In 2001 I flew between New York City and London 16 times. It seemed everyone else was afraid to fly. The highest fare I paid for a ticket was $218 roundtrip, most often enjoying the brocade seats and lamb korma of Kuwait Air. Each flight provided me with no less than three consecutive seats in a row to myself. I called it flat bed economy.
That year I was confused about where I lived except in seat 49K (or I, J, and K) somewhere over the Atlantic. I was struggling to push the fulcrum of my life eastward. I subletted my New York apartment. I endeavored to find film jobs that would hire me in the states and work me in Albion. I longed to be a proper ex-pat with a visa and a paycheck. In this process my stateside belongings became scattered in friends' garages and locked in storage spaces for which I could scant afford the rent.
In an effort to keep my mates, lower my monthly expenses, and lighten myself for immigration, I went on a campaign to consolidate: binning, gifting, and selling the detritus of my transatlantic and well-documented life. In my determination to keep only what would eventually be shipped to my London flat I had become uncharacteristically ruthless in deciding what got labeled future and what would be forever relinquished to my own memory.
Was my speculative husband really going to want hands-on a tactile experience of my past? "Oh and honey, look! These are the moldy dried petals of the corsage from my senior class dinner dance!" Were my kids seriously going to appreciate the Barbie Dream House? "Look, Punkin! When Mummy was your age Barbie didn't want to be a pop star or have money of her own. Don't you want to change Baby This and That's diaper and slave all day over your Easy Bake Oven?
I wanted to live in London permanently. I didn't know when and I didn't know how, but when an English job, English passport, or English consort fell from the sky or blossomed on the tree I determined to be ready. I was packed. Like a pregnant woman waiting for her water to break, husband on speed dial, valise by the door, I was prepared to go at a moment's notice.
It occurred to me that it was peculiar to want to move to a foreign country without a spouse, without a friend, without a family, without anyone who knew my history.
I now understand the clarity with which I so easily settled what to take and what to leave behind. Inanimate objects could no longer evoke a finite moment; they needed to sum up all the moments to which no one in my new life would have been privy. A vase had to be fundamentally representative of my style, a sconce needed to tell my story.
What did I keep? Anything that made me look jaunty, skinny, or tall. Anything with a Vuitton tag or in a Tiffany box. Anything that made my skin softer or made me smell yummy. Anything with ballerinas on it. Obviously these things.
But most importantly, most ridiculously, most stubbornly: my books. I wouldn't part with a single tome. Not a word of Waugh, not a page of Pychon. Books were actually one of the few things you could buy cheaper in London. So it really was a weakness in the fascist government that ruled my obstinate belongings that I kept the books at all. An underground movement seditiously protecting well-worn sleeves and dog-eared leaves from flea-market internment or Salvation Army exile. My books were to be the thread that connected me from one life to another, no longer fading from profuse sunshine but festering from the perpetual damp. I would have left it to them to tell my new friends about me. My soon-to-be mates would have known who I am from what I read and what I had read: Arendt, Bronte, Chabon, Dahl, Egers, Franzen, Gordimer, Hornby, Irving, Joyce, Kingsolver, Lahiri, Marquez, Nabokov, Ovid, Poe, Quine, Russell, Saramago, Twain, Updike, Vonnegut, White, Xenophones, Yeats, and Zukofsky were to attest my character.
Library books make me anxious. A borrowed book is like a visit from a long-distance lover: I can't commit to something I know I can't keep! There is a character in The Fountainhead who purchases a sculpture only to destroy it. By keeping the art from the world and protecting it from mediocre eyes, in his convoluted but somehow apt reasoning he possesses something that fundamentally defies ownership. That same obsessive thinking deludes me into believing that when I buy a copy of a fiction I'm closer to the words. I own the sentiment.
Rarely is my ownership of a great work of fiction contested. Every once in a while I'll encounter a kindred spirit willing to spar me for the rights to To Kill a Mockingbird and glorious and sexy are the times when I can talk words with a man, but more often I am the most avid fan by default.
I knew that by the time I got on that plane with a one-way ticket, by the time I landed that job that paid in pounds, by the time I schemed that mortgage of a drafty flat, I may have broken the 1930s gentleman's tea set and abandoned my 1920s Saks Fifth Avenue steamer trunk, but that the shelves of my dream library would have been stocked with baggage and my suitcase packed with books.