WELCOME TO THE LOUNGE. The cigarette smoke hits you like a brick wall, staining your clothing on impact.
In the small kitchenette, you see Fern burning toast while humming an unrecognizable melody. His hands are covered by fingerless gloves, which he never takes off, even indoors. His hair is a dull black, wanting a wash. He’s addicted to something, but you’ll never know what. It turns his otherwise fair skin sallow, crinkling it like paper around his eyes, which are the lightest, most intense shade of blue you’ve ever seen. Ask him and he’ll recite poetry for you, but otherwise you’ll never hear him speak a word. He is beautiful.
On the loveseat across the back wall of the room, Fredricka huddles with Marco. She’s Austrian, he’s Australian. They don’t know each other, but both are on the run. They laugh loudly while talking politics, and more than once he tries to cop a feel, his hands lingering on her skin a few seconds longer than they should, before she slaps him away again.
Fredricka claims to be a princess, at one time very wealthy but now disowned, living day to day until “they” find her. During the day, you take her to museums and tourist attractions in London. She’s got nothing better to do, after all.
Marco is trying to save up money to buy his motorcycle back. That’s all he’ll tell you. He stands five feet tall. His stringy, mouse-brown hair hangs around his face. When he takes his motorcycle helmet off, you see he is bald from ear to ear, with just the lower fringe of hair still hanging on. He only takes the helmet off to drink. Luckily for you, he’s drinking all the time.
You weren’t even mad when the Danes stumbled into to your shared room at 3:30 a.m., doing somersaults and whooping and wailing until they sprayed vomit all over your stuff.
The walls are yellow, but you’ll never know whether it’s from paint or clinging cigarette residue. There’s a bar through the door on the right, but your group prefers cheaper, convenience store brew — the type that says young, broke and free.
You did, of course, check out the bar once. It would be a travesty to stay at a place with a built-in pub and not even look into it. These are the sights you’re here to see, so you see them. That’s where you meet TJ and Phillip.
The pair are American, like you. They’re massage therapists, taking a short vacation from some cruise line. TJ has been a rodeo cowboy, a Marine, a cop, a musician. He’s been tossed in a tornado, escorted by police to important events just because, given thousands of dollars in gifts and jewelry and voted best looking in Arkansas three years running. TJ talks a lot. Philip doesn’t talk at all.
The Italians form their own group, waltzing in and out of the smoke-filled, whiskey-stained room at odd hours. Scusi, scusi, they say, while bumping into your ass.
You spread more jam on your last piece of bread and reach for the $5 bottle of wine you bought that afternoon. You’re not a classy tourist. You’re the type that pays 10 pounds a night for a room with 20 bunk beds stacked against each other. You shower in a communal room that drips out only cold water in the mornings. You’re there to see the other side of London. You’re there to see the lounge.
There’s a bar through the door on the right, but your group prefers cheaper, convenience store brew — the type that says young, broke and free.
In fact, thinking back on it, you can’t even remember the name of the hostel or the street it was on. It wasn’t a vacation for remembering, it was a vacation for forgetting.
You don’t remember Shakespeare’s original playhouse, or the Cirque Show that the Austrian princess smuggled you into. You don’t remember the Monty Python play you went to see, the modern art museum, the history museums, or that really big library. Buckingham Palace and Big Ben are a blur, but at least you have pictures of them. What was the name of that abbey where Darwin is chilling? You saw that, too.
No, you don’t remember what you ought to. You remember sprinting after the double-decker buses to hop on without a pass. You remember sneaking into the bathroom at a Burger King where they ran you out after they found you weren’t going to pay for anything. You remember throwing up on the steps in the center of Piccadilly Circus. You remember an elephant sign on the tube meaning you were home. The Socialist Bookstore, the guards who refused to grant you a smile, that one amazing sandwich made with nothing but a baguette and some cheese. In the years since, you’ve ordered every cheese hoagie you’ve come across, hoping to relive those precious bites. They’ve all been atrocious, abominable excuses for sustenance. Always a disappointment to your hyped-up taste buds. You don’t remember much of London, no. You remember hard cider, and whiskey, and clubs in underground churches.
You weren’t even mad when the Danes stumbled into to your shared room at 3:30 a.m., doing somersaults and whooping and wailing until they sprayed vomit all over your stuff. You just threw it out. You never really liked that wool sweater anyway.
That one amazing sandwich made with nothing but a baguette and some cheese. In the years since, you’ve ordered every cheese hoagie you’ve come across, hoping to relive those precious bites.
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, your friend came screaming up the old wooden steps, making them shudder and echo in the early stillness. Or was it still late? You had no inkling of time then.
“The shower on the second floor,” she gasped, dripping water from her hair and trying to catch her breath. “Go to it. Go to it now. It’s full of puppies and rainbows and unicorns!” The temperature of the dribble coming from the shower head was lukewarm rather than ice cold.
You trudged down the stairs and slipped into the stall just ahead of another experience-beaten tourist. It was the best shower you’d ever had, before or since.
After that, you smoked a cigarette with silent Fern, made a peanut butter sandwich, and set off in your last clean shirt to do it all again.
Some memories are made for forgetting.
Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer for The Washington Post, The Atlantic and TIME who can be found @parentwin on Twitter.
Header photo by Barney Livingston.
Featured photo from the National Archives UK.