Creative Non-Fiction by Jacob Little
It is the first weekend of my semester in London, and I go on a Jack the Ripper tour—a walk through modern London—visiting all the century-old crime scenes. I am following an absurdly enthusiastic 30-year-old in a backpack, who explains the gruesome details of the slaughters with wild, stabbing, hand motions as we stand outside a Tesco, a bustling Tube station, a pub with a neon sign advertising trivia night. He can’t stop smiling.
I learn to tune him out, stare instead at a stranger leaning against the glass exterior of a coffee shop. Long ago, in these exact spots, a man—whose face history never learned—murdered prostitutes in brick alleys that smelled of feces. He murdered them in buildings that would be razed and paved over and swallowed in 100-foot-wide bands of tarmac, metal and glass high rises. Or maybe just covered by a piece of curb where brightly-lit buses stop for passengers, even after midnight.
The dorm I’m staying in sits in the middle of Regent’s Park. There are spots nearby with names like “Queen Mary’s Garden,” “Nannies Lawn,” and “Primrose Hill.” “Ornamental Lake” has a fleet full of paddleboats which no one ever seems to use.
There aren’t as many dogs in the park as I thought there would be. I wonder whether the absence of dogs is due to the smell of the large predators in the nearby zoo—but I dismiss this as silly.
Still, I want to understand. I wonder how far a lion’s roar might carry. Whether the ducks in the nearby ponds would upset at the sound of it, if they would even know to be afraid. I wonder what a duck would do in the lions’ country, in Zimbabwe or wherever, how long it would stay alive. I wonder what a duck would eat there.
There is no privacy in the dorms. I find myself locked in bathroom stalls at odd hours without having to go—just trying to close myself off for a moment or two. I watch the flip-flops pad past to the showers. I eye the straining feet in the stall next to me with distaste, try not to breathe in too deep. I stare at graffiti on the walls until it stops making sense, until the letters are only shape and color.
I walk down Baker Street at night, past Madame Tussaud’s tawdry figures of wax. I don’t go in. I sneer at the kind of person who would. I drink beers in The Metropolitan with a friend who only drinks Coca Cola. He still gets carded. I leave before him, walk back to the dorms alone. I make note of the foreign things: crosswalks marked with white, blue, and yellow cones; the domed hats and neon jackets of the policemen; and the spiked black fences in front of homes, along the streets, around all of Regent’s Park. I notice the strange things as often as I can, try to force them into familiarity.
My grandfather writes me an email to ask what I think of the Tower of London. I write back, tell him I haven’t gone, don’t intend to. He is incredulous, furious. His email sputters in indignation. I tell him that there isn’t much to learn there, about myself or anyone else. I tell him instead about how I’ve been riding the red buses in their endless loops and watching as people with foreign faces get on and off. I tell him it makes me feel small, that this is good.
One night, my friend and I sit with a bus driver at the end of the line and wait for him to start his next round. He tells us about his children, his wife. He tells us about his life in Eastern Europe before he brought his family here. He tells us these things without looking at us, staring instead at some distant spot beyond the windshield. We lean into the aisle to watch his face in the mirror.
In the years to come, I will forget what he says—every word of it—but not his face in the dark bus. Never his opening face in the dark bus.
My friend and I take a plane to Dublin one long weekend, and it drops and jumps in a storm that lights up outside the window. I grip the armrests tight enough that I think I might melt the plastic between my fingers. I resent my friend’s calm demeanor. Someone behind us starts crying. When we slam and bounce onto the tarmac, everyone applauds.
Twenty minutes later, we are standing in the streets of Dublin at 2am. A drunk man asks where in the states we are from, and we tell him St. Louis. He says Missouri! … The Arch! … Mark McGwire! … Cheater!
We nod. Yes. —this is who we are.
I fly to Athens, Greece on Spring Break and jostle against the masses. The buildings seem to inch closer together every moment. I head towards the center of the city, where the acropolis rises high as a locating marker and destination. I am resigned to my role here; tourist. And we tourists are loud and excited, our din rising unnaturally over the roar of the traffic, the music of the street vendors.
We have fanny packs, backpacks, and money belts. We have cameras around our necks, pop up maps, itineraries, and 20 oz. bottles of water. We announce loudly we have to pee while the locals buzz around us hoping to sell something: a hat, a shirt, a postcard.
I think that, maybe, my easy assimilation into this group of outsiders, of too-casual observers, should tell me something about myself. But I don’t know what.
In Athens, I watch a man on a horse ignore the traffic honking at him. I sit in a sidewalk-cafe eating lamb, stare up at prehistoric white pillars, am reflected in the seamless glass exterior of a library. I read a plaque about a burial site while waiting for the bus, and enter a crumbling, ancient building, marveling anew at the surprise of carpet and air conditioning.
In Greece, I learn that riding the train at night is torture. Six people are packed into one compartment, three facing three. As it grows dark outside, we all find ourselves with nowhere to look but at each other. Even the window becomes a mirror.
I try to read. I try to sleep. I try to imagine what expressions are on the faces of all the people in all the cars of all the trains in all the world. But my head can’t leave the crowded compartment I’m in.
Outside, dogs roam the streets while I sit and read on the stairs inside my hostel. It is my last night in Greece. Someone comes down from the roped-off steps behind me and I decide to go up. I find myself standing alone on the roof. The city sounds distant from here, even though I am only separated by three stories. The sirens announce a far-off emergency. I grind my shoes on the gravel and glass, and watch the clothes line on the building opposite sway in the thick wind.
I study maps of London and the tube system. I study the large ads pasted on everything and try to guess what they’re for—I want to understand. A black and white photo of a woman wearing only a suit jacket. No text. Perfume?
I sit at the edge of Regent’s Park at night and listen to traffic. It sounds different than the traffic coursing through roundabouts in Indianapolis, or trickling through country roads in Ireland, or crunching through snow in Minnesota, or idling in morning traffic in St. Louis, or screaming down highways in New Mexico, or steaming and smoking in Athens’ afternoon streets. The traffic here in London sounds omnipresent, potent; like it wants to drown me out.
Late in the semester, a classmate I don’t know (among hundreds) will be murdered. Her death will be abstract. The school will send out notices telling us to be more careful, lest we too be found strangled in an East London dumpster. We students will think carefully about this; that our parents would have to fly a great distance to claim our body and pack it on an airliner like luggage. We will try not to think of our own foreign death as tragic and romantic.
Towards the end of the semester, my friends will ask me to go with them to Paris, to Venice, to Edinburgh. I will tell them no, there isn’t the money anymore. They will nod, looking sympathetic. And when they start leaving Thursday nights through Sunday evenings, I will be left to make peanut butter sandwiches by myself with peanut butter that doesn’t taste like peanut butter. I will drink carbonated apple juice on park benches. I will visit yet another stone and glass cathedral. I will pay my last few pounds to take a bus to Stonehenge and enjoy the ride more than the destination, where I will be roped into a large circle always twenty yards from the stones. I will be given an audio device that talks at me, that will tell me things about rocks.
When it’s time to go home, the trees in Regent’s Park will flower pale-pink. I will take a picture in front of every bar I frequented and with every person I spent time with. On the flight home, I will read about an Earthquake hitting China and 67,000 people dying. I will try to picture what that many people look like, but will instead just look at the faces of the other passengers glowing in the dark plane, watching TV on the small screens in front of them. I will try to look out the window, but will only see my reflection and the blinking red of the wing lights. I won’t sleep.
*Originally published as "Foreigner" in GS 8.1; this is an updated (!!) version of this piece that the author has let us showcase here.
Jacob Little is an Instructional Designer at an Indianapolis Fire Suppression Agency, a Volunteer Tutor at a local women’s shelter, and a Volunteer Writing Instructor for a prison education program. His work can be found at jacoblittle.net, and in Fourth Genre, Indiana Review, Slice Magazine, DIAGRAM, and The Pinch. His essay collection, Closing Blockbuster, is forthcoming sometime this decade.