Home > My Oxford Year(19)

My Oxford Year(19)
Author: Julia Whelan

“You want to do it again?”

“No, I would never—” But his eyes whip to mine, surprised. “Actually, yes.” He inhales. “But I can’t. Is the point.”

I look steadily into his eyes, making a decision. “Jamie,” I say carefully, “I have a shelf life here. I hand in my dissertation and I’m on a plane to Washington. No matter what.”

He shakes his head. “Those types of arrangements never seem to work out as planned.”

I shake my head back at him. “They don’t work because people don’t know what they want. We do. Or, we know what we don’t want. A relationship.” We look at each other. “One condition.” Instantly, he looks panicked, like a stray dog convinced that the food in my hand is just a ruse and I’m going to grab him by the scruff as soon as he comes near enough. “If we do this, we have to be honest with each other. If one of us is getting bored, or starting to have feelings they shouldn’t, no lying. We need to be honest about it.”

“You want honesty?” He looks me dead in the eye, eyes sparkling like they were last night. “When you dropped that sheet this morning it took every shred of my willpower to leave.”

We stare at each other until everything around us blurs away and all I can see is him. Those swimming-hole eyes. I moisten my lips. I stick out my hand with a challenging smile. “Whaddaya say?”

He considers my hand, tempted. But shakes his head instead. “I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Don’t think, Professor. Feel.”

He tips his head, touché, a rueful acknowledgment, but takes a step back from me and I find myself wishing he’d kiss me. If this is going to be it, I want to have an accurate, sober memory of what his lips feel like. Our kisses last night were a hurried, sloppy means to an end. I’m better than that, and I’d like to think he is as well.

But he turns away, faces the door.

He stops. He pauses.

He turns around, strides back to me, takes my waiting hand, pulls me toward him, drops his head, and proves me right.

And then some.

Chapter 12

Your gypsy soul did beckon

To my fetid heart and made

A fearful conflagration of

The meanest kind to tame.

“Fragment,” Unknown

Let’s say you’re not the most experienced of women. You can count the men you’ve been with on one hand. (Fine, both hands, but you know the exact number.) You’ve only had two one-night stands, but you’ve never had a “real” boyfriend either. By choice, mind you. You’re smart, safe, and in control of the one thing you’ve seen derail everyone else: love.

Maybe you were damaged a little bit (not a lot, let’s not overstate this). Maybe it has something to do with your family. Maybe someone left. Maybe someone died. Maybe the timing was arbitrary but critical and the fallout saw the normal adolescent goalposts suddenly moved in the night. Maybe boys became irrelevant. Maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about.

And then let’s say, just for argument’s sake, a decade later you meet this guy and he’s unlike any guy you’ve ever met before, except for one thing: he doesn’t want to be in a relationship. Which is just peaches ’cause neither do you. For you two, relationships are like decaf coffee: What, exactly, is the point?

So you ease into it.

Well. Relatively. He’s like early-morning Indian-summer sun on the back of your neck. Despite the chill, you know the day is shaping up to be a scorcher.

In the buttery, you’re interrupted by the college butler, who stares after you witheringly as the two of you flee, looking pious. When you join your friends for Scotch and chocolate a half hour later, you realize you made no plans to meet up with him again. Which is fine.

Then Monday rolls around and you have your weekly class with him. He’s professional; you’re poker-faced. But he asks you to stay after class and then whispers warmly in your ear that he couldn’t stop staring at your legs during his lecture. (You might have worn a skirt that day.) You suggest that the two of you have a tute about this matter. After all, you’d hate to be distracting in class. He tells you that’s a rather good idea and an hour later you meet in his rooms, where you will continue to meet after class for the next six weeks. Other than this Monday-afternoon ritual, you never know when you’re going to see him. You never make plans with him, because plans imply expectations, and for this thing to work between you, you can’t be beholden to each other. You text him:

Hi. I have an hour before my lecture.

Sometimes your texts go unanswered. Which is fine.

Which is safe.

You always meet at his rooms in college, which you find preferable to your humble attic abode. After all, you have a twin bed and a shower you can barely fit in; he has a double bed, a claw-foot tub, and a corkscrew. What else do you need?

You never overstay your welcome. After your encounters, no matter how passionate, how exhausting, you never stay. You always let yourself out. Not that he asks you to stay. Which is fine.


Then, at some point, your escapades are no longer confined to his office. He knows everyone. He can get in anywhere, anytime. Almost every college has a chapel and they’re almost always empty and let’s just say there’s more to do on your knees in church than pray. Or maybe you find yourself on the center table in the Oxford Union library, all alone save for the murals of Camelot painted by young Pre-Raphaelites who, he explains while dropping between your legs as you gaze at the frescoes, were the sort of men who’d have heartily approved of what you two are doing here, right now, at this very moment. Or maybe it’s one o’clock in the morning and he suddenly asks you, “Have you been up St. Mary’s tower yet, the church of the virgin?” and an hour later you find yourself seventy-five feet in the air, clutching at the stone balustrade, crying out to the empty Radcliffe Square below.

Some people have friends with benefits. You have sex with benefits. You never pretend this is about anything other than what it is. Your benefits include everything you genuinely like about him: his voice, his humor, his mind. Afterward, you sometimes find yourself asking him about his research and you learn more about Tennyson and Queen Victoria than you ever thought you’d want to know. But you do want to know. You want to know everything.

You learn. You learn a lot about wine and you’re surprisingly not bored by it. You learn not to prejudge a bottle with a screw top, and how to have just one glass instead of three. You learn that—your first night aside—he doesn’t drink excessively, and you learn that you don’t want to either. You want to remember everything. Like that thing he does with his finger that unfailingly pushes you over the edge. You learn what you taste like.

You never talk about the past, about family or exes or hometown humiliations, and neither does he. It’s as if you both just materialized on each other’s doorstep, fresh out of the box. That new-toy smell.

Sometimes you catch him looking at you and the floor of your stomach drops out like a carnival ride. It’s not lust in his eyes; lust you could understand. It’s appreciation. It comes with a nearly imperceptible smile when he looks at you and he thinks you can’t see him. It’s the appreciation that separates him from all the other boys you’ve been with. It’s the appreciation that makes him a man. And, in turn, you appreciate the hell out of him. For all of it.

It’s not a secret what the two of you are doing. Your friends delight in teasing you about it. He’s told you he has commitments on certain days, which you never know about ahead of time, which you don’t ask about, and it mollifies your friends that you spend that time with them. Time spent telling you that you’re an idiot, that you’re falling for him, that you’re going to get nothing out of this but a broken heart. You smile because you know you’re safe. You know this is different. You know you’re leaving. You know you’re going to be just fine and so will he.

You never thought you were a sexual being. You could always take it or leave it. You realize now that this isn’t true. You don’t want to blame the other men you’ve been with, but suffice it to say, what you did with them shouldn’t even be called sex. It’s like hanging a Monet next to some doodle from kindergarten that didn’t even earn a spot on the refrigerator. Is it all art? Maybe. But you’ll take the Monet.

Then one day he asks you what you’re doing the following night. You say nothing. He asks you to plan on spending it with him.

A plan.

He says he’ll pick you up at your room, which he never does, and he tells you to dress warmly, which by its nature is the opposite of your usual operating principle when selecting what to wear around him: less is more. It doesn’t sound like what you two do. It sounds like a date.

The next night you hear him coming up your stairs, the eager footsteps, the heavy breathing. You open your door and he comes to a stop at the final bend, looking adorably winded and peering up at you with that appreciation that makes your stomach feel like a centrifuge.

Then, in that voice, he asks, “Shall we?” and you know you’ll never stop answering yes to that question.

Chapter 13

Let us hold the die uncast,

Free to come as free to go:

For I cannot know your past,

And of mine what can you know?

Christina Rossetti, “Promises Like Pie-Crust,” 1861

Jamie,” I whisper nervously, watching him scurrying around in the moonlight, “I’m pretty sure the terms of my visa preclude stealing a boat.”

“Well, it’s a good thing it’s a punt and that we’re merely borrowing it.” He assesses a group of upside-down wooden boats that look like a cross between a raft, a canoe, and a gondola. He moves toward one, bending over and grunting slightly as he picks up an end and walks along the riverbank, peeling it away from the pile. The wood scrapes loudly. I cringe and hurry to his side.

He flips the punt over and slides it into the water, dropping his foot on the edge before it floats away, clearly a punting expert. He looks up at me, pushes the hair out of his eyes, and gestures, bowing slightly.

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