Summer 1987. I could not wait till the end of term when I would be joining History Man in America. Virginia would be hot and humid, so I went to Debenhams and bought four pairs of shorts – blue, pink, orange and yellow – and matching vests.
I packed joyously, trying not to think about a previous meeting in New York that had been clouded by his confession of a terrible betrayal, perhaps the worst of them all, (with one of my feminist friends). His affairs were part of an annual cycle, always in spring, always with someone as close to me as possible. I would break it off, he would repent, and some time in mid summer we would get together again, closer than ever in our efforts to suppress the waves of jealousy, anger and guilt.
I bought a lot of food for the flight in Brighton’s first vegetarian restaurant Food for Friends. I was travelling on one of those budget airlines where nothing is provided. Unfortunately the quiche and salads did not travel well, reducing to a kind of mush, which I ate, nonetheless. In the immigration queue in New York I felt tired but happy, eager to get on to my connecting flight to Virginia. When they asked me how much money I had on me, I was so taken aback by the question that I replied without thinking “about 50 dollars”. They looked alarmed, unimpressed by my story that I was meeting my boyfriend and had transferred money into his account. Perhaps my bleached spiky hair and parrot earrings didn’t help either. But being white and English I was not used to this treatment and it came as a shock to me that I could be classed as a potential threat to American society. They took me into a side room, and made me telephone History Man’s American friends – fortunately he had given me their number – and even more fortunately they vouched for me, and the Immigration officials let me go on my way, anxiously running for my next flight.
He was there to meet me and we travelled by taxi to the flat he had borrowed for the summer in a historic small town. It quickly became home. We relied on friends to take us shopping, as in our town you could buy a mob cap or a quill pen, but not groceries. At first we survived on drugstore sandwiches and I delighted in the very American experience of ordering them and choosing from the mesmerising varieties of bread and toppings. But it was an expensive way to eat, and as soon as I could I stocked up on pasta and tomatoes and olive oil. Someone lent us a membership card to a club with a beautiful spring water pool, the perfect antidote to the Virginia summer heat. I had to forge a signature to get in, but my categorisation as a potential criminal as I entered the US somehow made this easier for me. I went there every day, while he worked, wearing my shorts ensembles on top of my costume. In the mornings I would wash out the shorts and hang them to dry in the back yard, relishing this summer of being a housewife, even if I did sometimes go to the library with him to prepare next term’s classes.
One weekend friends took us to the beach in North Carolina. We stayed in a motel apartment, right on the beach, and cooked seafood together in the evenings, and in the day bathed in the warm but turbulent ocean. The friends had a tiny baby. I had my picture taken on the beach, holding him. When we got back to our apartment, we decided we wanted to have a child together, and because of my age there was no time to be wasted.
Then an American friend of mine invited me to visit her in Ithaca. We agreed I would go, even if the visit coincided with the best time of the month to conceive. He joined me in Boston en route, and we did our best to make up for this bad timing. I travelled on a series of ever smaller aeroplanes, lost in a happy dream that I was already pregnant. My friend welcomed me enthusiastically, and took me to swim in waterfalls and eat in the famous ‘Moosewood’ vegetarian hippie restaurant. In the bookshop in Ithaca I read the chapters on pregnancy and birth in Our Bodies Ourselves, imagining that these miracles were taking place in my own body. He and I were reunited in Washington, staying with some friends of his. We retired a touch too early to be polite, such was our eagerness to resume our efforts to conceive.
Back in Virginia it was soon time to pack up and go back to England. Somehow most of the work of cleaning the flat and packing fell to me, while he seized the last hours with the manuscripts. I became bad-tempered. Pre-menstrual tension was the explanation, we agreed. When my period came I was relieved, as all the old feelings of distrust and anger had come back, and I was not sure I wanted to take the risk of having a child with this man, after all. The summer dream was over. I packed the shorts.
When we landed in England I was delighted to be home, while his gloom deepened. We got back to my house and I made phone calls and finally went round to the corner shop to buy eggs and bread for breakfast. When I got back he was furious because of the time I had spent on the phone, and my obvious pleasure in being home, even in having a corner shop to go to. For him America was the dream, and my enthusiasm for the old country anathema. And my relief at not being pregnant with his child had wounded him. He grabbed his leather jacket and threatened to leave. I imagined how I would feel in this situation pregnant, or with a baby.
What we were actually gestating was the end of our relationship. In April the following year he had another affair, with a student, this time. Then he met me in town for coffee and explained how he missed me, how she was really too young, not quite right for him. One evening a few weeks later he came round to invite me to the cinema to see ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, but I had seen it the night before and knew exactly where watching those erotic scenes with him would lead. I closed the door, in tears, and wrote to him the next day asking him never to contact me again. After this climax of agony, it was over, by my volition. The end of History. I burnt his letters, but could not bring myself to waste perfectly good garments, so that summer, in the midst of my grief for him, for the lost child, I kept on wearing my American shorts on Brighton beach.