That August you arrived, the streets of Soho were full. A type of summer only the English seem to appreciate. You met a man online who saw past your broken tongue. He sat outside with you and a pizza and a bottle of wine between Frith and Old Compton Street. The light faded in the gaps of sky between buildings, and you watched people pass like rolls of fog. You, open-mouthed at your new reality. That night was the centre of the universe. He didn’t wait until morning to tell you to leave.
Then autumn. You realised the soft light was a lie. London is not Soho. People walk past you on the grey pavement in their suits, rushing because they think they have to. Trains arrive every minute and people still run for them. They elbow you as they move past and they turn their eyes down and don’t meet yours and they all say sorry.
The man you share a room with speaks no English. He works all night and you walk out of the bathroom in the mornings to find him sitting on the bed. You come home in the evening and do the same. He speaks to you in Italian. You reply in Spanish. It’s enough for buenos días and the rent at the end of the month. Sometimes he comes in earlier and you are still in bed. He walks in and strips off and doesn’t shower and gets in with you. The muscles on his back relax as he falls asleep. You feel the heat of him come through the sheets. For a moment it’s enough. You get up and clean strangers’ house for the minimum they can get away with paying you.
You sit alone in a bar on Rupert Street. You catch the eye of a boy. With the sand on their skin and the salt in their hair just like you. The sea foam of the Mediterranean still in their eyes. They turn it up somehow. It’s not just the tan. It’s what the older man beside them wishes to see. This is freedom to them. Opportunity wherever it comes from. They look at you with the bleach that permeates you. The dirt under your fingernails of a hundred homes you’ve scrubbed and wiped. They look away. It could be so easy. You know this. Everyone that approaches you, all they want is the fire. That hangover from a brief flight to the coast of Iberia during a week in July, where they lay on a beach and colonised their sexual appetites. They don’t want to know your thoughts on Gertrude Stein. They just want you to call them Papi.
You are caught on the street by the faintest trace of jasmine. You go to the mercaillos in your memory. Late mornings even in October where the sunlight stretches across the sea like it never does on the Thames. It’s molten and shimmering all the way to the shores of Africa. Your tongue lingers in nostalgia. The tang of aceitunas cooking in plastic tubs. The deep green of mangoes piled high a un euro niña, buen precio. The heat on the back of your neck. The breeze around your bare legs. Thick flakes of canela. Old women inspecting fake Nike trainers like they were worth double the real thing. And beyond the gravel at the end of the market, the sand and the curve of the coastline. And you wonder what you ran from. The jasmine leaves you and it’s the exhaust fumes and the streets of no colour now.
You cut your hair and dye it blonde. You tire of men running their hands through your curls and asking if you’re Greek. You let the sun fade from you. While you take a brush to the toilet of a family you’ve never met, you repeat what the man on your phone says. You move your mouth in a different way. Hello, how are you? Haw aw ju? Haw. Ha. Ow. You put a line through your geography. You speak enough to survive.
You fill out a form and stand at the counter and raise your hand to call the next customer with their skinny vanilla latte and their ham croissant. You call them mate. Hello mate, how are you? You ask for a different name badge. When they ask where you’re from, you tell them how long you’ve been here. Nobody asks you about Gertrude Stein.
Jonathan Pizarro is a Queer Gibraltarian writer exiled in London. He is interested in language and borders, the ruins of colonialism, the memory of home, and monsters. He tweets @JSPZRO.