Jaclyn Backhaus

There Lies London, an Escapade

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

John Vachon, street in Lincoln, Nebraska, 1942

Names are changed to protect those guilty. There’s a line in The Big Lebowski: “Sometimes, there’s a man. Sometimes…there’s a man.” And them Coen Brothers was right. Sometimes, there’s a man. If Charlie Breadmaker knew I was writing this, well, he would first point a finger at his given pseudonym and dismiss it as “thinly-veiled.” Could-have-beens and Should-I-haves and Would-were-I’s are then to enter into the equation, as they always do. Equations, being a part of math and art and also a part of life, enter into most things. Relationships between people tend to have to equal something, either in the present or past tense. Retrospectively, a relationship equation often does not equal, does not exist (math people, with their disdain for words and their love of symbology and abbreves, call this DNE).

Does that render it a lie? A faulty equation? We are all scientists with failed hypotheses, we are all pimply unshowered math majors in love. The good thing about the retrospective of a life of broken equations is that they make for good non-fiction articles with thinly veiled and oft-pointed pseudonyms.

It all brings me here, to the great recounting of Charlie Breadmaker, a Cornhusker with a heart of Great Plainsy Gold. As a product of our great nation’s middle-west, he often waged wars and hatched schemes to reclaim an identity neither western nor middle. He was a world traveler by age 4; in his early teens, he spoke fluent Japanese. On a spring break in Washington, DC, the spring break before I put 68 bobby pins in my Junior Prom hair, I met Charlie Breadmaker, and I thought he was a bit brutey and showoffish. I didn’t know Japanese, and here was this blond boy pronouncing everything correctly at the Kyoto Bowl in the mall food court. I dared him to eat a whole chunk of wasabi paste out of spite. He did, and as expected, he turned beety and fell to the floor choking and almost died. A day later he nearly said he loved me, and there I was with a Golden Boy to almost call my very own.

Thing is, my Junior Prom was not nowhere near Lincoln, Nebraska. I did not go to Lincoln East High. I had never seen the Great Plains or Carhenge. I was a product of another suburban suffixual ‘west, that of the great prefixual South’. The SW, The Ess Dub. The 480. I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. I grew up in an adobe hut and ate cactus and rattlesnake and roped gophers and put horseshoes on coyote steeds. And so Charlie and I contented to a love affair of phones and instant messaging, a love that knew no rules or consequence save for the wish that one west could one day merge with the other. We knew a tectonic plate shift was not to be, so we sufficed. Simple ‘hi’s and ‘bye’s and ‘what are you doing now’s and ‘how do you feel about such and so’s. Getting to know yous. After all, you can’t get to know someone over six days in the nation’s capital. You can’t walk the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, traipse along the National Mall, and stare at the Hope Diamond enough to achieve Knowin’ Someone. Retrospectively and with great inner confidence, I know now that you cannot achieve Knowin’ Someone after years or decades or centuries. Often enough, you cannot know yourself. But I knew him then. I knew him when.

We contented to this knewing over the years. While I front-burnered many real-life relationship recipes through the ends of high school and the earlies of college, I held a torch to the back-burner, the idyllic Breadmaker stew. It bubbled and simmered and kept me hungry. I moved to New York and he moved to São Paolo. I went to Phoenix for the summer and he moved back to the Plains. And then, one day, we found ourselves single in our respective situations. I decided to drive to Nebraska, and we would then escape to London.

So many years of dormant, back-burner inactivity rendered me ineffectual in my front-burnering of Charlie Breadmaker. The act of togethering with someone who had for so long been together-apart, a part of me and yet apart of me, was more difficult than I expected. I had rubbery road trip legs. I lumbered out the car, ready to experience things that were not flat as the carview had been.


“It’s grassy here.”


As lines go, this may not be a series of actual lines spoken. Dialogue changes as memory charges it, and who knows how memoirs fuel themselves with reality? Memory itself changes with our views from the day. In a dreamscape, in the then-present moment, my stomach turned on itself, the lines in the road kept me in a state of forward motion. I did not upchuck as I got off the Interstate and passed the Cornhusker Stadium, but did I want to? Probably. A, B, C, D—all the alphabet streets ticked off, time got stranger, I got stranger and strangely close to my destiny. And then, when he was standing there and I was in a car, and when we went for fruit smoothies at the Juice Stop, and when we hung out by the pond near his backyard and I played with the cat, things were said. Ineffectual, but so effectual. Time was passing, togetherly. Dialogue happened, and I’m sure I was nervous. Nervously, the saga of Charlie Breadmaker approached the forefront of my thinking, feeling, and being.

Front-burnering always makes me feel like swim team practice. What if I drown today? What if I didn’t eat enough, or ate too soon before I got in the water? What if today is an 800 meter day? 800m/25m = 32 lengths of this non-Olympic sized pool, and that’s without stopping. Could I shoulder that burden, could I protect myself? What races should I enter in the meet this Saturday? Breaststroke? Backstroke? Butterfly? Freestyle is a given, it’s the easiest and swiftest stroke. But how should I challenge myself? If I’m not challenged, is it working? If I am, am I failing? If I fail, if I get sixth place out of six, why do they give me a ribbon? A light green ribbon, a mark of shame. A blue. A red. That’s what I want. Give it to me! God, make me faster! Make my arms longer, make my love thorough, make my wingspan outshine the length of my body! God, give me goggles that don’t fill up with water, give me goggles with tighter straps! God, give me flipper feet and paddle hands! God, make me lithe, lean, make me a dolphin, give me anything other than what I’ve got!

Charlie’s sport was not swimming—it was rugby. He did not balk at competitive non-drowning within the confines of disparately spaced water lanes. Rather, he embraced the breaking of his nose, the smashing-in of his face, the compaction of his vertebrae. He did not have time for worrying, or thinking. Where I second-guessed my hypotheses and wondered at the equations before me, he charged with refusal to calculate. And so our math began, jumbled from the very start.

We stepped in time through a wormhole in the middle of the middle-west, and we drifted nearly hand-in-hand toward London. We spotted it from where we slid, a small gray spot at the end of the line—a kingdom united, a Britain, great. The slopes of the wormhole made me queasy, but we drank champagne to ease our troubled minds. When we emerged, the surrounding people spoke a more attractive English. Before us lay a mélange of cobblestone walkways, Fleet Streets and Abbey Roads, a park and some palaces, feeding the birds for tuppence a bag, a Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, a large clock named Benjamin, a stone named Rosetta. Charlie, ever the textbook, informed me of why there are ravens all over the Tower of London. I cannot remember why, but I do remember that their wings were clipped. We ate Fish and Chips and drank good lagers. I was almost run over by several cars with oddly placed drivers’ seats. My shoe got stuck in the Gap in the Tube and as I wiggled free I cursed my lack of Minding It. Several large Londoners held open the closing doors; Charlie Breadmaker looked on, laughing.

It was a friendly town. A town grayed by cobbles and cloudy sky. And throughout our journey, from Notting Hill to Camden Town, Charlie avoided the equation. Here he was, the rugby-warrior afraid to press the issue, and here I was, the failed porpoise, ready to dive into the Thames in the name of our unsolved mysteries. I looked through the wormhole and saw London as the answer rather than the prologue to our impending great question: Is this a love that works? Has it ever, will it ever? Will presents derive from pasts and integrate into futures? We stepped into our foreign circumstance as foreigners to each other. We were strangers who had always eclipsed great distance. And now? Perhaps distance is not in the longitudes and latitudes, but in the vessels that cross them.

He pointed at the Rosetta Stone, there on its pedestal in the British Museum, an Egyptian fish-out-of-water, the word puzzle of the great scholars and thinkers. What were those Egyptians thinking? It’s all here on the Stone, vaguely translatable into British English terms and vocabularic flavours! Charlie pointed at it with a gesture that said “Exactly. The foundation of our existence. The first languages. Do you see the markings? Those markings equated their meaning with existing objects in life. The signifier-signified. The written word at its earliest known form.” I pointed at him with a gesture that said, “I can’t read it, and neither can you. And neither can we read each other.” From that moment, I realized we were not speaking the same language; the answers we sought were not born of the same question. I looked to London for the Truth about Charlie Breadmaker. And all I found was a constructed alternate reality for something coded, something unknown. It was an escape from the stuff that makes us, that made us, and that would ever make us thereafter.

We returned to New York and Nebraska a little more confused. Later, I learned that there was a reason behind Charlie Breadmaker’s avoidance of the great equation. He had, prior to our trip, fallen in love with another girl—a girl in the middle-west who wore his jackets and attended his games and did all the things an absent southwestern New York Transplant couldn’t do. She knew he went to London, but she didn’t know my name.

Maybe I was ready to ralph my traditional English Breakfast. Maybe. But I kept it in, O, I digested those beans on toast. I hunkered down, I carried the two and carried on with my life. Love is not the sum of hearts plus hands, but the product of the mind times the body, and that’s at its easiest, most simply derived. It’s a lot harder than that math; the hardest math is theoretical. Theory is a fancy word for guessing games, and Theorems are disproved time and time again. What is said on stone is debated for centuries. The world is flat until it is round, and people are the center of the universe until the universe revolves around the sun. And all becomes our collective past, all ceases to be. Eventually, the madness that defines us in time can be equated to DNE.

Charlie moved back a burner or two, but we remained (and remain) steadfast friends with a serious language barrier. Somehow, sometimes, it’s easier to talk about facts than past feelings. I continue with my calculations and my translations of numerical, symbolical equations into language I can more fully understand. I have oft wondered if Charlie’s Golden, Wheat-Cropped Heart was left behind in Lincoln when we jumped through the wormhole. I have since decided that hearts stay with people, but minds wander.

The Rosetta Stone is a stone on which language is divided into three types of script. One is Ancient Greek, one is Egyptian Hieroglyph, and one is simply called “demotic.” People like demotic the least because its name does not connote its origin. This is a drastic generalization on my part, but I like to know where things are from, because I think the place contributes largely to the formation of a person or notion steeped in culture or principle: Take Charlie Breadmaker, the Plainsian hunter and sometimes-man, with a vast expanse of a heart that runs wide over the emptiness and grabs at things it cannot hold. Take Jaclyn Backhaus, the desert mouse, a Lone Ranger with a heart that feeds on sunlight and survives on droughted water reserves. Take Mathematics, the universal language, the study of patterns and the oft-ill-fated testing of ways in which circumstances beget others. Take Love, the embittered source material for many poems, songs, and non-fiction articles with thinly-veiled pseudonymic antiheroes. And take London, just visible through that wormy escape-hatch, a grayed place across the sea where these things went once to meet.

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