For the past month, I have been reading a book- 84 Charing Cross Road- with my friends.
These aren’t friends in the traditional sense- the type of friends who live around the corner. These are the friends I see for short but intense monthly bursts once a year, when we come from America, and Australia, and South Africa (and Wales), to take a summer job teaching other people how to teach.
We wear red tee shirts that bleed on the body when you sweat, and sleep four-and-a-half hours a night. We alternate swearing too much for a workshop about how to engage 5 year-olds with rewriting lyrics to Call Me Maybe in between drinks at the shot bar, so that we have original resources for the classroom when we’re trying not to be hungover tomorrow.
My friends and I- the friends who aren’t friends in the traditional sense- we don’t read in the traditional sense, either. We read out loud to each other in stolen moments on the train station floor as we await new arrivals, and in tucked-away corners of fancy buildings during grammar presentations.
We take turns. With every page we laugh and cry and smirk and sit between the legs of one another to rest heads- eyes closed- on tanned knees, rubbing sun-kissed necks and braiding pigtails into the closest head.
When we’re together, we read a story together.
When we’re together, we write a story together.
Two days ago, I sat down to tell that story. The morning after everybody left, one-by-one, and with 48 hours to kill until my own departure, I wanted to put the weight of my heart onto paper so that I could breathe again. When my team got on those trains, part of me went with them- and I don’t know how not to be devastated by that. I cried a lot when I said goodbye. I threw up a lot after they’d gone too. I call it emotion sickness.
Right now I’m sick of all my emotions.
I stared at my notebook, willing myself to put plot points and narrative arcs to the fun. It had been a month almost to the day since I last pulled my Moleskine out in the café I wrote in every day in Rome. I’d missed it. But the notebook stared at me back, blank and menacing. I’d forgotten how to use my words. All I had was feelings.
Today I left Sanremo to spend two months working in a convent in a place that isn’t there- Sanremo with my friends. The car pulled away from the city, finally, and I said ciao to a treasure chest of eleventy thousand precious memories. The final lines of 84 Charing Cross Road, the book that is ours, repeated themselves in my mind.
The plane lifted- and suddenly it was as if everything had vanished… none of it had happened, none of it was real. Even the people weren’t real. It was all imagined, they were all phantoms.
I held back the tears.
When I arrived at the convent, I Skyped Mama Janie for the first time in weeks. She was so thrilled to finally see my face- a face slightly thinner, much darker, and noticeably more haggard looking than the last time she saw me.
She was all, TELL ME ALL THE THINGS! I’VE MISSED YOU! And I was like, URM. I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY. I’M… I CAN’T… I… and then the tears came freely and Mama Janie was all, LAURA! WHAT THE HECKY-HECK? DON’T BE SAD! CHEER UP, LOVE! And then I was all, I HAVE TOO MANY FEELINGS AND TOO MANY THOUGHTS AND FUCK! THIS JOB IS LIKE VIETNAM! YOU DON’T KNOW UNLESS YOU WERE THERE! AND YOU WEREN’T THERE!
Then Mama Janie was all what do you know about Vietnam? and I was all IRRELEVANT! and then we agreed I should ring off and go and sort out my life because I was comparing being an English Tutor to fighting an unjust war against a communist country where mutilation came as standard. My only injuries are a gravely-voice from too many roll-ups and not enough sleep, and a blister where my flip-flops rub.
Drying my tears I went to my room and picked up the book for the gazillionth time. I fingered the pages and smelled the spine, and then- because I don’t know how else to still be back in time, I re-read the final paragraph:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air. The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples dissolve. And, like the insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
In one part of the book, Hanff writes in a letter to her friend, ‘If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me! I owe it so much.’
Internet, if you happen to pass by Sanremo, kiss it for me.