I took a part-time job at the university library. Two nights and one day a week, I answer softly-spoken queries about the location of collections and toilets. I unlock the printer cages, insert reams of paper, and re-fasten the padlocks behind me. Alone in forgotten corridors, I shelve books and take great satisfaction in the neat clicks made by their spines dropping into rows. I breathe in the smell of old paper and casually ponder my research as titles from every discipline wipe over my fingers.
Most of my time is spent alone, in one manner or another. I live in an ensuite room with an internet connection and a laptop. I share an office with two other PhD students--one of whom is endlessly gathering data in Athens. When the other is there, we still spend most of our time typing in solitude, each clad heavily in her own thoughts, her private worries, her academic obsessions.
There are lovely people here. I spend half an hour a day chatting with European colleagues who amaze me with the levels of their expertise and shock me with their affection for intellectual hen-pecking. My German flatmate and I have grown quite close; we cook dinner in tandem, and often frequent the college pub together, but when it comes down to it we eat our separate meals and drink our separate beers and conduct our separate lives. She's researching adaptive mathematical models of degrading shipments, and even her throw-away scribbles look like Good Will Hunting to me.
Speaking of movies. Do you remember that part in Legends of the Fall? "It was then that Tristan came into the quiet heart of his life. The bear inside him was sleeping." I wonder if this is just the quiet part of my life. Maybe writing a PhD means turning yourself inward for three years and bursting back open at the end, as a book. Or maybe I'm secretly depressed and lonely and this is why I care about keeping a diary instead of drinking every night of the week, like in Sydney. Oh, who knows anything about themselves, anyway!
Watched Amelie again. Made me want to speak French; take the train to Paris; try a pixie bob; get a tiny red flat with windows peering into any European capital city; visit a photobooth; ride a motorscooter; start a scrapbook; set up a scavenger hunt; befriend an airline attendant; affectionately knead almost-ripe fruits and vegetables; fall in love. Then, tackle a more probable task...
- Thumbing through her own passport
- Waking up one minute before the alarm
- Making conversation with cab drivers
- Finding dogeared postcards in the mailbox
- Dining with a friend who would also like to eat one half of two meals
- The feel of wet hair on the nape of her neck
- Overhearing redundancies like "9 a.m. in the morning"
- Accidentally chewing the stringy bits of oranges or bananas
- The military click of high heels on tile floors
- Losing buttons from cardigans
Even though the aftershocks still rumble at odd intervals (stories passed through the grapevine through old mutuals, surprisingly lovely conversations with his best friend), it's been two months since I broke up with my ex. In the meantime, the grey skies have been dip-dyed robin's egg blue. The trees are purring with new buds, the lawns are shaking with daffodils, and my winter jacket has been retired to the furthest possible recess of my tiny built-in closet. Spring in northern England might be the prettiest of all springs.
I'm not going to lie...spring fever has hit me hard and heavy. Inside, my eyes are turned by windows onto hazy blue-green fields and atmospheres. Outside, my eyes are turned by intellectuals baring their lower legs and upper arms for the first time since my arrival. I need a man.
In the sort of progressive hermitage I've been warned to expect of the remaining 2.5 years of my PhD, I have recently sworn off men in the following categories: undergraduates for their inability to grasp the difficulty of my undertaking, Masters students for their fleeting nature, PhD students from my own university for their well-used histories and incestuous connections to everyone I know. This left me the following options: townies, abstinence.
Last night, my flatmate/best friend in England dragged me to open mic night at our local pub. A friend of ours played, and we were needed on hand to clap, cheer, and wave mobile phones. We shared a corner table with a group of three strangers in varying states of handsomeness. The second-most handsome (whom I'd asked for permission to sit) kept bumping eyes with me in an optical Morse code that that I was unable to decipher as being either hostile or flirtatious.
This stranger, whose name I later learned to be James, looked like the boy next door, if you grew up somewhere in the Midlands of England in Thatcher's bleak mid-'80s. He did not look like the sort who would lope up to the stage after three songs from the first performer, strap on a guitar, and perform the following mismatched setlist:
1) Bad Moon Rising - Creedence Clearwater Revival
3) Johnny B Goode - Chuck Berry
My gentle reader: is this not an ideal selection for gaining the instant devotion of the sentimental mop-headed American woman in the audience? When he returned to our shared corner, raising his shoulders and holding his hands out to receive comment, my friends glittered with praise and I chose to focus on his abrupt ending. When the audience refused to sing the last chorus of Johnny B Goode, James simply put down his guitar and left the stage. It was unclear whether he'd lost his pick (he hadn't) or simply decided to conserve his entertainment for a more deserving peer group (he had).
Though his pint was still half-full with what I took to be stout, my next turn at the bar was mysteriously accompanied by a tall, lean shadow, of grazing elbows and a peripheral tuft of brown hair. We talked. Rather, I did my best to abstain from cawing in my horrendous accent, and he, whiskey-voiced, answered every question correctly.
An hour later, before he left, he leaned over to me and asked, "Where is the linguistics department, anyway? Are our faculties close?" They aren't; in fact, he'd never heard of the building where my office is, and where his name would be Googled for a solid 30 minutes the following morning. He frowned, looking toward the door where his friends congregated to observe the exchange. "Well...perhaps I'll see you around?" he asked, and I sighed, "Probably not."
After they were gone, my flatmate/best friend demanded to know why I hadn't provided any critical details: a phone number, an email address, a last name for the purposes of Facebooking. I answered candidly: having gone so long since meeting a decent (if somewhat shy) man, the thought that he would want to see me again (having abstained from attempted groping or over-the-top euphemism) just didn't compute. Am I ruined?
If you asked what I missed most about Australia (and let’s assume you have, right now, in your own head), I would say more than sunshine, more than cheap Thai food, more than total acceptance of drinking on lunch-breaks, I miss my circle of girlfriends.
Since moving to England, I have only managed to make three girlfriends. These, helpfully, correspond to each part of my life: domestic (my flatmate Sandra), social (my drinking buddy Raf), and academic (my fellow linguist…let’s call her Hannah). Hannah is a second-year PhD from northern England, and is of pixie-short stature and pixie-fair complexion. She can also hold a solid conversation and an insane amount of drink…my (only) two prerequisites to friendship.
Hannah lives in town, in one of the many identical four-bedroom houses that are yearly rented to students and settled into ever-deeper states of charming English damp and/or disrepair. Three of her housemates are finishing up their PhDs this year, and will be moving out in September. Due to a turnover to conservative government, or the sudden increase in VAT, or continued exploitation of the rules of supply/demand, they have raised the cost of campus housing past NYC levels for next year, and most of us on-campus PhDs are crying uncle. Hannah invited another linguist and me to come around before a party last Saturday, under the premise of having a look at the spare rooms.
Her particular house is on the hovel end of disrepair. The flooring in the kitchen has either been removed or never been laid; the two refrigerators sit side-by-side on unfinished concrete. The vent hose connected to the laundry machines sprawls forlornly across the floor, waiting to be shoved out of the nearest window or door on laundry day. Two of the three rooms to be rented are locked with padlocks, and the third is actively inhabited by a guy we’ll call Andy, a final-year Statistics PhD who has been the subject of frequent cohabitation horror stories told by Hannah within the department.
The three of us crowd into the doorway of his room, Hannah apologising for the lack of invasion notice, and me expecting to look in and see some sort of monster chained to the wall, masturbating to stories of women being intellectually degraded.
Instead it’s a tall, slim, vaguely (and endearingly) dorky-looking guy who I’ve met a half dozen times at various parties and pubs around town. He’s wearing football shorts, a plain white undershirt, and a bewildered (if somewhat petulant) expression. A few weeks ago he had knee surgery for a football injury, and so one of his legs is stuck straight out in front of him, bisected by a bandage. This, senselessly, makes me want to nurse him like a baby bird. Like every other time I have spotted him across the room, or exchanged chitchat while waiting for drink service, I am smitten. And like those other times, he is standoffish and generally English.
Afterwards, we go to the party. I forget all about Andy for at least the sixth time in half as many months. Hannah and I dance and drink the night away, and I politely avoid telling her that I won’t be committing to moving into a house that is definitely falling apart, and possibly hiding two gaping holes behind two padlocked doors. I take photos and put them on Facebook, and two days later I’m in her profile picture. It seems like I might have girlfriends here after all.
Because the departments are very isolated from one another, a few months ago I suggested to Hannah that we plan a series of interdepartmental ‘mixers’. The “Cunning Linguists” took on the “Ill Literates” at pub trivia and lost by a heartbreaking 3 points. We went to the postgrad bar with the Management PhDs and suffered through a live band playing covers of British pop songs from the 1980s that I’d never heard before. Earlier this week, Hannah sent around an email saying that she’d arranged a joint pub crawl between the departments of Linguistics and Maths & Stats, and to meet at 5:30 in the department before proceeding to the first pub for 6:00.
She tempts qualitative linguists with the promise of finding a “pet statistician” who can double-check quantitative data. I am not tempted. When Hannah calls me at 6:30, I am in my room, snacking on carrots and unwinding from safety training at the university library. (I’ve totally got a new job, y’all.) She says that she’s the only linguist who’s turned up, and that my duties as wingwoman are required to break up the total Maths & Stats sausage-fest that she had unwittingly stumbled into. Because Hannah has been in a relationship for three years, she is unsuitable as one of the token females. Ever boy-crazy, I step in.
This town is very small, and the PhD community is even smaller. Of the dozen people on the pub crawl, I already know half. There are two nerdy regulars, two computational linguists who live in the M&S faculty, two handsome strangers, Hannah, and Andy. Almost as soon as I sit down with a fresh drink, Andy flourishes a schedule and declares that we are dangerously close to running behind time. It turns out that this is his birthday party, not a mixer. As an M&S party, there is a very tight timetable to keep.
Because local ales in northern England are both flat and warm, I have little trouble downing my pint and trotting out quickly behind the numbers-crunchers. Hannah and I bring up the rear, gossiping about events transpired before I arrived. By the time we get to the next pub, nearly everyone else has found a seat on the corner lounge. Hannah and I sit at a side table with one of the computational linguists and one of the handsome strangers. Handsome as he is, I am immediately bored by his initial question (“Where are you from?”) and his standard follow-up (“Oh my god I LOVE New York! I want to move there!”). Andy presses his cohort tighter together on the main couch and gestures for us to join him, and even though he is my total knight in shining armour at that moment, I pretend not to understand his sign language because I have just gulped two pints in 20 minutes and I feel like such a coy bitch.
At the next pub we pick up some more people. There’s a gay guy who I met at a house party two weeks ago, where we were spackling shoes and baking sheets to the basement walls. He’s with another gay guy who sits next to me and it starts over again; “Oh my god, I LOVE New York! I want to move there!”
By the fourth bar, I learn that the new gay guy is actually a recent PhD graduate and a new member of staff. At the fifth bar, Dr. Gay buys me an expensive cider, which I drink while giving Andy my PhD A-Game. I tell him that I actually use statistical methods on my linguistic research (this is my sexiest nerd-move in the M&S crowd), and that I hold passports to both Canada AND America (“Oh my god, I LOVE America! I want to move there!”).
Then, with six drinks floating around six baby carrots in my stomach, I do it. I make the same proposition I always end up making to male members of the EU. The portion of my brain that’s still sober knows that this NEVER ends well, but the part of my mouth that’s drunk (all of it) just goes on. I push my already-a-bit-sweaty fringe out of my eyes, squint them in a devastatingly sexy-blind way, and slur, “We should get married! You can have my American passport, I can have your British passport, and we never have to live on the same continent again! Also…” and I consider this the real closer, “We can sometimes double-check each other’s statistical calculations.”
Andy puts his hand on the small of my back and pulls me closer to his icy, hooded eyes. “That’s the worst proposal I’ve ever heard,” he quips, and I’m disarmed by his lovely accent and his blue stare and all the drinks that totally overwhelmed the carrots. “Aren’t you even going to kneel down?”
I’m indignant and either blushing or just getting overheated and dehydrated. This proposal is almost always met with uncomfortable laughter and a brush-off. I panic and blurt out, “I’m not even supposed to be the one proposing! You kneel down!”
Andy points to his knee, which is covered up in European (read: close-fitting) jeans, and says, “I can’t kneel for anything. It will have to be you. I’ll do whatever you want, as soon as you get on your knees.”
Friends, is there anything more alluring/appalling than a total nerd that has somehow managed to develop an arrogant sexual swagger? Hint: There isn’t.
Having been completely called out on my shit, I keep my distance at the next pub. It’s easy, because the next pub is my own college pub, and I know every bartender and a handful of regulars. I talk a bit to Hannah then circulate until my drink is done and Andy is enforcing the schedule of moving on.
At the seventh pub, Dr. Gay confronts me for having ignored him for an hour after drinking the drink he bought with his new teaching salary. I buy him and Hannah shots, sip at a cider, and flirt with Andy until I feel outright drunk. At some point he invites me to step outside for some air (his own), and while I’m slinking after him like some cartoon villain, Hannah grabs me by the arm and says, “Andy…he is hitting on you hard, huh? Are you going to pull him? If I had some information about him, would you want me to tell you, or would you prefer not to know?”
If the guy is infested with herpes or has a habit of raping women and ripping their hair out, I do want to know. So I tell her to lay it on me.
“Don’t hate me, but I’ve cheated on my boyfriend with him before. We shagged a few times this summer, but if you fancy him, you should go for it anyway. I won’t hate you! I just thought you should know we have a history.”
I am torn between feeling like a self-righteous bitch and the world’s biggest whore. She cheated on her (lovely, handsome, intelligent) boyfriend who added me on Facebook and made friends with my friends? What a tramp! Then again, what kind of tramp would I be to brazenly break the girl code and tongue-wrestle some sullied guy outside in the fresh air?
The thought of losing an actual female friend, who’s a linguist and a PhD student, who has a car and a spare room in her house, makes me prude up. I hug her and reassure her that I don’t think less of her for being a lying cheating dirtbag. (But I do.) I ignore Andy standing outside waiting for me to be done with his impromptu background check, and I lead Hannah back toward the bar.
But then it goes funny.
Hannah’s face twists up like she’s crying, and her voice comes out gaspy, and she over-tells a story about why she cheated on her delightful boyfriend, who just earlier this week proposed marriage to her. Her face and voice seem like she’s crying, but she’s not actually crying. I mean there are no tears. I’ve seen her cry a dozen times, and none of the other times have been like this. She’s embellishing details that don’t make sense to the story. I start to get the feeling she’s lying about something or everything. As a reformed liar, this feeling gets stronger as she piles on the excuses.
We finish our drinks and hustle out. I share my umbrella with Hannah but when we walk into the eighth pub, I beeline to the gays and stay with them until Andy’s lips are pressed up against my ear, and his voice is hot and angry through my hair. “I waited for you for ten minutes!” he hisses, “If you don’t like me, you should have just said something. Now I look like an arse! What’s going on with you?”
“You’re fucking my friend,” I blurt out uber-eloquently. Behind us, the gays and the handsome strangers have started playing pool on an English table. Instead of being rainbows of stripes and solids, the balls are flat yellow and red, with one black, one white. I feel like such a foreigner. I experience some weird sense of social vertigo, realising all at once that I have no girlfriends with me; that my charming, smooth ex-boyfriend had cursed me to hell less than a month ago, and could be watching from some corner as this statistician puts his hand around the back of my neck and shakes his head rigorously.
“She is a total nutter! I can’t believe she’s done this to me again. I’ve never touched the girl, I swear it.” His accent sounds like Hugh Grant or something and in the absence of fake tears or overblown faux anger, I pretty much believe him. “She’s unhappy in her relationship, and she wants to think she’s got me on the back burner. So whenever she sees me interested in a girl, she tells that girl lies.” It seems feasible, but equally, he also has reason to lie. Andy pulls my head towards his until our cheeks are touching, and his skin is so calm and cool that mine feels feverish and confused by comparison.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do anything with you if you’ve fucked my friend. But it’s your birthday, so you should go talk to another girl and try your luck.” I don’t want to move my cheek away from his, which smells lightly of aftershave but also a bit of rain. But I do, and move away until I’m caught by the hips and pulled back against him.
“You’re the one I fancy here, and so you’re the one I’m talking to. I can’t prevent Hannah from lying to you, but I can tell you the truth and hope that you trust me. Now can I please kiss you?”
I hesitate for long enough that he kisses me without permission, and it’s soft and sweet and makes me feel a little more sober and a little less adrift in the situation. We move to a different part of the bar, which is empty of our friends. It’s not as loud or hot in there, and it feels like standing in a breeze when he kisses me with his cool lips and looks at me with his pale eyes. His phone starts vibrating in his pocket, and when I point at it to tell him to answer, he puts my hand over his jeans and (skip ahead if you’re easily offended) the outline of his semi-hard dick is enormous. My purse starts vibrating like crazy. We look at our phones, and both of us have missed four calls from Hannah, who’s becoming frantic with text messages.
We rejoin the group and she pulls me over to her, wide-eyed and hissing, “You didn’t tell him my secret did you?”
If I was 50% certain she was lying earlier, I am now 70% certain. I mean, unless she drugged and raped the kid, it’s not really a ‘secret’ that they had sex. But then it’s time to leave and I’m saved from having to interrogate her by the process of finishing drinks, piling into cabs, and getting on the queue for one of the only after-midnight clubs in town.
Unlike English girls, I wear a jacket when I go out in winter. Because I live in the UK, and because I think jackets are basically pointless without them, I have a hood that can be pulled up when the inevitable rain starts bucketing down. On the queue, it does. I pull a collapsible umbrella from my purse and five strangers swarm around Andy trying to get under cover. Dr. Gay sidled up to me, and laces the fingers of one of my warm dry hands together with one of his cool wet ones. I smile at him from under my hood and he winks and curls closer.
Inside, we’re all given a stamp on the hand and a set of headphones on the head. “It’s a silent disco,” Andy groans, and shoves his headphones down onto his neck. He offers to get me a drink and I beg for water. Cups of water. A litre of water. When Dr. Gay and I walk onto the main dance floor, everyone is having individual seizures. There are three DJs in separate booths, each doing their own thing. There is a knob on the side of each set of headphones allowing dancers to change the channel to DJ A, B, or C. The song on my default channel is some Ke$ha bullshit, so I pull the headphones off my head. It’s chaos. The dance hall is completely void of music. Hundreds of people are screaming lyrics to three different songs, shaking to three different tunes, pumping their hands to three different beats. I quickly put the headphones back on and find refuge in an 80s dance channel. Hannah, muzzled by the music, dances with Dr. Gay and I and some other random PhDs.
Dr. Gay is a handsy dancer. He pushes his palms all over my torso and ass, and when one of his thumbs grazes the underside of my bra, Andy intervenes and buries me against a crisp white wall. He has water and still isn’t wearing the headphones. He keeps trying to talk to me, but when he drags my headphones off the racket is unbearable, and when I put them back on he looks like he might lose his temper. We kiss a few more times, but we’re surrounded by undergraduates and I’m terrified that my students will see me necking in a club wearing this ridiculous thing on my head. Or even worse, that Andy will get excited again and his huge dick will be obviously outlined on his tight Euro jeans.
I send him away for more water, and Hannah appears out of nowhere, crying, peeling my headphones off. “So you like him then?”
“What? No. I’m sorry, I’m really drunk. I don’t really know what’s going on.”
“But you kissed him, so you like him. What’s wrong? Is he a bad kisser?”
If she had a bunch of torrid sex with him this summer, isn’t this information that she would be privy to? If I was 70% sure she was lying before, I am over 90% sure now. “I don’t really know him that well. It’s just his birthday, and it’s all gotten a bit out of control.” I pull out my phone to check the time and learn two things: it’s after three in the morning, and Hannah had tried to call me twice while Andy and I were making out away from the dance floor. “I have to go home!”
“It’s going to be £10 at this time of night. Come stay over my place!” Hannah suggests, wiping her tears away and immediately perking up. “We can walk from here.” By this time, it looks as though she’d never been crying.
I suggest staying until the club closes at 4am, and hopping on the free bus back to campus. The eight of us still remaining put our headphones to the pop channel and bob along for awhile. When Andy is not shuttling water cups between my mouth and the bar, he stays awkwardly outside of the circle, not dancing, not wearing headphones, and not letting his eyes stray too far from me. When he kisses my temple, Dr. Gay gets jealous. He pulls me close to him, brushes my headphones off, and slurs, “You like him now? I thought we had a spark!”
I’m so confused that I turn helplessly to the other gay guy, who shrugs and smiles. Later, I would learn that Dr. Gay is actually Dr. Bi. But at the moment, I am enraged that he took advantage of my fucked-up gaydar to get way too gropey on the dance floor. I tell Andy that I want to leave and his/Hannah’s house is offered up for the second time that night. I tell him that I don’t go home with guys on the first night (not true), and also that I want nothing more to do with whatever fucked-up drama he has going on with Hannah (true). His beautiful blue eyes have gone pink without enough sleep or water. His cheek feels clammy instead of cool on mine when he pulls me in to whisper romantically, “You never got on your knees for me tonight. We can still make that happen. Any girl would count herself lucky.”
The water has done its trick, and I’m no longer drunk enough to put up with handsy bisexuals or offensive heterosexuals, no matter how brilliant and British they may be. The club is being closed anyway and my departure is timed with the herding of hundreds of people past the disused coatroom and overflowing headphone drop boxes. The rain hasn’t let up, and so I kiss people goodbye underneath my hood. I kiss the handsome strangers and the gays, the mathematicians and the linguists, and Hannah and Andy, who stand side-by-side on the pavement, each looking more forlorn than the other. Both of them offer places in their beds again, out loud, in front of one another. I can’t decide if this means that they really have nothing going on, or that they’ve come to an agreement to pretend that they have nothing going on. I decline them both, and Andy heads back to his house on his birthday, both alone and with a girl who obviously cares enough to lie or cheat for him.
I take the double-decker bus back to campus with one of the gays and sixty howling undergraduates. We rehash the night and decide that Dr. Gay is too gay for me and too straight for him; that silent discos are good in theory but awkward in reality; that pub crawls should allow for more than 20 minutes in one place to keep from being dangerous; that Andy and Hannah are both as fucked up as each other.
When I got home, I updated my Facebook status to “What a weird night…”
This morning, Hannah ‘liked’ it. I wonder if that means I got her laid.
I turned 29 a few months ago.
Like most of you, I've been brought up on corny 1980s/1990s sitcoms dictating that women go absolutely bonkers as they round the bend on the big 3-0. Because I've never considered buying a pair of jeggings, or read a Twilight book, or paid hundreds of dollars to watch Lady GaGa self-asphyxiate onstage in a cellophane suit, I thought that I might slip calmly between decades. Unless you count modifying my nighttime skincare regime, my transition from late 20s into extremely late 20s has been blissfully free of age-related lies and kooky 'just one of the girls' antics. Except for one thing.
I dated a bimbo.
It started like corny 1980s/1990s sitcoms predicted: we locked eyes across the busy pub, and within a minute he was sitting down next to me...smelling amazing, looking handsome, laughing at everything I said. Because this busy pub was actually the busy Postgrad pub (and because I've become such a fucking snob for education), I asked whether he was doing his Masters or his PhD. "Neither," he grinned with his white teeth and full lips, "I'm a second-year undergrad." I'm not sure I fully processed this information until after I'd given him my phone number and watched him leave to smoke a joint on the way to a club. I'm not sure I fully grasped the implications of this information until now, months later, when my skin crawls at the accidental sight of him.
There were plenty of red flags. He had "no time for reading" and his favourite website was StumbleUpon. I had to explain why communism is considered largely unrealistic. He consistently used the imaginary word idealic instead of ideal, presumably because it's longer and 'sounds smarter.' When I finally told him that idyllic does not mean what he thought it meant, he confessed to having used it in multiple academic essays -- each time candidly ignoring the squiggly red line accompanying. Qu'il est mignon!
Yet I took all of this in stride, hanging a five-years-junior man off my arm and pretending that the stigma attached to Postgrad-Undergrad relationships is old-fashioned nonsense. I held his (big, strong) hand through a series of predictable mid-2os revelations, including 'Just because I have fun with someone doesn't make them a reliable friend' and 'Parents are fallible people.' This in exchange for some eye candy, a vigorous sex life, and my first real opportunity to turn down an invitation to the world of sexting.
It was only after I broke up with him (for being a pot-smoking, class-ditching, vapid, static-y dryer sheet of a human being) that I understood what the relationship was. He actually almost spelled it out himself when he screamed, "You're never going to find someone as good-looking as me to love you. Ever again! I'm a 7 and you're a fucking 2!" I thought, "You're never going to find someone as intelligent as me to pretend to like you, ever again. Intellectually, we're not even on the same scale." But what I said was "Uh huh." Because I have some pinch of class.
Anyway, it's dangerous to belittle children; you run the risk of manufacturing real assholes. Trust me.