by STEPHANIE GORTON MURPHY
When I was twenty-four, I lived in a grand, minimalist apartment in Edinburgh, on the south side of the Meadows. That wide expanse of green is crisscrossed by wide, lonely paths, and each way into the park has its charm: a gate in a stone wall, an arch formed by the giant jawbone of a whale. In centuries past the Meadows had been a loch, but after an episode of plague it had been filled in. Now lush elm trees and emerald grass grew where there had once been sixty acres of murky water.
Every day I would wake up in my high-ceilinged room, walk across the Meadows and the Old Town, duck through a narrow alley that seemed ripe for murder and into the courtyard of the company’s building, and land at my post in the editorial department. There I would stay until past dark most days, except in midsummer when our northern latitude kept the day going past nine. It was that summer, when my life seemed perfectly shaped and yet strangely stalled, that the blindness of my thinking propelled me into something unplanned, messy, and far from everyone I loved. There was a realization that I still struggle to explain, and then an escape, and now looking back I’m not sure which life was the borrowed one and which held permanence, that one I had or the one I flew off to.
The good news came, as it often does, in a manila envelope. I tore into it and tipped out my passport, which fell open to a new, stiff, pink page. My own stern face looked back at me from a visa that said I could stay for five more years, and have the option to become a British citizen after that, if I wanted. I called my British-American-Lebanese parents in London and we cheered over the phone. I looked at the passport again, and then put it in the drawer where it belonged. How neat my life now looked on paper, how free I ought to feel. The night passed in inexplicable, suffocating panic, and I found myself dreaming of the day when I could quit the whole scene — the beautiful home, perfect job, maybe even life itself. For the first time, it seemed impossible to want what I was supposed to want.
The stamp meant an option I had furiously hoped and worked for. Six years before I had come to Edinburgh for a weekend, and decided I needed to live there. I’d gone from one student visa to the next, to a work permit called the Fresh Talent designation. But now, at twenty-four, my Fresh Talent had expired. I had gathered hundreds of documents and put a heavy paperwork burden on my employer in a bid to get sponsored, unskilled as I was. They had had to advertise my job, and interview other candidates for it, which was chilling to watch. I had even made a backup plan with a friend from the Highlands, that he and I would get married if the visa was denied. And yet, now that the bureaucratic nightmare was over, I looked around at my painstakingly assembled world and wanted to flee.
The poet Kapka Kassabova wrote about living in Edinburgh: ” … nothing changes here except in memory … The haar that [creeps] in from the sea. The cemeteries bumpy with centuries of flesh … The way nobody is too interested in you – a great British quality.” Like Kassabova, I was certain this city was home. I liked being an American abroad. It allowed me to sneak into a close acquaintance with a place, but always as an observer. I could abstract myself when I needed to, ask the most naïve questions, drift from one scene to the next, and treat others as though I was unlikely to stay. At the same time, this was the place I had forged the beginning of a self-sufficient life.
When I was a child, each successive move or change of schools made me even more impatient to grow up. I wanted to find a place no one in my family had been before, make it my own, and dig in for good. My rebellion was making my life predictable. Edinburgh had given me a start: six years, and another would pass before I left. Surely I owed the place more commitment. Two weeks after my passport was returned, I cautiously mentioned the panic to my father. He analyzed me via Groucho Marx: “You don’t want to belong to any club that will accept you as a member.” Was that it?
But my home was becoming a strange place, outside of my control. It started in August, when Edinburgh is one great performance. There are festivals that turn every surface into a stage or screen, the city’s population triples, and locals complain of the throngs who make regular life and sleep impossible for a month. Music blared through my office window, and the long shadows in the morning and evening drew gorgeous shapes from the steeples and crags over the noisy streets. Drunk couples slumped over each other in buses and parks, like pale, elfin Hogarth etchings.
The less photogenic seams of the city were there too. I loved my workplace, but had little left to learn from my job. My college friends moved to bigger cities, and my long hours left little chance to make new ones. The Bush years were finally over, but my accent, which refused to soften, still attracted the wrong kind of attention from men at the pub. On hearing me place an order, they often launched into joyous anti-American rants or, on countless occasions, smilingly asked if I “liked Bush.” Then there was Roderick, my roommate, a high school English teacher nearing thirty who spent his evenings working on a novel. He had seemed perfect, a bright-eyed redhead who might set me up with his friends.
Three days after he moved in, Roderick casually mentioned that he had a young daughter in Japan; his plan, sprung on me after the lease had been signed, was that she and her mother would spend the summer with us. Soon after that, I got home early from work to find the bathroom door open, a bath running, and Roderick dipping a toe in, completely nude with a fat joint glowing between his lips. I couldn’t help but laugh. But he mistook laughter for approval, and over time I would come home to find Roderick undressed and high in every room of the apartment, including my own. In the midst of this, excited at the fact that I worked for a publisher, he sent me his manuscript-in-progress. It was a series of violent, self-aggrandizing fantasies about the women in his life. The fact that I had invited this person to live with me — that I had chosen him from a handful of Craigslist responders — gnawed at the trust I’d once had in myself.
Maybe if I’d been attached, my relationship to the place would not have been the test of character that it was when I was so often alone. Long before my visa application, I had broken up with my boyfriend of three years because I couldn’t see us living the same life. Within weeks he was with someone new, and I waited confidently to fall in love again too. But my affections seemed to have gone to sleep. On the evenings I didn’t hit a pub with coworkers, I ran. I plugged myself into headphones and let my strides eat the town, the alleyways through the Meadows, the road around the cold, humped volcanic hill of Arthur’s Seat.
It was a spare, deliberate life for a young person, and it’s sad evidence that few people can love forever what they loved at eighteen. I think of Edinburgh as someone I tried to marry and missed the mark. “One’s prime is elusive,” lectured Miss Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s most famous Edinburgh novel. “Recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.” I knew I was not in my prime, and this was bad, because surely twenty-four is everyone’s prime. Looking at my totem of acceptance, the UK visa, it was clear that another version of myself could have been happy there. I was close to being that version and wonder if it will be hard to see the city again when I go back. For in the end, I had to leave the city to get away from a sad love that sat like fog over a swamp until I flew to new, dry ground.
I reformatted my CV with American spelling and ran it by the few people I knew in New York. A year later, in mid-August, I moved back across the Atlantic. I had a job and an apartment, both unsuitable, and neither would last long. But on that flight, I realized I was waking up again. The plane taxied to a halt, the airport doors swung open, and a well of humidity and taxi horns embraced me.
Stephanie Gorton Murphy is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Providence. This is her first appearance in these pages.
“Let It Rain” – Mat Kearney (mp3)
“Ghost” – Mat Kearney (mp3)
The new album from Mat Kearney, Just Kids, is out today.