LETTER TO A STRANGER: NORWICH, ENGLAND
BY ANNA ZIEGLER
It was December, 2001. That May, I’d graduated from college and found myself adrift in the damp heat of a Brooklyn summer. I had a job at a small literary journal, sorting and reading submissions—none of which ended up published. I spent my free time emailing college friends and feeling predictably lonely in a city packed with people. Less than a week after 9/11, I flew to England and made my way to Norwich—a cathedral town, equal parts quaint and industrial, two hours or so northeast of London. There I would write poetry at a university as un-poetic as they come, its Soviet-style architecture unquestionably ugly even when it had been erected in 1963.
Along with the rest of the world during those weeks and months, I struggled to adjust to a new normal. Up until this point in my life, I’d enjoyed knowing more or less what to expect, but now all bets were off. I’d been exiled from the predictable routines of school; I was about to be 22 years old, and I was nowhere near home. I was already a painfully nostalgic person, and suddenly I had more to be wistful about than I knew what to do with—the past, and my childhood, seemed to be quickly slipping away. My mother was recovering from breast cancer. America was going to war. The family dog was dying, and then died. I tried to write poems about the things I used to write about—the complications of growing up, of boys, of being part of a family—but everything felt off-kilter. Except for the pub.
In England, the pub is a unifying force. For graduate students, it brought structure to endless, aimless days. We alternated between light ale in the pub on campus—creatively dubbed the “Graduate Student Pub”—and dark ale at the Garden House, a picturesque two-story establishment nestled on a storybook English street. Sometimes we’d go to both in one day. This is possible when you start drinking at 4 in the afternoon and have nothing else to do until 11, when the pubs close down.
I’m sure I met you in one of those two pubs. You were a student in the fiction-writing program, so we had no classes in common. But for a few weeks, we were thrown together in a group of writers intent on killing time. We found relief from the guilt of not writing in the company of others doing the same.
I’d noticed you. You were Welsh, and your accent set you apart as much as your tendency to hang back a bit, to watch without fully engaging. You were slight, pale, dark, with a high forehead and a shyness that made your laughter feel a little forced. You weren’t a show-off and you weren’t trying to be funny and you didn’t yell at the TV when soccer was on. And sometimes, you’d look at me.
One night, we found ourselves walking home together. Only we didn’t walk straight home. It must’ve been hours. Maybe there was even a little light in the sky by the time we reached my door. I have no idea what we talked about—our classmates? Growing up? What we thought we’d do with our lives? Did I say, with confidence, that I’d go back to New York and become an editor at a publishing house, a life I’d predicted for myself for a long time, but that never came to be? There is no part of me that remembers.
It’s been nearly fifteen years since that night, when together we watched as daylight outlined the roofs of the neighboring houses along Bowthorpe Road, the smokestacks of the crematorium in the cemetery across the street, the piled books and papers of my messy room. It was a moment I could feel disappearing as it was happening, the kind that you’re not sure you’ll be able to keep because it captures something too perfectly. We were so comfortable with each other. You fell asleep for a little while. I laid my head against your arm; my bed felt small and safe, and then it was morning.
I flew home for winter break two days later. You made me a mix to listen to on the plane. Songs about New York, songs about England. I still have it, and from time to time, when I listen to my music on shuffle, I hear from you, across the years.
When I returned to Norwich, the man I’d had my eye on all through fall semester, who hadn’t been over his ex-girlfriend, suddenly was. I dated him for five turbulent years filled with drama, if not comfort, and only saw you again in passing.
In the years that followed, I stopped writing poetry. I stopped choosing places to live without seeing them first. I got used to the world into which I’d been shoved, not knowing where I was going. I dated. I broke up. I married, and had a child. If I’d thought I was nostalgic before, now I’d get even sadder when thinking about all the things I’d forgotten, or lost, or discarded by mistake. Somewhere along the way, I even lost my taste for ale.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Ziegler’s plays include Photograph 51, The Last Match, and Boy. A collection is forthcoming from Oberon Books. Her favorite place on nobody else's list? The intersection of Ore Hill Road and Peet Hill Road in South Kent, CT. To learn more, visit http://annabziegler.net.
Photo from Flickr creative commons.