He gives her a crash course on why a whisky sour should never be dry-shaken, all the ways in which the bartender who mixed his drink went wrong, including the completely unnecessary bitters that the bartender dripped on top of his cocktail. It is all foam, and no taste, except an insubstantial thin taste, if one could call it that. Then he concludes, rather sheepishly, 'Sorry, I'm being a bit of a snob.'
She says, 'It's okay. I like snobs. I am one too.'
Not enough of a snob to not be here with him right now, however; and certainly not enough of a snob to not feel a sense of panic, now that it is 4 hours into the date and she has yet to tell him what she'd resolved to tell him. She has the fall out of a conversation about herpes on her mind, the worst-case scenario in which he politely but surely removes himself from her life as a love interest hanging over her like a bloated storm cloud dominating an otherwise clear blue sky.
There is a lull in the conversation. If he can see her face clearly, or if he knows her a little bit better - or maybe he's able to intuit this anyhow - he would know that she has something on her mind. She takes advantage of the camoflage of darkness and how they are still something of a mystery to each other; averts her gaze, lowers her head, and wills the words that she's prepared to the forefront of her mind.
Knowing that it is only a matter of time before this not-speaking between them is forced out of silence by the decreasing utility of the white noise around them, she opens her mouth to speak before he does. She says, 'Were you surprised that I didn't want to sleep with you that night?'
'No, not really. I kind of expected it.'
'Really? Why is that?'
'Because you're a classy girl.'
He is not going according to script, but this is a mere tiny hiccup. She pushes on, her words only half-sincere. 'Well, I've been thinking about that. I don't want you to get the wrong impression.'
'What, that you're playing hard to get?' he jokes. Then, serious again, he says, 'No, it's okay. I didn't mind.'
He is frustrating her attempt to tell him that she has herpes by being too reassuring, too sweet. The words in her mind are slowly losing their salience, and she feels a little bit ridiculous as she stubbornly continues, 'Well, I didn't want you to think that I'm not attracted to you.'
'What? You're not attracted to me?'
His mis-hearing her was not part of the script too. A part of her wants to trade the too-loud white noise that surrounds them now for the too-glaring brightness of the pub they'd just left, the Punt Yard - a brightness that erodes intimacy, shines too light a spotlight on her, giving her no place to hide. Now, the darkness creates an atmosphere of intimacy, but the private party is swallowing her words, exacerbating the anxiety that she is already feeling.
'No, I am attracted to you. I didn't want you to think that I'm not.'
He squeezes her hand as he continues to derail her script. 'It's really okay. I'm here now, aren't I? Don't worry about it.'
She doesn't know what to say to that. Her mental rehearsal of what she would say failed to take into account reality: that he would respond to her, that he would not just sit there, mute, a non-party to the conversation; that he would have thoughts of his own about the event that she is manipulating as a lead-in to what she really wants to say. She failed to consider, too, that he would genuinely think nothing of it, or that he would be so quick to reassure her that all is well, there is nothing to worry about, he doesn't think what she thinks that he thinks. She isn't even sure anymore what the relevance is, her reasons for not engaging in casual sex, to her not wanting to sleep with him that night; for if she had slept with him, it would not have been casual (not for her, anyway), so she is speaking of two conceptually distinct things here. She'd even forgotten about herpes that night; all that was on her mind was that she was bringing home a guy that she really fancied, and because she liked him enough, she didn't want to sleep with him just yet.
But she has to say it, and so she barges on, a barrage of words spilling from her mouth - words whose relevance to each other is suspect, words that give him an explanation that he isn't even seeking. She says that she doesn't engage in casual sex because 'I have herpes' and because she doesn't want to feel cheap after the fact.
She says 'I have herpes' and his face doesn't change as he says, 'Okay.' She finishes her ridiculous speech and he says, 'You don't want to feel like a sheep?!' This would be comical if it weren't nerve-wrecking. When he finally understands what she said, he says, 'Oh, you don't want to feel cheap.'
Then the reassurance again: 'It's really okay.'
He is still holding her hand in his. She is confused by this, as well as his saying nothing more about what she's just said. Did he not hear her properly when she said that she has herpes?
'So you don't care that I have herpes?'
He's non-plussed, indifferent, shrugging as he says, 'No. 80% of people have it anyway and they don't say anything about it.'
The whole conversation lasts for a minute. She says something about how it's basically cold sores on her vagina, then confesses that she'd been feeling nervous about telling him the whole day. He seems amused as he rubs her hand and says, 'Feel better now?'
She is surprised by the strength of the relief that she feels, and how easily he's chased the storm cloud away. They speak no more of it as the conversation makes a move on.
Scene two. The same cocktail bar, the same couple, the same bar stools. He's more serious now. She's asking him if he thinks about what he wants when he's dating someone. 'Like me, for instance', for that's really the question that she's asking.
The look on his face reveals that he knows that what he's about to say may not be what she wants to hear. 'Not really,' he says. A pause, then, 'I've been hurt too many times before and I no longer expect anything anymore. I'll just go with the flow. Whatever happens, happens.'
It sounds a bit to her that he's saying that he doesn't want to get too emotionally invested, but she doesn't think to clarify. She's thinking, instead, that she's pretty much adopted the same attitude: go with the flow, see what happens. She smiles shyly when he says, 'It's a bonus when I meet someone nice like you. Like - you walked into my cafe one day. And you were quite fit.'
But he induces a sinking feeling in her when he goes on, 'But like I told you before, I'm going travelling in about six months...well, maybe 7 months. I mean, I won't be gone for that long; just a year.'
Just a year? Is he having a laugh? She says immediately, 'That's a fucking long time.'
But what is she to do, or to say? They are in the beginning stages of 'early days', and the odds that they would work out in the long run are stacked sky-high against them. What do they even have in common apart from a love for coffee, an appreciation for Christopher Nolan, a dislike for religion, and a mutual attraction? They don't even watch the same TV shows, read the same kind of books, listen to the same music. She knows that she is drawn to his other-ness; he is the flip side of the coin to her. He is not simply different; that would be an understatement. He is her antithesis. He is everything that she is not; she is not anything that he is. Wasn't this the conclusion that she settled on when they went out for the first time and nothing materialised? Is she thinking that it would magically be different this time round because...she can't think of any reasons why the clashes in their being would now cease to matter or make a difference to their long-term potentiality.
And so she won't pursue this line of conversation, not when it is unexpectedly making her feel a little bit deflated. She pushes it aside, and along with it, an irresponsible urge to tell him that she likes him more than she is capable of comprehending.
Scene three. Still the same cocktail bar, the same couple. The mood is light-hearted again. She is telling him that she thinks a lot about things when she's dating someone; but these days, she's thinking more along the lines of, 'Does he actually like me?'
With no hesitation whatsoever, he leans forward, closer to her, as if making sure that she hears him, and says, 'I like you a lot.'
Now she says that she is possessive only to the extent that she doesn't like to share. In any case, she says, she doesn't date more than one person at a time. 'I've done it before and it's weird. What about you?'
She's doing it again, hiding the real question behind a falsely non-committal generic one. He starts to say that he's done it before too, and she wants to tell him that that's not what she's really asking, but she's too embarrassed to do so. But he catches on. 'Oh, are you asking if I'm seeing anyone else?'
She nods sheepishly. He laughs, says, 'I'm not seeing anyone else. Look, you're absolutely stunning - why would I want to go with someone else?'
Act Two. Picture this scene now. A bedroom in a historic Cambridge college. The same couple on her bed. He is nervous, he says. 'I shouldn't be, but...you're so hot.'
She tells him that they don't have to do anything. 'No, I want to,' he insists.
He gets over his nerves. He undresses her, kisses his way down her body; 'I want to make you happy.'
Later, he carries her to the shower. She stops minding the water on her face and in her hair as she closes her eyes, focusing on his mouth on hers, his hands on her body, melting a little inside when she hears him whisper, 'You're perfect.'
Scene two. The same bedroom. I have turned off the lights. I turn my body inwards towards his. I put my head on his chest. He wraps his arms around me.
Sleep comes to me intermittently. When I break away from the initial position and turn away from him, he follows me and pulls me back into his arms. In the middle of the night, he wakes me up when I feel him planting kisses on my shoulder. It is a cold summer night, made specially in England. His body heat keeps me warm.
I am in love with the feeling of his arms around me as I fall asleep. He makes me feel safe, secure, adored. I do not get the disturbing sense that I cannot rely on, or trust, this feeling. Despite his lack of expectations and possible reluctance to get emotionally invested, I do not sense any capriciousness on his part. I sense, instead, that he is reliable, and trustworthy, and safe. The level of comfort that I feel sleeping next to him shocks me, for I do not usually succumb so easily to the sense of vulnerability that an interested man draws out of me.
Is there a solid basis for my feeling this way? Would he tell me, 7 or 8 months later, I'm going away; I will be gone for a year; maybe it's best to call it quits? Would this contingency make a difference to the present? Should I let it?
In the gentle sleepiness of the night, I turn to look at him. His face is dimly illuminated by the soft light from the street lamps outside that stream in through the curtains. It is surreal, having him here, next to me. I have spent all those months liking him and feeling happy when he makes me smile, but trying to convince myself not to do anything about it because, on paper, we could never work. He smokes, I don't like smokers; he drinks like a typical Englishman, I don't understand the English drinking culture; he works in a cafe, I am working on a PhD; he likes the outdoors, I have to shower every day; he is not a grammar Nazi, I am the definition of one; he even once said that he thinks I'm uptight. The list goes on.
So what is this feeling then, this sublime feeling of lightness that gently settles within me when I look at him in the dimness of the night, or when I think about him and conjure up, from vivid memory, the feeling of his arms around me when I am once again alone in my room? It is but the entire driving force of this thing between us: my feelings for him, whatever they may be, however strong or nascent. And so it is, then. Stand on the edge of the 'lightly poised present' (Julian Barnes). Whatever happens, happens.