Just before the first roundabout on the road between Headington and Oxford, there’s a tiny take-out restaurant called Rachel’s. It’s cash-only and mostly sells coffees to commuters waiting at the Oxford-St. Clements bus stop, or at least it did when I was a twice (and occasionally more than that)-a-week regular in the fall of 2016. I was studying abroad at Oxford University and always backtracked up St. Clements Street after my British history lectures and ordered the same thing: a can of Coke and two chicken baozi from the steam-clouded warmer on the counter filled with Chinese baked goods.
As in most European restaurants, you had to ask for ice in your drink and I did. The guy behind the counter very obligingly freed several chunks from the bag they used to keep their freezer extra cool, and eventually I didn’t have to ask anymore. The staff would begin reaching for a glass and the ice pick as soon as I walked in the door. They were mostly students, both from Oxford Uni and its slightly-less-acclaimed-but-similarly-named cousin up the road, plus a middle-aged Asian man whose family owned the place. The students were genteel and politely interested in me on account of my accent, and he was the quiet sort of person who communicates mostly nods of various degrees and speeds. I don’t think he ever spoke to me, except once.
On that particular day, I had woken up after three hours of sleep, having spent the night before five hours ahead of EST and telling myself things like “I’ll go to bed once she wins a swing state.” I rolled into the crisp English autumn and decided to go to my British history lecture anyway, because what else was I supposed to do? I don’t remember the bike ride to the Oxford University Examination Schools, but I do remember cautiously bewildered laughter that greeted the lecturer’s comment about shock and awe and “any Americans in the room.”
Afterward, desperate for routine and char siu and high fructose corn syrup, I rode the two minutes to Rachel’s. Bereft of other dine-in customers (as usual), the owner nodded hello as I entered, reaching for a glass. I retrieved a can of Coke from the cooler and as I set it on the counter, he looked me in the eye for the first time ever and said, “How are you doing, today?”
Later, one of my British friends would tell me that it was like “when your mum tells you not to do something because your little brother will imitate you. Once we voted for Brexit, America had to do it.” A shoe salesman would tell a member of my cohort that he likes Americans because “you do whatever you want. You elect Donald Trump!” The professor in charge of my primary tutorial would, in what conservative pundits would later call “a total snowflake move,” offer to move back the due date on that week’s essay. On Thursday, that same tutor and I would sit over matching copies of my paper on references to Le Morte d’Arthur in That Hideous Strength and not talk about C.S. Lewis at all. As I stood to leave, she would tell me that if I ever wanted to meet up for “a coffee and a bitch,” I should let her know.
Later, I would watch the inauguration speech on my phone in the CFAC Auditorium, waiting for the start of the January Series feeling the words “America first” descend like consecutive hammer blows. I would shut my mouth and nod when a relative told me that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t be so pleased with how America was doing the last few years, but things were turning a corner, now. I would watch as wave of indignation after indignation eroded through the shoreline of our public decency and national morality.
Later, I would commit to never going public with my political views. It would come to conflict too much with my dedication to a career as a professional hedger. It would be much easier to ensure conflict avoidance if I let people assume things about me instead of actually committing to them. I’m a Christian. I’m not. I’m straight. I’m queer. I’m conservative. I’m liberal. I’m like you, so like me.
Later, I would realize that I don’t have Katie’s angry eloquence. I don’t have Josh’s satirical flair. I don’t have Ben’s well-researched fear. I don’t have other Josh’s ability to simultaneously escape from and engage with politics. All I have is a New York Times subscription and a whole lot of Protestant guilt, and I think I’m approaching the point where Jesus spits me out of his mouth.
But I didn’t know any of that standing in Rachel’s in 2016. So, with all the eloquence of my English major and enough foresight to see that the worst was yet to come but not enough to see how bad the worst would be, I said, “You know, I’m not doing that great.” And then I sat in the window seat and cried into a pair of baozi.