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Time always got tighter and tighter, it seemed, as the departure date arrived. On the morning Ethan was due to leave, Caroline set her alarm forty minutes earlier than his so she could shower and blow-dry before the taxi came to collect him. She wanted his final view of her to be softly coiffed. The night before they had eaten dinner at one of those £10 burger restaurants and they both agreed that, at that price, you’d expect it to come with fries. She should probably have taken him for a curry.
“A Happy Meal was literally the highlight of my childhood.” Caroline paused as she remembered the bright reds and yellows, the salt and sugar tang in the air.
“That is the saddest thing I ever heard.” Ethan looked genuinely shocked. “Next time you’re in California I’ll take you to In-N-Out Burger. It’s the best.”
She had been about to tell Ethan about the little spaceman toy. He was from a Happy Meal tie-in with a film her parents hadn’t let her see at the time, and she’d kept him ever since. But instead they ordered more £6 craft beers and talked about where they might live in the future. Afterwards they went for more drinks and both said “I’m going to miss you” as a deep but not entirely unpleasurable gloom settled over the evening.
Earlier, she had taken him to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The day was supposed to be a sunny showery one, but she took a chance on it. She wanted him to see the rough and rolling landscapes she loved in the few hours of winter daylight. Unused to short days and early closings, Ethan often liked to sleep and sleep, but she bugged him to get up in time. They hiked around the country park and Ethan had her take photos of him imitating the Henry Moores. He looked goofy, but as he leaned sideways and stretched out his long body, she looked at the weird curves of the dark marble and imagined running her hands all over it.
When the clouds lowered, they ducked into one of the underground galleries. Inside there was a huge installation constructed from tangled fronds of foliage, real and artificial, hung like a net and held together by twine and wire. Nestled inside were gaudy little plastic figurines – human, animal and machine – all seeming to interact. A pink unicorn pranced in front of a dark green toy soldier. A T-Rex poked at a tiny word processor. Caroline felt for the little spaceman in her pocket. Maybe she should finally release him here, into the wild. But where would he end up after the show? In a storage locker somewhere or eventually in landfill? She wasn’t ready to think about that yet. Meanwhile Ethan was there, getting up close to it all. He would always want to know the fine detail of how something was put together, the assumption being that he could then do it too, if he wanted. She watched him from the corner of the room, where she had walked without thinking over to the interpretive text. Ethan had his face right next to the piece, a breath away. The way he bent over, his T-shirt rising slightly above the waistband of his jeans, lifted something in her. But then something thudded inside too. He was too close to it. He might damage it. She wanted him to move a little further backwards.
“Hey Caro,” his voice boomed, and she wondered if soundwaves alone could dislodge a crucial link and bring the whole grand contrivance down. “Come check this out.” She moved over towards him just as another couple entered the space. They were middle aged, wearing North Face jackets in bright complimentary colours. She had a bob, he a beard. His backpack was under-filled and crumpled. Everything about them looked over-prepared. They approached the piece in a matter-of-fact way, took it in and then, with a silent nod, walked back out again together. Ethan stood behind Caroline and gathered her up, slotting his hands into her front pockets, his face next to hers. Her body eased back into his. They fit well together like this. She breathed in and out, looking through the hanging twigs into the empty space on the other side. She was sad he was going to be leaving, and this sadness was reassuring. When Ethan started to nuzzle into her neck, she lifted her chin slightly and only brought it down again when she heard more footsteps behind them.
It would occur to Caroline many years later that only a certain kind of person would put up with a long distance relationship: unwilling to live alone, but not wanting to share everything either.
On his penultimate evening, she’d made everyone go out for drinks. Caroline’s best friend Gina had spent all her university summers on expensive voluntourism programmes and considered herself worldly. She wanted to move to London and work for the Foreign Office but so far hadn’t made the cut. These days she came with an entourage of needy, bookish-looking men, at least three of whom were in love with her. The group was startlingly homogenous but their appetite for endless spot-the-cultural-difference conversations was at least one thing that connected them to Ethan. This time, Gina was struggling to get her head around Ethan’s ability to get his head around why people wouldn’t want socialised healthcare.
“As if I want my employer deciding whether I can go on the pill!”
“But the state deciding? I get why some people don’t think that’s too much better. I mean, I don’t agree with them, but I get it.”
Gina widened her eyes and rolled them around the circle: Ethan with his big, unselfconscious hoodie and his normal-cut jeans that, here, looked somehow naïve; everyone else with their outfits. It made sense for Caroline to be moving into his world, not vice versa. When Ethan had gone to the bar, Gina said, “Just because Americans don’t see class, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” The bookish men nodded sagely. Caroline let it go.
Of course, after Ethan produced a ring, there were visa applications and interviews to contend with. Caroline filled out forms, sensing traps in every question, but in the end it all progressed with the stilted churn of a massive bureaucracy. The sight of her oddly stern face staring up from a visa sticker nearly made Caroline vomit. In her hesitation, she felt guilty. Her mind conjured a newsflash of all the people around the world who would make more of this opportunity. Huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Heir to his family’s heating and cooling business, Ethan’s optimism could feel unseemly sometimes, but here it was paying off, as if freedom of movement was the most natural thing in the world.
Caroline took the National Express to Coventry to tell her parents on a grey morning in March. Her mum and dad sat rigid on the sofa, backed by that same flock wallpaper they’d always had. It was as though they were already receding into their place in a photo frame, static on a dresser somewhere, thousands of miles away.
“So you’re going then.”
“I’ll still visit.”
“We haven’t seen you since Christmas.”
Her mum would never fly, and they couldn’t afford it anyway.
Four weeks passed: a whirlwind of stress in which Caroline sold most of her belongings and quit her job, closing down three years of carefully assembled spreadsheets that no one would look at again. She resisted Gina’s attempts to throw a big going-away party, but agreed to a final dinner for two.
Gina drove a fork into her burger, puncturing its pretzel bun and toppling the stack. She gathered up all the innards and bit down on it, juices dribbling through her fingers. “God, this is filthy. Good though.”
“Although at that price you’d think it would come with fries.”
“I suppose. Well anyway, you’re off to the land of plenty, so cheers.”
They clinked glasses but Gina looked down.
“I can’t fucking stand goodbyes. It’s like boarding school all over again.”
Caroline felt a chunk in her chest, the unexpected weight of her friend’s vulnerability. She was one of the few people who knew what lay underneath Gina’s verbose self-confidence. She’d seen it once or twice before, when one of Gina’s summer plans fell through: her fear of being left. It had taken Caroline a while to understand this about Gina, but once she did, she read it into everything: how Gina scarfed her food, unwilling to risk being left alone at a table; how she freaked out if news of a party reached her before an invitation. With all this knowledge, Caroline had grown closer to Gina and now she felt all the worse about leaving her. But then, she suspected Gina would be fine, with her ever-present line-up of romantic possibilities and no pressing need to reveal herself fully to any of them.
Gina drove Caroline to Manchester Airport on the morning of her flight. The fog hung low over the Pennines as Gina powered her little Yaris over the M62 summit. Even though Caroline had by now taken several trips back and forth to visit Ethan, Gina still seemed to think it was necessary to remind her about long-haul travel strategies.
“Drink lots of fluids, but remember they don’t let you take water through security.”
Gina scrunched her cheeks, as if evaluating a sour taste. She was wearing a green jumper dress that Caroline hadn’t seen before and the neckline seemed to be bothering her. Caroline checked her passport again.
“Oh and do some stretches if you can. Point your toes in your seat, that kind of thing.”
Caroline was about to ask Gina what her problem was, but then a song came on the radio that had come out during their first year of university. Gina launched into the opening lines, mocking the baritone seriousness of the lead singer. All the boys they’d chased that year had been trying to be in dark synth-pop bands and their 1980s reference points had wrapped themselves around Caroline’s memories of that time in a heady mix of now-ness and nostalgia that, back then, had felt tinglingly new. As the song built to the chorus, Caroline remembered raised arms and sweaty hugs: I hope we die at the same time! Looking sideways at Gina she thought she saw the glint of a tear. A car undertook – Gina had a habit of hogging the middle lane at seventy mph. Soon they were both bawling along to the words, smiling and crying, lorries chugging up behind them, with Caroline feeling that if they could just keep circling the Manchester ring road, singing this song forever, she would probably be happy with that.
At the end of a tunnel, departure boards blinked, like glimpses of other possible lives. Fellow travellers scanned past Caroline on the moving walkways as she turned the little spaceman over between her fingers. She was free and alone in the airport, tied to nothing but her gate time, but Caroline began to feel sure that a terrible mistake would be discovered. She’d be sent back home, tugging her suitcase along, with nothing to show for the whole thing but an embarrassingly underwhelming story. And what could be worse than that? The check-in attendant scanned her passport and skimmed her visa. “Enjoy your flight,” she said without looking up. At security, Caroline unpacked her small see-through bag of toiletries and dutifully lifted her laptop into a separate tray. Would she be selected for a full search? A bored-looking man with Velcro shoes waved her through, past the x-rays and into that parallel space with the same shops and cafes as outside, but different somehow. Everyone sectioned off, buying boiled sweets and bottled water, preparing to be somewhere else. There were businesspeople and holidaymakers as usual but this time Caroline was looking for others like herself: those who were leaving everything behind. She wondered if there would be a special line at the other end for people coming to make a new life. There might be a screen for them to pass through that would scan their motivations and expectations, checking for flaws and inconsistencies. Have you really thought this through? Or they might need to be quarantined, lest their restlessness rub off on the general population.
Last time, she had sat on a flight home next to an American student arriving for a year in Manchester. The boy was flush with enthusiasm – for soccer, for British TV comedy, for his plans to travel around Europe during vacations – and Caroline quietly hoped that the experience would match up with the dogged rosiness of his outlook. She thought of damp Manchester mornings, pissed up forty-somethings lairy at seven thirty pm, and all the many disappointments a person might encounter during a year in the Northwest of England. But then she thought of Ethan three years beforehand, how pleased he was by everything, how lucky she had felt to be chosen by someone like him at that time. How with him she’d seen places like Scarborough and Bradford through new eyes. How he loved riding on trains. How he stood in awe of the stately homes that she had been dragged round on unappreciated school trips as a teenager. How he’d even developed a taste for Greggs steak bakes. It was as though Ethan had cracked open a shell and inside were all these good things that she’d never noticed before, but had been there all the time.
Ahead of her at the gate was a family: a British woman, her American partner and two children. The toddler ran loose while a baby lay fastened into a buggy contraption loaded with padded plastic holdalls and colourful water bottles. All the paraphernalia of parenthood had been packed carefully, but was already starting to come apart at the seams. Muslin sheets flopped over the handles and toys jaggled alongside. Caroline flinched when the baby squawked and the mother lifted it up and cradled it over her shoulder. A line of milky white sick spurted down her back and into her ponytail. At first the woman didn’t notice and Caroline wondered whether it would be right to tell her. The familiar adrenaline of indecision bothered her stomach. Ethan or Gina probably would have said something, but instead Caroline plugged in her headphones and waited, hoping for a seat at least a few rows distant from them.
Just now, Ethan would be sleeping, while her day was running back towards his. When she landed in California it would only be late morning. Gina, she imagined, would be getting ready for bed – throwing her new green dress into the laundry basket – or just lying awake for a while, after turning out her light. In all her journeys, past and future, Caroline never stopped being pleased with the feeling of gaining time as she travelled west. The extra time was just something to be taken in your stride and surmounted before sleep. Sometimes it felt generous, even. And there was always something miserly about coming back the other way; the red-eye flights chased the dawn away and stole hours from your life, leaving you tired and sore. This time though, she couldn’t gauge the feeling. When the plane started plunging down the runway, Caroline felt like she was being lifted away from herself. As the flight charted its path northwest towards Greenland, the difference between gain and loss was unclear.
On her annual visits, Caroline will notice Gina becoming rounder as the years pass, but she’ll wear it with confidence, draped in linens and tasselled scarves. Gina will eventually open up to one of the bookish men. They’ll get married and buy a house in Hebden Bridge, just high enough up the valley to avoid floodwaters. She’ll produce four children, start groups for local mothers, and write books about parenting that do quite well.
“I think,” Gina says, pouring afternoon red wine in her cluttered kitchen, “there was always a kind of strangeness between you and Ethan.”
Caroline feels decade-old defences reassembling, but she lets Gina go on. It’s almost reassuring how easily these patterns realign.
“It’s inevitable if you spend so much time apart at the beginning.”
The afternoon blends into evening and they go back over the years. Questions float and explanations muster then dissipate like clouds. Gina pours more wine. “Do you think it made a difference, not having kids?”
Caroline dodges the question. Instead, she quotes from their expensive couples therapy, the strange mid-Atlantic bends in her accent becoming more pronounced as she ponders aloud whether the distances between Ethan and her – cultural, geographical – hadn’t just stopped her from recognising sooner that there were other differences between them.
Gina looks impressed. “You should write a book,” she says, slurring.
Caroline is buoyed. “Men will consume a woman’s time and think nothing of it.” It’s a line Gina might have used, and even as she says it, Caroline knows it doesn’t quite fit. It will take Caroline a few more years to admit to herself how soon it was that she knew, but how long she took to act. Right now it’s easy – too easy – to blame Ethan, or even Gina, for her choices. “We kept trying,” says Caroline, looking out of the window where she can just make out the black of the hills against the black of the sky, “perhaps for longer than we should have.”
The next morning, Caroline has a good old-fashioned British hangover. Squeezing her hire car along the bottom of the Calder Valley, she’s conscious of driving on the wrong side of the road, of being hemmed in by the old mills, the canal, the solid stone terraces with only a few feet of pavement in front. It feels strange, but good, to be shielded from long views. After a while, she reaches the M1 and turns south for Coventry. She needs to devote a few weeks to sorting out various things with her parents, who are of course older and quieter than ever. Soon, she notices brown signs for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. As the mile markers get shorter she’s tempted to stop. She’s hungry though and, playing for time, pulls into a service station.
It’s immediately familiar: this middle space that promises so much on approach but where, on arrival, none of the options seem good. Floppy “fresh made” wraps, some fried brown items alleging to be “street food”. Travellers dither in the walkways, car-stiff and stunned by the bright lights. But Caroline is purposeful: McDonald’s is drawing her in. The menu glows overhead. She remembers her early meals in California, her appetite sometimes paralysed by the array of choices and sub-choices. She would stare dumbfounded as a waiter listed fifteen different salad dressings, always just going with the last one on the list. Ethan teased her about this, fondly at first, and then later with tart exasperation. Later still, she was amazed to discover that she did in fact have a preference, and that over time she had become a person who could ask, in all seriousness, for something as outlandish as low-sugar raspberry vinaigrette. One Christmas visit to Coventry she had introduced her parents to flavoured coffees. “Pumpkin Spice Latte!” her Dad had said, as if these words made no sense to him at all, and nor should they. Sitting in the glum little Starbucks, her Mum had drunk the whole thing, but Caroline could tell from the creases round her mouth that she hadn’t really enjoyed it. “What a world we live in now,” she’d said, as though reading about a sex scandal.
Now, Caroline prods her McDonald’s order into the touch screen with confidence. Waiting, she imagines the meal to come: the sweet, spongy bun that will stick to the roof of her mouth; the slick and salty meat; the background weirdness of the gherkins. Flavours the same wherever you are in the world. Called to the counter, she picks up her tray with its familiar assortment of packages: the ketchup pouch, the cup of fizzy drink whose UK sizing looks small and almost elegantly restrained.
Caroline scans the seating area, the long windows, the car park and the overpass. Over to one side, an explosion of children clamber on the brown leather seating. Their muted parents nurse paper cups of tea and stare outside, oblivious to the milkshake spurts and shrieking. There’s a spot in the opposite corner where some bean bags are making a barrier of sorts. Nearby sit a young couple, the woman stabbing a straw in and out of an iced coffee.
“I told you we needed to leave earlier.” She wears a beige polo-necked jumper with the shoulders cut away, fashionable but self-defeating.
The lad still has his outdoor coat on and two thirds of his meal left. “Alright, why do you always have to—?” He looks over as an especially loud shriek shocks everyone into a momentary hush. “Can those parents not—”
“Oh just hurry up will you.”
Caroline slides past them, tray in hand. A glass lamp on a big bendy stem casts a circle of light over the empty table. She settles into her seat and zones in on her burger, shielded by a little force field of solitude. She tumbles out the fries. The enticing childhood smell is the same but something is missing. Caroline digs into her pocket. For a second she thinks it might be empty, but her fingers catch. His edges are worn and his painted features are fading. He’s still with her though. She perches the spaceman on the side of her tray and sits with him for a moment before starting her meal, looking down at each of its components, overwhelmed with plenty.
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