“You, me, and the lights of London.”
The line was coined by one of my favorite characters, John Bentall, from Alistar MacLean’s The Black Shrike. It was said to his MI6 partner Marie, whom he was developing feelings for during a high-stakes mission. It was a hope for the future, a spoken promise of returning home, and being together, which became a running line throughout the novel. She is eventually blown up with the enemy, but nonetheless, this phrase became intertwined with my high school sweetheart, who introduced me to this book.
With neither of us having been to London or ever admiring the city lights from anywhere, really, since we grew up in darkened cornfields, it resonated like John Bentall’s empty sentiment of it.
And yet, not long after we broke up because I was leaving for college, the words rang true.
One of the main reasons Bloomington-Normal, Illinois is tied to my heartstrings is because it was the first city I made my own.
I’m an independent person, bordering on an almost criminal sense of solitude. I’ll do anything by myself and I don’t need the adoration or permission from others. I’d be just fine on a deserted island.
In high school, I drove through BloNo on my inaugural road trip to Decatur. Going there, I took the I-55 bypass; coming home, right as the sun was setting, I took US 51 – the main drag through town. Like seeing a handsome guy from across the room, this city gave me a head nod as I passed Illinois State University’s campus.
Through a series of unfortunate events which can be directly sourced from my low ACT score, I ended up in college at ISU because I had a bank account, a pulse, and an acceptance letter into my field of study.
Yet when I arrived, I couldn’t wait to explore.
My independent streak had never been tested, growing up in a very strict household where I didn’t have a car. Instead of going hog wild like my floor mates, I lived the sober life and leaned in to what would be my life thesis: to live well mixed with adventure.
Every Friday night I explored one campus building I had never been in. It became a tradition until I had the entire university mapped out in my head. I quickly figured out the city bus system to get to the mall in Bloomington. I had never ridden a city bus in my life. Looking back, it’s almost comical how I had no idea what to do; I watched what others did and pretended I knew what was happening.
I explored on foot into the sleepy downtown (or “uptown” as the locals say) Normal — I still have the Indian blanket I bought at the local head shop (I had no idea what that was at the time). I rented movies from the Movie Fan, watched old and independent films at The Normal Theater, and was a card-carrying member of The Normal Public Library. Years later, I’d get my first tattoo and body piercing here as well. The Coffeehouse became a constant in my life; I fully intend to return there and finish my novel with an iced mocha on stand-by.
Yet, the lights still found me.
It’s difficult to find solitude in a dormitory, but I managed.
I lived in Manchester Hall, on the east side of campus. It’s an 18 story building, a practical skyscraper from the rural farm fields I was raised in. I lived on the third floor with a unexciting view the dining commons. But one night, bored and in need of an adventure, I walked up the flights of stairs to Manchester 18: the top floor. Two graduate student apartments were there, the rest of it was a quiet lounge, no one ventured up here. Hallways with fluorescent lighting and full length windows lined the perimeter, giving me a panoramic view. The north side gave a dim view of more farm fields and Interstates 39 and 55.
The south side however, gave a spectacular view of Bloomington – big city lights as far as I was concerned. Mesmerized by the view, I used to come up here whenever I was in need of some peace and gaze out at the sprawling city. I would come up here to write, to dream, to lose myself in the bustling glow of Bloomington.
It could have been London for all knew. I’d never had this bird’s eye view, well above the trees, and I was captivated.
I was able to pick out landmarks like the large radio tower that marked the gateway into downtown, which had a big city feel compared to the small town feel of Normal. But mostly, I was there for the glow of the lights. I know now that Bloomington, Illinois is rather small. With my limited world experience at the time, I was looking at a metropolis. “Has it always been this small?” I asked a friend as we were driving through a few years ago, struck at how quickly we crossed town, as I had always recalled it was bigger. “Yes, Sim, it’s always been this size.”
I never expected to be the one who changed.
I’ve seen London at night. I’ve seen Paris at night, which now sings to my heart as Bloomington once did. Last time I was on campus, I was locked out of Manchester Hall – I couldn’t get through the front doors, let alone the unlocked front staircase – even though I longed for another glimpse of that Bloomington view.
Perhaps in the future, I’ll be able to log into a camera and see those lights in real time again.
Or better yet, grab my laptop, a chair, and prop my feet on the vents under the windows and write my heart out as the lights of BloNo burn through the night – just as I did so many decades ago.