Hours of Darkness
I gazed out the window at the receding Scottish countryside and whispered a quiet farewell to the place I used to think was home. For the first time, I saw Edinburgh from the air. Fitting that my last view of the magical city should be from high above. Everything’s more beautiful from faraway. My eyes followed the familiar lopsided curve of Arthur’s Seat, surrounded by the barren folds of Holyrood Park. I watched the crooked seacoast and graceful meandering River Forth fading into misty twilight under the last rays of the gentle Scottish sun.
For the first time, I felt free. I was no longer tied to this place, or any place. I hadn’t realized until that moment the weight of declaring a destination. Now that I was leaving, everything seemed much clearer.
Or was it all an illusion? Everything seemed so clear the last time, the last flight, as I made my way to this city. Months of dreams and fantasies boiled down to choosing Scotland as my permanent home. But the plans I had set for the rest of my life had buckled after only twenty-two days. Not a failure, really, just a lot of hard lessons. Twenty-two days had turned inside-out everything I thought I knew for twenty-one years.
I should have guessed something wasn’t right after my flight to London at the beginning of this adventure. I had the misfortune of being on a red-eye with thirty screaming children, several unidentifiable odors, and unfriendly flight attendants who seemed to make a point of stepping on my foot as often as possible. I arrived in London tired and grumpy, then realized that I probably should not have brought more than my body weight in luggage. Especially to a country where elevator technology is close to nonexistent. During my journey into central London, I remembered just how much I dislike central London. When I finally hauled all my crap to a grimy youth hostel — which had advertised itself “a short walk from the tube station” –- ha! — I discovered that I would not be allowed access to a bed until 3:00 in the afternoon.
To my over-tired brain and over-taxed body, that was the last straw. I could not deal with London for one more minute. I spent over $100 on a flight that would get me to Edinburgh that afternoon. It would mean missing a talk by my favorite author, but I knew that if I could not stay in London one minute longer. Then I realized that in order to catch my flight, I’d have to get back on the Underground and haul my bags across London again.
I sat down on the sidewalk and cried. Passers-by asked if I was okay. What was I supposed to say? I’m tired and grumpy and thirsty and far from home and every muscle in my body is aching? I just shrugged and kept on crying. One woman persisted and found out I wanted to get to the airport. She went to check the bus schedule for me, and a man let me pet his dog. Someone gave me a bottle of water. Londoners are really nice people, I thought.
Eventually I made it up to Edinburgh. On the shuttle bus from the airport, I ran into an acquaintance from dancing. His job took him back and forth between Edinburgh and Brussels on a weekly basis, so it shouldn’t have been surprising to see him at the airport, but I took it as a good sign.
My first few days in Edinburgh were peppered with such omens. My friend Claudia’s couch provided a comfortable base from which to launch my search for a job and a place to live, and in my jaunts around the city I ran into dear acquaintances I’d lost touch with. On a bus I chatted with Zander, organizer of Pagan events and the annual AIDS walk. Checking out flats in Bruntsfield I got a happy embrace from John, a fellow performer in the Beltane Fire Festival, just back from Beijing and soon starting on a PhD. In front of the Newington supermarket I stopped to see Bobby, a tough-looking punk I’d befriended during my forays into Edinburgh’s counterculture scene. When I first met Bobby, his companion had been just a puppy; now Spike was a full-grown German Shepard, and I wondered if he remembered me from the summer evenings of dancing in the park.
As a requirement for immigration, I attended an orientation session at BUNAC, the company that had issued my work visa. Their website had boasted that most participants would find a place to live within three days, and a job within a week. After sitting through lectures about taxes, healthcare, and UK life, I pounced on the newspapers and job listings they provided. The other Americans in the room chattered about renting flats together and going clubbing, while I pored over the papers in the corner, avoiding their conversations. I didn’t go to the UK to live with Americans, and their accents already grated on my nerves.
BUNAC had said that the going rate for a room in an Edinburgh flat would be about £40 a week ($65), and that finding a place for under $300 a month would be easy. Looking at the vacancy listings, it seemed that the rates were closer to £70 a week ($115). I set about writing down numbers to call when I got back to Claudia’s – for all their offers of phone and computer use, BUNAC’s office facilities were swamped, and I didn’t feel like waiting.
But I did a lot of waiting in those first days. Waiting for landlords to call me back, waiting to talk to shop managers to see if they were hiring, waiting at bus stops on my way to see flats… I had told Claudia that I’d be off her couch within three days. At the end of the first week, I started to worry. I’d assumed that September would be a good time for finding a place to live; the Festival throngs had departed and the university term was still a month away. But the city seemed to be resting, and the students were already settled into their flats for the fall. My bank account was shrinking faster than I’d anticipated, and I’d had nothing but false starts in my search for accommodation: potential flatmates changing their minds at the last minute, advertised studios turning out to be rooms in boarding houses, treks to far-flung reaches of the city for mediocre arrangements not worth their bloated rents… Every day I apologized to Claudia for imposing, and though she smiled and welcomed me for as long as I needed, I knew she was also in a tight spot financially.
Meanwhile, I began to question my motivation in coming to Edinburgh. I wrote in my journal, maybe I don’t belong here, that’s the true gripping fear, maybe I was wrong. It wasn’t just the struggle to find a flat and a job. The European Social Forum was coming up in Florence: would I be able to attend with my Italian friend Daniele? I had shipped a box of kitchen supplies and other items to my friend Ian, but he seemed to have disappeared. Small worries began to pile into an overwhelming sense of anxiety.
September 11th was a particularly difficult day. It was the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and I’d never before felt like such a foreigner in Scotland. I watched the memorial service on Claudia’s TV and longed for the comfort of home. As I wept for the lives lost one year before, I also wept for those of us left behind, left to heal the wound that grew larger every day the bombs fell on Afghanistan. I knew that I was meant to be one of the healers, and for the first time I wondered how living in Edinburgh would help me fulfill that destiny.
As the days passed, I tried to keep my spirits up while plodding on with the flat-hunt, but I was filled with doubt. Somehow this place isn’t feeling like home anymore, I wrote, I’m starting to fear that this was an experience best left in the past. I convinced myself that when I found a flat and a job, my outlook would improve. But when I finally moved from Claudia’s couch after ten days, everything crumbled.
The only place I could find within my budget was a tiny room in a six-person flat, rented out biweekly. I piled my suitcases into a taxi and moved in. After I hauled my stuff up the stairs and got it into my new room, the place looked a lot smaller. The bed, supposedly an ordinary single, seemed closer to a child’s size. My feet hung over the end when I laid down. The wardrobe was barely five feet tall, and combined with the miniscule dresser there was no possibility of accommodating my clothes. In frustration, I piled everything in the corner of the room, then realized there was no place to put the empty suitcases. There was no desk, so I set up my laptop in the other corner, on the floor.
Somehow, seeing all my things piled on the floor of this dark, grimy room filled me with despair. The walls seemed to be closing in on me, and I couldn’t imagine how I might build a happy life from this room. Everything was all wrong. It all must be a bad dream,I wrote in my journal. I just want to wake up safe again.
I couldn’t bear to lay down on that lumpy bare mattress with my one cheap blanket and rolled-up towel for a pillow. Delirious with exhaustion and hopelessness, I wandered through the rainy streets in the middle of the night to find a payphone. My mother talked me down from a sobbing fit and put things into perspective for me. I could go home if I needed to. It wasn’t failure.
Still, the next morning, I began my job search in earnest. Now that I had a proper address, I set out to register at employment agencies. One of my new flatmates remarked that I looked “quite a sight” with my bright purple hair and crisp black suit jacket. The agencies must have agreed, because even with my wealth of office experience, I didn’t get a single phone call. I poured over the newspapers and searched for help wanted signs, but there seemed to be nothing I was remotely qualified to do. It wasn’t just the purple hair — even jobs that I applied for from internet cafés didn’t get back to me.
Meanwhile, the vibrant social life I’d hoped for just wasn’t materializing. The university term was still weeks away, so there were no dance classes where I could see my old friends. I went to the Meadows in search of the Beltane drummers and fire-spinners, but they were nowhere to be found. My new flatmates were friendly enough, but they went about their own business and I was just a new face in the kitchen. I’d assumed that when I arrived back in Edinburgh, I could step back into my old life as though I’d never left. More and more, I realized this was an impossible dream.
More and more, I was faced with a choice. As each day passed and my money trickled away, it became clear that I wasn’t going to get a job in time. When I had registered at all the agencies I could find and applied at every possible job in the papers, I wandered aimlessly around the city, ostensibly to look for help wanted signs, but really because I couldn’t think of anything else to do and I couldn’t bear to be in my tiny room that smelled of stale cigarettes. It felt like a puzzle where I could almost see the emerging picture, if only I could gather just a few more pieces before my time ran out. It was maddening, to be exactly where I wanted to be, haunted by the fear that I would not be able to stay. It was like walking through memories: the buildings were the same, the beloved sights and smells and sounds, but where were my old friends? Where was my old life? It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
One sunny afternoon I wandered down to New Town, near the bus station where I’d first entered my city of dreams. I bought some ice cream and chips, which seemed the appropriate food with which to wallow in self-pity. I set my CD player on repeat and listened to the same sad song again and again while scribbling furiously in my journal. I had been walking all day, going over my options, calculating budgets, playing what-if games, not bothering to wipe away the tears that were flowing steadily down my cheeks. I curled up on a bench to rest my feet and eat my comfort food, listened to my music, and watched the people go by.
Slowly, a realization floated to the surface of my awareness. This was not my only dream. Certainly, returning to Edinburgh had been incredibly important to me, but there were many other things I wanted to achieve in my life. Changing the world. Writing books. Traveling. Suddenly it seemed ridiculous to think I should be where I wanted to be without having a clue about what I’d be doing. I’d imagined getting a job, settling into a happy routine, having a relatively easy life, but where was the deeper meaning? Was this really what I wanted?
I’ve never been one to settle for small dreams, and suddenly I realized that my timing was all wrong. It wasn’t working out because I was aiming for absolutely the wrong thing. I was never meant to permanently subsist on meaningless work, and even in the most magnificent city, my soul would not settle for it. I had to figure out the plot of this story before I could set a scene. I had to go home.
Everything felt lighter after that. I took the last of my money and bought a plane ticket back to the states. I stopped wasting my time on the pointless job search and began revisiting the beautiful dreamlike places that I loved, places that I might never see again. It was still like walking through memories, but this time I was saying good-bye. I sat on Calton Hill where I’d watched my illusions crumble the year before, and found the despair smoothed into a soft sadness, like the gentle curves of Scottish hills. How different it all looks now, and how much the same, I wrote. Everything’s more beautiful from faraway… Scent of the sea mingles with ink on the page, and the sun is warm on my back. It’s all so soft and faraway, memory wrapped around me like a blanket… Is there any place more perfect than this? Now that the suffering melts away, the beauty will still be here someday.
In the few days before leaving, I felt twinges of doubt — I saw some old friends at a dance, and didn’t want to leave them behind. I had to stop myself from inquiring about help wanted signs in shop windows. I passed a cluster of unfamiliar people spinning fire on the Meadows, and considered joining them. But in the end, I kept walking. I was filled with a deep sense of sadness but also a deep resolve: I want so badly to stay here, live this life. But it’s not time yet. I have to wait for something else to pass, for the cycle to turn a little longer… There needs to be a barrier, I think, between who I was and who I’m going to be.
During those last few days of packing up my things, trying to memorize Edinburgh’s landscapes was like running my fingers over the face of a lover I might never see again. I did not want to let go, but I knew I had to. I soaked in as much of the city’s beauty as I could, willing it to nourish me for the years to come. I floated through dreams and memories, drunk on sweet reverie and regret, vowing to remember the exact taste of the Scottish drizzle on my lips, the exact coconut scent of the gorse blossoms and the yeasty smell of the brewery. But I had made the same vows before, and I had forgotten, time lending its slow haze to my memories. I knew I would forget again, and that knowledge terrified me.
To the friends I managed to meet before leaving, I bid farewell again, promising to return. But deep in my heart, I was not certain I would. This farewell had been too painful, and I was not prepared to repeat it. Perhaps Edinburgh would be the lover I would always pine for, too afraid to make the journey again.
Waiting for my flight, I was calm. My tears had already been shed. Where I had eagerly, almost obsessively noted every detail of the landscape before, I gazed out the airport windows dispassionately, too spent to notice anything new. I felt a sense of closure steeped in sadness and uncertainty, and knew I was returning to an undecided future back home. I tried to look at the questions as opportunities, but I knew my calm was born more from exhaustion than serenity. Still, maybe I could escape my restless insomnia now, maybe I could stop playing heartbreaking games of what-if.
I boarded the plane without emotion and took my seat. It would be too difficult now to contemplate what I was doing, and I stared out the window, trying to clear my mind. After takeoff, the flight attendants requested that we close the blinds.
“The cabin lights will be dimmed during the hours of darkness, but feel free to make use of the reading lamps located just above your heads…”
Hours of darkness. Somehow, the words stuck in my mind. Hours of darkness. As I leaned against the window and drifted off to sleep, I wondered if my hours of darkness were coming to an end, or just beginning.