Virginia and I had agreed to meet outside the campanile at three. She had arrived a week after me in Berkeley and it was only her second day, so I had agreed to take her on an exploratory trip around the town. Though we had been at university together for two years, and had shared most of our classes, I knew little about her. The picture I’d built of Virginia was largely based on the sketches drawn by our mutual acquaintances who’d mostly talked of her sporting prowess, and the way in which she took copious notes during lectures, as if the class were a handwriting olympiad and she and her gel pen had their eyes on gold. Since she was not one of the few rarefied students who used their time in lecture theatres to look out of the window incredulously at the harried pedestrians escaping or partaking in some menial economic activity, I assumed she was probably financially aspirational and obsequious. It therefore followed that she was not creatively talented or unconventionally ambitious. She was, as Sarah would’ve said in her disdainful, dismissive half-sneer, probably new money.
Something about Virginia’s ebullience and unchecked joie de vivre repelled me. I considered any brand of enthusiasm a sign of intrinsic idiocy, as maintaining a positive demeanour largely seemed to involve ignoring life’s arbitrary grinding brutality. What Virginia embodied was everything Sarah and I stood against. The thing I appreciated most about Sarah was her ardent, intelligent cynicism. You could tell by her apologetic deportment that for Sarah, life was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Any moment in which you were smiling or otherwise felt you were experiencing joy was a lapse from rationality; from total acknowledgement of life’s inescapably tragic narrative arc. Over midnight cigarettes on the steps of iHouse, Sarah and I had both agreed that while you passed your time in what was basically death’s waiting room, the best you could hope for was a shag and a bottle of strong liquor.
I led Virginia down past the public library to Milvia St, where we turned right, before taking a left down Allston Way, past the high school where Barbie taught. I looked up at the tall, cuboid building, hoping to see her sitting on a desk, legs splayed inappropriately, or seductively eating an apple.
“How are you liking it so far?” Virginia asked.
“It’s okay. It seems kind of exciting to have this year where we’re able to do whatever we want.”
I was hoping Virginia wouldn’t remember how I was back at home. At university, I was a silent presence, though, in all honesty, more often an absence, who quietly idled and doodled, doing the bare minimum, so as not to have to explain myself, while waiting out my three-year sentence. By the time we both got back, the rest of the year would’ve graduated, and would evaporate into featureless faces populating hazy recollections; names floating without significance on Facebook. The year abroad promised a rare chance for re-invention and realignment. It was a chance to step outside of the usual chronology and experiment, without the results impinging on life as we knew and would know it.
“I’ve joined the hockey team; my roommate is the captain. And I’m going to join the choir,” Virginia said. “Are you going to join anything? Berkeley’s very strong in rowing. I’ve also heard there’s a reading group you might be into.”
I shot her a disdainful glance, as if to suggest amateur activities were inherently undignified, and frowned towards her handbag as if to subliminally lodge the suggestion she get out her iPod so I could continue to show her around in peace. Virginia had an ungainly way of walking, which I found irritating. Her freckled face, which had already suffered considerable sunburn, was squinty; the features too large for the cheap canvas, which was, in turn, poorly framed by lank, tawny hair. She didn’t seem to be wearing any make-up, which I took as a possible indicator of either laziness or lesbianism. I wondered what I was doing. It wasn’t so much a point of principle that I never made friends with people who I didn’t find attractive, it was more that, pragmatically speaking, it seemed a waste of breath; a poor way to allocate my finite supply of time, like going to a play.
I simply didn’t feel inspired into making an effort with people with whom I couldn’t imagine copulating. This probably explained why I had no friends who were male, brunette or hard up. Listening to Virginia blathering on about her various purchases of sports apparel, and having to endure a particularly tiresome anecdote that involved only fully clothed protagonists in some intrigue-free misunderstanding, I had to remind myself why I’d agreed to meet her in the first place. It was important, I reiterated to myself, to have a large selection of reserves; people that could be called upon as reinforcements in social situations to proportionally diminish the amount of time that I would otherwise have to spend talking or appearing ‘engaged’. It also seemed somehow more acceptable to drink in a party of five than when meeting with people one-on-one or in a trio.
Allston was lined with wooden, suburban family homes built in the colonial style. Sarah referred to them half-seriously as ‘sheds’, but I found a certain quaintness and wholesomeness in their organic, angular solidity. There was also something remarkably tragic in the wooden doric columns and white-washed porticoes. Far larger than their typical English counterparts, and built in imitation of the opulence of classical architecture, the houses seemed to embody the meritocratic American Dream. But the eerie way in which they had been easily replicated, and the cheap, temporary materials used in their construction, was somehow deflating. It confirmed for me the sense that to believe that this suburban idyll was the zenith of a life well lived, meant turning a blind eye to its ultimate tawdriness and ubiquity; that to experience the American Dream as a fait accompli you’d have to, perhaps unsurprisingly, be asleep.
In some of the front gardens children played with water-pistols, and there were a couple of games of improvised basketball happening in the street. Ten or so yards away, the evening sunlight struck a rotating sprinkler, and split prismatically into a short-lived rainbow. The scene seemed of a prelapsarian time; one before sex predators lurked in every shadowy corner, nuclear families hadn’t been atomised, and childhood was an endless unlosable game.
I looked behind me to try to estimate the distance we’d covered. In the late-afternoon half-light, shadows had engulfed the campanile, giving it the look of a tall gothic structure. My mind wandered back to another spire, that of Salisbury Cathedral, the omnipresent landmark of my youth, and one that I may never see again. I hadn’t told anyone in Berkeley, but there was a storm brewing over the Atlantic. Back home, my parents were entangled in a ‘messy divorce’. It meant that the full house I’d left, back in Salisbury, wouldn’t be the one to which I returned. Instead, I was most likely headed for the sofa in my mum’s new threateningly cramped-sounding ‘studio’ in Ealing Broadway. The whole torrid affair threatened to give my year abroad the feeling of having a brief stay of execution before my family tree was felled permanently and repurposed for other people’s step-relatives.
Virginia must’ve caught me looking pensive, because she looked up at me and asked directly if I were missing home. It was an interesting question. There were, doubtless, things about home that I was missing. At times I longed for the bodily familiarity of my on-and-off ex-girlfriend. I thought about her experimenting with other prospective lovers, and felt faintly, helplessly sad. To mollify my disconsolation at the thought of some bland man lying in my spot in her bed, I concentrated on the unlikeliness of her finding a like replacement so quickly. After all, once you’d been to the Bahamas, you weren’t likely to rush back to Center Parcs. The rest of home wasn’t really there to be missed. What I felt was more akin to a detached mourning, as if for a distant relative whose only enduring memory was a trail of unspent WH Smiths vouchers; the grief was shallow and only half-felt.
As we approached the marina, the road petered out and was bisected by a railway line. The parallel iron rails had begun to rust and had sunk low into a mess of gravel, weeds and litter. Though warped with age, the heavy wooden sleepers held the two unerring lines of track fast. In both directions, the line stretched illimitably, to be eventually swallowed by the horizon. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for an ideal relationship: two sturdy spines, bound through multiple points of connection, running co-dependently into the future without end, while conveyancing something larger than itself — a family unit. There was a sadness to this thought, too, as it suggested such a relationship, like the railway, belonged to a different era that was now banished permanently to the past.
“You seem to be quite good friends with that Sarah girl?” Virginia asked.
“Yeah, we hang out a fair bit. Have you met her?”
“She’s on my corridor. She seems nice, although she’s quite bossy. The way she goes on about her poor roommate, you should hear it. It’s not nice, and Margaret’s the sweetest girl.”
I bristled at Virginia’s negative depiction of Sarah. It was like someone mocking the chances of an investment upon which, I felt, my whole fortune depended. I tried to explain that it wasn’t that Sarah was bossy, it was more that she was just used to having people do things for her. I also told her that Sarah’s roommate was one of those unbearably righteous types, whose generosity and selflessness was actually the manifestation of a perverse, malevolent monomania.
Virginia pulled out her vibrating phone and began tapping out a reply. “I have to go and meet my roommate for hockey practice. You want to walk back?”
“No, I’m alright,” I said. “I think I’m going to stay here for a while.”
“Okay, maybe I’ll see you at the study group later?”
“I’ll text you,” I said, ambiguously.
Virginia left, and I wandered down the railway track, into the shadow of an overpass. Facebook had informed me that Arabella had started a study group, where we were all meant to get together and focus on doing our homework free from distraction in the iHouse library. Sarah and I had both poured scorn over the idea and now referred to the study groups glibly as ‘concentration camps’. It was strange, probably as late as last year, I’d’ve been there, with Arabella in the library, carefully and calligraphically writing out flash cards and keeping everyone in Smart Water.
Sometime recently it had occurred to me that I’d lost the capacity for deferring gratification. Like the impatient toddlers doomed to a lack of future success in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, I felt unable to prioritise things of long-term importance over immediate indulgence. It seemed to be a direct consequence of my parents’ split. Only explicable by there having been some forces operating unseen to me, the divorce had cast doubt over all my most basic assumptions and retroactively nullified my foundational experiences. It put the veracity of my conception of my childhood in doubt, because no-one could really have been as happy as I’d been convinced they were.
The foundations of the future had been shown to be fucked. The more I thought about it, the more there seemed very little possibility that the time ahead would pay enough dividends to justify not spending everyday on a quest for televised distraction or bibulous oblivion. What really was the point in ‘applying yourself’ for some future happiness, if all happiness was were the few moments in which you forgot how sad you ought to be; how alone you were invariably destined to end up?
Originally published in Goldfish 2014