This follows on from Twenty-One, and before that, Twenty, and before that, Nineteen, and before that, Seventeen & Eighteen, and before that, Sixteen, and before that, Fourteen & Fifteen, and before that, Twelve & Thirteen, and before that, Eleven, and before that, Seven Through Ten, and before that, Zero Through Six.
2002, aged twenty-two: I am living in London by myself, in my last year of university. Living by myself suits me far more than I ever thought it would: the milk in the fridge is mine and only mine, and I never have to worry about someone else being in the shower when I need it. My flat is three floors up in a rickety birdcage elevator, and one evening I forget to shut the curtains before I fall asleep and a riotous dawn wakes me up by washing the whole of London in pinks and oranges, and I raise my groggy head from my pillow, incredulous at the city's silhouettes.
I throw parties that have the neighbors banging on the walls, and I spend whole weekends hunched over my computer writing essays on the topography of London in post-modern literature, leaving the flat only to buy a baguette from the bread shop across the street and a Sunday paper from the newsagent next door. Living alone, I think, I could get used to this. But Sean is all the way across the world in San Diego, and when he comes to visit, we go to the supermarket together like a normal couple, and drag my clothes to the laundromat in garbage bags, and paint my tiny kitchen yellow and my tiny bathroom a pale lavender, and I think I don't want to live alone. I want to live with him.
Spring comes and with it, my university finals, the most important exams of my life. My brain becomes a finely-tuned machine. I surprise myself with my focus, how hard I convince myself to work. Days I spend at the British Library, nights hunched over my living room table with a highlighter. Slowly, my kitchen cupboards get wall-papered with Post-It notes, quotes from Shakespeare overlapping with quotes from Elizabeth Bishop and Jack Kerouac and Mark Twain and George Eliot and Philip Larkin, and at night I dream in rhyming couplets, consumed with themes and motifs. I am focused on one thing and one thing only: to get a First. I have to get a First.
In the beginning, I think the pain is toothache. I go to the dentist, who sees nothing. The pain gets worse, and one Saturday morning, I take a break from my exam revision and walk the fifteen minutes to the emergency clinic and see a kindly gruff old doctor who prescribes me a course of antibiotics. The pain goes away for a week and then the pain comes back, and this time I run to the emergency clinic, the pain is that bad, and I get more antibiotics but the pain doesn't stop, the pain wakes me up at night, and again I go back to the dentist, who sees nothing.
I stop sleeping because the pain is so awful. It starts in my jaw and then it creeps around to my temple, my eye, my ear, my head, my neck, my back, my arm, and I go back to the kindly gruff old doctor, wait an hour to see him, but the kindly gruff old doctor isn't on duty today and instead I get a hard shiny penny of a woman, a brittle bitch in a black business suit who looks at me in disgust when I start to cry. The pain is just so bad, I tell her, and nothing's working, no-one knows what it is. She tells me it's my teeth, that I should go to the dentist. It's not my teeth, I sob, and then I tell her that I'm desperate, that I don't know what to do with myself, that sometimes the pain is so bad that all I want to do is jump out of my third-floor window to get it to stop. Make a dentist's appointment, she says, turning back to her paperwork. Nothing I can do to help.
I go home and I read more Shakespeare and I take as much ibuprofen as a person is legally allowed to take and one night, I wake up at 3am in so much pain, that I am convinced I'm going to die. I sit up in bed and I get the phone and I dial my parents' home number in Singapore and I think I give up. I am twenty-two and I am living alone in London and all I want at that very moment is my mother, and my mother says do you need me to come? do you want me to get on a plane? and I know I should say no, it's too far, it's too much money, it's a 14-hour flight, but I can't say no because all I want is someone to let me surrender, and so I surrender and I say yes.
Eventually, months later---after my exams are over, after I've stood in front of the bulletin board in the English department, bursting with joy over my First---I will see a doctor (a dentist, ironically) who diagnoses me with a chronic TMJ disorder, but no-one knows this yet, so for now my pain is just unnamed and insurmountable. Not even twenty-four hours after calling my mother in Singapore, I open the door of my apartment in London, and there she is, jetlagged and smiling and smelling of home, and all I can feel is the purest, deepest, most wonderful sense of relief.