During my junior year of college, I had the chance to study at a university in London. I flew out of JFK on September 15, 2001, and the flight was so empty I was able to lie down across four seats for the first and last time in my life. In England, many of our fellow students seemed to feel obliged to either ask solicitously about our 9/11 experiences, or express their views on American imperialism. In both capacities, I felt I proved a disappointment.
During that year abroad, my American friend Rachel and I became fascinated with a group of fellow literature students who seemed to us unspeakably wonderful. They never said anything in seminar, they always looked glamorously ridiculous, and, best of all, their company was highly exclusive.
We came up with names for all of them. There was the seeming leader, “Robert Smith,” who had sculptural, Cure-like hair. “Charles and Camilla Macaulay” looked a bit alike—in fact, the whole crew struck us as very Secret History-esque. We called one tall, severe boy “Adam Bede”; one emaciated fellow was “Schiele”; another, I’m sorry to say, was just “the Balding One.”
They moved in a pack, smoked roll-ups in a secretive cluster, exchanged notes and amused eye contact during class, and cohabited, or so we assumed. The clique seemed to us all things not-American. It shamed us to think that they associated us with the Boston girl who was always shouting loud, obvious things about Sylvia Plath or the sleazy Arizona boy who hit on all the prettiest girls. We were desperate to prove our worth to them, but how? The only person outside their circle with whom we’d ever seen them associate was a studious, translucently fair young man named Rupert Davies.
For weeks, Rachel and I watched the group from afar, talking about them an unhealthy amount, like teenagers with an obsessive crush. We pretended our interest was ironic. We both knew the truth. Where did they go? What did they do? Whatever it was, it was obviously much cooler than what we were doing, which, in my case, was eating at the Indian YMCA every night in the old man cardigan that was my ill-considered uniform.
One evening, at the department Christmas party, something momentous happened. Rachel and the Balding One danced together—sort of—for the entirety of a Grease medley. But they were all very drunk. Lots of people were, besides the abstemious Rupert Davies, who did not dance. And the next day they went back to ignoring us.
Several weeks later, Rachel and I were sitting in the student union when the entire pack of them came in. They seated themselves at the next table and their conversation was wholly audible. Talk had turned to Rupert Davies; it seemed he was not, in fact, a member of their circle at all, because they were mocking him.
“I have often wondered,” said Camilla Macaulay, “whether he bleached his eyelashes.”
“Oh, come now, he’s an albino,” said Robert Smith impatiently.
Then, magically, he turned to us. “Rupert Davies.” he stated. “Albino?”
We fell all over ourselves in our desire to please. Oh yes, we said. Albino. Definitely an albino. Clearly an albino. Absolutely.
“It would explain a great deal,” said Schiele, somewhat obscurely.
Rachel and I stood the next two rounds. Obviously we did. We learned their names. They offered us cigarettes. We hardly dared look at each other for the elation.
“The Americans this year,” said Camilla, whose name was Kate. “Do you know many of them?”
Oh, no, we said. They were awful, appalling, embarrassing, we had nothing to do with them.
The evening wore on; it was last call.
After what appeared to be some silent communication amongst the others, Robert Smith—whose name was Gareth—turned to us. “Would you like to come to our after-hours?” he asked.
We trudged for what felt like a very long time to an unprepossessing street. But we were walking on air; we were about to be admitted to the inner sanctum, to a place that was surely so cool, so exclusive, that no other American had ever been extended the privilege of entry. We were, we both felt, now in that exclusive fraternity of the acceptable inhabited by T. S. Eliot and Henry James.
“Here we are,” said Charles, whose name was James. We descended some steps and there we were.
It was a twenty-four-hour snooker parlor.
“Who’s buying?” said Arthur, formerly known as the Balding One, looking at us expectantly.
“I will,” I said somewhat reluctantly. After a moment. “What would people like?”
“Smirnoff Ice,” said Robert Smith. “It’s what we all drink.” I waited another moment to ascertain whether he was joking; he was not. I tried to decide whether this was awesome. I was beginning to suspect otherwise.
The twenty-four-hour snooker parlor was brightly lit and stuffy.
“So, do you play?” I asked after yet another moment of silence as I absorbed the shock of my first-ever Smirnoff Ice. (Berry.)
“Oh no,” said Arthur. “We just come here. Every night.”
“Oh,” said Rachel.
“Well, not every night,” said Kate, leaning in. “Some nights …” she lowered her voice as if about to reveal a delicious piece of gossip. “Some nights we go to mine and we work out the harmonies for Beach Boys songs. A cappella.”
“That’s the only reason to bother with that albino Rupert Davies,” said Robert Smith/Gareth. “In fairness, the man is very good on the high harmonies.”
“Would you like to join us some night?” said Arthur eagerly.
“Uh, maybe,” I hedged.
“‘Sloop John B’ is our best, probably,” said James, or whatever his name was.
“There’s something I’d like to ask you,” said Kate, “but I don’t want to overstep.”
“Sure, anything,” said Rachel.
“Well… ” she said. “Where were you on 9/11?”
* * *
We never saw them again after the Night the Magic Died. We made other friends, good friends, and the year went on. It turned out they were right about one thing: Rupert Davies had a really beautiful voice. He wasn’t, incidentally, an albino.