Home > My Oxford Year(27)

My Oxford Year(27)
Author: Julia Whelan

Turns out, he was a pedophile. And a meth addict.

I felt horrible. Horrible about what I’d nearly done. But what really stuck in my craw as I took that final drive back to campus, what I could not for the life of me understand, was this:

Why would he put himself in this position to begin with?

If you have a secret (or secrets, in this case), why run for public office? Why open yourself up to the scrutiny of others? Why set yourself up to disappoint those closest to you?

Did he want to get caught?

Fifteen minutes after leaving Sophie in the filthy bathroom, I’m standing at Jamie’s door, sopping wet and no longer calm. That vanished when I turned off Banbury Road onto Norham Gardens, my wet clothes chafing with every step, the wind wrapping my hair around my face and throat like clingy fingers. In its place, single-minded, near-homicidal rage.

We were better than this, Jamie and I. We weren’t much, maybe, but we weren’t this. This cliché. This statistic. This sadly predictable inevitability. As Jamie had said in our first tute, “We’re the clever ones. We’re Oxonians.”

This is not the way the clever ones end.

I don’t knock on his door. I don’t ring the bell. I feel entitled to shatter his sense of safety the way he’s shattered mine. So I reach for the doorknob. Surprisingly, it turns in my hand, as if this is all preordained.

I push the door open and stride in, making a left out of the foyer and into the drawing room, following the low hum of voices. Male and female. Cecelia? I stop under the archway and stare at the tableau before me.

Jamie sits in a chair. Shirtless. He gazes up at a girl. In a nurse’s outfit, of all clichés. Holding Jamie’s hand.

Both Jamie and Nursie jump and turn to me.

“Ella,” Jamie breathes, a compendium of emotions crossing his face in the space of a second.

The girl drops Jamie’s hand, holding some kind of tubing in her own, and takes a step toward me. “Miss, I’m sorry, Mr. Davenport isn’t to be disturbed at present.”

“Stephanie,” Jamie says lowly. “It’s all right.” The strain in his voice, its airy thinness, prompts me to take a closer look at him. I haven’t seen him in almost a week. He seems altered somehow. I take a curious step toward him as Nursie steps off to the side. Her move reveals something else in the room, something previously blocked from my view.

An IV stand.

I look more closely at the nurse and realize the outfit she’s wearing isn’t remotely sexy. I caught the stethoscope around her neck and her little white dress with black piping, but I didn’t notice the demure length, the industrial-strength material, the sensible square-toed sneakers.

I focus back on Jamie. “What is going on?”

“You shouldn’t have—”

“What the hell is going on?!” I start to shake, rain flicking off me with each tremor. My heart goes from zero to sixty in a single beat, so loud I’m sure he can hear it across the room.

For the first time since we met, I know we both wish we were looking at someone else.

“Dammit!” Jamie barks, loud enough that the nurse moves back toward him, placating hand outstretched, trying to calm him. “This isn’t what I wanted—”

I cut him off again. “I thought we both wanted honesty! Remember?”

Jamie swallows, looking like all the blood has left his body. “God, Ella, this is not the time. Please just leave.”

“Leave?! You don’t think you owe me—”

“Ella—”

“You know what?” I shout. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care anymore—”

A roar starts in the back of Jamie’s throat and barrels out of him like a freight train from a tunnel: “Get out!”

This silences me. I’ve never heard him yell before. It scares me. I’ve never been scared of Jamie. Silently, reeling, I turn and walk out of the drawing room.

I can hear Jamie’s groan from all the way in the foyer. “Come back! Ella, I’m sorry, wait!”

Too late.

I slam the door on my way out, rattling the entire house behind me.

Chapter 18

Sweet, never weep for what cannot be,

For this God has not given.

If the merest dream of love were true

Then, sweet, we should be in heaven,

And this is only earth, my dear,

Where true love is not given.

Elizabeth Rossetti (née Siddal), “Dead Love,” 1899

I rush down the front steps, but stop at the bottom, feeling completely lost, as if I slipped into another universe and found myself on this rainy sidewalk. Do I go left or right? Or up or down?

The door opens behind me.

“Ella, please, I’m sorry, stop.”

I hear his panting, strained voice, but it has no effect. I’m still trying to find my way out of this black hole.

“Ella, please, you must allow me to explain.”

My anger spikes again and brings me present. I spin around to face him. “Oh, must I?!”

“All I ask is that—” He stops talking. He lists into the doorjamb. He’s pale, shaky. He attempts to play it off, righting himself, pointing into the house. “I’ll put the kettle on, yeah?”

“I don’t want tea, Jamie!”

“Might I offer you something a bit stronger?”

I fold my arms. “An explanation. Offer me that.”

His eyes are gentle and weary, his face long and drained. I can’t stop looking at him. He’s morphed in a week, but I don’t know how exactly. Is it just because I’m seeing the person he actually is, not the person I thought he was? Or is there something else?

“All right.” He takes a shallow breath, moves away from the door, and takes a deliberate step down the stairs. “I’m in the midst of a rather serious medical circumstance. It’s—”

“You know who isn’t in the midst of a rather serious medical circumstance? Your brother. Your dead brother.” I bite back a cringe. That came out more callous than I intended.

His brows snap together. “How do you know that?”

I shake my head. “I’m asking the questions.” I begin to pace, organizing my thoughts. Or trying to. “What is it? What do you have?”

“Multiple myeloma.”

I stop pacing. “Isn’t that . . . what Oliver had?”

Jamie nods.

“Isn’t that what killed him?”

Jamie nods again.

“So, you’re dying?” How is my voice so calm? I might as well be asking him why he wore those particular pants today. I know I’m not handling this well, but I can’t find any rationality, any objectivity, any of the skills I usually have at my disposal. I’ve never felt this untethered. Well. Not in twelve years, anyway.

Jamie just stares at me, the answer unavoidable in his eyes. I can’t look at them. He takes another tentative step down the stairs. Unstable, he grabs at the iron handrail. It shifts against his weight, old and rusting and dangerously loose. He clutches at it with both hands, seeking balance. I want to leap up the steps and help him, but I don’t. I can’t right now. I glance down at his hands. A Band-Aid sits on top of one of them, a crimson dot in the center. “Was that chemo in there?”

“Saline.”

“Saline?”

“The chemo—this particular chemo—is a quick injection. And pills. But it requires a saline flush after—”

“How long have you been in treatment?”

“Six weeks. This is my third round. Might we go inside?” He’s still shirtless. Though the rain has abated, the wind has picked up.

“Go if you want.”

“No, merely a suggestion.” With that, he takes yet another tentative step. The railing could go at any moment. Jamie, aware of that fact, mutters, “I really must repair this.”

A tsunami of questions swells in me. I grow relentless, my tone like a trial lawyer. “Why do you have your hair?”

“I don’t—I don’t know. Some people get lucky.”

“Lucky?” A sarcastic laugh falls from my mouth. “Why aren’t you more ill?”

“I’m quite ill, Ella.”

“Well, why didn’t I notice? Why haven’t you been throwing up? Staying in bed? And who has chemo at home? With their own personal nurse—”

The gentleness in Jamie’s eyes disappears, replaced with a weary exasperation. “Ella, do you want real answers to these questions? Because I will gladly sit with you and explain myself, but I’m asking you to attempt a modicum of gentleness. Please. I’ve got an unrelenting headache at present.”

I barely hear him because something he said swoops back around and lands. “You’ve been in treatment for six weeks,” I say. “So, like, the entire time we’ve been together?” The words “been together” hover over us like a fog. The phrase is a misnomer, a placeholder term devoid of actual meaning. It could mean everything or nothing.

The tiniest smile curls his lip. Rueful. Verging on remorseful. “My first treatment was actually the evening after we . . . the Buttery. You’ll excuse me, but I must sit.” He uses the unstable railing to lower himself, taking a welcomed seat on the third step up from the sidewalk, which puts us, oddly, at eye level.

I remember his protestations in the Buttery. I can’t. Is the point. Don’t think it’s a good idea. “Why would you ever start something—”

“You were supposed to be my last hurrah.” He dares a look at me. Then, horribly, he chuckles. “My send-off. My bon voyage party.” He continues to laugh, and drops his face into his hands. “Bugger, how foolish.”

I’m not laughing. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why would I have?”

The top of my head blows off. “Because it affects me, too!”

He looks up at me, liquid-eyed, no longer laughing. His voice is hoarse. “How? You don’t want a relationship. You’re leaving. You have a plan. So did I.”

   
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