Home > My Oxford Year(28)

My Oxford Year(28)
Author: Julia Whelan

In the ensuing silence, Jamie picks at the Band-Aid and I notice the spot has gotten larger. I feel myself splintering, cracking open into a gaping crevasse, and I realize in that moment that I’ve never hated anyone as much as I hate him.

When my dad died, my mother made it quite clear that I had to be the strong one. That I couldn’t fall apart, because she needed me. It was the ultimate bait and switch. For twelve years, she’d been the mom and I’d been the child; those were the rules of our world. And she just decided those weren’t the rules anymore and I was trapped. I stare at Jamie. Another rule change. Another bait and switch.

“You thought you were going to trap me,” I level.

His eyes flash. “Trap you?”

“That I’d fall for you. That I’d stay. That I’d take care of you.”

His mouth falls open and I know instantaneously, viscerally, that I’m wrong. “You think that little of me?”

The hurt in his eyes only fuels my anger. Now I’m the bad guy? “You clearly thought that little of me!” I snap.

Suddenly he levers himself off the step and I’m sure the railing is going to rip out of the cement. I stiffen. He tries to speak. “You . . .” But he can’t continue. His face pales, he bends, clutches that useless railing. Drops his head, tries to breathe. The dot of blood on his Band-Aid spreads. Stop! I scream inside.

Giving up, Jamie sits back down, breathing through flared nostrils like a bull struck with too many banderillas. Finally, he looks up at me. He reaches out his bandaged hand. Beckoning. “Please.”

Instead of going up the three seemingly insignificant steps between us, I back away, the matador after the kill. Jamie watches my retreat, quirking his head at me the way he always does. Except this time there’s no endearment in the gesture. There’s only bewilderment. And hurt.

I can’t deal with his hurt right now; I’m still trying to understand mine. Why does this hurt so much?

“Wow,” I hear myself say. “It’s a good thing I don’t love you.”

“MAGDALEN,” IS ALL I say to the cabbie.

I feel like a wax figure of myself, as if all my body’s faculties are busy processing and can’t be diverted to the mundane task of speech. Questions pile up, crowding in, pushing me up against the backseat of this cab, suffocating. I can’t finish one thought before another shoves in.

Then this thought, a glaring light scattering the others like roaches: I just walked out on a dying man.

Correction: I just told a dying man it’s a good thing I don’t love him, and then I walked out on him.

My phone rings. All robot arms, I fish it out of my coat pocket even though I’m not going to answer. I’m not talking to him ever again.

But it’s not Jamie. It’s Gavin.

“Gavin,” I croak.

“Just thought I’d call before the holiday, in case there’s anything we need to go over. I’m going to my sister’s and she won’t let me so much as turn my phone on tomorrow.”

What’s tomorrow? Then I remember. Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving! Shit! Connor! “No, yeah, I—I think we’re good,” I stammer. “I’m working on a—a plan right now, the vouchers thing. I’ll send it in a few. A few days, that is.”

There’s a beat. “You okay?”

“Yeah! Just . . .” What? All thought has fled. “Sorry, Gavin, can you hold on one second?”

“Sure.”

I lean forward, toward the driver. This I can at least handle. “Excuse me? Sorry, but can you turn around? I need to go to . . .” I can’t remember the name of the club. I can’t remember anything right now. “What’s that club? Over by the castle?”

“The Castle.”

“Yeah, by the Oxford castle.”

“The Castle.”

I huff out a breath. “You know, with the murdery back alley—”

“That’s the Castle, love.”

Oh. All right, then. My extensive Abbott and Costello training failed me there. “Right, yes, thank you, that’s the one.” I sit back and try to focus on one thought, just one. It’s not working. I’ve never felt this discombobulated. I’ve never done drugs, but I imagine this is what a terrible trip feels like. One of those questing nightmares where stairs lead nowhere and doors take you back to places you haven’t actually left. I’m trapped in an Escher drawing.

Then, compounding the surreality, I hear my name. Soft. Distant. As if underwater. “Ella? Hello?”

I look down at my phone. “Hi, sorry!” I shout, fumbling it up to my ear. “I—I’m here.”

“Listen,” Gavin says. “I want you to start thinking about some hires, okay? Especially deputy political director. We need someone young—because we’re old and tired—but experienced. Any idea where we could find this unicorn?”

“Let me think about it,” I say, thinking, Why don’t you just hire me? And then I wonder why I think that. Would I really want that job? I thought I was done with the campaign side of politics.

“Who knows,” he says. “Maybe I’ll just hire you.” He laughs. “All right, have a nice holiday. Good luck finding turkey in that country.”

He hangs up. I stare at my phone. Was he serious? My phone rings again, startling me so completely that I drop it on the floor of the cab. I shakily retrieve it, noting the caller ID. “I’m so, so, so, so sorry,” I answer preemptively.

“She’s alive!” Connor does a bad Dr. Frankenstein impression, but there’s no mistaking the genuine note of concern in his voice.

“I’m fine, I went to the bathroom and . . .” There’s no way I’m dragging him into this story. I wish I could drag myself out of it. “I wasn’t feeling well. So I left.” Worst lie ever. I should take lessons from Dr. Davenport.

“Why didn’t you come find me? I would have walked you home,” Connor says. What a good guy. What a handsome, good guy. Connor Whatever-His-Last-Name-Is knows just what to say. “So,” he continues, “I’m standing here with Charlie and we’re looking at a very sad, very abandoned Duchess. Would you like me to bring her by?”

“So you’re—you’re still at the club?” I start snapping my fingers at the cabbie like a complete asshole. He just looks confused.

“Yeah, we’re all still here. Charlie’s been texting you.”

Dammit! I stop snapping, mute my phone, and tell the cabbie, “Stop! I mean, go! Magdalen! No Castle!” Cavemen got nothing on me.

“But we’re almost there, miss.”

I can see the alley where they’re all waiting just up ahead. “No, I know, I don’t want to—just no Castle! Magdalen!”

The cabbie slams on his brakes, begins a three-point turn, and mutters, “All right, all right, don’t get your knickers in a twist.”

I unmute my phone. Connor is saying, “Ella? Ella, are you there?”

“Sorry, listen, could you ask Charlie to bring my bike back to college?”

I hear murmuring before Connor returns. “Yup, no worries. Are you sure you’re—”

“I’m fine. Thanks, Connor. Again, I’m sorry. Have a good—”

“Ella, wait.” He chuckles. “You never gave me an answer.”

“To what?” I have no clue what he’s talking about.

“London? Thanksgiving? You, me, ‘fixins’?”

This is not the time, I think. I can’t. I just can’t. Maybe another time, when I’m—

“Ella? It’s not a big—”

“Yes, I’d love to.”

The moment I say it, the second the words leave my mouth, I want to die. I hang up the phone. I throw it to the side. I look out into the blurry darkness, the rain sheeting down the window of the cab.

Then the tears start.

Soon I can’t contain the sobs. The sound ricochets around the cab.

The cabbie peers at me in the rearview. “Cheer up, love,” he tries. “Whatever it is, life’s too short, yeah?”

LONDON FEELS LIKE a different country. I’ve become so comfortable in Oxford that only in a new city do I realize how much it’s become home to me. London reminds me of Washington, a thriving, pulsing, global metropolis. And yet there are smatterings of quaintness, an unexpected charm that sneaks up on you. Oh, look, a palace! Oh, look, a double-decker bus! Oh, look, an obsolete-yet-still-iconic call box! Connor’s been to London before, so he’s an excellent tour guide. He’s also an excellent conversationalist. There have only been a handful of awkward silences between us, which under normal circumstances would be a good sign. But these aren’t normal circumstances. There are far too many instances of “Ella, did you hear me?” and me saying “Sorry, what?”

I didn’t sleep much last night.

After walking around for hours and building up a solid appetite, we gladly sit down to our dinner at a swanky hotel in Mayfair overlooking Grosvenor Square. It’s mostly empty, except for a couple of American tourists and, directly next to us, a family of four. An American mother trying to explain the holiday to her very, very British children.

“But, Mummy, why are we eating turkey? Turkey is for Christmas,” they say. The woman looks to her English husband for assistance. Together they try to answer their adorable children. I imagine myself in her position: British husband, British kids, stranger in a strange land. I’m surprised to find that there’s something appealing about the notion. When the husband leans over and kisses her forehead, however, I turn away.

“Ella?” Connor’s voice brings me present. Again. The waiter is standing beside me with a tray, holding two glasses of champagne. “The hotel is offering us some complimentary bubbly. Want one?”

“Who are we to refuse?” I say, attempting enthusiasm. We clink glasses. We look into each other’s eyes and take a sip. I can tell Connor’s having a good time. And I am, too. Really. He’s an interesting guy. On our walk, we talked schooling, past jobs, D.C. neighborhoods, restaurants, bars. I think these things, the details that technically define you, are what you give to people in exchange for not talking about the real things.

   
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