We cross Embankment Bridge like Londoners, walking fast and merging effortlessly. Phrases like “straightaway” and “bloody” fall from our mouths like they’ve always been there. That’s what I most fear about going home. What can I keep? How much of London is actually mine?
I traverse the Thames big-eyed. I want to see, breathe, touch and taste all of London for the bittersweet last time. The city is gray despite sunshine. Sunshine at home is yellow and solid; in London it is fragile, translucent, a lover who will inevitably leave. I can’t seem to enjoy London sun because, ironically, I am supposed to enjoy it so much.
This is our final night. We, the roomers in Vandon House, are celebrating with a cruise down the Thames. I feel like the narrator of our story: “The Vandon House Residents Have A Fancy Night Out.”
We are all so young, even though we have learned when to avoid Victoria Station, the secrets of shopping at Sainsbury’s and how to sneak others into the Tube. (Only those who truly know a city can be delinquent in it.) We have learned that peanut butter here is horrible, that passports can get lost and that sometimes dads die. We have learned that children are children, no matter their nationality. We have learned the meaning of home in absentia.
We have discovered cruelty and kindness both in this city and in ourselves. I have walked past a man nearly every day and not once looked in his eyes. “Spare some change, miss?” He has a brown dog. I wonder what kind of person I am to walk by the man and feel sorry for the dog.
We are still young enough to believe our future is golden. We do not believe the odds that five of us will get cancer, that two-thirds of us will divorce. We sing loudly and pretend to like British food. We drink and laugh and sit closer together than necessary.
Later I stand alone on the foredeck as our boat passes under London Bridge. I hear the music of my friends’ voices singing loudly and off-key in the cabin. The wind blows my hair into my eyes. I can count the stars I see on one hand. Tomorrow, I’ll have a sky full of stars and no London. The moment is clear and heavy, weighted with impending change.
I hear footsteps behind me. I turn, smile, am led to the dance floor, join the mass of singing friends. All of our voices are golden, our feet golden, our glances golden—for now. The narrator rests the pen softly on the paper and—for now— I sing along.
Sara Richardson Perez ’02 lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and teaches literature and creative writing. An earlier version of this essay appeared in “World Class: 25 Years of Central College Travel Writing Celebrating 50 Years of Study Abroad.”