We ended up at—of all places—Starbucks. (They had air conditioning.) We made our way slowly through town—first Trinity College, then the Bodleian, and then (stopping en route to get Cubans), our real destination, Magdalen College where Lewis taught, which the guidebook called “perhaps the most typical and beautiful Oxford college.”
It’s gorgeous, and immediately became one of my favorite places. Bits of it have been used in the Harry Potter films, I think. It took us a while to figure out the lay of the land. We wandered into one of the 15th-century cloisters, with detailed fret work in the arch ways and wonderful gargoyles, with a view of the bell tower just beyond where the college choir sings every May Day at 6 a.m. Jack was taking my picture in one of the arches when a young Asian guy—a tourist—offered to take our picture together and pronounced it “beautiful.” So that was it—the first, somewhat awkward record of a friendship.
We wandered out from the cloisters into an expanse of open sun and manicured lawn, the imposing New Building—“new” being relative, as it’s actually from the 1730’s—directly ahead of us, and on the right, a ways off, a lovely flower garden bordering the Cherwell, and a little bridge over the river leading to Addison’s Walk. The walk is about a mile round, often by the river, through a bit of wilderness where they sometimes graze the college flock of deer. It’s here where Lewis, Tolkein, and Dyson walked, talking of Christianity, just before Lewis converted.
We hung out on the bridge for a while, looking at the flowers, watching the water birds. Jack took a picture of me on the bridge, and I couldn’t stop smiling—as though an infectious grin is my natural state, when really I’m much more of an Eeyore. I generally hate pictures. They often manage to catch my weak chin at just the wrong angle so it looks like I have no chin at all. My new theory is that one should not necessarily strive to be beautiful. It’s something to just be good looking enough, and if you really smile in pictures and forget to worry about what you look like they turn out surprisingly well.
So we ended up at Starbucks because we couldn’t find an ice cream place and I needed to sit down and consume some calories (and then there was the air conditioning thing). We had started talking as we walked into town and for the nearly four hours we were together we just talked. I’m not sure that these kinds of conversations can be accurately recreated (or, perhaps, that I am capable of recreating them). They are about small things that take on great importance because all of a sudden this other person has become the most important person in your life, at least for today, and maybe for tomorrow, and—if you’re both lucky—maybe for a long time after that.
On the way into town, we talked about my chronic fatigue and how Jack had struggled with it at one point, in the middle of a career change. I was surprised and relieved to find someone who understands what a lost day feels like, who doesn’t think I’m making this up.
Over our frappucinos, Jack said somewhat awkwardly, “Since you write about singles stuff, I should tell you, I, um . . . I actually just started kind of seeing someone in Georgia. Not that I’m not enjoying hanging out, but I wasn’t expecting to meet someone, since this other thing just started.”
My calm exterior: “Oh—well . . . I really appreciate your telling me. That means a lot.” I then proceeded to say something awkwardly about my friend who had flown up from South Carolina for dinner, as if to prove that I had relationship ties in the south as well.
I was actually thinking, What was I thinking? Argh. And so what if there’s a girl in Georgia? I’m here now and you like me, right?
Apparently they just started going out. It’s not really defined yet, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen with it, but he wanted me to know.
And then we talked about things that can take months to get to in the course of everyday dating.
Marriage: Jack said, “I’m really happy now being single. I’m not sure I want to get married. I mean, when I think about my future, I want to be married, but I’m not sure I’m ready for it now.” And I said, “I know what you mean. I want to get married and have a family, but whenever marriage becomes a possibility, I sort of panic, and think, I have such a great life…”
Children: Jack said he wasn’t sure he wanted kids. And I said I wanted a family, but that being a mother could never be my sole identity, I would probably always work at least parttime, and that it doesn’t have to entirely consume your life. And he said, “Yeah, but it’s a commitment, and if you have kids you have to make a commitment to them.”
The thing about me is that I’m occasionally desperate to be married. I’d been sitting on the loveseat in my sunroom from time to time for months praying for a husband—a guy who would adore me. I want children of my own. And I’m very aware of the fact that if those two things are going to happen, well, times-a-wastin’. It’s not that the things I told Jack weren’t true, it’s just that I presented them in what seemed the best possible light.
And in response to his “I’m not sure I want to be married” thing, an alarm went off in my head: abandon ship! There is a certain class of Christian single guys that my friend Kris dubbed Stinky Time Wasters. They don’t know what they want. But they like hanging out with you. So for months and sometimes years they keep asking you out, and making out with you, and making you believe they love you, and then they say something like, “I’ve never seen us together long-term” and you are left with years worth of the shitty shards of a relationship that should never have been allowed to consume your life.
All of us girls are on guard for relationships like that. But this is tricky, you know, because sometimes a guy has to hang out with you a bit before he realizes what he really wants. So I duly noted this objection in the back of my head, and decided to hang out with Jack, even if it was just for a week, because we were both in Oxford and he was definitely into me.
We wandered through Christ Church Meadow for a while, all the way down to the Isis and back, talking about all the stuff of life we had in common. He asked me about what I wanted or enjoyed, and I went on about renting a villa in Italy and inviting my friends, wanting to be fluent in Spanish and French and Italian, wanting to learn Greek and Hebrew and understand the cultural and historical setting of Jesus, and write about that, wanting to figure out how to really help the poor. He understood everything. “There are so many things I want to do, I’m afraid life won’t be long enough,” I said. And he replied, “You don’t have to do everything now.”