City of Forking Paths
There is a version of myself that falls in love somewhere between Milton Keynes and Euston Station. I am returning to my home in London from a weekend in the countryside alone. I am twenty-two, a freshly minted university graduate, a foreigner. I am sharing a bedroom in a basement flat in King’s Cross that periodically rumbles as trains from the Piccadilly Line barrel underneath. A few months before, four young men have blown themselves up on the Underground and a bus, and the rumbles cease for awhile. We remain on edge, but we also grow jaded and nonchalant, which is the attitude I decide to take when our train stops dead on the tracks. There is a bomb threat at MK station.
I am sitting at a table with two young men, one dark-eyed and one light. I have listened to their conversation from Crewe to wherever it is that we sit on the tracks. Having been alone all weekend, I thirst for conversation, and in my desperation I break an English rule and speak to them. Frank the dark-eyed boy is from Jersey; Ben the light-eyed boy is from I don’t remember where, but he wears a Yankees baseball cap that allows me to begin a conversation that flows through the delay, past MK, and all the way to Euston, two hours or more. I don’t ask for his number but I learn, in the course of the night, that I walk past the building on Chancery Lane where he works every morning.
A week passes. I walk to work every morning down Chancery Lane looking for him. Then one day: a light-eyed boy walks toward me smiling. I am past him before I realise who he is, my friend from the train. There is a version of myself who turns around, smiles back, removes the headphones from her ears, begins again. But I do not stop. And the next morning, I take a different route.
In the great belly of the city, there are so many versions of myself, so many Borgesian paths forking. Sometimes I glimpse them: the version who smiled back at the light-eyed boy. The version who got off the tube with the boy she ran into from home, the boy she’d seen a million times at school yet whose name she never knew. She didn’t let him escape at Piccadilly Circus. She recognised the impossible odds that brought them together and knew not to ignore them. Then there’s the version who found a way to stay in London after her visa was done, who loved herself enough to start a life there, to never leave.
Sometimes in the city I catch these other selves out of the corner of my eye, watching me. Watching my children running through the fountain in Russell Square on the hottest day of summer. Watching my husband join them on the tall slide in Coram’s Fields. Watching me fall in love over, and over, and over, and over.
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