Saying that I went to Oxford to fall in love might be a bit of an exaggeration. I was already deep in like, if not quite love, with Sara when the bus from the London-Stansted airport dropped me off on High Street at two in the morning on a cool May night. It was the first time we’d been together since deciding to turn our friendship into something . . . else. “Thing,” we called it, this strange, careful, vaguely uncomfortable transformation that had taken place – was still taking place – in our relationship. “I need to talk to you about Thing,” one of us would say to the other, making it sound like some weird, scaly pet we were keeping.
Still, for better or worse, the three of us (including Thing) were, in Oxford. We’d decided there was a definite appeal in a European rendezvous, even if the truth of the matter was simply that we’d not managed to be in the same city at the same time before embarking on our respective study abroad adventures. We might have picked a more stereotypically romantic city – Paris, with its intimate cafés, or Venice, with its (exorbitantly overpriced) gondola rides – but Oxford is very charming in its own way. It has punting on the Thames, which is really just as romantic as those gondolas (and a lot cheaper), and, of course, the Bodleian, a library so ancient you have to swear an oath not to “kindle any fire or flame” inside. If you don't think that's hot, I frankly don't know what's wrong with you.
To be honest, I was just as glad not to have the pressure of a more classically romantic locale. Thing was being stupid. Complicated. Nervous. Timid, even. So we decided to take it out and get it drunk on a properly traditional first date, to Formal Hall at Corpus Christi College. We shimmied into our best little black dresses and wedged our feet into our most impractical shoes, and stopped in at Odd Bins, a wine shop on High Street. They were having a "two bottles for £20" offer, which was a lot more than we would have normally spent on wine. But it was our first date, and Thing was proving awfully skittish. We selected our two bottles, one white and one red, and off we merrily went.
Corpus Christi Hall is long and dark, with tiled floors and polished wooden tables (and benches, which are interesting to navigate in a dress) that stretch the length of the room. I'm sure they used candles in "olden times", but nowadays they have elegant lamps spaced evenly along the tables. The woodwork around the room is impressively detailed, and more than anything else (including the portraits of stodgily anonymous old men that line the walls), that was what gave me the sense of sitting in a room out of another era. This building was from a time when pride was taken in such things. We live in an age when new university buildings are thrown together slapdash, aesthetic decisions made based (one can only assume) on discounted orange paint and corrugated aluminum siding being available in bulk.
At precisely seven-thirty everyone stood and the professors processed in, a line of black-robed figures bearing a remarkable resemblance to the men in the portraits. They seated themselves at the head table. There followed grace said in an almost eerie, singsong Latin I’d never heard before. Sara told me that was what Latin sounds like spoken by someone who knows it well. All the same, the food was prosaic (chicken casserole and anemic green beans), and the conversations around us amusing, as a medical student on Sara's left explained loudly and earnestly his fear of giving prostate exams.
“Well, I like them,” the woman across from him declared. “I’ve done seven of them already.”
“I haven’t done any,” he replied, drooping. “And I have to do four.”
Sara and I grinned at each other and I topped off both our glasses from the wine we’d brought. Prostate exams (like many topics) were extra funny in English accents.
By the time the plates had been cleared away, there was a meager half a bottle of wine remaining. Thing was not nearly so nervous as we made our way out of the hall and into the fading late spring daylight. I had charge of the half-empty bottle, and the question naturally became where we should go to drink it.
“Christ Church Meadow,” Sara suggested, stumbling a little on her heels. “But I need to change these shoes first.”
It turned out later that going back to her room to change our shoes and pick up our jackets was the only sensible decision we made all evening. Most of the time, I choose to blame a combination of Thing and the wine for everything that followed, but really, there are times in life when being a responsible adult is completely out of the question, and this was one of them.
Sara led me through some narrow, cobblestone back streets to a gate that was standing open in front of a broad expanse of green meadow. I held the half-empty wine bottle by the neck in one hand, and with my other, I reached for Sara’s. The path down to the river – the Thames, or Isis, as the stretch through Oxford is known – was mostly deserted at this hour, except for a lone jogger pelting towards us. She slowed up as she neared and removed her headphones.
“Did they close the gate?” she asked, jogging in place.
We blinked at her. “No,” I said.
“They close the gate?” Sara asked in wine-soaked bafflement.
“Yeah,” she said, jogging backwards now. “At nine.” And with that, she turned and took off down the path. We stared after her for a moment, and then I glanced at my watch – 8:55.
“Huh,” Sara said.
“They can’t really close the gate at nine,” I declared with the reasonless confidence of someone who’s just drunk almost an entire bottle of wine. “That’s ridiculous. She must have it wrong. It doesn’t even get dark till ten.”
“And even if they do close that gate, I’m sure they don’t close all the gates,” Sara said. "That would be silly." We continued blithely on our way.
The meadow was lit up, bathed in orange light by the dying sun, but by the river, it was darker, the water itself a smooth, dim gleam under the weeping willows. It was hard to believe that this was the same river as that ugly tidal thing in London, I thought, and tugged Sara over to sit on one of the benches along the river’s bank. I handed her the bottle of wine – we hadn’t brought any cups, of course, – and she sipped it. She handed it back and I pressed my lips to the place where hers had been. If Thing could have purred, it would have.
We lingered long enough on our bench by the river that it was almost completely dark by the time we decided to make our way back. We’d pretty much forgotten the jogger’s warning until, arm-in-arm, we walked – all right, stumbled – back to the gate and realized that it was indeed padlocked. We surveyed it for a moment in dumbfounded silence until I asked, “Could we climb it?”
“You want to end this evening in the emergency room?” Sara replied. “’Cause really – no.”
“It’s not the only gate, is it?”
“No, there’s one down that way.” Sara gestured vaguely down the now barely visible path. “I dunno where exactly. We might as well try. Lead on.”
“You lead on! You live here.”
“Yeah, but I’m drunker than you.”
I gave a long-suffering sigh. We linked arms again. Nothing is quite as romantic as a misadventure you still think you’re going to muddle your way out of. We ambled on down the path.
Fifteen minutes later matters were not quite so amusing and even Thing was starting to get just a bit concerned. We’d found another gate – open, even – but then Sara had suddenly realized that she didn’t have her purse and we’d started back to the bench. Seconds later she remembered that she’d dropped it off in her room along with her shoes, but by then, that ship had sailed. The second gate was now as solidly locked. It was maddening, really. We could look up and over the wall and see the lit up buildings of High Street on the other side, but there was no discernible way over or around or through. Or under, for that matter.
“Well, damn,” I said. “How do you feel about sleeping in a field?”
“I feel like I’d rather not,” Sara said, making a face.
I agreed – and so did Thing, with a grumble and maybe even a growl – so we continued on, gradually becoming convinced that we were going to have to do just that. It’d be safe enough, I supposed, and we weren’t cold exactly, but there were bound to be rocks. And bugs. Maybe even snakes. Did England have snakes? I was pretty sure that Thing would be not at all fond of snakes.
I can only imagine what we looked like to the men’s rowing team who came upon us moments later: two drunk American chicks, stumbling around in black dresses and sneakers, one of them clutching the neck of an empty wine bottle. I hate to think that we resembled two damsels in distress, but the truth is that there was definitely an element of distress by this time. I can’t quite say what they looked like – it was pitch black by then – but they were unfailingly chivalrous as they asked, “Do you girls need the way out?”
“Yes!” we chorused. Thing, which had started to resign itself to a night spent in a field rather than Sara’s dorm bed, gave a happy bounce.
And this is where all three of us were lucky that the night didn’t become even more interesting than it had already, and also where Sara and I both thanked the patron saint of drunk lesbians for giving us the foresight to go back and change our shoes. Because the way out involved ducking under a railing and then edging down the embankment to an old spoked wheel half-sunk into the damp ground. We had to clutch the wheel while swinging out over the river – which had looked so pretty only scant minutes before and now looked dirty and very, very cold – and then scamper up the embankment on the other side to duck under another railing. This put us out in an alleyway on the other side of the gate, the bright lights of nocturnal Oxford making us blink in grateful disorientation.
“Well,” Sara said, when our charming escorts had deposited us on High Street. “That was interesting. Ice cream?”