On a bench at the bus station I spotted two of the bullies from my school, and recognized them straight away—Wills and Daniels used to love to torture anyone who so much as looked at them wrong. When I was in form two and they were in form four, Wills put a cigarette out on my face. There they sat now, waiting for a bus, drunk at midday, missing front teeth. Wills wore a Yankees baseball cap. I slowed right down hoping they’d see the flash car, and recognize me. I could hear my wife in my head, telling me I was childish. She was never a boy in Wales.
I passed the caf where my Mam and Auntie go for cups of milky coffee—one pound eighty still gets you two fried eggs, tinned tomatoes, sausages, bacon, fried bread and beans. The caf was full of plump women and their prams. It felt a long way from New York, where breakfast is muesli and mango imported from Brazil, and organic fat-free yogurt, where skinny women power-walk their thousand-dollar strollers down Riverside Park.
I drove up Cardiff Road and parked outside my parents’ shaded windows. Standing by the door, I went to ring the bell and froze, literally stopped with my finger poised before the button. Something overtook me, something profound and sad and unnamable. I kept thinking that everything was the same, exactly the same. Nothing had changed in years. This was my house, my hometown; I grew up in this valley, sandwiched between the mountains of south Wales, twenty miles north of Cardiff and twenty years behind.
There I stood, motionless, letting the rain fall on my hair, remembering my childhood, letting it come back in a series of images like pictures in an album: a sister buried up to her chest in sand, a football trophy, dad on a motorcycle before he got sick. I wanted to slip away, up the top line to walk along the old railroad tracks or down the Rock for a quiet pint. Then a neighbor across the road peeked out from behind her curtain, and I was caught; I had to ring the bell.
Mam came to the door, all rushed and full of apologies—Dad was still in bed. It was quarter past two in the afternoon. “David,” she said, breathless and flushed, looking at me like I was the second fucking coming. “Love.”
Stepping inside, I recalled how cold Welsh houses were; they’re fucking freezing, especially the toilet seats. My Auntie once said she didn’t heat that room because people shouldn’t take too much time in there. As if taking a shit in comfort was a luxury we didn’t deserve.
Mam ushered me into the kitchen, apologizing all the while—she’s spent her life apologizing for sins she never committed. Scurrying around, she sat me down and began to fuss. Are you hungry, love? Do you want a ham roll? A packet of crisps? A Kit Kat? No? Sure? I sat on the settee while the yellow walls of the kitchen—newly painted in anticipation of my arrival—began to close in around me. I felt squeezed. You sure you don’t want chocolate? She went on. You’re tired, love. You want to lie down for five? You’re sure now, you don’t want something to eat? Just something little…?
“Stop it, Mam!” I yelled, surprising us both.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, I … ”
“I shouldn’t fuss.”
“I’m just tired, Mam.”
“Course you are. I’m so sorry.”
“Stop, Mam,” I whispered this time, “stop apologizing.”
“I’m sorry, oh … ”
She turned to the sink and started doing dishes. I looked at the telly in the corner flickering on mute. Getting up to turn the volume on, I noticed it was Eastenders. “Frank still on the show, then?” I asked, making conversation. “Thought he was dead. Did he come back to life?” She had her back to me and didn’t hear. She could have been crying. Christ, I thought.
“Everyone’s been phoning for you,” she said at last. “It’s been ringing off the hook, it has. No one ever calls for your father and me. Don’t you want to phone Rhys? Tell him you’re here?”
“Later, Mam.” I didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t trust myself. Staring at the mountain outside the kitchen window, I noticed it was almost green again. The mountains were all slag heaps when I was a kid. Thatcher closed the mines in the 80s and it’s taken since then for the heaps to overgrow with green again. After the mines shut, there was no work at all, until the Japanese came with their factories; people work at Sony now, assembling televisions and DVDs, and they come home with clean faces and clear lungs. Life is better now, they say, but it’s still bleak as hell in winter and the kids still fight in town on Saturday nights.
Sitting in my mother’s neat yellow kitchen, on her plush synthetic setee, I watched Cockneys argue on telly and remembered how I used to know these characters as well as I knew my own family. I sat in that inertia that takes hold when you get between the mountains of south Wales. Then I heard the creak of my father rising upstairs. I listened as he slowly made his way to the toilet and then down the stairs, one by one. I felt guilty about yelling at my mother, and grateful that my father didn’t hear, that she would never tell him.
“Alright, Butt?” he said and smiled, gasping for breath. He sat down in his chair. Shaky fifty-year-old hands placed a clear plastic mask over his face and switched on the nebulizer. We ignored the loud buzz of the motor. We’re good at ignoring things.
The night before his wedding, Rhys and I went for a quiet pint down the Rock.
Rhys was sixteen when his twin sister died and I still can’t look at him without seeing the ghost of that blonde skinny girl. She was the first girl I kissed. Not long after, I visited her in hospital, and she told me she didn’t want to die before someone asked her to marry her so I asked her, and she said yes, and then she cried, tears running down over the tubes connected to her nose. I was dead scared. I remember wanting to run out of that hospital but I made myself stay and sit next to her till she’d cried herself to sleep. Then I did run, literally, ran down the corridor, nurses yelling at me all the way; I ran out the door, and past the bus stop, and all the way home.
After his sister died, Rhys started dating his next-door neighbor, Clare, who looked a lot like his sister but wasn’t nearly as sweet. Rhys was seventeen when he started seeing Clare, nineteen when she fell pregnant. They kept it a secret. I remember coming home after my first year in New York and she was huge. I asked my dad if she was expecting and he said, “No, mun, she’s just put on a bit of weight, she has.” Rhys delivered the baby himself in his parents’ house in the middle of the night. Then he knocked on his parents’ bedroom door and told them they better come have a look.
The Rock hadn’t changed since we used to sneak in there at fourteen. The same huge mutt lay prostrate across the floor, only rising to the sound of a crisp packet being opened, and the same bottle-blond barmaid served us while the jukebox played hits from the seventies. Darkness hid most of the stains on the carpet.
I listened to Rhys tell me about his new job: putting propellers on airplanes in an American factory. He complained about not enough holidays.
“American factory, see? We only get three weeks a year.”
“Tell me about it. I get ten days.” I didn’t say I was taking two of those to be at this wedding. “So, how you feeling, Butt? Big day and all tomorrow.”
“Sick,” he said and downed the rest of his pint.
“Nerves,” I said. “I had ’em, too.”
“No. It’s not just nerves.” He stared at his empty pint glass.
“One more, is it?”
“Aye, go on then.”
With two fresh pints in front of us, I offered a toast. “To the groom,” I said.
Rhys didn’t raise his glass.
“Alright,” I said, “What’s up?”
“You’re starting to sound American.”
“That’s better, Dai,” he said and I looked at him—no one calls me Dai in New York. They call me David or Dave or Mr. Roberts or Sir. “I’m having second thoughts.”
“Everyone has second thoughts,” I said, which was a lie. I myself hadn’t had a single second thought before I got married. I met Nora in October and she asked me to marry her in December. After I got married, I had plenty of second thoughts, sure, but not before.
“This is different.” He paused and I thought he’d stopped, but then he started and it all ran out of him like the River Cynon after a rainstorm. “I don’t want to do it. It was all her idea. Clare. All her friends are getting married, see? Every day it’s the same: I come home from work, sit down in front of the telly, drink my two flagons of cider and most of the time I fall asleep on the setee. I wakes up the next morning and do it all over again. On weekends, I play with the kids. What it is,” he took a breath, “I’m doing it for the kids.”
“Jesus,” I said.
I thought about the boy on the plane, of how he’d wanted me to say something positive about this place. I wished I could sit him down right here at the bar and have him listen. But the kid wasn’t there and Rhys was waiting for me to say something. I stared at my friend. Rhys had always been lean and lithe but now I saw that he had a gut; his blond hair was receding, and crow’s feet sprouted from the corners of his eyes. He was missing a couple of teeth, back ones but still; I could see what he was going to look like as an old man and the image made me shudder.
We were silent for a good minute. I knew I had to say something but it was Rhys who spoke first.
“We haven’t had sex in seven months.”
“Christ.” Think, I thought. Seven months. Give the man some advice.
“Rhys,” I said, “have you ever thought of something on the side? A man needs sex.”
He narrowed his blue eyes and pinned them on me. “Is that what they do in New York?”
I ordered another round.
Then it came to me, a solution, a plan—it wasn’t perfect but after three pints it seemed pretty good.
“Alright, Butt, I got it.”
He looked at me with the tiniest glint in his tired blue eyes.
“Listen, what it is, you have to stay together for the kids, right?”
He nodded slowly.
“Until they’re older, right? Teenagers—but not forever. When Dylan turns fourteen, then you get your chance. Leave her. Get a divorce. It’s only ten years away. You’ll be 39! I clapped my empty glass down on the table. “That’s not old anymore, mate. Forty’s the new thirty.” Now I was sounding American but fuck it, Americans were a good deal less miserable than this bunch; a little optimism goes a long way. I was chuffed with myself, and my suggestion but when I looked over at Rhys, he’d gone pale. His eyes filled and he covered them with his hands.
The next day, Rhys was married.
The party was at the Legion, where a hired DJ played ABBA, and we drank until we danced. As the night grew later, the girls looked prettier and I was glad I’d come. I was up at the bar for my fourth or fifth pint when I saw the boy from the airplane.
“Kid, that you?”
I must’ve been drunk because I put my arm around him. “Buy you pint—what are you drinkin?”
“Feeling better now, aye?”
“Well, kid, you were right, and you were wrong.” I wanted to tell him about Rhys and our conversation but it was too much to explain—seven months—and it felt like a betrayal to mention this at the wedding. Besides, this kid, he was just a kid. As far as I knew, he hadn’t knocked anyone up yet; he didn’t have to get married or work in a factory. Let him be, I thought. He’ll have the rest of his life to be miserable. Let him think the Valleys were the dog’s bollocks if he wanted to.
“To the Valleys,” I said.
“To New York,” he said.
“Piss off! To Wales, to good old fucking Cymry! Kid, I’ve been considering your question and I’ve thought of a few more things. I miss fresh milk. Fresh fucking milk delivered in real glass bottles to your fucking front door. “Kid,” I said, “I fucking loves that. In New York there’s no such thing as fresh milk. New York kids wouldn’t recognize a cow if she bit ’em in the arse!”
“You’re pissed,” he laughed.
“Right you are, Boyo and something else. Look.” I linked an arm around his neck and spun him towards the window. It was nine p.m. but still light outside. A pale pink-orange light hung between the mountains. “I miss that. The way it lingers. In America, the sun goes down, plop, lights out. Goodnight Irene. You’re already thinking about the next day.”
The kid smiled and I hugged him. “I loves this country, I fucking loves it I do.”
A month later and I’m back in my New York office on the 47th floor in midtown Manhattan. I don’t feel at home here either—how can anyone feel at home this high in the sky? But I’m used to it. You get used to anything. Each morning, I wake up at six and go to the gym, where I run on the treadmill to the beat of CNN news. Then I have a coffee and a bagel with the New York Times. Most days, I work until eight. My wife and I eat dinner out.
When I first moved here, I was just as scared of New York as that Welsh kid; I was so scared that all I did was work. And on Sundays, when I couldn’t work, I walked, up and down the avenues, past fancy shop windows, past that funky Flat-iron building. I walked by tall glamorous women in Soho, whose eyes I was afraid to meet, past the crazies in Washington Square Park, and I memorized the city’s streets so they couldn’t scare me anymore. Now I know these streets like the back of my hand but familiarity’s not the same as home.
I called Rhys the other night. He’s back at the factory after a week at Euro Disney with the wife and kids. The Welsh boy off the plane is probably working with wires somewhere in the Rhondda. I don’t think of them often—there’s not a lot of time for daydreaming in America. I only remember Wales on bleak days like today, when the weather’s so close I can’t see across the Hudson to the Jersey shore. Then I remember Rhys, before he got married, before kids, before his sister died—I remember playing down by the river when we were five and six, fishing for tadpoles, racing sticks under the bridge. We played all day until the sun sank beneath the mountain and we ran around frantic in the fading pink light: our own little paradise, before we even knew that London or New York or any other place existed.