My new friend, Tech Guy, is a short, dark-haired Indian man who lives in the Netherlands. I follow him through the Christmas-light-colored streets of London, to Chinatown, where multi-hued streamers flow from building to building. But wait—are we in Chinatown? There’s “Gerard’s Corner,” and “Play 2 Win.” There’s also a bicycle with purple flickering LED streamers, and stickers of butterflies, soccer balls, and flags. But we enter a pub—O’Neil’s—and he introduces me to his new friends, who are from America, like me. There’s Christine, and her niece, who is only 18, and Christine’s boyfriend.
I met Tech Guy—whom works with computers—earlier in the day, at a free walking tour through the city, when our guide told us to find someone we didn’t know and introduce ourselves. We were both solo travelers, and now that I knew his name, I was constantly whispering my asides to him: “Buckingham Palace isn’t very impressive,” I said, and “I don’t really care about the changing of the guard.” (One might wonder why I was traveling at all if I didn’t care about these things, but we’ll get there.)
Tech Guy dealt with my comments in stride, not berating me or telling me to be quiet, so I gave him props for that. By the end of the tour, I was exhausted. “I have a prior obligation,” Tech Guy told me.
“Do you want to hang out later?” I asked. He said yes and we exchanged What’sApp contacts (this is the free way to call and text internationally with WiFi or data) and he took off.
When Tech Guy invited me out that night, I said yes. I was tired, and sick of people, but I’d made no friends during my two days in London, not even at the hostel, so I felt obliged to any social invitation.
Now, in the Irish pub, I balk at the prices. “I thought Europe was supposed to be cheaper than America,” I mumble to myself and whomever is listening. I order pizza at the bar, only to discover that they had stopped serving it at 8 pm. I get a burger and fries instead. Once I’ve finished, I return to the counter, where I ask for a to-go box.
The man behind the counter has to speak more than once so I can get past the loudness of the bar and the thickness of his London accent. “Adoeggiebag?” I bite my lip. What the hell is he saying?
“No, a-box-that-I-can-put-my-food-in,” I say slowly and as clearly as possible.
“Yeah, a doggie bag,” he says slowly, and I finally get it. I nod and smile. “We don’t do that here.”
“What?” I say.
“Yeah, London bars don’t do that.” I stare at the fries I have left—enough for tomorrow’s lunch—and sigh. It would be too messy to try wrapping in napkins and stuffing into my bag. So I let it go. But I am pissed.
Upstairs, a live band plays, and the whole floor is a balcony with oak bannisters looking down onto the first floor. The band is eclectic: they play everything from classic rock to the ‘90s and alternative 2000s. My boyfriend would love this band; I text him the variety of songs they play, from rap and hiphop to oldies rock, to a little bit of grunge.
My group scores a table, and we sit to talk, but I can’t hear anyone over the music, and I want to dance. I walk into the empty wooden floor area, perfect for fluid movement. But as I dance, I see this couple that has me both shocked and struck with giggling.
The band is playing their version of “No Diggity.” A woman with braided hair is making out all hot and sultry with some guy. She’s on his lap, and both of his arms encircle her, and she’s got one hand in his hair. They are mouth-to-mouth and they are both totally into this makeout session. But then I notice that the girl is holding her phone up over her guy’s shoulder and scrolling through her texts while kissing him. Clearly only one of them is fully immersed in their intimacy. Can it even be real intimacy if one partner is only partially engaged?
I don’t feel like I belong here. Hell, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. This lady in the bathroom squirts soap into my palm and hands me a paper towel. There’s a tip jar on the counter, but I’m out of cash. The second time I use the bathroom, she won’t even look at me. I get my own soap and my own paper towel. I wonder if she is employed, or if she just comes in here and makes this her job. I guess that would be kind of brilliant, but it makes me feel guilty and uncomfortable.
The drinks are weak. I’ve had a single rum and coke, a double, and Tech Guy and I just did Jagger bombs, and I still feel sober. The group goes up to the roof to smoke. I wait it out in the open area once again, where I’ve been trying to get my dance on. I like some of the songs–the ones meant for movement, usually with bass.
The band plays “Living on a Prayer,” and “Highway to Hell.” As the playlist drowns in sub-par songs, I lose stamina. A tall guy who’s balding comes close to me and I pick up my drink from where I’d put it down. (This is a somewhat subconscious move to keep guys from dropping anything into my drink.)
“Where ya’ from?” He asks in a British accent.
“Oh, an American.” He reaches out to touch my hips and I backpedal. I dance over to the 18-year-old. “Gawd, they just keep touching me.” I complain.
“Me too,” she says.
“Ugh, seriously? Just tell them to fuck off. Unless you like it, I guess.”
“I know.” She reminds me of my teenage sister, who also knows many things.
“Hey, I’m going to go,” I tell Tech Guy.
“Let me walk you out.” He follows me downstairs and outside, where a line has formed to get in.
“Hey, thanks for inviting me out,” I say. “It was nice meeting you.” He leans forward, lips puckered, and I take a step back. “Hey! I have a boyfriend,” I say, palms splayed between us. He shrinks back.
“Oh, sorry.” I feel slightly guilty. Was it because I let him buy me a drink? Did he feel some kind of magic I was missing out on? Or had I failed to mention my boyfriend? No, I’d definitely mentioned the boyfriend.
I find my way back to the 24/7 Underground. I go to my hostel alone long before midnight. I don’t want London to feel just like Boston or Denver. I want it to feel like something different. I like Tech Guy. He seems nice, if a little uncertain what to do with a girl. But the club brings out the worst in guys (and girls); they can blame drinks for that accidental attempt at a kiss. It can ruin an entire night. It’s like every time I choose to observe, I accidentally become a participant. Sometimes I wonder if I should wear a shirt that says, “Leave me alone,” but it would almost certainly get me more attention. One moment of assumed–and mistaken–connection leads to a kind of isolation.
One of the songs they played, “Under the Bridge,” spoke to my feelings exactly: “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner, sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels…I don’t ever want to feel like I did that day, take me to the place I love, take me all the way.”
I think of this song as I consider the real reason for taking this trip: I’m searching for the pieces that once made me whole; a return to who I really am rather than who other people think I am. I’m also trying to decide whether or not to dump my long-term boyfriend. And if I do, who or what will take his place?