Walking, Encumbered: Dispatches – Nicola Sayers

Author photograph

For the longest time, I walked alone. I walked to think. I walked to see. I walked to be seen. I see them, now. They wear pretty summer dresses, or jeans. In winter, brightly coloured scarves. Their light backpacks sit squarely on both shoulders; inside each, I imagine, is a book, a notepad and a pen, ready to jot down the thoughts that they are thinking. Many wear headphones, but not all. I rarely did. They are both lost in their own world and acutely conscious of how they look to the world. Their whole being emanates awareness of the person that, in their daydreams, they are with each springy step becoming.

They don’t see us, unless accidentally. One of them stops me to ask if she can take a photo.  Not of my face – don’t worry – she loves how the colours of my t-shirt go with the colours of the cover I have pulled over the stroller to protect the baby’s eyes from the sun. We see one another, though. We nod quietly to one another, a covert army. In the early hours, the streets are mostly ours; later, we disappear into crowds. Our steps are slow, weighed down by tiny limbs that poke out from under our coats or pull at our heels, and by things, endless things. We don’t walk to think, or to see, or to be seen. We walk to have something to do.

*

Alone, together

January, 2017. Our first morning in the city we’ll call home for the next two years. Up long before the crack of dawn, we head outside. There is a thin layer of snow on the ground, and of frost on the bare trees. The steely palette of greys and whites is broken only by colourful Christmas decorations, which are still up even as it creeps towards February. I don’t know yet that Chicagoans won’t take their decorations down until March or even April, that they cling to remnants of cheer in stubborn defiance of the bitter weather. The misplaced festivity gives the streets, even in the dark, a homey feeling, as though the neon Santa that we pass is nodding to welcome us to the neighborhood, apologising for the wind that rocks him back and forth.

We walk aimlessly at first. Neither of us says much, but the thrill of the possible hangs all around us. We both feel it. Sometimes our steps fall into the same rhythm, in other moments they are at odds; our thoughts, too, drift apart and back to a shared space fluidly. Occasionally we are jolted back into togetherness by the sound of the L-train passing noisily overhead.

Author photograph

I am still an I.

I can hear the echoes of other footsteps, too. There: Joey Potter from Dawson’s Creek, on her first day at Worthington, the fictional Boston-based university she attends in season five. Wearing her trademark autumnal hues and concerned frown, she self-consciously tucks her hair behind her ear as she turns into a doorway. Alongside her: my younger self, the one who so identified with Joey Potter that her longings were interchangeable with my own, and her experiences became my dreams. Fall in love, live in America, be bookish and wear brown coats. Here I am, Joey, I almost say out loud.

Does America do this to everyone, I wonder? My steps feel like a palimpsest of all those I’ve walked in my cinematic immersions; I am strangely primed for this moment, for these streets.

Another image arrives unbidden: the opening scene in When Harry Met Sally. Sally sits in her car and waits for Harry to finish smooching his girlfriend. They have yet to meet or even utter a word to one another, but Sally’s uppity chin expresses everything you need to know about her. That balance of primness and adorability that even the hardest of hearts would fall a little bit in love with. The neutral yellow of the car that Sally drives is the colour of a soon-to-arrive baby’s nursery. It signals possibility: they are at the beginning of their long and complicated journey, not just to New York but to each other, just as, in a different way, we are at the beginning of ours.

They are, I suddenly remember, at the University of Chicago campus, from which both have recently graduated. I see in my mind’s eye a vague blur of fallen leaves, grey stone buildings and scurrying students clad in seventies attire.

‘Let’s go there’, I say.

A quick google tells me that it’s in an area called Hyde Park, on Chicago’s South Side. So we head off, in the dark, in search of a feeling.

Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal and Michelle Nicastro in When Harry Met Sally, dir. Nora Ephron (1989). Picture: Columbia Tri-Star

*

Pink dungarees

June, 2017. I am visibly pregnant now. The miniscule ball of cells that was, unbeknownst to me, determinedly multiplying inside me on that first morning in Chicago now has eyes, feet and a heart that pumps alongside mine. It can hear, apparently. I walk up Logan Boulevard on my way to the local farmer’s market. It is a perfect summer’s day: one of very few before the heat will begin to overwhelm, and the street and all its people will become coated in a stickiness that won’t dissipate until the fall. I am wearing a pair of pink dungarees that I bought, at some expense, because they reminded me of a similar pair that I’d seen a photo of my mother wearing when she was pregnant with me.

As I walk, I have the feeling that the boulevard is a red carpet, and I am its star. Everywhere I look there are smiling faces beaming up at me. At one point I stumble (my flip flop is old and starting to do that annoying thing where the sole flaps open with every step). Not one but two young guys step forward, valiantly, to offer me a hand. They are happy to do so, I can tell. And I am happy to receive their gesture, even if I am perfectly capable of restoring my balance myself.

I make people hopeful, or nostalgic, or both. I am both more and less than an individual. I am a symbol. Me and my pink dungarees: a derivative maternal ideal. I also make some people sad, I suppose, but I don’t know about them. They don’t smile at me.

*

The corridor

January, 2018. The long corridor in our new apartment block reminds me of a hotel. It’s one of the things I love about the place. Having spent years pursuing a rustic bohemian dream, and this last year battling stairs, cockroaches and phantom intruders on account of that dream, the corporate slick of the corridor thrills me. It is always gently lit, day or night. There is no music, but if there were it would be of the elevator kind. My overactive mind no longer has to fear whoever might be climbing the fire escape stairwell at night because there isn’t one, and even if there was, there are at least twenty yuppies off my corridor alone who’d be there in a heartbeat if I hollered.

It’s lucky that I like it, the corridor, given how much time I now spend there. Up, and down, Up, and down. Up, and down. Occasionally I alternate the rhythm with which I push the stroller, but not my song, which remains constant. I started singing American Pie in the first weeks of his life, dredged up from the teenage annals of songs I know the lyrics to by heart, and never really stopped. I half wonder if there’ll come a time when this’ll be the day that I die no longer feels like the reassuring incantation it now is. But then I remember how little words matter when you’re small; how for years I thought that the Swedish lullaby my mother used to sing us was a song about a lettuce.

Some people come out of their apartment, a young couple I haven’t met before. I am in part delighted by the company (I am seen. I am witnessed. I did not, as it seemed, dissolve into nothingness on my thousandth lap). The other part is annoyed by their happy chatter, just as I was annoyed the other night by some fireworks outside our window. Does the city not know that a sleeping prince lies in its midst? It seems to just continue rudely on, as though nothing had changed.

We used to do our laps outside, but the snow is too heavy now, so we are confined to this luxury holding pattern. I am reminded of an article by the literary critic Fredric Jameson that I wrote something about last year, or a mythically distant long ago. In it, he writes about the once great hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and the boy who endlessly rides its corridors on his tricycle. I don’t remember the specifics of the argument, but pieces of it come to me like debris washed up on a shore. Something about beauty and boredom: the two poles of experience between which my days now revolve. And something about history condemned forever to repeat itself. I wonder about my own history. Where did the girl with the notepad and dreams go? Will I walk this pleasantly lit corridor forever?

*

Lido mornings

May, 2018. 5am. Outside, again, the three of us. I wear the baby. (What an odd expression, one I’ve picked up against my better judgement). The window in which he might have fallen back asleep is over, so we’re doing what we do. We walk. The only other people out and about at this hour are the dog people, walking their pups before the working day begins. We acknowledge one another, polite but distant.

Instinctively, I adjust the bottom of the baby’s trousers so that his ankles aren’t exposed to the breeze and pull the hat back from his eyes when it falls down over them, as it does every few minutes. Otherwise, I almost forget that he is here. We talk about our past and our future, as we always have, even as we know that we will one day ache for these early morning walks. We buy a cinnamon bun from the Starbucks on the corner, which opens early. We pass the lido, splendid in its isolation. Such untapped promise in that pre dawn pool! It never fails to stop us in our tracks. We look at the houses. Which one would we buy, we ask ourselves. Who do you think lives there?

Author photograph

The sense of a hot day not yet broken is in the air, and I can feel the tiny, warm fingers wrapped around mine.

*

Stranger on a bus

March, 2018. Once a week, I leave the baby and his father at home and walk for seven minutes to a bus stop, where I wait for another five or ten minutes, then take the number fifty bus for forty-five minutes to a school-like building, where I am a student in a two hour writing class. I think in time slots, now. My days and hours are incrementally divided into slots that need to be filled. And because I think in time slots I can tell you that four hours, plus or minus ten minutes, is a big slot.

I recently read Lauren Elkin’s memoir Flâneuse. It has been bittersweet to come across something that so perfectly captures what I have been doing my whole adult life – and to discover that there are others, like me, for whom walking cities has been a source of profound liberation – just at the moment in which I no longer do it. Or I do it, a lot, just not alone. But today, on these days, I am once again the ‘light-footed woman’ that the blurb to Elkin’s book promises, enticingly, that it will pay tribute to.

I am on the bus, now. There is a man, late twenties, cute, sitting opposite me. And he is looking at me. Glancing furtively, then away again whenever he catches my eye. It takes me a moment to register what is going on. I am thirty-seven, but I look younger. I am wearing a bright red jumper, a skirt and sneakers. I carry a small brown bag, and I am reading a book. (‘Girls who read’, a subset of girl-types that appeals to certain men. Before, when a new encounter was an ever-present possibility, I would have been semi-conscious of what I was signalling. Now I am just reading. But he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know anything about me.) I feel a jolt, a re-awakening. A forgotten way of being in the world courses through me: one in which the contours of lived experience were defined by a feeling of possibility, more than by minutes of actuality.

I think of Baudelaire’s stranger, the mysterious passerby. Oh, you who I would have loved! Was she, also, on her way home to mouths that suck at her breast and soft heads that rest on her soft stomach?

*

Will’s house

September, 2019. The baby is now a boy. His sister is now the baby. But he’s still a baby, really. He still wears nappies. He can walk but only very slowly, on account of all the sticks and stones that demand attention, and usually not for long before he wants to be carried. The world hasn’t yet driven out of him the instinct to cry when he’s sad. Or hungry. Or tired. (Oh how sometimes I wish I could just stop in the middle of the road and cry.)

The boy is in the stroller and the baby is in the sling, on my chest. In order to reach the handlebar of the stroller, I am hunched forward, my body creating a near 45 degree angle, like a crane reaching down just a bit for something on top of a building. The baby is unsettled. She doesn’t like the angle, at which gravity weighs her head backwards as opposed to forwards onto me, as is her preference. She reminds me of my father when he falls asleep on the sofa, head lolling back, mouth wide open. Except that instead of snoring she is grunting, not yet a full-on cry but enough to register her complaint. A sharp pain periodically shoots down my sciatic nerve.

This is hard. I am tired. Everything hurts.

The boy decides he wants to walk. I hesitate, running my mind through the odds calculations that I have become adept at making. We are still twenty minutes away from home, at my pace. If I make him stay in the buggy he might become irate, and no one will thank me for that. I’m out of snacks, which doubles those odds. And he has already been in the buggy for nearly half an hour, I feel bad. I take him out. Now I’m pushing the buggy with one hand, holding his hand with the other, and lacking only a third hand to adjust her when necessary, but this is inessential. The streets are oddly crowded today, so we weave our way between people, an unwieldy three-headed, four-wheeled beast.

Forty-eight slow minutes later we are at our front door. Relieved, I reach into my bag to find my key. It isn’t there. I panic, but soon remember that I gave a spare key to our friend Will, who recently bought the place three doors down from us. Please God let him be home. I text him, he is not home. But wait – he has just that week put in one of those coded boxes outside his door where he leaves a key for his builders. The odds game I’m playing teeters precariously close to a major loss, but this is a win. I leave the buggy outside our house, and after one or two failed efforts with his little box, manage to let myself in. He is a single man in his late thirties and his house reminds me of the kind of hotel I now fantasise about. There is a fresh water bottle by the bed and high-end hand moisturiser in the bathroom.

The baby is now really crying. She needs to feed, I’ve left it too long. The boy, in contrast, has a similar response to mine to his new upgraded environment. After I locate our key on Will’s third floor, and navigate back down the two flights of stairs, successfully distracting him from various points of interest – guitars, a piano, books – he sits down on the bottom step. ‘I don’t want to leave. Will’s house is my home now.’ I would laugh, I should laugh, but I am too tired. Instead, I lose my temper. I pick him up under my free arm and march out of the door and back along the street to our house. The baby wails, the boy screams.

I look up and see two sets of eyes looking down at me from open windows, with a mix of pity and judgement. I suddenly remember my moment in the Logan Boulevard spotlight. No one is smiling at me now.

*

Dribble

October, 2019. The boy is on my shoulders. He carries his humpback whale in one hand. It smells damp, from all the chewing. His other hand clasps my forehead for steadiness. He dribbles, just a little, on my hair. A gloop. I don’t have to see his face to see the anticipation light up his eyes: he knows he has done something wrong but is delighted by his transgression. I groan. He giggles. 

*

Oversized coat, or, an ‘eighties’ superpower cloak

January, 2020. The baby is in the stroller and the boy walks alongside me. We are becoming a neater unit, freer. It is cold, the sun is shining, and I am wearing an oversized coat. In it, I am strong. I am reminded of the screenwriter Nora Ephron, and of the many complex women she wrote. I think of Sally facing Harry squarely in the park scene, as she admits to her wonderfully innocent go-to sex fantasy. It is autumn, mirroring the middling-to-mature (but not yet culminated) stage of their saga, and Sally’s square shoulder pads somehow protect her, even as she allows herself to be vulnerable.

I am reminded also of my mother: of the reassuring comfort of clutching on to the bottom of her manly coats as she strode head held high along the street, or the coziness of lying tucked up in my parents bed to be kissed goodnight as she and her shoulder pads headed out for the evening in a cloud of Elnett hairspray.  

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, dir. Nora Ephron (1989). Picture: Columbia Tri-Star

I think of that first morning in Chicago, three years ago, and all the many, many walks that preceded it. I think of the last years; and of the places I have yet to walk.

The baby smiles up at me. The boy clutches at the bottom of my coat.

I think of the light-footed girl, and of the weighted woman: I am both, both are me. I am my mother, too. And her mother. And Joey Potter. And Sally Albright, surrounded by leaves, proud chin pointing upwards.

The breeze blows. I sink down into my coat, and walk on.

*

Nicola Sayers is an academic and writer. Her book, The Promise of Nostalgia: Reminiscence, Longing and Hope in Contemporary American Culture, was published by Routledge in 2020, and she has also written for Public Books, Public Seminar and The Island Review. Her interests include life-writing, America, walking, cities and nostalgia. She lives in Oxford.

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