Lyall

Lyall

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 18 1997 3:30 AM

Lyall

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       Another sleepless night last night, with the house suffused by strange creaking noises. A couple of weeks ago, a neighbor told us that there had been a rash of robberies along the street, perpetrated by a gang of Moroccans who use their long, thin arms to reach into the mail slot and unlock the door from the inside. Does this sound racist? Not to the English, where racism and nationalism go hand in hand. This is a country where Michael Portillo, the defense minister, whose accent is as public-school as they come, is regularly referred to as "the Spaniard," because his father came from Spain. When Heathrow Airport's baggage-handling system broke down, resulting in days of chaos, the second paragraph in the London Times began: "The German-invented baggage system ..." But my favorites are the tabloid headlines about the French--considered worst of all, because they're so nearby and they speak such a funny language--which regularly say things like "Hop back to France, Froggie!"
       There were no Moroccans, or even French people, in our house, so we considered the possibility that there might be a small, furry creature in the bathroom. My husband fell back to sleep. I lay awake like a giant walrus marooned on the rocks, beset, as I have been in recent weeks, by a series of flashbacks to lost episodes from my past. The episodes are often profoundly uninteresting, but they have been buried for so long that it's strange to have them bubble up now, when I feel more sharply that I am in limbo, at the two-week border crossing between the past and the future. They come most frequently at night, but they can crop up any time. I'll be buying my lunch-time baked potato, and all of a sudden I'll be transplanted back to tennis camp and the night we slept up on some mountain and a weedy-looking guy--let's call him Fred--deliberately put his sleeping bag next to mine. A few days later, he asked me to slow dance (first time ever). But the next summer, when I went back to camp, I overheard a counselor say to Fred, "So, have you told your parents yet that you're gay?"
       The memories seem slippery, like dwindling bars of soap in an enormous bathtub, and I'm greedy for them. The time I had to play a slave in the sixth-grade production of 1776; the way it felt to walk into the Times' Washington bureau for the first time, when I was so terrified of everyone; the time I was 14 and had a huge crush on a guy named Peter Newman. (He spoke to me once, when I bicycled past him. "You dog!" he yelled, causing me to fall off.)
       We've had a strange three years, my husband and I. I moved away from New York and into his house in London just a year after we met. We got married six months later, and then he fell spectacularly ill; while he's better now, I'm not sure I am. Though I can usually push it down pretty far, I suspect I'll always feel unsettled and scared. Then we decided to have a child, and here we are, on the brink--there's no going back.
       I've been reading up on the subject, and keep returning to a short story by the British writer Helen Simpson. In the story, "Heavy Weather," a young couple is trying to cope with their two small children. Half-dead from exhaustion, bereft of desire, hollow-eyed and covered in bits of cereal and baby spit-up, they slog through a vacation at the beach, wondering how they ever found themselves in this mess.
       At the end of the story, the husband sees his wife on the edge of the sea, splashing and carefree just for a second. "When I saw you over there by the rock-pools you looked just as you used to be," he says fondly. "Just the same girl." It's how she responds that always makes me cry: "I am not just as I was, however," she says. "I am no longer the same girl."

Sarah Lyall reports for the New York Times from London.