In the summer of 2010, when I was living in London, it rained every single day in August. I was renting a small room in a small house in central Ilford, a town about 9 miles northeast of Charing Cross. There were seven people altogether living in this house. Three men from Nepal made curries and momos at all hours, the scent wafting up the stairwell and under the door of my room so I would wake suddenly in the middle of the night, salivating and hungry. I existed on a steady diet of tortilla pizzas and spaghetti that I cooked in a Tupperware container in the microwave, not possessing the pots and pans needed for anything more elaborate. I knew that I was lucky to be living just nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, but sometimes, on my seventh tortilla pizza of the week, I felt slightly less lucky. At night I listened to the mice scamper across the floor. After one ran over me as I lay curled up under my duvet, I declared war on them. I put out poison and traps slathered with peanut butter. My mother, during a Skype call, warned me against the poison: the mice would eat it and then crawl into their home in the walls to die, whereupon their stench would enmesh itself in my tiny rented room forever.
“Don’t worry,” my dad said. “Mice are small. It’s not like it’s a raccoon or a groundhog or something.”
The August rain was not always a storm. In fact, it was almost never a storm, which made it even worse. I was used to lightning, thunder, skies that turned green and elicited tornado sirens, whereupon everyone in the neighborhood immediately stood outside their door, head tilted up at the sky. There was one day in London when it hailed, and I took shelter from the small pebbles of ice beneath a tree in a nearby park. But for the most part, the London rain was a drizzle. There were days when the sun would shine nearly the entire day, only to disappear behind rain clouds for fifteen minutes in the afternoon, just as I was, inevitably, setting out to walk to the grocery store or settling down in the park with a book. Every time it rained, I wanted to rage. This, I told anyone who would listen (which was no one), was why the first colonists had left England. This rain.
See me, age 23, two suitcases in hand, boarding a flight to Heathrow. I had a haircut last week. I have bangs again. Since I don’t own a blow dryer, they aren’t working out very well. When I arrive at Heathrow, the immigration officers detain me. They make me sit on a bench next to the customs booths for an hour, then they take me to a large white room with flickering fluorescent lights and interrogation chambers and a woman in a miniskirt and tank top, who sits on one of the long wooden benches, sobbing. An officer takes me into one of the rooms to interrogate me. She brings me a Styrofoam cup of tea, which I don’t drink, but it gives me something to do with my hands as I lift the teabag in and out of the tepid water. When I am released, the woman is still there, still crying.
Sometimes, I heard the Kinks singing to me as I sat on the bed in my tiny room in Ilford, nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, staring at the crack between the wall and the floor where the mice entered. My father introduced me to the Kinks when I was still in high school; before I left for college, he’d given me The Kink Kronikles as a parting gift. The songs from the album repeated themselves for me, a daily soundtrack. What are we living for? Two-roomed apartment on the second floor, the Kinks sang, reminding me that they had warned me about London, even before I’d arrived. They’d told me how it would be. No money coming in, they sang. I had no job. My American passport had made a work visa an impossibility, and so I was there on a tourist visa, my departing flight on the very day that visa expired. We both want to work so hard, I sang under my breath as I worked on grad school applications, studied for the GREs, anything to keep myself busy. We can’t get the chance. I spent a weekend cat-sitting for a friend of a friend. I’m allergic to cats. I made 40 pounds.
My intention with this essay was to write a love story about my relationship with London. A real love story, the kind that transcends time and place and language, the kind that reverberates in your head like the echoes of church bells or tornado sirens or cicadas. But instead, all I hear is the Kinks. People are dying on dead end street, they remind me, as if to say that since I moved out of that rented room nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, I dodged a bullet. The bulk of my memories of London are not of that room, not of the incessant rain, and yet, when I think about the city, when I look back on my time there, that is what is most clear.
This was the reason I was detained entering the United Kingdom: on my port-of-entry card, the one that all tourists fill out when entering the country, where it asked how long my stay would be, I wrote, in finely printed block letters, “SIX MONTHS.”
Six months ago, I received my absentee ballot in the mail. I went to happy hour with a friend and, with her as my witness, filled in the oval indicating my choice for president. Just three weeks after that, the rest of the country went to the polls. That evening, I watched the election results with friends, texting with my sister, frantically refreshing The New York Times. A lot can change in six months.
When I lived in London for six months, after immigration decided that despite planning on staying the entire time allocated to me by my tourist visa, I had no plans to work illegally, after my passport was returned to me, a neat little stamp in its pages and a handwritten note confirming my “leave to enter/remain until/for SIX MONTHS,” a group of friends and I rented a houseboat and spent a week in Norfolk, traveling the length of the canals. Every day, I had a new injury. I fell and chipped my tooth. I fell and bruised my knee so badly that I limped for weeks afterwards. I fell and bruised my shin, resulting in a raised red welt. I fell, I fell, I fell. I fell holding a squirt gun, and my friends laughed, said how much I must love guns because I’m American. All Americans love guns, they said. Or if they don’t all love them, enough do, because America has a gun problem, America has gun violence, and it’s our fault for being American. I wanted to protest, not their words, but their tone, their condescension and bitterness, their ease at placing me with the rest of these anonymous Americans, but instead I pressed my palm to my latest injury until the pain began to ebb.
Ten months ago, on the morning of June 24, 2016, I woke at 1 a.m. and checked the news. Britain had shocked the world, I read. I spoke with a friend from London, who tried to cheer me up, tried to say it wouldn’t be as bad as the Remain campaigners had predicted. In the middle of the night, it is easy to be fatalistic. I said, “Well, at least this day is probably worse for David Cameron.”
London voted Remain, but was overwhelmed by votes in the rest of England and Wales. It should have been a sign for me. It wasn’t. My confidence knew no bounds. “I’m not worried,” I said six months ago. “I’m just excited.”
A lot can change in six months.
And yet—at the risk of extending this already-shaky metaphor too far—here’s the thing: I don’t believe in dead end streets. Not in the real, physical sense, or maybe I do mean that, too, for in the movies, there’s always a fence to climb over, a doorway to duck into, a narrow opening to shimmy through. In real life, it’s never so easy as that, but still, I don’t believe in dead ends. And so, even now, I’m searching for that fence, that doorway, that tiny opening, as small as the one the mice used to sneak into my London room, and I’m tearing at it, ripping away the carpet, pulling up the floorboards, smashing the girders and beams, mice be damned, and I’m digging, and I’m digging, and I’m digging.
—Emma Riehle Bohmann