It is perhaps, tonight, that I’ve fully let myself fall in love with London.
A long day of class and suffocating inside had lead to an imprisoned and eventually depressing night of cross-stitching, reading and half-hearted attempts at blogging. And, of course, the later the hour, the greater my melancholy and sense of doomed loneliness became. I needed a cure, and staying in the cramped quarters of the dorm was not the answer. So I walked.
The familiar path toward the Thames was not the most enchanting of London streets, it being a main road, and already desolate at this hour of the night. But a bright orb of a full perfect moon lit up a mostly cloudless, velvet sky, and with the soundtrack of comforting songs, I could at least let my sadness slip in silent tears in peace. I wondered if strangers noticed, but likely not, and that was okay. It was a delightful balance, that of the pleasure of the night air, and the slight danger of reality—playing a game of I wonder when/if I’d get run over or mugged. I, usually lacking sense of personal safety, at least followed traffic signals even when I didn’t have to, and made the slightly cautious decision to veer away from the darker, smaller streets.
And, in time, I came to the river. The sight of it was a near instant cure (though even the journey there had helped), and the motions of the dark waters, the sprinkling of blue and white lights woven in the trees across the water, and the silhouettes of buildings I already recognized well bade me to take in a deep breath of precious relief. I walked, slowly, down the riverbank. This was the same stretch that I had walked through a few weeks ago, amongst crowds to watch the midnight carnival parade and await the explosions of fireworks above the river. Now, the bank was entirely deserted, except for the ghosts of imagined figures I thought I glimpsed in red telephone booths, or waving from boats. The heavy, brooding masses of the docked boats seemed only inviting, their entrances unguarded except for a few easily stepped over chains. I passed the old monuments and touched their intricate metalwork, smiled at the sights of the dragons guarding the boundaries of the old London city. On my side of the river, too, outlined in subdued lights towered the majestic and elaborate architecture of old, made all the more wondrous by their contrast to the modern neon signs on their opposite side.
It was a pleasure like few others, and when I reached the entrance to one bridge, I turned around to begin my walk toward the other. London is quite a romantic city, especially at night, in this light. The empty, old-fashioned benches along the river begged for the warmth of two bodies entwined, nestled scarves and clasped hands. My real romance was in New York, but it struck me that if I could allow myself to be seduced by the magic of this city, I hardly needed a real romance. I could play pretend. And it wouldn’t be hard, would it, to create a three-month affair to remember? Not with those glittering lights and enchanting buildings as the backdrop. The birds quietly bathing in the river might have agreed.
So, it was, back towards Waterloo Bridge, and when the expanse of both sides of London came into view, and the glowing face of Big Ben smiled next to the bright lights of the London Eye, the dimly visible outlines of the palaces held their eternal ground, I felt weak and dizzy at the impossible beauty of it all. Even the National Theater, so plain and strange, too modern, in the daytime, at night, cast in its coats of bright lights, and its outdoor terrace, its expanses spotlighted, empty, became a place of make believe.
When I found my way to the bus stop on the other side of the bridge, I sat next to a couple who smiled and said hi. Sing us a song, he said. Really? I asked. We would love that so much, she said. They were both smoking cigarettes. I promised to look through my iPod for a suitable performance, uncertain. They made small talk, I told them I was studying literature and writing. Do you write stories then? He asked. I said I wrote many. Do you want to tell us a story then? I said I would. That I knew I was good at. It took a few moments for me to think. Telling stories are hard, she said, you don’t have to tell us one if you don’t want to. Oh I can, I reassured. Just give me a prompt. Tell us a story about people waiting for the bus, he said.
As prompted, I told them a story. Two people waiting for the bus, a boy and a girl. I told them it’d be morbidly depressing and they were okay with that. He pretended to lie on the road, in front of a slow moving milk truck. The driver said something to us, I couldn’t make out what. Probably laughing. So I told them a story about a girl in a floral dress, cold, alone, writing in a notebook. And a boy in an university sweatshirt, who watched her, and tried to ask her questions, offer her his jacket, a cigarette. But she always looked up, smiled, and said no. He asked her what she was waiting for, and she said, nothing. He said you can’t be not waiting for anything. He suggested possibilities: a bus that didn’t run during the night, the newspaper, a sunrise. But she shook her head, smiling, clutching her arms together in the cold, I’m not waiting for anything. He kept asking questions and she kept answering them the wrong way. His bus came, and he got on, sat at the very back so he could watch her from the back window, still wondering. He watched her until she was a barely perceivable figure, slowly rising to walk to the railings of the bridge, pausing, disappearing as the bus drove further. And he realized then that she had been telling the truth, she was waiting for nothing, and she would be there all night.
Nearly right on cue, then, my bus came. They thanked me for the story and bid a hurried goodnight. What’s your name? He asked. I told him. My name’s Sonny, he said. They waved from the bus stop as the bus began to lurch forward, and I waved back.
I couldn’t stop smiling all the way home (and overhearing, and understanding snippets of the conversation the two cute French boys who sat in the seats next to me helped). All my nuisances and complaints about the city seems so pathetic in this light, and perhaps, unlike New York, which is a whirl of excitement and adoration the moment you set foot on the island, London is the sort of lover that takes time to appreciate. The longer you learn the shapes and whispers of the streets the more she opens her arms, revealing infinity of history, beauty, & darling, fantastic life.