The flight from New York to London is exactly long enough to get enough sleep as to be considered a night’s worth, and exactly short enough that this should be considered a travesty. I arrived at 9 am London time, better known as 4 am New York time, approximately 6.5 hours after I settled into seat, secured my neck pillow, sleeping mask and blanket---my arsenal of “I’m sleeping---don’t screw with me” devices. Zack met me at the airport with a rose, my name hand drawn on his phone. We picked our cat up at customs, where she was, if not content, remarkably nonplussed for having just crossed the Atlantic in a vibrating steel underbelly. We hopped in a black cab, which, because of the wondrous feats of British designs, fit all of us and my three bags nicely. (Fun fact: due to fold up chairs in the backseat area where I was storing my luggage, they all also are capable of carrying five people. Take note, NYC taxis.) We arrived at the flat Zack had found for us after three weeks of searching: a cheery, sunny two bedroom we’d be sharing with a PhD student in Kensington, an area you’d probably recognize from the quintessential, I’m-in-England montage in many movies. The streets were curved and lined with leafy trees; the houses a stately white, encircled with small wrought iron fences. It was, in a word, lovely. It was, in two words, too easy.
It was noon when disaster struck. In New York, people were just waking up, stretching their arms to the sky and inhaling the scent of coffee and street cleaners and the wisp of autumn that had recently begun to show itself. In London, Zack received a phone call. “It’s the letting agent,” he whispered to me after answering his phone. Zack had been subletting from the PhD student for the past week he’d been staying at the flat while waiting for the letting agent to call him back so we could officially sign the lease. I nodded and tried to keep my eyes open as Zack’s went wide. “What do you mean cats aren’t allowed?” he said. “I explicitly asked. I was told the landlord was 100% fine with that.” I looked at him questioningly and he held his pointer finger up. “The landlord doesn’t like men either?” Zack said into the phone. “Well, that’s just creepy.”
We had, we were told, 36 hours to remove ourselves from the flat before the landlord returned from his vacation, a trip to Poland taken out of the same fondness for Slavic women that caused him to ban Zack and others of his gender from the building. In New York, I would’ve been settling in front of my computer to read my favorite blogs before starting work, a full pot of tea and maybe a cat by my side. In London, Zack sighed and rubbed his temples. “Looks like we’re going apartment hunting,” he said. We are a couple with a cat. In the world of expensive, competitive apartment shares, we are what is considered “highly undesirable.” Like dating, highly undesirable is often met with highly undesirable. Any flat that looked halfway decent didn’t want us, leaving us with the kind of flat who might fart at dinner before ditching you with the check, the kind of flat that’s really hoping to make enough money playing the lottery to move out of his mom’s basement someday.
And then, as fate would have it, we hit the jackpot. On our way back from seeing a flat the size of a New York closet (and most New Yorkers don’t have a closet, so do that math) we walked by a place Zack had checked out the week before. The landlord was sitting on the stoop smoking cigarettes. An affable Greek immigrant named Chris who’d been married to his plump, baklava-pushing wife for thirty-five years, Zack and Chris had stayed on the stoop chatting for hours last time he visited the apartment. “Come in, come in!” Chris said. “I’ll take you and your girlfriend on a tour of the whole building, show you all of the renovations I’ve been doing.” The top flat, the one Zack had been previously looking at, wasn’t finished being renovated yet, but he showed us the rest of the flats, which became progressively nicer as you went down in the building. The final one had floor to ceiling windows, a balcony, hardwood floors, granite countertops. “Here’s the thing,” Chris said. “I have to be honest with you. Since Zack came to look before, I’ve decided to sell the building. So I can give you a flat, but it must only be for 2 months, until I sell. But if you choose to stay---I can give you this apartment at a discount, and you can move in tomorrow.”
Zack and I looked at each other. In my tired brain, I tried to calculate how much of a discount we would need to be able to afford the apartment. “Can you do half off?” Zack said.
Chris laughed. “You drive a hard bargain.” He shook his head and then reached his hand out for Zack to shake. “Welcome to the building.” In New York, it was those few early morning hours where the city is still as much as it can be, the streets silent and houses dark and sighing with sleep. In London, the world was waking up.