“Even the simple act which we describe as 'seeing someone we know' is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.”
-- Marcel Proust, “Swann’s Way”
Mr. Hiram Pemberton has been my “escape” for the past few months. As I’ve written previously, Mr. Pemberton is my UK based pen pal I met through Craigslist. We’ve written each other daily; sharing our hopes, ideas, and advice. Though it was not planned when we started writing, he unexpectedly crossed the Atlantic on April 4 for a business trip, and landed in my town. For a few weeks, our meeting was the subject of every email.
I suggested that we meet in a touristy spot that he knew well (he lived in New York for a few years and worked in midtown). Rockefeller Center seemed ideal, since we’d mentioned it a few times in our emails back and forth. Me being a fan of very specific plans, I told him we’d meet behind the Titan Statue at the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink. 7:45 pm sharp.
The weather was not showing for us. By evening it rained hard and was chilly. I leaned on the railing that looked over into the Ice Skating rink and wondered which of the men walking around could be Mr. Pemberton. I never asked to see a photo, because in my eyes our conversation was motivated less on superficial qualities, but more on camaraderie. He had an idea of what I looked like from my blog photo, and I told him I’d be carrying a gray umbrella.
After a few minutes, a fellow a sauntered up to my side and smiled, and it was him! After a greeting,we decided to walk to drinks and then dinner. My first choice, Campbell Apartment, was busy (as always), so we went downstairs to Cipriani’s in the center of Grand Central Station. It was bright, quiet, and perfect for catching up on the last 24-hours that we hadn’t emailed each other. We each had my favorite: Heineken.
And in those moments Mr. Pemberton floated off the page, the words from emails becoming a voice, the letters of his words, the shapes in his pleasant face. The arch of e’s the squint of two blue eyes, the bottoms of b’s the curves of a smile with white teeth, and the tops of capital-Pemberton-P, the smooth head of his, round with a close shaved cut. And his voice, as he described it, could not be ever read through his words. It was perfectly British in every way.
The details of each other’s lives have been scattered over the hundreds of emails we’ve sent the past few months. So we had to rewind, retell, remind each other of the specifics. It was so nice to have an immediate exchange, to be able to follow up on the things he’d touched upon but never got to unpack.
He asked me about my weekend last weekend, specifically my visiting friends from Vegas, where he used to live. I told him I wanted to visit.
“I don’t know about that, it seems like Vegas might be crazy for you,” he said.
“You sound like my mom,” I scoffed.
“Ay, don’t go saying I sound like your mum,” he laughed.
We watched the commuters shuffling through Grand Central. He remarked that most train stations were not so pretty.
“Even Paddington?” I asked.
“Yes, but I come through Waterloo,” he said, referencing his commute.
“All British names are so pretty, I love them all,” I said, suddenly recalling my favorites. “Knightsbridge, Stratford-on-Avon, Dorset…”
“Windsor,” Mr. Pemberton said.
City names brought us to his “name.” Like all those mentioned on my blog, “Mr. Pemberton” is a fake surname. Unlike most people mentioned on this blog, Mr. Pemberton is actually is fond of his fake last name.
“In fact I’ve taken it for myself,” he said with a laugh. On the topic of this blog, Pem was highly complementary.
“Everyone says that I’m ‘such a good writer,’” I said to him, leaning in to reveal a big secret. “But, honestly, I’ve been blogging nearly every day since I turned fifteen, on various blogs that I kept then deleted. That’s nearly 15 years of writing every day. If you wrote every day for 15 years, you’d be good too.” (I am not the type of person that believes in “gifts” or divine talents being endowed upon a person from the heavens, but instead I believe in “skill” years of working, crafting, improving and dedication make a true talent.)
We finished our beers and rose to leave for dinner at Aureole. On the rainy walk west, Mr. Pemberton looked about himself and found the surroundings pleasing.
“I smiled when I landed in New York,” he said, “I suppose your London is my New York.”
The next morning, a walk in Central Park was planned.
Having spent the last weekend playing tour guide, I was still not caught up on sleep. At 12:30 I was late, and raced to Columbus Circle to meet Hiram. It was sunny, a touch chilly. On a walking path we sipped our coffee’s and people-watched. I told him that he should have a show where he narrates Central Park. Never had I noticed so many small things, and never had I noticed them through his dry, British humor.
We made it to the mall, and caught several street performers. Hiram mentioned the night before that he had a “silly little London thing” gift for me. On the benches he asked me to hold out my hand, and in it he dropped a key chain with three charms: a red double-decker bus, Big Ben and the British flag joined together by a little tag that said “London.”
“I love it,” I said. It was such a thoughtful surprise.
We continued our walk and took a turn in The Bramble (my favorite spot, despite the controversy). We marveled at a stream nestled in the forest, where a beautiful duck swam alone, and when he reached a cliff, stood up, jumped from one cliff to another, and began to swim again.
“He’s done this before,” Mr. Pemberton said.
After the park, he had interests in seeing the World Trade Center Memorial. We hopped on the A Train downtown and reached it but were in a time crunch. He had dinner with friends in a few hours, and I had a wine party to attend. We decided to skip straight to late lunch. We both ate burgers at The Odeon, followed by coffee at La Colombe. After telling Mr. Pemberton a few stories about funny, wild, friends in a row, he chuckled.
“I think it’s time you reevaluate those friends,” joked Pem.
“I like crazy people, they keep me entertained,” I smirked. “And anyways, you sound like my mom.”
“Ay, don’t go saying I sound like your mum.”
We parted ways and I wandered through Soho and went to my wine party. Pem wanted to meet at 9 am to try to line up for the Memorial again. But there was one flaw in his plan, his flight out on Sunday was earlier than he expected. We’d have to cut the day short and meet for breakfast only, and then he’d be off to Newark for his next business trip.
At 9 am we went back to our first meeting place, the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center, this time in the sunlight. He’d had a rousing night with friends, and I’d spent the night chatting with friends and drinking wine. We strolled down Fifth Avenue.
“I love New York like this,” I said, noting how quiet it was.
“Yes, it’s like having it to yourself,” he said. There was a diner he noticed that seemed busy enough to suggest that the food was good. We got a booth. It was a standard diner teeming with tourists. We discussed the next few weeks. He had more cities to hit for work, and I had some new life developments, and celebrations and events to attend.
“It’s the penultimate week for you,” he said.
After explaining he asked, “Do you know what a ‘fortnight’ is?”
“Yes. A fortnight is tomorrow,” I said.
“No,” laughed Mr. Pemberton. “It’s two weeks. See, I taught you some English.”
“In a millisecond you’ve managed to change every Shakespeare play I’ve ever known,” I said. But I was able to get him back by poking at his alarmingly large caffeine consumption. Three coffee refills in a thirty minute window, which made both of us laugh the fourth time a woman appeared with a hot carafe.
“Now they’re just making fun of me,” he laughed.
It was time for him to head to the airport, parting with him at the train station. On the ride home, I thought hard on how extraordinary it is to meet a pen pal. Then I decided that it is even more extraordinary to make a new friend.