Page 26

Hi. I have an hour before my lecture.

Sometimes your texts go unanswered. Which is fine.

Which is safe.

You always meet at his rooms in college, which you find preferable to your humble attic abode. After all, you have a twin bed and a shower you can barely fit in; he has a double bed, a claw-foot tub, and a corkscrew. What else do you need?

You never overstay your welcome. After your encounters, no matter how passionate, how exhausting, you never stay. You always let yourself out. Not that he asks you to stay. Which is fine.


Then, at some point, your escapades are no longer confined to his office. He knows everyone. He can get in anywhere, anytime. Almost every college has a chapel and they’re almost always empty and let’s just say there’s more to do on your knees in church than pray. Or maybe you find yourself on the center table in the Oxford Union library, all alone save for the murals of Camelot painted by young Pre-Raphaelites who, he explains while dropping between your legs as you gaze at the frescoes, were the sort of men who’d have heartily approved of what you two are doing here, right now, at this very moment. Or maybe it’s one o’clock in the morning and he suddenly asks you, “Have you been up St. Mary’s tower yet, the church of the virgin?” and an hour later you find yourself seventy-five feet in the air, clutching at the stone balustrade, crying out to the empty Radcliffe Square below.

Some people have friends with benefits. You have sex with benefits. You never pretend this is about anything other than what it is. Your benefits include everything you genuinely like about him: his voice, his humor, his mind. Afterward, you sometimes find yourself asking him about his research and you learn more about Tennyson and Queen Victoria than you ever thought you’d want to know. But you do want to know. You want to know everything.

You learn. You learn a lot about wine and you’re surprisingly not bored by it. You learn not to prejudge a bottle with a screw top, and how to have just one glass instead of three. You learn that—your first night aside—he doesn’t drink excessively, and you learn that you don’t want to either. You want to remember everything. Like that thing he does with his finger that unfailingly pushes you over the edge. You learn what you taste like.

You never talk about the past, about family or exes or hometown humiliations, and neither does he. It’s as if you both just materialized on each other’s doorstep, fresh out of the box. That new-toy smell.

Sometimes you catch him looking at you and the floor of your stomach drops out like a carnival ride. It’s not lust in his eyes; lust you could understand. It’s appreciation. It comes with a nearly imperceptible smile when he looks at you and he thinks you can’t see him. It’s the appreciation that separates him from all the other boys you’ve been with. It’s the appreciation that makes him a man. And, in turn, you appreciate the hell out of him. For all of it.

It’s not a secret what the two of you are doing. Your friends delight in teasing you about it. He’s told you he has commitments on certain days, which you never know about ahead of time, which you don’t ask about, and it mollifies your friends that you spend that time with them. Time spent telling you that you’re an idiot, that you’re falling for him, that you’re going to get nothing out of this but a broken heart. You smile because you know you’re safe. You know this is different. You know you’re leaving. You know you’re going to be just fine and so will he.

You never thought you were a sexual being. You could always take it or leave it. You realize now that this isn’t true. You don’t want to blame the other men you’ve been with, but suffice it to say, what you did with them shouldn’t even be called sex. It’s like hanging a Monet next to some doodle from kindergarten that didn’t even earn a spot on the refrigerator. Is it all art? Maybe. But you’ll take the Monet.

Then one day he asks you what you’re doing the following night. You say nothing. He asks you to plan on spending it with him.

A plan.

He says he’ll pick you up at your room, which he never does, and he tells you to dress warmly, which by its nature is the opposite of your usual operating principle when selecting what to wear around him: less is more. It doesn’t sound like what you two do. It sounds like a date.

The next night you hear him coming up your stairs, the eager footsteps, the heavy breathing. You open your door and he comes to a stop at the final bend, looking adorably winded and peering up at you with that appreciation that makes your stomach feel like a centrifuge.

Then, in that voice, he asks, “Shall we?” and you know you’ll never stop answering yes to that question.

Chapter 13

Let us hold the die uncast,

Free to come as free to go:

For I cannot know your past,

And of mine what can you know?

Christina Rossetti, “Promises Like Pie-Crust,” 1861

Jamie,” I whisper nervously, watching him scurrying around in the moonlight, “I’m pretty sure the terms of my visa preclude stealing a boat.”

“Well, it’s a good thing it’s a punt and that we’re merely borrowing it.” He assesses a group of upside-down wooden boats that look like a cross between a raft, a canoe, and a gondola. He moves toward one, bending over and grunting slightly as he picks up an end and walks along the riverbank, peeling it away from the pile. The wood scrapes loudly. I cringe and hurry to his side.

He flips the punt over and slides it into the water, dropping his foot on the edge before it floats away, clearly a punting expert. He looks up at me, pushes the hair out of his eyes, and gestures, bowing slightly.

I give him my hand and he helps me step aboard, supporting my arm as I find something resembling balance. He gestures to the two shallow benches set opposite each other in the center of the punt. Channeling my elementary school ballet training, I attempt a jeté, but go crashing into the bottom of the punt instead, about as graceful as a baby elephant falling into a mud pit. Abandoning all poise and dignity, I crawl to the far bench, right myself, and land unsteadily on the padded seat. I hear Jamie’s slight chuckle.

“Catch.” He tosses me his messenger bag then picks up a long pole lying on the side, thrusts it into the water, and pushes us out into the night.

We float under Magdalen Bridge, and he reaches up with the pole to touch the rough stone underside, pushing us along and out the other end. “Would you be a dear and open the bag?” he asks. “Take out the blanket and unroll it.” I do, and find that a plaid woolen blanket is wrapped around a silver thermos. I hold it up to him, questioning. Jamie smiles. “Were this a summer afternoon, we’d have a pitcher of Pimm’s. We seem to eschew the concept of normality.”

The night is actually quite mild; no rain, no breeze. Jamie slips the pole through the water and gently pushes us forward. He’s watching me, gauging my reaction. I love this. I love everything about this.

Holding his gaze, I stretch my legs out in front of me, scootching down until I’m almost flat on my back on the bottom of the punt, my head settled on the seat. I tilt my head to the side coquettishly and pat the floor of the punt, my intention clear.

A telltale heat brightens Jamie’s eyes. “Let me get us a bit farther out,” he murmurs. “Past the turns. I know a prime spot. Lie back.” He affects a sonorous tone, like the voice in a guided meditation video. “Listen to the water lapping the boat. Lose yourself in the stars.”