Wednesday, March 10, 2010

First Days in Oxford

I spent most of my first full day in Oxford walking around the city. Later I returned to the school and met most of my fellow new students, including David.

David was originally from Wisconsin. He was a junior and a Math major so how it was that he decided to study in Oxford, I never knew. Like many small town midwesterners, David was extremely NICE. He was the kind of kid that every June Cleaver mom dreamed of raising. He did everything he was supposed to do, exactly the way he was supposed to do it. He was a textbook case of the perfect kid. The worst thing you could say about him was that he was a little too quiet.

As I mentioned before, David and I were floor mates the previous year so he and I knew each other better than we knew anyone else. Naturally, we hung out.

Our school did not provide any meals, so even for our first official night we had to find an affordable way to eat. David and I were discussing our options in the student common room when Gabbie appeared. She said hello to me and introduced herself to David. He politely responded then the two of them exchanged basic information. After a minute or two of them chatting, David resumed his conversation with me by saying, "There's a pizza restaurant a short block away on the corner. Do you want to go there?"

"Sure, that's fine." And with Gabbie standing right there I felt I had to add, "Gabbie, do you want to come to dinner with us?"

"OK!"

So the three of us had dinner together and afterwards we came back to the school. When we arrived there were about eight people gathered in the common room. Gabbie suggested that we all go pubbing, so we did. What I mostly remember from that night is talking to several other new students for the first time as we wound our way through small alleys and in and out of different pubs. It was a fun night, but with our class set to start the next day we didn't get too crazy.

The academic program for the Fall had two parts. For the first five weeks all 55 students took the same lecture and field-trip course. Once that course ended we each took three much smaller courses of our choosing, often with only two or three other students in each class.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of our first week we stayed at the school for lectures. When I say "lectures" it sounds grueling but it really wasn't. Class only lasted about three hours a day and after that we were free to explore or hang out or do whatever. One very popular thing to do was to go punting on the Thames. September is an ideal time to do that because the days are long and warm. It's a perfect afternoon in Oxford when you can spend the later hours of the day lazily drifting on the Thames with a few friends.

Living in the very centre of Oxford was an awesome experience but the other major highlight of our first course was the twice per week field trips. The school rented a bus and twice every week for a month we went to different cities around central, western and southern England. In addition to seeing (yet another) cathedral in each city we always got to spend a few hours sightseeing on our own. If this class sounds like a month-long vacation in England, well, it pretty much was.

Our first field trip was to the Wells Cathedral in Wells and the Roman Villa at Chedworth. David and I rode in the bus and toured both the cathedral and the villa together. David was more interested in the cathedral than I was--he wanted to be an architect. But I preferred the history of the villa.


For lunch on this particular trip the Head Professor had the coach driver stop at a small cluster of buildings along the motorway that had one pub and one take-away place of some kind. After grabbing some take-away David and I wandered around for a while. Really, the only place of interest was the pub. David was not a big drinker so we decided to return to where the coach was parked. We found most of our classmates seated on a row of stones near the coach, busily talking with each other or eating lunch. Gabbie had her back to me and when I came to say hello I put my hands on her shoulders from behind, as she was seated and I was standing. Although seated she was as bubbly as ever, holding court like the social queen among the worker bee females. At my suggestion many of us went to the pub for a quick pint.

That night I went out pubbing with Gabbie, Kat, Lauren and Mark. Mark was hysterically funny, as always. He could pretty much talk non-stop and every sentence out of his mouth was hilarious. Mark was the guy who flew with Gabbie to England, the guy who left her at the bus station in Oxford with 5 bags and a huge trunk. Mark was straight; much of the reason he came to England was because he had hooked up with a HOT British girl in California. She was only visiting at that time so now he had come to England to continue their romance. Mark, Gabbie and the beer provided most of the entertainment that night. It was a great time.

On Friday of our first week in Oxford we had a lecture . Afterwards many of us spent a few hours browsing the Open Market. As usual, after dinner a group of us went pubbing. Someone wanted to walk down to the Head of the River which is one of Oxford's most famous pubs. It was an especially popular place to go at the time because only two years prior it had been featured in the movie "Oxford Blues" (Ally Sheedy, Rob Lowe - yum). Here's a picture of that trendy locale:

The Head of the River, with its awesome location and reputation, is a pub for tourists not students. The pints were nearly twice as expensive as most of the pubs that catered to students. We started off with a lot of people in our group but as the hours ticked away, our numbers dwindled. I had stopped drinking at three pints, but others like Gabbie and Mark were feeling pretty happy. When the last of us finally left, there were five in our group. Lauren and Julia were pulling Mark along and I stayed back with Gabbie because she was a slow walker and fairly buzzed. About halfway between the pub and the school, Gabbie plopped herself on the ground, in the middle of the street, and said, "I'm too tired to walk any more." The other three were now so far ahead of us that I had no choice but to coax Gabbie out of the street myself. After a full five minutes of me pleading and her refusing to move, she laid her whole body flat in the street and said, "I'm not getting up until you tell me whether you like me."

"If I tell you that I like you, do you promise to get up?"

"Yes."

"Then I like you. In fact, I'll like you even more when you're not lying in the street, waiting to get run over."

"OK, I'm getting up now." She sat up. "Can you help me up?"

I pulled her up, and kept holding her up, as we walked arm in arm back to the school. I walked her back to her room to be certain she made it there safely, then I said goodnight to both her and her roommate Julia who was already in the room.

The next morning, Saturday, I saw Gabbie in the kitchen. After saying our hellos she said, "I'm going to go look at some of the shops in town today, do you want to come?" I didn't have any plans so I said that I would go. As we walked through town Gabbie grabbed my hand and held on to it. What to do?

I never pulled away or said anything about the hand-holding, but I was perplexed about what to do. I liked her, she was interesting and fun and smart, but there was nothing about my affinity for her that was sexual. Eventually I decided that I didn't want to hurt her feelings by saying anything. Besides, what could I say? Tell her that I was gay and then have the whole school know when it was only the first week?? And what about David? He wouldn't freak but he would certainly tell our mutual friends back in the States. That meant that if I told Gabbie the reason that I was not interested in her then I would have been coming out to my whole school. I wasn't ready for that.

At some point that day we had a conversation about her previous boyfriends. She was especially bitter about the last one. They had broken up earlier that year when he came out as gay. What was worse, she said, was that he was the second boyfriend she had that turned out to be gay.

I don't remember what I did that Saturday night but the next afternoon, Sunday, Gabbie came to my room and asked me if I would come with her to the grocery store. She had been at the school for a full week and she still hadn't bought any groceries. I said "of course" so off we went to Sainsbury's. I should take this opportunity to include an aside: shopping at Sainsbury's at that time was a fantastically memorable and cultural experience. I'm not being sarcastic, it really was.

Aside from the different foods and different names (crisps for potato chips, biscuits for crackers) this major grocery chain had not yet installed bar-code scanners. This meant that everything in the store was still hand labeled with pricing stickers. It also meant that the cashiers, all women, almost all of Indian decent, rang each item up by hand, punching keys on a very low-tech cash register. What was astounding was that the cashiers were ferociously fast. You could barely see their fingers hit each key because they moved so fast ringing up item after item. The very best part was that they could push a large order of groceries through much faster than most checkers in the States could with a bar-code scanner. To imagine that they did this all day, every day for years was amazing to me. I was so impressed by the cashiers that every time I went to Sainsbury's I always marveled anew at their talent and tenacity. Watching them pound away at the keys in an era when scanners were widely used in the US was truly a site to behold. And talk about carpal tunnel...

Anyway.

Now that Gabbie had a few groceries, well, not much really (lots of soup for 29 pence each, "that leaves more Ps for pints" she said. "Ps" was her word for pounds.) We each made some food and ate together in the student dining room. There, and previously, she had told me about all her friends from school. She was crazy about her friends and would talk about them constantly. After dinner we hung out with some other people in the common room and then decided to go pubbing with them.

On Sundays the pubs closed early so neither of us had all that much to drink by the time we returned to the school. After we walked up the interior stairway of the entrance, Gabbie pulled me into my nearby room and said, "I have to talk to you."

"What's going on? What's the matter?" She seemed suddenly angry.

"I know you like me. I've known you liked me every since we first met and you helped me bring my big trunk up the stairs....you invited me to dinner the first night...you put your hands on my shoulders...you deliberately walked past my room when you didn't have to -- I know, I heard you cough.

"I've known this whole time that you like me, but you were too shy to say so. That's why I laid in the street. But now I wonder if I was wrong. Maybe you do like me, but not the way I mean. Maybe you are gay.

"Cam, are you gay?"

Ah, shit.

When Qais asked me, it wasn't an awkward question. With Gabbie, she was very accusatory. I felt like she was an interrogator shining a bright light in my eyes, demanding an answer. I knew that this was my opportunity. I knew that as risky as it was to tell someone, I really had to tell her the truth. She was so damn insistent that I knew I could not give a vague answer.

I just looked at her.

"If you are gay you had better tell me right now. I have been through this twice before and I don't want that disappointment again."

Having her remind me of her painful past left me with only one option. There was only one answer I could give this half-crazed girl.

"No, I'm not gay."

"OK then, why don't you kiss me?"

I smiled, pulled her into an embrace, closed my eyes and kissed her.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry - as you can see I'm behind on your blog.

    Holy shit.

    My wife and Gabby have some things in common. Since coming out to my wife - she's been doing a little research on past boyfriends - so far three are confirmed gay, and two are suspected.

    That's a bit more than a coincidence. Looks like the same for Gabby.

    ReplyDelete