26 February 2017

A fever dream


After avoiding alcohol for a month mostly in service of an attempt to get my body back, this last week I have been wandering to and from pubs in Harborne, finding myself buying naan on the walk home for 80p at the takeaway just past that old blown out roller skate rink. On Monday, this stop involved having a chat with a police officer about corruption in the UK police force compared to the US, me trying very hard to not appear like I had just been out drinking and this man, excited to have a bit of culture in his otherwise cultureless night. I turned over my one pound coin and wished him and the man behind the counter good luck awkwardly. Good luck with what.

There was another conversation on Friday with Tom, after two beers and a peaty, smokey whisky that turned into me recounting all the people I had touched that day, and how meaningful all that physical contact had been. I had patted a colleague on the back in the Sanctuary, the University's religious-sounding cafeteria where Justin Bieber and the BBC news are projected on a screen, and another colleague had hugged me in her office. They meant a lot, I was saying, feeling suddenly nostalgic about everything in my life. Tom left for the toilet and a woman at the other table asked me where my accent was from – she had been listening to our conversation and I answered the typical sorts of questions that you answer, feeling like my moment with my smartphone was being taken away from me unjustly. She asked me about my partner, who I said was Japanese and she responded, Oh you mean like Chinese, and I said, No, I mean like Japanese. And she looked confused and said, Yeah, but she looks like a Chinese, right?

And then last night, the church had a variety show, something that felt very British with vaguely colonial moments, and Yoko gave me five pounds to buy a bottle of white wine. I drank it over the two hours of the performance, the whole thing fading moment by moment into a surreal fever dream of 17 year-old me, thinking about England and Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath somewhere up in the Yorkshire Moors before she stuck her head in that oven. At the end, the lights came on and everyone belted out God Save the Queen, me included, full of cheap wine and irony, thinking, well, this is fitting. I tried to sober up enough to say goodbye to the Vicar, and thank him, Give me a passport now, I said. I'm British. Of course, I'm not British.

The Pihlajas of Harborne is an imaginary iteration of our family that I've been toying with while thinking again about my relative value in the community — am I just residing here for my own benefit, my beautiful children leeching off the welfare state with our free education and healthcare and Mia's free hot lunches. To be fair, very few British people seem to think this about me, the friendly white American man with the beautiful children and Chinese-looking wife. A mortgage advisor said to me several weeks ago when I was thinking I might buy a house, If we're getting rid of people like you, then we're really lost. Sure, I thought, but you don't know much about immigration policy in this country. It's not supposed to make sense. That's the point.

Despite my Tier 2 status, I want to believe I have something to offer. Surely Harborne benefits from this splash of colour. Today, in McDonalds, where I had taken the children in spite of Yoko's objection, I was drinking espresso from a paper cup. A younger mother, with a boy and two little girls in highchairs, yelled over to me, Can I use your phone, mate? I didn't know what to say, I hesitated. It's fine, she said, I just need it to call someone to pick me up, I'm here with my kids, I'll give you a pound. I didn't know what to say, It's not about the money, it's just that- and I realised I had nothing to say, so I pulled my phone and gave it to her with all the Protestant judgement I could muster. Call your meth dealer on my phone, I thought, I've been feeling like I have nothing to lose anyway.

She was thankful and had a short angry conversation on the phone before saying she needed to send a text. I had eased into the situation thinking about the parable of the sheep and the goats, which I had taught earlier in the week in a metaphor class and felt increasingly like this might be a freebie: do whatever you need to do. She lightened up, Where are you from? she asked, and I said, Chicago, and she smiled happily and pointed at the girls, And them? Mia said, Japan! just as I was saying, America too, and it felt disjointed and awkward. Well, you're from America too, I said to Mia, which is, of course, a lie.

The woman thanked me and went back to her table and I got back to nicking fries off the children and feeling bad about myself.  The woman stood up and signalled to me that she needed to take a call on her own phone, which appeared, and left her kids. The boy was focused on me, It's hot in Chicago, right? And I said, well, no, not really. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught his sister in the high chair starting to get up to try and get a balloon she had dropped. I sprung up to stop her, suddenly holding this little girl saying, no, no sweetheart, you have to sit here, you can't get up. She sat back down, and I pulled my chair over. The woman came back, asking to use the phone again, starting up with some explanation but I waved her off, just use it, don't worry. She had another angry conversation, and then gave the phone back again, thanking me, and asking, Texas – is Texas in America? I was confused: Yeah? I said realising she wasn't joking, yeah, it is. The little boy looked like he had seen a celebrity and that maybe somewhere in one of my pockets, there were tickets to America, to some different life free from all the drama of the Birmingham Ring Road McDonald's.

We packed up our stuff and I threw away the rubbish. I held Mia's hand as we walked out and the woman thanked me again as we passed. I said, Good luck, and she smiled at me. In the car park, Naomi asked about her, and I gave some boilerplate liberal platitude about privilege and what we had been given. If caring for the poor is the pathway to heaven, I have no chance of getting in. I avoid eye contact with people on the street. I left this woman and her kids before it cost me anything more than a few phone calls. I voted for Bernie, isn't that enough. I made sure that Naomi and Mia were strapped into their seats and we drove home, an American family caught up in some fever dream.
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