Home > My Oxford Year(24)

My Oxford Year(24)
Author: Julia Whelan

After class on Monday (where I receive nothing more intimate from Jamie than a furtive wink) and logging a few library hours, I gravitate to the pub with Maggie, Charlie, and Tom. We’re at the Turf drinking cider in front of the temporary fire pit outside when I see a familiar head ducking through the door and coming out onto the patio.

For a moment I can’t place him. He’s handsome. Could it be as simple as that? I just haven’t had my head turned in six weeks and I’m mistaking that with familiarity? But his eyes find mine and, after a moment, he smiles in recognition. He lifts his beer at me in a toast.

It’s the beer that does it. He’s the cute D.C. guy from the Rhodes House. His hair is longer than it was seven weeks ago, blurring his corporate edges. I find myself standing up, telling my friends I’ll be right back. Just as I step up to him, his name flashes into my head and comes right out my mouth. “Connor Harrison-Smith.”

He turns away from the group he’s with. “Ella Durran, long time.” He smiles and it lights up his whole, gorgeous face and I suddenly remember that I have his number in my phone. I never used it. A flash of regret wells in me. Jamie hijacked my life. Connor studies me, smiling. “You never come to any of the Rhodes events.”

“Yeah, I . . . I think I’ve enjoyed not being around other Americans.”

He lifts a brow, nods. “Fair enough. How’s English literature and language 1830 to 1914 treating you?”

Remembering my name is one thing; remembering exactly what I’m studying is another. I’m impressed. “Good,” I answer, nodding. “How’s global health?”

“Disastrous. Something about AIDS and unclean drinking water?” he answers cheekily. “I don’t know. I’m just here for the beer.”

I hold up a finger. “Let us not forget the overpriced food.”

Connor chuckles, takes a sip of his beer. He really is cute. He absently rubs his chin, and when he removes his hand I notice a thin, white scar running horizontally across the tip of it. My type of guy—the guy with character, the guy with a face that tells a story. He takes a breath and says, “Hey, speaking of food, I don’t have any classes on Thursday. I was thinking of going to London for Thanksgiving. There’s a hotel in Mayfair that’s doing a full turkey dinner. ‘With all the “fixins,”’ it said online. Want to join me?”

I’m caught off guard. “Is this a Rhodes group outing?” I ask carefully.

“No. Just me.” He grins. “Who wants to be around a bunch of Americans, right?”

Despite myself, I like him. He’s nice, he’s funny, he’s cute. This could be good for me. “I still haven’t been to London,” I admit, biting the inside of my lip.

Connor’s eyes bug. “What?”

I shake my head. “Haven’t had the time.”

“Hmm. No American friends. No time. Hasn’t been to London yet.” He turns his head, side-eyeing me. “Is there a guy I should know about?”

The word “no” crawls up my throat, morphs into “not really,” but I still can’t push it out of my mouth. Connor must see my deliberation, because he says, “Look, no pressure. It’s Thanksgiving. It’s turkey. It’s ‘fixins.’” There’s that smile again.

I smile back. “Okay, I’ll let you know.”

Connor grimaces, considers. “I tried leaving the ball in your court once and it never got returned. How about this time you serve, and I’ll follow up on Wednesday?” He’s already taking out his phone. “Okay?”

This makes me laugh. “Fine. It’s a plan,” I say, and give him my number.

THAT NIGHT, CHARLIE, Maggie, and I get takeaway pizzas, a big jug of wine, and sit on the floor in Charlie’s room eating our feelings. The theme of the night is “Walls.” Charlie’s hit a wall with Ridley the Rower, Maggie’s banging her head against a wall with Tom, and I’m ignoring the wall that’s suddenly appeared between Jamie and me.

I love Charlie’s room. It looks like something out of Brideshead Revisited. Oriental rugs cover the hardwood, a four-panel screen hiding the bed, a red velvet couch, and antique floor lamps. He has a collection of drippy candles in wine bottles (surely against code) and he’s put a portable washer/dryer combo in the corner. He even has a tea chest with an assortment of loose-leaf teas that I’m slowly working my way through with Charlie’s guidance. He lived here all three years of his undergraduate and was able to keep it this year as well. The college usually requires students to vacate their rooms not only over the summer, but even between terms, so they can be rented to tourists or conference attendees. Charlie must have done something for someone (or to someone) for the privilege, and I don’t want to know what it is.

“How can he be so daft?” Maggie whines after a hefty swig on the bottle.

“Have you met Tom?” Charlie retorts.

“I simply don’t know what else I can do. It’s embarrassing how forward I’ve been with him!”

“How so?” I ask.

“Well, for instance, we talked of finding that special person, and I said to him, maybe she’s right in front of you if only you’d open your eyes!” She looks between us. “I was right in front of him at the time, you see.”

“Were you naked?”

“Ella!” Maggie cries.

“Look, baring your soul isn’t working. I say bare your ass.”

“That’s the way forward,” Charlie chimes in. “He needs to see you as he’s never seen you before. You know. Attractive.” I kick him. “What I mean to say is we’ve never any cracker of an excuse to look our finest. I mean,” he says, plucking at the lapel of his tweed jacket, “one tries, but it can only be taken so far amongst the troglodytes in tracksuits and trainers. No, we must find a way to the nines, as it were.”

I nod. “Yes, we need an event. An opportunity for transformation. Like Cinderella at the ball.”

“Yes!” Charlie gasps, inspiration striking. “The Blenheim Ball!”

“There’s an actual ball? I meant metaphorically.”

“Is there a ball, she asks. Read your Tatler. It’s the highlight of the winter social calendar, a proper black-tie, all the unspeakably rich people up from London.”

“For what?”

“Some unfortunate charity.”

I shrug. “So, let’s do that.”

Maggie’s brow furrows further as Charlie scoffs and says, “It doesn’t work like that. You have to be invited.”

“Well, how do you get invited?”

“No one knows. It’s like MI6 . . . they find you.”

Maggie, distraught, drops her head into her hands. “Oh, Charlie, don’t tease me with what I can’t have.”

“Yes, Tom’s done quite enough of that,” Charlie drawls. “Look on the bright side. At least yours knows which team he plays for. Straight as an arrow.”

“So is yours,” I remind him.

“Bottle, please,” Charlie groans. I pass him the bottle and he takes a swig.

“You could make your life so much easier if you’d just fish in more familiar waters.”

Charlie comes back at me dryly, “Where’s the sport in fishing from a stocked pond? I much prefer the open sea.” He peers at me. “So where might our dear professor be baiting his hook this evening?”

There’s a moment of silence. Charlie hands me the bottle knowingly.

“We were spending too much time together,” I say, taking a sip. “We’re taking a break. It’s a good thing. We thought it was for the best.” Charlie opens his mouth to speak again, and I cut him off. “Maggie, you need a plan.”

IT’S LATE WEDNESDAY afternoon and after a full day of sitting on my ass writing about the portrayal of female beauty in Bleak House and Middlemarch, I feel anything but beautiful. So I take a long walk over to the hippie salad stand in the Covered Market for an early dinner of quinoa and falafel. Nice and healthy. And then I detour to the unconscious reason I came to the Covered Market: Moo-Moo’s. I collect my Cadbury caramel milkshake and walk aimlessly by the stalls as vendors close up for the night, sucking on the pink straw until the only sound in the building is the sweeping of brooms, the clanking of security gates, and my unadulterated last-dregs slurping.

When I emerge into the crepuscular light of Market Street and turn right onto Turl, I find myself at the Lincoln College gates. Coincidence? Yes. No. Maybe.

The door in the gate opens before me. Not pausing to consider what I’m doing (or why), I hustle over and catch it just in time, slipping into the lodge. The porter, who knows me well at this point, nods hello and I casually continue past him. I scoot over to Chapel Quad and up staircase eight, finding myself in front of Jamie’s door. I take a breath. I knock.

No answer.

I’m simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

I head back down the stairs and pause in the shadows of the quad. What am I doing? I should’ve called him first.

I take out my phone and search through my call history for his number. I have to scroll back six days. I hesitate. I take a breath and press the button.

If he seems weird, I’ll tell him I had a question about the reading. Why are we reading William Barnes? (No, but seriously, Jamie, why?) I won’t leave a message if he doesn’t pick up—

“Well, hello, stranger. What a pleasant surprise,” he whispers.

His voice torches that ever-ready kindling in my stomach. “Why are you whispering?” I ask instead of a million other things.

“I’m in the library at present.”

“The Bod?” I ask.

“No, Lincoln’s,” he breathes, and I’m moving. I don’t even know where I’m going (Jamie’s never formally taken me around the college), but I know the library is the big church on the corner of the High and Turl Street.

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