The first time I found Arches was two years ago. I was excited about London back then. I fantasized about the sticky web of public transportation. I dreamed of the long journeys spent reading science fiction novels, scribbling love letters, people watching with ferocity. The unexpected intimacy that comes from smushing yourself up against a stranger, their stubble in your eye. I listened to Adele and called it a “case-study.” The city seemed so clean and fancy —bathrooms with plastic doors and locks, all glass airports, large roundabouts with no stop signs. Announcements sound in the underground stations warning people to “take care on the escalators” (so thoughtful).
The person I was falling in love with lived in London. We were young, with fresher scars and better boundaries. My second night in the city, we took MDMA and saw Mariah Carey live at the O2. Mariah was 46 in a silver sequin dress and still slaying it. Priscilla and I made out all night. I rode the underground the whole way back with lipstick smudges all over my face, as if I had eaten a pomegranate with my hands behind my back.
Back at home in the kitchen, we were both peaking in our separate neuroses—me, furiously compiling to-do lists on every spare piece of paper I could find, her, scraping candle wax off the kitchen floor with a butter knife on all fours. We filled up the tub with warm water and threw a pink bath bomb in. The glittering ball crumbled in our cupped palms and spilled out the edges like a living organism coming apart. Rose petals and Epsom salt unfurled into the pastel water swirling around our two newly bonded bodies.
Two years later, I’m sitting in The Arches Wine Bar on an ordinary night. It’s not snowing outside, but the wind will bite your face if you go out without a scarf. The old brick walls of the bar still crumble. The bartender’s platinum blonde pony-tail still swings. The French woman painted in her silver-blue gown on the tiles of the corner table still weeps. I don’t even drink wine, but somehow, I’ve got a glass of house red in front of me. It’s hard to say no to the servers; they are the type of women who chase men into the street for looking at them the wrong way.
I moved here for love. My partner and I have been together for about two years now. We are both foreigners to this country; she’s a Kiwi. We met at a Latin American restaurant in Oakland with pink walls and the best fish tacos you’ll ever taste. We are a good match for each other, and our relationship has been a careful, stressed-out, messy dance between borders. You never quite realize how straightforward it is to fall for someone of the same nationality as you, until you don’t.
My relationship with London is a bit more complicated now. I go to my first info session for my Creative Writing MA and Monica Germana, a young, polka-dotted professor with an eyebrow piercing, asks if I knew that the immigration centers near the airport are called detention centres? Have I ever seen the documentary on Netflix about the centre outside of Gatwick Airport? It’s just awful when you think about it.
I think about it. I think back to those immeasurable hours spent pacing and crying and not eating in the maze of holding rooms beneath the airport. The buzzing fluorescent lights. The thick plated window glass. The people curled up in balls trying to sleep on crooked lines of plastic folding chairs. I remember how thin yet enormous the line felt between ordering takeout on the couch with the person you love and having all your belongings stripped off you and placed in large plastic bags with colored tags.
Sometimes I walk through the underground stations—the labyrinth of Euston, the spiral descent of Goodge, the blunt edge of Mile End—and stare deep into the CCTV, searching for the eyes of a border officer tracking my movements. I still have the card they gave me at the Colnbrook Detention Centre tucked into my wallet. Now, every time I cross a border, my fear is a palpable fruit, fleshy and beating in my chest. Your relationship with a country changes after something like that.
When I finally got into the UK, my partner and I moved in together in a red brick flat in NW London, around the corner from Arches bar. It is the kind of apartment you’d imagine yourself living in if you had never moved to London. Arches is one of those bars that fills you with other people’s memories the minute you walk in. 80s ballads puff and shimmer out of the small speakers tucked up in the back corners, amongst the twinkling lamps and rusted kitchen appliances hanging from the ceiling. It’s tiny: the size of a double-wide trailer, max. That’s probably a very American way of describing size, but what can you expect. I was raised in a city with the best green chile you’ll ever taste, but I live in a country with a sky grey as steel.
Ride the silver snake of the Jubilee line to Swiss Cottage station. Walk down the hill too steep to skateboard on. You’ll pass the beige building on the right, where the second-story flat leaves the curtains open to brag about the size of their bookshelves. You’ll pass the Tesco Express on the left with the bored security guard checking Grindr behind the glass doors and the 24-hour ATM out front. Once you hit the roundabout, veer right towards Fairfax, towards the supermarkets and the corner stores with fruit ripe enough to steal. First, you’ll pass the luxury bathroom interior design shop (wouldn’t be London without one) with marbled sinks and stone blue bathtubs big enough to fit 4 drunken adults in on a Friday night. Everything in the shop costs half as much as a houseboat, but it’s easy to look and laugh at.
You’ll notice the ancient willow tree, older than any of your living ancestors, drooping its braided leaves in the center island as the traffic orbits around it. The tree looks dead, like a lot of things in this city, but it’s not. The men in the first two corner stores before Zara Cafe might harass you or wave, depending on the day. Somedays the way they harass you will be to wave, friendly at first, but then promptly followed by a wink and a quick up-down of the eyes. Best to avoid them all together, unless you need a few Anaheim peppers. The safer store is Fairprice Superstore, around the corner, up at the end of the block. The men who work there just sell you things you want to buy.
A stone’s throw from South Hampstead, Arches is nestled between two dry cleaners. When I walk by the shops, I have childish desires to hide between the crisp white dress shirts hanging in their ghostly shells, to feel the warm plastic brushing against my face and between my fingers and get drunk off the smell of fresh linen. Sometimes I stand outside of the dry cleaners and imagine being small enough to crawl inside the washing machine and never come out. Arches is the opposite of a dry cleaner: dark, red, soft, pulsing glow. It’s a dim, twinkling, fertile zone.
If the UK was even remotely close to a fault line that could shake out an earthquake, this place would be the first to go. The room is a litany of lost things. Dragonfly Tiffany lampshades dangling from the ceiling above the tiny black staircase. Cobwebs crawling up the chains like algae from the bottom of the sea. Seventeen porcelain light fixtures scattered across the room speckled with bits of warm orange peel. Empty wine bottles line every ledge not filled with bowler hats or rusty trumpets, mason jars or cookie jars, whole shelves of pre-war toys. Tall red candles jut out of orifices with waxy waterfalls splashing down. Each candle wears at least a decade of wax frozen into lumpy bulbous skirts, fit for Victorian queens. Old photographs of men with well-manicured mustaches hang from the wall. The ceiling is made of collectable stalagmites: copper saucepans big enough to bathe babies in, blackened kettles and gas lanterns, thin violins and black-haired dolls with missing limbs.
The clientele are 80% men while the staff is 100% women. You might catch a rare glimpse of the woman who runs it if you walk by before 12 on a weekday or 10 on a Saturday. Once, I saw her step out of a taxi in a bright orange wool coat and six-inch heels. Her hair was a curtain of black ice cutting the afternoon in half. Her thick liquid eyeliner moves up instead of out. Even without the heels, she is taller than me and she knows it.
The women who work here are all mid-30’s to 40’s English-as-a-second-language Eastern European no shit femmes. They have that high feminine power that takes your eyes and breaks them. They remind me of the Russian women I grew up with—my friends’ moms who tattooed on their eyeliner and owned more snakeskin heels than could fit in their condominium-sized closets. Working class women. Bright blonde hair with at least one butterfly tattoo type of women. Never leaving the house without a handbag type of women. The type of women who buy watches and cufflinks for their boyfriends and count the number of times he wears them.
Seasons in London are measured in greyscale. In the winter, babies have sleeping bags built into their strollers. The night tube is an intoxicated circus. Southerners yell extra loud when they are drunk because it might be the only chance they get to actually say what they mean. Craft beer is expensive, wine is cheap. Clean clothes always get a bit crunchy when you hang them out to dry. The city was built when people were smaller and shorter. The weather is shit, the streets are hectic, and houseboats may be the only sliver of romance left in this city, but I would spend another night in a room with no windows just to be here with the person I love.
mud howard is a non-binary trans writer from the States. they write about queer intimacy, interior worlds and the cosmic joke of gender. you can find more of their published work here.