Eighteen-year-old Jamie’s sick of his panic attacks and doesn’t want to enter college as he is now: anxious, closeted, and out-of-place. He just wants to live the way his idols did—to twirl freely like the bohemian singers his mother loves, or to reject convention like the punk rockers his father idealizes—but that all feels impossible in stale suburban Chicago.
So when Jamie and his emotional support best friend, the indomitable and ever-chic Simran Gopinathan, are accepted to a summer study abroad program in England, he agrees to ship out across the pond. Jamie can’t pass up the chance for the perfect last hurrah with Sim before they head to separate universities, and maybe his psychiatrist is right: the trip will be a good trial run for life away from home.
But Camden Town—the punk, misfit borough of North London—is far from a peaceful college town. Instead of dorm rooms, Jamie and Sim move into tiny flats above a biker bar. And amongst a troupe of loud American teenagers, their priorities quickly shift from class to the chaos of sexuality, spliffs, and classic rock. While Sim’s finally able to explore the world away from her widowed, traditional mother, Jamie’s persevering panic attacks force him to realize that the wisdom of his heroes hasn’t prepared him for authentically living a life on his own terms. Especially when it comes to Shae, the majestically manic boy down the hall, who sashays with a queer, rebellious openness that Jamie never encountered back home.
Amidst absurd lectures on British literature, field trips to castles, and hazy nights at grunge bars, Jamie’s convinced he finally has a shot at reinventing himself in the image of his favorite artists—but finds that the ultimate freedom might just come from embracing an existence entirely his own.
Colorful, Ordinary, Existing, complete at 84,000 words, is comparable to the musicality of The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley and the expat adventures of As Far As You’ll Take Me by Phil Stamper. After my own pilgrimage through London’s finest dive bars, I earned my B.A. in English and a Bachelors of Journalism from the University of Missouri - Columbia. While I now work as a writer in advertising, I still carry the magically weird spirit of Camden within me.
That old cliche was wrong, the grass is greener on the other side.
Not the literal grass, of course. I haven’t seen much of that yet. But if grass is a block full of multi-colored buildings with a motley crew of freaks wandering outside, then yes—that grass is greener.
I stare out the pub window at the London sky, a drizzle falling just as I hoped it would.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, still in slight disbelief I actually made it here.
Sim slurps her beer. “Yes, you emo narcissist, I’m sure the overcast sky perfectly reflects your inner turmoil.”
I turn to her in time to see her smile as she licks froth from her lips. “It’s good to be here with you too, Sim.”
She sticks her tongue out at me, then lifts her beer into the air. I raise mine to meet it.
“Whenever two full glasses clink, an adventure begins.”
“Who said that?” she asks.
Her eye roll is an earthquake.
“I was expecting something different from our neighborhood though,” I admit. “Something a bit more…fashionable?”
“Oh, oh!” Sim points furiously at a guy on the other side of the street. “Mohawk number three! I’m winning.”
From the pub below our flats, we watch the entire island of misfit toys wander around Camden Town, a bustling block in North London where our summer study abroad program has decided to house us.
“I can’t believe my parents were okay with letting me stay here.”
Sim smirks. “Honestly I’m surprised they didn’t raise you here.”
“I’d probably be more like them if they did,” I say. My parents have jobs and wear normal-person clothes and pay their taxes, but our house is still an embarrassing shrine to who they were in the seventies and eighties. They talk about their love story as if it was Romeo and Juliet, my mom a hippie and my dad a punk, two households both alike in dignity or whatever.
My parents had both spent their summers before college exploring London. My mom had come to visit her Auntie Lilith (my bohemian great aunt actually named Lillian), and my dad had toured with his band—which sounds much cooler than it actually was. Dad had played like three gigs of derivative grunge music and wore almost as much makeup as a drag queen.
Even though my parents didn’t meet until years after their ex-pat excursions, they swear their summers abroad changed them. And since they didn’t want me to spend the whole summer before college curled up from anxiety, they thought adventuring across the pond would be a good experience for me, too. Dr. Kim, my psychiatrist, also agreed that it would be a good test run before moving to Boston for college in the fall. Alone. Without my parents. Without even Sim.
Mom and Dad never mentioned anything about Camden, though. I wonder if they ever came here. It feels hard to leave out of stories. I mean, there is literally a giant black dragon snaking around the side of a building across the street, staring down passersby with its glowing red eyes.
“I guess I was expecting more of a Hogwarts vibe?”
“It actually feels authentic here,” Sim says.
“There’s an Urban Outfitters like two blocks that way,” I point out.
“Hey, don’t ruin this. I’m here for you, after all.”
I stick out my tongue like a five-year-old annoyed at his older sister. My parents did, in fact, go behind my back and ask Sim’s mother if she would be interested in joining me for the summer. Sim’s mom agreed; she thought it would be what Sim’s father would’ve wanted for her—a journey on her own. But I know that Sim agreed out of more than just guilt and a legal drinking-age; she’s been restless in our corner of suburbia for as long as I’ve known her.
I flinch as the bell over the pub door nearly cracks itself in sound. But the boy following the clattering entrance is calm, strutting to the bar with the clack of platform boots. He pushes platinum, clearly-bleached hair out of his eyes as he approaches the bartender.
“Do you know if there’s an American student here?” he asks, and I hear that he’s American too.
The bartender nods his shaved head in our direction.
He thanks the bartender and struts over to us, each step a half-bounce, half-stomp. When he waves in our direction, I notice a small gold hoop hanging from his right ear. I wave back awkwardly, confused, pulled by social instinct. But he’s actually looking at Sim.
“Sorry, are you Simran? Simran Gopinathan?”
“Yes,” she says, cocking her head in confusion. “Oh my god, you’re Shae! I’m sorry, hi, nice to finally meet you. Call me Sim.” She reaches her hand out in a formality that seems to confuse the boy, but he shakes it anyway. As much as she complains about her mother’s insistence on etiquette, some of it clearly rubbed off. “Do you want to grab a drink and join us?”
“Oh,” he says, taking a look at me, almost suspiciously. But an easy smile comes across his face. “Sure. Let me grab a beer.”
“That’s my flatmate,” Sim says as the boy walks back toward the bar.
“Didn’t he have dark hair in his picture?”
“I do believe people are allowed to enjoy the magic of drug store hair dye.”
I chuckle, my eyes flitting toward the back of the boy’s head. Subtle blonde curls wisp around his ears, carried with an effortlessness suggesting its shade has always been atomic pearl.
“Your mom was really okay about you living with a boy?” I ask.
“I didn’t tell her.”
“Sim!” I barely catch myself from yelling, and I hope her roommate doesn’t hear.
“Please, my mother doesn’t understand white people names. I told her I was living with someone named Shae. She just assumed it was a girl. She really doesn’t need to know the details—that there’s an odd number of people on our trip, and I’m the only girl who checked the box saying they were comfortable living with a boy.”
I can only imagine the heart attack Sim’s conservative Indian mother would have at this realization. She’s never even been allowed to sleep over at my house, and we’ve been friends since middle school.
“Why didn’t you ask to live with me?”
“Isn’t the whole point of this trip to expose you to new things, Jamie? You’re going to be rooming with a stranger in college. Might as well start now.”
That wasn’t always the whole point. But a couple weeks ago, that’s certainly what it became. How stupid of me to wake up in the middle of the night, clutch my chest, stumble into my parents’ bedroom like a gunshot victim, and swear I was dying.
My parents rushed me to the hospital, because of course. But after twelve hours of tests, evaluations, and a visit from Dr. Kim, the drama dampened—it was only a panic attack, my neuroses firing in a new, more startling way.
When I got home from the hospital, my mother stood dutifully over a spinning Stevie Nicks record. Guilt seared the image into my skull: her clutching a cup of tea, staring out the window like she was a painting—a Renoir or a Manet—too still to be real amidst Stevie’s swaying croons.
“You missed Dr. Kim, Debra.” My dad hadn’t cared to notice the delicacy of the moment. “He prescribed Jamie a new medication. A strong one.”
“I only need to take it if I feel like I’m going to have another panic attack.” I’d tried so hard to soften the sound of Dad’s frustration. To be fair, my mom had come with us to the hospital. But once she’d found out I’d be okay, that I just had to stay in that overly sterile-smelling bed until my psychiatrist arrived, she’d gone home. The hospital was too depressing for her. Dad hadn’t understood, I know, but I’d seen the beige walls and fluorescent lights wearing on my mother, reminding her of a time when she’d been the one in the bed. Still, she’d assumed my short stint at suburban Illinois’ finest medical institution meant that my flight across the pond was cancelled.
But my dad had fought. I think the punk in him had reawakened a little. Even if his words had stung, “Apparently, Panic Disorder isn’t terribly uncommon in kids like Jamie.”
Kids like Jamie…Anxious kids. Depressed kids. Kids with a family history of mental illness. Kids with a mother unable to hold their hand in a hospital bed.
“I’ll be fine. I promise.” I’d reassured her, because I hadn’t been able to imagine my summer in England not happening. I was convinced I’d only survived senior year because I had London to look forward to. “Now that I know what a panic attack feels like, it won’t be as scary next time.”
And hopefully it won’t. Because I’m here. I’m doing it. And Sim’s newly-blonde roommate is walking back toward us, sipping a beer that’s almost as dark as his clothes.
“Shae, meet Jamie Black,” Sim says with a smile.
He gives me a casual once over. “It’s nice to meet you. Are you Simran’s boyfriend?”
Sim nearly chokes on her beer and starts coughing. This is not the first time this question has been posed to us, but Sim’s reactions are always over the top—a whipped cream emphasis to punctuate the absurdity of the idea.
“No, we’re just friends.”
“Got it.” Shae’s eyes narrow, tracing me up and down, and all of a sudden I feel as if I’m naked and he’s pulled out a ruler.
“We’re just friends from home,” I force out. “We just decided to do the program together.”
“Cool.” Shae takes a long gulp of his beer. “So you guys grew up together?”
Sim and I glance at each other. We’ve always just been accepted as a packaged deal, never stopping to explain the roots of our friendship.
One of my first memories of Sim is her reading The Raven aloud in our eighth grade English class. And then…I don’t know, her lying on my bedroom floor, talking about the music we would want played at our funerals, and sitting in the woods behind her house downing cheap wine, and Sim dragging me to that vegan restaurant I hated, listening to my Nihilistic anxieties as she pontificated about the cultural importance of vegan curry. Since the beginning, Sim has always found my angsty, pseudo-emo bullshit charming, and I have always found the honest charisma of her gravitational pull remarkable.
“We’re friends from high school,” Sim says. And I suppose that works as a shortened version, too. I take a hefty drink.
“Got it. I don’t know anyone here. Fresh and exciting, y’know?”
I wonder if he’s trying to convince us or himself.
“Anyway,” Shae says, “one of the girls across the hall said they saw you come down here, and I just really didn’t feel like unpacking yet. So I thought I’d see who the mysterious girl who agreed to live with a B.O.Y. was, and if she was totally batshit, murdered-a-family-of-four, douse-the-bodies-in-lye crazy.”
A smile asserts itself onto my face. There’s something weirdly frenetic about Shae, like a walking electrocution.
“What were you guys planning on doing tonight?” he asks.
I instinctively look to Sim.
“To be decided,” she replies. “Any ideas?”
As Sim brushes her short black hair behind her ears, I notice a grin on her face. If she’s captivated by Shae, too, maybe he’s safe.
“Well, it’s London. If we can’t figure out something to do with our first night, we don’t deserve to be here,” Shae says.
Within five minutes of sitting down, Shae has managed to initiate us into his cult of exploration. The way his eyes land on me, I don’t feel like an extra, a tagalong—he carries himself with an uncensored aura of inclusion.
Dr. Kim told me that making new friends would come easier to me than I thought it would. Maybe he was right.
Actually, maybe Dr. Kim was wrong. Making new friends is terribly hard.
Especially when they’re standing in the bedroom you’re supposed to share, and when they look like every jacked football player who whispered shit about you behind your back.
“Hey, you must be Jamie,” he says.
To be fair, I stalked his Instagram. I knew what he would look like. But still. I’ve never known how to prepare for first impressions.
“Yep, that’s me,” I respond like an idiot. He’s too far away for a handshake, so I offer him an awkward half-wave.
“I’m Cal, nice to meet you. I’ve just been unpacking a bit.” He motions to his suitcase, then flips his shoulder-length blonde curls like he’s in a music video. He’s wearing a baby blue UCLA t-shirt, and a long silver necklace drapes down past the letters. All his social media listed him as living in New York, but it looks like he’s trying to embrace the California surfer aesthetic in a very non-ironic way.
“What do you think of the flat?” I ask, sounding like a middle-aged real estate agent with a name like Carol Anne or Suzy Summers.
“A bit cramped, but I’m sure we can make it work, dude.”
He’s already dude-ing me. I feel the anxiety escape my chest and start clattering around the room like a trapped pigeon.
Our flat is small, made up of a kitchen and living room combo, a tiny bedroom with bunk beds (I already claimed the bottom, thankfully), and a bathroom that makes the British term “Water Closet” seem terribly accurate.
“How was your flight?” I ask.
“Eh, flying out of LaGuardia is always a bitch, y’know.”
Why does he assume I would know that?
“How about you? Where are you from again?”
“Chicago. Well, kind of. Oak Park is technically a suburb, but barely; it’s practically the city. Anyways, Chicago. And it was fine I guess, I slept for most of it.”
“I can never manage to fall asleep on flights. How’d you do it?”
Well Cal, I used a fun mix of my panic attack opiate and a melatonin supplement with the casual desire to die in my sleep if the plane goes down.
But I don’t say this, because as a general rule I try to keep the full extent of my crazy to myself for as long as possible.
“Oh, I took a sleeping pill,” I say. Which isn’t a lie, it’s just not the full truth. My cocktail of sedatives is my secret day at the beach.
“I guess if they’d let you smoke weed on an airplane, I’d be able to sleep too.”
“If only,” I respond, completely oblivious to how that would logistically work. I’ve only smoked weed once, with Sim, and it took about a week of convincing me with WebMD articles.
“It’s important to give people a chance, no matter how different they are from you.” Dr. Kim’s words echo in my mind like an after-school special. It was easy enough for Sim to develop a rapport with Shae.
“I like your nail polish,” I say. It’s white, and chipped in a few places, so it blends in and isn’t the first thing you notice when assaulted with the rest of his aesthetic.
He recoils his fingers at the knuckle, almost trying to hide them out of instinct, like he forgot his nails were painted.
“Oh, thanks,” he says, letting his fingers curl back out. “My sister painted them before I left. She told me, well, I think her exact words were, ‘it won’t make you look like such an American douche.’”
I can’t help but laugh, maybe a little too hard. At least he’s aware of how he comes off, or someone is.
“Hey, so, um, my friend and her flatmate, we’re planning on going to this bar down the street.” I force it out before I can second guess myself. “Do you want to come?”
“Sounds fun. Sure,” he says with a smile, and the whiteness of his teeth makes me realize how tan he is. Even with the nail polish, I’m sure it’ll give him away as an American among the cloudy streets of London.
He reaches into a plastic bag sitting next to his bed and pulls out a giant bottle of tequila. “I actually grabbed this when I went out for dinner. Want to have a drink before we go?”
Be cool, Jamie. Be cool. “Oh, sure.”
“I, uh, actually came back to change.”
“Oh, sorry dude,” he says, then steps away from the closet, where I already have an array of clothes hanging.
Sim and I did our research. We packed only dark colors and slim-fitting clothes, nothing that would make us stand out as tacky tourists. I change into black skinny jeans and a beige Nirvana t-shirt that my dad bought me.
Cal, on the other hand, still looks awfully bright.
“Did you need to change, too, or?”
“No, I’m good.”
Well, I tried.
Cal cradles his bottle of tequila like a newborn as we head upstairs to Sim and Shae’s flat. The building we’re staying in looks nothing like the colorfully punk world outside. It’s slick and modern, with off-white walls and dark grey trim. Our program clearly purchased the set of flats on the cheap, and then renovated them. I guess they didn’t want students living somewhere that felt like the biker bar tucked on the main level, even though there are no motorcycles in sight. Maybe it’s just for gothy motorcycle enthusiasts?
I know there’s eighteen students in total on our trip, but our building clearly has enough flats for more than that. I wonder who else lives here. Beautiful bohemian girls with names like Iris or Lottie? Hipster guys with leather jackets and eyeliner? An old nan who falls asleep in front of the tellie every night?
Sim opens her door wearing a flowing black tank top and a look of mild surprise.
“Hey,” I say. “This is Cal, my flatmate. Cal, this is my friend Sim.”
Sim shifts her bodyweight, trying to lean casually on the door. “Hey flatmate, nice to meet you.”
Obviously I could tell Cal was attractive, I have eyes, but I didn’t expect him to cause Sim to fire up her cool girl persona. It’s not a thought I want to linger on. It’d be one thing to find Cal hot if he wasn’t my flatmate, but he very much is.
Sim reaches out her hand and Cal shakes it.
“Likewise,” he says.
Their flat is identical to ours, and just as cramped. Shae is sitting at the kitchen table, staring at his phone.
“You brought tequila!” he says when he looks up, eyes darting straight past me and landing on Cal.
“Yeah man. I’m Cal, nice to meet you.”
“Shae,” he replies, foregoing a handshake and snatching the bottle out of Cal’s hand. “We’re in London, time for shots.” Shae brushes past me, running his hand across my shoulders as he ushers me toward the kitchen counter with him. My back tenses under his touch, but I follow him as he takes four glasses out of the cabinet.
“I like the way you think,” Cal replies.
Shae pours the tequila without any type of proper measurement, and an anxiety lump immediately forms in my throat.
“What should we toast to?” Cal asks as he helps Shae hand out the glasses filled with an inch or so of sweet amber poison.
“To finding hot British guys,” Shae says, then squints a little and gives Cal a once over. “And hot British girls, or people, or whatever.”
Then in one slick motion, Shae downs his drink. We follow.
My face contorts and I let out a muffled roar like a dying T-Rex, my arms moving in a similar fashion. Sim nearly spits.
“What kind of tequila is this?!” Sim asks.
“I don’t know,” Cal answers. “I bought it down the block, next to the, um, y’know, the sex shop.”
“There’s a sex shop?” Shae sounds far more excited than disgusted.
“Yeah, I didn’t go in or anything though.” But I’m ninety percent sure Cal’s lying.
I want to change the topic. I walk over to the coffee table and pick up the Bluetooth speaker that Sim and I were listening to earlier. I click it on, and it automatically connects back to my phone and starts playing “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks.
“Jamie please,” Sim says. “I love you but I can only do so much Stevie in one day.”
“Fine,” I reply, then hand her my phone. “Play whatever you want.”
“So you like Fleetwood Mac, huh?” Cal asks. “My sister went through a whole seventies phase and played them constantly.”
“Jamie is obsessed with Fleetwood Mac,” Sim replies, still scrolling through music.
“I’m not obsessed!” I say. “But, I do really like them.”
“Stevie Nicks is an icon,” Shae says. “All that twirling, I mean, it’s practically camp.”
“She IS an icon! Thank you!” I throw a dirty look toward Sim.
I savor the last few notes of her witchy cooing before Sim taps on a synth-heavy alternative song I know only from spending time with her.
The sound of Stevie’s voice always, sometimes gentle, sometimes slashing, always feels a bit like home. Even though I’m excited for a summer away, part of me is scared shitless. Because, well, part of me is always scared shitless. Stevie’s singing helps quiet that part, just a little bit. She’s kind of been doing it all my life.
But to fill the silence, I just say, “My parents made me listen to them a lot when I was growing up.”
“What’s your favorite album?” Shae asks.
“Rumours is the obvious choice,” I reply. “In fact, it may be the best album ever made. But I think their self-titled album is my favorite. It has ‘Landslide’ and ‘Blue Letter’ and ‘Rhiannon.’ It’s just so Stevie, so witchy. And I mean, since Rumours was the product of so much fighting and cheating, it turned out so raw, which is great and all, but their self-titled album sounds more like it’s from another world. Ghostly and lost and, I don’t know, yearning.”
“Woah,” Cal says under his breath.
“You really do love them.” Shae’s gaze lingers, his eyes looking through me as his lips twist upward.
“I guess so,” I say, but what I really mean is that I love Fleetwood Mac like a toddler loves his favorite blanket.
“He wants to be Stevie Nicks,” Sim chimes in.
“I don’t want to be her! I just, I really respect her art, that’s all.”
Shae grabs the bottle of tequila and pours a thankfully smaller second shot for us, “To Stevie Nicks!” We throw it back, slightly easier this time. It warms my stomach, enough to have me feeling relaxed when we head out into the crisp Camden air.
Having picked a pub just a block up from our flats, we don’t have long to take in the neighborhood around us, newly coated in nightfall and street lights.
And when we arrive, I notice there’s a fox with sunglasses on.
He’s sitting behind the bar, surrounded by a fortress of liquor bottles. He’s taxidermied, of course, but he was once alive, and I like the idea of him with his shades on, weaving in between people’s drinks, purring.
Wait, do foxes purr?
“What’s this place called again?” Shae asks over the thworping music, leaning in so close his lips nearly touch my ear.
“Queen Anne’s,” I say. It’s much bigger on the inside, and packed with a clientele emanating an aura of foreign coolness.
“Let’s get drinks, shall we?” Cal says, clapping me on the shoulder.
The four of us walk toward the bar, but only Cal and I are able to shimmy close enough that the bartender can actually see us.
“What do you want?” Cal asks, looking back toward Sim and Shae.
“Whiskey,” Shae commands.
Sim looks at me with a knowing smile. “I’ve got hers,” I tell Cal.
The bartender takes the order of the guy to my right, who I notice has shining golden boots.
I have never seen a boy in gold boots before, and I feel a knot start to form in my chest. I bite the inside of my lip; this person is dressed far better than me. With my head bowed, staring at this guy’s Midas-touched combat boots, I realize where I am. At a bar. Full of older, trendier people. No, no—older, trendier, British people.
The glimmering shifts and the royal walker slides past me with a drink in his hand, his friend trailing behind him. The bartender looks up at us. Shit, I have to order a drink now.
I can’t tell whether Cal is asserting his dominance or if he can simply sense my paralysis, but he takes the lead.
“Two whiskey cokes,” he says, then flips his hair and looks back at me. “What do you and Sim want?”
“Gin and tonics,” I force out. It’s always what Sim would make for us at parties. Before her I didn’t even know tonic water was any different than sparkling water. I guess I’m still not sure I totally understand the difference.
The bartender looks at me and squints his eyes. “ID,” he deadpans.
I feel a little fight stir up in me. I know I look like a twelve-year-old, thanks for rubbing it in.
I hand him my ID. He stares at it, really stares at it, is still staring at it. I nearly shout, “It’s real, I swear!” But then he gives it back and goes to make our drinks.
“I got this round,” Cal says, which sounds insanely adult.
From behind us, a guitar riff explodes like mortar fire. My body tenses and I whip around to see that a band has taken over a small stage near the back of the pub. Their front man keeps pounding the strings, pushing his cacophony through the room. His dirty blonde hair is straightened around his face. Is this Kurt Cobain’s flamboyant, teenage ghost? That’s someone I would want to be friends with, from what my dad told me about Kurt, at least.
The drums and the bass from the band pick up behind him, and he begins to sing with a voice that sounds much more mature than he looks. I can’t make out the lyrics, but they sound determined and sure.
Cal nudges me with two drinks in his hands. I pick up the other two plastic cups and follow him towards the music, where Sim and Shae have wandered.
We hand them their drinks. Sim smiles, glad that I got her exactly what she wanted without her having to ask for it.
“Who are these guys?” I ask, nearly screaming into her ear.
“Don’t know, but I’m into it,” she replies.
We spend a few moments nodding along with them, awkwardly swaying to their beat. But regardless, I want to turn to Sim and scream, “We’re here. Can you believe we’re here?! In another country, away from everyone we know, watching a kind-of-terrible band sing-scream to a crowd of Londoners?” But in an effort to play the role of someone who belongs, I relax my shoulders and give way to the thumping bass.
We eventually move, choosing to head upstairs towards a small mezzanine, overlooking the stage. The sounds of the indie punk nonsense follow us, but it’s quiet enough for us to actually talk. We find a table pushed up against the exposed-brick wall and sit down.
“This place is amazing,” I say, taking a sip of my drink. It’s strong. As it burns my throat, I tilt my head back a bit, and take in the colorful portrait painted on the brick wall. It’s a graffiti bust of a young woman with tall, poofed up hair. She’s wrapped in a white, angelic fur, slightly exposing her tattooed left shoulder. An ornate halo crowns her as a drop of gold blood runs down her face. Her lips are red and her eyes are closed and she looks remarkably sad.
The others see me staring and turn to look up at her as well.
“Who is that?” I ask Sim.
But before she can answer, a voice from the table behind us cuts through. “Okay, you’re right. Now it’s obvious they’re Americans.”
All our heads whip to the table where the remark came from. It’s just two guys, maybe a year or two older, both with mid-length black hair, black shirts, and varying degrees of silver and gold chains. The main distinguishing feature is that the guy on the left has about six earrings in his left ear, but it’s his jaw line that sets him apart—it’s rigid and sharp and looks like the hull of a ship. He quickly smacks the other one on his chest and says, “Bloody subtle, mate.”
“Sorry about him,” he continues. “We’ve been on the pints all day. It’s just, you don’t know who that is?”
I feel like any cool points I had accumulated up to this point have been absolutely sucked out of me. But no one else at our table is answering either, so I just give into the failure. “No, who is she?”
“Ever heard of Amy Winehouse?”
“Oh, duh!” Shae smacks his drink back down on the table, already half gone. “I saw her at a drag show in Kansas City once. Well, not really her. Obviously. Because, she’s...she’s dead right?”
“Yeah,” the guy answers. “But she lived in Camden. And died here too.”
“She’s our patron fookin saint,” the other, earring-less guy says. “And she went out in a Camden bang.”
“Don’t be such an arse, she OD’d. That’s not a bang.” He grabs his friend’s half-full pint glass and chugs it. “That’s your punishment.” He places the glass back on the table and reaches out his hand to me, “I’m Olly, and that’s Max. Welcome to Camden Town.”
We all introduce ourselves, and when it’s Shae’s turn, he raises his glass, just like he had back in our flat. Since his wish for hot British guys came true, this time he says, “To Amy!”
Shae nearly finishes his drink. I’ve barely made a dent in mine.
“Can we buy you guys another round?” Olly asks.
“Consider us your welcoming com—” Max hiccups, “committee.”
“Totally.” Shae gets up, and nudges Cal next to him to do the same. “Come on muscles, we’ll help carry.”
I notice Cal’s drink is already empty, too. Shit, these two drink fast. Or do Sim and I drink slow?
The four of them disappear down the stairs, Max stumbling slightly slower behind them.
Sim’s chair loudly screeches as she angles it more toward me, “Okay now that they’re gone, are we gonna talk about this?”
“Talk about what?” I bite the inside of my cheek.
“The fact that you’re already fawning over a boy you met like six hours ago.”
“What are you saying?” My heart rate doubles. “I’m not fawning over anyone.”
“C’mon Jamie, we’re in London. We’re away from everyone we know. You can relax here.”
I instinctively look over my shoulder, not really sure who I’m hoping doesn’t hear our conversation.
“Jamie it’s me. We’re here now. It’s fine.”
“Okay well still, be quiet. I don’t like anyone. I don’t want to talk about anything.”
“Fine,” she says, and takes another sip of her drink. “But that Olly guy is pretty cute. If you were crushing on someone, and that someone just rushed to get drinks with a charming Brit, I would up my flirting game.”
Oh, fuck. She’s right.
“Okay, fine. Shae has like, cool style and, y’know, seems nice, and…”
“And rosy red lips for you to kiss as you run your fingers through his wispy hair?”
I whip my head around a second time, just to make sure Shae isn’t coming back up the stairs yet.
“Oh, relax.” Sim says. “Aren’t you relieved we’re not at St. Mary’s School of Perpetual Homophobia anymore and there’s actually another real-life gay boy here for you to ogle.”
“Ogle? Have I been OGLING?”
“You’re fine, I’m sure he hasn’t noticed. Or maybe he has. Maybe it’s a good thing if he has.”
“How could that possibly be a good thing?”
Sim rolls her eyes. “I know it’s only the first night. But we’re going to blink and this trip is going to be over. Just don’t waste too much time doing your Jamie anxiety thing.”
“That ‘anxiety thing’ is actually very real. Dr. Kim talks all the time about the physical affect anxiety can have on our bodies and—”
“Yes, yes, I know. Mental health is very serious and important. But so is this boy! You could have a real shot to live one of those awful, cliche rom-coms you make me watch.”
“Legally Blonde is not cliche!”
“I’m not talking about Legally Blonde, obviously Elle Woods is a feminist icon. That’s not the point! I just want you to take advantage of opportunities as they come.”
My throat is clenched tight, but I know she’s right. I knew this trip would be my first real chance to figure out what coming out would look like. What it would feel like to live openly. Sim’s been the only one who’s known for too long. Well, besides Dr. Kim. And I think my parents would be okay with it, they’ve never been particularly religious. But family is complicated, and my grandparents—they were the ones who insisted I go to a private Catholic school. It’s so shitty that sometimes you actually have to pay to get a better education, plus it comes with a side of trauma.
“What about Cal?” I ask, trying to deflect away from my own thoughts.
“Yeah, he’s cute too. But I get straight vibes from him, even with the nail polish. It’s actually kind of sweet, with his sister and everything.”
“What? No, I know. I mean, Cal didn’t sign up to live with a gay flatmate. What if he’s creeped out?”
“Then he’s an asshole!” Sim says, a little too loudly apparently, because people from other tables turn to look at us. I take another drink of the gin to try to calm my nerves. “Seriously, I would be shocked by that. He’s not giving me toxic masculinity. Besides, isn’t he from New York? I’m sure he wouldn’t think twice about it.”
“And Shae?” I ask.
“Objectively cute,” she replies.
Sim is as much my family as my parents are at this point, and if there’s any hope of me getting through the next eight weeks with my sanity intact, I have to trust her.
“Besides,” she says, “If there’s a chance this boy could like you back—”
I catch the shine of Shae’s blonde hair bouncing up the stairs. “Shut up, they’re coming!” I kick Sim’s leg under the table and she squeals. Before she can rip my throat out, Cal sets down a shot in front of her. Shae hands me one, too.
“Thought we could all use another,” Cal says, throwing back what looks like tequila, then slamming the empty glass down.
“Cheers.” Shae raises his eyebrows and drinks his. I follow. The tequila is noticeably better than whatever Cal has back in the flat, but it’s still tequila, and still ignites every taste bud in my mouth. I stick my tongue out like a six-year-old.
“You don’t like tequila?” Shae chuckles.
“No, it’s delicious,” I reply, chasing it with my gin and tonic. Classy move.
“Where is Olly and that other guy?” I ask.
“Oh, his friend totally wiped out downstairs,” Cal answers. “Way too drunk. So they left and caught a cab.”
“Oh,” I say, trying not to sound totally relieved.
“Yeah, he gave me his number though,” Shae says. “He said he’ll show us some other cool spots if we hit him up next weekend.”
Shit. The sense of relief is immediately knocked out of me. What if they start texting? And what if Shae asks him out? Like, out out? Not with the group. Shit.