When I was in my early twenties, my boyfriend and I spent a summer in London. Bernie and I met in college, and decided to live together after graduation. He was plowing through law school and I was working two jobs, saving money for graduate school. When Bernie was offered a summer internship with a law firm in London, we jumped at the opportunity to travel.
Buckingham Palace, Pollock’s Toy Museum, Kew Gardens, The Thames, Westminster Abbey, the theatre. London offered a rich buffet of culture, history and fun. We were excited, but we were also nervous. Along with the 1980s punk scene and the breathtaking countryside, London conjured up images of tea at The Ritz, exceedingly proper behavior, accents of royalty. Bernie and I weren’t married yet; we spoke with American accents; we lived in blue jeans.
We arrived in London and quickly found a place to live, just outside the city, a room in a beautiful home owned by Rupert – late thirties, newly single, strikingly handsome, off-the-wall hilarious, a family practitioner. Rupert walked with us into town, and we were instantly charmed by the quaint shops: a butcher, a vegetable stand, a bakery, a general store. The tiny church was a sanctuary of stone and hand-crafted stained glass, built in the 1700s.
A few days into our summer, while Bernie was buried in the law firm’s library, I found a small river and followed its path. Eventually, I wandered into a sandwich shop, bordering a lovely little park near the water. A beautiful woman, late 20s with long red hair, took my order. Any newcomer stood out in this community and as she made my sandwich, she kept shooting glances. I grew increasingly self-conscious as the atmosphere thickened. Something was very wrong, something beyond my jeans and my accent. Finally, she spoke.
“You’re Rupert’s new boarder. The American. Visiting for the summer with your boyfriend.”
I introduced myself. She neither smiled nor offered her hand. “I’m Rosalind.” She paused, waiting for my reaction.
I was obviously missing a vital piece.
“You don’t know who I am?” I shook my head. “I’m Rupert’s ex-wife. And…” she gestured to a slim young man eyeing me with veiled hostility, “this is my boyfriend, William.”
“I assume you’re here have a look at us and report back,” William smiled coldly.
“I had no idea. I was just going for a walk and wandered in.”
“I can understand how that might happen.” Rosalind and William shared a small smile.
“If my being here is uncomfortable, you can skip my sandwich, no problem.” I was more than ready to leave.
William nodded toward the door, but Rosalind overrode him with her cultured, exquisite accent. “You must understand, it’s quite difficult. I only left Rupert a few months ago. We’ve known each other all our lives. Our marriage was practically arranged. My family doesn’t at all approve of my living in William’s house…”
“William’s shack, they call it,” his jaw pulsed.
“You see,” Rosalind continued, “I wasn’t born and bred to fall in love with…”
“… with the owner of a sandwich shop,” William finished icily.
“Truthfully, I never expected to fall in love at all.” Rosalind’s eyes glistened. “I suppose you must think I’m quite mad to say all this to a stranger.”
I was astonished, but Rosalind and William were suffering and in that moment, nothing else mattered. Instinctively, I reached out to her. She hesitated, then took my hand.
“You’re going through a lot,” I said quietly.
“You’re very kind,” she answered softly.
William walked to her. Silently, he put his hand on her shoulder. Then carefully avoiding eye contact, he added extra everything to my sandwich.
That evening, I met Rupert’s other boarders – Henry, around 40, who owned a small sculpture gallery and Adelaide, a student from France, taking a year off college to work in a trendy night club. Adelaide was tall and thin, with black hair, black lipstick, black mini-skirts, black stilettos. She was sexy, gorgeous and surprisingly shy whenever I ran into her, always in my blue jeans.
As Adelaide and I formed an absurdly unlikely friendship, Henry and Rupert did not. They circled each other like boxers. They rarely spoke in each other’s presence, except to bark a fake cheery greeting, “Good Morning To All,” and bolt for the door. One afternoon, as Adelaide and I relaxed in the garden, I asked if she had noticed the Alpha Male Contest between Rupert and Henry. She burst out laughing, and gave me the background.
Rupert had been born into the British elite. His parents were not pleased when he insisted on becoming a medical doctor, which they considered working class, beneath their station. They were shocked when he moved out of their wealthy neighborhood, buying a home in the unfashionable outskirts. Worst of all, Rupert was a strong advocate of the Labour Party, and would become known among his colleagues for his fierce insistence that all patients be treated as equals, regardless of class. He was on call for the indigent, practically living at the clinic. He married Rosalind, 10 years his junior, stop-in-your-tracks stunning, with a pedigree that drew approval even from his parents.
Rosalind quickly joined the board of several charitable organizations, but when she wasn’t at a luncheon or a tea, she was home alone. To counter her growing loneliness, she insisted they take on boarders and the previous summer, Adelaide moved into the rambling attic for her year abroad. Two months before Bernie and I arrived, Rosalind followed the path by the small river, wandered into William’s sandwich shop, and emerged from his bedroom several hours later. She left Rupert soon after.
As for Rupert and Henry’s standoff…well that was a bit more complicated. There was a woman named Sarah, a classmate of Rupert’s at Oxford. Sarah and Rupert had been a couple until he left her for Rosalind. Sarah married another man and all was seemingly well until a year before, when she began an affair with none other than Henry. Six months before Bernie and I arrived, she peed on a stick. Paternity was not a question, because her husband was “infertile.” With a new baby on the horizon, Henry had no choice but to tell his wife, who kicked him out. Sarah called her old friend, Rupert, imploring him to rent her baby’s father a room while they sorted themselves out.
I stared, and Adelaide grinned.
“You are shocked, no?”
“I can’t believe I was worried about my blue jeans.”
The summer was wonderful. As the house drama exploded around us, Bernie and I discovered why London truly is one of the world’s great cities. We even ditched our jeans for tea at The Ritz, and sampled an outstanding assortment of tea, pastries and cucumber sandwiches. Rupert kept us in stitches, regaling us with stories of his couples therapy with Rosalind, using humor to begin his process of healing. Adelaide returned to France to resume her college education. Sarah, hugely pregnant, moved into Henry’s room, was rushed to the hospital to give birth, promptly reconciled with her husband, and took the baby girl to live with him. When Bernie and I boarded the plane back to the United States, Henry was looking for his own apartment.
Rupert eventually remarried, and continued to find tremendous success in his career. I like to think that Rosalind found happiness with William. I hope Sarah raised her daughter well. Whenever my thoughts turn to Adelaide, I smile, absolutely certain she’s still sexy and gorgeous.
I look back on that summer as my first travel adventure with Bernie. At this point, we’ve had many adventures, some at home, some abroad – marriage, children, love, friendship, careers, travel, deaths, births, tough times, great times. My hair turned gray years ago, and Bernie is finally following suit. We’re old enough to understand how much we’ll never understand. We still wear blue jeans.
And we’re always ready to step forward, into our next adventure.
*All names and identifying information in this post have been changed, except for my husband. I dedicate this post to Bernie, as we gear up for the next adventure.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of 3 grown children. She grew up in the film industry, which launched her on the path to feminism as a child. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black, an overly academic girl who transfers from a college prep academy to the local public high school with gangs, over 40 native languages, and extreme violence targeting the gay students. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows Caroline Black into her rookie year as a psychology intern, treating her first patient, a troubled young man who grew up in the circus.
Click here to find out more about Amy.