Authors: Kate le Vann
Tags: #Adult, #Arranged marriage, #California, #Contemporary, #Custody of children, #Fiction, #General, #Loss, #Mayors, #Romance, #Social workers
This morning gets an 8.5 on the weird-o-meter. I was having a frappuccino at the little coffee shop, reading
, when I heard an English voice say, “Are you interested in English celebrities?”
It’s a difficult question to answer “yes” to, even when “yes” is true. Who wants that to be the first thing they tell someone about their personality? I looked up at the face behind the voice: an incredibly thin boy, dressed in posh-boy clothes—lightly checked blue-and-white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, sand-colored trousers. He looked about twenty-one, had a floppy fringe of sandy-colored hair, and about ten more teeth than me. (Yes, I do have a full set of teeth. But he had more.)
I closed the magazine and looked at the cover, as if I’d forgotten what it was. “Oh, I brought it with me,” I said. “I got here less than a week ago.”
English, then,” the boy said, as if he was quite excited about it. He was really
His wrists were 2-D.
“Yep,” I said. “I’m visiting my brother. He’s getting some books from the library and then coming to meet me.” I didn’t mean it to warn him off, because it was quite nice talking to a stranger, particularly an English stranger.
“How long are you staying?” he said. “I’m Vaughan, by the way.”
“Oh, Livia,” I said, holding out my hand to shake hands and, as I always do when I do that, wondering if that was what I was supposed to do and whether he’d just stare at it and leave it hanging there. He shook it. “I’ve been here a week already, I’m here till August fifteenth, so a bit more than two weeks to go.”
“How do you like it so far?”
“Hot!” I said, waving my hand in front of my face.
“Yeah…,” Vaughan said, and pulled at his collar with his little finger. Then there was a bit of chitchat, a bit of yes-I-like-that-too, and he explained that he was a PhD student, he was from London, and he’d just broken up with his girlfriend. I don’t remember how he worked that last thing in. He asked if I’d been to the university art gallery yet, and I said I hadn’t.
“How much time have you got?” Vaughan asked. “I’ll show it to you right now, if you like.”
“Is it near here?”
“Literally two minutes away.”
I thought it might be nice and cool, art galleries always are. Well, you know, it wasn’t that, it’s just that I am useless at saying no, even to stick-thin Englishmen with too many teeth. So I said yes.
We were just reaching the gallery, and Adam came round the corner, nearly bumping into us. I must have done that thing where you reel in shock. I said, “Oh, hi!” very brightly, and then wondered if I should introduce the complete stranger I’d just met and agreed to go on a morning date with. Is there such a thing as a morning date? My “hi” had made Adam stop, so we’d all stopped, but no one had anything to say.
“I’m sorry we didn’t go to your party,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s a shame,” Adam said.
“I really wanted to go. My brother thought I was too tired.”
“Oh—you didn’t miss much,” Adam said. “It was really Dougie’s—my brother’s—party. His friends.” He looked straight at me after he’d finished speaking and I didn’t have anything else to say either, I just wanted him to keep looking. He has this way of looking slowly at things, as if he’s taking his own time to see them properly. It’s quite intense, being looked at that way. Adam glanced at Vaughan and eventually said, “Well, see you later?” and walked off again, and I felt stupid and wished it was him I was walking into the art gallery with. I fancied him more today. It’s those eyes, dark, like Luke’s. Well, that’s probably not a good sign.
Anyway, Vaughan and I were in the art gallery and I was waffling on about the amazing painting of a woman in red by Manet, trying to sound clever, and then I realized Vaughan’s hand was on my bum. I’d thought, at first, that he was just standing too close, and maybe it was his leg somehow, but then I kind of checked out his position, and he moved it slightly and it was still definitely
on my bum
. And his head was really close to mine, as if he was smelling my hair.
So, what do you do when a boy you don’t know very well puts his hand on your bum? Well, if you’re me, you’re probably too polite to mention the fact that he’s doing it. I said, “You know, now I think of it, I’d better get back in case my brother shows up, because I don’t have my mobile, so he can’t call me.”
Vaughan took his long nose out of my hair.
“Okay,” he said. “Shall I come back with you?”
“No, no need for that!” I practically shouted. “Better dash! Bye!”
As soon as I thought I was out of sight, I ran. I don’t know why. Running isn’t very cool in broad daylight, and outside the gallery it was intensely hot again. I just needed to run away. Sometimes you do. Anyway, I’ve been back here in this Internet shop since then, hiding out. Embarrassed. Time to update:
Things I know about love.
1. Nothing that happens between two people is guaranteed to be private.
2. People don’t always tell you the truth about how they feel. And the truth is, it may not be the same as how you feel.
3. I don’t know if you ever get over having your heart broken.
4. Strangers are called strangers because they are strange. Duh!
But thinking about the Vaughan episode, it sort of reminds me of a quote I always loved from
As You Like It
: “Come, woo me, woo me; for now I am in a holiday humour, and like enough to consent.”
on holiday! You know, so what does it matter if I run into the odd crazy boy while I’m looking for a holiday romance? I’m here for fun. Bring it on. Only, from now on, maybe I should only consider Americans. I don’t know why there are so many English boys in Princeton anyway! Well, three. But in my experience, the English boys I’ve dated have been (in order, and including today’s art-gallery date) sad, bad, and mad.
Fancying Adam—which I do; he looked gorgeous today, all brown-skinned and twinkly-eyed and low-slung, crumply, jeansy—is allowed because he’s my brother’s friend, so not a serious option. I’ve always had crushes on my brother’s friends. When I was about eight, I remember I was obsessed with one of them, called “Conk.” Oh, Case Study…er…A-minus. I liked Conk because he was shorter than the others, sweet, and freckly. On Saturday afternoons I used to give him cookies I’d baked with my mum, which I always cut in the shape of flowers, with my little plastic flower-shaped cookie cutter. One day I found a cookie I’d given Conk earlier that day lying uneaten under a hedge. Jeff came in for a glass of orange soda, and I said he had to take out another cookie for Conk, and he said, “Why would he want another?” I said, “He must have dropped the one I gave him—it was under a hedge,” and he said, “He always throws them away. He thinks they’re horrible.” Brothers are mean like that, when you’re young. They punch you, and laugh at you, and tell you the truth. I could add another rule to my “Things I Know” list, something about the way boys lie, but even then, I realized that Conk just thought of me as a little sister who brought him yucky cookies and he hid them so as not to hurt my feelings. I’ve come to understand that my brother’s friends are often cute, but are always somehow out of my league, even when they’re not. They just don’t think of me that way. It’s nice that he’s around, though.
Text from Krystina—she wants to go shopping tomorrow.
YEAH, this isn’t good. I asked Livia and Jeff along to a party at my brother’s and Jeff said they couldn’t make it, Livia was jetlagged, blah blah blah, and today I saw her with this bloke, like a proper man-bloke, going into the art gallery. I don’t know if she knows him from back home or if he’s a friend of Jeff’s, but the way he was looking at her, I think it’s fairly clear that I’ve missed my chance. Which is a bit of a shame because the fact is, standing in the sun today, with that amazing hair shining—it was almost as if the sun was reflecting off her—she kind of took my breath away.
ready for another recap of the “Things I Know” list, you’ll have to wait, because I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT LOVE. I wish I could read everyone’s thoughts but keep my own private, but at the same time, have everyone know what I need them to know but without hurting their feelings and without risking my own feelings being hurt. Argh.
I ought to explain some of that.
“Okay, let me tell you where we’re going first,” Krystina said, when we pulled into a parking space in her white VW Rabbit (as they call it in the States) this morning. “The thing is, there’s no point trying on beautiful clothes when you look and feel terrible, you just contaminate the clothes with your own… blah. And I look and feel blah. So you’re coming with me to get a blow-out.”
That’s American for a blow-dry. But honestly, who pays to have someone dry their hair? Americans are constantly inventing new things to spend money on.
Krystina was looking incredibly sophisticated and cool—chilly cool—in a matching black cotton skirt and halter-neck top, both so unsweaty and unruffled that I was nervous following her into the hair salon wearing my raggedy denim mini and a simple pink T-shirt. But it is just so hot here that anything fancier—like my pretty silk top or my lovely, flowery sundress—would stick to me and crease. Denim doesn’t show the sweat. Krystina and I were seated in adjacent chairs, and we had two quite noisy male hairdressers, called Guy and Paul. (
“PAAAH-OOOL.”) They discussed our looks together. Krystina said she just wanted a blow-out and I said, “Oh, me, too. Just a, um, blow…dry, please.”
Paul shook his head. “Nah. I think we’re gonna have to do a little more for you than a blow-out.”
I said I didn’t know about that because we had a lot of shops to get through.
“Oh, come on, a Paah-oool cut will take five minutes!” Paul said. “Straightening your friend’s hair is going to take hours.”
“He knows what he’s talking about,” Krystina said. “Don’t you feel like a change, Livi?”
How did they know? Yes! More than anything! There’s a kind of mad impulse that takes hold of me the second I sit in a hairdresser’s chair. I just want to wave my hand at my head and say, “Make me look completely different!” And when it’s all over, the moment they turn me around to face the mirror, I’ll see this gorgeous, unrecognizable sexpot looking back at me. Instead, what usually happens is that the hairdresser insists on talking me through it and I gradually start to get more afraid. I nervously agree with them when they start talking about soft fringes and long layers, and then I walk out looking more or less the same as I did when I walked in, with the same straight fringe and long red hair. It suits me, I don’t do anything to it, it’s
“Your natural color is amazing,” Paul said. “It’s like your hair is telling you it wants to dazzle but you’re not letting it.” I blushed purple, because that’s what I tend to do when people talk to me about me. Krystina was being led away to the shampoo area and I was left alone with Paul. He was making eye contact in the mirror and I was too afraid to pull away. “But I think sometimes you
to be noticed? The cut you have now is
. We’re going to give you something closer to the way you feel. Keep some of the length, it’s pretty. Probably keep these bangs, they suit you. But we’ll chop into it a little? You think?”
I knew it was just going to look exactly the same. He’s keeping the length, he’s keeping the “bangs,” spot the difference. My heart did sink a little bit, but I’d heard it before.
“Yeah, that sounds really nice,” I said. You see, when I talk like that, with all the “that sounds really nice” and “just a blow-dry, please” stuff, it’s not much of a surprise that I always end up with the safe option.
Paul talked about himself as he snipped away, and I relaxed, fascinated by the view in the mirror of Guy dragging the biggest straighteners I’ve ever seen along Krystina’s hair—honestly, they were like oars. I felt quite ladylike, having my hair done with a friend, like characters in a 1950s film, and I started to get a sense of how different my life is right now, being here in Princeton, NJ, USA. Just a few weeks ago I was studying for my final exams with friends, passing round the popcorn while we asked one another test questions about parliamentary reform in the nineteenth century. Now my mum isn’t around to worry about me, and there’s only my brother keeping an eye on me. No one is going to talk me out of doing something by reminding me it isn’t the sort of thing I do—the way my friends might. No one here is going to be surprised or freaked out if I don’t seem myself because they don’t know what that is. There’s just a blank page for me to fill, every day.
Krystina’s stylist, Guy, had walked over to take a look at the job Paul was doing on my hair, and he paused behind me with his arms folded. I looked up. My hair looked like red metal, and as Paul dried it in soft sections, I could see how fabulous the cut was. It was just resting on my shoulders rather than hanging a little below them, the fringe seemed to have grown longer (?) and was gently swept to one side, and the rest was this amazing dense mass of blunt layers that melted into one another when I shook them, making it look as if my hair was made up of lots of different shades. But it felt so light, and when I shook my head, it flew up and then fell back exactly into place, deliberately imperfect, a little bit edgy.
“What have you done?” I squeaked.
“Don’t you think it’s pretty?” Paul said.
“Oh my God, pretty? I
it!” I said. “I’ve never had good hair!”
“Are you kidding? People would kill for your hair.”
“Oh, it’s not the hair,” I said, feeling really shy. “It’s your cut. Thank you so much.”
I had a quick reality check when Krystina came over to admire it, too. She was glowing somewhere inside a halo of long, golden, film-star tresses.
“You look so beautiful,” I told her.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re cute,” she said. “But we’re not finished yet.”
We went to a shopping mall next, and I thought how horrible it would be to go into artificial light on such a fantastic sunny day, but as soon as the air-conditioning hit me, I changed my mind. Cold, cold, fabulous cold, and suddenly my clothes felt looser and my face felt less shiny than my hair. Our first stop there was a department store, where Krystina sat us down at a makeup counter and let the orange-faced ladies give us a new look with “this season’s summer palette.” This was slightly less successful than the haircuts. We were trying not to giggle as we compared our amazing pearly finishes: they were sort of lovely and fairylike but, on the other hand, a lot too much like the makeup I used to wear to ballet recitals when I was six years old. We both left with a
of free samples, burst out laughing when we were well away from the makeup department, and dared each other to keep it on all day.
Krystina was right, though. When you try clothes on and you feel a bit grubby and messy, everything looks wrong on you because you’re too busy looking at your own flaws—but you don’t
to look. When you’re perfectly groomed and posh and pretty, you just can’t stop looking at yourself, thinking,
I don’t know if this can be true, but I look
great. I bought as many clothes as I could afford in preparation for coming to Princeton, and I have to make the money my mum gave me last the whole three weeks, but I bought one more dress this morning. It’s black, with two-inch wide straps, but cut very high, almost like a slash-neck. It’s really fitted on the bodice, then at the waist there’s a fat gray bow and the skirt starts to stick out, just a bit wider than A-line. Very Audrey Hepburn. Not remotely old-me. But not so posh I couldn’t wear it in the daytime with a little cardigan knotted at the waist. I love this dress so much that I never want to take it off. I almost made the woman pack up my scruffy old denim skirt in the bag so I could leave in it, but I knew I should save the dress for something special, just for its first time out in public.
At around six, we drove back into town and sat outside a café in the shade, sipping iced lattes, surrounded by all our bags. I was trying to look at my hair in my tiny little makeup mirror. In fact, I’d spent the whole day trying to catch sight of it in shop windows. This is my favorite haircut ever. I remembered I’d meant to ask Krystina more about how she felt about Jeff (but really subtly!), before I’d started getting totally seduced by the total body makeover she’d dragged me on. I tried to ease the subject into our conversation. Krystina was talking about how much she liked the songs Jeff had put on to her iPod, so I said, “Well, I think Jeff thinks you’re amazing.”
Okay, okay, that’s not subtle at all. But Jeff should realize that there is no point leaving things unsaid forever when you only have a month left in someone’s country. You have to let a girl know how you feel eventually or give up on her. Krystina tilted her head to one side and smiled.
“Well,” I said, thinking I should give Jeff a chance to back out. “All I mean is, he’s always talking about how cool you are—that’s why I was so keen to meet you.”
“Ahh,” she said, and her smile stayed the same, but her eyes seemed to dim—or was I looking too hard? “Okay. Well, I think Jeff’s amazing, too.” Quite honestly, I just can’t tell whether she likes him or not. Her phone rang, then.
“Yeah, yeah! We’re here, come along now,” Krystina said, hanging up. She turned to me and said, “Okay, there’s someone coming and you’re going to
me for bringing him
At that exact moment, Adam walked in, and I was thinking,
Oh my God, does everyone know about this?
Actually, it’s really, really late and I’ve been typing for hours and can’t concentrate, I need to write this properly tomorrow. I can hear Jeff snoring away in his bedroom and I’m yawning too much to see my screen.