Odyssey, Pt. 9

Big things have small beginnings

Life was going well. I wasn’t piss poor for the first time in my adult life, my job was fulfilling, but there was something missing. I’d been in Southampton since late July 1997 and it was now 2009. I would move on from my flat on Queen’s Terrace, the owner having decided to sell it. A flat in nearby Ocean Village would be our new home. This 2nd floor one-bedroom apartment was a 2002 build (I remember the block being built) and it was a fantastic place, at least to me. I think the rent was something like £650 PCM which seems nothing nowadays, but was the most I’d ever paid to live somewhere. I think it was an investment property, as the landlady offered to sell it to me, during the tenant screening. She had never seen it.

Ocean Village was one of those waterfront renovations you see all over the UK, and apparently most other countries. 80/20 residential/commercial, a nice place to live, but somewhat lifeless. The development replaced some shit nightclubs and a Harry Ramsden nobody went to, so it was an improvement, but it was all yuppie shine and no soul. It could have been in London, Portsmouth, or Bristol. It wasn’t SO14, so that was a major plus for me. I felt I’d escaped the gravity of that postcode once and for all, it was just a place, but it had felt like an albatross.

Ocean Village, looking East. Taken by author.

In Early 2010 I’d been on holiday and had been reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I’d purchased at the airport as an impulse buy. I wasn’t sure what to make of the book or the author (much less controversial then, before the hyper-polarized social media of today, where Rand is considered on the same bench as the author of Mein Kampf) and looked around on Twitter for some thoughts. Rand is one of those author people claim to read but actually haven’t, and I found this Twitter account belonging to an American woman that had similar questions, and we got chatting.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems absurd this could be the beginning of what would eventually lead me to where I am now, but that is exactly what happened. The relationship I was in had petered out – it was a textbook example of wanting different things – and I must admit I didn’t dislike talking to someone much more on my wavelength – who doesn’t? I did not at this point have any notion of being anywhere else, but I knew that I really did want to meet Jen. She lived in Pittsburgh, a city I knew nothing about other than an air disaster and some vague knowledge of the steel industry. I did not believe this could be anything serious. I was struggling to have any meaningful relationships at home; all of my closest friends had moved away, Southampton and my nice little waterside flat felt like a luxury cage. I had everything material I could want (I finally succumbed to car ownership in my mid 30s…) and here I was seriously considering setting off a bomb underneath it all, because I enjoyed chatting to some American girl.

I had some psychological advantages; I was no stranger to moving about my whole life, to dropping people and picking up new ones, and I had absolutely zero sentimentality about Southampton or this part of the world. I’d lost a parent, exited my first long term relationship in fairly turbulent fashion, found a career, but nevertheless thought I could give it all a good shake. I was 36. I meet kids in America that think they’ll die if they’re not all set up by 25. You have to laugh.

The inevitable end of my relationship came around that September, with mutual agreement; it was tough as I really liked the family and I was still not sure this was the right thing to do, despite having strong reservations for over a year. The draw of security and stability is real. I’d be staying for all the wrong reasons. I had the feint notion of visiting Jen, and wanted to see if she thought this was a good idea, or if I was out of my fucking mind. She seemed amenable to it, and I thought I could maybe swing a trip that November. It didn’t have to mean anything. If we didn’t get along it was just a few easy days in America. There’s no real downside, It’s an airfare and accommodation and if that’s a sunk cost, so be it. An acquaintance from my local had just returned from Canada, chin dropped, cap in hand, having just come back from an aborted relationship with a girl he’d met. He looked like a broken, shuffling shambles. It wasn’t encouraging, and a reality check that as much as I wanted to kid myself, this could have very high stakes indeed.

For her part, Jen was increasingly enthusiastic, in that way Americans often are, and was adamant I should stay as her guest. If she was comfortable with that, so was I, and it simplified planning and greatly reduced expense.

What I wasn’t doing was thinking long-term. I was absolutely in the present and did not want to get trapped in any ideas about someone I hardly knew. It is also trivial to develop a connection with somebody when there is nothing on the line.

I informed work I’d be taking a week off and spending it in America. I think my colleagues had the impression it was a bit out of the blue, which it most certainly was, but my boss Nick was forbearing and mostly kept his thoughts to himself. I’d depart on 14th November. Air Canada via Toronto.

I caught the National Express bus from Southampton Coach terminal (really a tiny brick building with a handful of coach bays. An improvement on the 90s Portakabin) arriving by taxi around 2am, for a 0230 departure. Then, as now, traveling across the Atlantic leaves little change from 24hrs door-to-door.

My original E-ticket

Transatlantic flights typically leave London early morning. I was really excited, it was all such a big adventure, and I still had a somewhat childlike enthusiasm for air travel, which I’ve never really lost. It is my habit to get to airports in good time, following the recommended times to the letter. This drives some people nuts, but I have never missed a flight. I’ve no problem waiting and entertaining myself, and I find hurrying stressful. Airports have an energy I enjoy; the sounds and the chatter of all these nationalities traveling never gets dull for me. I grew up with it. Security is the liminal space between the public and the traveller, once your airside you’re not a visitor, you’re going somewhere.

LHR T3 Entrance in the small hours. Taken by author.

The flight to Toronto to was straightforward enough, just long. As much as I like airplanes even I get a bit weary after being crammed into one for 7 hours.

Toronto is a pre-clearance airport for the United States, which means it has a fully manned office of American border agents inside the Airport which means you don’t have to go through the same in the United States. My visit was suspicious enough that I was interviewed by an officer trying to figure out what I was up to. I think their big worry is that I might have attempted to find a job, hatch a terror plot or – worse – claim social security. Under my circumstances none of that made any sense at all, so It was pretty brief and with that, I waited for my flight to Pittsburgh, just a short hop over Lake Erie. This was the first time some nerves set in, and I messaged Jen just to make sure there had not been some huge misunderstanding, and I that I was in fact expected because I was now in the same timezone. She was unchanged in her sunny demeanor. Thank fuck for that.

Pittsburgh is a huge airport – it occupies an area larger than LAX – but it is sparse, and I made my way through a quiet concourse (at PIT you are funneled through the departure gates, there is no separate arrivals route – a novelty!) to arrivals and immediately recognized Jen. We hit it off right away, which is lucky, because that is by no means a given with someone you don’t know. We had about a 30 minute drive to downtown. It was around 6pm, and the first stop was…a beer at Jack’s. Well, it would turn out to be several beers. I’d been up 24hrs, but in the manner of these things the excitement and novelty melted away any fatigue. I was there. I have a clear memory of the sun going down pretty quick – much later than home – and the long line of red tail lights near Ikea on I376. It’s funny what sticks in your mind.

Jack's bar.
Jack’s Bar on Pittsburgh’s Carson St. Taken by author.

We left Jack’s late; I remember seeing Downtown Pittsburgh between the buildings, with two landmark skyscrapers and their illuminated neon signs brightening the night sky; impossibly tall, even at a distance.

Rain Downtown
Downtown Pittsburgh. Taken by author.

What followed was a week that had me very much enamored with Jen and the city itself. It was difficult to keep my feet on the ground. Lazy days watching television and catching up on sleep – I was still very jet lagged – and fun evenings. I wanted to stay longer. A week isn’t enough anyhere. Wherever you go, it always goes by so fast. Monday and Tuesday, you think it’ll last forever. After the Wednesday, it’s hard to not to sense the long, black shadow cast by the end of the holiday, and before you know it, it is time to go. I had one trip out into rural Pennsylvania to drop a friend of Jen’s at home, spent many lunchtimes wandering around the the pleasant streets of Shadyside, stopping at the deli and watching the world go by. I had dinner at Jen’s parent’s home, and The final evening saw us up on Mt. Washington; I wanted to get some photos of downtown Pittsburgh at night. Everybody gets this photo, but I didn’t know that then.

Downtown Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington. Taken by author.

I had a good sense of the place, but nothing like enough. Not even close. I was in a curious position. I liked the city, I adored Jen, but what did it all mean? Was any of it genuine? It is easy to think in Hollywood terms, that all it takes is love and everything else works itself out, but that’s a load of bollocks. If there was any possibility at all I was going to uproot my entire life, everything had to be viable. At this point it was all just an idea.

I had a marathon journey home, involving one very long (7hr!!) wait at Toronto, which was agonizing because in Jen’s words it was “…close enough to drive to you” and to top it all off I’d developed a cold, which would cost me another day off work, and having called Jen to say thank you and goodbye I boarded the flight home. I recall pulling my hoodie over my head placing the little travel pillow next to the window frame, and crashing out. I was tired, sad, and I felt like shit.

London. A cold and grey November greeted me on return. I had to gain some clear thoughts, before like so many holidays it fades into the background, as if it never happened at all. I needed to go back.

I wanted to become familiar enough with Jen and the place to wear the freshness out of it all; the new brings with it a honeymoon period where judgement is compromised because you’re having too much fun. I resolved to go back for the New Year and my birthday. Jen was enthusiastic, she wasn’t fed up with me yet, that had to be a sign of something.

In hindsight, I am aware that already, at this very early stage, I had adopted the mindset of committing to it, whatever it was.





One response to “Odyssey, Pt. 9”

  1. Don Dad Avatar

    Very well written. What a story. Proud of you.

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