Escape From The Land Of The Free
Posted: Monday, May 30, 2005
Word Count: 2507
Summary: In which the author relates how she awoke from the American Dream .
Escape from the Land of the Free
We moved home often, my American husband and I. “You might get angry with me, but you’ll never get bored,” Fred said when he proposed, and nomadic Air Force brat, he was right.
Green eyes narrowed to the next horizon, his restless forefinger would jab at the map of England in ever-longer leaps, and off we’d go; a bijou apartment with full-length windows overlooking Tower Bridge and the River Thames, a tidal island off the coast of Essex, cut off for eight hours a day by 15 feet of cold green ocean; a cozy farmhouse in Yorkshire, pretty as a Christmas card. And a year or two later, the faded Edwardian villa near Winchester with its ghostly wood and the enchanting neglected garden where we played bumpy games of croquet.
But though we moved around, we never seemed to move ahead. After the uproar of unpacking and refurbishing had calmed, we were still commuting through congealing city traffic, still peddling creative services to mostly
uncreative clients, still living on a huge overdraft in homes we could afford to rent but not buy. Always uprooting, I hankered to belong, to work at home, to bury my essential instability in a long and intimate relationship with home, garden, community.
My dream found a name one lazy Sunday morning about three moves into our marriage. Fred was away on business and I was curled up with my favorite cookbook and a mug of tea. One of many foodie books he’d brought with him from his previous life, it was full of recipes, stories and pictures depicting “American Country.” I often dipped into its pages for recipes, or dreamed over the full-page photographs of old houses and restored period rooms. I loved the wholesome, prosperous America they showed me, unpretentious and warm-hearted.
When I looked up from the book this long, quiet day, the winter sun was setting. I had traveled deep into a land of open fires framed in simple Colonial white (West Chester, Pennsylvania), cheerful red check tablecloths and heart-pattern quilts, (Midwest), bold bright pottery (Key West, Florida) and gleaming pewter (Kansas). And always behind the picture, the fragrance of apples and cinnamon, warm maple syrup and steaming coffee, butternut muffins fresh from the oven and fresh chocolate brownies. (Spring Snowfall in Vermont). America the Bountiful was calling me.
We visited the east coast several times. In October 1992, Fred’s family organized our wedding in Pennsylvania and we chased the honeymoon through New England, charmed by white-columned mansions and simple diners. We went back three or four times after that, always to New England via family in Pennsylvania, always in the fall or winter months, once to a romantic inn on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. I loved the big open woodlands and snowy or leaf-strewn emptiness we swept past on our route.
In the warm circle of Fred’s family, the potluck dinners and homey tables from the book’s pages came to life. Everywhere, we encountered a “can-do” attitude that made even our wilder plans seem reasonable. Property was so cheap by London standards; we could freelance and still live in a lovely home. There seemed to be so many freelance writing opportunities, my career no longer had to be shaped by an indifferent schooling. Writer, poet, crusader for good causes? I felt America would let me re-invent myself to my own degree.
In the fall of 1999, Fred’s mother became ill; suddenly America was too far away for comfort. She recovered quickly, but her short hospital stay galvanized us from dreaming to doing. The decision seemed very simple: one rainy morning, sitting in the chilly blue breakfast room of our Winchester home, I called Fred on his way to a meeting in London. “Let’s do it,” I said, “let’s go and live in America.” I could hear him smiling as he agreed, surprised and pleased at my eagerness, my finally succumbing to his wanderlust.
Where to live? An old National Geographic magazine cover showed a running man silhouetted against a flame-and-pink sunrise on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. He looked so free, moving with the shimmering water; we imagined running with our dog along that beach, in our sparkling new life.
The next few months were a blur of planning, research and intense phone calls to family and work contacts. We went back to the States, this time to househunt. When a chance call for freelance work in D.C. resulted in an invitation to Fred to interview for a salaried position, we saw it as a potential ticket to our new life.
With two days of our trip to go, we found our new home. Bounded by a shining thread of creek with a picturesquely sagging boat slip and with wide views of the Bay, it offered low-priced luxury by British standards. We signed dozens of papers, and dozens more for the car of our choice. Fred accepted the job he was offered; the steady salary would help us create ‘American Country’ more quickly.
Back to the UK, more papers, more arrangements to shut down our lives. I started saying goodbye to my family and friends, all still rooted in the same ten-mile orbit of our West London birthplace. I was the only one I knew who moved so much, timid, fragile me, unlikely explorer. Sometimes I would wake before dawn and stare wide-eyed into the dark, incredulous; we were going to live on the Chesapeake Bay with its sea of golden marsh grass and blue islands of water right behind our garden fence. I would live in the pages of my book at last, drink frozen margaritas with those easy, smiling people, create a richer, fuller life.
One bright morning at the end of June, we coaxed our bearded collie Macduff into his airline crate, loaded our luggage into an extra-height black taxicab, and were driven to the airport. I don’t remember the flight, just that Fred and I didn’t talk much. He’d already been briefed on his first project for his new employer and had plenty to think about.
We arrived at Baltimore Washington Airport after an easy flight. At Immigration Fred joined the briskly moving line of returning U.S. citizens as I shuffled slowly forward in the longer line of European supplicants. I thought about immediate, practical things; how Macduff was feeling after his ordeal, whether the SUV sent by the car company would connect with us right outside, how good it would be to reach our room and have a shower.
Watching Fred’s progress towards the Immigration window with the other US citizens, I remember being surprised that so many of them were black. I didn’t know that Baltimore and D.C. were home to so many African Americans. I was surprised, too, at the number of fat men, women and children in the line. Not just at their size, but at how fat sat on them, packed solidly around their butts and hips and thighs, creating a different, North American shape that I still recognize today. I saw that some of the officials in uniform with guns strapped to their sides had this shape too, and wondered how fast they could move when they had to.
My turn. The handsome middle-aged guy in the light tan uniform beckoned me from behind his transparent screen and I went forward, wanting to signal Fred but he’d moved out of sight. I smiled and slid my claret-colored British passport across the desk. The officer started to look through it, turning the pages quite slowly, looking up at me often, stopping at the photograph with my hair salon-streaked silver, now grown out. He looked Hispanic, with a neat moustache and dark brown eyes, good skin.
He shut the passport. I remember I was already reaching out my hand to take it back when he said, “come with me, please, Ma’am.” I blinked at him, not sure I’d heard properly. My heart started beating thick and heavy before his words reached my brain, so that he had to repeat his request.
We walked away from the booth towards the cluster of offices behind it, people in every line watching us pass, welcoming the diversion. Thirty seconds ago I was one of them, a fellow bored traveler; now I’d crossed the line, singled out, humiliated. I was persona non grata in my new life and I hadn’t even got outside.
My captor handed me over to a colleague, a young blue-eyed officer with a severe crew cut that made his head look square, and I followed him into a small, harshly lit waiting area. As if I had morphed into a drug courier or terrorist on the way from the booth, he motioned me sullenly to a chair. I felt as though I was being arrested. “Can I ask why I’m here?” I said, trying to control the shake in my voice, trying to sound innocent. “Someone will be with you, just take a seat,” he answered, and left. He didn’t look at me once.
There might have been 20 or 30 other people waiting. Many were dark-skinned, others I guessed to be Eastern European, one family possibly from Pakistan, the woman in a floaty pantsuit or shalwar khameez, a jarring clear shade of orange in that dreary room. Everyone looked rumpled, secondhand – we were all rejects here – and we all avoided eye contact with each other as though it would burn, as though we had done something shameful. In any case, I had little compassion to spare and my thoughts were not noble: white, well-dressed, well-spoken, why was I here at all? Above all, I was scared. This American Country was a place I didn’t know.
After waiting about half an hour, I was summoned to one of the desks at the front of the room. A man and a woman asked me questions about when I’d left London: why had I made several trips to the U.S. in the past two years? Why had I given a different address to the one on my passport when asked about my U.K. residence? There were other questions I don’t remember now, just their hard faces and eyes. After another wait, they took my fingerprints and, still unsmiling, pointed out the exit door. I had been welcomed to America and I was free to go.
I rejoined Fred. He’d been told he couldn’t wait for me outside the office, and the surly officer had refused to say how long I’d be or why I’d been detained. “Are you OK?” he asked. “Fine,” I said. I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t tell him then that my new life was already over, that I’d been expecting a hug and got a slap in the face instead. The doors of my heart had slammed shut. I would be wary in future.
We went out into the crushing Maryland humidity, another new experience. In my book, (“June in Virginia and Maryland”), the pretty table set near the grass-fringed shore doesn’t hint at air that’s as warm and moist inhaled as it is exhaled, nor at the number and greed of the mosquitoes that inhabit it.
The next four years was my long slow undelusion. Fred’s demanding job and good salary wasn’t quite enough to sustain our new commitments; I too got a full-time job with an agency, learning a strange, strangled language to promote foundations and corporations. Macduff learned to be alone for 14 hours a day. We felt weighed down by the long workday and four-hour commutes. After a week of neglect, the house looked sad and shabby when we collapsed to stare at television on a Friday evening.
We made good friends and got on fine with our neighbors, but they were busy people too. They cleared their plates in a businesslike way at our dinners and left early because they had to get up early, all the better to be productive. It felt as though these independent, democratic citizens had willingly enslaved themselves. Even our friends in their sixties and seventies were always rushing; weariness was a badge of honor.
One pleasant Saturday afternoon in May, we decided to have breakfast on our deck and read the Sunday papers. Next door, our sweating neighbor diligently mowed his lawn, washed his car, scrubbed down his barbecue. It was hard to relax, and after that, we sat indoors more often.
I worked with two pleasant young men and a fair, if exacting boss, yet I felt suffocated by the relentless drive to use every minute, the dead air of my office, the way we hardly ever stopped for lunch, the competition for who could work the most outrageous hours. I knew I would not climb even the three-rung ladder of this enterprise. America had changed nothing about my maverick career; I did not belong among the grown-ups even here.
On the daily drive into D.C., our conversation would twist and turn, as we plotted our escape from the land of the free. Fred was more homesick for Europe than I was, hungry for old stones and ironic banter and lazy cigarettes in leafy squares. By the time his office finally shut down early in 2003, it was almost a relief. The unknown was less scary than the prospect of carrying on as we were. When my sister bought a holiday home in southern Spain, and took up our half-serious, half-absurd offer to caretake it for her, we sold our house, packed and moved to Andalucia in five weeks.
Months after the move, I’m still trying to work in an uproar of sagging cardboard boxes and uneasy rooms. We sold or gave away a lot of our furniture, clothes and books, those warm country things that reflected our old lifestyle, props for a worn-out dream. They would have sat awkwardly or not at all on the four echoing levels of this tall thin house, with its swirly-painted cement floors and plasterwork crumbling like icing on a wedding cake.
There are compensations. Here in this old-fashioned spa town where many of the older women are illiterate, no one knows or cares how far you’ve come or where you’re going. Where I got my degree (or didn’t) is of less interest than the name of my dog. One afternoon, I mimicked my manic D.C. stride for some new friends. They didn’t believe people would move around at that pace and we all laughed.
I no longer dream about a loved familiar home, a settled life or my career unfolding like a rose. With my husband, I have humbler ambitions: to finally unpack, locate some kind of paying work and survive on much, much less. Looking into the future hurts like pressing on a bruise; I live from day to day.
I still have the American Country cookbook, although I hardly look at it any more; the dustjacket is torn in one corner and the gloss has worn off the cover photograph.