by Cynthia Belmont
I lived in London for half my junior year of college and only spoke to my parents twice. It was the 1980s, before the internet and mobile devices, when you were truly on your own. Overseas calls were expensive, and I enjoyed crafting my life into hand-written letters featuring scenes that amplified its splendor. But every couple months, when I longed to hear their small crackly voices, I called Kansas City from the red booth on the corner a couple blocks from our shoebox flat in the Holland Park Mews, where my three beautiful study-abroad roommates and I lined the living room walls with empty Riesling bottles, argued passive-aggressively about who owed what for our paltry groceries, and staged cramped salon-toned parties that occasionally shimmered with the appearance of a professor or two, stunningly present in our private milieu, smoking, who knew, chatting awkwardly but grandly in our cheap low chairs before leaving for whatever grownup places.
That Thanksgiving break I was there alone since the others took the boat across to Europe for jaunts, so my father, flying home from a conference in India, stopped over for a night on his way, which we had worked out by mail, and that was the best Thanksgiving. We bought quail eggs and prawns, boiled them on my small stove and dipped them in butter, strolled around Holland Park, had a pint at the Castle, and in the evening he treated me to a seafood dinner at Wilton’s, where I had my first scallops, huge disks of sweet white flesh in cream, my father and I, decadent together in London, surreal. In the morning he was gone, briefcase and overcoat disappeared into Heathrow, and I made my way back to our flat on the lonely Tube.
That afternoon I wandered the streets and, seeing a shell-pink garter belt in a window at Marks & Spencer, walked in and bought it along with a pair of sheer cream stockings, my first real lingerie, not for any occasion or particular purpose, nor were they my style as a feminist neo-hippie college student, nor would I wear them until three years later, when the right lover came along, nor were they in my meager budget. But they were lovely, chaste yet erotically charged, and I was drawn to what they suggested about the adult I could become.
Everything foreign gleams more brightly when you’re truly unmoored. It was paper maps only then, paper phone book, no reviews but Fodor’s short lists in the gold series, no pictures of the restaurant or hotel in advance, no GPS. You had to know your way around, to be confident that you could figure it out, and if you took a wrong turn in one way or another, there were no credit cards for students in those days, just cash money, a bright lookout, and an understanding that it’s not that easy to get genuinely lost.
Still, my father and I traveled together recently and at one point became separated in the Paris Metro. He’s old now, he miscalculated and the train doors closed between us, leaving me in Saint-Paul station while he sped on and I waited there panicked, why I don’t know, come back Dad. It turns out that being one subway stop apart from your aging parent in another country is all it takes to launch a primitive fear, even when you’re in your forties and have a cell phone. And indeed, someday no face in any window will be his.
Cynthia Belmont is a Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies at Northland College, an environmental liberal arts school located on the South Shore of Lake Superior, in Ashland, WI, where she teaches creative writing, literature, and environmental feminism. Her writing has appeared in diverse journals, including Poetry, Cream City Review, Oyez Review, Natural Bridge, Sunspot, River Teeth, and Terrain.org.