Saturday, February 27, 2010

Our Arrival in Oxford

“What do you mean, you don’t know where we are?” asked The Drunkard.
I snapped awake, wiped the drool off my face, and looked around. We were in the middle of the city, surrounded by the sort of buildings that looked at you and said, “Yes, this is Oxford, and you’re probably not smart enough to even visit this place.” The majority of them were big and made of yellowish-brown stone (apparently called Headington and Burford stone—named after quarry sites). It was a beautiful city—one that I hope to visit again—but at that moment, seeing The Drunkard leaning forward into the front seat, the veins in his forehead popping out, and his face turning red took up all my attention. “You don’t have a map?”
“Now,” said The Student, “Drunkard, you should really calm down.”
The Drunkard contorted his body like a snake, turned back to The Student and said, “No, God damn it, this guy is called The Traveler. For fuck’s sake, you’d think that he’d remember where to go. Hell, I can tell you where every bar is in a ten-mile radius, and I haven’t even gotten out of the car yet.”
The Traveler, suddenly playing the annoyed father to The Drunkard’s upset mother on a car trip (which, I guess, made myself and The Student the children), tapped the steering wheel and said, “She said her place was by the campus.”
“There is no campus, you schmuck,” said The Drunkard. “Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, these places don’t have campuses. They’re sprawled around the city. A child would know that.”
I glanced in the rear-view mirror on my side of the car and saw The Student cringing and trying very, very hard to sink into the back of his seat.
For my part, I’d learned long ago not to get involved when such an altercation was brewing. Once, when a few friends and I were driving to Panama City Beach, the fight escalated to the point where one man pulled a knife. It was used to peel an apple, but, initially, we were all frightened.
The Traveler took a deep breath and pulled the car into a spot near what turned out to be the High Street. His voice hit a low register, and he said, “Out.” He opened his door and stepped onto the sidewalk, where he cracked his knuckles, back, legs, and neck. Then he hopped up and down and stretched.
“Oh,” said The Drunkard. “You wanna go, motherfucker?” As The Traveler was in the process of his bone-cracking, I imagine The Drunkard was doing this to psych himself up. “We can go. I haven’t been in a fight in a long time. Break your fuckin neck,” he said. The Drunkard opened up his door, stepped into the road—nearly getting run over by a car in the process—and stepped opposite The Traveler on the sidewalk.
The Traveler and The Drunkard stared at each other for a few moments. “Five quid on The Traveler,” I said.
“You’re kidding,” The Student said.
I shook my head. “Nope. The guy’s so together, he must be a complete nutcase. No one is that calm without harboring some sort of mental deficiency. In fact, I bet he rips out The Drunkard’s heart.”
The Student turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “You okay? You know, in the head.”
“Yeah.” I thought about it. “Maybe. Might watch a few too many kung fu movies.”
The Traveler bowed and then, in a movement so fluid it was almost slow motion, did a complete flip into a handstand, parted his legs in the air and rotated three hundred and sixty degrees. The Drunkard backed away. The Traveler flipped up again, this time landing closer to The Drunkard. He shifted from one foot to the other, moving in time to some unheard rhythm, and sailed out a kick that connected with The Drunkard’s left rib. The Drunkard sailed into the city wall next to him and The Student laughed. “Holy crap, he knows capoeira.”
“What? It looks like he’s dancing.”
“Yeah. It’s a Brazilian thing. I’ve never seen anyone actually use it in a fight. This is nuts.”
Apparently The Drunkard thought so as well, because shielded his head with his arms and scooted up against the wall.
Undeterred, The Traveler advanced in the almost bird-like fashion, flipped onto his hands again, and spun, his right foot landing on the back of The Drunkard’s head. The Drunkard flopped to the ground, a rag doll. The Traveler hopped back on to his feet and helped the Drunkard up, moved him against the car, and put his hands on his shoulders. The Student and I rushed out of the rented car. I shouted, “Don’t rip out his throat! I was just kidding! No one has to die!”
The Traveler turned to me and said, “What?”
“Er, nothing.”
He shrugged and returned to The Drunkard. “Count to ten.”
The Drunkard groaned. I got a look at his face. Blood cascaded down from his nose.
“Jesus,” I said. “Is he okay?”
“Yeah, just stunned,” said The Traveler. “I could have done worse, but there was no reason.” To The Drunkard: “Hey, listen. Count to ten.” He snapped his fingers in the man’s face, and The Drunkard made eye contact. He then counted to ten.
“Good,” said The Traveler. “Now, I know it’s infuriating that we don’t know where we are, but Lena is in class until five. So we’re kind of on our own until then, yeah?”
“Yeah,” muttered The Drunkard. “You got a napkin or something?”
The Student dashed into the car and pulled out a packet of Kleenex. He handed it to The Drunkard, who then stuffed a bunch into his nostrils.
“Good,” said The Traveler. “Don’t swallow too much blood. Now here’s what I’m thinking.” He checked his watch—it also occurred to me then that he was the only one of us who owned a watch. “It is three o’clock now. We take a nice little wander around Oxford’s center until fiveish, at which point, I give her a call and we can figure out where to go. How’s that sound?”
The Student and I agreed. The Drunkard nodded and said, “Sure. Just don’t go Apeshit Bird Man again.”
The Traveler patted The Drunkard on his shoulders again and said, “Excellent. Now, judging from the pedestrians right there,” he gestured to my left, where there were a lot of people walking down the street, “I’m guessing that way is the High Street. Shall we?”
We then walked down the street. The Student and I walking alongside The Traveler, asking where he learned capoeira (turns out he took classes in undergrad), and The Drunkard trailing behind, clutching the Kleenex and snorting every once in a while.

The High Street, like everything else in Oxford, was much larger and filled with more of the trappings of a city than Canterbury. Until now, my experiences of England were limited to Canterbury and London, and now I realized just how much of a country town Canterbury was. That, of course, didn’t mean that I liked it any less. It was just that now I realized that there was an alternative.
It’s a tricky business, thinking of a British city and attempting to come up with an American counterpart. Suffice it to say that Oxford has the shopping that Canterbury lacks; has different neighborhoods that are quite distinct from one another—some of which reminded me of Nashboro Village back home; has even more history; and, most important for me, has several multi-story bookstores. (The sort of bookstores in which you can spend five hours without getting through the fiction section.)
Walking down the High Street, we were surrounded by buildings that I describe as Gothic architecture—but that might, in fact, be completely wrong. Clearly, I was in a new league of city. “Posh” would be the word. “Man, you can just smell the wealth, can’t you?” asked The Drunkard.
The Student shook his head. “No, this is beyond class distinctions. This is a city of history, of learning, of culture. My friends, this is where I should have gone for a Master’s.”
We passed a group of chavs. They wore the track suits, gold chains, and gelled hair typical of their species, and, like the rest of their ilk, spoke entirely too loudly. “No, Reg,” one of them—wearing a red track suit and holding a lead on a bulldog, “you’re wrong. The cost-benefit analysis of selling ganja to selling cocaine brings the equation leaning heavily towards marijuana.”
Reg, wearing a green track suit and pulling along a lady chav—frantically texting on her slender mobile phone, her hair pulled back so tight I thought I could see her scalp cracking—said, “What are you on about? With my connections, the profit I can make on cocaine far surpasses marijuana.”
By this time, our two groups had passed each other, but I caught a little more. “Ah, but consider the repercussions of getting caught with cocaine compared with those of getting caught with marijuana…” And then they trailed off, having entered a McDonald’s.
“You see?” asked The Student. “Even the idiots are smart!”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Yeah, sure, cool. Hey, a pub.” He shot off and walked into a place called The Eagle and Child. The colors featured, you guessed it, an eagle carrying a diaper-clad baby through the sky. What this meant for families with children, I had no idea. “Think we should follow him?” I asked.
The Traveler grunted. “If we don’t then we may lose him for good.” He checked his watch. “Fuck it, we’ve got a few hours.”

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