Unbelievably the London sun was shining again. It was late morning, GMT, and light filtered through my windows, strong enough to penetrate the drapery but not so strong as to penetrate the diaphanous folds of my sleep. I dreamed, brow furrowed into a point above my nose, lips pursed not for a kiss but for sympathy. The phone rang. I didn't stir. Only my forehead, contorted with the infinity of my unconscious seemed to register the foreign noise. (When sleep is present it is reality. I liken sleep to that ambiguous drawing of a vase and a face. It is impossible to see both at the same time. So is it impossible to reconcile the linear world of wakefulness and that other world too big for the words we've made from experience.) It was 2001 so there was an answering machine. Eventually it picked up. "Hi, it's Hally. Leave a message." It beeped. Blaring through the phone was very loud and enthusiastic singing. "O-OH SAY CAN DA-DAH! BY THE DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT. WHAT SO PROUDLY WE UHNNN...AT THE TWILIGHT'S LAST YAH-DAH. AND THE ROCKET'S RED GLARE! THE BOMBS BURSTING IN AIR. BUH-BUH DUH-DUH-DUH THAT OUR FLAG WAS THE-ERE!" I wondered who was pissing on the anthem of my people. I surveyed the room, stubbornly unstirring, vainly trying to preserve the dimension I'd already lost. "OR THE LA-AND OF THE FREEEEEEE! AND THE HOME OF HALLY MCGEHEAN!" It was my Great and British mates Repton and Petunia. They were accompanying themselves with pots and pans in a deafening crescendo. I tried to remember the field of imagination in which I was recently dancing but it receded as the ground to a bungee jumper on the upswing. They hung up. There was silence. A lark recommenced singing. I rolled over, determined to jump back into the air, though the muscles in my face had slackened. It was no use. My mobile hummed. "Go away you limey bastards," I pleaded to no one present. After several couplets the buzzing ceased and the room was quiet again. I buried my head in my pillow and slowly stretched my ankles and toes under the duvet, but the landline rang anew. Exasperated, I pounded my fist on the mattress before picking up the receiver, putting it to my ear and responding flatly, "God Save the Queen." The following dialog ensued between me and my interlocutor, Petunia.
Petunia: God Bless America!
Me: Rule Britannia.
Petunia: Hail to the Chief!
Me: Anarchy in the UK.
Petunia: Born in the USA!
Me: London Calling.
Petunia began to sing: "START SPREADIN' THE NEWS..."
I conceded. New York, New York is the only tune that can trump The Clash.
Let me explain. I WAS HAVING AN AFFAIR. But it was not what you think. It was Independence Day - The Fourth of July - and I was the only freedom loving American not humming Souza marches. Don't misunderstand. I'd honored my country faithfully for thirty years. I'd always been nimble to defend my country's contributions to the world: Ellis Island, jazz, musical theater, and the not so insignificant things we've done with democracy. I had been unquestioningly committed to all fifty states and would have effortlessly and honestly taken my vows. I thought I was a lifetime monogamist. I thought it would last forever. But I met someone else. I didn't mean for it to happen. I didn't want to hurt anyone. I met England and I fell in love.
To be a happy American in London on Independence Day is akin to rolling around sweaty with a man and, as you stroke his face or grab his hair with your left hand, being reminded of the gold band that was not from him. Shameful.
And there in my remorse and in Regent's Park I sat on a Union Jack sheet wearing a cut up Underground t-shirt and a kilt. On a plate in front of me were cupcakes I'd crudely decorated with HRH and LIZ 2.
Petunia and Repton finally showed up late, adding insult to their rude awakening. Petunia was wrapped in a toga of an American flag and Repton was sporting a plaid flannel shirt and a cowboy hat. I inquired if they should not be wearing black and they countered that cupcakes were inherently American. I defended them as puddings.
We spent the afternoon luxuriously sprawled out under some London summer, lunching on a bottle of wine and chocolate cupcakes, surrounded by footie and sunbathers. Soon Repton and I had joined the footballers without invitation, diving and kicking, kilt revealing and Stetson flying. Almost as soon, but with solicitation, the footballers were helping us finish a third and a fourth and a fifth bottle of wine until we were fairly horizontal, laughing and snorting. I laughed so hard I choked on my wine, heaving and hacking, doubled over the grass and dribbling inky saliva while the right mid-fielder slapped my back.
When the team left the pitch, Petunia, Repton, and I lit sparklers and lay on our backs under a darkening sky. Completely pissed, we sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Raindrops began to fall on our heads and on our cigarettes. We were unmoving but continued to drag handlessly on our smokes, heedless of the burgeoning squall, until we were drenched in summer rain.
Repton, flaccid cigarette dangling from his wet lips, challenged my love for England. I told him the exchange rate was not in my favor. There was then an exchange of duchy expletives, ending in an Irish paroxysm of offense when I did what I often do, lumping the Irishman in with the Blighty lot, and calling him Royalist Scum. I was reminded of his provenance, and my own commiserative name, and we all shut up for a moment. Petunia gave up on her ciggie, spit it out, and proposed a treaty.
And that's how we found ourselves, drunk, wet and stupid, lying on our stomachs, trousers pulled down or kilt hiked up, having a misery and being tattooed. The wine, the pain, the chocolate and the adrenalin, now adulterating in my very small bloodstream, had alchemized into a sonorous diatribe.
"How could I not be seduced?! I'm a child of the eighties! I was raised on a strictly Brit musical diet! The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Cure, The Smiths, Duran Duran!" Petunia and Repton were in too much pain to demur and shimmied back into their jeans. I winged on.
"My favorite movies! A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Brideshead Revisited!"
We limped down a wet but no longer rainy street, carefully, as if having descended a horse. We were tired, waterlogged, and already hung over. Although everything else about me was feeble by this point, the communication between my medulla and my mouth was unshambling.
"I'm sorry if I've always preferred Evelyn Waugh to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Monty Python to Saturday Night Live! What do you expect? My middle name is Elizabeth!" I petulantly put my hand to my sore arse as Petunia and Repton put their arms around me and we walked home in a solidarity unimaginable to our forefathers and mothers.
In that evening's sober interim I brushed my grape-stained teeth, spitting and laying down my Virgin Atlantic toothbrush on the sink, and regretting the souvenirs of adultery. I picked out a small black dress while composing my Dear John letter in my aching head.
Dear cuckold, in sleeping with the enemy I have learned things about America. I have regarded The Land of Liberty from a distance and compared her to some of the other fish in the Atlantic. Before you parade me around with a scarlet 'A' on my chest, let me share with you what I've learned.
Despite the hangover I was trying to eradicate with the hair of the dog that bit me so savagely, I closed my eyes, pursed a smile, and determined to persist in my pontification. I thoughtfully continued my note at J. Sheeky as I dined with Soames and his thoroughbreds in a posh Covent Garden eatery. I inwardly made my amends while they toasted my independence.
Spending time in England has taught me more about the States than I could have ever learned in his keeping. From a distance I've seen some strengths of my country that were so inherent, I never really bothered to understand them. I have become aware that England's class system remains deeply stratified. (A ‘duck-faced' looking rose in a starched shirt smiles condescendingly at me.) There are the aristocrats and there are all the other people. I often slum with the former. (Julian, a large and pompous-looking dandy, ignores my personal space. I bat away my discomfort with fluttering eyelashes.) They actually wore white tie and tails to school and actually enjoy - (John, a smart looking middle-aged gentleman picks up a bottle and offers to pour. "Port?") - out of the bottle and not just in a plastic tub of cheese. ("So, Hally-Hals, how would you rate the restaurant, a scale of 1-10, on atmosphere?" Soames playfully quizzes, a game we've played since I was 13.) They are lovely. ("Your nails are purple! Soames, have you seen her nails?") And they are acutely aware from whence they came. (The duck-face, patronizingly, "So, you're an actress, are you? On the stage?" "Do you think we could get some cigars?" Soames, to the waitress.) So is everyone around them. (The waitress defers, "Yes, sir.")
And here's the thing: (Pompous Julian, "No, no, no, you see, I've got this deal with these Japanese and it's gonna make me five mil' easy.") They did not become who they are because of their talent. (Pompous Julian leans into me, slurring his words, "You wanna smoke a joint?") Or drive. (He becomes aggressive, "Oh, you think you're too good for that, do you?") Or ingenuity. (John rescues me, "I hear you were studying at Balliol?" The duck-face and others all chime, "Balliol? Well, isn't that impressive? Balliol, was it?") Although they may possess all these things. They are aristocratic because they were born that way.
After a few more drinks courses, Soames helped me on with my jacket we said our goodnights. Having parted with our company Soames and I walked up the street. "That was lovely Uncle Soames. Thank you."
"Well Hally-Hals, I've got to make sure you have good things to say about me to your Mum. Sorry about Julian, I'm quite cross with him actually." We walked past The Ritz. Soames wondered if I'd seen it, making me laugh. The only places I saw were the coffee shop and the pub. He steered me inside and addressed the concierge who greeted us with a crisp "Good evening, sir."
"Yes, good evening. This lovely and quite accomplished American actress is in London working on a new film and has never seen the Palm Court and I was hoping we could have a look 'round?" "Of course, Miss. May I take your coat?"
We walked through the barrel-vaulted lobby and came to the darkened dining room. A hostess was finishing paperwork at a podium outside and asked if she could help us. "Yes, I was hoping I could show my fiancée the room. I know it's late, but she's just arrived from America." "Of course, sir." "Cheers."
As the lights were turned on, we entered the ornately mirrored and gilt Palm Court dining room. I was as wide-eyed as if I'd been raised in an orphanage. "It's got to be the best dining room in London. The food's not great and it's a bit dear but it's an amazing room." He called to the hostess, disregarding the darkness, absence of staff and the plain fact that they were closed. "Excuse me? Yeah, hi, do you think we could get some coffee?" "Of course, sir." "Cheers."
The landed gentry can make something of their entitlement or they can make a hash of their lives. It doesn't matter. Penniless or feckless their peculiar conception will always garner respect.
The Ritz was sparkly. The coffee was perfect. Soames and I talked about my ex-boyfriend, Henry, and his ex-girlfriend, Fiona, who happened to be ex-husband and ex-wife. We did not talk about the inbreeding of the upper class.
"I'm sorry about the way things turned out with Fiona," I offered. "I know you really liked her."
"Well, she's a cow."
I smiled apologetically.
"Miss McGehean, you're supposed to agree with me."
"Well I do in a way. I think anyone's a cow who hurts my friend. But she's my friend too."
"Well tell her how well I'm doing."
"Of course. And about all those women throwing themselves at you."
"I saw Henry last week-end."
I paled. "Are you trying to get me back for something?"
"No, no," Soames responded with acute passive aggression, "I just thought you'd want to know."
I barely paused to change gears. "Have you ever had sex with a man?"
"Can we put away the swords, please?"
"But where do you put your sword? That's the question."
The following day at the launderette with Repton and Petunia my enthusiasm for the topic was unwaning, and with my working class audience my inner monologue had turned outward soliloquy.
The flip side of this pound coin is no better! You can make a fortune. You can buy an estate and appoint it tastefully. You can sport well-worn calfskin driving slippers and serve your guests appallingly smelly cheese. You can play tennis really well. But I'm sorry mister, if your dad wasn't friends with their dad, you are eternally excluded from the club. I thoroughly depressed my groundlings.
I went to see my friend Chicky, a Boston-bread ex-pat who, although she boasts two English husbands, two English children, and a thirty-year West London inhabitance, has never lost a hint of her Mayflower accent. Like Soames, Chicky was a London journalist and at a Christmas Party in Battersea had adopted me as a hawk "adopts" a puppy. I sat at her kitchen table while Chicky poured coffee and apologized. The banter went like this:
Chicky: "I know. I'm sorry I couldn't make it. Soames said that Julian was a real asshole."
Me: "He's hideous. He touched my stomach!"
Chicky: "I don't know why people put up with him."
"Because he went to Harrow and Cambridge. He asked me if I had any drugs for him."
"That's because he couldn't afford any himself. His wife's put him off it."
"Have you gotten used to it? I mean you married one of them didn't you?"
"Two of them. I guess it's like anything else. There's some good to be had of it so you've got to forgive the crappy stuff. If you want to hear that accent, you've got to put up with the alcoholism."
"It's so wrong. I mean not the drinking or buggery but the gentry."
"You were brought up on the American Dream."
"Right. We dumped all that tea..."
"You want a fair barometer of character, not an arbitrary one."
"Exactly. You and I are people of action."
"People of results."
"We respect hard work, we respect creativity,"
"We respect financial success."
"That's right." I winced, "Ow."
"My ass hurts."
"I didn't think you were dating anyone."
"I got a tattoo."
Chicky's phone rang. "Chicky Barnes. Hi Soamsie. Yes, she's here." She handed the phone to me. "The body-art police are on the phone."
Soames: "I've got someone I think you should meet."
Me: "Go on."
"He's a writer for The Telegraph."
"That's my job, remember?"
"Eton or Harrow?"
My interest was piqued: "Gus Hardy went to Winchester."
"Oxford or Cambridge?"
"I'm not sure I like that. What did he study?"
"Hally, I don't know! You're so strange, you've no interest in how fit or good looking the man is, nor how much money he makes, but you always want to know every detail about his education and what section of the paper he reads first."
"I hope it's the Op/Ed."
"Op/Ed? Is that like," in a bad American accent, "Pro-active, or twenty-four/seven?"
"Does he believe in God?"
"Hally, we're colleagues, not blood brothers."
"Give him my email."
"Thought so. Toots."
"Toots? Is that like," in my best Eliza Doolittle, "buggery, or gov'nor?"
"Good day, Miss McGehean," Soames closed without humor.
"Cheerio!" And I hung up the phone, gleeful at having so thoroughly taken the piss. "I have a blind date!" I told Chicky triumphantly.
"Good thing. No seeing Englishman is going to buy dessert for a girl with a tattoo on her ass."
"But they like asses!"
"What's your tattoo?"
"An arrow pointing to my sphincter and a sign that says, Not this one, boys!" I had an acute recollection of the previous evening. "Speaking of getting it in the dumper, I called Soames a pouf last night."
"Probably not best."
"Yeah, I sensed that." My eyes reverted to the back of my head as they do when I am trying to figure something out. "Because he is, or because he isn't?"
"Because he may have sex with men but fall in love with women."
"Does that make him bisexual, or just perverted?"
"I think it makes him a member of the House of Lords."
We are very quick in London.
The next morning, in my dressing gown and hugging my Tate Modern mug of coffee, I checked my email. I had received one from email@example.com. and it read: 'studied history. always read front page first but like sunday magazine best. agnostic.' I giggled happily.
Date made and mildly swanky Knightsbridge venue decided on, I sat, smart-casual, fetchingly across from Tim, who turned out to be both fit and good-looking. We dined. I went on. In my head or Hyde Park, I would go on.
"It's funny that it's taboo to ask someone here what they do, as if it's insulting, and yet everyone is obsessed with pedigree."
"Asking someone what they do is like asking, 'How much money do you make?'"
"First of all, asking someone how much money they make at least has more merit than inquiring how much their parents left them. But secondly, there's no financial content, or judgment even, inherent in the question. Those who are offended are those who see the world, or success, as, in the case of the English, your horse's winnings and the view from your estate, and in the case of the Americans, what kind of car you drive and the view from your office."
"Exactly. The English value the home and family and Americans value the workplace."
"That's part of what I'm saying. The English want to know your financial history, which is about property and genealogy. Americans want to know how you are active in the world, your financial present. It's not about inheriting, it's about producing."
"Americans are obsessed with work."
"But what I meant before was that to assume either of these things in the question 'What do you do?' is pejorative."
"It may not be what you mean when you ask it, but it is what everyone else means."
"Maybe when someone asks you what you do, it's because they want to know more about you, because they want to find common ground on which to forge a relationship."
"Then they could ask, 'What are your interests?'"
"It's the same thing! You could answer, 'I like to kill salmon.' Even the verb is ambiguous!"
"Kill is ambiguous?"
"No, do is. 'What do you do?' 'I'm an aspiring novelist.' And you could add, if you were so generous, 'but I support myself by writing a financial column for The Telegraph.' The point is dialogue, not status."
"I still think it's presumptuous."
"Presumptuous to talk about more than the weather at a cocktail party? In England? 'Nice to meet you, Tim. It's raining.'"
Soon after dessert we were kissing wildly in a darkened doorway.
That's right. Black or white, male or female, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, there's a hefty fee, but once paid, the club I was born into doesn't discriminate. An application is available at any Prada Boutique or Mercedes Benz dealer.
Tim ran his hand up the outside of my thigh and over my bum.
"Ow!" I jumped before I could stop myself.
Tim stopped immediately and looked alarmed.
"I'm so sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"No, it's just...I have a wound on my bum."
"How odd. Contagious?"
He looked at me for further explanation.
"I recently got a tattoo."
"On your ass? Fantastic!"
The next day, Petunia, Repton, and I sat more gingerly than usual on the sofa, backs straight, drinking coffee, staring distractedly at the telly. Petunia, without changing her gaze asked me flatly, "So, Tim, huh?"
Me, the same: "Yep."
Repton, ditto: "Nice bloke?"
Me: "Yeah, nice."
Repton: "Yeah, good."
We looked nervously at one another.
Repton: "Yeah, it's time."
I took a deep breath. We put down our mugs and slowly rose to our feet. One by one we pulled down our trousers, uncovering each a gauze patch over one butt cheek. We began to peel them off. Petunia revealed the Tricolour tattooed on her bum. Repton got the Stars and Stripes on his. I have a Union Jack.
In conclusion, though my tea leaves foretell green rolling hills and children with meltingly cute accents, this ex-pat will retain through all her years, a self-satisfied air, owing to her Americanism. Call me Benedict Arnold, call me a cheating fool, I am sure that God can Bless America and Save the Queen without conflict.