The pause button on my life was pressed by the UK Border Agency. Three months ago I applied for indefinite leave to remain here in the UK, where I have lived with my British partner for the past seven years. I have held, over the course of these years, a student visa, a post-study work visa, and an unmarried partner visa, and I am now, at last, eligible to apply to settle permanently.
The application process is like taking a leap of faith into an abyss. You take the “Life in the UK” test (“Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE? Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community”). You fill out a 50-page application form. You send a large envelope containing bank statements and pay slips and utility bills and your passport and, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, a photocopy of every enclosed document. You pay a £1,051 fee. And then you wait.
So I am waiting. A curt letter, sitting on my desk, informs me that until six months have elapsed I cannot inquire about the status of my application. I am advised not to make any travel plans. If I do need to travel, I can request that my passport be returned, but this comes at a price: my application will be voided, considered withdrawn.
This letter arrived three months ago, so I have at least another three months to go, and even then, what will I learn? If I ask about the status of my application in three months maybe they will say, we need more time. We don’t know how much more time. Maybe I will be in this state of not-knowing for months and months and months. For a year. For years, plural. It seems unlikely, but it’s possible, and in the extended meantime, I’m powerless.
Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and I think: what are you worried about? Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and think: but are you really worthy of this gift, this incredible freedom? The freedom of choice, of mobility. You have to be in a pretty privileged position even to be able to consider it an option. This uncomfortable period of powerlessness is actually a direct result of my privilege.
So am I worthy? Maybe this shouldn’t be about worth, but on paper it is: on paper it’s all about things like, do my partner and I earn enough money, do we have a strong enough grasp of the English language, do we have appropriate evidence of cohabitation, are we, in other words, the right sort of people? It makes my skin crawl, but in theory, yes, we are eligible, we are the right sort of people. It will take the UKBA however long it takes to come to this or to another conclusion. If their decision is in my favor, I will have indefinite leave to remain. A friend of mine finds this phrase hilarious. “Leave to remain?” he says. “Leave to remain! It doesn’t make sense!” He’s right: it doesn’t. Whenever I see the phrase written down now, I hear his voice in my head, and read the words as if they are an illogical command.
If the decision is not in my favor, then there is a great blank space where our future used to be. All of the assumptions we’ve made about our life – that we will settle here, buy a house here, start a family here, use this place as our base – will have to shift. At the moment those assumptions are greyed out, un-clickable, just out of reach, but I can still see their frail outlines.
The other morning I woke up early with a craving for mountains, for the kind of dramatic scenery that you don’t get in gentle green Oxfordshire: steep gradients, mist, isolated bodies of water, unstable footing, long, wearying hikes through rocky terrain. A wilder world. I remembered with strange tenderness trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains when I was in high school, drinking water acquired from streams and purified with foul-tasting iodine, enduring long, trudging ascents and descents with heavy backpacks. A few months ago my parents came to visit; one weekend we drove to Snowdonia, in northern Wales, where lakes and mountains and wind and swirling, ominous clouds are abundant. When I got back I kept saying how nice it had been to get some truly fresh air, to walk somewhere wild, but someone reminded me recently that there are no wild landscapes in Britain, that in one way or another everything has already been shaped by human hands, even those remote places that we claim are untouched. So many centuries of industry and agriculture have, she said, altered the ecology of the landscape. She was a scientist, the woman who told this to me, and confident in her condemnation of my blithe, poetic deployment of the word “wild”. There are no wild places on this island, she said. But it doesn’t make it any less beautiful.
It occurs to me now that another way of looking at it is that everywhere is wild; as Kathleen Jamie writes, reviewing Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, “a wild place is not necessarily landscape-sized, and not necessarily an adventure playground. A wild place can also be mouse or beetle-landscape sized, and everywhere, and near at hand…to give birth is to be in a wild place, so is to struggle with pneumonia. If you can look down a gryke, you can look down a microscope, and marvel at the wildness of the processes of our own bodies, the wildness of disease.”
I tell myself that I don’t need to leave Britain to find my wilder world. I focus on the mold in the grouting of the showers at the pool, consider the capabilities of my body, cycle a long loop around the city in the hottest part of the afternoon, through treeless neighborhoods full of houses clad in pebbledash, past hospitals and police stations and gyms, finding streets I never knew existed. One weekend, walking along the river, Xander and I are caught in a thunderstorm; we seek shelter under an awning. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen rain so heavy, or hail so huge in July, I tell him.
But still: the summer landscape here is undeniably domesticated, and when I woke at dawn yesterday and the last gust of nighttime wind was rasping and dying in the cherry trees and the neighbors’ cats were again at war in our garden, hissing and shrieking, and the sky was a washed-out blue, the city felt like a caged animal that had given up any hope of freedom, or never knew hope of freedom to begin with. At the pool I parked my bike and as I walked towards the entrance to the building I heard the crunch of gravel and dirt under my feet and it reminded me of the sound that my feet make on a trail. I want a trail to hike, I thought. I want to go somewhere with trails, not tame flat footpaths. I want to be elsewhere.
Waiting is always easy until it’s not: I’m in bed, asleep, dreaming, then suddenly awake, feeling sick with waiting; I’m in the pool, feeling good, light, full of energy as I swim my laps, then, out of nowhere, heavy with waiting. It changes the color of the night, the texture of the water.
When I parted with my passport three months ago I understood the implications. I knew there was no choice; I knew I was entering a waiting room, that in order for anything to be decided, I first had to sit awhile and be patient. I am not by nature very patient, however, and I’ve now become obsessed with the things we cannot do. We cannot make plans to visit my family, or to visit people we’ve been promising to visit, or to attend the wedding of friends getting married next month in France.
I worry particularly that some circumstance at home in California will force me to withdraw my application in order to be with my family; and then, I say to him, where will we be? Back to square one. Back to the very same place we were seven years ago: separated, figuratively if not literally, by an ocean, by the accident of our different birthplaces. I remember the beginning of our relationship, when things happened very fast – we met, got to know each other a little, and then spent several months living in different countries, trying to figure out a way forward. It hardly seems possible that the progress we’ve made since then could be erased so completely, with such disregard for the investments we’ve made, in both time and money, but there you are. I am, I have been, swimming – or struggling – upstream for the better part of a decade now, every few years applying for a new kind of visa, hoping and waiting, aware of how temporary my existence here might be. It’s easy to slip into the current and be carried away, far harder to push on.
When I got home from the pool yesterday, the sound of gravel crunching under my sandals still echoing in my ears, I looked up train fares to Scotland, which is, after all, not yet a separate country. I figured: take a train as far north as we can, rent a car, be somewhere new. I’ll drag us out for long hikes and he’ll pretend to resist but enjoy them anyway, it will rain mostly, the evenings will be long and light and full of fresh air and beer. The train fares weren’t as extortionate as I’d thought they might be. This was a plan! It felt good, even though money is tight right now and really I should spend the summer at home, at my desk, making up for lost time on my PhD. But after the initial fizz of excitement, I had to acknowledge that while Scotland itself wasn’t out of the question, there would be no car, no impulsive escape to the remotest parts of the country; Xander can’t drive, and without my passport as proof of identity I can’t rent a car. The whole thing felt like just another reminder that I’m simultaneously on the outside, kept at bay, and trapped on the inside, unable to get out. I belong to nowhere for the time being: I have no proof of belonging.
Perhaps this time, this freedom from belonging, is a gift, a reminder to live in the present, to enjoy what is rather than what could be, but it feels more like a trick, a bureaucratic trap straight from the pages of Catch 22, holding us in place. And as with the wild in the banal, which, when you’re at such close range all the time, is hard to understand, perhaps I’d appreciate the fact that I was floating if I could just see beyond the banks of the river.
I finished this essay last night. I felt better after writing it, not because my circumstances had changed but because I had finally identified and articulated the source of a bad feeling I’d had all week. All week I’d been frustrated and stuck; I couldn’t work, or plan ahead, or figure out what would help; every morning I got up as usual and went for a swim and felt like I was fighting the water, not moving through it. And when I started to write things down I thought: well, no wonder I feel that way.
This morning, there was a knock at the door. I went to answer it. A packet; sign for delivery. Our postman has been doing this beat for about as long as we’ve lived here. First initial? “It’s M, yeah?” he said, tapping away at his machine. “Ooh, it’s hot out today,” I said, scribbling an approximation of my name, feeling a soupy blast of air enter the air-conditioned house. “It sure is,” he said, sweating already.
In the packet: my passport, my original documents, and a letter informing me that my application for indefinite leave to remain has been approved. I felt a rush of relief, and a desire to Google flights to somewhere like Fez, just for the hell of it – but also something else: I felt the mundanity of it. This packet of paperwork represented permission to carry on with my unexceptional everyday life – to buy milk from the same corner shop and have the same dentist tell me to floss more often and look up at the same crack in the ceiling and think, yet again, I must call the plasterer. I think I felt the weight of it then, too. Our future was still hazy, but here was one less excuse for inaction.
In the afternoon, I go for a swim. It’s busy in the changing room and as I am washing my hair the lady next to me strikes up a conversation. It’s amicable, comfortable, makes me feel part of something: like a lot of the women here, I see her most mornings, though I don’t know her name, or anything much about her. We talk about the weather (of course we do: what else!).
“I’ve never worn so many summer clothes in one year!” she says.
“I’m from California,” I tell her. “I’ve been here for seven years and this is certainly the hottest I can remember it being. I feel right at home.”
She asks me if I’m here permanently, then. The timing of this question, this conversation, does not escape my notice. I guess I am, I say. I guess I am: indefinitely.