When I was a self-serious child of ten or eleven I believed that novels were largely about the weather. In a fit of ambition I would start The Rainbow or Lord Jim, books I carried around school in the hopes that someone might ask me what I was reading, and which perhaps I thought would inaugurate my career as, what, a grown-up? A thinker? I’m not sure. Every one of them opened with the same thwarting descent of description: It was an unusually hot March evening in upper Cornwall; the rain in Burma had been going for days; the clouds lowered over the moor. The first eighty pages of A Passage to India are a description of some caves. I’m pulling that number from memory, so it may be inexact, if anything too low, but the point stands.
I suspected that in the end humans would walk into this weather—I remember feeling a spark of excitement when a “cart” threatened to provide me with some in Return of the Native—but I attached no special primacy to them. I rarely made it further than six or seven paragraphs into any of those books, which left my illusions about their nature intact. Finally when I was twelve some intelligent adult—likely my mother—got it over with and gave me The Catcher in the Rye, and I found the same banal and vibrant sanities everyone does in that book.
Really, those novels were right, however: There are times in life when the weather and the landscape seem suddenly as if they’re for you alone, and for a moment there’s a novelistic pressure, an interiority, to gazing out through a window at the snow, or the sun.
I’m thinking of the late August afternoon when I was supposed to leave New York for England. It was uncommonly cold for the month, and there was a heavy rain, the kind of day that reminds you, oh, of course, the other seasons are coming soon.
“Are you hungry?” Alison asked.
I shook my head. “Not especially.”
“Come on, we’re forgetting something. You had pizza last night, we got soup from Veselka. What else are you going to miss?”
“Well, you.” My tone had it both ways, mocking this kind of straightforward tenderness and taking credit for it, too.
She rolled her eyes. “My hero.”
We were in the living room of our apartment on Horatio Street. Its estranging collocation of familiar objects—its picture frames, its hanging garden of pots, its chromatically organized bookshelves—seemed so much like a vision of life to me, now that I was leaving.
“I should go soon anyway. I have to check all these bags.”
“Okay.” She stood up, her long brown hair falling down her shoulders. There was a tangle of silver necklaces spilling in and out of the top of her shirt, and her sweet, intelligent face—prone to worry—was drawn inward with concentration. “Last check, then. You have the bag of medicines I packed for you.”
“And you have a sweater handy in case it’s cold when you get in.”
I pointed toward the largest suitcase. “Yep.”
“And do you have a book?”
“The Captive Mind, it’s sitting right in the outer pocket of the blue bag. With my headphones. And the sweater.”
“And that bag of pretzels I got you for a snack?”
“And that bag of pretzels you got me for a snack.”
“And your passport.”
I felt my eyes widen. “Oh, no.”
She smiled to acknowledge the joke, and then when my face didn’t change her expression grew uncertain. “Wait, are you kidding?”
I stood up, my ears hot, my face tingling. “I didn’t even think about it.”
“Where did you leave it after you got your visa?”
“Seriously, I don’t know.”
We spent the next fifteen minutes rifling through our uncluttered apartment like thieves. I inspected every pile of paper I could find, old bills, Christmas cards, making no effort to reassemble them before I moved on. How long did it take to get a passport? Or could Alison’s dad get me a temporary one, good for a week or two until she could find mine and overnight it to England?
I was in the bedroom, sifting through our drawers of clothes, mine empty now, when I heard her call out. “I found it.”
“Oh God, thank fuck.” I ran to the living room, where she held the passport up in triumph. “Is that definitely it?”
“Yeah, it was next to mine. From Montreal in July.”
I took it and flipped to my picture to make sure. “Jesus. Thank you.”
I looked around. “The apartment is a disaster. I should clean.”
She looked at her watch. “No, no, you don’t have time. I’ll tidy it up when you’re gone.”
“Thanks, babe.” I put the passport in my pocket, a stiff, awkward panel of hide. “Should we go downstairs?”
“Just come lie with me for a minute first, would you?”
We went into the bedroom. She kicked off her shoes and slipped herself into the sheets, and as I followed her in she pulled me close, her encircling arms a loose, too loose, fortification, the walls of a city anybody could get into or out of. “A whole year,” she murmured after a minute.
“It’s not even that long.”
I loved her more than I had in months, months. Our breath began to even out, the silence of the battering rain. I looked at the bedroom, gray in the unlit afternoon, at the cheerful battalion of photographs of us along her dresser, and next to them at her perfume bottles, clustered in their leather tray. The quiet disloyalty of objects. How serious it is to be young!
It seemed impossible that the next morning I wouldn’t blunder sleepily out of that bed, that it would be elsewhere, in different time.
Alison and I had first lain together this way four years before, during college. We had been on a few dates already, but there was still a formal element to our conversations, even our kisses. One Saturday my friends Geoff, Ben, and I spent a few hours throwing a football to each other on Old Campus. We stopped as it began to get dark, and even though I was hot and dusty I decided to drop by her room; I hadn’t been there yet. She lived in Connecticut Hall, a building made of that salmon-white brick common to all of the remaining colonial houses in New England, on the third floor.
She answered the door in a hoodie and navy shorts, with YALE written in white along the hem on her left thigh. “Hey,” she said and looked past me up and down the hallway, as if I might be part of a group. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I just wanted to say hi.”
She looked puzzled for another instant, but then her face opened with comprehension. “Oh, good, sure. Come in. I was watching TV.”
We sat on her bed to watch together. I fell asleep right away. I remember briefly waking, feeling cold and shifting my weight into her body. Her hand was stroking my head, and her neck, where my face was buried, was warm and fragrant and sleepy, like a hayfield at the end of summer.
Now, essentially for the first time since then, our two bodies would be apart, we would be apart. She looked at me. “Are you sure I can’t come to the airport?” she said.
“No, no, go to the fund-raiser.”
“Okay.” She looked at her watch. “You should leave, you’ll never be able to get a cab in this weather.”
In fact I got a cab immediately, my day’s travel misfortune already allotted to the passport scare, and we loaded my bags into the trunk and the backseat.
“Look out for some treats,” she said. “They might be squashed, I guess.”
I smiled. Whenever I went on trips alone I would find things that she had tucked into my luggage, magazines, Snickers bars. “Thanks.”
She gave me a kiss. “I’ll see you soon.”
“In a month. It’s practically tomorrow.”
I got into the cab. She was standing with her arms folded, watching me, from the dry of the awning. I got out and gave her a last kiss on the cheek, and she smiled and squeezed my hand. Then I left.
Right then I wanted what we all want: both things; to leave and to stay at the same time. I looked through the window at the wet-blurred taillights of the cabs around me, their brightness an increasing proportion of everything visible out in the world. I remembered that day in college, how after we woke up Alison and I had spent half an hour making a poster to welcome Bill Clinton to a meeting. We both belonged to the lower reaches of the upper reaches of the byzantine bureaucracy that ran the Yale Democrats. That was how we’d met.
“What should I put?” she asked, sitting cross-legged, marker in hand, hair back in a ponytail.
“I would avoid mentioning blow jobs.”
“What about kneepads? Or impeachment? Or Ken Starr? Or Whitewater?”
“Maybe impeachment if you have a good joke.”
“No, come on, what should I put?”
“Hm. Maybe something about Bulldogs? Go Bulldogs? Bulldogs for Bill?”
“I think I’m going to draw some bunting and write just ‘Welcome Home,’ in big letters,” she said. “I think he’ll appreciate that.”
“It’ll definitely come in handy the next time you go to a rally in Arkansas.”
“He went to school here. That’s like a home.”
As the cab moved north toward the Midtown Tunnel, I opened the outer pocket of my suitcase to fetch my book and came across a bag of Twizzlers, which had been on Alison’s list of the foods they didn’t have in England. I opened it and ate one and thought of that phrase, That’s like a home. I had reached the age by then, twenty-five, when I had finally stopped believing, in some illogical and hopeful chamber of my heart, that one day we might all gather up our things, reassemble, my friends and I, Alison, and go back to school again together. Yet here I was, returning in a way. Without them, fine; but without her, that seemed unkind.
* * *
My first exchange with an English person was at Immigration.
“Didn’t bring anything dangerous or alive, did you now?”
I laughed. “I don’t think so.”
He gave me a sharp look. “What’s that?”
He looked down at my immigration card. “Says here you’re going up to uni, then? English literature?”
He said these last two words as if they were individually irreproachable but hilariously stupid side by side. “Yes, sir.”
He stamped my passport. “Well, you’re not so clever yet.”
Not much later I was on the train to Oxford. It was a bright day, and from the window I gazed at the distant concavities of the landscape, the green swales that dipped away from the tracks and then rose in steep hills to meet the afternoon light. Intermittently I dozed, with the heavy wakefulness of the overnight traveler. Finally in the last half hour of the trip I got some real rest, and woke only when an old woman pushing a cart came through the train. I bought a cup of coffee from her.
When we arrived I took a cab to my new college, Fleet; at Oxford every student belongs both to the university and to one of its forty constituent colleges, each its own dominion upon a few acres, with its own library, its own bar, its own chapel. From the cobblestone lane outside the college I looked up and saw its high white spires, and through the tall, black-iron gates a stretch of green grass. I would wait to look around, I thought.
Instead I fetched my room key from the porters, a group of men in bowler hats and gray wool suits. The porters’ lodge lay just inside the gates. (“Cheek,” said one of them lazily when he had to leave his tea to help me.) From there I turned right down a lane just near the gates and found myself at the Cottages, a row of twelve brick houses, haphazardly rife with ivy, where Fleet’s graduate students lived. It was also the corridor that connected the college to the center of the city.
My house was the third to last, with a flagstone courtyard before it and a long, slender garden full of fading trees behind. At the door I staggered to a standstill under my bags, panting slightly, then with a last great crash went inside and let everything drop off my shoulders in the entryway. Above me, halfway up the stairs, was another student.
“You look as if you’ve been on a death march,” he said.
He smiled, and we met on the second step to shake hands. “I’m Tom Raleigh. If you’re William Baker you’re room four, next to me. Anyway I don’t imagine you’re Anil Gupta, in room two, or Margo Peabody, room one. Let me take some of those bags.”
Tom was English, tall, thin, and pale, with freckles and bright red lips. Looking at him for the first time I saw a trace of privately educated cruelty in his heavy-eyed expression, of wishes met, small worlds conquered. He picked up three of my bags, and I hauled the rest up the stairs behind him. On the second floor were two doors, and through his I could see half-unpacked boxes and a squat refrigerator. “My sister dropped me off this morning,” he said. We stopped in front of the heavy oak door just next to his, which was mine. My name was printed on it in gold leaf.
He put down my things. “Get settled, then knock on my door for a beer if you like. My sister also filled my fridge before she left.”
“Thanks, I will.”
He hesitated and then grinned. “Americans everywhere,” he said. “That’s Oxford now, I suppose.”
I closed the door behind me and called my mother. “Hey, it’s me. I made it.”
“Oh, my God!”
“I’m in my room, just got here.”
“I can’t believe you live in another country! What is it like? What can you see?”
“It’s not bad.” I looked around. “There’s a fireplace, but it has a radiator in it. I have a couple of windows, so I can see the yard. Wait, if I lean out—I’m leaning out, and I can see the back lawns of Fleet. Just like that picture I showed you online, only they look bigger.”
“I can’t believe you’re there! Is it beautiful?”
“I haven’t seen much.”
“Can you get the Times?”
“It’s England, not North Korea.”
“Do you want me to send it to you?”
“Please don’t be ridiculous.”
“I can’t believe you’re in England! What did Alison say?”
“I’m about to call her.”
After we hung up I lumped down into one of the armchairs by the window—I couldn’t face unpacking—and looked out.
I had a strange, displaced feeling, heightened by fatigue. It was a mystery to me how I had come to be here. Not practically—after my last job ended I had sent in an application, a late one, but I was so settled in New York that it had never seemed likely to come to anything. A number of events in the year that preceded my arrival in Oxford had pushed me toward a change, but I might as easily have gone to Shanghai or Bermuda.
It was true that I had never felt more at home anywhere than college, and that I missed it. Oxford, specifically, was linked in my mind with a peculiar blended sense of peace and grandeur. I had a weakness for that. This was my first time in England, but it was a country, dangerously, that I had loved for much of my life, especially during the unhappy and turbulent days of my childhood, when I devised a kind of imaginative home there without ever having been, based on the books to which I exiled myself: Sherlock Holmes, Kenneth Grahame, C. S. Lewis. Why had they once made me so happy, I wondered? The calm, the civility, the safety, I suppose—lengthening shadows on the cricket pitch, tea at five—all of it foolish. There’s no lasting safety to life. The only thing that will become of anyone is death. Yet: I felt an exhaling happiness to gaze out at the English sunlight, the English trees. Soon enough I fell asleep again.
* * *
There was a knock on the door thirty or forty minutes later. It was Tom. He took the other armchair, and for a while we talked, feet up on the windowsill. He asked if I had looked through college yet.
“No, have you?”
He shook his head. “Not in years. My sister was at Fleet. My father was at Magdalen, and I remember that better.”
“Where did you go?”
“LSE. I haven’t been in Oxford for ages. Shall we go see it, do you think? It’s fucking hideous, I bet, but I’m sure the porters will show us around.”
Three porters were sitting in the lodge. They looked at us so dourly, as if we, the students, were the only blemish on their otherwise perfect happiness—which may well have been true—that I suspected the sign posted by the window that read ASK US FOR A TOUR! to be insincere.
“We were thinking about a tour of the college.”
“JERRY!” they roared in unison.
“Bloody hell,” said Tom.
The head porter pointed to a door at the far end of the lodge. “Jerry’ll show you about. He likes ’em, the tours. I can’t be asked personally.”
Expectantly we looked at the door, and after a moment an immensely dignified figure, not above five foot three, stepped through it. He had dark gray hair, a paunch under his college-crested blue sweater and college-crested blue button-down, and glasses that made him look like an owl.
“Tour?” he asked in a voice full of hope.
“These lads want to see the college,” said one of the porters.
“This way, this way, this way,” said Jerry, walking through the door to Fleet’s high front gate. “Tour begins now. Only two of you? Good, excellent, I like a smaller group.”
These were the only complete thoughts that Jerry spoke. The rest of the tour he conducted in a single chattering run-on sentence, unpunctuated and unceasing, stylistically similar to Finnegans Wake but without that book’s charm of comprehensibility.
Still, it was very beautiful—that half hour of a late Oxford afternoon when the harsh white light of midday and the melancholy pink of evening merge and everything turns gold, soft and dim, generous, coloring the city’s high towers at a slant.
Fleet is a modestly venerable place. The first Oxford colleges came into existence when the university did, just before 1300, and Fleet was four hundred years younger than they were, respectably old but not ancient. (This is within the hierarchy of the colleges, among whom to have been established after the United States achieved independence from Great Britain is considered gravely humiliating.) Like most colleges it was divided into irregular quads, circumscribed by high buildings. First Quad, or “Firsts,” as Jerry denominated it, was directly through the high archway that led into college from the street, a rectangle of shaved grass looped with a slender stone path. Opposite was a bell tower. Like all of the other buildings in college it was made of the same honey-colored stone as Parliament, with the same intricate filigreed stonework, and like Parliament, indeed like all the buildings of the college, the bell tower seemed to bear in its beauty and mass a strange immunity to life, to time.
“… oldest gargoyles and grotesques in Oxford, dating to the foundation of Fleet and the construction of the tower, now if you’ll follow me here you’ll see on either side of the First Quadrangle two three-story dormitories, same quarrystone as the chapel and the dining hall, keep up, keep up, Fleet’s first master was a gentleman named Merryweather, known abuser of opium—thought he saw unicorns flying over the Radcliffe Camera—quite inappropriate—wholly inappropriate—entirely impossible, of course—a brilliant linguist, however—portrait in the hall—”
Continuing to speak the whole while, Jerry trotted us briskly through Firsts, into the dorms and the bell tower, up to the top, and back down again. (“Bells, bells, wonderful bells,” was his full gloss when we reached the pinnacle of the tower. Though he did tell us as we descended that several people had jumped from the tower and died over the years. “Fantastic,” said Tom.) Then he took us through a narrow corridor at the back of Firsts, paneled with the names of the war dead and lit with old black hanging lanterns, into the Second Quad—Anna’s.
It was a hexagonal stone courtyard, not very large, without any grass. Ringed around the hexagon was a row of medieval houses, overgrown with rose bushes, that Fleet had bought with its first endowment and turned into the library. Over their roofs we could see all the dreaming spires of Oxford, ranged together for a quarter mile. There was a dusky hush in that small courtyard, a silence through which even Jerry’s voice couldn’t break, really. It seemed deeply romantic to me. What fools Americans can be for England.
“… named for Queen Anne, as no doubt you know, this way to Third Quad, mustn’t linger, Queen Anne founded the college in 1702, portrait of her you’ll see in dining hall, now Fleet has graduated four Nobel laureates, try not to let the side down, lads, ha, ha, four Nobel laureates, two in physics, one in medicine, one in literature, this way, through the gate, should have had at least one in peace if you ask me, several of the young gentlemen I’ve seen have done quite a lot more than their bit for peace, but you have to ask the fellows in Stockholm about it—now—this way—through the gate, as I said—come along.”
“What do you think we should do tonight?” Tom whispered. Jerry had put ten feet between us with his short-striding canter. “We could try to scare up one or two other people from the Cottages”—the other arriving graduate students—“and then drag them over to the Turtle.”
He looked at me wide-eyed. “Shocking cultural ignorance.”
“What is it?”
“The big nightclub down in the city. Horribly dodgy. I bet Anil Gupta knows all about it.”
“… Third Quad, our newest addition here at Fleet, contains the preponderance of our dormitories—sleeping halls—halls of residence—”
Third was unspectacular, but it had one great virtue: the Fleet Tavern. Because the drinking age in England is eighteen, not twenty-one, every college at Oxford had its own bar. The consequences of having regular access to a bar in my dorm at Yale would have been catastrophic, but then drinking is different for American students, who are always on a desperate hunt for extralegal means of getting drunk and when they find alcohol drink it as quickly as possible, so it can’t be taken away from them.
“Will the bar be open?” I asked Tom in a low voice, seeing the sign.
“I shouldn’t think so. The undergrads don’t come till next week. They’re meant to be the best bops in Oxford, Fleet’s. After St. John’s maybe.”
“Bops” were what Oxford called dance parties. “Is the bar just for the undergrads?”
“No, no, but it’s mostly undergrads that go there. A lot of graduate students here never come out of their rooms.”
As it happened, though, the bar was open. Jerry showed us inside. Through the wide doors that covered one wall of the room I glimpsed the lawns behind the college. It was these for which Fleet was most famous; most colleges had just such long, manicured stretches of grass, but Fleet’s, lying against the river, were the largest and best-situated. We didn’t go out, that evening, and I wouldn’t see the lawns, or Sophie, for another two days.
“… and that, I think you’ll agree, gentlemen, was a thorough tour of Fleet College. Welcome. I’ll leave you here for your pint of beer.”
* * *
Other than the bartender, who was smoking a cigarette by the jukebox, flipping through it with a look of moralizing distaste on his face, the bar was empty. He was a big guy with black hair down to his shoulders, glasses, and a soft, affable countenance. His name was Jem, we would find out later. We bought two pints of Carlsberg from him and took them to the other end of the room to play a strange version of pool with wooden dowels sticking out of the table, which Tom told me was called bar billiards.
I found it easy to talk to him, perhaps especially after the shared comic formality of the tour, and as night fell outside we had a long unforced conversation. At first it was about neutral subjects, sports and travel especially. (He had spent the year since his graduation from LSE traveling through Asia. “Mostly sex tourism,” he said and laughed at his own joke.) He had an ambling way of walking around the pool table, a boyishness left intact by going away to school—I recognized it. Gradually we began to ask each other more personal questions. I told him about Alison. He’d had a girlfriend until recently, too, Daisy.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She dumped me. She wanted me to stay in London.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s for the best.”
“We’re only an hour from London by train.”
He laughed. “She isn’t very bright.”
His course at Oxford—that was the term for any degree program—was the Bachelor of Civil Law. He had studied law as an undergraduate and had a job waiting for him at Freshfields at the end of the year, one of the Magic Circle firms, which made his course ornamental, a distinguished but inessential garland. Really it was a tactic to delay the start of his career for another year.
I perceived at some point in those first few hours of our acquaintance—later in the year, when I was better attuned to British mores, it wouldn’t have taken me as long—that he belonged to the upper classes. His accent should have alerted me immediately, with its long vowels and back-of-the-throat intonation, but really it was his reference to Ascot (“Daisy and I got hammered at Ascot last year, it was lovely, we snogged in one of the private boxes all afternoon and shook hands with Prince Philip, the old racist”) that signaled it first.
Tom grew up in South Kensington. His father was a banker who belonged to a landless cadet branch of a ducal family, and his mother was first cousin to a Sussex title. She did administrative work for this cousin’s land-mine charity two days a week. They were both formal people, Tories, with clear ideas of their responsibilities. They sent Tom to Westminster when he was eight; his older sister, Katie, to Roedean. Their small assertions of class—his father’s membership in a Northumberland hunt, his mother’s activities at the National Portrait Gallery, their Vizslas—were conscious, I think, rather than reflexive. To nearly everyone they seemed an exalted family; to those whose opinion genuinely mattered to them, however, merely a decent one.
Tom, too, was a terrible snob. As a carbuncular he had been to the Ritz and the Savoy for coming-out balls, served as a page at one or two demi-royal functions, and rowed for his school. There is nobody as hopelessly vulgar as a British aristocrat, and he bore their customary equipment, the signet ring, the diamond tie pin, the colorful handkerchiefs, the Toryism, the rah. He openly looked down on me for being American—“News from the colonies?” he asked when I got mail—but that was nothing to his scorn for the people of his own country whom he believed to be fraudulently claiming a connection to his class. These were the rugby-obsessed MPSIAers—Minor public school, I’m afraid—and Brookes frauds, pretending they were entitled to their signet rings, the Sloane Rangers, the affected Barbour “northerners” who implied a great deal of land somewhere the other side of Yorkshire. Like all authentic snobbery—backed by public affirmation, by heritage—it was disagreeable and also cunningly pleasant, an occasional remoteness that made his friendship seem more valuable. It also made it all the stranger when he picked the person he did to fall in love with.
This account of his life—his account, Westminster, LSE, Thailand, Oxford, the City—makes it sound perfectly ordered. Indeed until five years earlier it had been that way. Then it had changed.
The house he grew up in was at the center of a long row of identical alabaster town houses, divided by hedges. There were two family dogs, Charger and Sandy, and one day he arrived home from school to find them out on the sidewalk, sniffing at a hedge.
He called them, and they ran to heel—well-trained animals—and went up the steps to his house, number seventeen, with him. It was then that he noticed the door was open and began to feel a sense of panic. He called out to see if anybody was home—his father’s car wasn’t in its spot, but that was usual enough—and his sister came to the door, flanked by two police officers. There were tears on her face. “What happened?” he asked. (They had always been close—one of the first things he told me as we played pool was that they talked every day still, though she was in Syria, working for the government, and I remembered that she was the one who had dropped him here at Fleet.) One of the officers put a hand on his shoulder and told him then that his parents had been in a crash with a food delivery truck on the M4. His father had died immediately. His mother had lasted fifty minutes.
For all the time we spent living side by side—and soon we were good friends, even best friends—I wouldn’t know any of this if it weren’t for two conversations. The second happened later in the year, when he was drunk and told me the story from start to finish. The first was that first day, when he told me the following.
After the funeral he and Katie had written thank-you notes to all the relatives who had been there. They had a great-uncle in an assisted-living home in Devon, who was unable to come to London, but who had written them an e-mail. It said, “Your father was a fine chap, so sorry he’s died, LOL, Uncle Arthur.” They responded without acknowledging the strange sign-off, and after that begin to get a series of similar terse, lunatic messages, laughing at the horrors of the world: “Doris in the next room died, LOL, Uncle Arthur.” “Kidney bad again, may need surgery, LOL, Uncle Arthur.” “Still missing your father, LOL, Uncle Arthur.”
Tom was smiling as he told me this—and in retrospect it’s amazing that he told me it at all, so soon after we met, unless he was trying to get it out of the way that he was, as he jokingly said, an orphan, like Oliver Twist—but I didn’t understand.
“What the hell did he mean?”
“Some idiot at the home, the person who taught him how to use the computer, told him it meant ‘lots of love.’”
* * *
Tom wanted to go out, but I was too tired—tomorrow, I said. We walked back through Fleet together, but as I turned out of college toward our house he pulled his phone from his pocket and looked up, restless, and said good-bye, that he thought he’d walk around a bit. I went up to my room and started to make my bed.
When that was done, I called Alison. “Hey, it’s me.”
I could picture her in underwear and a tank top, cross-legged at the center of our bed, biting her bottom lip, her eyes bright and brown and expressive. Then I realized that no, of course she would be at work. The time difference.
It’s hard to describe someone you know as well as I know her. She grew up in New Canaan, new money, and had a tendency to be cliquish, bossy, and unreflective, traits that four years in politics had only sharpened but that vanished when you knew her well enough. I thought primarily of her consideration, her love, and that we felt matched.
“I made it,” I said.
“Your mom called me, yeah.”
She sounded mad. “I tried you before, right when I got here.”
That was a lie. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I don’t have a missed call from you.”
“Maybe check again?”
“No, it doesn’t matter. How is it?”
“Okay. I’m really tired. I met a guy in my dorm and we got some beers, but I think it was a mistake to drink.”
“Can you get The New York Times?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“You get moody if you don’t read it in the mornings.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. It sucks.”
Then—it’s a fault of mine, an eagerness to conciliate, to please—I said, “Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe I should just come back.”
To my surprise, she was the one who said, this time, “It’s only a year.”
“You’re right. One year.”
“By the way, did you see the Gallup they just released?”
“You know I can’t get the Times here.”
She laughed. “Asshole. No, it was like forty minutes ago.”
“What are the numbers?”
“They’re good. Look them up. My dad is saying he could get us both on McCormack, if you came back. Back to Ohio.”
I ignored that. “You’re ready to leave the congressman already?”
“You know me. I like the trail best. Anyway, a moron could write up these press releases on school outreach.”
“But you get to deal with the reporters. You like that.”
After John Kerry lost the election—and we both lost our jobs—she had decided to stay in politics. She was tougher than I was about it. She wanted to keep on fighting, the next campaign, the next candidate, fuck the world. In any campaign they say that you need your volunteers to drink the Kool-Aid, so they’ll still knock on doors when it’s ten below or lend their spare bedroom to a junior pollster who can’t find a hotel room—but that’s the volunteers. I was on the senior staff and I was still drinking the Kool-Aid, which was a mistake. Alison believed in the cause, in the big picture, and she hated George Bush. It’s different to fight against something than to fight for something, though. I believed in our guy, Kerry. Worse than that, I really, sincerely believed he was going to win. I was certain. Right until the last people in Ohio voted.
We talked for an hour. She had been crying almost every day before I left, but now she seemed okay. When we hung up I thought of the evening before, the sky that heartbreaking lavender of late twilight in the summer in New York, when even as I had waved good-bye to her for the last time, stepping into my taxi, my other hand had been reaching into my pocket to check that my passport was still there.
Then, though, I thought I was safe, for some reason I couldn’t discern the conversation took on a sullen edge. When I asked what was wrong she said nothing was wrong. I pressed her.
Finally she answered. “I just don’t understand why you left.”
“Jesus, this again.”
“Yep, this again.”
“What’s changed since the start of this conversation, Al?”
I knew the answer—she could be lulled into forgetting that anything was amiss, but when she remembered she was angrier than before. “It would be one thing if you had invited me to come with you.”
“What would you have done over here?”
“Whatever I wanted if I had time to plan for it.”
“So you would have given up your job?”
“Of course! Are you insane?”
“You’re lucky you have that job, Alison, my dad isn’t even—”
“Oh, here we go. Boo-hoo. The world revolves around Will.”
“Don’t be a jerk.”
She laughed. “Me? Is that right? Because the way I seem to remember it is that you left without giving me any warning, and you totally fucked up my life and barely said sorry and now you’re acting, acting aggrieved, because I’m upset about it, as if I did something wrong by not liking that you—”
“It’s time to get over it.” After that there was a long pause, tense with fury, and I knew I had made a mistake—but I didn’t care.
She started to shout, and slowly it became all of the arguments we’d already fought out, the old injustices brought forth like a peddler’s goods, the trip I’d once cancelled at the last minute, the high school boyfriend with whom she exchanged birthday phone calls. Finally she hung up on me, but I called her back over and over until she answered, with a hiss, “My secretary can see you’re calling, we’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Do you think I give a shit about your secretary?”
She hung up again. I called her, angry, again and again. Soon both of her lines went straight to voice mail.
I sat still for a minute, phone in hand. Then I dragged myself upright to unpack my clothes and find a T-shirt to sleep in. I wrote an e-mail to a list of friends, telling them I had arrived. When all that was done I went over to the window and sat down again, feeling unrepentant. Because I had heard that staying up late was the key to getting over jet lag, I forced myself to stay awake. It’s a kind of madness. Soon enough loneliness crept in; I began to picture our apartment, warm and well lit, but who cares, I didn’t care, I was here. In the end I fell asleep in one of the armchairs, the windows cracked open, the night air still warm even as it drizzled, and the small boats clicking against each other in the river: one of those times when the uneven, discarded sounds of the world outside remind you that the world doesn’t care, and the comfort of that feeling.
* * *
When I woke up late the next morning, I felt better for sleeping, and remorseful. It was too early in the States now to call, but I sent Alison an e-mail apologizing—not just for the argument but for leaving.
After that I went through the nonsense necessities of entering any institution: enrolled officially, claimed my student ID, confirmed my arrival with the English Department. Then I had to register my passport at the office of the provost and promise not to blow up anything in England, and between that and the immigration desk at Heathrow I was half convinced myself that I had designed complex plans to level the British Museum and only failed to carry them out through sheer forgetfulness.
Still, the charm of being somewhere new lived on. It had been too long since I experienced the self-distancing happiness of a new city. For lunch I found a pub, which I never visited once afterward but seemed to me then perfect. While I ate I read through the newspapers I’d bought that morning—The Sun, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times—and tried to puzzle out who David Blunkett was, or why people hated the Chelsea Football Club. After I had eaten I left and took a wandering walk through the city.
It was what I had hoped it would be. Savvier Americans than me have a costume-drama dream of England, and now here I was, turning each corner to find myself in an alley barely wider than my body, and it would be called Logic Lane or Magpie Lane and look as if it hadn’t changed since Disraeli was prime minister and we still had Burma. Nearly every building was made of the same golden-white stone as Fleet, reaching high into the air above the low, shingled roofs of the shops. There was Tom Tower as I walked down Cornmarket Street, and the deer park near Magdalen Bridge. I stood in the tranquil, muting stone courtyard of the Bodleian, with its carved walls flying up high around me. Americans go to Oxford and Cambridge—but especially Oxford, I think—with an idea of it. I did, anyway. It didn’t fail my expectations.
As the sun was falling I returned to my room, happy. I went to my computer to check whether Alison had written back. She hadn’t. I wrote again, more plaintively, faintly angry.
When I had been back for a few minutes I heard Tom’s voice on the stairs. I looked out of my room and saw him with what looked like an Indian teenager, short, smooth-faced, covered in gold rings and chains. He wore rimless glasses.
Tom introduced us. “Hey, Will, this is Anil Gupta. Anil, this is Will Baker, our housemate, the one I was telling you about.”
“Good to meet you,” I said.
“What’s up,” said Anil, giving me a wide smile and a multistep handshake in which I attempted to participate. “How goes, how goes,” he said when it was done.
Even though Anil dressed and spoke like Jay-Z, his accent was perfect BBC, educated India. He never turned his “er” into an “a”—it was always “player” or “gangster” exactly. I think it took away from his credibility as a member of the underground hip-hop community. So probably did the fact that he was studying applied economics.
“Welcome,” I said.
“Is it true you’re from New York?” he asked.
“I am. What about you?”
“The very elites of Mumbai.” Neither Tom nor I knew how to respond to this. Anil rode the pause before saying, “So, do you gents like rap music?”
“Some of it,” I answered.
“Hate it,” Tom said cheerfully. “Will, listen. We’re going out tonight, and our new housemate wants to come along. What do you think, is he in?”
“For sure,” I said.
So at eight o’clock we went to the Fleet Tavern. This time there were two people there. One was Jem, the bartender, wearing a Stiff Little Fingers T-shirt, smoking and staring at the jukebox again. He greeted us and went around the bar to pour pints.
The other person there was new: an Asian girl with pink and black hair, a half-visible tattoo sneaking below the sleeve of her T-shirt. She had huge breasts. Her iPod headphones were in, and she was reading a textbook.
“Hey!” Anil called out immediately and walked toward her.
“Oh no,” said Tom.
“What are you reading?” asked Anil.
She removed one of her earbuds, and we could hear what sounded like electronica to me. “What?”
“What are you reading?”
“An essay about pluripotent stem cells.”
“Doesn’t sound very interesting,” Anil said doubtfully.
“Well, I finished Harry Potter.”
“Do you want a drink?” Anil asked, but she said she was okay. She started to read again.
“Are you a new grad student?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, eyes still on her book.
We waited for a minute. Behind the bar, Jem was grinning at us. He gave an exaggerated thumbs-up. “Well, hope to see you around,” I said.
No answer. “Is it too soon to tell her that I want to spend the rest of our lives together?” asked Tom as we left the table.
We played bar billiards and spent several rounds of drinks—orange juice for Anil—glancing constantly and covertly in her direction. She never looked up from her textbook.
Surprisingly early Jem called out for last orders. I went up with my empty glass. “Last call at nine thirty-seven?” I asked.
“Fleet time,” he said, shrugging.
He looked at me with new interest. “Oh, are you a new student, then? I figured you were just one of the graduate students I never saw during term. I’m Jem.” We shook hands. He had a thick midlands accent. “I’m a third year. Undergrad.”
“Yeah, the bar doesn’t usually close till midnight, but before term we only keep it open from five to ten for you lot. I’m the manager, actually. It’s good fun. There are about ten of us who bartend.”
“No, all undergrads.”
“You should think about hiring a graduate student. It might get more people to come here.”
He laughed. “You asking for a job?”
I hadn’t been really, but suddenly it seemed like it could be fun, and I said, “Sure, if you have one open.”
“I’ll let you know.” He lit a cigarette and took a sip of his own pint. “What are you here to study?”
“Oh, classics. I work on Sallust these days.”
“Are you going to be a classicist?”
“Fuck all, hopefully. I wouldn’t mind traveling. Probably a banker.”
He grinned. “Me.”
“So what is Fleet time?”
“It’s a college joke. You’ll start hearing it if you pay attention. Fleet’s pretty relaxed, you’ll find, compared to Merton or somewhere swotty like that, and if you’re a bit late or early you just say, ‘Well, Fleet time,’ and it’s a big laugh. You can even say it at a tutorial once or twice a year. I use it as an excuse to close early.” He smiled, cigarette hanging loose in the corner of his mouth, his glasses slipping down. “Nice to meet you, though.”
I went back and played a last game of pool with Anil and Tom while Jem closed up. When I had finished my beer Tom said, with a look of resignation, “To bed for you?”
I said no, that I felt energized and awake, and immediately he brightened. “The Turtle?”
“Why not,” I said. “Anil?”
“This is a nightclub?”
“Then I am coming. We must invite our new friend, too,” he said and went straight up to the girl with her textbook. To Anil’s genuine surprise she declined his invitation. Tom gave her a hesitant, unacknowledged wave good-bye, and we left.
As we passed the Cottages I asked them if we could stop so that I could send an e-mail. Really I wanted to check, though. There was still no word from Alison. Fuck her, then, I thought, and ran back outside to meet up with my housemates.
* * *
The Turtle didn’t look like much from the outside: a stairwell leading down to a basement; a few loud girls troubling the alley upstairs, smoking and arguing. There were two mountainous bouncers checking ID under a dim yellow streetlight. As far as I could tell they wore nothing but leather. They squeaked when they moved.
Tom was enthusiastic. “I haven’t been here since I was fifteen, but I loved it. Ungodly hot, of course, because it’s underground. They play great music, lots of eighties songs.”
“And hip-hop,” said Anil.
“I don’t think so.”
“None?” Tom shook his head, and Anil said, “That does not meet my definition of clubbing, friends.”
Tom laughed. “A thousand pardons.”
“They let you in when you were fifteen?” I asked.
“My sister found me a driving license.”
We made it past the leather twins and downstairs. At the front bar there were seven girls in short skirts, with a line of twenty-one shots in front of them. Tom went and took the menu from the end of the bar and said something to one of the girls.
“Orielgasms,” he reported when he returned. “Vodka and Midori.”
It turned out there was a shot named after every college, not just Oriel; Fleet’s was called the Golden Fleets, a rare literary allusion on that list, and it was made of Goldschläger and apple vodka. (The nectar of Hades! reported the menu excitedly.) We ordered three of them right away, of course. I drank two, because Anil didn’t want his.
Even sober Anil was confident about his appeal to women. Several times when I was speaking he would hold up a single finger, turn to a passing girl, and stare at her intensely. “Sowing seeds,” he would say after the girl had gone. Then there was his catchphrase, dashed liberally into his lectures about hip-hop and the elites of Mumbai: “Haters gonna hate.” It wasn’t clear that he perceived with any great depth of comprehension what the phrase actually meant, since he said it with a complete lack of contextual discrimination—he got it right occasionally, more often not. There was joy (“Have you ever been to London? I love that place! Haters gonna hate!”), there was disappointment (“I can’t believe that girl wouldn’t give me her number. Haters gonna hate.”), and there was occasionally even philosophy. (“We all get old some day, you know? Haters gonna hate.”)
The more we talked with Anil the more Tom and I seemed like old friends. He and I drank more than I usually would have, shots first, then a round of Vodka Red Bulls, then some more shots (house vodka only cost a quid, probably because it was literally toxic), then a round of Snakebites, then another round of shots, and pretty soon the world was blurry, and I kept ordering drinks, with a feeling of obscure revenge against Alison, and Anil seemed like the funniest man alive.
The Turtle was made up of seven or eight rooms that together formed a long, narrow, zigzagging corridor. (“No truth to the rumor that this was actually Hitler’s bunker,” said Tom at one point, with the air of someone repeating a joke they had once found incredibly funny.) Each room was different than the last, one all neon, one crowded with couches that smelled like pot. We moved from room to room, stopping to get drinks in each one.
By the time we reached the dance room, a long narrow cave toward the very back of the club, it was past one o’clock. We were shouting because of the noise, except Anil, who hadn’t had anything to drink and mistakenly thought that we could still hear his stories.
“DO YOU DANCE?” I yelled to him and Tom, interrupting a long description of the Gupta family’s rivalry with the Mauryans.
“YES!” Tom shouted, and Anil said, with becoming scorn, “OF COURSE I DO.”
“LET’S GO OUT THERE!”
“I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE!” said Anil, and I said, “NO, LET’S GO DANCE WITH SOME GIRLS!”
Once in a while dancing is immaculate, a perfection; you understand why raves exist: When you’ve timed the drinks correctly and they lift your mood and your energy, the songs are ones you all know, and you look around at the girls, their happy lost faces, their long earrings, something limbic, their skin just damp with sweat to the touch, the whole thing. That night I almost couldn’t take the joy of it. Tom and even Anil, too, looked gleeful. With Anil as our leader we moved among a few amorphous groups of girls, some of them interested, some not, until in one of them I came across Jess.
She was blond, not too tall, and very pretty, with an angled face; she was flushed with the exercise of dancing, her hair fixed back and high with a clip. We danced with her and her friends for a song, and then I started to dance just with her, though cautiously at the start, so that it never seemed exactly as if it was just the two of us; we remained part of the group, only on a longer and longer tether from them. She was a great dancer. Finally when a Daft Punk song came on her face lit up and she grabbed my hand, as if she couldn’t believe it, and after that just the two of us danced, the pretense of the group forgotten. Then at some point our faces brushed and we kissed.
How did it happen? I can’t remember. We didn’t stop and kiss exactly. We went on dancing, and even returned to our friends now and then. Then near three o’clock the songs slowed down, and she led me by the hand over to a wall, where we kissed—more deeply. Tom kept looking at us, but I ignored him. I remember thinking that I didn’t care, it wasn’t me, it was something else, and soon the sovereignty of my impulses grew confused and I started to think about Alison and Jess as the same person. We did a shot off of a tray from a roving waitress, and then Jess went to the bathroom and I was alone. I started to think about my father, how I had the same boring undistinguished decisive traumas as everyone else, and the delight of the people on the dance floor looked muted and far away. Then Jess came back with more drinks and kissed me, and the dark moment passed, the exhilaration returned. We went back out to dance. She was with four friends, all British like her. They had nothing to do with Oxford. Tom had his hand on one girl’s hip; I couldn’t say where Anil was. They greeted us with catcalls, and I smiled modestly, as if to convey that my conquest spoke for itself. Then Jess told them we were leaving and led me back through each of the rooms of the club and outside, where we hailed a cab.
* * *
Have I lost your sympathy? I lost my own, of course; almost immediately, but not in the cab on the way back to her apartment, not yet, I was still thinking about those e-mails. Then, too, it was the first time I had cheated on Alison, and simply to have a new body under my hands, new breasts, new skin, was overpowering. I don’t know. I don’t know what I was doing.
“Is this called pashing?” I asked her in the cab
She laughed into my neck. “You Americans. What are you, a student?”
Styudent. “I am. What about you?”
Again she laughed. I found her lightheartedness irresistible, after all the sheer emotion of the past few weeks with Alison. So little was at stake for once. “No, I’m not.”
She had a crowded flat that she shared with two other girls. “It’s ever so messy,” she said, “but then they’re still at the Turtle, so it’ll be quiet. Here, come on, this is my room.”
We fell onto the bed. It was cluttered with clothes and magazines and makeup, the usual magic of a girl’s room. She pushed them to the floor. There was the scent of her perfume in her hair as we kissed, and her breasts, which I could see the tops of in her scooped T-shirt, full and pinkish, looked beautiful. I put a hand to them.
“Mm,” she said and unloosed her bra.
I hadn’t realized how much I missed first hookups: when the awkwardness is pooled between you, something to laugh about together, that high school feeling of excitement and apprehension before routine and comfort set in. She pulled off my shirt and then hers and we kissed like that, both still in jeans and shoes, our naked chests together, giving each other goosebumps, nipples hardening as they brushed skin, all of it warm, all of it soft.
“Did you roofie me?” I asked after a while.
She laughed and pushed me onto the bed. “You’re cheeky.” Then she straddled me, kissing my neck and my lips, her back arched so she was pressed into my hard-on. She started to undo the buttons of my jeans. “Let me have it,” she said.
I stopped her hand and said, “I have a girlfriend.”
“In the States?”
“Yeah. Is that a problem?”
She covered her breasts with her arm. “It’s a pity.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.”
She was silent for a moment, then lay down beside me, one arm over my chest. “It’s all right. I had fun.”
“Maybe find me on Facebook, in case things change. I like you.”
“What’s Facebook?” I said. It was 2005.
She laughed. “Look it up and find me. It’s Jessica Marten.”
I took my shirt from the floor, and we kissed again for a time, standing up. She let her arm drop and pressed up against me.
“Oh, well,” she said, her breasts softening into my ribs. “This is nice, at least.” Soon, though, there were voices in the hall, her roommates returning, and she gave me a last kiss and pushed me out through a side door, saying good-bye.
So I left. I hadn’t noticed it as we came in, but in the courtyard of her building there had been a party. Half-deflated balloons had blown into piles; there were overflowing garbage cans. There were also six or seven abandoned beers, standing on a ledge, chilled by the night air. I took two. I put one in my pocket and opened the other. I held on to the last moments that I could ignore what I had done.
Out on the street it felt suddenly not cool but cold, and the first violet paleness of dawn was emerging imperceptibly from the black of the middle night. It must have been four.
Suddenly, after just a few steps, I had a terrible sense of what I would find at home—that there would be e-mails from Alison, apologizing that she hadn’t been able to write back sooner, she had been away from her computer, the congressman had been in Staten Island all day and she had been with him, she was sorry, too, the fight was stupid and ridiculous, we were fine, it was only one year. What had I done? Two days away from America, and this had happened. It seemed so shamefully short a time. It told its own story. I thought of Motherwell, when asked how long it took him to paint one of the Elegies, saying, “Thirty seconds and a lifetime.”
As I walked down Jess’s street I saw a pretty blue mailbox that said MARK AND JUNE LENOX on it, the names curlicued with small white painted lilies, faded now, a woman’s touch, ten years old, from when they had moved in, and I felt a foreshadowing of the violent regret I knew was coming. I felt triumph, too, and physical pleasure, and horror with myself. It was a muddle. It’s rare to surprise yourself. The dim streetlamps still shone at intervals before me, and by their light I could see the austere and enduring spires of Oxford, rising in the middle distance, untroubled by human grief.
When I came to the end of the street I knew roughly where I was in relation to Fleet and started back toward home. As I went I pulled on the T-shirt I was carrying and realized that it was the wrong one. I turned it inside out and saw that it was pink and bore an inscription, in Union Jack–colored glitter: BRITISH GIRL.
I laughed. Then I took a sip of the beer and within a few seconds of swallowing it I lurched toward a potted plant beside another blue mailbox and threw up into it. When I was finished I wiped my mouth, swished it out with beer, then stood, looking up at Oxford, feeling that I was finally there, and drank the rest of it.
I had only just started walking again when the peal of the different colleges’ bells startled me out of my still reverie, each with its own melody, all out of kilter with one another. So it was five in the morning. The walk was another fifteen minutes, and as I drew closer to the Cottages and Fleet I kept thinking to myself, Shit, shit, but also, somewhere else, early days, early days.
Copyright © 2014 by Charles Finch