It was the night before I left to study abroad in England when my family took me to one of those Japanese restaurants where they cook the food in front of you. A waiter wearing a headband with the Rising Sun on it escorted us to the end of a table that wrapped around a square wok. Another family was soon seated next to us, two gaunt, waspy parents and their son, who was slightly older than me and attractive enough to make me sit up straight and put on what I thought was my best adult face.
The son ordered an Asahi beer, which seemed very glamorous at the time. I watched them intently. I was 18 and every encounter with the opposite sex held the possibility of my happily-ever-after. Over the theatrical slashing of vegetables I found out his name was Ryan and he was a doctorate student at Oxford, studying Paleontology.
“Maybe you can see each other while you’re over there,” my grandma said to the table moments after shoveling a forkful of chicken into her mouth.
I glared at her for a second, but saw that he was looking at me, smiling. I spent the rest of the night trying to look delicate as I ate and gritting my teeth at my step dad who held his silverware in a dainty way with the tips of his fingers, like he was a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
I had been in England for a month when I heard from Ryan, a short email asking me if I’d like to come to see him in Oxford. I wrote back excitedly from the computer lab in the school dorms.
My experience so far had been pretty pathetic. My roommate was a big, self-assured blond who took weekend trips to Amsterdam that I was not invited to. When she returned Sunday nights she would open the window, letting in gusts of cold, damp air and light a cigarette. Exhaling smoke into the darkness, she would tell me about how she and her new friends went to outrageous clubs and swallowed ecstasy pills with the Motorola logo stamped on them. I would sit on my bed with an open magazine and a bag of pretzels, wondering what was wrong with me.
On the bus to Oxford I was nervous that it was somehow a joke like in the movies where the jocky guy asks the geeky girl to the prom only to stand her up or drive by in a limo throwing eggs at her while the most popular girl in school looks on from the passenger seat laughing. But when I got off the bus he was waiting in a corduroy jacket, holding an old-fashioned one-speed bicycle by the handlebars. It was the first of many perfectly romantic moments in my life that I wish I could isolate from their later association.
We walked the bike to a bar where he said famous writers used to go. I felt bold and attractive for the first time ever. We drank more than I was used to, a pitcher of wheat beer and a couple of shots of something thick and brown.
“You’re a siren,” he whispered.
I was aware of how cheesy it sounded, but it stirred something in me, making me simultaneously uncomfortable and excited. We went back to his campus apartment and he made us sandwiches with the spiciest mustard I had ever eaten. In his room later we kissed and fell onto the bed.
After we'd had sex he suddenly pulled away from me.
“I can’t do this,” he said as if it weren't already too late. “I have a girlfriend.”
He stood up and picked up a photo that had been standing upright watching us the whole time from the corner of his dresser. He brought it back with him to the bed and I sat up and looked over his shoulder. A gorgeous woman smiled confidently back at me, all golden-skinned and long haired. “Where is she?” I asked, hoping morbidly for a moment that perhaps she was dead and he just needed to learn how to love again. She was just visiting her parents in India. She’d be back the next week.
The next morning, we went to visit the cathedral like we’d planned the night before. My hair was drying in an unflattering way, curly and frizzy. I became acutely aware of the weight I’d put on since I’d been in England and how my jeans were shorter as a result of it.
I sipped from a cardboard cup of coffee, which I had taken black not because I liked it that way but because that is how he had taken his. It left my mouth with an unfamiliar, acidic taste and I suddenly felt sad. I could tell he wanted to leave. He was rushing through the church pointing out historical facts that he knew because he was smart enough to go to Oxford. He walked slightly ahead of me, careful, it seemed, not to touch me or look at me directly.
“See that bit of paint,” he pointed to a blue chip hidden inside a flower carved into a stone archway. “Churches used to be painted in bright colors, not all grey and depressing.”
He continued on and I touched the blue part with my fingertip, letting my hand run across the cold stone as I followed him. We walked back inside and into the center aisle where the ceiling arced upward dramatically.
“Back in the middle ages, things were so bad for people that it was good for them to look up and get away from their misery. This building would’ve been a miracle then. They would have felt God.”
We stopped walking and tilted our heads back and looked up at the arches. I glanced at him, his eyes focused on the marble arches above us. I wished we were sharing the moment but I knew each of us was looking up alone. The only difference was, while he was looking up, he had someone thousands of miles away who loved him and I did not which somehow made my looking up more lonely and desperate.
Ryan walked me to the station where he left me to wait for the next bus. It didn’t leave for another hour. He had a paper to write, he said, and gave me a wave as he backed away. On the way back to London, I remember feeling frozen and hopeless. I looked straight out at the horizon until it got dark, then I looked at my face reflected in the window, the shadows made my eyes looked like scary holes. He never returned my phone calls.
Still relatively inexperienced with men, I was heartbroken. What had happened? I blew a one-night stand far out of proportion because I didn't recognize that was what it was. It was one of my first disappointments with men, which like that black coffee, became easier and easier to swallow until they were pretty much what I expected.
What was your first disappointment with potential love?