About the Author:
Patrick Flanery was born in California and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. After earning a B.F.A. in Film from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, he worked in the film industry before moving to the U.K., where he completed a doctorate in twentieth-century English Literature at the University of Oxford. He is the author of the novels Absolution, which was shortlisted for the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and Fallen Land. He has written for The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement, and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Reading.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
By the time I returned to New York in 2013 I had been living in Oxford for more than a decade, though I had moved there in the first place imagining I might stay for a few years at most. Having failed to get tenure at Columbia I believed Britain might offer some kind of new beginning, a way perhaps to restart my career, but I always planned to move back to America. In the end it took twice or three times as long to get home as I expected it might, and in the interim America had changed so radically—by coincidence I left just after the 9/11 attacks—that I felt no less alienated on my return than I had during those long years in Britain.
Although I had acquired British citizenship and owned a house in East Oxford, on the rather optimistically named Divinity Road, which becomes gradually more affluent as it rises to the crest of a hill, Britain has no narrative of immigrant assimilation, so for my colleagues and friends and students and strangers, it mattered little that I was legally one of them. First and last, I was and would always be an American. Perhaps if one comes at a younger age total acculturation is possible, but as a man in his forties my habits were too firmly in place to undergo whatever changes might have allowed me to become British in anything other than law.
When I was fresh out of graduate school, New York University was not one of the places I would have chosen to work, but I was thrilled when they approached me to apply for a professorship and even happier when I was offered the position and knew at last that my years away from home were at an end. It is surprising how much displacement can alter the mind, and while I went to Britain entirely of my own accord, I became restive after the first few years and increasingly resentful that I was being denied—it seemed to me then—access to a fully American life. I blamed my former colleagues at Columbia and whatever machinations had led to my not being awarded tenure and having thus to begin afresh, as it were, as a rather lowly-sounding Fellow and University Lecturer at one of Oxford’s older Colleges, founded in the fifteenth century, though not one that attracted the brightest students or had the largest endowment. It was, I came to see, a comfortable place to be, despite the workload being substantially greater than at a comparable American institution since Oxford has continued to teach students individually or in small groups, and there is an ever-expandable duty of pastoral care unlike anything in the American academy. I became accustomed to the College chef sending me lunch in my rooms if he was not too busy, often including some tidbit (or as the British say, titbit), from the previous night’s High Table dinner. There were excellent wines in the College cellars and life ticked on as it had for centuries there, with few changes other than the admission of women, and for a few dons still circulating in my time that was regarded as an ill-thought-out modernization that had, they insisted, changed the face of Oxford irremediably.
I was lucky with the property market and in the spring of 2013 sold the house on Divinity Road for a staggering million dollars’ profit, which I invested in a house and some land overlooking the Hudson River a couple hours north of the city, while taking up NYU’s generously subsidized housing in the Silver Towers on Houston Street. Beautiful the apartment was not, but it was a five-minute walk to work and Bobst Library and I relished being back in a city that felt global in a way Oxford certainly had not despite the great number of international students and scholars hustling around its quadrangles and vomiting in its alleys.
Coming home, of course, meant knowing that I would see Meredith more than once or twice a year, as had been our custom since my move to Britain. Her mother had continued to provide her a home in the early years, and in fact the breakdown of my marriage to Susan had coincided with my loss of tenure, though the two were unrelated and no one, it seemed to us both, was really at fault. Nonetheless, it had felt at the time as if there were doubly good reason to seek new opportunities, not only because my career in American academia was finished so far as I could tell, but because my marriage was over as well.
It was last year, only a few months into my first semester back in New York, when I had a meeting scheduled with a doctoral student to whose committee I had been assigned. Life in Oxford had produced a kind of informality in my relations with students, graduate students in particular, and so I had proposed meeting Rachel at a café one Saturday afternoon, the Saturday before Thanksgiving 2013. It was one of a series of Italian-themed places on MacDougal Street that claimed a lineage longer than seemed likely, but I enjoyed its cheap coffees and the variety of authentic pastries they had for sale in their glass display case. If I’m completely honest, it helped soften some of the culture shock I was feeling on my return to America, allowing me to believe for a moment that those markers of European life of which I had grown fond over the years remained accessible to me even on this side of the Atlantic. Accordingly I made Café Paradiso a regular stop in my weekly life, as it provided the kind of quiet and spacious venue where friends and students could be met and conversation lingered over without the sense that a waiter or waitress was going to rush us out the door. It had more atmosphere and élan than one of the chain coffee shops and less hectic bustle than the faux-artisanal places so packed that one has to compete for a table and then feels the pressure of other guests helicoptering with eyes peeled for the first movements building to a departure. Café Paradiso was not chic or hip or hot but it had understated style and that, no doubt, is what has kept it in business for so many years—either that or it’s a front for money laundering, which is always a possibility in this town.
Rachel had been prompt in all our communications and we had met once before, in September, for what in Oxford I would have called a supervision but which now was perhaps better called just a meeting or, if that felt too businesslike, then, simply, coffee. In the intervening two months I had heard little from Rachel until she sent me a completed draft of a chapter I had promised to read. This work, on the organizational history of the Ministry for State Security in the German Democratic Republic, was very assured. I had only a few suggestions for how she might tweak her methodological framework and told her I thought it would be productive to meet again in person before the Thanksgiving weekend.
I had brought a book with me since I am always early wherever I go, this is one of the great irritations I have with my own character since it produces so much wasted time, but I did not expect Rachel to keep me waiting since she had given the impression in our first meeting two months earlier and in all our subsequent communications of being a young woman of exceptional precision and punctuality, even punctiliousness, for in the day leading up to our last meeting she had written to confirm the time and place before I had done so and when I arrived for that appointment, in the coffee shop near the southeast corner of Washington Square, she was waiting for me. In any case, on this second meeting, the Saturday before the week of Thanksgiving, I sat down at a table in the Italian café on MacDougal, ordered an Americano, and opened my book. I cannot now remember what the book was, it might have been Anthony Beevor’s history of 1945, or something of that sort, and I soon found that I had read ten pages. When I looked at my watch it was nearly a quarter past four, fifteen minutes after the appointed time of the meeting. I took out my phone, an antiquated black plastic wedge, unable to send or receive emails, but at least, I thought, I could send Rachel a text message, as I sometimes did to Meredith if I was arranging to meet her and got stuck in traffic, but when I scrolled through my list of contacts I was surprised to discover that Rachel’s name was not among them, although I would have sworn that I had entered her details when we met in September.
I huffed, returned to the book, and another ten minutes passed. I took out my phone, checked again to be sure her I had not overlooked her number, perhaps it was filed under last name instead of first, but there was nothing. It was possible that at some point I had accidentally deleted the entry, my fingers are already not as dexterous as they once were and the tiny keys on my circa-2007 phone are difficult for me to punch accurately, or maybe, I reasoned, that memory of putting Rachel’s name and number into the list of contacts was nothing more than willful invention or a false memory of an intention left unfulfilled. I had been nursing the coffee and now decided there was no point in waiting longer so I raised the cup to my mouth and in so doing caught the gaze of a young man, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, sitting at a table across from me. I don’t know how long he had been sitting there, whether he had already been in the café when I walked in or if he had arrived after me, but he nodded or perhaps did not nod but effected some kind of look of acknowledgement or greeting and then began speaking in a way so casually familiar that I was taken off guard. This is not something that tends to happen in Britain, where suspicion of strangers is so deeply ingrained in the psyche, perhaps from the years of the IRA threat, or even more distantly, from the suspicion of German spies during the Second World War, that strangers often do not even make eye contact let alone speak with one another, unless they are from elsewhere, and then, by happy chance, it becomes possible to bond with a stranger in a public place, both shaking your heads over the confounding maze of London’s transportation network or the cost of living or the difficulty of simply walking down the street because whatever laws of left-side walking that might once have been in force have been hopelessly confused by London’s transformation into an international microstate, and though distant enough from the capital, Oxford is a satellite of this phenomenon, its Englishness gradually giving way to a cosmopolitanism that moves with brutal transformative force, so perhaps the day will soon come when strangers in Britain talk to each other in ways that will feel normal rather than extraordinary.
But here, in New York, on a cold day in November, there was a stranger engaging me in conversation, and because of my habituation to an English attitude of reticence and privacy it seemed so astonishing that at first I could not believe he could possibly be speaking to me.
I did a double take, looking round the room. ‘You talking to me?’
‘You talking to me? That’s funny,’ he laughed, ‘like DeNiro, right? Taxi Driver. You talkin’ to me?’
‘Yeah, I suppose so.’
‘So? Stood up?’
‘No. It’s not like that. I was waiting for a student.’
‘Male or female?’
Again I looked around the room. The café was not very full and there was something sufficiently strange in the young man’s tone that I was unsure whether it was safe to continue the conversation, in fact I thought of ending it right there and excusing myself. If I had any common sense remaining that is precisely what I should have done, but clearly, in retrospect, I had taken leave of my senses, or perhaps, I think now, taken leave of my British senses and allowed the American ones to seize control.
Once more I looked around, this time to be sure there was no one I knew within earshot.
‘No, to be honest, not really.’
‘You sound British.’
‘I lived there for more than a decade. To the British I always sounded American.’
‘Well, you sound British to me. Anyone else tell you that?’
‘A number of people. Americans tend not to have a good ear. They think that British actor, what’s his name, who’s on TV, they think he does a faultless American accent. He doesn’t. It’s totally unconvincing. It sounds like an accent that was cooked up in a laboratory rather than grown from seed, as it were.’
‘See, that’s what I mean. Americans would never say as it were. You totally sound British. That’s awesome.’
‘Thank you, I guess.’
‘So she’s not pretty, the student who stood you up?’
‘She’s attractive enough, but that’s not the point. She’s an excellent student.’
‘But a flake.’
‘No, not a flake. It’s just not like her.’
‘I don’t have her number. Thought I did...’
‘Listen, kiddo, I’m not that old.’
‘You could be my granddad.’
‘The hell I could. I’m only fifty-two.’
‘Okay, okay, I’m just messing with you. What do you teach?’
‘Modern history and politics, and film, a senior seminar on film.’
‘Are you a student?’
‘Nope. Not any more.’
‘You know what I do. You don’t want to tell me what you do?’
‘Just another corporate shill.’
And that was the end of the conversation as far as I remember it. He struck me as not much younger or older than Meredith, with sandy hair and a pale complexion that made him look like a corn-fed Midwesterner, the kind of face that still hosts the slightly haunted looking eyes of poverty from a few generations back—not his parents or grand-parents necessarily, but one or more of the great-grandparents, I suspected, had not eaten well for much of his or her life and somehow that hunger had taken hold of their genes and been passed down to the kid who struck up a conversation with me in an Italian café in Greenwich Village in November of 2013. It was the kind of face that reminded me of the portraits of Mike Disfarmer, those sepia photographs of ordinary Arkansas folk, too tanned, most of them lean and a little hungry or hunted looking, as though in hunting to put meat on the table they had at some moment in the chase realized they were themselves being tracked by unseen predators.
The meeting was not in itself unsettling, although he was the kind of person, or behaved like the kind of person, who left me glancing over my shoulder as I walked back to my building in the afternoon dark, and then as I stood in the lighted window overlooking Houston Street—or, rather, staring at my own reflection as I was thinking about the passing traffic outside—it occurred to me just how visible I was, only a few floors up from street level, the slatted blinds open and me standing there, listening to Miles Davis and drinking a glass of scotch because it was, after all, already half past five in the afternoon and it was November and dark and I felt alone, in fact quite lonely, and realizing that the reason I had not ended the conversation immediately, even when it took its stranger turns, was because I had not yet managed to reconnect with many of my old friends in the city, and had in fact let those friendships slide during my years in Oxford, so that I no longer felt able to phone up the people who had once been my intimates and ask them if we could meet for a coffee as easily as I proposed such meetings with my students, female or not, pretty or otherwise, whether my supervision of this student ...
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