The first time I felt like I really knew something of America was on Nov. 5, 2020. It was two days after the country broke up with Donald Trump but two days before anyone said it out loud. I hadn’t left my New York apartment in nine days. I was quarantining after my first trip home to the United Kingdom in eight months, in which I watched my sister get married in a downsized ceremony where the bridal party wore masks as we walked down the aisle. I was sick, though in a way I didn’t quite understand. On the day of the election, in a wedge between meetings, I booked a last minute telehealth appointment for a pain on my side. The doctor told me I had shingles. Now the condition was stretching its legs, singeing the flesh on my torso like I’d rinsed it with boiling water.
I went to bed early that night, around 9:30 p.m., which is when somebody on my street started blasting Bryan Adams’ "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You." I’m still not sure if the sound came from a car or an apartment. There’s a police precinct on my block, and the road had been closed off to vehicles since the protests for racial justice in June, so if it was a car, it was a cop car. As the tinkle of the piano solo rolled toward me, I felt my muscles unclench for the first time in months. Was it relief, exhaustion, or something approaching, dare I say it, joy? Before I could decide, and before a plaintive Adams could climb his way to the song’s chorus, the music cut out. I can only describe it as like losing an orgasm when you’re already a good chunk of the way there, and so I rolled over and laughed because what else is there to do?
I moved to the United States at the start of a bad year, though when the plane deposited me and my three suitcases at JFK on Jan. 1, 2020, I didn’t yet know that. I was full of blind optimism. This was going to be my year, I told myself, as the taxi driver whisked me to the tiny studio in Chelsea that I was subletting from a friend of a friend. He was a man who drove like he was eternally late for something, somewhere, so when I finally stepped out onto the pavement on 19th Street, I thought I was going to vomit. I’m fairly sure he overcharged me or maybe I just overtipped, but I remember it being an expensive ride. I was nervous about tipping generally. The sums, the calculus, who deserved one and who didn’t, and so I tipped generously and indiscriminately as a result, though when you consider how expensive groceries are in New York — a box of Special K cereal will set you back around $6 — maybe it wasn’t that generous after all.
The apartment was a fourth floor walk-up, which means a third floor flat in a building with no lift. I carried my suitcases up the stairs one by one, sweat dripping from crevices I didn’t know I had. The apartment was dark and strange, burrowing inward off two sash windows that offered a view of the city’s ugly back alleys. I put my head down and unpacked, lighting candles and steaming dresses, trying to soak in a moment that I decided ought to feel significant. Perhaps it worked because that day is all I remember of the month that followed. I know that I went to the office each day and returned each night to the studio, a place that I recall being extraordinarily hot. Being an old Manhattan building, the temperature was centrally regulated, so I spent these evenings in various states of undress, watching the enormous television from the enormous bed that swallowed my limbs in a watery, gel-topped mattress.
During that time, people kept asking me if I was excited or pleased to be there. I always lied and said I was. The truth was more complicated. In the summer before I moved, I finally bought a one-bedroom flat in Brixton after years of saving. I took some holiday when I got the keys and lovingly decorated each room with bespoke paint colours and custom furniture. I was offered the job in New York on my first day back at work, and while I immediately said yes, knowing I could live in my flat anytime I wanted, by the time I arrived in New York three months later, I was unsettled. Working two roles across two time zones and leading a painful restructure had left me exhausted, and the upheaval of shipping my belongings, reorganising my mortgage, and saying goodbye to friends and family had hollowed me out. I just wanted to sleep.
It’s not lost on me now that I wasted my only unimpeded month in New York moping around a borrowed studio, but back then I was just trying to get by. Plus, it worked. On Feb. 1, I took possession of an apartment of my own, a cosy one-bedroom with a balcony and separate kitchen on a quiet block in Gramercy, a neighbourhood with merits that lay in all the things it wasn’t: full of hipsters, full of strollers, too expensive, too cheap, too far away from things. It was the blank page I needed. I shipped all my furniture from the United Kingdom because it was cheaper than starting over, and my frugality came with the upside that as I sliced open each box, my home quickly felt like home. When I flew back to the United Kingdom to meet my new baby niece a few weeks later, I smugly showed friends pictures of the space waiting for me when I returned, of the buildings opposite my balcony with metal fire escapes like they’d seen in the movies, of the deli with a doorstop egg and cheese bagel that I was already obsessed with. I landed back at JFK again on Feb. 23 and I was convinced that the hard part was now over. Now it was time for fun.
I probably should have known sooner how dismally inaccurate that prediction was, but I was oblivious. I did read the news, but ensconced in the drama of my own life, I naively believed that we’d find a way to live with the virus, though when COVID began closing down offices and borders, it became clear I was very wrong. At that point, friends in the United Kingdom started texting and calling, telling me to get on a plane home and ride it out from my childhood bedroom in Birmingham.
While I got the timeline very wrong, I still stand by that decision, though people often ask me how I’ve managed and why I bothered. The first is easy to answer and involves old friends, new friends, kind colleagues, Zoom, WhatsApp, alcohol, and Amazon. When Trump instituted his executive order banning re-entry to the United States for British citizens, I knew I was stuck here for the long haul. As the isolation and loneliness of lockdown became tougher, I looked for moments of escape that turned into moments of joy. In June, I visited Charleston by sleeper train, where I rented a house with friends and cycled to the beach in the evenings after spending the day typing emails while our local alligator swam across the pond in our back yard. For the Holidays (you pick up the lingo; I’ve learned not to fight it), I visited Los Angeles with old work colleagues, where we hid out in the Hollywood Hills and nibbled on now-legal edibles bought from a man with an iPad in a fancy store, before collapsing in fits of laughter around the Christmas tree. I quarantined and took PCR tests in between and during each trip, receiving each negative result with a thud of relief before wondering if I should post it on Instagram, so people could see I was trying. This was the year when social media became more than ever about scrutiny and guilt, and while I found myself sharing travel updates to “close friends” only on Instagram, most Americans I spoke to were both kind and understanding.
The latter part of the question, why I bothered to stick around in a country so riven with problems, is harder to pin down. At the time, I told people it was because I didn't want to get on another airplane after doing 13 long flights back and forth in the year preceding. I wanted to sit still, very still, for the few months I thought this would take. That was and is true, but I think I also saw a wedge of something that I liked. It’s a fruitless endeavour to try to pin down something as ephemeral as a national culture so I won’t try, but I do think America has a unique ability to find hope and conviction in the face of despair. I saw this time and time again, first in the determination to unseat Donald Trump and again in the pursuit of accountability for his actions during the insurrection, though it was most clear in the fight for racial justice triggered by the murder of George Floyd. Confined to my apartment and unable to walk after a freak accident in which I impaled my leg on a pair of tweezers — don’t ask — I listened from my balcony as protesters gathered on the other side of the barricades at the end of my block to the sound of helicopters circling overhead. I watched with discomfort as brawny officers in plain clothes with discreet walkie-talkies left with scraps of fabric tied around their arms to help them identify one another in crowds. Some cops made their way to the blockade looking eager for the fight, while others, especially a Black female officer who trudged back to the precinct after a particularly fraught exchange, appeared to be carrying more than just their riot shield. It was a painful scene to witness, but one born of a worthy premise: the refusal to accept injustice. There is undoubtedly still a vast amount of America that resists this change, but I felt lucky to be witnessing the seeds of positive change as they went in the ground and to be steered by leaders unafraid of the messy and sometimes thankless task of trying.
There was something else I liked too, something far more frivolous, far more selfish, the other side of the coin of American optimism. This is the refusal to accept anything but the best when you’re doing or receiving any kind of service. I observed this initially with gross discomfort — how awkward, I thought, as a friend moved through three tables at a restaurant before finding one she liked. I was unsure how to navigate the expectation that I should do the same thing. When my shiny new dentist, whom I apologetically unveiled my British teeth to, fitted a new filling and asked “how’s that?” I gave my standard appreciative sign off: “Yeah, it’s fine.” Each time he came back with “we don’t want fine, we want perfect!” I giggled nervously around the suction tube while asking myself what on earth is perfect? But when we got there, dear God, it was worth it. Why was I so wedded to this antiquated form of politeness? I think of it now as a relic of the British culture I grew up with, something I observed with a new found detachment as I told people that I was trying to write a book during lockdown. The Brits responded uncomfortably. “Gosh,” they’d say slowly, “isn’t that quite difficult? Surely very few are published?” Americans, without any sense of aptitude, became my cheerleader, asking when they could read it and if I thought Netflix might adapt it one day. This mindset — not “why you?” but “why not you?” — is captivating, even in the face of the severe limitations that mean for Americans that question can typically be answered with any number of the following structural issues: eye-watering income inequality, blatant racism, the lack of universal health care, astronomical student debt, and a broken justice system. But nevertheless, people wake up every day and try, and that energy is, as the kids say, unmatched.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I finally returned to the United Kingdom in October for my sister’s wedding. I was thrilled to see friends and family, but I found the curtain-twitching encouraged by Priti Patel and her cohort had bred an unpleasant unease within those I loved. I was raised in a family of determined rule-followers, but even as they did, the anxiety that somebody might not know my niece and nephew existed in a child care bubble because my sister had a baby younger than 1 to care for created a paralysing misery. It left me eager to return, back to a place where it didn’t feel quite so, well, insular and pessimistic. But getting back into the United States was not without its complications. I had to apply for a special interest dispensation, though you can’t apply for it until you’re back in the United Kingdom. As a result, I arrived in Birmingham thinking I would probably have to return by a bank-breaking solo trip to Bermuda or Antigua, where I could legally re-enter America on my visa. Luckily, after vast amounts of paperwork and legal assistance, I was granted the waiver that would save me a miserable solo trip to a honeymoon resort, which on the back of year’s isolation in my tiny apartment, felt too much to bear. I was screened four times at Heathrow on the way, before being pulled into a discreet side room at JFK where people with binders and staplers and elevated desks examined my case in more detail. Eventually they let me in and I was glad.
I recently went for a drink with an Italian-American man who told me that I was “very British” (emphasis sadly not author’s own). The concept had never occurred to me, and I’m still not sure exactly what it means, but I suspect it’s some blend of cold, prudish, and sarcastic. I wonder if that will still be true the longer that I live here. It’s hard not to change when you’re so tightly immersed, as I discovered just two days after my Bryan Adams incident. It was Saturday morning and I’d risen early to check CNN for an election update, though when I couldn’t face another incremental vote increase from a county I’d never heard of in a state I’ll probably never visit, I went back to sleep, still sick and still exhausted. This time I was woken not by the cries of a Canadian, but by an American, at first singular and then plural. Scratching at my phone, I saw texts from friends and multiple news alerts. The election had been called for Joe Biden. As I stepped onto my freezing balcony in mismatched pajamas, my muscles ached and my joints burned, but I smiled at the people hanging out of their windows, screaming with a mixture of joy, relief, and hysteria. I don’t tend to cry much about happy things, but as the cars bashed their horns I found tears leaking across my face and felt something I haven’t felt in a long time — collective hope. In my experience, that’s a feeling America serves better than any other.