A few weeks ago I wrote this short story about my time abroad in London. I've been sending it to online publications but haven't gotten any answers (of course). So I thought I'd post it here, because I like it.
"On the Train," by Me, 2016
For the thousandth time, I looked out the rain-spattered windows of a London train car and wondered why the hell anyone would live here. Compare London to a cup of Earl Grey tea: grey, bland, underwhelming, and only palatable when doctored (such as with cream and sugar). On this night, my cream and sugar was a Finnish Christmas market, said to be one of the finest, with the best Finnish goodies, in all of London. I was very fond of Christmas markets, and so, with an escapist spirit, I fled my under heated flat in the middle of the South Kensington neighborhood to the outskirts of the city, a lesser-known neighborhood called Rotherhithe.
South Kensington > Sloane Square > Victoria > Westminster > Embankment > Temple > Blackfriars > Mansion House > Cannon Street > Monument > Tower Hill > Whitechapel > switch lines > Shadwell > Wapping> all the way to >Rotherhithe.
I suppose I sound spoiled to complain of my time spent in another country. True, I should be grateful I got to spend any time on the Queen’s island. Many people yearn for an experience abroad, and I was lucky enough to spend three months in Great Britain exploring and learning outside of the classroom, tethered by nothing but a few measly classes a week. I drank coffee from Italian coffee shops, shared my street with elegant French women, and traveled by plane or bus every weekend. Unfortunately, the biggest lesson I learned after my three-month stint was that I am an unremarkable and fairly boring person, and that the world is a very large, very confusing, and sometimes very rainy place.
My memories are of people who might have been aliens for how foreign they were to me. I’ll never forget a woman I saw on the train, once. I couldn’t know for sure, but I thought she might be from some eastern European country. She was tall and had a severe face that was caked in garish makeup. She was wearing a skin-tight white dress that showed her sculpted legs. She had long, straightened hair. I wasn’t quite sure if she was wealthy or poor, but in her ears I could hear the rich soundtrack to her life: a pulsating beat that belonged in the club turned up way too loudly on her headphones. She rocked back and forth to the vibrations, oblivious to everyone else on the train.
And there I sat. Mousy hair. A dull raincoat. Shy and self-conscious. Boring.
It was always like that on the train. Nobody looked at each other but everyone was watching. I’m sure this woman was watching me. Did she think I was cute or plain with my shabby outfit? What about the quiet Indian couple sitting a few rows down? Or the Moroccan children throwing candies across the aisles? Or the German teenagers wearing soccer jerseys and teasing each other gently? What did they think? Here we were on this tiny train car not touching or looking at each other. But secretly, we were all watching and being watched.
Back on that night in November, rain beating on the windows, I was dreading the mundane journey from South Kensington to Rotherhithe. I knew it would be wet, the train would smell damp, and everyone would be sullen. But I wanted to go to the market to get some Finnish candies. And to get away from my cramped apartment with my fellow students from the exchange program.
It took roughly an hour and a half to get from my first stop to my last stop. When I got off the train, it was still raining, and I still had to walk to the Finnish church. I got lost for a while in this labyrinthine suburb, an outer extremity of London that lacked the historic architecture of the rest of the city. If I hadn’t known where I was, I would have guessed I was back in America by the cookie-cutter condos and housing developments that popped up on either side of me. The streets were dark. Hardly any streetlights. I turned each corner blindly, wandering, getting lost, finding my footing again. If I vanished in this dingy suburb, no one would notice. I was that far from home. The rain and wind slapped my face. I kept looking for a bright spot to signify the old Finnish church I was headed for, but I couldn’t read the street signs.
Finally I found it, mostly by accident. When I stepped inside I was bombarded by trinkets and sweets, and charmed by the petite Finnish grandmothers walking around the church serving coffee under the shockingly bright lights. The coffee warmed me. The tables of Finnish crafts were so small and sweet compared to the bulky architecture outside. For a while I forgot that I was thousands of miles from home and that I was a nobody, and that I hated London, every inch of it, and just wanted to leave.
I stepped outside the church with goodies in hand and made my way back to the train. The rain had abated by now, and I had an easier time getting back to the station. I waited on the platform, actually looking forward to my stuffy apartment to get out of the cold weather.
When I stepped on the train, I took a seat near the back. I wanted to shut my eyes until I got home; ignore the journey.
Somewhere around Wapping I jerked my eyes open. When I looked to the doors of the train I noticed a small person stepping into the car. I do not mean this person was a dwarf. I do not mean he was a child. I do not mean he was a man of short stature. He was a small person, no taller than my waist, with arms and legs perfectly proportioned to the rest of his body, and without the usual facial characteristics of a dwarf. He looked like a wool sweater that had been shrunk in a dryer. He was something out of a movie, or a dream. I opened and closed my eyes a few more times. But I was not dreaming.
My first instinct was to grab my phone and take a picture. But no, that would be rude. I noticed that a young girl sitting next to me was staring at him unabashedly. Her father noticed, too, and chastised her for staring. The tiny man said, “It’s okay,” and started to play a game of peek-a-boo with her. The child wasn’t judging him. She noticed he was small like her, and she wanted a playmate. He smiled and blushed as he brought his hands up to his face and then pulled them down. Brought them up, pulled them down. She giggled quietly from across the aisle.
Before long, the train was screeching to a stop at Shadwell and it was time to get off. It was late. There was hardly anyone on the next train, which I stayed on all the way to South Kensington. When I got back to my apartment I searched the Internet – “dwarfism,” “little person,” “pygmy,” –until I found an extremely rare condition called Primordial Dwarfism. People with this condition have completely proportional bodies, but are abnormally small, sometimes with health defects due to their condition. They typically do not live past the age of thirty.
It is generally assumed that not more than a hundred people worldwide have Primordial Dwarfism.
In a few weeks, I flew back home to America and resumed life as usual. I became myself again. I knew I was insignificant, but I was back in my own small world. I forgot about London.
But every year, in late November when it rains, I am brought back to those nights in the stinking city, wandering through the streets with wet feet and a dripping nose. It is the smell, and the sound, and the dark clouds above me that bring me back.