He was pissed. He said he wasn’t, but I knew better. When he was pissed he got all quiet and sometimes had to “take a break.” I asked him again, and again he insisted he wasn’t mad, but he did think he’d go downstairs for a bit, you know, to take a break.
When he returned an hour, a whole hour later, I was doing the dishes. He hugged me from behind. I reached up and touched his face with a soapy hand. He kissed my neck, and I started to cry. Then he apologized. Like he needed to apologize when I’d been the one to spend a big chunk of our small savings to pay for a trip he’d never said he wanted to take. I told Mom she’d bought the Adele concert tickets for our Christmas presents, so at least he didn’t have to worry about the price of admission, just all the other stuff.
I’ve waited thirty-seven years to go back, I reminded him.
And you’ve waited a lifetime to visit the motherland.
This is my motherland.
But England’s your mother’s motherland. So, it’s really your motherland.
You should see where she came from. There’s no telling how much time we have left on this earth.
I’d practiced this argument a hundred times, so it rolled off my tongue cool and easy, like I hadn’t practiced it at all, like it was coming straight from my heart. And it was. With all my heart I wanted to see Adele. Someone who only sort of wanted to see her wouldn’t have dragged their ass out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to be one of twenty-nine million Twitter followers vying for tickets, or been willing to risk their peaceful home life.
We’ll make it a musical tour, I said, coming at him from the we-share-a-love-of-great-music angle. We’ll see Adele, and then we’ll visit every Beatles and Elton John landmark along the way. He loved The Beatles and Elton John.
I don’t get this obsession, he said, as he left the kitchen, presumably for another break.
I didn’t totally understand it either. Sure, Adele’s voice travelled through me, and her lyrics reached into my chest and beat me up and being at the last show of her world tour would be a great I-was-there moment. But while wrapping the homemade card with pictures of us and an airplane and Tower Bridge and Adele and a 48pt Calibri font caption that screamed Merry Christmas Baby on it, I started to wonder what it was really all about. Maybe it was about getting back to London to see if I could find the piece of nineteen-year-old me that I’d left there. If I managed to find that missing piece, I could finally give my husband someone he’d never fully met.
We got through Christmas and everyone telling us we were crazy to travel almost 6,000 kilometres just to see a woman—the same age as our youngest kid—sing pop songs that had nothing to do with baby boomers. I argued love songs and asshole ex-boyfriends were non-generational.
He stayed quiet, quiet with me that is. I heard rumblings he wasn’t so quiet with other people. He really didn’t want to go. Passive aggression. Maybe on some level he did get it. Maybe he just didn’t want to believe Adele’s devastated ballads and fuck-you anthems had anything to do with me.
Our departure date arrived. We checked our bags and were waiting to go through customs when I looked at my phone.
What’s wrong? he asked.
I couldn’t say it out loud. I stared at Adele’s heartfelt and heartbroken social media post. She had to cancel her last two shows, our show, because her voice wouldn’t open up. Doctors said she’d damaged her vocal chords. What did that even mean? Surgery? It had happened before. Worst possible timing they’d said back then. No, this was the worse possible timing.
I thought maybe I had vocal chord damage myself because my lips were moving, but nothing came out. I waved my hand between us and drew in a deep breath.
You’re going to kill me.
Two more full breaths, and my voice opened up.
He reached across and took my hand. You okay?
He wasn’t going to kill me. He was being sweet. Way worse, dude.
I shook my head no, then pressed on a tight smile. I wanted Adele to be okay, but I also wanted to pitch a fit right there in the airport. I didn’t want to be mad, but shit Adele, 6000 kilometers and everyone thinking I’d lost my mind. And I didn’t want to be sad in London—not again.
We arrived at Heathrow, and after a rapid transit ride, rolled our luggage through Paddington Station.
You happy to be back?
I stared at him. Do my feet look like they’re on the ground? I wanted to ask, but my throat had closed up again. Even if I had been able to speak, I wasn’t ready to tell him I’d lived two blocks from this very station, that a guy died in a fire there a month before I moved in, that my room smelled like fresh paint for months, or that many nights I’d laid drunk on the living room floor and let one sad song after another reach into my chest and beat me up. I would tell him, just not yet.
Absolutely, I lied.
We had a few hours to kill before check-in time at our Airbnb. We left the underground, and he suggested we walk. He walked, but I hovered above us. What would a shrink call it? A dissociative state. I needed to get a grip, just that I didn’t know how.
Then we came upon a block-long memorial of flowers and notes and teddy bears.
Oh God, that’s the apartment building that burned two weeks ago, I said. Grenfell Tower.
The road barrier couldn’t hold back the stench of toxic chemicals or palpable grief. People died metres away from where we stood. A perfectly preventable tragedy. Terror weary London jumped in to help the newly homeless. Adele brought donuts to the firefighters and asked everyone at her two not-cancelled concerts to donate £5.
I felt like a voyeur.
Let’s get out of here, I whispered.
Ten minutes later, I spotted a pub. Not a hard thing to do in England, but I thought I recognized this particular pub. I was pretty sure Adele had done an interview there years earlier.
Let’s have a drink, I suggested.
Maybe she’d be there in a hidden corner, sipping cider to fix her damaged throat. Shit, I really needed to stop thinking about Adele.
He raised an eyebrow. He was the one who usually suggested a drink, but it was hot, and I was thirsty, and the hovering thing was getting old.
You okay? he asked when we each had a glass of lager.
You don’t want to talk about it?
I’d thought “too soon” implied as much. Images of families trapped inside a burning building had now glommed onto my already discombobulated brain.
He swallowed his drink in two steady swigs, then motioned to a passing server.
Can I get another beer?
I’ll have another as well, I said, matching his dying-of-thirst gulp with my own. Might as well get shitfaced. I wasn’t going to see Adele in London. She’d probably left town.
Three beers later and well on my way to my shitfaced goal, it was still too soon, but that stranglehold on my throat hadn’t eased. I excused myself, and following the Toilet signs, stumbled into a stall.
Easy listening music wafted from overhead speakers. Non-descript, white noise stuff until that descript voice took over. Someone like you.
Too soon, Adele. Way too soon.
On day three, after having visited several tourist spots, he asked if he could see where I’d lived. I’d slept and eaten and felt marginally braver, so we went back to Paddington. Praed Street was crowded, taxis and buses, backpackers and residents churning as one. We travelled two blocks east.
Six weeks before I’d come to Britain on a work exchange program, I’d fallen in love with a beautiful man—my first love. He cried when we said goodbye. Alone in my London flat, I screamed his name into my pillow. I couldn’t have known those would be the best dark days. When I returned home it was to that first love, only he’d stopped being beautiful. Determined to reassemble me into someone he might like better, he set about dismantling everything about me. With perfect aim, his wrecking ball hit its mark.
Here, I said and pointed across the street.
Afternoon light bounced off a swaying sign. Orange planters, overflowing with petunias and peonies, flanked the doorway. The once grey and dull short-term rental flat where I’d disappeared, was now a super-budget hotel with pretty flowers out front. The letterbox I’d prayed to was covered over, and the corner shop—supplier of the paper and envelopes and stamps used to deliver my angst across the ocean—was a Halal restaurant.
Blood rushed from my limbs; my hands tingled like I’d just woken up from a nightmare. Was this what PTSD felt like? My palm landed against the exploding pain in my chest. What kind of crazy did you have to be to believe the world would freezeframe long enough for you to return to the scene of the crime? This kind of crazy, I decided. I grabbed hold of a bus stop pole.
At first it was slivers, sharp and dangerous like shattered glass, then big chunks like melting icebergs. I felt them break away, but he saw them.
With the strength of a superhero and the gentleness of a first-time father, my husband pressed his hand against the small of my back.
I got you.
While pleading for the courage to move away from my first love, I’d also begged for a better someone and here he stood, just as he always had, not passive, not aggressive, but the flesh and blood manifestation on the other side. My someone.
It had never been about Adele, not really. Her cancelled concert had been the universe’s trick to draw me back to London. Gotcha. This trip had only ever been about a lovesick kid who’d lived two blocks from Paddington Station.
Thirty-seven years, I sighed.
Yup, thirty-seven years, he said, his eyes locked on me.
I hadn’t left anything behind in a foreign land, but rather had let myself stay stuck in a past that never had a future. I’d taken a thirty-seven year long break.
I think I’m going to be.