, a flirtatious extrovert. She was studying abroad in Florence that semester. I was lovesick to the point of nausea. We wrote letters to each other on airmail envelopes with the red and blue borders. I’d call her at night from a dirty BT phone booth full of cards that advertised call girls. She sounded happy. I wondered if she missed me.
I remember seeing Trainspotting on a giant screen at the Odeon in Leicester Square. The theater was so big, the aisles so steep, and the speakers so loud that it seemed like I was hallucinating. My head was swimming. I didn’t know how to feel about anything (I still don’t). As “Born Slippy” pounded over the credits, I exited the theater into the warm London night, lost in thought.
Everyone else took trips to the continent on the weekend. Amsterdam, Oktoberfest, endless stories of hilarious drunken debauchery. Not me. I would wake up late, get dressed, and buy a pack of cigarettes from the newsagent downstairs. Then I would spend the day walking aimlessly around the city, smoking the entire pack. In some parts — the City of London or south of the Thames — I saw no one. London felt like mine alone, the grey skies perfect for brooding.
I remember my girlfriend coming to visit. She wore a new perfume — Pleasures by Estee Lauder. I still think of her when I smell it. We missed American food and went to Camden Town for nachos. We hooked up on the living room floor in the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep. She flirted with my flatmates, giving them back massages. I tried to pretend I was okay with it. I wondered if I loved her more than she loved me. I can’t remember what she wrote in her last letter to me that semester, only that I was wounded and jealous. I burned it on the roof of my flat, orange embers levitating into the air.
I remember the fall days turning so short that it was dark by four. I would come home from class, sit on my bed by the radiator, and fall asleep studying as the sun went down. I’d wake up a few hours later with the lights on, wondering what time it was. Some days I would see only thirty minutes of daylight. I grew more and more homesick. There were only a few weeks left.
I flew home in December. I spent the holidays catching up with family and friends, reveling in the familiarity of everything. Spring semester started too soon. My adult life began to accelerate and take over. Internships, advisors, career counseling. My future. No more time to walk aimlessly, smoke cigarettes, and contemplate.
I remember looking out the window on one of my last days in London at the snow falling softly on rooftops. A beautiful, haunted, grey city. A feeling of intense solitude that I haven’t had since. I left part of myself in London without meaning to. It was the last time I was a boy.