Home Is Where the Fear Is / Same Shit, Different City
"Brexit happened". A text from Ulijona via iMessage. "I hope you changed your pounds to dollars early". I didn't. I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to. I’d hoped it was a bad dream.
“omg”, is all I can reply.
I’m not in London. I’m in New York, where I’ve been for weeks, where I can wear shorts in summer and sleep with the fan on. I need the sun and England rarely has any. Here I wear a hat and sunglasses every day. I’m feeling marginally better because of it but this trip – two months in the United States to see if I can live here – is still marred by financial instability and severe anxiety, a really painful break up and the weight of the paradigm-shifting referendum looming. I’ve been living in the UK as an EU citizen for over five years, escaping from Australia as soon as I was sent my Polish passport. Now I’m considering doing the same thing to England.
“It happened,” I say to Fin who comes into the open-plan kitchen from Claudia’s room in her Williamsburg apartment where I’m staying. “Fookin’ men’al,” he replies with a thick Scottish accent. He’s in his boxer shorts. There’s a framed print of Porky Pig in a gas mask standing under a plume of black smoke that reveals the Looney Tunes tagline, “That’s All Folks!” next to the toilet door. I’d been out late, till two in the morning, with my good friend Cristine and some of her friends – artists born in London, New York, Toronto, Belize, Puerto Rico, Miami and based wherever, with tattoos and teeth missing, talking and walking home together across the Williamsburg bridge. A few of us are meeting for the first time and will probably never see each other again.
Claudia happened to organise a weekend trip to rural Pennsylvania to see the synchronous fireflies and we have to be out of her apartment and in an Uber by 8 to make it to the car rental company in La Guardia by 8.30 this morning – the morning of the referendum result. The airless film of shock and regret lingers while Claudia negotiates insurance cover at the front desk. I gave up drinking alcohol for the sake of my mental health nearly three months ago, but what you don’t realise until you do that is that most of what a hangover is is simply lack of sleep. They still happen.
“Brexit panic wipes $2 trillion off world markets”.
I’d been Googling “Brexit” and “pound to dollar currency exchange” compulsively on my smartphone, but I’m restricted in the hire car because I don’t have any data and Fin’s hotspot that I’m tethered to keeps falling out. It’s done now anyway. I’d tried to re-register as an Australian citizen to vote online while in the queue at Gatwick Airport, because I’d heard Commonwealth citizens could vote. I’d already registered as Polish, though, and within days I was notified of my ineligibility.
I left Australia when I was 25, because I felt desperate. Desperate to get out, desperate to get away, desperate about a thing I couldn’t express that I wouldn’t ever express if I stayed any longer. There are worse places to want to leave, granted, and bigger reasons to do so, also. My parents had turned their backs on Communist Poland in the late 70s. One of the first friends I made in London, called Saafia, wanted nothing more than to leave her dysfunctional family and dead-end job and move to Australia. My reasons for leaving Perth were less economic than existential. I was queer and closed about it. There were two gay bars in the city of two million people, one of them for men wearing leather; another was for women wearing flannel. That’s hyperbole but nevertheless the notion of anything beyond an LGBT binary wasn’t a thing there then, and I needed to see if there was somewhere it was.
“Boris Johnson declares ‘project fear’ is over – before RBS and Barclays shares suspended”.
On Route 666 in Tionesta, Pennsylvania, Claudia, Fin and I stop at a wood-slatted hunting store on stilts selling T-shirts. A sign outside says “all firearms welcome” and inside three fat men assume what we’re after – souvenir shirts of the Devil’s Highway from Protestant Pennsylvania. They ask us where we come from, and cheer when I say London. They’re excited about Brexit. Claudia misconstrues their joy for derision and continues the conversation, while I turn my back to admire a Realtree-design camouflage hunting cap. The men bring up the murder of a British Army soldier by a madman in Woolwich in 2013, the shooting of “that guy” Charlie Hebdo in Paris and our newly elected Muslim mayor of London. I write “our” mayor, but I really mean London’s, as in, not mine anymore but theirs. Or is he still mine after Brexit? I voted in that election.
“Well fuck this for a bag of crisps”. Connie sends a message to me ready for a rant as I get back in the car. “Hope you get back into the country dude”. Apparently it’s chaos in the UK. David Cameron quit and there’s no prime minister of England. Parliament’s in a panic and it’s catching: “I’m worried that this will have implications for the EU itself … I’m worried that this is gonna trigger a domino effect … and then we will be back to pre war Europe … Austerity and right wing politics …” I send Connie a selfie of myself in my new Realtree hunter hat.
As we pull into Black Caddis Ranch in Kellettville, where the annual Synchronous Firefly festival is held, it occurs to us that this is a family event, and not the Burning Man-style New Aged orgy we’d stupidly assumed it would be. The mushrooms and weed are redundant. We’re told to set up our tent next to a middle-aged man from Harrisburg, here with his grandsons, who can’t resist the chance to tell us he doesn’t know why anyone would live in New York City. I think of many reasons that he might not relate to. The festival proper doesn’t start till tomorrow, but we’ve already decided that if we see the fireflies tonight, we’ll leave first thing in the morning.
The three of us think the guys in the hunting shop are racists. Confederate flags – in a state that was never even a part of the Confederacy – hung outside a number of houses on the road. A high-street storefront in a town where we stopped for coffee was proudly decorated in pro-Trump paraphernalia. The Texas Hot Lunch diner in a borough called Kane felt hostile. But I wonder if it’s prejudice on our part that makes us think this way, with recent events feeding into our preconceptions of rural voters, colouring our interactions and whipping us into the same frenzy of fear that lead to the Brexit vote in the first place.
“SUN SAYS: Rage of the working class”
Another couple pitch their tent near ours. They turn out to be retired academics who have an interest in philosophy and physics and the concept of synchronicity; Jung’s idea of “meaningful coincidences” that they connect somehow to the phenomenon of Photinus carolinus – the species of rover fireflies which flash in pulses of alternating ashen light, together during mating season.
Fin, Claudia and I follow the signs to the fireflies in the forest that night, going ahead of the others with our flashlights, walking and talking loudly until we reach some serious-looking firefly enthusiasts with non-intrusive red lights (as opposed to our bright, white ones) standing silently. We walk a little further and do the same, turn off our torches and wait in the dark. The round, cold glow of a swarm of fireflies grows steadily stronger until we’re surrounded by the shining bulbs of the light-emitting luciferin compound reacting to air, beautiful and ephemeral. It’s a moment that Claudia, as hard as she tries, cannot capture on camera.
I’m so caught up with staying present that I try not to breathe. The stress of not knowing dissolves with the cyclically disappearing visual hum of throbbing lights, moving and circling in a deep, shadowy unknown. I think about how humans must have rationalised these dazzling fireflies into mythical creatures before science offered its explanation. In this moment, the post-Brexit hangover of precarity and fear (“Where will I go now?”) dissolves into the existential calm of nature herself. “Same shit, different city,” my mum often said to me, six years ago, before I moved countries against her advice. But then I’ve never felt fully at home anywhere. Comfortable outside yet still scared of the dark.
Home Is Where the Fear Is/ Same Shit, Different City is taken from Issue 2 of Somesuch Stories. You can find full purchasing information here.
Photograph by Steph Kretowicz