So. Imagine that it’s three months before your twenty-first birthday. You live in a boring nothing sort of town in the south of England, but you’re not really the adventurous type, so from Berkshire you’ve maybe only ever driven as far as Somerset. You’ve seen the south of France a bit as a kid because your grandmother lives down there, and once you went on a trip to a small village in west Germany for a school exchange, but being chaperoned by mothers and teachers means those times didn’t properly count. You don’t really like change. The most radical thing you ever did was drop mid-term out of university because, it turns out, it was too far away from home and you don’t like people anyway.
So you’ve really got to stop and think why, after twenty years of going nowhere, you’re coming up to twenty-one and suddenly flying into Los Angeles airport at three in the afternoon, the first stop on a three-week road trip across the States with no real plan for the journey there and only a final destination in mind.
There’s plenty weird about this whole situation, but the first thing you’ve got to notice is that it’s not supposed to be three in afternoon. There’s not meant to be a skyfull of blinding white sun filling up around you when it’s still eleven at night in your head and there’s the rainy residue of England clinging with a mildewy smell to your trainers.
The next weird thing is that you’re here at all, coming into an airport what feels like a million miles away from home in a country you never cared that much about visiting, because who needs Disneyland and the Superbowl and Sex & the City when there’s Alton Towers and Match of the Day and Gavin & Stacey back home? If you wanted a piece of America you could just go get the latest Hollywood blockbuster on DVD, or walk into the centre of town and buy a Subway sandwich. There’s no real need to blow over four hundred quid on flights.
The third weird thing is that even though you’ve only known her six months, Perry Sinclair’s here with you, tugging on your hand all excited like a giddy schoolgirl yelping about palm trees and Hollywood and getting a tan. Not the crappy spray-on kind that the girls at school had, the kind that rubbed off orange on the white collars of their uniform shirts and had people calling them oompa-loompa behind their backs, or slag when we figured out what it meant – she’s talking a real golden tan that looks gorgeous and healthy like she’s got all the time in the world to spend soaking up Vitamin E on a Californian beach.
Perry, pretty much, is the reason why this whole thing started.
She’s the reason I’m here at all.
“Right,” I’m saying, shaking my hand out of Perry’s claspy-fingered grip. “Because there’s nothing more healthy-looking than skin cancer.”
“It isn’t skin cancer if you don’t burn,” she snorts. “What’s the point of sitting in the sun if you’re not gonna tan?”
“You still damage your skin even if you don’t burn, you idiot. Didn’t you ever see those adverts? With all those families playing on the beach looking happy as anything and they overlaid it with this horrible sound like frying bacon to freak everyone out about UV rays melting your face off.”
I’ve already got a bottle of suncream, placed conveniently in the front pouch of my bag, ready for when we exit the plane and the west-coast American sun barrels into our Englishy-white complexions. Well, Perry’s Englishy-white complexion more than mine. My mum’s mixed-up Mediterranean genes gave me darker skin and a decent head-start when it comes to avoiding sunburn. Perry, she’s English all the way back about seven generations with relatives called Bev and Babs and Kev and Dave and she calls dinner supper and the television telly. My relations on my mum’s side are called Claude and Marguerite and Gilou and Françoise and I’ve been eating blood-rare steaks since I was old enough to chew. On my dad’s side – well, that’s a whole other thing.
“Fat sweaty tourists getting what they deserve wearing them stupid vests and sandals,” Perry’s saying. “I’ll be okay, I don’t have like, any surface area to burn.” She smirks and spreads her arms out, showing off her bony frame, shoulders at right angles sticking out of the armholes of her tiny t-shirt. It’s kind of creepy, the way her dry-white skin pulls tight across her protruding collarbones when she talks or takes a deep breath, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get this urge to stare fascinated anyway.
“Skinny bitches like you get cancer, too,” I tell her, and I kind of feel like I have to suck in my stomach. I know I’m not massive, but next to Perry I always feel like this awkward stack of fleshy junk, too tall upwards and spilling out sideways, blundering around clumsily with big ugly man-feet while Perry springs along all spritely with hollow little bird-bones.
“I’ve got factor fifteen, I’ll be alright,” Perry says, shrugging.
“We’re in Los Angeles in the middle of fucking August, you twat. Also, you’re pale like a fishbelly, you noticed? Like those ugly fish that live right at the bottom of the sea and get no sunlight ever. You’ve lived in Scotland most of your life. You need factor fifty, not fifteen.”
“I’ll be alright!” Perry turns away, like she’s bored with the conversation, like suddenly I should work a whole lot harder at being interesting. She’s silent, looking out of the sardine-can window of the aeroplane, watching the clouds get thinner, turning into smoke-wisps like cold-air breath as the tiny toy-shaped houses and cars get bigger and bigger the closer we get to the ground.
“Sorry,” I say after a moment, because I feel like I should. She looks over her shoulder, smiles and turns away again.
Perry’s small, and skinny enough that sideways on, there’s almost nothing of her. She’s got stringy hair, hanging thin and wispy almost to her elbows, and a smile on her face that stretches huge to show all the crooked teeth her parents couldn’t afford to have straightened out with braces. She’s odd-looking, maybe even a bit ugly if things like bent noses and wonky mouths turn you off, but it’s the kind of ugly that gives you a stupid, pretentious urge to reach for pen and paper and scribble all her angles down, because she looks so compellingly weird, her exaggerated features bursting out of the white-noise ambience of other people’s faces. The thing that’s impressive is how she never looks awkward, despite the crookedness. Every part of her body, from her creepy spidery fingers to her bony ankles, it all pieces together like a Picasso, like it was done on purpose, and she walks towards things with this swagger like she just knows they’ll move out of her way.
Me, I feel like I put my skin on backwards in the morning and I flinch at loud voices.
We met at a gig in Camden in late February, queuing up in a crowd behind bars like penned-in sheep under the watchful eye of the security guards on standby in case a horde of kids broke ranks and stampeded hormonally all over The Roundhouse. We had the same t-shirt on, a black and white print of Roxy Music’s Country Life album cover, the classic one with Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald on the front in their knickers, and we immediately bonded over Bryan Ferry and a pretentious nostalgia for a musical movement that had happened before we were even born. That was all of six months ago. That’s pretty short for a friendship to form considering I’ve chucked jeans away in a shorter space of time because they got a bit ripped at the knees. And I’ve got to wonder – just as the plane starts that shuddery swooping drop in altitude that makes you half consider whether you’ve really led a fulfilling life were the plane suddenly to give into the laws of gravity and plummet into a field – how six months of occasional weekends sitting on a couch in a north London student flat marathoning Star Wars DVDs and drinking Kopparberg all afternoon led to the decision to take a three-week road trip from California to Chicago.
Perry’s got this thing, an obsession with Jack Kerouac and My Own Private Idaho and Bob Dylan which to me seems sort of dumb and derivative like she’s pretending to be something she’s not, wearing cowboy boots and plucking at a guitar when her voice stinks of London and her skin looks like all the years she lived in Glasgow.
It was her idea in the first place, this trip to America. She’s always the one with ideas. We were lying sideways on her bed in her room, heads upside down and feet kicked up on the headboard, staring at the peeling corners of old concert tickets that were stuck, sun-bleached, to the wall, and I asked her why we should go to America. She sat up, rolled over, fixed me with her wide eyes and said, “Because.”
I’m the kind of person who never says no to people like Perry, so we booked the flights the next day.
I never said a word to Perry about Chicago.
Perry knows I’ve got family scattered about the States, but I haven’t told her specifically where any of them live, or where my dad went after he left. I haven’t told her about how I know my dad’s exact address out there in Chicago, Illinois, because he puts it on the envelope of the only correspondence he ever sends – birthday cards with money slipped inside, like getting something from him once a year’s enough to stop me from really caring about why he went away – and I looked up directions on Google Maps before we left so that I could go right up to his house and knock on the door if I wanted to.
I didn’t tell Perry any of that. I just told her that if we were going to roadtrip across America I wouldn’t have enough money to go all the way to San Francisco, but the music scene in Chicago was meant to be pretty good. Perry loves Kerouac enough to get it’s an anywhere road for anybody tattooed on her shoulder so driving partway on the road up to Chicago like Sal and Dean is enough of a reason for her to do this.
I’m still trying to tell myself this trip is just a normal holiday, no point or purpose to it, pretending like Chicago isn’t this big looming thing waiting patiently for me to rock up to it and accept the fact that it’s been there all this time; pretending like America isn’t a big ugly smudge on my birth certificate all shamefaced and awkward like the dad it spewed up years ago who walked out when I was six; pretending like having leathery-skinned uncles in the south of France on my mum’s side who wear berets and send over packages of brie and paté and red wine is the extent of my multiculturalism because Americans always salute their flag when you see them on TV and patriotism of any kind makes me want to throw up. I only just manage to refrain from spitting at cars with the red-on-white cross hung in the back window when England’s playing France during the World Cup and all the snot-nosed boys at primary school are shouting EN-GER-LAND and saying froggy froggy froggy at me like it’s so fucking original, so God knows Americans make me want to stick forks in my ears when they sing about the land of hope and glory.
We drop onto American soil with a bump.
“So what do we do when we get to the motel?” Perry asks, unclicking her seatbelt even as the pilot is voicing-over with a warning that, until the plane comes to an absolute standstill, passengers are reminded to keep their seatbelts on. All through the plane, the sound of disobedience echoes up the aisles.
“Whatever,” I tell her, seatbelt still on. “Book train tickets, maybe. Phil and Mary-Lou live in San Clemente. I think they’re expecting us tomorrow or the next day at the latest.”
“Phil and Mary-Lou,” Perry repeats, a smile creeping up on her. “They sound like characters in a 1950s sitcom.”
“Yeah, well.” I don’t know how I feel about being related to a woman called Mary-Lou, especially a Californian great aunt who, if she’s anything like the pictures from five years ago when she came over to England for my granddad’s seventy-fifth, still wears the same kind of bleach-blonde back-combed structure that died in the eighties after everyone realised hairspray was destroying the ozone. “She’s my granddad’s sister, he’s the one who had a word with her about getting a car for us, so we kind of have to put up with her for a night at least. I don’t want to look ungrateful.”
Perry’s wriggling impatiently in her seat, craning her neck to see if the doors are opening yet. “Your granddad’s such an actual stereotype, it’s so weird. Military man and all that rednecky crap.”
“He’s not rednecky,” I say. At least, I don’t think he is. My slim knowledge of American culture suggests that being a redneck involves living on a farm in Texas and twanging a banjo. My grandfather was a military man, sure, he was in the marines, and from what my mum’s told me, he raised all his sons proper bootcamp-style with grade one buzzcuts and assault courses in the garden, but he ended up retiring early after a back injury, moving to England to a village near Ascot to make money off buying and training race horses, acting on like a well-to-do English gent, Pygmalion-style, like America had never really happened to him. He brought his two youngest sons who hadn’t gone to university over with him, my dad and one of his brothers, but both of them went back to the States in the end, leaving my granddad and his horses behind. “I mean, he’s old-fashioned, is what he is. And Catholic, and Republican, I think. It’s fine as long as I just don’t talk to him about, you know, radical gender theory. I don’t think he’d want to hear that stuff.”
“No-one wants to hear that stuff.” Perry says, rolling her eyes. The air stewards are finally ushering people out of the plane, and Perry grabs her bag, hoisting it on her shoulder. “You rant on and fucking on when you get going. I wouldn’t be surprised if the old man wants some peace and quiet.”
Perry’s a few years older than me because she took something like three gap years before starting university to find herself. When I ask her if she did, she goes all serious and says “I think so,” and won’t talk about it. Sometimes she acts like she knows it all, and it’s annoying, so even though she’s grinning like it’s all just a joke, I still feel really fucking magnanimous when I ignore her comment and say, “Whatever. Shall we go see what America looks like?”
It takes us ages to get through customs. First there’s a whole bunch of forms to fill in and sign. Then there’s that awkward luggage-check with the security officials where you’re really tempted to answer back, “No, my mum did it,” when they ask you if you packed your bags yourself, but one look at the gun holsters and the tasers tucked into their belts shuts you right up. Then you have to concentrate on not looking flustered as they rifle through your stuff, pulling out magazines and tampons and the floppy toy sheep that you were planning on pretending you hadn’t taken with you because carrying a toy sheep in your bag at almost-twenty-one is pretty humiliating, but you’re maybe a little bit superstitious and panicky about travelling in aeroplanes so you brought it anyway, and it’s hard to look nonchalant when a big tall man in uniform has your pack of Tampax in one hand and Marion le Mouton in the other.
Perry’s somewhere swallowed up behind a large family of Swedish tourists and I can’t see where she’s got to. I only find her again on the other side of the barriers where I’m standing with our luggage when she emerges looking flushed and irritated.
“Did they paw through your stuff, too?” I ask, clutching my bag to my side to make sure there’s not a sheep ear or tail in sight.
“Yeah,” Perry says shortly. “Fucking customs. I’m not a terrorist. Security people are dicks.”
“It’s the passport pictures that are the problem.” I start wheeling the trolley with our bags on it towards the sliding double-doors that lead outside. There’s bright sunlight coming through them in a hot fat square, bleaching out all the dust and footprints on the floor. “Like, my picture was taken when I was all skinny and I had long hair and I hardly look anything like that anymore. If you knew me you’d probably recognise my eyes and my general, you know, face shape or whatever, but they always look at me really suspiciously.” I fish my passport out of my pocket and flip it open to the photo page. “See.”
“Nah.” Perry glances over. “That still looks just like you. Same mopey expression you’ve always got.” She puts her hands in a square in front of her, as if framing a picture. “The artist in torment. The whingeing emo. The misery guts. That’s your look – oh – eighty per cent of the time.”
“Fuck off,” I say, a little stung. “You’re not allowed to smile in passport photos. That’s the rule, it says it on all the photo booths. You’ve got to look all angry and dead serious.”
“Well, dead serious is right. You look like a zombie.”
“And yours is better, is it?”
“Let’s see it, then.”
“How is that fair?”
“It isn’t,” Perry says, “but as I’m older and wiser, it’s my God-given right to be unreasonable.”
I make a face of mock exasperation; the kind of exaggerated face you do when you’re properly annoyed, but you want all the satisfaction of showing it without the repercussions of someone believing you mean it. It makes me feel better.
Perry wriggles her fingers under my arm, tries to grab my hand. “Come on, don’t sulk.”
“I’m not sulking,” I say. I am sulking.
“You are.” She pinches my cheek. “And it doesn’t suit that lovely face of yours. Which,” she rolls her eyes, “doesn’t look miserable or zombie-like at all, I’m sorry I said that.”
“Come on...” Perry wheedles, digging her fingers in right under my cheekbone.
“Perry, get off!” I swat her away from my face, and it’s half-hearted, but my hand still makes contact.
She steps away slightly, hand falling to her side, and now I guess I’m sorry.
“Come on,” Perry says again, and she’s using her quieter voice that means she thinks she might have done something wrong. “Taxi to the motel?”
“Don’t we want to save money and get a bus?” I say, thinking about all the dollars I have tucked away that I’m never going to use because I never learnt how to spend.
“Nope,” Perry says, and then she’s laughing, suddenly, brightly, like nothing’s wrong in the world, taking off towards the taxi rank, rolling her fake cow-hide suitcase behind her, tacky black-on-white, Midnight Cowboy on wheels.
I follow her. I always follow, but I’ve got a smile on my face like I caught it on the wind tugged off Perry in the distance.
We get in a taxi, a musty-smelling car that looks nothing like the cabs that were pulling out of Heathrow airport sixteen hours ago when my mum drove us up to the terminal entrance, and I try not to hear my accent too much when I give the driver the motel’s address. He takes us right outside the place, this complete dive by the side of the road that doesn’t even have an entrance hall, just an open walkway leading into a courtyard baked dry by the sun. There’s a hole in one of the walls covered up by greasy-fingered bullet-proof glass, with the word closed scrawled on a taped-up piece of paper. The woman who greets us in the courtyard when we walk in is holding a snarling dog by the scruff of its neck in one hand, a melon nestled in the crook of her arm, and a key in the other hand. She says “Fifty dollars,” expectantly, and drops the key into Perry’s palm as I hold out the cash. Then she disappears up a rusty staircase and all we can hear is the traffic.
I look over at Perry as we stand outside room 54, and I know my face is starting to look a bit uncertain, but her face is the picture of concentration, figuring out how to open the door. The lock clicks, and we walk in, quietly.
“Welcome to LA,” Perry says, arm sweeping through a shaft of light thick with dust. “Do you reckon we can see Beverly Hills from our window?”
The room itself is a neat square, no clutter, mostly because there’s nothing to clutter it with. There’s just a plain dresser beside the bed made of pale wood, darker in places where the varnish has coagulated into something soft and brown sticking the drawers shut, resisting hard when I try to wriggle one open.
“Holy shit,” I say, dumping my bag onto the bed instead, staring at the place. There’s a lingering stink in the air that might be piss, or cigarettes, or both. A lightbulb hangs from the empty ceiling, glaring naked from a wire that kinks off at an angle, and all around the flip-switch on the wall are scorch marks. The windows are surrounded by curtains the mucky olive colour of sick and the glass in the rotted-wood frames is taped over with what looks like chicken wire.
“Looks like they fucked up with the mosquito net,” Perry says, pointing to it. “Are there mosquitoes in LA?” She pokes her head into the bathroom that smells like old wet even from where I’m standing. “By the way, if you want to pee, you should probably try and like, squat and hover above the loo.”
“Why?” My sense of dread is increasing.
“There’s graffiti sort of scratched into the seat. There’s a name... what’s that, six, four, nine... a phone number? I dunno, mate, I’m not putting my bum cheeks on a drug dealer’s contact details, you know?”
I flop down on the bed. The mattress has all the give of a cardboard box and there’s an audible woosh of stale smoke coming up from the pillows under my head which feel lumpy like cotton balls in a canvas bag. They’ve got cigarette burns in them, a scattering of small, round holes gone sepia-toned at the edges. Shifting around trying to find a potentially comfortable spot makes the headboard wobble against the wall, and it gives off a suspicious crunching noise. I have a sudden vision of dead bug carcasses lining the floor. Slowly, creepingly, little pins and needles of fear are working their way up from my fingers like a heart attack. There’s an old feeling of failure coming up like sick in my throat, a pre-packaged bundle of doubt quick and easy to unwrap, and it sounds just like my mother shaking her head. “Perry,” I say, and I’m sounding not worried on purpose.
Perry jumps up onto the bed on her knees, then winces when there’s not the bounce she was expecting. She sits carefully cross-legged instead. “Shit-hole, right?” she says, and she’s almost laughing.
I don’t understand how she can look so amused. It’s only been about seventeen hours since we left home and now I want to go back. “Jesus,” I say, rubbing my eyes.
“Oh come on,” Perry says, and she pulls my hand away from my face. “I’ve been staying in youth hostels worse than this since I was fifteen. It’s all – part of life’s rich tapestry, you know? Mould in the cupboards, jizz on the sheets...”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” I groan. “Let’s sleep standing up. Or let’s not sleep at all, I don’t want to get my face eaten by cockroaches in the night.”
“There aren’t any cockroaches. It’s not that bad,” Perry insists, but as I go to peer behind the bed to put my mind at ease, Perry grabs me by the shoulder and says “Don’t look, otherwise you’ll find, and that’ll make it worse.”
I want to cry. I tell Perry, “I want to cry.”
“No way, man.” Perry shakes her head emphatically. “You’ve got to laugh about it. This is hilarious! Look at this décor.” She points to the chest of drawers. “Minimalistic furnishings, they’re all the rage, darling. Proper maximises the feng shui, yeah? Complemented...” She points to the corner of the room, “by this lovely, garden-chic plastic chair. Convenient and economical.”
I crack a watery smile, curl my knees up to my chest. “But there is graffiti. On the toilet.”
Perry shrugs. “That? It’s a lovely touch of modern art! Gives the place life. You know, like a real tangible sense of all the people who pissed before us.”
I snort and peek sideways at Perry through my arms folded up on my knees. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”
“Come on,” she says, grabbing my elbow and shaking it. “This is Los Angeles!” She stands up, pulls back the curtains and I think for a second they’re going to fall to dust in her fingers like moth-wings. “Don’t think about the state of the room. Look at that sky outside! You ever seen a sky like that before?”
I want to tell Perry that it’s always the same fucking sky everywhere you go, Iceland to Australia to Kuala Lumpar, it doesn’t change. And anyway, the sky isn’t even a thing, it’s a nothing, it’s a big open space gaping emptily all round the globe, air and atmosphere and stardust extending forever into black. But Perry’s still pointing emphatically outside, and I think, maybe I know what she means. Even though it’s filled up with aeroplanes and light pollution and the tops of buildings from every angle, the sky still looks huge and spacious like a dream, like it’s stretching on out properly to its full potential, to the edges of everything. Not like the sky back home that’s blotted-out grey all over, only coming through in shy little patches. It should be impressive, all this space and stuff, but I feel too hot, too small, and I miss clouds full of rain and shallow duck ponds.
Perry’s still standing there, blazing fiercely with optimism and adventure by the window, staring out into the roar of traffic with her arms flung open and I’m wondering now if I’m going to be able to keep up with her. “It’s the American Dream, innit?” Perry says, pointing outside. “Palm trees and skyscrapers and fucking, I don’t know, pop tarts!” She glances back at me. “That’s supposed to be the thing about this place, yeah? The pioneering spirit! I can do anything I want to do! I want to – work in a shoe shop, discover shoes no one’s ever discovered before, right at the back, on the left.” She grins at me, urging me to clock her reference, to take the bait, to follow her lead.
I always follow.
My skin’s crawling from the itch of the sheets on my legs, and I want to think about anything else, so I take the bait, crack a smile, quote back, “Look, you’re British, so scale it down a bit,” and my Eddie Izzard impression is never as good as hers but she smiles gleefully anyway.
“There you go,” she says, coming back towards the bed and settling next to me. “The trusty deprecating nature of the British.”
She’s sitting close, close enough that I can see all the stupid things that sound like bad poetry on her face, like her eyelashes fanning out in shadows clumped stickily together with mascara; the way her skin looks soft like she’s been rolled in flour; the criss-crossed squares of light coming through the chicken-wire window falling across her bony cheeks and wonky nose highlighting all the angles. I get overwhelmed, then, with the urge for her to grab me and tell me everything’s going to be okay, but it seems like a weird moment in the still and stuffy room, so I push the feeling down. “I’m not even British,” I say, keeping my hands to myself. “Not by blood, not all the way. I thought I’d feel more at home here.”
“You can’t expect to feel at home someplace you’ve never been to just because it’s in your blood,” Perry points out, reasonably.
“I know,” I say. Home is where the heart is and all that, but people still dream of bright lights and bigger cities than their own, or cosy places by the sea they’ve never seen from the window of a small town flat, and in their guts they know that moving there is like answering a holy calling, no questions asked. “But you hear stories of people who just – out of nowhere...” I trail off, frustrated and resentful for a moment that Perry doesn’t know what I mean without words. “It’s like, you know how you get transgendered people who just know that even though their bodies are one thing, they’re supposed to be something else?”
“Sure.” Perry’s listening, but she looks half ready to roll her eyes.
“So that’s gender dysphoria, right, but what if there was like – what would you call it – a kind of place dysphoria? Say you were from, fucking, I don’t know, Yugoslavia or somewhere. And you spend all your life in that one country thinking, I feel like I’m not supposed to be this Yugoslavian native, I’m meant to be somewhere else, I just know it, and then you visit a village in Yorkshire one day and bam you think, yeah, this was meant to be my home. Like a spiritual connection out of nowhere that just feels right.”
Perry pauses for a moment. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I punch her on the arm. “Fuck off. You know what I mean. I just thought I would feel something, coming here.”
“America’s fucking huge,” Perry says. “You can’t feel a connection to the whole of America, all over, all at once, just because it’s grouped together on a map. Spain isn’t Portugal, and California isn’t Ohio, you know? You’ve got nothing of LA in you. Anyway,” she looks confused for a second. “Where did you say your family was from?”
My stomach drops out like we’re back on the plane taking a nose-dive into the Atlantic. “I – they’re sort of everywhere,” I say, and the pins-and-needles are back. “I mean, I’ve got some family moved out here to California, and I think I’ve got some cousins in Florida, maybe? My granddad was living in Maine when my dad was born, but they moved around a lot and came to England. Then my dad went back to the States after he left my mum.”
“So where did he go back to?”
“Um, Wyoming,” I say, out of nowhere, because it’s the only state I can think of that I know is way out of our planned itinerary. At least, I hope it is, because I dropped geography when I was fourteen and we only ever learnt about sedimentary rock deposits before that anyway, so my grasp of geographical locations is shaky at best.
“Wyoming,” Perry repeats. “Why the fuck did he go there?”
“I don’t know. Work I think.” Probably sounds feasible. Perry shrugs, accepting. I have no idea why I’m lying, really, except maybe I’ve got this idea that if I pretend like I’m not going to Chicago just to find him, whatever happens won’t be a massive disappointment if I never say it out loud.
“Well, whatever, there you go. Maybe you’d feel more at home in Wyoming.”
“Yeah, maybe.” I poke my finger through a hole in the pillow. Some flaky burnt-off bits fall onto the cover. The smell of the motel room is making me feel sick. Either that, or it’s the lying.
“Hey,” Perry says, digging her toes into my thigh. “You look miserable.”
“Do I?” I push a smile out. “I’m not. Sorry. Just – overwhelmed. Too much to think about.”
“Why? Everything’s sorted. We’re getting a car off your uncle Jimbo Whatshisface tomorrow, right? And look—” She holds up her phone, blinking bright and benign in my face. “Music, GPS, Google, all in one place. That’s the information age for you. Nothing to worry about.”
She raises her eyebrows. “No?”
I shrug. The truth is, I feel acutely homesick and completely ashamed that I do, because home was never that much fun when I was there, but now it’s tugging back at me like it’s magnetic and I’ve got metal in my bones, and I’d really hoped that once we’d landed in America I’d feel something apart from nausea. “Sorry. Yeah, we’ll be fine. This is just – I’m used to sitting in my comfort zone, you know?”
“So what are you doing over five thousand miles outside of it?” Perry snorts. “It’s a bit late to tell me you want to go home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” I say, and it comes out petulant. “I’m doing this. I want to – stop being all cautious with my life.”
I want to stop pretending like this country doesn’t run in my family just because one person packed it up and took it away with him.
I want to get it back.
“Well I’m not helping you do anything illegal,” Perry says, light-hearted with her eyebrows raised like everything’s always a bit of a joke. “I don’t wanna be sent back to ol’ Blighty with a criminal record.”
“You talk so much shit.”
“You,” Perry says, jabbing me in the arm, “love it.”
A beat of silence, and I consider whether I feel any better. Perry feels warm next to me even though we’re not touching. Probably I’m just imagining the rustle of insects under the floorboards.
“You know,” Perry says, “you can tell me if something’s wrong. If something’s bothering you, I mean. We want to have a good time, right?”
“So, don’t bottle up. Be honest with me. Cards on the table, yeah?” She reaches her hand out, as if to offer it up for a shake.
“Cards on the table,” I echo, and the Chicago-shaped rock is still sitting uncomfortably at the bottom of my stomach. And there’s something else, too, when she takes my hand and everything goes quiet except for this roaring sound that might be the cars outside or might just be inside my ears. Something it feels like someone’s not saying.
“Come on,” Perry says with a little smile, tugging her hand back. “Naptimes before we do anything else, yeah?” She lies back, wriggles her toes under the cover, but it’s too hot to pull them up all the way, so she just spreads her hoodie out over her knees and flings her arms up over her face.
I lie back too, curling my empty hand over the lumpy pillow. It’s quiet in the room although the traffic’s still loud outside, and the muffled sounds of next-door voices are a dull, sleepy buzz. I think about saying something else, but the jet-lag hits me like a hammer and I pass out before I can kick off my shoes.
We don’t have to walk down Hollywood Boulevard the next day to get to the station, but we do anyway, because there’s no point in not being a tourist when you already are one. It’s a sweaty hot middle-of-the-day, but unlike the small, suburban spaces back home that get filled on sunny days with ice-cream truck jingles, red-cheeked children on tricycles and slow, pollen-heavy bees landing confusedly on the rim of afternoon teacups, there’s absolutely nothing lazy here about the heat. The traffic’s non-stop, splurting out rainbow patches of hot petrol on the baking tar, and the rumble of cars is thick under the jabbing, insistent noise of pneumatic drills and oversize chisels hacking into the pavements. There’s scaffolding scaling the sides of bright white buildings and people walking three or four wide in every direction, some of them stopping every few minutes to crack out the digital camera, which slows human movement to a shuffle along the side of the roads until a speedy local zips through the crowds with well-practiced people-dodging skills. There are billboards hanging everywhere printed with text-slogans that shout louder and more insistently than the fruit ‘n’ veg sellers that work the marketplace in town on Saturdays back home. There’s one above my head showing tits and arse in sleek bronze supersize to advertise some TV show about the Beverly Hills beautiful people, and I’m busy staring at that instead of my feet which is why I end up stamping on the toes of an old man in a grubby overcoat who’s slumped on the floor conversing with a crooked trolley full of bin bags. I stop halfway through my apology when I realise the guy’s in a world of his own and the rest of the words I don’t say remain awkwardly stuck to the roof of my mouth like soggy bread.
The thing is, I’m not really one of those busy rushing types who strides past beggars with my face in a phone pretending like I don’t see their held-out hands by my ankles, grime wedged into every little line on their fingers. I’m always ready to whip out a couple of quid for a Big Issue seller on the street corner, one of those people who feel really good saying no, you keep the change. The truth is, homeless people make my heart fucking bleed, even when they don’t look like the hollow-eyed sad-slumped bundles of rags you see on TV adverts, and instead they stink of booze and chat to you all normal-like if you stop for long enough, upbeat and relentless. Sometimes, one of them might follow you all the way into Tesco’s telling you stories about how their mate narrowly escaped getting done for possession the other day while you try to buy them a sandwich without attracting the attention of the supermarket security. But crazy people, the ones who drag their feet and mutter to themselves or scream at cars and weave madly across traffic, they make me nervous and guilty for thinking it. I can see Perry out of the corner of my eye looking at me as I stammer and stumble over the trolley-man with my cheeks flaming red.
“Outside your comfort zone?” she asks, and I wonder if she means it to sound so snide.
“I’ve seen homeless people before,” I say shortly, but I’m glad the sun is diabolically bright enough to warrant keeping my sunglasses on at all times so that the people curled up on the pavement corners on flattened cardboard boxes can’t see my eyes avoiding them. It just feels weird in a different country – like the homeless people there are going to get pissed off at you swanning around, taking in the sights and taking pictures, flashing your cash and your emancipated status. In your own country, you feel like you can say, look, mate, we’re all living under the same government, I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you. Here, it feels like everything you do is treading on toes. Like they’re all thinking, go on, back to where you come from.
I wonder where that is.
“We should hurry up,” I say. “Train’s in about twenty minutes.”
We’re on our way now to San Clemente to meet a great uncle and great aunt I’ve never met before, and barely knew were even related to me until a few months ago. I hadn’t spoken to my grandfather in about a year, but after some prodding from my mother, I’d called him up and told him all about my grand plans like maybe he’d be interested, and suddenly he’d got in touch these relatives I didn’t even know I had, making plans for me and relaying information about dietary requirements. My great aunt Mary-Lou was adamant that we stay the night at least, and she said uncle Phil had a proposition about a car. He said he wasn’t having any niece of his slumming it for three weeks on some flea-bitten Greyhound bus, especially since that story on the news recently about the man who stabbed and beheaded some guy in his sleep while the rest of the passengers just carried on watching The Legend of Zorro on the in-coach TV oblivious to the blood getting sprayed all up the back of the bus. I hadn’t heard this gruesome tale until my granddad recounted it. Suddenly, I was glad that, to Americans, being family was apparently enough to convince someone they wanted to sell you a good car for a cheap price even though they’d never met you.
The journey out to San Clemente is fairly quick, barely enough time to snooze and undo all the good work done getting accustomed to the time difference. When we get off at the station, there’s a woman waiting for us, teased-up blonde hair bigger than her face, and a chubby, stubby-fingered hand choked at the wrist by massive beaded bracelets holding out a bit of card with mine and Perry’s names on them. I look over at Perry. She makes a go on shooing gesture with her head.
“Uh, Mary-Lou?” I say, uncertainly, walking up to the woman.
“Oh hey,” Mary-Lou says, a massive, mega-watt smile stretching across her face. She’s got badly pock-marked skin, heavy wrinkles around her eyes that crackle with makeup residue and a wonky scar bisecting one of her eyebrows. She looks kind of a mess, but her teeth in that wide smile are straight and white and movie-star perfect. “You girls, you made it! How was the trip?”
“Quite alright, thankyou,” I say, awkwardly formally as she pulls me, unconcerned, into a tight hug. “It wasn’t very far.”
“Oh, I know, honey, but the trains these days are a nightmare. I was saying to Phil, Phil, I hope the girls make it okay today, because you know what the trains have been like. Delays in every direction. And for what? Problems with signals and not enough drivers. Not to mention the stories you hear about jumpers, you know, the ones that throw themselves on the tracks.”
Mary-Lou speaks with her whole face moving, every part of it contributing one hundred percent to her expressions, so that she looks all eyebrows, all nose, all lips at once, and I find it difficult not to feel self-consciously plum-voiced when I reply, “Oh, no, not at all. Everything was fine.”
That’s the thing about American accents, I think. You hear them so much all over films and TV programmes that they don’t sound like real life when they’re actually there in front of you. Maybe you could’ve bumped into Hugh Laurie back in the days when he was speaking fluent nerdy-awkward in Blackadder and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Just another nice boy from Cambridge, you could’ve chatted to him if you saw him on the street, but now that he’s a billboard-poster TV superstar he’s drawling in a voice that makes him seem a whole lot further away than the air-miles do.
Mary-Lou chatters unconcernedly in the car all the way to her house, and I do my best to contribute to the silences while Perry gets herself in Mary-Lou’s good books by complimenting her on the largeness of her hair.
We pull up in the driveway, and their house is this massive place trying to look down-played and rustic, but there are shiny-bright solar panels embedded into the wooden slats on the roof, and huge glass sliding doors eating into the casually-varnished facade. Probably Perry’s student flat back in London is more natural than this, with the authentic mould eating its way through the tiles in the kitchen and real live rats in the basement. This place looks Photoshopped.
Uncle Phil, too, looks like he’s been pasted on out of some American TV show, all round belly and receding hairline, with an amiable face like a big, bald seal. He wastes no time after the initial greetings to settle back into his armchair and start up the general chit-chat focusing on all the irritations currently ailing him, like the birds nesting in the roof, the too-warm weather they’ve been getting recently, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the way his doctor keeps nagging him about his cholesterol levels.
Mary-Lou asks us if we want drinks. There are John McCain banners in the living room window, which doesn’t mean a whole lot to me when down our end I’m still trying to decide who, out of Gordon Brown and David Cameron, looks more like a head distorted on the back of a spoon, but I know enough that it means I should probably keep quiet about my views on abortion and gay marriage, just in case they’re the kind of religious nutcases you see at those political party conferences on TV. Just in case they decide they don’t want to sell us their car anymore and chuck Bibles at our heads instead.
Probably I’ve got a fairly limited view of American politics.
“You have a lovely house,” I say, as Mary-Lou brings me a glass of water. It’s got ice and lemon and a curly straw in it. She hands Perry a long-stemmed glass of wine.
“Thankyou, honey,” Mary-Lou says warmly, settling back down into her chair. From the kitchen, the smell of roasting meat coasts on the breeze from the air-conditioner. I think I forgot to tell them that Perry’s a vegetarian. “Dinner’ll be ready in about ten.”
When we sit down at the table to eat, Perry gamely picks around the chicken and heaps up on asparagus instead. I look at her and try to communicate sorry. She looks back with her eyebrows raised and I think it means stop feeling responsible for everything.
“So!” Uncle Phil says, brash and jovial. Everything about him looks like the set-up to a comic punchline, like he’s about to put his foot spectacularly in it, then turn to the camera with a cheeky wink as the credits roll over a jaunty theme tune played on the kazoo. “Where are you girlies headed off to next?”
“Vegas,” Perry says, her fork emphasising the word with a clink of metal on plate. Perry’s the one who wanted to go, who stuck it into our flimsy itinerary as a matter of fact because Ocean’s Eleven was set there, and anything even remotely connected to Matt Damon is enough to make her starry-eyed and single-minded.
“Ve-gas,” Phil repeats, drawing the word out like there’s something suspicious about it. “Well, well.” He waggles a finger, stocky and red like a trussed-up sausage, shiny with chicken grease. “Remember to take it easy on the gambling. Don’t wanna end up like those old folk up in the casinos before noon, pulling levers and drinkin’ in the bars before it’s even gotten dark.”
“Mm,” I say. All I know of Vegas is that it’s in films a lot, and it comes with a soundtrack of clinking fruit machines and the mashed-up, rabbling sounds of men who look like George Clooney and women in Julia Roberts dresses making noise over tables with tottering towers of things that look like Connect-4 counters piled up on them. I remember being about twelve, and hearing that Father Eamon, the old Irish priest at my Catholic school, who smelt sharply of sweat and coffee through his heavy white robes and had a face that would always come to my mind whenever anyone used the word ruddy, had retired from official Priest-dom to go to Las Vegas a while and help those living in a hotbed of sin remain on the Lord’s path. As far as I know, he never came back.
“We won’t be gambling,” Perry says, smiling through her asparagus. “We just want to see the lights.”
“Where will you be going after that?” Mary-Lou asks, holding a dish of potatoes out and asking me if I want any more with her eyebrows. I shake my head.
“We don’t really know,” I say, and I try to make it sound exciting and spontaneous like we’re choosing to let ourselves get buffeted about by the winds of adventure and chance, but somehow it comes out guilty like an admission of poor planning, the kind of evidence of youthful incompetence that has adults sucking concerned breaths in through their teeth and trying to foist itineraries and guidebooks on you. “Chicago, eventually.”
“Well,” Phil blusters. “Long as you’ve got a good motor to get you there. You girls should come out to the garage with me after dinner and I’ll show you the car. She’s a reliable little thing, won’t give you any trouble.”
The car seems to be, effectively, a reliable little thing when Perry and I inspect it. I’m trying to act like I know what I’m looking for, checking for weather damage and listening for unhealthy noises when Phil revs the engine, but the truth is I’m going to have to trust that Phil’s an honest man, and that being family is a good enough reason to accept that someone’s just doing you a favour, because my knowledge of cars stretches far enough that I can drive one, but if you told me there was something wrong with the carburettor I’d need a good ten minutes on Google before I figured out what you meant.
Later that evening, Perry and I are sitting on the back porch, legs up on the railing. She’s smoking, I’m picking my nails, and Phil and Mary-Lou are inside watching TV.
“They’re nice people, your great aunt and uncle,” Perry says, smoke tangling in front of her face. She blows it away and I wrinkle my nose as it drifts towards me.
“Seems so. It’s weird, though, meeting relatives.”
“You know. Seeing someone you’ve never met before and you’re supposed to connect because you’re related.”
“Didn’t you like them?”
“No, I did. It’s just weird. Having an automatic connection you can’t do anything about. Anywhere in the world you could go, and you’d still have...” I make a hand gesture, snaking from my chest outwards into the air. “Like, invisible lines. Tracing you back to someone because of blood. Always tying you together. You can’t run away from that.” I feel introspective under the sky. Somewhere over the rooftops, I can hear the sea lapping up the shores of California. The rush of it sounds just the same as the dull grumble of the cars on the motorway you can hear over the trees back home.
Perry sucks in an ashy breath, blows out smoke, and stubs her cigarette out on the underside of her shoe. Her leg is twitching, she’s bouncing it up and down and it makes a rapid shuffling noise rubbing the denim sides of her jeans together. I put a hand on her knee to still her, and she stops. “So, do you usually want to run away from things?” she says.
“I guess.” My hand is still on her knee because I’m thinking now I want to tell her. I want to tell her about Chicago.
“Me too, a bit,” she says, quietly, and my fingers feel sweaty on the rough creases where her leg bends. She’s staring down at the floor, then moves her leg and my hand slips with a thunk onto the white wicker chair that’s flaking dry paint all over my trousers. “Most people run from something, I suppose.” She shrugs like she’s irritated by something, a thought or a feeling or a mosquito buzzing into her face. After a beat, she says, “You wanna go to the beach tomorrow?”
“Sure.” I put my hand back in my lap and figure I’ll tell her another time. “We don’t have to hit the road really until Tuesday. You can start on that tan you wanted.”
“A tan is all I’ve ever wanted.”
“Well, don’t let me stop you. I’ll be on standby with the aloe vera when you start roasting.”
“Yeah, alright.” There’s a white square of moonlight creeping forward, eating Perry’s toes. The floor feels dusty and warm like clay, and I stretch a leg out to join her feet in the light. She smiles, and in the dark it looks a bit like a secret.