English as a Second Language
In this wickedly funny first novel—think Legally Blonde in Oxford—a young New York woman exchanges her corporate job for a year of books, blokes, beers, and new best friends in graduate school in England.
Alexandra Brennan is fed up with her dead end New York City job—and even more fed up of running into her smug ex-boyfriend. So when he crosses the line by telling her that she’ll never get into graduate school in the United Kingdom, that’s precisely what she does.
Armed with imported cigarettes and extra strength coffee, Alex leaves home and crosses the Atlantic to face all that Great Britain and grad school have to offer, including ill-considered romantic interludes, a red-headed nemesis with intellectual pretensions and ulterior motives, a preponderance of Eighties music, and more books than she can possibly read in a year. What she discovers, however, is that instead of running away from home– she may have actually found it.
With a cheeky sense of humor and terrific cast of characters, ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE is a funny and irreverent novel about a young woman’s misadventures on the path to adulthood.
English as a Second Language
I decided to go to England because of a guy. Pathetic but true. Not just any guy, but an ex-boyfriend. An ex-boyfriend I had, on more than one occasion, vowed never to think of again.
It’s amazing what jet lag can do.
I spent my first night as a graduate student in England not engaged in intellectual pursuits but whacking my elbows into the wall. Repeatedly. I was used to sprawling across the queen-sized bed which had taken up most of the space in my New York apartment, an apartment which seemed vast and extravagant in comparison to my new home. New York seemed very far away. New York was very far away.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, after finally giving up on a laughable attempt to sleep in my economy seat, I had had a flash of inspiration. Graduate school, I decided, was an excellent opportunity for a social experiment. No one in England knew me, and I could therefore be the easygoing, happy-go-lucky creature I’d always assumed I would have been without the disruption of a hideous adolescence and a claustrophobic collegiate environment. I could just relax and be Happy Graduate School Me, or at least that was my plan.
The plane landed and the rest of my first day as an ex-pat went by in a blur. I lugged my baggage through Customs and Immigration, and then on to various trains which sped through a rain-soaked country I was too exhausted to properly appreciate. I did get the impression of many, many fields in more shades of green than I’d known existed. The university campus which was to be my new home sat a good mile or two outside the walls of an enchanting medieval city, filled with twisting little cobbled streets and buildings dating from the Middle Ages and before. From the enclosing walls to the towering cathedral, it was a charming, delightful place.
My university accommodation, in contrast, was in a squat little block of concrete housing even farther out than the sprawling concrete main campus. It was, I was informed upon my arrival, about a thirty minute walk to the city from my house. So much for that whole, “located in the dynamic and ancient city” thing in the brochure. Happy Graduate School Me was looking more like Aesthetically Traumatized Me, but I tried to rally. What this meant was that I hid in my room until dark, and then fell asleep.
I sat up in my tiny cot and looked around my tiny room. It was just slightly bigger than a jail cell. Not that I had any first hand experience with jail cells. The grey morning light from the single window only highlighted the fact that the room was a perfect square. One wall had a built-in desk space with two shelves, a woefully inadequate wardrobe, and a sink. I was overly-impressed with the sink, as if having only part of a private bathroom made the whole place somehow luxurious. I had one surprisingly comfortable chair and one less comfortable desk chair, a telephone which didn’t allow for outgoing calls without a telephone account, a small cubby which could function as a bedside table, and the reasonably comfortable if frighteningly small single bed.
The day outside was rainy and cold. Welcome to England, I thought. I was still exhausted, my elbows were bruised, and I was stranded in a foreign country, away from everyone I had ever known. I sank back into my little cot and pulled my comforter up around my ears. Happy Graduate School Me seemed like a fantasy, one right up there with International Rock Star Me.
Why had I thought this was a good idea?
This is what happened.
Evan was a nice, cheerful Midwesterner, who had looked around after graduating from some tiny Michigan college and decided just like that to move to the Big Apple. He made it sound like he’d endured an epic journey, which I imagine it would be, but that’s only because my geography gets fuzzy between Philadelphia and LA.
When I met Evan he was cheerfully working in his marketing job—not a sentence you often read. But it was true. He was a happy guy. Evan was like some kind of big, brawny breath of fresh air.
“Does he speak?” Michael asked archly the first time I paraded him in front of my friends, while Evan and I were in our strange almost-dating phase, which involved nightly phone calls but as yet no kissing.
“He doesn’t feel the need to try and impress people with his rapier wit,” I retorted defensively. “If that’s what you mean.” We both looked down the bar to where Evan was leaning, smiling that calm, genial smile of his and not even attempting to intrude on the conversations swirling around him.
“Alex, sweetheart,” Michael said gently, “he’s not really your type.”
But I knew better. Evan was a real man, I thought.
My first clue to the contrary was his troubling virginity, at twenty-six years of age. Evan was not just a virgin, he was essentially untouched. Think about the ramifications of that. He was in love by the second date and rarely out of my studio apartment thereafter.
My second, more alarming clue was the discovery that he cribbed entire lines of conversation from sitcoms. It turned out Evan didn’t actually have a sense of humor, he borrowed other people’s.
Not that it was all his fault. It just got to the point where the very thought of him made me physically sick to my stomach. This was about two months into the relationship, which had included a terrible Valentine’s Day I was still too embarrassed to discuss. (Here’s a hint: what happens if those racy suggestions in magazines fail?) So I dumped him. This was a new experience for me, having spent most of my romantic life as the dumpee, on those occasions the men in my life actually bothered to dump me before a) disappearing or b) taking up publicly with someone else. Since there was no way to really bust out and tell someone they made you cringe and you found them revolting, I opted for the failsafe “it’s me” explanation with Evan.
I should have just gone with the basics. It’s not you, it’s me. Let him work out the details. Most Top 40 songs exist to help with this very situation. But, naturally, I had to give it my own special spin. I put on quite a performance. I confessed that I was fucked in the head over my tragic past (about which he knew nothing, of course, because it’s not like we talked outside of sitcom re-creations), I was insane, I required therapy, I needed to be alone. It seemed the best way. Until I kept running into him that whole spring and summer and he would ask me in an overly solicitous voice how I was.
Not, “How are you, Alex,” like a normal person upon encountering someone you didn’t really wish to see, and speaking to them just to establish the fact that you were not avoiding them.
Evan went with:
“How are you—”
Pause. Deep, meaningful look, scanning my expression for signs of the internal struggle.
Evan had gotten decidedly less cheerful after two months with me, and could therefore infuse that simple question with whole paragraphs of resentment and hurt. He looked at me like I’d just escaped from the nearest mental asylum. Like I was the crazy woman I’d told him I was.
“Who the hell hears some lame excuse about a mental breakdown, which is obviously just someone trying to be nice while breaking up with someone else, and believes it?” I demanded of my friends. Robin smirked and settled back into the chair she and her boyfriend Zack were sharing, despite the heat and humidity of the June evening.
“Evan, of course.” She exhaled a crisp stream of smoke and shrugged. “Like that’s a big surprise. The guy’s a dork.”
Zack and Robin had been together only a few months, but he was already savvy enough to keep out of any conversation that involved that much gesticulating with lit cigarettes. He only shrugged when I glared in his direction.
“And,” Michael added wickedly from the other side of the table, “you did, after all, deflower him.”
Some months later, I was engaged in a run of the mill existential crisis over my life. Or, to be more precise, my stunning lack thereof. Oh sure, I had friends, but everything else just sucked. I hadn’t had so much as a fleeting crush on anyone in ages, and the longer Evan remained my Most Recent Ex, the more convinced I was that he was somehow hexing my future chances. More to the point, there was my “career.”
I had been working as a paralegal at Smug, Loaded, Mean and Corporate since graduation, which was just over three years behind me that fall. It was fine, as far as dead end jobs went. Every year there was a new crop of bright young college graduates, most of whom were spending a year or two toiling for demanding and horrible lawyers as a stepping stone to their own careers as slave drivers of the same ilk. I had figured out pretty quickly that I wanted no part of law school, or, for that matter, lawyers of any kind. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do instead.
I was no one’s idea of an exemplary employee. Six months into my first job and I was less than impressed with the whole “work for a living” deal. I hated the hours, the drudgery, the having to be nice to people you disliked. You could say I had an attitude problem, one that did not go unnoticed by my supervisors.
I was floating a handful of boring cases, and tried to pretend that they filled my days, but this wasn’t true. My supervisor trolled the halls for evidence of slackers and caught me out one time too many. She sat me down and told me that it was time to shape up, and as punishment she sent me to Jay Feldstein, the high king of assholes in a firm boasting a roster of hundreds.
No one ever pretended it was anything but a punishment. In return, I didn’t pretend to misunderstand the truth: they were giving me to Jay to run me out of there.
Unluckily for them, he liked me.
Jay Feldstein took over my life. I became, for all intents and purposes, his property. I worked only on his cases, subject only to his mercurial moods and unreasonable demands. The most immediate benefit of this was it made me untouchable as far as my supervisors were concerned. Unfortunately, it also meant I had to field Jay’s phone calls night and day, be available round the clock, and jump when he bellowed. And the man did a lot of bellowing.
After two and half years of his shit, I was well beyond burned out and into a whole different realm. Cue the existential panic.
“Evan is not hexing you,” Zack assured me around his drink one October night as I was bemoaning my singlehood while dodging calls from Jay on my cell phone. “Why are we still talking about that guy?”
“Maybe it’s not such a shock that you haven’t been doing so well in the romantic department,” Robin offered, watching my phone vibrate across the table top as if performing an electronic belly dance for the overflowing ashtray. “For all intents and purposes, Jay is the man in your life.”
A wake up call if ever there was one.
Except—wake up and do what? All I knew was what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to stay in the mess and mayhem that was New York. I loved New York, don’t get me wrong. I thought everyone should be lucky enough to live there at one point or another, but you could definitely stay too long. Something happened after too many years in New York: you curdled, or maybe it was just the last dregs of your optimism drying up, and then the next thing you knew you were a forty two year old “career woman” too mean to even bother with cats.
But I didn’t know where I wanted to go. Or what I wanted to do when I got there. I had dreams, but they were vague things with no real substance. I wanted to be famous, or really rich, or wildly successful, but that was as far as the dream went. My whole life was fill-in-the-blank.
It was coming up on Thanksgiving when I ran into Evan in a bar I would have told you was far too cool for the likes of him, something Michael was quick to reiterate. This was due to Evan’s mild yet pervasive homophobia, and Michael’s avowedly fragile loser threshold. Nonetheless, I was feeling like a beacon of friendship—the result, no doubt, of tequila.
Poor Evan, I actually thought, as I unwound my scarf from my neck.
“You look good,” I said. This was technically true, given what he had to work with. He still repulsed me. It was unimaginable that I had ever allowed him to touch me. I could tell that Michael was entertaining much the same thought.
“I feel good,” Evan said, as if agreeing. “You look tired.”
“Work,” I said lightly, shrugging.
Over Evan’s shoulder, Michael was rolling his eyes. You look tired?! he mouthed. I ignored him.
“I thought you wanted to quit?” Evan asked, in a tone that suggested I had lied to him and he was on to me.
“I don’t know,” I said breezily. “I’m thinking I might go to graduate school.” I hadn’t thought much about graduate school one way or the other, but Evan had always been intimidated by the college I’d gone to, so why not attempt to be intellectually superior?
“Huh,” he said. “Graduate school. Where?”
“Who knows?” I asked grandly. Robin and Zack, who refused on principle to speak to Evan, were off down the bar trying to con free cocktails from Nigel, the British bartender of indeterminate sexual orientation. “I’m thinking about Oxford,” I drawled, aiming for blasé. “In England,” I added, as if I didn’t expect him to recognize the name.
And Evan laughed.
Evan, who had attended an unknown college somewhere in backwater Michigan and found tabloids intellectually challenging, laughed. He tilted back his great big dork head and let out a hoot of laughter. Derisive laughter, it goes without saying.
“What?” I said then, edgily, my eyes narrow. I felt like punching him. Michael pursed his lips as his eyebrows inched even higher.
“Like you could get into Oxford,” Evan said dismissively.
Which was how I decided, right then and there, that I would.