It’s been a while. A long while. In the five or so months that have passed since I last shared any of my work (in this space), I’ve been busy. I’ve done a great deal of thinking, observing, and reading. Empathy, forgiveness, love, frustration, depression, anger, hopelessness, patience, and a whole lot more have weighed heavily on my mind. I’ve loved on some old relationships, begun the work of healing some others, questioned the continued significance of a few, and let a couple go. I’ve managed crises, large and small, and thought deeply about the future, immediate and distant. Now, I’m finding my way (back) to writing, slowly but surely committing paper to pen and sharing a few pieces (while I hide some others).
Here is something that I wrote months ago but only recently decided to share. It’s a short story about fleeting encounters. Until soon…
I had just arrived at Victoria Station from Gatwick Airport. Having returned to the United Kingdom just two hours before, I was exhausted and in need of a drink. My flight to London had been delayed by two hours, airport security in Dublin confiscated my expensive facial cleanser, the credit card charges from my trip to Ireland made me cringe, and my travel buddies were some of the most unremarkable individuals I’d ever vacationed with. By the time my train pulled into Victoria Station, I had a list of nearby bars with reasonably priced happy hours loaded onto on my phone.
Grabbing the handle of my carry-on luggage piece, I swiftly moved off the train and joined the crowd of Londoners shuffling off the platform. I was so focused on pushing through the crowd that I’d failed to realize that my phone had slipped out of my pocket. I was so focused on pushing through the crowd that I’d barely noticed you. You called out to me, and I purposefully ignored you. To be honest, I assumed you were some random dude trynna holla, and I didn’t want to be disturbed.
Jogging up to me, you raised your hands and held out my phone. “I wasn’t trying to bother you, but you dropped this.”
Touching my pockets and realizing they were indeed empty, I smiled sheepishly, ” Oh, thank you, I didn’t know it had fallen out my jacket.”
It was then that I looked at you, actually looked at you. Long, jet black locs sat in a casual bun right at the nape of your neck. They were so fresh I wondered if you’d just gotten them retwisted earlier in the week. Your dark brown eyes were outlined with thick lashes that put my own to shame, and a flat mole sat on the right side of your nose. Your dark brown skin lacked any blemishes, which, I must admit, immediately made me conscious of my own. The slow smile your thick lips spread into when you caught me peeping, however, set me at ease.
“Are you from Canada or the U.S.?” you asked in a thick, South London accent. You spoke so quickly that I couldn’t register your words.
You laughed as you repeated, “Are you American or Canadian?”
“I’m American,” I replied, even though I’d contemplated whether or not telling you I was Canadian would have made me more interesting, more alluring.
You nodded as though you’d guessed I’d was from the States anyway and continued, “African-American or Jamaican?”
Since I’d arrived in the UK nearly nine months before, I’d frequently been asked whether or not I was from the Caribbean, and it was a question that unnerved me. Surely, I would love and embrace West Indian heritage if it were mine to claim. No, It wasn’t the invocation of Caribbeanness that annoyed me. In this nation, with these histories of conquest, exploitation, and migration, many Black Britons are of West Indian heritage. But white Britons, egregiously comfortable with making assumptions about Black people, barely ever took the time to register the cadence and rhythm of my unambiguously U.S. accent. The question then, when asked by them, was born out of ignorance. Coming from you, however, I thought the question was born of nuance and based upon the knowledge of difference across the large diaspora our people inhabit.
“African-American,” I began, but then amended my answer to a label that felt more comfortable and fitting, “Black American.”
As we aimlessly moved together through the station, you chuckled,”And what do you think of England? Of London?”
Velma Pollard’s words from Homestretch permeated my answer. “It’s cold–very cold–and gray–very gray.” You told me that I should have visited in May when the sun shines and the flowers bloom. Better yet, August during the Notting Hill Carnival. You assumed I was on vacation, a visitor passing through. Not knowing you, I didn’t feel comfortable explaining that I was a reluctant resident. I wanted to keep talking, to keep our connection just a little while longer, but we seemed to be drifting towards opposite ends of the station. When it was clear that we were no longer moving along the same path I smiled and gave a small wave, “You take care. And thanks for handing me the phone.” You smirked and lifted your chin, “Enjoy your time in London, beautiful.”
Rethinking my plans to drink alone, I decided to take the tube to Paddington Station, head back to Oxford, and call it a day. Before I approached the staircase leading to the Underground, I realized that I needed to find my Oyster card. “Dude only needed a beard, and he could’ve gotten it,” I whispered to myself. “He was probably a jerk, though,” I added. Setting my backpack on a nearby bench, I began rifling through it. My wallet, of course, was buried at the bottom beneath a pair of headphones, a cosmetic case, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, a bag full of pads, a clutch covered in Ankara fabric, a stick of deodorant, and goodness knows what else. Searching through all of my belongings, I could only think of how I didn’t know your name. Why didn’t I ask you for your name? Why didn’t you ask me for mine? I thought we’d been feeling each other, but perhaps I’d misread you. Just then, my backpack tumbled to the floor. As its contents poured out, I crouched to pull my laptop out of its sleeve and make sure it hadn’t cracked upon impact. Sensing that I wasn’t alone, I looked up and saw you (again) making your way towards me (once more).
Shaking your head, you too lowered yourself to the ground. You grabbed my book and headphones and passed them to me. “Do you have all your things?”
Slightly embarrassed and unsettled by your quick reappearance I nodded, “I do. Thank you. Again.”
As we both rose, you stuffed your hands into your pockets. “Where are you going? Do you need any help?”
Answering your first question and ignoring your second, I supplied, “Paddington. Paddington Station.”
“Do you know which line to take?”
I knew which line to take. I’d made the trip many times, but I humored you, mostly because your awkward question had confirmed that you were feeling the same way I was, interested yet unsure of how to proceed.
I shook my head affirmatively, “I’ll take the Circle Line.”
“Well, you could,” you started, “but if you take the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus and switch to Bakerloo, you might get there faster.”
There was no way I would get there faster. I knew it, and you did too. I was willing to let you think I was a tourist, but I wouldn’t let you think I was incapable of reading a subway map. Serving you less side-eye than you were due, I disagreed, “Absolutely not! That will add time to my trip.”
“No, it won’t,” you promised. Noting my skeptical gaze, you continued, “There are delays on the Circle Line this week.”
You could’ve been lying, but you also could’ve been telling the truth. On more than a few occasions, service on various lines was cut or delayed for all sorts of reasons.
“Well, do you know where you need to go from Paddington?” The question was posed innocently enough, but I was put-off by it. Yes, we both wanted to prolong this fragile connection, but patronizing questions weren’t the way to go about doing so.
“I do. I’ll catch a train that will take me straight to Oxford.”
You raised your hand to your face, rested your chin upon your index finger and touched your bottom lip with your thumb. “But Oxford Circus is–”
“No, no. Oxford, Oxford. The university.”
Something slightly, but noticeably, shifted between us. “You’re going to spend some time there?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
You placed your hand back into your pocket and leaned back on your heels, “Well, have a safe trip, beautiful.”
I smiled and raised my chin to you, “And you enjoy the rest of your day.”
I headed back towards the staircase that led to the Tube but turned around one last time before I began my descent. You were still standing there. You waved, and I waved back before moving forward without looking back again.
Pushing through the crowd I wondered once more what your name was, where you were headed, and what you did. “Dude was fine without the beard,” I murmured to myself. “Really tall, too.” I began to think about what could have happened had one of us suggested coffee at Starbucks, what could have happened if we’d sat and talked, exchanged names and numbers and…
At that moment, I stopped myself. What am I even doing? I thought as I laughed softly. I’m worried over a dude I knew for less than fifteen minutes.
I scanned my Oyster card and followed the signs that pointed toward the Circle Line platforms. Double checking the maps on the wall, I ensured that I was headed towards the right track. The Tube appeared three minutes later, and I stuffed my way into the unsurprisingly crowded car. Taking one of the few empty seats left, I decided that our cute, awkward beginning and ending were perfect and fulfilling as they were.
You wouldn’t remind me of unreturned phone calls, worthless dates, or any of the other negatives that come with the territory of talking/dating. No, our time together was far too short for such complications to arise. All that we were and were ever meant to be was condensed into fifteen minutes. You would make me think of freshly twisted locs, South London swag, sunshine and flower blossoms in the spring, and carnival in the summertime.
In the short space of time we’d crossed each other’s paths, I’d forgotten about the obscene credit card charges, annoying travel buddies, and delayed flights. Even as I thought about all of those things in that moment, my frustration was a little less acute and my exhaustion a tad less overwhelming. As I emerged from the tube at Paddington and made my way to the rail platforms, England still felt cold and gray. A short, endearingly awkward encounter with you had, however, given me enough smiles and laughter to make England feel slightly softer.
And, for that day at least, it was.