Fourteen Years Ago
NANA TURNED TO INSPECT the hotel room. Behind her, the curtains drifted closed with a whisper. With her dark, sharp eyes, she surveyed the cream and red decor, the generic paintings, and the television she no doubt thought gaudily perched on the otherwise beautiful dresser. Never in my life had I been in a room this fancy, but her gaze, as it touched everything, read Given the cost, I expected more.
Mom had always described this expression as pruney. It fit. My grandmother—only sixty-one—totally looked like a piece of soft, dried fruit when she got mad.
As if on cue, she grimaced like she’d just smelled something sour. “Our view is the street. If I wanted to stare at a street I could have stayed in Guerneville.” She blinked away from the dresser to the telephone on the desk, moving toward it with purpose. “We aren’t even on the right side of the building.”
Oakland, to New York, to London, landing just over an hour ago. For the longest leg, our seats were in the middle of a group of five, on the bulkhead row, where we were flanked on one side by a frail older man who fell immediately asleep on Nana’s shoulder and a mother with an infant on the other. By the time we were finally situated in the room, I just wanted a meal, and a nap, and a tiny patch of quiet away from Nana the Prune.
Mom and I had lived with Nana since I was eight. I knew she had it in her to be a good sport; I’d seen it every day for the past ten years. But right then we were far from home, way out of our comfort zone, and Nana—owner of a small town café—detested spending her hard-earned money and not getting exactly what she was promised.
I nodded to the window as a very European black taxi zoomed by. “It is a pretty great street, though.”
“I paid for a view of the Thames.” She ran a blunt fingertip down the list of hotel extensions, and my stomach clenched into a ball of guilt at the reminder that this vacation was way more lavish than anything we’d ever done. “And Big Ben.” The tremble of her hand told me exactly how quickly she was calculating what she could have done with that money if we’d stayed somewhere cheaper.
Out of habit, I tugged at a string on the hem of my shirt, wrapping it around my finger until the tip pulsed. Nana batted my hand away before she sat at the desk, heaving an impatient breath as she lifted the phone from its cradle.
“Yes. Hello,” she said. “I’m in room 1288 and I have brought my granddaughter all the way here from—yes, that’s correct, I am Judith Houriet.”
I looked up at her. She said Judith, not Jude. Jude Houriet baked pies, served the same regular customers she’d had since she opened her café at nineteen, and never made a fuss when someone couldn’t afford their meal. Judith Houriet was apparently much fancier: she traveled to London with her granddaughter and certainly deserved the view of Big Ben she’d been promised.
“As I was saying,” she continued, “we are here to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, and I specifically booked a room with a view of Big Ben and the Tham—yes.” She turned to me, stage-whispering, “Now I’m on hold.”
Judith didn’t even sound like my nana. Was this what happened when we left the cocoon of our town? This woman in front of me had the same soft curves and stout, worker’s hands, but wore a structured black jacket I knew Jude could barely afford, and was missing her ubiquitous yellow gingham apron. Jude wore her hair in a bun with a pencil dug through it; Judith wore her hair blown out and tidy.
When whoever was on the other end returned, I could tell it wasn’t with good news. Nana’s “Well that’s unacceptable,” and “I can assure you I am going to complain,” and “I expect a refund of the difference in room rates,” told me we were out of luck.
She hung up and exhaled long and slow, the way she did when it had been raining for days, I was bored and testy, and she was at her wits’ end with me. At least this time I knew I wasn’t the reason behind her mood.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” I said quietly. “Even in this room.”
She blew out another breath and looked over at me, softening only slightly. “Well. We’ll see what we can do about it.”
Two weeks with Nana in a tiny hotel room, where she was sure to complain about the poor water pressure or the too-soft mattress or how much everything cost.
But two weeks in London. Two weeks of exploring, of adventure, of cramming in as much experience as I could before my life got small again. Two weeks seeing sights I’d only ever read about in books, or seen on TV. Two weeks watching some of the best theater productions anywhere in the world.
Two weeks of not being in Guerneville.
Dealing with a little pruney was worth it. Standing, I lifted my suitcase onto my bed, and began unpacking.
After a surreal walk across Westminster Bridge and past the towering Big Ben—I could actually feel the chimes through the center of my chest—we ducked into the darkness of a small pub called The Red Lion. Inside, it smelled of stale beer, old grease, and leather. Nana peeked in her purse, making sure she’d converted enough cash for dinner.